Do You Have the Courage to Stop Doing?

From human doing to human being…how a little stillness can go a long way…

Our basic state of wellbeing is obscured because of the essential paradigm (or misunderstanding) we live by, namely, that we are human doings, not human beings.  We see ourselves, our value, as being the sum total of our experiences and accomplishments—what we’ve gotten done.  Many people grow up with parents who, in trying to do right by their kids, are constantly showing them how to improve themselves and find better ways to be productive.  On its face there’s nothing wrong with wanting to teach our kids to make things happen or be good at doing things, but children often grow up feeling that they are loved precisely because of their ability to do, accomplish, and succeed.  That if they were to stop being productive, they would cease to belong and be loved.

Our doings are what we believe we have to offer, what make people proud of us, love us, and even more fundamentally, what we think we are made of, the very substance of our being.  Who we are, our identity, is what we accomplish, what we can do and have done. We are good, lovable and important if we are productive; if we’re productive, we matter.  I have seen countless people living on the anxious treadmill of productivity, terrified to step off and pause—to stop doing—and thus risk losing their basic sense of worth.

If we even dare to think about stopping, stepping off the wheel of productivity, our mind tells us that we will be lazy, passive, taking the easy way out, getting nothing done, being worthless.  Boiled down, the mind convinces us that if we stop doing, we’re bad.  If we stop striving, we will end up with nothing—doing nothing, getting nothing, being nothing.  We are conditioned to believe that if we don’t whip ourselves into action, don’t demand continual accomplishment and forward movement, we will collapse into sloth and torpor as it’s the only other option to the wheel we’re trapped on.

We don’t trust that if we were to allow ourselves to stop, to be where we are without trying to get somewhere else, that our own organic desire to do, create and take action would naturally arise, that life would continue happening and we would continue being part of that flow. We have not been taught to trust what’s actually true, namely, that something in us longs to do and create; it doesn’t need to be threatened and corralled into productivity in order to save us from being bad or worthless.

Linking our value and existence to perpetual doing keeps us in a state of fear, terrified to unhitch from the wagon of productivity, the drive to keep moving forward, not trusting who we will be or even if we will be when we unhitch.  In this modern paradigm, we see life itself as an act of doing, something we have to make happen, by continually doing and kicking the wheel of experience and what’s next.  Our life, as we experience it, is created through the accumulation of experiences we generate. Life is something we have to do something with, as in, What are you going to do with your life? As such, it feels as if doing is necessary to keep ourselves in actual existence.  Stillness, on the other hand—not getting somewhere, not getting something done, not being productive, is imagined as a kind of void or absence, a place where we don’t experience life.  The way we learn it, doing equals life.  Not doing, when the wheel stops, equals death, or non-existence.

We live as human doings in part because we’re not taught that just being is a something, a place, an experience of its own.  We’re not taught that our own presence, our being, is a destination, a place of value, a place to inhabit that has its own sensory aliveness.

From the time we’re very young we learn that our head or mind is where life happens, where the action is, where the pilot sits.  We award our mind with the throne of life, king/queen of all domains. Our body, on the other hand, we relate to as a functional object, a Sherpa that transports our head from one place to another, thanklessly facilitating the doing that the mind commands.  If not simply moving the mind around, the body is something we use as another agent of doing, to achieve excellence in sport or other such endeavors, thereby adding to the pile of accomplishments and experiences that make up our sense of worthiness.  In addition, our body is viewed as an entity that for the most part doesn’t exist other than to provide us with pleasure or pain.  The body is an object that appears out of oblivion only when directly stimulated, or when a disruption occurs and thus interrupts its basic invisibility, as is the case with illness, injury, and aging.

But the problem is that when we ignore the body and relate to it as a non-entity, a non-place, undeserving of our own attention except when absolutely necessary, we effectively sever access to our inherent un-produced sense of worth.  Disconnected from the body, we become untethered from a sense of fundamental mattering, not because of what we do, but just because we are. The body is the portal to experiencing our aliveness, one that precedes and outlives any and all accomplishment, an aliveness that remains constant even when we step off the wheel of doing.  It’s through the body that we directly experience a sure sense of our own wholeness, and the knowing that we are already everything we need to be, and we already matter.

