Choosing between this and that

Did you ever balance on a see-saw when you were a child? There was always the challenge of working with the other person to find that perfect point where you were hovering in a horizontal line for a second or two, before one of you fell, a victim of weight and gravity.

The word seesaw may have come from the French words ci-ça, which mean this and that, or perhaps from the back and forth action of an actual saw. The imagery of the seesaw feels appropriate for a lot of the choices we face as we look for emotional balance, especially in how to respond to what life throws at us. We swing back and forth between options: On this side, we have pessimism; on that side, optimism. On this side, we have anger; on that side, equanimity. On this side, we have judgment and denial; on that side, acceptance. This, that, this, that.seesaw_balance

How do you choose the appropriate response in any given situation? Yesterday when I was talking about changing negative self-talk into positive self-talk to reduce stress, a listener challenged me on the concept of always looking for the silver lining. She was right to do so, because optimism isn’t always the correct response, especially if it keeps you from seeing a situation with clarity. There are certain instances where it’s better to be pessimistic because it keeps you cautious. For instance, you don’t want your airline pilot to be too much of an optimist!

Martin Seligman, in his book “Learned Optimism”, writes that optimism should be a flexible, situational choice. “You can choose to use optimism when you judge that less depression, more achievement, or better health is the issue. But you can also choose not to use it, when you judge that clear sight or owning up is called for.” He goes on to say that just because those of us who are not born optimists can learn how to be more optimistic, doesn’t mean that we lose our values or good judgment. It just means that we now have a tool we can choose to use when it is to our benefit.

Responses aren’t always either-or. If I choose not to respond in anger, that doesn’t mean I opt for complete passivity either. If we keep in mind the back and forth motion of a saw, we see there is a range of potential responses. We often find equilibrium in the middle, at the fulcrum point of the seesaw. The key is to give ourselves time to make the choice. It’s that pause, that “take-a-breath” moment that’s the hardest part for me. Instead of reacting with anger, can I ask a question that gives me a better understanding of the situation? If I discover something that I didn’t know, will that little bit of extra information keep me from making a snap judgment and help me respond thoughtfully instead of reacting harshly?

Learning to choose between responses takes time and practice. Herbert Benson and Eileen Stuart recommend this sequence:

  • Stop
  • Breathe: Release physical tension
  • Reflect: What are your automatic thoughts, irrational beliefs, or distorted thinking styles? Ask yourself these questions:
  • Is it really true?
  • Am I jumping to conclusions?
  • Is it to my advantage to think this way?
  • Am I catastrophizing?
  • Is there another way to look at the situation?
  • Can I handle it?

Thoughts, feelings and behaviors all influence each other, in a feedback loop. By questioning habitual thought patterns, we can subtly shift how we feel, and eventually, how we act. Think of it as the way you might shift weight on your end of the seesaw, to keep it balanced or to let it fall. It’s your choice.

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Secrets to tightrope walking without a net

Why can one person walk with ease across a rope strung between two tall buildings, while another wobbles on a beam five times as wide? Why can one person meet life’s challenges with calmness and purpose, while the next person seems buffeted by the slightest turbulence? The difference may well be the quality of equanimity, “mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.”

My own recent failures to maintain composure led me to reflect on my capacity for equanimity. I realize that when I am over-tired or surprised, or when dealing with phone or cable companies, I can sometimes completely lose any equanimity I possess. But at least I am noticing when it happens, which I believe is a step toward deepening my ability to stay calm.

Benjamin Franklin was well-known for developing his character through self-monitoring. He had a checklist of 13 virtues that he considered important, and he evaluated himself every day to see how he had done. His virtues included things like temperance, frugality, sincerity and humility. But number 11 on his list was the virtue of tranquility, which he described as, “be not disturbed by trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.” That sounds a lot like equanimity to me.benjamin-franklin-scorecard

Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal writes that the Pali word “upekkha” can be translated as equanimity.  It literally means “to look over”, to become the observer rather than the thinker, to see the big picture. Perhaps the tightrope walker is practicing upekkha when he calmly walks between buildings without a net – is he observing himself from above, visualizing not just himself, but the rope, the buildings, the sky, the earth?

