What a great question to ask ourselves as we go through our day-to-day living.
We are always making choices…even the choice to not choose on purpose, based on what matters to us, is a choice.
Each moment of the day, we are arriving at a fork in the road. The path on the left looks wide open and free from obstacles. It is the easier one to take, at least at first. It’s the path that contains all the habits and behaviors that in the end don’t serve us well. But because the path is well-worn, we tend to head in that direction.
The right path may have some obstacles in it, some challenges that require effort and commitment, but the right path leads us to things we most desire.
But because we can imagine the obstacles and the effort it would take to get by them, we tend to shuffle over to the left path, which is wide open and clear, forgetting that it never takes us to where we really want to go.
Should I eat the healthy food or just grab some fast food that I know in my heart is not good for me? (Imagine a bowl of fresh fruit on the right and on the left is chips, ice cream and your favorite junk food…which one will you reach for?)
Should I get some exercise or just keep mindlessly watching a Netflix series that I don’t even really care about?
Should I take time to meditate and practice some form of self-care, or should I just keep being available to the demands and whims of others? Should I just keep accumulating stress throughout my day and end up having poor quality of sleep because I’m still wound up?
Should I focus on this present moment and take actions that are in alignment with my freely chosen life values, or should I just keep hanging out in my head, replaying old arguments, ruminating about things that didn’t work out well, and frightening myself with what awful thing could happen at some point in the future?
When we get encouragement or validation from others, it feels good, doesn’t it? What happens if they don’t deliver on any given day? We can feel pretty depressed, overwhelmed and under-loved, right?
If you could live your life independent of the good opinion of other people, would you choose that?
If you could be less in your head and be more engaged in living your life as it is happening, would you choose that?
If you knew that you were the only one who can take care of yourself in all the different aspects of your life at all times, would you choose to do that?
It would be great if other people would take care of us, be 100% reliable, always respectful and constantly going out of their way to make sure that we felt safe, loved and happy, but how realistic is that based on your experience?
If don’t take care of myself, who will? The answer seems pretty clear…no one will.
Even those people who do love you and care about you cannot do for you the things that only you can do.
At each moment of every day, you are either choosing the well-worn path that leads where you don’t want to go, or choosing the right path of doing those things that lead in the direction of living the life you really want.
You don’t have to wait for the cavalry to arrive to save the day…… You are the cavalry!
You don’t have to wait and hope for the hero to come along and save you…. You are the hero!
You can feel it wherever you go during this global pandemic…uncertainty, fear and insecurity.
For some, the encouragement to stay sheltered in place has started to feel oppressive rather than protective.
Simple things like needing to go out into the world to get groceries or pet food can turn up the volume on anxiety and day by day, the anxiety can accumulate, wearing us out, making us feel apathetic and despondent. When will things get back to normal again?
Humans have a penchant for wanting things to stay the same, to be consistent, reliable and predictable.
The arrival of the novel coronavirus has ripped away the curtain of the illusion of stability. We can see more clearly than ever that life is all about uncertainty. Nothing stays the same, everything is changing.
Whenever we are out of alignment with how life works, we will feel distressed and can succumb to a strong desire to exert control over situations or other people to get things back to what we consider normal. This strategy rarely works, though, does it? No matter how much it promises, it doesn’t deliver, or rather it does deliver, but just not the kind of things or experiences we want: frustration, resentment, reactivity, apathy, amongst others.
There has been unimaginable suffering throughout the world these past few months, including around where we live, work and play.
There are people dying in the hundreds every single day due to the virus. There have been and will be many other losses, (financial, professional, social, adventure or travel opportunities), with no guarantee about when it will all stop.
We have no control over any of it.
The Stoic philosophers say that the only thing we have control over is what we do in this very moment, right now. That’s it. Everything else goes on the list with the header, “Not Under My Control.”
If something or someone is not under my control, how much effort should I put into trying to control it/them? (It sounds ridiculously obvious when it is put in that way, but it usually doesn’t stop us from trying to control, does it?).