When we drop out of the head and into the body, pouring our attention out of mind, without an agenda and without trying to make something happen that the mind is dictating, we immediately feel a sense of just being.  Inside the body, we experience the hum of life, an energy, something that’s happening on its own without our having to manage, control, force or do it.  Through meditation, body practice, or simply choosing to experience the body from the inside out, we can learn to ride the waves of the breath, sense the body breathing itself. The practice of just encountering what’s here that requires no effort, builds a trust in us, that there exists a life force bigger than us, an aliveness that we exist within and are made of, and perhaps most importantly in this context, for which we are not in charge.

Joining with the body and experiencing how it is right now, feeling what’s actually happening inside you, without writing a narrative about what’s happening, or constructing a story about what it says about you or anyone else, but just experiencing now as it is in your body, is a courageous and profoundly radical choice. When we make our body a destination, make the choice to inhabit the body with kindness and curiosity, in stillness, without demanding anything from it, or judging what we find, we can know a direct experience of being, a sensation of our own existence, which doesn’t require any action to create or maintain. It takes courage to leave the mind and drop into the body, a willingness to reject or doubt what the mind tells us will happen to us if we leave it for even a moment.  But for that courage, we are rewarded with a deep trust in and intimacy with our own being, and a knowing of its inherent worth.  Just the opposite of the idea of absence that the mind scares us with, what we find in the body, away from the mind, is presence.

In experiencing the sensations of the body, not noticing them from the head but allowing ourselves to actually feel them directly from inside the body, we discover that life is happening here, now, without our help.  And in fact, we don’t need to keep kicking the wheel, creating life.  Tuning into the hum of just being, we uncover a sense of wholeness and worth that is inherent, un-earned, un-manufactured, un-efforted, and utterly unrelated to accomplishment.  We discover a sense of our own value that just is, a gift of being alive.


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How to Not Burden Our Kids With Our Own Emotional Stuff

Being a good enough parent on a practical, task-based level is a bit like doing an iron-woman triathlon—daily.  But the real triathlon of parenting is the work that goes into staying awake and aware of our own emotional “stuff” and not putting that on or leaking that into our relationship with our kids.

I recently witnessed, yet again, how utterly vital self-awareness and discernment are for the job of good parenting.  I’ve known my friend Dan (all names are changed) for a good long time.  Because he’s been in my life for decades, I’ve also known his kids since they were born and have my own relationship with his son and daughter, who are now teenagers.

On a recent walk, Dan was raging to me about his teenage daughter Kim and an incident that had just occurred between them. Earlier that morning Kim had been taking photos and Dan, who knows a lot about photography, had offered Kim a suggestion for how to frame her photos in a more rich and interesting way.  Kim, who is 15, had gotten irritated with her father and rejected his suggestions, telling him to leave her alone so she could take her own photographs the way she wanted to.

Dan was very angry because, according to him, Kim rejected everything he offered because she didn’t respect him.  In his narrative, his daughter didn’t think that he was someone who knew anything of value.  She ignored his suggestions because she didn’t think he was someone whose opinion mattered.

I listened to my friend with a lot of mixed feelings.  I knew that this narrative about not being valued for what he offered had been Dan’s experience since I knew him.  I was aware that my friend had struggled with feeling invisible for his entire life, and that he had always felt unseen, unappreciated, and unvalidated in his work.  I knew that this was Dan’s “stuff” being triggered by his daughter’s healthy need to make her own choices and create in her own way.  I felt sad too for my friend and his desire to have his daughter appreciate him and be valued for all that he did know.

As Dan expressed his anger to me, I also had in my mind conversations I had exchanged with his daughter.  She had shared with me how controlled she felt by her father, how he never could let her do anything her way and had to constantly teach her something and show her what he knew.  She had expressed great frustration that her father was constantly trying to improve her and could never just be with her as she was or let her be who she was.  She felt that she was relentlessly being fed the message that she wasn’t good enough.  She had to do everything better–be better.

Simultaneously, because Kim is an emotionally savvy young woman, she was able to see that when she took suggestions from her father, she felt like the whole experience became about him, like she was being held responsible for making her dad feel valued, important and seen.  She naturally then resisted taking his suggestions because she felt like to do so kidnapped her experience and turned it into a “Look what dad can offer you… see what a valuable person/parent dad is,” all of which she (understandably) wanted nothing to do with.

