As a young child, I remember being enchanted by my aunt, as she looked directly into my eyes and said with some drama and mystery, “Knowledge is power.” I recall being captivated by that pithy little quote and would say it silently to myself from time to time, eliciting that same sense of mystery each time I did so.
As I have grown older, it seems more accurate to say that knowledge is important, but taking action based on knowledge is where the real power for change is found.
‘Knowing’ is not the same as ‘doing’.
It is not the lack of knowledge that keeps us back in life, but rather it is the lack of action that keeps us stuck. Until knowledge is integrated and put into practice, it is powerless.
We all ‘know’ that exercise and good nutrition are important for our physical well-being. We agreeably nod when hearing someone talk about the psychological benefits of meditation. Every one of us could probably give a pretty good impromptu speech about the importance of getting enough sleep.
Most of us have a pretty good idea of how we want to change our life for the better, and yet, without action the chances of change remain quite small.
When it comes to change in some aspect of our life, the agent of change is going to be some kind of action or behavior that is done on a daily basis. Our hopes, dreams, and aspirations are important, but until there is some kind of action, those hopes and dreams remain just that…ideas. If you want to make a change in your life, it can be helpful to reflect upon what really matters to you.
What is it that you want your life to be about?
What is the underlying value of the change you desire?
If you value ‘vitality’ in physical and emotional health, there are actions that you can do this very day in support of living out that value. If you value love or connection, there are discrete behaviors that you can do today that will increase the likelihood of having more love and connection.
Once you are clear about the underlying reasons (values) for the change you seek, you realize that you care about doing something about it. This caring is the fuel for taking action, which is the agent of the changes you desire.
It can be helpful to create a statement about the new behavior you are about to take based on what really matters to you.
Example: “Today, in support of vitality, I will walk for 30 minutes and eat moderate portions of healthy food.”
Once you have identified the behavior that would be in support of what matters to you, ask yourself, “on a scale of 1-5, what is the likelihood I will follow through on taking this action?”
If you are at a 1, (meaning a low likelihood), then that is where you are. If you are at a 5, (meaning that you are ready to go) then that is where you are. Just accept that for the moment.
If you are in the range of 1-3, ask yourself, “How could I increase the likelihood that I will follow through on this chosen behavior?” (Hint: this will be some kind of action).
Could you chunk your goal down, and set smaller goals that would be in support of the larger goal?
Do you need to be more specific about the intention to change? General intentions, such as, “I want to be more fit,” are less effective than, “I will exercise 30 minutes a day, three times a week, rotating between walking, biking and lifting weights.”
If there are actions you already take as part of your daily routine, could you connect the new behavior with something you already do? For example, “I will drink coffee when I get up and then go outside for a 30” walk.”
Could you find additional support from other people? Could you hire a personal trainer? How could you enlist the help of others to increase your accountability to yourself? The other person/people can’t take the actions for you, but they may increase the likelihood that you will get into action.
There are countless other possibilities and the challenge/opportunity for you this very day is to allow yourself to come up with ways to increase your willingness to get into action.
Today, this very moment, you can turn up the radar of recognizing that there are a crossroads in every new moment. Each hour of the day, we can check in with ourselves and ask, “Will I take the path of action or non-action?” If we find ourselves stalling, we have another opportunity to cycle through the same process, asking and answering questions about the change, the underlying values and the degree of willingness to get into action.
Knowing is not power. Taking action in a committed way is the power to change your life.
Our minds have a funny way of sending up objections about the changes we have decided upon. Messages of doubt, insecurity, apathy, and fear will undoubtedly arise prior to taking any new action. No one in the history of humanity has ever found the ‘Off’ switch for these kinds of insecure thoughts.
A thought is not a mandate. You are not obligated to obey insecure, doubtful or fearful thoughts. Trying to get rid of those thoughts tends to increase their presence.
With practice, we can notice those insecure thoughts as they arise and decide if we want to be obedient to them.