It can be helpful to use this strange time to engage in some reflection, something that was usually in short supply when we were back in the pre-pandemic days.
Taking time to press pause and examine our minds and hearts can provide some much needed hope and direction.
Here are a few questions that I have found helpful in terms of gaining more clarity about my life and regaining my poise. I hope they might inspire you to put aside some time to consider them, or come up with your own questions that will lead you to being the kind of person you want to be, even during these strange times:
“If I were being the person I really wanted to be in this situation, what would I be doing, saying?”
“What could I learn from this, even though I don’t like the feeling I have inside about it right now?”
“Am I living today, this moment, in accordance with the kind of person I want to be?”
“How much of what my mind is telling me about this situation is based on reality vs fear?”
“Do I have any control over this situation or person? If not, am I willing to loosen my grip in trying to control what is not under my control?”
“If I were really living freely and authentically, (not in reaction to others, or some kind of self or other imposed expectations), what would I be doing with my life?”
“If I could freely choose who I want to be and what I want to do, what would I choose?”
“What have I always wanted to be, do or have but have not allowed myself to experience, yet?
“What do I think is holding me back from living the life I really want for myself?”
“What would happen if I did take the actions that are in alignment with the highest vision I have for me and my life?”
Sometimes, questions provide the answers that we are looking for. They can help us navigate more smoothly through the inevitable rough waters of life.
We are all truly in the same boat right now. The more we treat ourselves with care and compassion, the more capacity we will have to treat others with care and compassion. The clearer we are about what matters in our life, the less time we will spend struggling with the things and people over which/whom we never had any control anyway. The energy that is freed from fruitless efforts to control is now available to live my life right now.
Who am I? What matters? What do I want my life to be about? Revisiting these questions over and over can help ground us while the surges of uncertainty crash all around us.
“The tranquillity that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do…” -Marcus Aurelius
Everyone has opinions. Everyone has thoughts about what is okay or not okay. Even if you disagree with this, you are entertaining an opinion.
Each day, many times a day, I meet with people in my office. It took me a while to realize that there are as many opinions of me as there are people I meet each day. It took a little longer to realize that what other people think of me doesn’t define me. Their thoughts, opinions and feelings belong to them and are not mine to try and control. I don’t have to take those thoughts personally. Those opinions, thoughts and feelings belong to them.
It may happen that one of my patients might come in and start to tell me what a great doctor I am. They might say that I helped them turn their life around. They sing my praises to their family and friends. Wow! Who doesn’t like being complimented? I may get absorbed with the praise and approval. Good feelings course through me. Good for me!
The next patient might come in and tell me that I am not helping at all. All of my suggestions and recommendations have not been helpful. In fact, things might be worse. They cross their arms and look at me with a sour expression. They don’t say it, but the subtext is that I am a failing doctor. I may begin to notice a sinking feeling pulling me down. I might feel the discomfort of defensiveness or the rising of resistance flooding my mind and body. Who likes being criticized or demeaned? I might then start to worry that someone has finally found out that I am not that good at what I do! Bad for me!
Other people make me feel they way I do…or do they?
What a surprise it can be to start to see that only you can cause you to feel the way you do. The way you feel is a function of whatever kind of thinking is in your mind at that moment. No more, no less.
You can easily prove this to yourself. Start thinking some angry thoughts for a few minutes…go ahead…really get into the way that the world has been cruel towards you, how people have been disrespectful or mean, or how undervalued or disrespected you are from people whose approval you wanted. Now, notice how you are feeling. It’s pretty hard to feel okay when we are really focusing on and connected to difficult thoughts, isn’t it?
It’s hard to be upset if we are connecting to wonderful thoughts (in the form or memories or images, for example) Try it for yourself. Take a moment to remember some people you really love and care about. Allow yourself to really get into some of the beauty, and awesomeness of your life. It might be a memory of being in nature with an incredible sunset, or looking into the vastness of space and getting a sense of what infinity might be. Remember some of the experiences you have had that were a highpoint in your life. Nice. Now notice how you are feeling. It would be pretty hard to feel upset right now, wouldn’t it?
