No, I’m not channeling Shakespeare, but I imagine I’m not alone in wondering what to do with difficult thoughts and feelings that recur in our lives over and over. Maybe you are limiting yourself by a story about the past, yet you keep repeating it in your mind. Or, even though you long to express love and compassion in the world, you find yourself judging others. Perhaps your emotions get the better of you when you thought you had already untangled that mess.
We know so clearly that we want to be happy, peaceful, and kind, yet these unsavory thoughts and feelings keep arriving. We desperately want to improve, yet our efforts to eliminate these trouble spots continually fail. Are we stuck forever in this endless loop of trying to fix ourselves?
Here is the good news: there is a way out of this frustrating cycle. And it starts by understanding what we can and cannot change.
What We Cannot Change
Some years ago, my happiest times were setting out on a mountain trail with a backpack on my back. It took only a few minutes until my whole body would relax, and I became part of the natural world. I loved that I couldn’t control what came my way: an unexpected summer snowstorm, a hungry skunk helping himself to our food, a delay that required hiking until late at night.
The lesson I learned? Intelligently go with the flow. My job was not to change what was unchangeable, but to accept, receive, work with, navigate.
“We can’t stop the waves, but we can learn to surf.”
~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
Just as I couldn’t wish that snowstorm away, we can’t eliminate thoughts and feelings. And this bears repeating: We don’t have the power to control the thoughts and feelings that arise in us. A judgment, a grudge, a wave of jealousy or anger – we can’t stop any of it from happening. But we can learn to accept, receive, work with, navigate.
The trouble with these challenging thoughts and feelings is not that they arise, but that we react to them. We judge ourselves for judging. We expect ourselves to be perfect, then slam ourselves when we aren’t. We say, “Oh, not that feeling again.” Then we judge ourselves for even these reactions. We may wish to change, but all of this resistance keeps the patterns firmly in place.
There has to be another way.
What if… a judgment appears in your mind, and you say, “Oh, this,” and breathe into the pain you feel. That mean-spirited story about your co-worker starts spinning in your mind, and you feel compassion for yourself and for her. Your simmering anger starts to boil, and you feel the intensity without saying or doing anything.
You stop blaming yourself for thoughts and feelings that you cannot control, and you let them be.
Meet Yourself as You Are
The goal is not to eliminate your reactions – because this is impossible. Rather, recognize them, relax with them, pause, breathe, and then the most appropriate response is revealed. It’s so simple and such a relief. You stop fighting with yourself and instead notice your present experience. You intelligently go with the flow. And when you do, here’s what happens:
- You are more at ease with things as they are.
- Your attention is on your actual experience, so the mind chatter loses its power.
- You are patient with yourself.
- You feel compassion for yourself and others.
- You give yourself permission to be as you are.
- You stop blaming yourself for not changing.
Then do you change, or not? Wisdom will show you the way. Maybe change emerges organically as you realize that unrecognized pain is at the core of these ways of being you don’t like about yourself. Maybe you cease giving judging thoughts any weight because they don’t express your true heart. Maybe you discover that loving the tender places in you allows the feelings to ebb.
Be as you are, and all is at peace.
What are your thoughts about change? Have you succeeded at changing? Are you harsh with yourself because you can’t change? I’d love to hear…
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