I knew all this as Dan raged on about Kim’s crimes and how she was deliberately rejecting his wisdom and expertise.  When he got to the end of his rant and wanted me to validate his feelings, I was in a bit of a pickle.  But because he is a dear friend, and because I love Kim too, I felt required to speak a bit about what I saw happening.  And so I empathized with him about his frustration and anger.  I tried to make space for the feelings of invisibility and dismissal that he was expressing.  And then I offered too, a possible other explanation for why Kim might not want his photography advice, one that might lessen the sting, but at the cost of contradicting his storyline.

I reminded my friend that Kim was 15 and needed to learn, but also to be allowed to figure things out for herself and that it was terrific she was playing around with the camera at all.  And I told him that I knew, for sure, that she did not think he was a piece of crap, as he had decided was the case, but rather that she was trying to become a person in her own right and sometimes his suggestions felt like they worked against that for her.  I tried to be gentle with him and decided to leave out the age-old quality of his storyline, how he had been struggling with these feelings long before Kim appeared on the scene with her camera.  I also left out my belief that he was accusing his daughter of intentions that didn’t belong to her.  I knew Dan was raw and that feeling unvalued was his core wound, and so I simply attempted to add another possible experience, truth, or frame (Kim’s) into his storyline, to bring some air into his airless narrative, to break up the solidness and certainty of the story he had constructed around his daughter.

The truth was I felt compassion for both Dan and his daughter, and I wasn’t sure how to help the situation other than to hold up all the truths that coexisted—that meant Dan’s feelings of invisibility, his wish to not only be valued but also teach his daughter where he could (which was a healthy desire), and Kim’s need to be valued as she was, without improvement, and her need to not have to continually validate her dad for his knowledge, to make up for her dad not having been seen by the world.  But what I couldn’t sit by and allow was my friend’s assignment of blame to his daughter for what was his own wound; I couldn’t simply watch as he denied his own “stuff” and placed it on her.  The experience with Kim had indeed triggered his core wound, yes, but not because she intended to do so.  He was making something that had nothing to do with him about him, collapsing his personal experience with a larger truth, which was not okay.

When I shared Kim’s experience with Dan, an experience that was radically different than the one he had assigned her in his narrative, my fantasy was that he would suddenly feel a wave of fatherly compassion for his daughter, that he would be able to step out of his own ego story, ego defense, and feel empathy for his daughter’s experience of never feeling enough, of always having to be better (so that dad could feel valuable and visible).  But nowhere in me did I really think that scenario would happen, and indeed it didn’t.  My friend stayed loyal to his ego defenses, stuck with his narrative, and exploded at me.  By offering a different truth, namely his daughter’s, I had asked him to look at his own “stuff,” his history and what he was assuming to be truth, and also, perhaps, to open his heart to his daughter’s actual experience rather than the one he was constructing for her.  This, apparently, was not what he was wanting or needing and we decided to convene again when he was calmer.

But all that said, it got me thinking again about how important it is for us as parents to separate out the “stuff” belongs to us, from our histories, and what is actually true for our kids.  What our experience is and what their experience is, letting them co-exist with dignity, as different as they usually are.  We’ve all been Dan at one time or another, and, when we were younger, we’ve all been Kim and had our parents’ stuff hurled onto us.  I grew up in a home that sometimes felt like a house of mirrors, where you were rarely in a conversation that included your actual truth, but rather were related to through the projections of others, always saddled with something you had been assigned (positive or negative) that was part of someone else’s story.  And so, when my friend Dan attached an intention to his daughter that belonged to his story and was not her truth, I felt my own wounding arise.

Often as parents, we are triggered by something our child says or does. If we don’t catch it in the moment or shortly after, if we don’t own our “stuff” as ours and keep it safely away from our kids, we end up in a distorted and confusing relationship with our children, one that denies them the right to have their own truth seen and honored, their own intentions validated, and denies us the possibility of a fresh and truthful relationship with our children.

When we collapse our stuff and their motives, we end up believing that our kids are responsible for re-wounding us in the way that our narrative dictates, when in fact we re-wound ourselves by turning our subjective experience into an objective truth with all the accompanying perpetrators.

Instead, when we are triggered, we can pause, feel the triggered-ness, the wound, and take the experience as an opportunity to bring ourselves compassion.  Our kids, if we can stay awake and aware, offer us the gift that is an opportunity to awaken, pay attention and bring kindness to our own pain.  They show us what’s buried in us; let us not, in our ignorance and defensiveness, bury our kids back in with our pain.

