Stopping the Runaway Mind

It is 5 am and I cannot sleep. I decided to get up and write, which I wanted to do anyway, though not necessarily this early. But here I am. Author Flannery O’Connor once said, “I write because i don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” When my mind is in overdrive, filled with what ifs and worst case scenarios, writing does help me get to the heart of the matter and know what I really think, want and feel about something.

The question for me this morning, though, is why do our minds go into this type of negative spiral anyway? Let me give you an example of where my thinking has gone already…

My job is currently in question due to some reorganization at the college where I work. I am in many ways perfectly fine with the prospect of moving on, but at the same time, I am scared about having to start over somewhere else, or worse, having to cobble together some sort of income from who knows where. Once I start thinking about it, I become like a dog with a bone. I worry and fret and imagine one scenario where everything will be OK, followed by about ten others where my quality of life deteriorates until I end up a broke, homeless failure. Why is that? When our minds run away with us in this way, why do they always run south?

What if, at 3 am when the race is on, we changed course? What if instead of imagining all the ways in which something could go horribly wrong, we imagined ten different ways it could all go right? What if instead of just dreaming about how maybe we could make something work or we can squeak by without failing, we instead took that time to imagine the most successful outcomes possible? And imagined these outcomes in as much delicious detail as we imagine those worst case scenarios? What kind of power could these dreams have?

Jillian Michaels, the famous trainer from The Biggest Loser inspires people to imagine themselves successfully transforming their bodies and their lives through healthier living and thinking. She says, “Why not you? Why not you to do something for work that you love? Why not you to have a healthy body? Why not you to have healthy love? Why not you to be, have or do anything you have ever dreamed? We are so quick to think others are deserving over ourselves. The truth is that we are all deserving. So why not you?” I love this. Why not? Why can’t it all end well? And if (when) it does end well, how might that look?

A close friend says often that everything starts with an idea. Why not begin by changing the ideas I already have?

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.