Staying out of troubled waters

There’s an adage that goes, “Never meet trouble halfway. Let it travel the full distance. Something usually happens to it before it arrives.” Good advice, right? So why is it that so many of us go looking for trouble?

  • Do you wake up at night and start worrying about what might happen tomorrow? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.
  • Do you get stuck in the middle of a project because of self-doubt? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.
  • Do you come up with a million reasons not to take the risk to do something that you know you will love? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.
  • Do you believe that the problems you’re having today will last forever? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.

When we don’t make trouble travel the full distance to reach us, we easily become paralyzed, anxious and overly cautious. Productivity suffers, and we definitely can’t grow or change in a meaningful way. Studies have shown that anxiety and worry are negatively associated with self-efficacy, the belief in one’s capabilities and confidence that goals can be achieved.psychology-2422439_960_720

It’s tough to break the habit of anticipating trouble, or the vicious cycle of negative beliefs and avoidance.  Yoga teacher Kathryn Budig is one of the people who inspires me when I need a kick in the pants to make an intentional effort toward positive thinking. Her practices are all about empowerment, taking risks, having fun and not letting those nagging worries f*** with your head. During a challenging moment, she’ll simply say, “You’ve got this.” Or, “You know what? If you fall, you’ll just get back up and try again.” During tough moments, I remember her voice and repeat to myself, “I’ve got this.”

There are other ways to make trouble travel the full distance. One is to use visualization to flip the scenario that you’re imagining in your dark moments. Instead of picturing the worst, can you picture the best outcome? Build as many details into your mental picture as possible, until it becomes believable. The mind can be a powerful tool to your benefit, but sometimes it has to be gently coaxed to turn in the positive direction.

Looking back to your past can also be useful. In most cases, you know that you’ve been able to rise to challenges like this before. You can remember other times when your worries have been unjustified, when the outcome that you feared did not come to pass. The bottom line is that you probably have as much reason to expect the best as you do to expect the worst. So focus on those proven moments when you have been successful.

Choose some small change to make in order to build self-efficacy. Not something life-changing, but something achievable. When you see for yourself that you are capable of making the change, confidence in your abilities will grow and you can move on to something bigger. The more self-efficacy you build, the less anxiety you should have — because your belief in your ability to cope will be stronger. You will more often be making trouble travel the full distance to reach you.

Most important is to be firmly grounded in the present moment. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, each new day is a precious gift. Greet the peace and happiness that the day offers. Breathe it in. For this moment, don’t look any farther into what’s ahead.image

 

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Letting go of fear

Does Cory Booker practice yoga? I wonder because the Newark, NJ mayor was speaking the language of yoga in an interview with the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne a few days ago. Discussing violence and crime prevention, he said, “Fear is a toxic state of being. You’ve got to lead with love.”

At its essence, the word yoga means to yoke, join or unite. It strikes me that Booker is speaking that language when he says that love can unite people when it replaces the fear that’s at the heart of so much of our distrust of each other. Yoga teacher Kathryn Budig says that in order to meet challenges, we need to “let go of fear and move back into a place of love.” I think they are saying the same thing.

Stress often comes from being unfamiliar with a person, place or experience. That fear of the unknown often manifests itself by us labeling someone or something as “other”, as different from ourselves. By focusing on differences we harden ourselves to feeling any compassion for the other, and we rationalize conflict and dislike. We use otherness as an excuse for our feelings about people of different nationalities, religions, races, political parties, social groups, or abilities. It makes it easier to ignore the paths that might lead to understanding.

Cory Booker’s interview covered a lot of topics, but he was talking in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin. While there’s a lot we’ll never know about that tragic evening, we can be pretty sure that it started when one person saw another and labeled him as “other”.  It started with fear and distrust.

I’ve written here before about the “Just Like Me” meditation developed by Chade-Meng Tan. Combined with a loving kindness meditation, it becomes a powerful process for tearing down those feelings of otherness. The heart of it is acknowledging that the other person has the same needs and desires for health, happiness and love that you have.

As Meng says, “There are three premises behind this practice. The first is that when we perceive somebody as being similar to ourselves (“just like me”), we become much more likely to feel and act positively towards that person. The second is that kind and loving thoughts towards another can be generated volitionally. The third premise is that mental habits can be formed with practice, so if we spend time and effort creating thoughts of similarity-to-others and loving kindness, over time, these thoughts get generated habitually and effortlessly…”

circleIt takes practice to get to the point where we react with love and kindness first. But isn’t it worth the effort? The “Just Like Me” meditation is a tool for finding our common ground, our humanity. President Obama said last week that, “we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities.” That circle starts with compassion for self, then widens out to families, friends, to neighbors, communities, and eventually encompasses the stranger, the “other”, even perhaps an enemy, by admitting the truth that they are “just like me.”

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.