In part one of Getting Unstuck, I spoke about noticing, in part two I addressed the concept of leaning-in. I touched on the idea of not struggling with but simply accepting what shows up (thoughts, memories, physical sensations, etc.). In this blog I will be addressing what I see as the third component of getting unstuck, that is, “letting go”.
For most of us, letting go, is the most challenging step in getting unstuck. The mind is a protective organ, its main job keeping us safe. This is accomplished by generating thoughts. Very “sticky” thoughts. It is preoccupied with avoiding danger and clinging either to what we have or what it thinks we need. It obsesses about being safe, secure, happy and successful. As I pointed out in several previous blogs, this is a function of thousands of years of evolutionary neurobiological development, and for the most part, is hardwired. But as I’ve also previously written, the human brain is very pliable (neuroplasticity), and through committed action and deliberate practice, significant change can be accomplished.
So, what are we to do with this “doom and gloom” machine that we are born with? How can we keep from having our present moments and actions hijacked by our minds’ worries, regrets, memories, and judgements. Well, I can guarantee that trying to stop our mind from “doing its thing,” is next to impossible. And everyone knows the more we struggle (see my quicksand analogy in previous blog), the more we get bogged-down. So, what strategies can we use?
The Observing Self
In my “I Think Therefore I Am” blog (April 26) I touched on the concept of the “observing self,” that part of us that can observe our mind’s thoughts. It is this observing self that our practice of noticing and leaning-in has been nurturing. When we become practiced and more adept at noticing and leaning-in, we also get better at just watching vs struggling with our mind’s ruminations and incessant chatter. Think of it as if your mind is trying to engage you in a contest of tug-of-war. Your mind keeps throwing you one end of a rope and cajoling you to pull. When a force is acting against us we intuitively resist. When we get pushed, we push back, when we get pulled, our tendency is to pull in the opposite direction. The harder you pull, the more intense the struggle gets. But what if we choose not to pull at all. To not engage, to drop the rope! The more familiar we get with our mind’s ramblings, the easier it gets to “pay them no mind.” Obviously the more intense the worry, like the health of a loved one, the more difficult it will be to not have such thoughts occupy our attention. You might ask, “How can I ignore such important stuff? I can’t be heartless and uncaring.” What one needs to remember is, there is a difference between problem-solving and worrying. When we get caught up in worrying about potential outcomes that we cannot influence, we limit our ability to be available and effective in the present. Worrying and ruminating is not problem-solving, and there’s no amount of worrying that can make a loved-one well.
I heard a case study about a man, I’ll call him John, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. John was having auditory hallucinations, that is, he was hearing voices. Most troubling was that the voices he was hearing were telling him to kill his wife. In his lucid moments, John clearly knew that he deeply loved his wife and would never hurt her. However, in moments where his mind was less than rational, when the voices in his head were instructing him to harm his wife, he became very scared, panicked, and suffered so greatly that he adopted some very unworkable avoidance behaviors, that is, he would abuse alcohol and self-harm. (Unworkable behaviors in general are avoidant, only providing momentary relief and are not aligned with one’s values). With the help of a therapist, John committed to spend time noticing and leaning-in to his hallucinations.
As an aside, have you ever watched a very scary movie multiple times and notice that it affected you less each time you viewed it? In fact, after watching it a third time, you may have been able to sit back and view it from another perspective, perhaps even finding it humorous. In a similar vein, the more John engaged with his hallucinations, the less he viewed them as a threat. While still unpleasant and at times very disconcerting, John developed the ability to control his actions, and rather than react with unworkable behaviors, he responded with value-congruent, life affirming action. Eventually, John no longer feared his hallucinations, nor engaged in self-harming behaviors or avoided contact with his wife. In fact, he fully engaged with his wife whether or not his hallucinations were present. Obviously, it took commitment and a great deal of work to get there, but if a diagnosed schizophrenic could defuse from his hallucinations, then I suggest most all of us can, at the very least, “let go” of some of our most “sticky” thoughts and emotions. (By the way, if you haven’t seen the movie, “A Beautiful Mind”, about the Noble prize-winning mathematician, John Nash, who struggled with, and eventually rose-above schizophrenia, I highly recommend it.)
So, as the above example demonstrates, you can have thoughts, ruminations, worries and, in the very extreme, hallucinations, and with committed action and a great deal of practice, bring your “observing-self” to bear and choose not to struggle with them. That is, let go!
“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”― Bruce Lee
Making the leap from noticing and leaning-in to letting go is perhaps the hardest step of the three. Given this, there is a transitional step you might try, I call it “softening.” So now that we have noticed our thoughts, emotions and urges, and leaned-in, exploring and becoming familiar with them, how do we put some room between ourselves and our minds’ incessant ramblings. How can we stay in equilibrium, centered, and in control of our behavior?
First another analogy. Imagine you shot an arrow into a brick wall, what do you suppose would happen? Obviously the arrow would shatter, and the wall would sustain some but minimal damage. If I was to take some poetic license and assign some human qualities to the wall, after having overcome the force of the arrow, and in doing so destroying it, I would suggest the wall would have had or gained little understanding regarding the nature of the arrow. Now imagine if you shot an arrow into a bale of hay. As I am sure you surmise, the arrow would sink into the bale. Penetrating the bale, the arrow would maintain all its original qualities and would be available to use again. Both the bale and the arrow would have incurred little if any damage, but the bale would “know” the arrow’s shape and structure, and would have learned that if it encountered the arrow again, it would experience little if any damage. In fact, the bale was so pliable as to have even taken on some of the shape of the arrow. The two entities in essence merged. This is what happens when we soften around “sticky” thoughts and emotions. We can be with them without being controlled by them. We can give them room to “be” without a need to struggle with them. They can be a part of us, but not dominate our thoughts or dictate our actions.
Below you will find some links to some “helpers” to get you on your way to softening and eventually being able to let go of “sticky” thoughts, emotions, urges, and memories. If it hasn’t become clear by now, when you combine the actions involved in steps 1, 2, and 3 of “getting unstuck”, you are practicing mindfulness. Remember, this is not an easy skill to do, and as we have seen, it goes against our mind’s most ingrained instincts. What I can guarantee is, if you commit to regularly engaging in mindfulness practice, you will observe changes in your awareness and ultimately in your behavior, and these changes will most certainly enhance your life as well as those of your loved ones and all whom you encounter.