One Choice in Every Moment

A musical note: In writing songs, there are common chord progressions which are the skeleton upon which melodies and harmonies can be built. One such progression is: vi IV V I, which stands for the starting chord being the sixth of the scale, followed by the fourth, the fifth and finally to the tonic chord, the I. Enjoy this song that was an experiment of setting out to see what could come of taking the progression out for some exercise! (the song title needed to leave out the fifth to make the title a punny one!). I guess that was a choice!

I recently wrote an email to a patient of mine who has long struggled with anxiety. My patient is woman in her mid-30’s, a wonderful, insightful and motivated person. She is married, has kids, works and is in the process of getting more education in order to change careers. She is making real progress in the direction of her educational and professional goals, but wrote to me, very concerned that she was still struggling with anxiety in her day to day life.

Humans are affective creatures. We have feelings. Some of them we want more of, and others we want to get rid of. But to be fully human, we need to be able (and willing!) to experience “the full catastrophe.” 

Have you ever seen the movie, Zorba the Greek?

In the movie, when Zorba is asked whether he has ever been married, he replies, “Am I not a man? Of course I have been married! Wife, house, kids, everything. The full catastrophe!”

John Kabat-Zinn, the well-known author and one of the earliest promoters of mindfulness practices for the modern era, wrote a book entitled, “Full Catastrophe Living,” in which he explains his take on living ‘the full catastrophe’, “...[it is] the poignant enormity of our life experience. It includes crises and disaster, but also all the little things that go wrong and that add up. The phrase reminds us that life is always in flux, that everything we think is permanent is actually temporary and constantly changing. This includes our ideas, our opinions, our relationships, our jobs, our possessions, our creations, our bodies, everything.”

In my email to my patient, I had the intention of being supportive, and also to encourage her to find a new relationship to the feelings of anxiety she was concerned about:

“It’s an interesting observation to me that we are never anxious about things that have happened in the past. We usually reserve anxiety for things that have not yet happened, for the future, don’t we?

It is a helpful realization to see that the future isn’t here yet, so how much control can any of us have right now over a time that isn’t here? If the answer is, “I guess I don’t…” then it makes all kinds of sense to put our awareness on what is happening right now, in this present moment. If there is something to do about some imagined or desired event in the future, then we can get busy and do something. If not, then nothing to do.

Experimenting with becoming more process-oriented, rather than outcome-oriented allows us to take care of things in an engaged and vital way as we are living our life (during this very moment), rather than staring paralyzed with uncertainty into an imagined future where all kinds of things might fall apart, feeling anxious and then spending our present moment trying to get rid of the anxiety. 

We humans also seem to dedicate a lot of time to trying to control or get rid of aversive states, (such as anxiety, insecurity, depression, loneliness, anger, etc.,). While the intention makes sense, (who likes to feel anxious or depressed or a million other words used to describe what we don’t want to feel), the actual outcome is invariably not the one we want.

“If you are not willing to have it, you’ve got it,” is a pithy saying that allows to remember that our efforts to get rid of negative states or feelings guarantees that we will have them.

It’s like the little mind experiment, (you can try it for yourself as you read this), “For the next 20 seconds, there are a thousand things you could think of, but you must not think of a yellow apple. If there is even a flash of a yellow apple in your mind for the next 20 seconds, a trap door opens up below you and me, and we plummet 4 stories to the ground. Remember, you must not think of a yellow apple. Ready? Set? Go!….”

How did you do? If you are like most people, the very thing that you did not want to think about kept trying to muscle its way in to your mind. Sure, you could have thought about an orange polar bear, really focusing on that, bearing down on that in your mind, but what was waiting at the periphery? Even if you say that you didn’t have a single thought about a yellow apple, how would you know unless you thought of a yellow apple?

“If you are not willing to have it, you’ve got it.”

Instead of spending time and precious life energy trying to not have our present moment experience, (which could include things like anxiety), what would happen if we just made room for the anxiety? Welcome it in…it’s there anyway.

It’s a curious thing, but our willingness to make space for anxiety quite often diminishes anxiety, but not because we are trying to get rid of it, but rather we’ve given up the struggle to get rid of it.

As we notice the experience of anxiety, and make room for it, (acceptance), we can at the very same moment get in touch with what really matters to us. If there is some action we can take in support of what really matters, we do it, bringing the anxiety along with us as we take action.

Following this fork in the road leads to increasingly experiencing more vitality, engagement and being alive, mostly because we are doing that: being vital, engaged and alive.

As far as I can tell, the point of life is to live it, to make choices about the life we do want to live, and then taking action that is consonant with the life we want to live.

Because there are some things that matter to us in our life, and there is always uncertainty about the future, (including how things might go this afternoon, later tonight, tomorrow morning, and on and on), anxiety may arise. But at all times, we are at a decision point: do I want to invest energy in trying to get rid of the anxiety (and thus make it more pronounced), or do I want to be in my life as it is happening, doing those things that matter most and make room for any anxiety that may arise?

Every hour (and I would suggest, every minute) we are at a decision point. We can ask ourselves a very helpful question, “In this moment, what is the function of this behavior I am doing? Is it in support of living as fully as I have chosen to do, or is it an effort to not have my experience of anxiety, (or any other aversive state)?

Two pathways ever before us…which path am I choosing right now?”

Dear Reader, how does it seem to you? Is anxiety something to get rid of? How about boredom, anger, irritation? Have you found a way to relate to difficult thoughts and feelings that allows you to keep moving towards living the life you want? What happens when you welcome all your feelings, (anxiety, joy, depression, peace)?

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