Once we discover that these thoughts and feelings cannot stop us from getting into action, we are on the path to experiencing the life we really want for ourselves, first and foremost because we are dedicated to taking action in support of what really matters to us rather than taking those insecure thoughts seriously.
Does taking action mean that you will always be successful? No way. But slipping up can be seen as an invitation to re-commit to taking action in the direction of the life you want.
“Every day we are born anew.” -Buddha
When we wake up in the morning, we are given a fresh new slate upon which to write the story about our life which will serve as the blueprint for taking action that very day.
Taking action is power. Taking action is the key to transformation.
Change in any area of our life is a result of showing up and taking action based on what really matters to us.
When it comes to goals, desires and dreams, you can take it to the bank that motivation will not be there when you need it most. Willpower will be on a distant walkabout when you require it as an antecedent to taking action to start living the life you really want for yourself.
Having the right thoughts or feelings prior to taking action is not required.
Be grateful when everything lines up perfectly in terms of your thoughts, feelings and actions, but recognize that more often than not, (especially if you demand that it happen), it won’t. That’s life. When we resist being in alignment with how life works, we suffer. When we align ourselves with how life works, we increasingly experience more vitality and engagement and put ourselves on the path today of experiencing the life we really want.
Don’t rely on your state of mind to be right before you do the right things.
If you are feeling stuck, you are simply experiencing a feeling of being stuck, but you yourself are not stuck. You are, after all, able to move about independently of what you are currently thinking or feeling, aren’t you?
What’s that, you say?
Check it out for yourself right now if you don’t believe me! Tell yourself that you cannot move. Really think it with conviction. Go ahead. Be as serious as death. Tell yourself right now that you absolutely cannot move and say it with the commanding voice of authority. Establish a very strong sense about the absolute truth that you cannot move…
Now, start to wiggle your fingers or toes, or cough, or sing Happy Birthday. Go ahead…try it! Even if you don’t try it, make sure that you don’t notice that you have successfully taken the action of refusing to try something out…cool, right? Decisions and actions are happening nonstop all day long!
What can we learn from this little experiment? You are able to take action independently of how you feel! Frankly, we have more control over our present behavior than we do the thoughts and feelings that enter our minds from moment to moment.
If you don’t know your rights, then you don’t have them. -Susan Dwoskin
Each one of us have an individual bill of rights. You have the right to your own opinions. You have the right to be with who you want to be. You have the right to be wrong, and the right to join in any conversation you want to be in and share your thoughts and ideas. You also have the right to leave conversations that hold no interest for you. Did you know that you also have the right to pay no attention to the unhelpful thoughts that arise in your mind throughout the day, also?
You were born with the innate capacity and ability to disregard the negative chattering that is running through your mind. You already have built into you the ability to make room for the emotions and sensations that are flowing through you as your experience right now. As you begin realizing this and putting it into practice, you will discover that you also have the ability to get into action and invite the fussy, negative chattering to come along with you for the ride!
You are never stuck. You may be noticing or experiencing stuck thoughts or stuck feelings right now, but who you are is never stuck. It is not possible for the you who you are to be stuck, (are you starting to get a sense of why this is true?)
It makes me quietly laugh at myself when I catch myself stress-thinking about needing to work on myself or start some kind of improvement plan in the coming weeks, even though I have done it a million times. The internal dialogue goes something like this, “I really need to take care of myself. I need to change my diet and get more exercise. Man, I need to stretch more, or do some yoga, or pray or meditate…”
Laughing is very helpful in this situation. What?! Why is laughing at my difficult circumstances and my pressured plans to remedy those things in the coming weeks helpful?
Because ‘the coming weeks’ are not here yet, and there is no way I can take action in a time that is not here yet. Would you agree? How much control do I have over a time that is not here yet? Choices are: 1) Total control or 2). No control.
Only right now is here. Only right now am I able to do some kind of action or behavior that is in alignment with what really matters to me in this life. And if I don’t use this now, today, then what makes me think I could access a superpower that would enable me to take action during a time that isn’t even here yet?!
