“Some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you.” —Iain Matthews
Sometimes, we get so mired in our thoughts and feelings we forget to see the bigger picture. When that happens, it’s good to look for even the tiniest crack that might open you up to a softened heart or a wider view. That softened heart is not just for others, but toward your own, sweet self.
Paradoxically, this requires both surrender and effort. You must surrender to your truth emotionally, physically, and cognitively, in this moment. Then, make an effort to do what you can to shift gears. If that’s not possible, accept the circumstances and your state of mind, and recognize they won’t last.
When in the throes of an overwhelming emotion such as anger, depression, anxiety, or grief, it may seem as if that’s all there is. Luckily, there is much more to you and your life than the challenge du jour—so much more. Yet, in the midst of jangled nerves and incessant negative thoughts, it’s all too easy to forget everything that is going well. Take a minute and think of everything that is working well for you.
Now, think of the millions of thoughts and feelings you have had in your life. Some lasted a nanosecond, some longer. Each one came and went. When you are in a negative emotional tornado and it feels as if you are being swept up and carried away, remember: you will land. Sometimes it might be with a huge thud that rattles your bones; other times, it will be gentle. You can’t always control the landing. You can control how kindly you treat yourself in the process, though.
In addition to exercising self-compassion, it’s helpful to cultivate an inner sense of knowing—knowing when to make a Herculean effort to face some demons, and knowing when the best you can do is to keep breathing until the bad experience ends. It will end. Bad things will happen, internally and externally. The more you appreciate the ebb and flow of life, and the less you fight what is, the sooner you may feel a renewed sense of equilibrium and joy.
Trying to control all the variables, beyond a reasonable amount of preparedness, just sets you up for misery. The task is to live this moment, no matter how it appears.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, there are people who think they should feel happy all the time. The last person who told me he was happy every day died suddenly at age 50 of a massive heart attack. How could anyone be happy 24/7? Only if the person is in denial—of life’s vicissitudes, of his or her ever-changing inner landscape, of everyone else’s ever-changing inner landscapes, of collisions between these landscapes—could that be the case.
Life is messy. Things don’t always go your way. People do what they want, not what you wish they would do. Your body throws curveballs at the most inopportune times. Furnaces shut down when it’s 20 below. People and pets die. You can run out of money. Best friends move far away. Children, too. Trying to control all the variables, beyond a reasonable amount of preparedness, just sets you up for misery. The task is to live this moment, no matter how it appears.
Railing at what is and resisting reality only creates more suffering. Yet, it is supremely difficult to embrace life on life’s terms. Why? Because the ego wants what it wants, exactly as it wants it, all the time. Consciously, few people would say that’s how they think things should work, but unconsciously, where that little child lives, that’s the belief. Otherwise, why would Buddhists and other like-minded philosophers have had to work for millennia to help people think differently?
As helpful as it is to continue practicing unconditional self-acceptance and acceptance of reality, it is equally useful to create a soft landing spot when life feels like it’s tossing you around. Softening your heart to yourself and your experience, with self-compassion, is another way of being in the moment. It’s important to have compassion for the anxious parts of you that don’t know what’s next, for the sad parts that are still grieving, and for the child parts that look to the loving adult within you to watch out for them, even when all you can do is offer a soft inner comforter to cushion the fall.
Creating a soft landing spot takes practice. It consists of first paying attention to what you feel in your body and taking some time to describe those sensations. As this is not a typical human activity, it can feel weird, awkward, and difficult. With practice, it gets easier. Think of it as learning a new language—the language of your body.
Then, check in with your feelings. If you only find one, dig a little deeper. Feelings usually come in clusters. When you have unearthed yours, ask yourself where they came from. Are they remnants from the past? Are they created by current, catastrophizing thoughts? If so, lovingly, patiently work with the parts of you that remember feeling this way before, perhaps in childhood. Give those parts a voice. Let them speak to you. If they are not ready, let them find repose somewhere, either in your heart or somewhere else safe and serene.
Next, listen to your thoughts. If you can write them down, all the better. Are they true? When flooded with negative thoughts, you might believe that’s your reality. It isn’t. It’s simply a temporary state of mind, even if it has existed for a long time. Challenge these unhelpful, possibly habitual, ways of looking at yourself, others, and life. If you use questions, you can answer them and reach a new paradigm.
The most important thing to offer yourself when life is hard and you feel lower than a snake’s wiggle is a feeling of safety. In some ways, all inner work builds toward a greater sense of internal safety.
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