It’s important to realize that maintaining an even temper during difficult times doesn’t mean that someone is apathetic. It is merely the balancing point between suppressing emotions and feelings on the one hand, and overly identifying with them on the other. It’s the sweet spot where you accept that you can’t control the actions of other people, only your own actions and reactions.

Equanimity is considered one of the four great virtues in Buddhism (along with lovingkindness, compassion and the ability to feel joy with others). A study at UCLA on spirituality in higher education concluded that “Equanimity may well be the prototypic defining quality of a spiritual person,” someone who can find meaning in times of hardship and who feels generally at peace with life.

DSCN3334So how do we develop equanimity? Pay attention. Observe what you are experiencing in body, mind and spirit. Engage in self-reflection so that you are more in touch with your thoughts and feelings. Notice when you are reacting rather than responding. Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that we commit to “meeting each moment mindfully, with as much calmness and acceptance as possible,” and embodying an “openhearted presence” when engaging with others.

Bringing more mindfulness to each situation will help you make the subtle shift to being the observer, but it takes practice. You may not always succeed, and sometimes your composure will be shaken, but look back at the end of each day, much like Ben Franklin did, and set an intention for greater equanimity tomorrow.

A new balance

I thought I had stress management under control until I decided to move. I was maybe even a little bit smug, staying calm when others fell apart, stepping in to support my friends and family through their crises. Now I’m realizing just how easily the balance can be disturbed, life can feel chaotic and turmoil can take over.

In most stressful situations, there are both emotional coping responses and practical, problem-focused responses that will help ease the feeling of discomfort. For me, it’s easier to focus on the practical steps, so I make the to-do lists; I schedule the cleaning, the repairing and the painting; I go through the closets; I sort things to keep or get rid of.

The problem is that focusing solely on the action steps is making me more than a little anxious and kind of obsessive. I literally can’t stop thinking about what needs to be done next. I can spend half a morning organizing my Craig’s list posts and Freecycle emails. I can spend half an afternoon organizing bags of castoffs for Goodwill. Meantime, all semblance of normal life is lost.image

Larry David once quipped, “I don’t like to be out my comfort zone, which is about a half inch wide.” Getting ready to move has been forcing me to see the limits of my own comfort zone.  I keep thinking that if I can just clear the clutter out of my house, I’ll feel calmer. But really what I need to do is clear the clutter out of my mind. It’s time for some emotion-focused stress management steps.

Emotion-focused coping means using techniques that help change how I’m looking at the stressor of moving. According to Richard Blonna, one such emotion-focused method comes from Morita therapy — accepting the strong feelings that I have right now, and turning my attention instead to productive work (like writing a blog post!) Another thing I could do is examine whether any of my thinking around the move is illogical. For instance, am I setting arbitrary deadlines for myself? Am I catastrophizing any aspects (if I don’t do this today, the move won’t happen)? If that’s the case, I can try substituting more positive statements for the negative ones.

I realize also that I’m making a classic mistake of people who have too much to do. I’m sacrificing some of the very activities that could make me feel better. While I’m continuing to do yoga regularly, its benefits would last longer if I also added some meditation or breathing breaks on the days in between classes. I could also be turning to my friends more for social support — a night out is okay, even when there’s a lot to do. And, in spite of the cold, a walk in the park would be calming.

Most of all I need to be mindful of spinning my wheels. As Robert Anthony has said, “Moving fast is not the same as going somewhere.” Maybe there are days when the best preparation for moving is not to pack, clean or organize anything.

What needs changing?

No one ate many sweets at my New Year’s Day party. Yoga class was packed yesterday. Gyms are full. In other words, a normal January.

Statistics are dismal, though, when it comes to people maintaining their new exercise routines, keeping pounds off, adopting new habits. By the end of the month, most of us will be back to our old, comfortable ways.

That may be because we’re not seeing the forest for the trees. Having a view of the big picture can help us figure out which tree is going to fall today, or which aspect of health lends itself most to changing. Much as you might not want to hear it, maybe exercising more isn’t the thing that’s going to make the biggest difference for you right now.

Michelle Singletary, who writes a personal finance column for the Washington Post, gets it. She wrote a column last week about how better financial health is inextricably connected to physical health, social support and gratitude. She makes the point that health care costs can eat up retirement savings — so isn’t it a good idea to stay as healthy as possible before you reach that point? Are your relationships with family and friends weak or broken? Those are the people you might need if you fall on hard times, so Singletary says it makes sense to keep the ties strong.