The stories we tell ourselves about life are not reality, but they sure seem like it if we are not aware that they are only stories. Stories are composed of the thinnest of gossamer we call ‘thoughts’.
These habitual thoughts have poured into our minds more mornings than we have been pouring coffee into our cups. The sun rises, we awaken, and instantly, the flow of thoughts begins. No one in the history of humanity has ever found the off-switch to the thought machine that gears up each morning and that runs nonstop throughout the day and into the night, even in our dreams, the thought machine is plugging away!
Trying to control our thoughts is a hopeless activity…it can’t be done.
You don’t need to get rid of the negative thoughts that show up, but rather it is helpful to see them for exactly what they are…thoughts and nothing more. Freedom is found in getting better at noticing them, seeing them as passing story, and then in this very present moment turning toward what really matters to you during this brief time you have on the planet.
If we have been taking shoddy stories about ourselves seriously up until now, so be it. I’m not going to recommend wrestling or fighting with something that is not worthy of your time and attention. The only thing any of us have to do about a shoddy story is absolutely nothing! If we just just leave our thinking alone, and see it for what it is, a shoddy story, we will find out through our own experience that the story moves on.
If you don’t feed it, it withers and slithers away.
It is estimated that we have some 70,000 thoughts a day. It is the nature of thoughts to be constantly arriving and departing, unless we grab a hold of them and keep them in place by arguing with them, or ruminating about why we are having such negative thoughts or exhausting ourselves with trying to get rid of them.
The way to get a story to loosen its grip is to loosen your grip on the story.
You’re Not All That…
You are not your story. You are not a narrative. You are not your thoughts, beliefs, opinions, attitudes or rules. You aren’t your circumstances. You aren’t your reputation, recognition, education, degrees nor awards. You aren’t your financial condition presently, or in the past or in the future. You aren’t the things you own and you’re not defined by what you currently lack. You aren’t your physical body and you’re not the state your body is in right now. You aren’t your looks or your perceived lack of them. You aren’t your traits or your personality, either!
You’re not all that…and this is the best news you could ever hear!
You are alive right now! You are aware! You have this very moment free and clear to use in whatever way you wish!
The pathway to the life you really want begins quite simply, and starts where you are right now: only step back a moment and allow your mind to clear. See if you can loosen your grip on the suspect stories you have been taking so seriously up until this moment. Allow the feverish churning of thoughts, memories, images, and fears all to simply settle down, as best you can. It might happen in this moment, or it might take a little more time. It doesn’t matter. Your mind is designed to self-correct and will do so if given half a chance. Your mind wants to return to peace. It will go there if you leave your thoughts alone. See if this isn’t true for you…
Working on ourselves doesn’t work.
We think that we have to work on ourselves to improve the quality of our experience of life. We painfully reflect on our seemingly deep need to work on our self-esteem. We feel an incessant drive to polish up our persona to secure the praise of others, or hope we won’t be rejected. We try to force ourselves to improve our discipline, and we pressure ourselves to be more mindful, or more compassionate with ourselves or others. We hassle ourselves to no end, and it can feel dispiriting and even downright debilitating at times. We repeat this cycle over and over, day after day, forgetting to stop for a moment, this moment, and simply become curious about what happens when we simply leave all of this inner tension and struggle alone…
Ouch, that hurts!
Imagine this scenario. You are sitting in your kitchen, and you suddenly reach over and grab a nearby cast-iron skillet and start hitting your forehead with it as hard and fast as you can. Ouch! That really hurts! In between skillet strikes, you start wondering if it would hurt less if you slowed down a little bit, or perhaps struck less forcefully. You try this, but it still doesn’t feel very good. It’s hardly an improvement, at all. You desperately look around between skillet strikes to see if you have a smaller pan, and you’re in luck! On top of the stove is a smaller pan, so you grab that one and start hitting your head with the smaller pan, breathing a momentary sigh of relief that you figured out a way to drop the bigger, heavier skillet. But it quickly dawns upon you that you are still experiencing significant pain as the smaller pan repeatedly impacts your head. If you wanted to feel less pain in this scenario, what’s the answer here? Right…the answer is to put the pan down and immediately you start to feel better.
