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 I have a “runaway mind”, 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?

Learning How to Let Go

We read so much about 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. No one really ever explains how to let go. 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: Gratitude Journals

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! 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 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. It stood to reason that if I replaced those thoughts with more positive ones, my approach to this new life would change, too.

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!