Whatever you practice, you get better at. So, think for a moment. What are you practicing every day? This includes the thoughts you entertain, the emotions you focus on, and the behaviors you repeat. Sometimes the things we practice make us feel better and some of them definitely don’t. Let’s take it one at a time.
Thoughts: Many people are completely unaware that the “automatic” thoughts they have are quite repetitive, obsessive, and negative. It’s not anyone’s fault. Our brains are easily conditioned by a variety of conditions. Foremost is our flight or fight response–designed to save our lives, but which can easily become overactive and attach to the most negative view of any story. Give our minds an inch and they’ll often take a mile–weaving stories about things to be frightened of and worried about when, in reality, the fears and worries usually don’t become true.
This is not to say that there aren’t a lot of terrible things happening in the world right now that could frighten and scare. However, pay attention to the story and, if it is situated in what “could” happen in the future, come back to the present and deal with what is here and now. If you take care of “now” with awareness and kindness, then you will be more prepared to be able to deal with any future reality when it happens (but not before).
What thoughts are you practicing? As Mark Twain said, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” So watch the story line that you’re telling yourself and notice if you are living in “what might happen in the future” or living in the present moment. Usually in the moment, the thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and sounds of “now” are manageable. Don’t rush into the next moment and suffer with stories about things that have not occurred.
Practice living in the NOW.
Each one of us has developed a type of response to stress that may not be so helpful. For instance, I’ve learned through my Energy Medicine Yoga training that my first response to fight or flight is often some version of anger. Using the Traditional Chinese Medicine Five Element theory, when I come into balance, that anger turns into assertive action. Can you see how those two might go together? Fear turns into courage, anxiety turns into inspiration and joy, worry turns into self-love, grief into faith and letting go. You can take your own quiz here to find out your primary response.
Which emotions are you practicing? The emotions you feel when you are out of balance are very habitual and easy to fall into. If you practice impatience, you will be more impatient. If you practice anger, you will be more angry. On the other hand, if you practice compassion, you will be more compassionate. And so it goes.
To move toward balance, be aware of the emotion you’re having, name it, and then ground yourself with breathing and other techniques. This pause will help you sense into the situation with greater curiosity and compassion. These difficult emotions are, indeed, difficult and tend to keep us stuck in a pattern. When we work towards coming into balance there is a sense of resilience, hope, and relief.
For instance, recently I was angry at a commentary in the local newspaper. By turning my anger into assertive action, I was able to write a letter to the editor and have it published. There was a great sense of empowerment in that action.
Practice the emotions of empowerment.
In the time of COVID, I have heard of a lot of people who have engaged in many behaviors to self-soothe. Some of them help a lot (e.g. walking outside, yoga, breathing techniques, cooking at home more) and some of them help a little (e.g. online shopping, baking and eating a LOT of bread and cookies, drinking more alcohol). The second list of strategies sometimes turns into the next problem to be solved.
What behaviors are you practicing? While it can be difficult to change habit patterns under stress, it can help to plan ahead. Write down the types of behaviors that would soothe you the next time you are feeling stressed. Post the list of suggestion near the cookie jar, the refrigerator, the computer, the wine rack, or wherever you think it might be helpful. When our brains are hijacked it can sometimes be hard to remember our good intentions.
Practice behaviors that help you feel in balance and grounded.
Life is pretty challenging these days. And I don’t want to minimize the enormity of what we are all going through in any way. But, I do want to encourage you to take care of yourself the best you can. We will all fall into patterns that are less than helpful. That’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up when you fall into them. But, be aware with curiosity and compassion and discover ways of caring for yourself that empower you in these times when it often feels like there is little control.
Do.The.Work. This is my effort to keep conversations alive about the impact of systematic racism and how to change it.
This week in Do.The.Work. I encourage you to write a letter to someone (the editor of a newspaper, a congressman or congresswoman, a governor, a mayor, or even the President) expressing your opinion about something that you are worried about in your community or the world that unequally impacts people of color. It can help you articulate your own opinions and make a difference.