It is common in the world we live in to hear or say, “You made me angry,” or “that situation really stressed me out.” As proof, we review the seemingly logical pathway, “I was feeling okay and then you came along and started talking at me and now I am feeling angry. Thus, you definitely made me feel angry.” Or, “I was feeling fine, but then I came into work and started feeling really stressed out. This workplace is what is making me feel stressed me out.”
But what is really going on here? A more reality-based account would look something like this: “I was feeling okay, and then you came along and started talking, and then I started having some difficult thoughts about you, and that is what is causing me to feel the way I do.”
Similarly, “I was feeling fine, but then I came into work and I started having a lot stressful thoughts about what was going on or about what might happen, and that is what is causing me to feel the way I do.”
Seen this way, we come to understand that other people are just being the way they are being. Other situations are just as they are. They don’t have the power to cause us to feel the way we do, but rather it is our evaluation (or thinking in the moment) about the person or the situation that is the direct cause of what we are feeling.
Our old friend Epictetus, the Stoic, reminded us, “it is not external events themselves that cause us distress, but the way in which we think about them, our interpretation of their significance. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble. We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”
Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, survived against all odds, having been stripped of everything and brutally treated in ways that most of us could not even begin to imagine. Listen to what he has to say, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
What a helpful reminder we are given from Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior with your consent.” When we begin to see that we are not mandated to go along with a difficult thought, we experience the freedom of being.
We can start to understand that who we are and what we are thinking/feeling are two different things. We have thoughts and feelings, but we are not our thoughts and feelings.
I can sit in my office during the day and listen to someone extol my virtues, and while that is nice, it is not going to change the way I go about doing what I do in support of them, because what I do is based on freely chosen values about what I want to stand for and how I want to behave in my life in all its various domains.
Likewise, if someone comes in full of invective and negativity, I can notice that, and I can recognize that what they are saying doesn’t define me at all. It might define them as someone who is carrying around a lot of difficult thoughts and feelings.
This is not an invitation for me to become reactive, angry or stressed out, but rather an opportunity to extend compassion and understanding. Have I not also gotten caught up in difficult thoughts and feelings in the past? Sure I have. Seen in this way, it is something that we have in common, something that connects us. It’s called the human condition.
Only you can cause you to feel the way you do.
As you go through your day today, with all its demands and obligations, see if you can hold onto the awareness that what you are feeling in the moment is a function of what thinking you are attaching to in the moment. It is not a result of what other people are thinking, saying or doing And then, practice detaching from those difficult thoughts. Notice what happens next…
See if you can spot the judgements and evaluations that you are innocently and unwittingly connecting to, based on years and years of habitual thought patterns, beliefs, attitudes and perceptions that you have carried around with you whole life. Some of it learned, some of it modeled around you during your childhood and carried through into adulthood, some of it culturally ingrained.
It really doesn’t matter where it came from. It is enough to see that the thoughts and feelings that arrive in any given situation are not facts, and not truth, but just thoughts and feelings.
When we detach from the thoughts and feelings, we have our own personal experience of realizing that who I am and what I’m thinking/feeling are two different things.
The lungs breathe. The heart beats. The brain thinks. No one has ever been able to stop the brain from filling the mind with thoughts.
You have lungs, but you are not your lungs. You have a heart, but you are not your heart. You have a brain, but you are not your brain.
When we see for ourselves the value of looking at our thoughts rather than through them, we give ourselves the gift of freedom. When we notice that we are having the experience of a feeling and are not that feeling, we create some space to go through the world with more psychological flexibility.
We begin to realize that we are never at the mercy of other people’s opinions as the cause of why we feel the way we do.
Only you can cause you to feel the way you do.
How might you see this working in your life? What have you noticed as you begin to make a distinction between who you are and what thoughts and feelings are filling the screen of your awareness?
How might you share this with someone to help them live a better quality experience of life?