Because we have a subjective experience does not mean it is an objective, capital t Truth.  We can have a very real and strong experience, but that does not mean that the other person is doing that to or at us.  Their actions trigger something in us, but their experience, what’s happening in and for them, is undoubtedly very different than the experience we are having.  And both experiences are true and valid.

Our kids are trying to become people, to individuate and discover who they are.  That’s tough enough without having to figure out, pick through, unstick from, and climb their way out of our storylines.  Our kids awaken in us what we’ve lived, which includes our suffering.  We can bow to our kids, as the messengers of our own pain; they bring it, some of which we might not have even known was there, but they bring it so we can heal from it.

As parents, it’s our responsibility to separate what belongs to us from our own childhoods and adult lives and not intermingle that with our children’s truth.  Their truth belongs to them just as our truth belongs to us.  And all such truths can, with awareness, co-exist in harmony.  Our greatest responsibility as parents, as important as showing up for all the softball games and dance recitals, is our own self-awareness and the willingness to take responsibility for our own “stuff,” to feel what arises without turning it into a story about anyone else.  And in so doing, we offer our kids the dignity of deciding and discovering their own truth and having it heard, without our wounded and wounding intrusions.

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When the Truth Sets You Free

For years, I’ve had an ongoing conflict with a family member.  It’s a conflict that I think many of us can identify with.  The issue, in a nutshell, is that this other person believes that I should be providing something for her that (she believes) I am not providing.  And, she believes that not providing this for her makes me, essentially, a bad person and someone she can’t trust.

For a long time, I worked like hell to provide what she wanted, what she was demanding, not necessarily because I wanted to, but because I felt I should.  But no matter how much I gave, it was never enough and I was never acknowledged or experienced by her as the person who was offering what she needed.  I was constantly arguing my case for why she was wrong about me, wrong for blaming me; I continued telling her how much I was doing, why she should appreciate me.  But it never made a difference.  I was forever stuck in the role of the one who wouldn’t provide what she really needed.

After what felt like eons of giving and giving and continually being told and experienced as the one that wasn’t giving, I started to feel differently.  I started to feel like I shouldn’t have to provide these things that she demanded from me and felt entitled to.  I started to argue with my own sense of should and rethink what I should be willing to offer.  I also started to argue with her about whether or not it was right or fair for her to expect this service from me.

And so, for the next few years, we remained locked in a new battle, namely, who was right about whether or not I should have to offer the kind of help she required.  I said I shouldn’t have to and she said I should.  What was the truth?

More time passed but we both held our ground, each of us growing more stuck in our positions, convinced of our rightness.  Resentment infiltrated our relationship from top to bottom.

But then something truly unexpected happened, for me.  Something simple but utterly profound.  I don’t know what it will mean for the relationship, but I know that it’s opened up infinite space inside me, a deep okayness and strength, and thoroughly changed my reality.

What happened was this: I realized that at the bottom of this lifelong battle with this woman was a simple truth, a truth that had been shunned, stepped over, stepped around, ignored, and never allowed to the table.  I can say it out loud now, scream it from the rooftops, and here’s what it sounds like: I do not want to be responsible for providing what she needs.  It’s not that I shouldn’t have to (that’s a truth that depends on one’s inner universe), it’s not that I have been responsible and it’s gone unacknowledged; it’s far simpler than all that.  I don’t want it—that’s the whole story.  I don’t want to requires no further dialogue, explanation, or justification.  It sounds like a small turn, like something I already knew, but it was a revelation.  It was a truth that for decades had been forced to hide in the shadows of should and shouldn’t; buried under all the effort, the thousands of words, arguments, and tsunamis of fear and guilt. This truth had been denied permission to be heard or even to exist.

As long as I was still relying on the argument that I shouldn’t have to, I was still dependent on her and everyone else to feel solid in my choice.  The strength of my own truth didn’t yet belong to me.  It was still a truth of consensus, one that had to be agreed upon, and thus something that her rejection was able to undermine.  That I could never be validated in the idea that it wasn’t fair to ask this of me, that I shouldn’t have to, meant that I could never really stand in my own shoes. I could never not feel guilty for my choice even with the awareness that all the doing in the world would still not earn me the place of the one who was doing it.

