Purposeful Wanderings - Bradford L. Glass - December 2021
“Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” – Thoreau
Whether talking with friends, family or clients, it seems most consider stress a constant companion – with work, people, and now even the holidays. There was a time when this included me. With some attention, I’ve learned to change that. OK, I still step in the lake now and then, but my life has been quite peaceful the past many years. For me, the path ahead opened up in a most unlikely way – in recognizing that I’d misidentified the cause of stress. As a result, I [naturally?] tried to solve the wrong problem. I guess this explains why it took me so long to escape.
Like many, I used to believe what I now hear quite regularly: “No wonder I’m so stressed. Life (and people) just make it that way.” Not so! Here’s what I’ve learned about its causes, its misconceptions … and about a path beyond. I’m not asking you just to accept my ideas as true, but rather ponder your own felt experience of each, absorbing how it may affect you personally. If you want make meaningful change, you need to see yourself in the new ideas.
· Stress is not a part of life, or situations, or other people. It’s a feeling which makes it personal – to you.
· The feeling of stress is rooted in a thought – a thought that “what is” is not ok and must therefore be changed.
· But “what is” already is. It’s neutral; it doesn’t care if you like it or not. It doesn’t care if you handle it or not.
· Although you’re still entitled to your opinion (of life, situations, others), your opinion alone changes nothing.
· Your judgment/opinion/dislike of “what is” doesn’t count as evidence for it being wrong, either. It just “is.”
· Being unwilling to see things as they are evokes an opinion story in your head. It’s not the same as “what is.”
· Stress is your reaction to the story, not to “what is.” You miss this, so believe you’re “fighting the right enemy.”
· In fact, “what is” is just a starting point, not the enemy. It’s an opening to the question, “What’s possible now?”
· Given that you’re free to choose your thoughts, you’re free to choose thoughts that don’t create stress.
· The path beyond stress lies in your awareness of how your [largely unconscious] thoughts are doing you in.
· As you learn to see “what is” as being separate from your thoughts about “what is,” stress begins to subside.
· Seeing things as they are does not mean agreeing with them. It opens you to keeping separate things separate.
OK, so maybe you do have too much to do. Maybe it does have to be done now. This is not about arguing with your sense of what life asks of you. (Strangely, perhaps, but you’ll actually revise that on your own as a result of this awareness.) The point is that by seeing the cause of stress as being your thoughts, you learn to reclaim the lost energy that has left you debilitated, and has actually kept you from doing what needs to be done. And you can do that by learning to notice, then choose, thoughts that release the opinion story you made up.
The “big point” – It’s not your life that is difficult, but the way you’ve learned to see your life that makes it so.
New thoughts enter your mind all the time. Some of them are even conscious! What matters is what you do with them in the moment (you can miss them entirely, follow them blindly, seek to understand them, see them as entertainment, etc.) It’s a choice you make (or don’t) in each second. With a bit of practice, you can learn to notice the soon-to-become-stress of a new task or situation while it’s still a “tiny grain of sand out there in a field.” With awareness alone, you can choose not to turn it into a rock, then a giant boulder of a problem. (It’s only a question of choosing new thoughts.) With this awareness, you can also choose not to invent the hill the boulder rolls down, so that you invariably have to stress yourself out to stop it. (It’s only a question of choosing new thoughts.)
Underneath almost every stressful circumstance, you’ll find a story about what has already happened and what you don’t like about it. None of this matters. It has already happened. What does matter is what you can do now, what’s possible given what has happened. Seeing “what is” opens the door.
Exercise: Here’s a step-wise path to getting to know how your thoughts create your stress, and what you might do about it all.
· Name the specific things in your life that stress you. Your list may be long.
· For each one – separately – step back for a moment and look at the stressor. Ask yourself what has happened. Answer as you might if watching it all as a movie – without emotional investment; just a “book report” version. (We’ll call this the event.)
· Now, name the story you’ve told yourself about what has happened. Your answer may include what life, others or specific situations did “to you.” (We’ll call this your interpretation … why and how the event matters to you.)
· Next, name the feeling you have in the moment. Then … notice whether your feeling is about the event or about your interpretation. Note: They are two different things!!
· Lastly, notice how you respond. Here … notice how your response is far more likely a response to your feeling than it is a response to the event itself. It is here, in the separation of the event from your opinion about the event, that the potential for stress reduction lives.
Life Lessons from Nature: You’ll never find an example of interpretation (or any kind of judgment) in nature. Yes, you’ll find consequences: a storm blows trees down; a volcanic flow covers the land; a hawk kills a rodent. You’ll also find consequences with human impact: a river floods the adjacent farmland; a tornado wipes out a village; a coyote nabs someone’s pet; a forest fire destroys a town. And ... you’ll even find human-induced consequences: a swan dies from a fish hook; a deer is killed by a car; a polar bear dies from starvation because the sea ice was no longer there. BUT … there is no judgment/opinion/attitude on nature’s part – no pissed off swans, no upset trees, no ashamed rivers, no proud fires, and no bears wringing their paws at climate change. OK, crazy examples … perhaps. But the point here is that nature – free of judgment, free of misidentifying cause-and-effect – is now just as free to continue her process of creative expression (what’s possible now … given what has happened) in a way that is positive, constructive and sustainable. No energy wasted. It’s a possibility available to you, too.
Book of the month: The Art of Possibility, by Ben & Roz Zander. This book is one my “perennial favorites” on the topic of personal change. A few of their many [simple] ideas for “possibility living.” (1) Life is a possibility to live into, not an expectation to live up to. (2) Be present, without resistance. The need to control creates stress. Instead, start with what you have, not what you don’t. (3) Assumptions and beliefs we hold about life often block what’s possible. Draw new frames around old circumstances and the extraordinary becomes everyday experience. (3) Shift from one who “meets life’s challenges” to one who “designs the stage on which life plays out.” And if you’re on Cape Cod, you’ll find this book at the Market Street Bookshop in Mashpee Commons; 508-539-6985.