Feel free to leave your thoughts, reactions or observations in the comments below! Thanks for reading!
When it comes to actively engaging in your positive aging, how are you doing?
How strong are you? An important part of leading a vital and engaged life involves improving your lean fitness. This means building muscle. Challenge your body a few times a week with resistance or bodyweight training that asks your muscles to do more. The improvement in strength and stability is something that will serve you well throughout each day in the weeks, months and years to come. You will be more able to actively engage in life, doing things that are fun and life-enhancing when you are stronger and mobile. Sitting in a chair all day, or living a sedentary life comes at a great cost to your health and well-being. The alternative to building your strength and improving your mobility is to neglect your body passively allow it to fall into disrepair, experiencing increasing limitation and more frequent aches and pain with each passing day. You want to be able to live your life rather than feel buffeted by and at the mercy of life, stuck on the sidelines, while other people are out doing things that are interesting and rewarding.
How fit are you? Take time each day to improve your overall aerobic health. This means dedicating time each day to moving your body. Take walks, go for a run, play some golf (without a cart), do some yoga, or find an activity where you can be moving around and exploring. Getting the heart rate up, (but not too high) is a great way to encourage your heart and muscles to become more efficient in what they can do. When doing any activity, get to the level of intensity where you can still hold a conversation without gasping. Do this for 30-60 minutes each day, rain or shine. Open your eyes and see what is happening out in the world. Instead of sitting around and casting about for diversionary activities such as watching TV, scrolling through social media or taking frequent naps, get up and get out. There is much healing and health promotion in simply getting out of the house and into the world.
How mindful are you? When doing those activities that are in support of improving your health, pay attention to what you are doing as you are doing it. Don’t go so hard or so long that you injure yourself. Especially if you are older, plan on taking the long and winding road to improve your health. Overdoing and injuring yourself takes you out of the game, and can keep you out of the game of life for some time as you recuperate. So pay attention. As you are doing an activity, be aware of what you are doing. Be mindful. It is often the case that our mind can convince us that we are younger, stronger or more capable than we are at present. Whereas we might have been able to go all out and return that cross-court tennis volley when we were younger, doing so now could represent an increase in the risk of having something unfortunate happen, something that could sideline us. Use the measuring stick of enjoyment and a slight challenge to evaluate your progress to better physical health.
Who do you love and who loves you? An important aspect of life that requires ongoing investment but that pays off many dividends is cultivating meaningful and mutually supportive relationships. When it comes down to it, the quality of our life is a direct result of the quality of our relationships. If you have cut yourself off from family, friends or have stopped interacting with others, know that the world is teeming with people. At last count, there are about 7 billion people living on the planet right now. Are you lonely? If so, take time to reflect on the cost of cutting yourself off from interaction with others. Introverts and extroverts alike can benefit from taking action and calling or texting a friend and making that effort to keep in touch with others. Read the local community newsletter and scan the activities that are going on today or this week. Show up, even when it feels burdensome to do so. Identify those activities that you value and have experienced as rewarding and invigorating and find out where those activities are happening. While you might begrudgingly have to get yourself to go to a gathering, most people will report that they feel better having gone out and connected with other people.
If you don’t take care of yourself, who will? When it comes down to it, the quality of your life is largely in your own hands. Unless or until you come to the realization that no one is coming to save the day, you will passively wait for someone else to come in and rescue you. No one is coming. Your life is your responsibility. If you choose, you can live a fuller and more vitally engaged life by greeting each day as a new opportunity to do those things that tip the scales in your favor. All of us want to live in a way where we are grateful for the experience of being alive. The decisions you make and the actions you take this very day are either leading you in the direction of living more fully, or they are leading somewhere else, somewhere most of use do not want be. Make the inner decision to be on your side. Show up.
How about some good news? Your moment-to-moment thinking about what is possible or not for you is not the truth about what is possible or not!
Our ability to think is an amazing talent, without doubt, however, have you ever stopped to consider that your ability to think and the result of that ability are two different things?