When we mistakenly accept and demand that we need to work on ourselves, we are saying that we believe some degree of pan-striking is required. Sometimes we fear that a heavy skillet is needed, and at other times a lighter one is likely to do the job. Sometimes, we imagine the pain that the skillet/pan will cause, and we give up, wandering over to the TV, or amble over to the cabinet to pour a drink, or simply lie down in bed, hoping to turn off the world by going to sleep . As we engage in some kind of avoidance behavior, we fail to notice that we just picked up another skillet and have started hitting our head with that as we struggle with negative, critical thoughts about ourselves and feel the descending sense of despair about the very real defects we must have that we are unable to even get started improving ourselves.
Just as putting the pan down is the answer to relief from pain, so is putting down our difficult thoughts. The moment we stop taking our pressured thinking so seriously, we will notice relief. Do not take my word for it. Your own experience is what we are looking for here.
When we feel relief, our innate well-being begins to well up effortlessly. We begin to have more perspective, clarity, insights and thoughts that are likely to be quite quite helpful for the situation at hand. Notice that I said the situation at hand, not ‘for situations that are going to happen a week from now’, (let’s all sing together now: “a week from now isn’t here, so how could I possibly know what to do or realistically take action a week from now, in this present moment?”).
I am not recommending inaction as the key to a better life, far from it. If all we are doing is resisting gravity, the likelihood of a full and rich life is quite low. However, what am I saying is that we can only live our life right now. Life is a moment-to-moment process. Sometimes we have the right thoughts and state of mind to get into action and sometimes we don’t. If we do feel a surge of motivation, then go ahead and ride the wave! Get busy and have a blast doing it. If not, we learn to recognize that lower quality thoughts and feelings are temporary and have no power to stop us from taking action, even when they insist they do.
If you have realized that there is something you want to do that is important to you, waiting on something like motivation is a making a decision to to continue feeling stuck. Motivation is not required to take action…taking action is available right now, and only right now, independent of what you are thinking or feeling. Again, test it out for yourself, or this will simply sound like something you might read in a nicely decorated greeting card.
If your mind is full of difficult and dispiriting thoughts, beliefs or images right now, there is nothing to do about them, literally. Doing nothing in this domain, in the psychological domain, is the best thing you could do. The thoughts and feelings will move on, to be replaced by more thoughts and feelings. It is the human condition that we all have thoughts and feelings that arise and move on all day long. When we see that, we can also start to see that we are not obligated to take any of those thoughts or feelings seriously.
You are not your thoughts and neither are you your feelings in any given moment. Sometimes you will feel great, and other times you won’t. However, in any given moment, you have the capacity and ability to take some kind of action in support of what really matters to you.
Today, you can prove this to yourself. You may forget tomorrow, but once you have an understanding that you have the ability to think, and you have the product of that thinking ability that we call ‘thoughts’, you will realize that not every thought or feeling merits your attention, and that realization will be with you as long as you live.
Being grounded in this present moment, having clarity about what matters and taking action whether you feel like it or not are ultimately the keys to a richer and fuller experience of life.
Well-being is always present within you. It cannot be given to you by anyone else. Other people cannot take away a single iota of your well-being.
Consider all the many ways that we seek to make ourselves better in the eyes of others. This debilitating drive is borne from the mistaken notion that there is something missing in us, and that others have what we need or want.
Faulty assumptions lead to faulty outcomes. Mistaken beliefs lead to unneeded suffering.
Within you, nothing is missing. Nothing is broken. These may appear as mere words or a nice sentiment, but they point to an important truth that we all share. Well-being is already within you, awaiting but your invitation. The arrival of well-being comes as a result of letting go of your fearful thoughts, and walking through the world with a willingness to stop attacking yourself and others.