What freed me was that simple but awe-inspiring shift in awareness and perspective, the appearing of the real truth, the I don’t want to reality.  In that moment of awakening to my own not wanting, I realized that this truth more than any other had been the unacknowledged, unsafe to acknowledge key to unraveling the whole knot.  It wasn’t about not being appreciated for it; it wasn’t about winning the fight that I shouldn’t have to.  It was just about discovering the plain and simple “I don’t want to.”

Remarkably, “I don’t want to” is not up for dialogue, discussion, or agreement.  This truth is not a truth by consensus.  It’s mine wholly, and to some degree, non-negotiable.  When I found my I don’t want to, I found my own two feet planted firmly on the ground, weighted and strong.  I found clarity and with it, freedom.  This other person no longer held the power to allow or deny me my truth.

What I’ve noticed since this awakening is that I am far more able to look at this other person without resentment.  What is is and I don’t have to defend it anymore.  And simultaneously, I don’t feel the same fear, fear of the guilt inspired by her belief about what I should be willing to offer, fear of being accused of being bad.  Oddly, it actually feels like I can enjoy her a whole lot more as well.  The truth, awakened in me, allows me to look at this other person in the eyes, and stand in the light of what’s true, for me.  Where it will take us in the relationship, I have no idea, but whatever happens, I don’t want to has, for me, turned out to be the get out of jail key to freedom.

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“Just Let It Go” But What Does That Mean and How Do You Do It?


What does let it go mean? I’ve always wondered. I’ve also always had a slight aversion to anyone telling me or anyone else to do it. Truth is, I don’t completely understand what letting it go actually is or what it entails.

I spent some time with a couple of friends this weekend and one was sharing something deeply upsetting to him about the current political climate. The other friend told him that at some point (the implication being now) he needed to just let it go.  More specifically, she said that it was almost the end of 2018 and therefore the perfect time to let go of whatever didn’t serve him anymore so he could enter the new year fresh and free of baggage.  This friend is a kind and wise woman and not someone inclined to speak with malice or impatience. I know she meant for her advice to be helpful. I’m not sure it was; the man to whom she made the suggestion did not appear to be helped. Later, when I asked my friend what she meant by let it go, she explained that it was about his moving on inside himself from the argument happening in his head, and simultaneously, choosing to accept what reality is right now.

When she said the second part, about choosing to accept reality, I realized that I also don’t really know what it means when we say acceptance in this context. I was in a real pickle now. I didn’t understand the first concept, let it go,nor did I understand the concept used to define it.  And so I decided to try and discover and maybe create my own meaning for let it go and, depending on how far I got with that, maybe, for acceptance as well.

What I know about the advice let it go is that when I hear it, whether spoken to me or another, it feels like a demand and a judgment all rolled into one lovely suggestion. It’s a demand because we know we’re supposed to do it and if we don’t we’re failing to make ourselves happy and thus responsible for our own upset. It’s a judgment because we’re choosing to hold onto something painful that we could simply release. That said, if we continue to suffer, it’s essentially our fault. I often want to respond to let it go (or what’s usually “just” let it go) with, Yeah but how do you do that?

Depending on the topic, let it go can also feel like a kind of impatience with what’s being expressed, an “enough now” or “I’m tired of listening to you.”  Let it go, therefore, has the potential to arrive as a kind of abandonment, a way of saying I don’t want to be with you in this pain anymore.

Now that I’ve entirely trashed let it go, I will say that I do believe that there’s something profoundly important and helpful about the idea of letting go of what no longer serves us. But once again, what does that really mean and how do you do it?

To understand what something means I like to begin by understanding what it doesn’t mean, which is sometimes an easier place to start. Letting it go does not mean using our will power to annihilate what we’ve decided needs to go. It’s not forcefully efforting to block something out of our consciousness. Letting go is not an act of doing so much as it is one of undoing.

Furthermore, the suggestion that we need to let something go also suggests that we’re holding onto, grasping, or clinging to it too tightly, which begs the question, what does it mean to hold onto something, particularly a thought or feeling?  Alas… always more questions than answers.

Holding onto a thought or feeling can mean many things. But one way that we hold on is by continuing to re-think, re-tell, and ruminate over painful thoughts and experiences. We mentally rehash the source of our suffering even when it’s not organically present in our now. We bring it into our now by talking about it, engaging with our thoughts about it, and actively invoking the difficult feelings or whatever else is stuck to it.  It can feel as if the pain itself is compelling us to feed it.  And we are, paradoxically and strangely loyal to our pain, and driven to keep it alive.