Thought content, (the end product, or result, of the process of thinking), can and does appear very real and compelling to us.
However, consider this: is my thought about a sandwich actually a sandwich? Is my thought about another person actually that other person? Is my thought about a situation from the past or a worried thought about the future actually that situation?
Upon closer inspection, we can start to get a sense that our thoughts cannot, by definition, be true for they are a representation for something, just as the word ‘lamp,’ is not actually a lamp. And yet, if I am caught up in my thinking, it can feel as if my thought is actually the thing itself.
For example, if I am caught up in thinking about how someone important in my life has been insensitive towards me, that they were not valuing me, what happens? Generally, I start to feel angry, or hurt, or victimized or any number of difficult feelings.
It starts to look a lot like that other person has caused me to feel the way I do, which is often an invitation for me to think even more about that, and build up even more resentment or reactivity.
These feelings, which have been flamed through my overthinking, then tend to impact my behavior. I might become withdrawn, or behave rudely when I am in the presence of that person. Or maybe I end up gossiping or ‘throwing the person under the bus’ when I am talking with other people, prosecuting my case about the poor behavior of the other person towards me.
Is my thinking about the person actually the truth about that person? Is my thinking about their insensitivity even accurate? How would I know?
Perhaps they were struggling with their own difficult thinking and weren’t even aware of the way in which they behaved n my presence. Perhaps they were feeling aches and pains or had constipation. Maybe they were caught up in worries about finances.
There could be any number of other reasons that they would not be completely available, interested or attentive to me in that moment. Yet, I have concluded that the person is insensitive and that they don’t value me and then I go on to pay the consequences of that thinking, (some form of suffering) certain that my thinking is true and accurate.
Even more interesting is that I have concluded that my well-being is actually dependent on the good opinion of other people. But is that true?
Imagine knowing that the core of your being is one of wholeness, and that other people literally do not have the power to make you think, feel, say or do anything. How might that change the way in which you go through life? Take a moment to get in touch with that…you’ve got time, go ahead and try that on…
What would it be like to have the insight that other people can not make you feel better and they can’t make you feel worse?
Could you imagine how your life might be if you really understood that other peoples’ opinions and behaviors did not define you, limit you or cause you to feel the way you do?
Could you imagine living with the realization that other peoples’ thoughts and opinions and behaviors belonged to them and not to you?
The only thing that gets in the way of us realizing and experiencing our own invulnerability is our thinking in the present moment. When we take insecure thinking seriously, and do not see that our experience is created moment-to-moment via our current stream of thought, we will always feel off-balance and will be constantly engaged in blaming others and attributing how we feel and what we do, or fail to do, to other people and other situations outside of us.
You can practice taking your thoughts less seriously…really, you can. Look for opportunities each day to notice what thoughts are competing for your attention.
Could you take this moment and simply notice what thoughts are vying for your attention?
If you notice that you have been grinding away with difficult thoughts or worries, notice what happens when you relate to those thoughts differently.
What happens if you simply disengage from those thoughts? Just see what happens if you leave them alone, best you can…
You can see they are there. The thoughts are still on offer. What could be more true than the thoughts that are in your mind right now are there right now? It’s not helpful, (nor effective!) to try and get rid of thoughts, as that is yet another way of interacting with the very thing you don’t want.
“What you resist not only persists but will grow in size.‘–Carl Jung
By seeing thoughts as just thoughts and feelings as just feelings, you begin to realize that you are the experiencer of those thoughts and feelings. With willingness, you can make room for those inevitable negative, difficult or insecure thoughts. They are going to show up, but how you show up for them is a choice that is available to you in this moment and in every moment that is to come.
Those thoughts and feelings that arise do not define you nor do they represent a real obstacle to you continuing to move forward in the direction of things that matter to you.
Our thoughts are about as solid as a cloud, but until we realize that, we tend to accept them as fact, as truth and we tend to get fused with them and they seem as solid as steel.
Much of our daily life is actually spent in our mind, interacting with our thoughts about other people or situations, and not actually interacting with the people or situations out in the external world.
