“When I hear somebody sigh, ‘Life is hard,’ I am always tempted to ask, ‘Compared to what?'”
Sydney J. Harris
I know, it’s a dramatic title, but it’s been an interesting few days. From nowhere, a cloud has appeared, and I find myself stuck – imprisoned by my habits. Old mental tendencies have surfaced, and I am moody and negative.
Enduring happiness? Absolutely possible, I know, but right now it feels covered over by a film of sadness and disconnection. Or does it? Even as I write this, my experience is changing, with clarity reemerging.
Life is so generous – it has brought me another tremendous opportunity for learning how unhappiness works. It’s time to take my own advice. As my partner told me, “You have all the tools and understanding. If anyone can find their way out, you can.”
All the signs are there: I feel like a victim of circumstances and other people. I feel powerless. I am sad and irritable. Sounds like being stuck in a pattern to me.
The funny thing is that when I look with clear vision, nothing has changed. No momentous events have happened. I haven’t been broken up with or diagnosed with cancer or excommunicated from the human race.
The only thing that has changed is the thoughts in my mind. Yes, it’s true – it’s all in my head. I say that not to dismiss my experience, but to point the way to the way out.
I love how life has a sense of humor. How ironic – and humbling – that this reaction descends just as I have completed the series of posts on Freedom from the Prison of Your Habits. Well, I guess I have more to say, so here, from the trenches, is what I am discovering about opening the prison door.
Not taking responsibility = Stuck
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Sanity requires us to take responsibility for our own reactions. The thoughts of blaming others and “if only” fantasizing may be incredibly powerful. They run through our minds like a command of soldiers on a mission compelling us to do what? Actually, nothing. If these thoughts are in control, we are standing firmly in a belief system that is waiting for everyone and everything else to change. This gets us nowhere.
The world is not going to give you everything you want on a silver platter. No matter how forceful the habitual thoughts that beckon us to look outside ourselves for happiness, the wisest part of us knows that we need to look within.
In the past few days, I have repeatedly turned my attention away from the dead end thoughts and inward to investigate what is actually true. The thoughts kept grabbing me, and I kept returning within…over and over.
Get the right support
No one is coming to save you. The journey to peace is yours and yours alone. Certainly, get help if you need it, but do it wisely.
Support from others can be either medicine or poison, as one of my teachers describes it. Here is the poison: sitting on the phone telling the story of your woes and justifying your positions ad nauseum. If you are speaking with someone who completely agrees with your distorted way of thinking, you will stay stuck.
And here is the medicine: speaking with someone who is clearer than you in that moment and won’t buy into the negative misleading thoughts. It might be a therapist or mentor or friend you respect. This person will gently challenge you and offer an evenhanded perspective that brings clarity to your confused mind.
During my days of captivity, I spoke to two very sympathetic friends. I loved that they understood my point of view. But it wasn’t until I had a conversation with someone else, who was brutally honest about what he saw, that things began to shift. What made this work is that I was at least a little open (i.e., not defensive) to hearing what he had to say.
Be aware of your inner experience
On this blog, I speak a lot about investigating thoughts and welcoming emotions. I did follow my own advice during this time. It was sometimes difficult to be with painful feelings without the story starting up, but I did my best. It felt much more sane to allow the sadness and irritation to be, to feel them in my body, than to let the story run. Although I could justify the stories, I eventually found them to be lifeless and distracting.
And I was reminded that becoming familiar with what I was experiencing does not necessarily mean that my experiences would dissolve. Becoming aware of what is true in our experience has no goal. It is simply being with what is.
Of course you want to feel better. What I found is that the tools I used helped, but ultimately things shifted in their own time. I did all the preparations, but the actual letting go was not something I personally controlled.
I don’t have a strong inner critic, so there wasn’t a lot of self-judgment happening. In a certain sense, I was going with the flow. But if you tend to self-criticize, realize that there is another layer of thought that may be disorienting you.
You don’t always get what you want
A few days into this whirlwind, I got to the core of the problem: what I want vs. what I am given. I was caught in wanting people around me to be a certain way and to want certain events to happen that weren’t happening. My mind got very detailed about what it did and did not want.
When I looked at reality, I really saw: people are the way they are and the events I was waiting for were not occurring. I didn’t have any control to make anything different. Somehow this insight penetrated the insanity, and the dust began to clear.
Here are the choices I considered: change the situation, leave it, or realize that the problem is in how I was thinking about it. I did what I could reasonably do to change the situation, and I chose not to leave. What remained, then, was the task of coming to peace with things as they are. This sounds like a great idea, but it is only helpful if it lands and you experience an inner letting go.
Take care of yourself
It was no secret that I was having a hard time, so I did a number of things that helped to ease the pain. I didn’t force myself to work more than I wanted to. I went to a party I wasn’t too keen on, but ended up having a good time. I didn’t blow my diet or drink too much alcohol. I kept up with yoga and relatively normal hours of sleeping. And I knew my sympathetic friends were on call if I needed a little TLC.
One of the good things about hard times is that you get to be really nice to yourself. Think of it like a sick day. Take a rest, watch a movie, be out in nature, get support. Don’t coddle yourself to the point of reinforcing the drama, but take care of your body and enjoy yourself a little.
The cloud moves on
The clouds are parting, and the sun is shining once again. I am very grateful for this experience because, when I think about it, I have learned so much: avoiding pain perpetuates it ; negative thoughts with lots of energy behind them are misguided; even though you deeply know peace and happiness, delusion happens; there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel.
I feel sane again…open, happy, loving, clear, expansive. And nothing has changed, but my mind! The veils have fallen away, and the boundaries are dissolving. All I can say is “thank you” – for every single moment of it.
How do you fare when you find yourself stuck? Any insights you’d like to add?
image credit: NicholasT