Thursday, April 16, 2009

Two Paths and Yellow Jeeps

Our minds are designed to solve problems in the external world. They are really good at that overall. If they weren't we wouldn't be all over the globe. When we want something our mind helps us go after it. When there is something in our way, our mind helps figure out how to get around it, move it or climb over it.

Getting Stuck
The problem is that we use this same sort of problem solving to try get rid of or avoid emotional pain. It is the natural thing for us to try because this approach works so well externally. But for coping with difficult emotions it just isn't effective over the long haul. Whether anger, anxiety, hopelessness, whatever, when we try to get rid of it or push it out of our minds, we end up stuck with it. Yet by nature we seem to try a thousand different variations on getting rid of it, even though the long term results are always the same if we take time to look back. We often arrive at the stance of "As soon as I get rid of (anxiety, panic, hopelessness, lack of confidence) then I can pursue what matters to me (improve skills at work, get in shape, make my yard look like I'd like it to)."

Doing Something Different to Get a Different Result
The alternative is counter intuitive, and it takes practice to get the hang of. It involves stopping all the variations on trying to control your emotions and distract yourself from having them. So what can you do instead? You can be willing to have those emotions. It turns out that the rule of how this works is something like this: If you aren't willing to have certain thoughts and emotions, you will be guaranteed to have them. On the other hand if you are willing to have them, you will either have them, or you won't. If we struggle against difficult thoughts and emotions (experiences that are unavoidable in life), we get all tangled up in them and turn a given portion of unavoidable emotional pain  into a giant glob of extended suffering. When we are willing to have these experiences, it changes our relationship with them.

Once I ___________, then I'll _____________.
Most of us at one time or another were waiting for our anxiety, lack of confidence, fear, panic under control before we start to make our life as we want it. Rather than waiting, it makes a lot more sense to begin now on what is important to you. Be willing to have the difficult emotions and act in a valued direction. Work on a better relationship with your kids or your partner, pick up a musical instrument, begin making exercise a regular part of your life, start doing that art you've wanted to try or take the class that is going to help you reach a goal you have.

Two Paths In Brief
One path: Continue variations on trying to control and avoid unpleasant thoughts and emotions and continue being stuck with them.

The other path: Change your relationship to your unpleasant thoughts and emotions by being willing to have them, and begin acting toward making your life about what you want it to be about.

Try it out with Yellow Jeeps
Reading this post may give you a taste of what is possible. But you'll need to figure out if what I'm describing is confirmed by your experience. How about we begin with one exercise right now: Ask yourself how many times the last two weeks you've been thinking about bright yellow Jeeps. Write your answer down and save it. Next, try with all your concentration commit to not allowing yourself to have a single thought about yellow Jeeps. If you mess up and think of a yellow 4 x 4, just make sure you don't have another thought about it. Pretty simple, right?  Continue with this throughout the day. Check back with your slip of paper, and then check back in here and let me know how successful you were or weren't.

Stay tuned for more exercises to help you decide if avoidance of emotions and thoughts brings about more of them, by checking to see if this notion is consistent with your own experiences, and also to get some more experience with what flipping your willingness switch to "on" is like.