Would you rather be thinking about your life, or living your life as it is happening? Interacting with a narrative or being engaged in moment to moment experiencing of this one precious life you have?
“I am not a victim of the world I see.’ A Course in Miracles
What this points to is that the world out there is not causing us to suffer, but rather the suffering we are experiencing is a function of us taking those difficult thoughts that arise, unbidden and unwelcome, seriously and experiencing the result of those thoughts.
There is no other possibility than to feel victimized if we are unaware that the cause of our experience comes from within and is projected out into the world.
“Perception is projection.‘ A Course in Miracles
We think we are seeing the world as it is, but we are always experiencing the world as we have created it with our moment-to-moment thinking.
If I am taking seriously the thought that I am no good and that it is highly unlikely that things are going to change or be different, I will have the experience of those thoughts being true and will feel dispirited enough that I will likely take the action of non-action.
I will find (invent) evidence for my lack of worthiness or agency. I will find a way to twist the words of people or skew the meaning of the events around me to support my conclusion, and then feel vindicated that my thoughts about not being good enough are true.
And the cycle will repeat over and over, ‘proving’ to me that I was right.
If I am willing to take those thoughts less seriously and allow my mind to settle, more often than not, helpful and insightful thoughts will begin to arise in that cleared space.
The insights that we need are always available, but if we are not available for them, it will seem that they are not available to us.
Clearing the mental busy-ness of our minds is the first step to being available for fresh, insightful and inspiring thoughts that will allow us to regain our bearings and get into action.
It can often come as a surprise to realize that our mind wants to settle and be more clear. There is nothing to do in order to have a quieter mind. You can’t force your mind to settle and become clear, you can only step back and allow. The innate correcting ability of our mind wants to go in the direction of peace of mind and clarity and will do so if we loosen our grip on overthinking and over-analyzing.
Our penchant is to overthink things. See if this is true for you. I know that I have had many commutes on a congested highway into the office that were filled with contention, arguments, proving my points, justifying my words and actions, until I awoke to the realization that I was the only one in the car and that I had innocently been taking my thinking very seriously.
In coming to my senses, the world around me actually starts to open up. As I continue to drive, I see the beautiful shapes of trees, the birds flying around gracefully, and see the interesting landscapes and other people maneuvering their cars towards their destinations. I have a sense that I am back in the flow of life, moving through it at the speed of life.
My mind settles down and a sense of peace and stability appears.
Our propensity to over-analyze. We incessantly think about our thinking and engage in difficult thought content and this is largely a function of having practiced doing it for as many years as we have been alive. We are so accustomed to doing it that we think doing so is the norm.
Analytical thinking is not wrong nor bad, and in fact, it is very helpful if we have discrete things to work out and have the variables at hand. For example, using the analytical mode of thinking is very helpful when planning a vacation, or estimating materials needed for a remodel of a house. But analytical thinking applied to many areas of life is not only unhelpful, it’s harmful.
We overthink and evaluate other people and situations all day long. It can be helpful to see that there is actually a positive intent behind that activity. We are all trying to get a sense of control and safety in what can appear to be a chaotic and uncertain world.
A helpful question to ask, though, is how is that working for you?
Does your worrying or overanalyzing result in more safety and more control? In other words, does the activity of entertaining difficult thoughts deliver on its’ promise? If so, there is nothing to change! However, if not, might there be another way to navigate through life?
Here is a shortcut…do not take your thinking so personally. See your thoughts for what they are, words and images and nothing more.
You are free to dismiss thoughts, disregard thoughts or engage in thoughts. It’s your mind, and you can use it any way you want to use it! Instead of having your mind use you, what happens when you use your mind?
Give yourself the gift of realizing that you are the thinker and not the thoughts.
You experience moment-to-moment whatever thoughts are in your mind.
Start getting good at practicing thought recognition today. Find fluency in deciding whether a thought is helpful or harmful. If the former, proceed. If the latter, let go.