I haven’t made New Year’s resolutions for longer than I care to think about.
Oh, I used to do it. Sometimes I’d write a list on a piece of paper which I would then slap up where it would stare me in the face on a regular basis. Invariably I’d get so used to that paper being around
that I didn’t really see it anymore, which usually coincided with my rapidly diminishing New Year’s fervor. By the end of February the list was nothing but a reminder of my abject failure, so it ended up in the circular file.
If your mental world looks frightful, And everyone seems spiteful, When it’s all a big tale of woe, Let it go, let it go, let it go! (To the tune of “Let It Snow”)
Yeah, I know–easier said than done. But not impossible.
I’ve spent more years than I care to think about trying to will the world to conform to my expectations. If brooding was a natural energy source, I’d be a gazillionaire twenty times over. If obsessive thinking moved the minds and hearts of others, I’d be breaking bread with Gandhi. And if driving myself crazy with worry or stewing with resentment made the slightest difference in the martyrdom of pinpricks we call daily life, I’d be as simperingly sweet as Pollyanna. (Okay, that last one’s a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea.)
A few months ago I came across a book that turned my old mental patterns upside down (for the better, let me hasten to add): The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. Reading this book helped me see that, while my mind is a nifty little critter, I am not my mind, I’m it’s owner.
And, like other nifty little critters the mind needs to be controlled by its owner, not the other way around.
This, my friends, is power in its truest form, the one area in our lives which we truly can control: how we choose to let our thoughts color reality.
Here are a few excerpts from “The Voice Inside Your Head,” the first chapter of Untethered Soul, that grabbed me from the get-go and kept me reading:
“There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind–you are the one who hears it.”
“Eventually you will see the real cause of problems is not life itself. It is the commotion the mind makes about life that really causes problems.”
(When listening to all your internal thoughts): “What you end up experiencing is really a personal presentation of the world according to you, rather than the stark, unfiltered experience of what is really out there.”
“If you can’t get the world the way you like it, you internally verbalize it, judge it, complain about it, and then decide what to do about it. This makes you feel more empowered….In the thought world, there’s always something you can do to control the experience (italics mine).” Note to self: there usually isn’t…
“Reality is just too real for most of us, so we temper it with the mind. You will come to see that the mind talks all the time because you gave it a job to do. You use it as a protection mechanism, a form of defense.” In other words, we’ve given the mind an impossible task–protecting us from the World Out There. No wonder it never shuts up!
In Chapter Two: Your Inner Roommate, the author has you imagine your constant mental chatter as coming from another person who’s always beside you–when you’re trying to sleep, take a shower, watch TV, get some work done. How to handle this obviously neurotic individual who never, ever gives it a rest? I don’t know about you, but I’d bitch-slap her to Mars!
But bitch-slapping your own mind isn’t so simple. Resorting to copious amounts of drugs and/or alcohol might shut it up, but only temporarily, and a hiatus of this nature often leaves a host of problems in its wake.
So how to handle the never-ending stream of thoughts that emanate from the eternally-babbling monkey-mind?
As soon as they pop up, every time they pop up. Then go about your business.
After reading Untethered Soul and doing some additional research, I’ve managed to cobble together a little routine that serves me pretty well:
Example: As I’m driving to the grocery store, my mind shifts into protective mode: “You should have started out earlier. The store’s going to be crowded. It’ll be a madhouse. You’ll get all stressed out. You might even have a panic attack, like that time in 1982. You don’t want go through that again, do you?”
What I do: I cut off the babbling brook in midstream and ask myself the following questions:
1. “Is any of this helpful?” Answer: Hell, no. 2. “Can I release these thoughts/shut them off?” Answer: Of course I can. I’m the owner, right? 3. “Do I want to release these thoughts?” Answer: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. 4. “When do I want to release them?” Answer: How about right now! (I usually accompany this last one with a gesture like I’m throwing a handful of sand into the air, but that’s just me and I’m weird that way.)
Then I crank me up some reggae and get on with my errand.
When I first started challenging my thoughts this way, they were not pleased and resisted as hard as they could. (The mind’s trying to protect me, remember?) I just kept releasing them, every time they cropped up–and they cropped up a lot! Eventually the thoughts became less frequent. A lot of them have gone away for good. My little routine became second nature to me, and I found myself becoming a much happier and more relaxed person. (Added bonus: I’m actually a whole lot more productive than I ever was back when my thoughts were riding herd on me all the time.)
I’ve come to the conclusion that my mind is like television–chock full of all kinds of programming, available 24/7 whether I want it or not. It’s up to me to remember that I’m not a captive audience. I’m the one holding the remote, and I can hit the mute button–or change the channel completely–any time I choose.
See that brightly-smiling lady snuggled up to the singularly handsome bearded gentleman? This picture was taken at a Kenny Wayne Shepherd/Johnny Lang concert last summer.
It was held at a medium-sized, very crowded venue called the Hard Rock Rocksino. To get to the seating area she had to walk through acres of slot machines, noise and flashing lights. She’d never been there before, had no idea what to expect, but look at her–she’s absolutely glowing.