In other words, all the dimensions of health — physical, social, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, occupational — help hold the structure of self together, and are equally important if we are going to reach an optimal state of well-being. So while you might want to lose a few pounds in the new year, is your physical health really the dimension where you are most in need of change?

I think of the dimensions of health like a Trivial Pursuit game piece. Each different colored piece of the pie has to be filled in before you can win the game. The same is true for overall wellness. So if you’re already strong with the piece that signifies physical wellness (even if you would like to lose that extra 5 pounds), but you’re struggling to obtain the piece for spiritual wellness, doesn’t it make more sense to focus your efforts in that area?

stick figureIn my stress management class, I sometimes use an activity from a text by Olpin and Hesson to assess balance in the different dimensions. Students get index cards and are asked to draw pictures of their bodies. The head represents the intellectual dimension; the trunk is the spiritual dimension; the arms are social and emotional, respectively; the legs are physical and occupational. If they feel balanced and healthy in a dimension, that body part is drawn so that it is in proportion to the rest of the body. If they feel that they overdo in some dimension, that body part will be outsize. And if there is an aspect of health that is lacking, the body part will look small compared to the rest.

If you do this exercise, are you wobbling from the imbalance? Is one leg shorter than the other? Is your head too big from overthinking everything? Let that be your guide to better new year’s resolutions. Sometimes making a change that no one else can immediately see is the missing piece. As Plutarch said, “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.”

Juggling Act

“Balance doesn’t mean things stop moving,” Kathryn Budig says in her “Aim True” yoga practice video. She goes on to say that what balance really means is that you are able to handle the wobbling and the moving better. How does this relate to time and energy management?

The concept of life “balance” is complicated; we think of it in terms of choices, in having to give up some of one thing to have more of another. It’s certainly true that we have to make trade-offs in life, and that we sometimes have to consciously choose to devote time to something. Otherwise, it would be just too easy to say, “I don’t have time.” But no matter how good we are at setting priorities and saying no to things that aren’t important, we often end up with a lot on our plates. In those times, how do we handle all the moving pieces with grace and balance?

Having to do my taxes this week is a good example. Yes, I started working on them last month, but I stopped when things got busy, and now only a few days remain before the deadline. Sometimes I think I might be what’s called an “arousal procrastinator”, someone who gets a thrill from doing things at the last minute. Yesterday, when I sat down to work on the taxes for a couple of hours, I felt a little undercurrent of excitement; I was energized to get it done.

Was I truly getting a burst of energy from the sense of “crisis” (essentially a stress response), or was I simply aware that I was moving the pieces of my life productively? Is there a difference, and would I be able to tell?

I like to think that I am not as much of a crisis-maker as I used to be, that I’ve learned to live my life with more equanimity and calm. I plan better now; I don’t do crazy things like decide on Monday to make a dress for a party on Friday; I let other people help me even if I know I can do the job better; I just let more things go.

Gil Fronsdal, a teacher of Buddhist meditation, describes equanimity as a translation of the Pali word, upekkha, which means “to see without being caught up by what we see”, or to see with a somewhat detached understanding and patience. Another Pali word that translates to equanimity is one that means being able to remain centered even while in the midst of everything that is happening around us.

Would I like to stay centered while doing my taxes? Yes! For one thing, I think it will lead to fewer mistakes. When we’re overly stressed, the quality of our work usually goes down. So what I’m trying to do is take plenty of short breaks from the work – getting up to stretch, walk around and look out the window – while not stopping for so long that I lose the flow.

I’m also trying to stay present with what I’m doing. In other words, while I work on the taxes, it’s just the taxes. When I’m finished with that for the day, I’ll turn my attention and focus to the next thing that needs to be done today, instead of worrying about it while I’m working on the tax return. That’s not easy for me – sometimes I feel like my mind is all over the place – but I’m getting better at it. As Fronsdal says, “As mindfulness becomes stronger, so does our equanimity.”

Keeping balanced doesn’t necessarily mean we have less to do. It’s more about finding that sweet spot where all our best qualities – attention, joy, wisdom, humor – come together to help us appreciate the wobbly ride of life.