Another way we cling to thoughts and feelings is by constructing narratives around them. We make our suffering sticky when we supplement our experience with a mental storyline about the experience. Let’s say we become aware of a tightness in the belly. Very quickly, before feeling the sensation for more than a moment, we name that tightness fear. Within seconds we have written a story about why we’re afraid, who’s to blame, what we need to do about it, and what’s wrong with us that leads us to feel and be this way. And that’s just the beginning of the narrative.  Our initial belly constriction is usually manageable. Even the naming it with language is tolerable. But by the time we’ve added on all the toppings, we’re pretty cooked and the direct experience of belly constriction is no longer manageable, because of what we’ve determined it means. Using our experience as a launching pad for narrative, the rope with which we hang ourselves, is clinging.

Letting go then is the practice of restraint, refraining, of less not more. It’s breaking the habit of continually re-introducing thoughts and feelings that cause us pain—declining the mind’s seduction to replay our grievancesin the hopes of figuring out a better outcome or solution. So too, letting go is resisting the urge to build a storyline out of our experience—getting in the habit of feeling our direct experience on its own, in our body first, and perhaps naming it if it’s helpful. But, and this is the key, leaving our experience there in the simplicity of what it is, without the who, what, where, when, and why, the what it means that follows and tightens our grip.

Letting go is not denial or ignorance; it’s not about pretending our hurts don’t hurt. It’s also not about willing ourselves into a pseudo-okayness with something we’re not really okay with. Some traumas are simply not let-go-able.  But letting go is a process of stopping—stopping to cause ourselves further suffering when we don’t have to.  Some grievances will fade away when we stop stoking them, some will remain painful when bumped into. It’s not really up to us.  But what is up to us is the choice to stop awarding our grievances with our habitual attention, romancing them if you will, parading them in front of others and ourselves to see, again. Furthermore, we can choose to stop feeding and growing our hurts with more thoughts about them, the storylines we write which intensify their importance and power.

Imagine holding onto a little bird, holding it tightly because we want to keep it from flying off and leaving us. That little bird is our pain. We grasp onto that pain because we believe that keeping it, remembering it and feeding it, is a way of taking care of it, and thus ourselves. But what if we loosened our grip on that bird, opened our hand a bit. That bird might want to fly off. Our pain might want to fly off. Letting go is trusting that taking care of ourselves might mean not feeding our bird, but rather opening our hand and allowing our pain to transform and be free to fly.


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FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real: When Our Thoughts Scare Us

I took a deep dive into fear this month.  Over this past year, someone I lovedearly, a close family member, has been experiencing a physical symptom. We’ve been unable to get to the bottom of it; the doctors have not been particularly concerned and so we’ve resorted to just managing the symptom best we can. I haven’t been particularly worried, assuming it was just one of the umpteen physical symptoms that come for seemingly no reason and then go for seemingly no reason, without our ever really knowing why or what it was all about.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I was having a conversation with this person and she casually mentioned another symptom that she experiences. She had never brought this to my attention because she just assumed everybody felt the same thing.

In that moment, I was slightly alarmed by the symptom she mentioned as it was definitely not a sensation most people have and certainly not one that people get on a regular basis.  It was also, I knew, a symptom associated with some pretty terrible things.  I said nothing about my concern but calmly inquired more into her experience, When does she get this sensation and what if anything brings it on and other questions.  On the outside, I probably appeared quite nonchalant, but on the inside, a small tsunami was forming in my chest.

Immediately following our conversation, I made a beeline to hell, otherwise known as Google.  I feverishly punched in her symptoms.  What I found was, not surprisingly, both horrifying and terrifying.  Her symptoms happened to be the first two on every list for one particularly dreadful and life-destroying condition.  And, as luck would have it, the third most common symptom listed as evidence of this particular disease turned out to be another symptom that my loved one had in fact mentioned experiencing over the last couple years, but which I had also dismissed and assumed would disappear on its own.

Within three hours of our initial conversation, I was disabled with enough information to be utterly consumed with fear.  I had three symptoms to work with now, and three symptoms which were the first three on every list describing the early signs of one particular horrifying fate.  Fear had not only arrived at my front door but had broken the door down and taken me hostage.

