Stepping Outside the Zone

Years ago, when the kids were much younger, our family used to take beach vacations with a close friend and her family. This friend and I shared a similar level of adversity to risk, and while the guys would take the kids to jump off cliffs or snorkel in caves, we would stay behind, congratulating each other on our affinity for the “zone”… the stretch of ocean closest to the beach, where the waves weren’t too high, there were no jellyfish or any other creatures, and we could just float the afternoon away.

The “zone” was perfect. As we often joked, we loved it precisely because “nothing ever happened in the zone.” In other words, we were safe. We didn’t have to think. We didn’t have to be on guard for any real or perceived dangers. We didn’t even have to worry about spilling our drinks, so peaceful was the water there. It was, by every definition, a comfort zone.

As humans, we are programmed to seek situations where we can minimize our stress and risk, to create our own comfort zones. For each of us, this mean something different, of course. For me, the comfort zone is all about a feeling of coziness (unless I am on a beach vacation, in which case see above). As an introvert, my comfort zone often has to do with staying in, not having to make small talk with people I don’t know, and wearing the closest thing to pajamas I can get away with. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of that, of course, and I can argue that it is just who I am, and how is that a bad thing?

The trouble with a comfort zone is that if you spend too much time there, it actually shrinks. Comfortable clothes go from jeans to sweats to actual pajamas. Not wanting to make small talk becomes never wanting to meet new people because of the effort it takes to get to know them and to share something of yourself. In time, new experiences become a risk, and what we categorize as a new experience grows to include anything that pushes or stretches us to be more than what we are now. Because we have so severely limited the stimulation in our lives, any stimulation starts to feel like too much. It is easier, safer, to stay in the “zone”.

In the 1995 movie French Kiss, Meg Ryan plays Kate, a woman whose fear of flying combined with her habitual comfort zone keep her from enjoying a trip to Paris with her fiancé. He takes the trip without her, meets someone new and breaks their engagement. She swallows her fear and flies to Paris to win him back. One thing leads to another and she eventually rejects him after coming to a powerful realization:

“I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to protect myself from exactly this situation. And you can’t do it. There’s no home safe enough, there’s no country nice enough, there’s no relationship secure enough, you’re just setting yourself up for an even bigger fall and having an incredibly boring time in the process.”

In other words, why not step outside the zone? The water is just fine… and you will be, too.

Learning to Let Go

I love quotations. Sometimes hearing how another has observed life and then tried to make sense of it, or has somehow managed to articulate a complicated emotion or an approach to dealing with it… well, these words can help me clarify my own thoughts and choose a course of action that instinctively feels right. I am motivated by words, I nod in agreement, or I tear up at an emotion well-remembered, but survived. My collection of quotations is vast, and I add to it whenever I can, as brave and true words are a source of nourishment to me. When I struggle, I turn to my collection of wisdom as a source of comfort and inspiration.

Today I found a quote that seems like it would be helpful during difficult times. You see, one reads so much about just letting go, and how what is meant for you will be there, and what isn’t meant for you will go, and it sounds so peaceful, this letting go. But no one really ever explains how to do it. If you can manage to “let go”, this well-meaning advice makes it sound as if the experiences or the people you have come to love and want most in your life will just float by as if part of a grand river and what is meant for you will come to rest beside you, effortlessly, while the rest flows on. But letting go is hard, and often feels incomplete. Conversely, so is staying, just as a reed that is caught on a rock will still be buffeted by the flow of the river even as it stays put.

So bottom line? Life is hard, always, for all of us. It is a struggle to stay with certain life situations and it can be a struggle to let them go. Sheng-Yen, a highly-revered Chinese Buddhist monk who died in 2009, offered this advice:

“When faced with any difficulty of life, resolve it by following these four steps: face it, accept it, deal with it, and then let it go.”

Face it. How often we don’t face the truth of the messes we’re in, the steps we’ve taken to put ourselves there, the decisions which seemed right when they were made but that have now added up to a difficult situation. To face our choices is to acknowledge why those decisions were made in the first place, to remember what led you to this place, to admit where you could have made a different choice but didn’t, and then to remember how each step in this journey has led you here. This is not always a comfortable act, but it is honest and necessary.

Accept it. Once you face the mess you are in and call it what it is, the problem, whatever it is, becomes a little more manageable. They always say what can be measured can be managed. Well, by looking at a situation and calling it what it is, you accept it and this can help strip it of its power. If you see it clearly, it can be addressed. It is in the hiding that problem situations gain their power and seem insurmountable.

Deal with it. Not much more to say here. Once you have faced a problem and accepted it, in your heart, you know what needs to be done. A critical conversation, a commitment to yourself and your truth, a decisive action. It may take time, it may take lots of steps, but you cannot fully let go of something until you complete this step, and deep inside, you already know this.

Let it go. And now you can breathe again. You have dealt with your difficult situation in honesty, with yourself and others, and now you can breathe deeply and let go. Letting go doesn’t mean that you’ll never think of it again, that you won’t miss someone or something now and again, or that you won’t have similar problems in the future. But it does mean that you’ve done your best with this problem, this situation, and knowing that, you can let it flow by you now, keeping the good, and letting the rest go downstream.

Simply Say Thank You

With the cold and gray days of winter lingering, it is easy to fall into a bit of a funk. Winter seems so long sometimes, and everything takes more effort, more energy, and definitely more clothing, as even going outside to walk the dog becomes a process taking twice the time for bundling up and then un-bundling when you come back in! It is gray outside and at this time of the year, I often feel gray inside, too.

One way to feel hopeful again, and to stay on the brighter side of the remaining weeks of winter is to keep a gratitude journal. I know, I know, you’ve heard this all before and it seems either too cheesy, too time-consuming or unlikely to be something you stick with for any length of time, so why start? And did I mention it sounds a little cheesy?

But if you can keep it simple, a gratitude journal can be a five minute practice at the end of each day that will change the way you approach your life.

A couple of years ago, I moved into my current home. I had never lived on my own before, and while I was excited by the prospect, and really happy about my choice in a new home, I was also feeling very overwhelmed with the ‘what-ifs’… what if the roof leaked or I had an electrical problem? What if my basement flooded or someone broke in? Was I safe here (and of course that meant physically, mentally, emotionally)? It was easy for my mind to spin out of control as I imagined the infinite number of scenarios in which something bad could or would happen. I knew that this way of thinking was harmful and that this negativity was keeping me from enjoying my new life. And besides, I was OK. Everything negative was in my mind, so it stood to reason that if I replaced those thoughts with more positive ones, my approach to this new life would change, too.

So I began a simple habit that I still use almost daily to make sure I stay focused on what matters. I keep a small pocket sized notebook in my nightstand, and each night before I go to sleep, I list five things for which I am grateful. On good days, I can think of specific events to list, good and serendipitous things that have happened. On the rest of the days, I can list the basics: my daughters whom I love so much, my special friends who care so well for me, my health, my job that pays the bills, my warm bed, and if nothing else, the fact that I can go to sleep in a few minutes and forget the day ever happened!

Five things… simple. If I spend a minute thinking about each one, that is enough to remind me of my good fortune, and to make every day, no matter how gray and wintry, one to be thankful for!