Look around you today and realize that everyone suffers. Do we need to contribute more to the suffering of others? Do we need to increase our own personal experience of suffering?
How often do we try to control others, to make them behave differently? How often do we judge others and try to make them guilty? How often do we point our finger at them and try to convince them that they are the cause of our very own suffering?
When you begin see that well-being is not dependent on what other people think, say or do, (or don’t do!), you will begin to see how unhelpful it is to attack others thinking that it will bring you peace. The ways of war do not lead to peace.
Trying to control others is exhausting work and it requires constant vigilance. The time and energy you use in trying to control others comes directly out of the time and energy you could be using in living the life you most deeply desire. Fear is the foundation upon which trying to control others seems reasonable. Unfortunately, fear obscures your awareness of inner well-being. Fear makes promises that it cannot keep: by controlling others, I will make myself safe.
When you stop attacking yourself and others, well-being and safety effortlessly float up into awareness. Take a moment right now and see if this is true for you…
No one needs to earn well-being just as no one needs to earn breathing air. Breathing is. Well-being is.
The essence of who you are is always safe and secure. Tell yourself this over and over throughout the day. Create and strengthen within yourself a knowingness and awareness that your safety and well-being are always present and not at all at the mercy of what other people think, say or do.
Give yourself the gift of release and relief. As you forgive others and forgive yourself for the many injustices you have perceived up until now, you will begin to see the folly of trying to get others’ approval or trying to avoid rejection.. The happy practice of giving up trying to get what you don’t need will be such a welcome gift to yourself, indeed.
No one can make you better than you already are. No one can cause you to be less. Today, practice letting go of trying to get anything from anyone else and you will see that you already have all that you really need.
Your ever-present and gentle opportunity today and every day is to seek and then find the innocence that lies within yourself and then to look past the drama and conflict of others and see their innocence, too.
You will find what you seek. Be on your side and by doing so, you will help others to find what you have found.
This moment is the only time there is, ever. It seems like there is a future and a past, at least it does to me. But when am I having thoughts and feelings about the future or the past? It can only be in the present moment.
Are my thoughts about the future or the past actually the future or the past? The future isn’t here yet, and the only thing that can be true about the past is that it is irretrievably gone.
When I am caught up with overthinking about the future (worry, anxiety, stress) or ruminating about the past, (depression, despair, apathy), I am disengaged from the present moment where life is happening.
The present is the only time I can take actions that are in support of my life values, (who I want to be and stand for).
Am I willing to sacrifice this very moment I am alive in order to attempt to exert control over what is truly not in my control, (the future, the past, other people, the countless thoughts and feelings that arise each day, the weather, aging, outcomes rather than the process in accomplishing goals)?
Put simply, life is for living. Getting into alignment with how life unfolds, moment to moment, we can start to see the value of focusing on the here and now. Vitality, and engagement can be found in only one place: here and now.
Here’s a good strategy to fritter away your life:
Avoid taking time to reflect upon what really matters to you.
Look to others to determine your value and worth.
Devote the majority of your time to thinking about your life rather than actually living your life.
Blame other people for your inability to do what you really want to do.
Make a few attempts to accomplish something and then give up, telling yourself you don’t have what it takes.
Spend your time trying to avoid or escape bad feelings, and do things that might provide short term relief but increase long term problems, (drink a lot of alcohol, watch a lot of television, scroll through social media aimlessly for hours, be socially withdrawn, overeat and choose high calorie, low nutrient food, overwork, oversleep, to name but a few…there are countless other options).
Take yourself very seriously.
Be reactive in dealing with others, easily offended, and take everything other people say or do very personally.
Hold grudges, practice resentment, and be critical of others and yourself.
Use your time today imagining that someday, when all your problems have been solved, you can enjoy your life. At the same time you are imagining, take no action in the direction of the life you want to be living.
BONUS: Live your life as if you can control what other people think, say or do. Pretend that you have control over the past or the future.
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! https://soundcloud.com/iancrooksmd/six-for-one
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.”
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)?