You’d never guess it, but for years that same lady was terrified of crowds and unfamiliar places. She developed a comforting routine built around well-known stores, arriving just as their doors opened and scurrying home long before the thundering herd (read: more than ten people) arrived. Anything outside this routine left her riddled with anxiety and totally drained of energy.
I know all this because I’m that lady.
The year leading up to that concert was insanely stressful, and I’d been clinging to my safe little burrow even more tenaciously than usual. My wonderful husband and I both tend to be homebodies, so there was no pressure to go out, do stuff, socialize. I might have stayed in my cozily decorated rut indefinitely if I hadn’t seen the ad online: “Kenny Wayne Shepherd/Jonny Lang. Hard Rock Rocksino. June 23.”
I knew my husband liked both of these performers a lot. The date was close to our anniversary, and tickets to the concert would be a terrific present. The price was reasonable, the drive wasn’t bad, and he’d be thrilled. Making Judd happy is one of my favorite things to do, so I jumped out of my chair and headed for the stairs to run it by him.
And then the voice of the Great God What-if weighed in, stopping me in my tracks.
What-if my nerves short-circuited and I got sick on the way to the venue? Or, even worse, what-if I got sick at the venue? What-if I passed out? (Note: this last thing has never happened to me in my entire life, but I tend not to consider such fine points when I’m in full-blown catastrophic mode.)
“Better not chance it”, warned the Great God What-if. “You don’t need more stress in your life right now. Stay in your comfort zone.”
“But Judd would really love to go to that concert,” I argued.
“Judd won’t even know about it if you don’t tell him. No harm done.”
“I would really love to go to that concert!”
“Now, Donna. What if you get all the way out there, have a panic attack and have to come all the way home again?”
That almost stopped me. I visualized the humiliating scenario and cringed. But then I straightened my shoulders, tossed back my hair and replied, “What-if I don’t?”
And the Great God What-if fell silent.
With that, I pounded up the stairs to tell Judd we were gonna go see Kenny Wayne and Jonny.
We might as well try to be unicorns–there ain’t no such critters.
Fear of being less than perfect kept me at the starting gate more times than I care to think about until one day I finally asked myself, “What’s my real goal here?”
For example, I’m a writer. What’s more important to me: getting my work “out there” where it has a chance to sell, or keeping it safely tucked away on my computer because it might be rejected?
For someone else, it might be, “What’s more important to me–having a get-together with the people I love now, or keep putting it off until my house is exactly the way I want it and those people are no longer in my life?”
2. Realize that saying “no” is an answer
Whether we’re dealing with a stubborn two-year-old or an adult who’s trying to guilt us into compliance, “no” is an answer all by itself. If we weaken it with excuses and justifications, we provide inroads for the other person to wear us down.
Speaking for myself, I’d rather deal with the momentary discomfort of being considered the bad guy than seethe with resentment at wasting time I don’t have on something I didn’t want to do in the first place.
3. Do a daily gratitude list
I used to blow this one off as being too Pollyanna for words until somebody asked me how well I thought I’d function if things like
a husband who loves and understands me
a car that runs
money to buy food
suddenly disappeared from my life. My answer: not bloody well at all!
Doing the gratitude lists this way has given me a whole new focus on life. It also shines a spotlight on the things that are really important when I get myself in a tizzy over inconsequentials. (I can hear my husband saying, “You? Never!“) Give it a try.
I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who has raised self-criticism to an art form. It’s so easy to expound upon “what’s wrong with me,” especially with the media, certain relatives, etc. ready and willing to lend a helping hand.
Lately I’ve been trying to give equal time to “what’s right with me”, and it’s been a major eye-opener. When negative self-talk crops up, I immediately counter it with a positive statement.
Negative: Boy, you really screwed up this time!
Positive: Yup, I sure did. But it’s fixable, I’ve learned from it, and I won’t make the same mistake again.
It was difficult at first because there had been a certain macabre sense of power in dissecting myself and stomping on the pieces before anybody else could. I fought some pitched battles with deeply-entrenched negative self-images, but I kept at it and, to my immense surprise, I discovered it’s far more productive, not to mention pleasant, to build myself up than to tear myself down. (Duh!)
5. Clean out a closet
I don’t know why, but every time I work up the courage to take on the wilds of my bedroom closet, good things seem to follow.
Sometimes it’s as simple as being able to find things easily as I stumble around getting ready for work in the morning. Other times I come up with wardrobe items I forgot were there–kinda like shopping in my own closet.
Other times, it’s almost like I’ve signaled to the universe that I’ve made room in my life for the Next Good Thing. It’s happened too many times to be just a coincidence. Closet-cleaning has been followed almost immediately by:
moving into my own big-girl apartment (at the ripe young age of 47)
meeting my husband
getting a new job
Give it a try. When you’re ready to put things back in the closet, check out this handy little tip that will greatly simplify the next purge.
6. Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
I’ve always been one of those people who don’t just get in a rut; I move in, lock, stock and laptop. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the status quo isn’t really comfortable so much as it is familiar, and it’s good for the soul to shake things up from time to time.
It doesn’t have to be hang-gliding. It can be something as simple as taking another route to work or trying a daring (for you) new hairstyle. Just something different that shakes things up in a good way and invites new people and experiences into your life.