The more afraid I became, the more frantically I researched the internet, reading everything available on the condition I had diagnosed, looking for anything that would give me a different list of symptoms or at least a list where her symptoms were further down from the top.  I read about treatments, now and future, trial studies, ways that people self-care once diagnosed, the psychological effects of the disease, how early one should start taking the medication, and what the final stages look like. I read testimonials from people living with the disease, everything I could get my hands on.  By Sunday night I had five Ph.D.’s in this condition.

I was in a state of panic, heartbroken, and truly unable to get okay.  If a moment of serenity appeared, I would remember the shock of what I knew, that this person I love beyond anything, beyond everything, had no future.  I would remember that I could never be happy again.  Each moment I spent with my family member that weekend felt like the last, weighted with melancholy and finality.

I was living a narrative of fear and despair, a narrative I had written in less than 48 hours.  I was sure that the worst thing I could ever imagine happening was happening. I wondered, how was it possible that I had spent my whole life working on getting comfortable with the uncomfortable, okay with the not okay of life, accepting reality as it is, and yet here I was screaming, No, this reality is the one reality that’s not okay!  This reality I cannot bear.  I was in a thought-constructed hell, which felt real, inarguable, and true.

I was the only one who knew that she had all three symptoms.  Other family members knew of one or another, but I was the keeper of the full truth, the only one who knew the whole of it.  When I did finally break and tell another family member, he dismissed my fears as ridiculous, irritating, a case of bad hypochondria. I was to blame for my fear.  His impatience felt like an abandonment of sorts. I felt not only terrified but also deeply alone in my fear.  I couldn’t share my fears with the person whom they were about because I did want to frighten her; I couldn’t speak with anyone else in the family because they were angered by my fear; I couldn’t speak with her doctor about it because I didn’t want to set off further testing and thus speed the road to the eventual diagnosis. I was totally isolated; my thoughts had built a bubble of terror in which I was trapped and alone.

robert zunicoff/unsplash
Source: robert zunicoff/unsplash

And then something miraculous happened, perhaps because I couldn’t bear another moment of being so afraid, or perhaps just because. Grace appeared and I heard the following: Your mind is inflicting violence on you!  And what followed from there was simply, Stop! Stop! Stop! Something in me stood up for me.  I knew that probability was still on my side and the fear I was living might well be false evidence appearing as real.

As a result of this realization, I was able to halt my mind’s projections into the future, to stop re-inventing and re-experiencing a reality that didn’t and might never exist.  I recognized that I knew nothing other than three facts and didn’t need to go one day or even five minutes into the future. I could decide to live right here, now, and construct no storyline at all.  Discomfort remained, a mild anxiety, but without the narrative connecting the dots, I was remarkably okay. With the sudden awareness of how I was torturing myself, believing my thoughts, I was able to disembark from my mind’s terror train.  I refused to participate in terrifying myself; I chose the freedom and self-compassion that comes with saying, and believing, I simply don’t know. That’s the truth.

For organizing and generating ideas, there’s no match for the human mind.  And simultaneously, for whipping up fear and creating frightening storylines that appear indisputable, there’s also no match for the human mind.  The tragic part is that by creating its narratives of terror, the mind is at some level trying to calm us down, to make sense of and know the unknown, solidify the impermanent.  The mind tries to protect us from the fear of what could happen by creating a certainty of what will happen, which paradoxically can feel less frightening.

In this recent episode, my mind was desperately searching to find proof for its wrongness, evidence that showed its thoughts were mistaken. And yet, the more my imagined storyline was confirmed, the more frantically I searched to find something else to explain the unknown.

Our mind is often the perpetrator of unimaginable violence—on ourselves.  Our thoughts are the great instigator of terror, yelling fire over and over again when a hint of smoke is detected.  At some point, the suffering that we self-inflict can become too much and an act of grace or self-compassion occurs, when we say, Stop, stop torturing me.  Stop creating stories of terror… The truth is I don’t know, that’s all.  Life is challenging enough without adding any of our own terrifying storyline to it.  We can in fact choose to live in the questions, to not know, and not fill in the blanks.  When we leave the dots not-connected and sit with the fear that may or may not exist with what is, we feel a great relief.  Not only a relief from the self-inflicted violence of the terrifying storyline, but also from the need to close up reality and know—everything—even if it’s nothing we want to know.

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