By: Lisa Aranas, 2016
As I drove to work one day, there was yet another act of terrorism on the news. This time, it was Paris. My mind wandered to all the stories that had been on the news lately – gun violence, mental health, Obamacare, police brutality, the economy, job security (or lack thereof)…….the list seems to go on endlessly. Then I thought about the clients that I have been working with recently struggling with deaths that were too early, possible cancer diagnosis, alcoholism to cope with abuse, or growing up believing they are less than. For many, there is an overwhelming feeling of helplessness, and even hopelessness when they have their our own personal issues to deal with, let alone all the other concerns going on in the world. Yet, my desire for each and every client that walks through my door is for him or her to walk out with a sense of peace knowing fully well that not all problems can be solved.
Before I go any further, let me describe what I mean by “attaining a sense of peace.” It’s not about being okay with bad situations nor is it about not caring. Feeling at peace means that despite it all, with all the good and all the bad, I can feel good and content with the decisions and choices that I have made in my life. In case you are feeling somewhat skeptical, I encourage you to please read on. The ideas and concepts I am about to share have been helpful for the very same clients that I previously mentioned. I have included examples to help integrate these ideas in to real life.
Key to a peaceful life, is what I call living life consciously i.e. making conscious decisions so that you are directing your life rather than simply reacting to what life brings to you. We can therefore make choices to bring peace to our lives.
I would suggest that living consciously is really a lifestyle, just as being healthy is a lifestyle goal. You can also think of conscious living as a skill to learn and to practice. The more we practice, the more second nature it becomes. It’s no different than when we first learned to ride a bicycle or drive a car. We had to think so hard about what to do and not do. Now, most of us can just jump in our car and sometimes drive from point A to point B without even knowing how we got there (not that I encourage that). Or we can get on a bicycle that we haven’t ridden for years and ride without worrying about falling. Indeed, we can teach our brains what to do so that conscious living becomes habit.
There are a few major concepts that we must understand and practice in order to achieve the habit of living consciously to achieve peace: Mindfulness, the power of thought, being in the moment, and focusing on what we have control over.
Mindfulness is stepping back and observing what’s going on in the present moment without judgment. Without being mindful, change cannot happen. Being mindful is being aware of yourself in the moment because only when we are aware can we even begin to make any kind of conscious choice. Why without judgment? Judging takes us away from simply being aware and moves us into reacting. Reacting is the opposite of making conscious choices.
Next, it is important to understand the power of thought. Try this exercise to understand the power of your thoughts. Close your eyes and recall the last time you got into an argument, or felt stressed or anxious. Put yourself back in time and try to relive that experience with as much detail as you can. Spend just a minute or two there. What did you notice about your feelings? Did your body react physically? Now recall a happy time. Again, relive it for the next couple of minutes in as much detail as possible. What did you notice this time about your feelings? How about your body? I’m guessing that you had two different emotional reactions. This is how cognitive therapy works. If we change our thoughts, we will change how we feel. Therefore, we should make conscious decisions about how we think.
Fortunately, being mindful and using our power of thought are not new skills that need to be learned. We’ve all done it. All we need to do is practice – consciously practice. The following example should make this clear.
Have you ever been in traffic crawling one mile an hour and found yourself getting so impatient that you start yelling (or thinking) all kinds of profanities? Your heart is pumping faster and you find yourself getting tense. You might even find yourself yelling at the driver in front of you who is just as stuck as you. Then maybe you realize that all that frustration or anger you are experiencing isn’t going to move the traffic any faster. You take a deep breath and decide that you may as well turn on your favorite music and enjoy your “down time” which always seems to be in short supply. After all, what’s to be gained by getting mad? That’s living consciously. You reacted initially, then you observed yourself (mindfulness), then you made a choice to change your thought about your situation and ended up feeling calmer; even more peaceful perhaps.
The next major concept to understand is the idea of “being in the moment” or “living in the present or the now.” I would like to reference the work of Eckhart Tolle, author of “The Power of Now.” Simply put, Tolle says instead of worrying or wasting our energy thinking about the past or the future, we should simply focus on what we can do now. But don’t we have to plan for the future? Don’t we have a million things on our list that we need to get through? Yes. I’ll cover how we stay in the present, yet still plan for the future, but let me address the past first.
We all have gone back in time in our minds and wished some things had been different. Yet, we all know that we can’t go back and change anything. So the best we can do is learn from our past experiences. What went well and why? What didn’t go so well and why? What different choice could I make now that I have the benefit of hindsight? We spend so much of our precious time and energy beating ourselves up for not having made better choices. Then we often feel guilty, angry, embarrassed etc. – all emotions that drain our energy. Since I cannot go back and change the past, is there any benefit to experiencing these feelings over and over again? The first few times were sufficient enough to determine never to do that again. The other approach to the past: If you can make things right, then do. If all you can do is apologize, then do that, too. In short, what can we do about the past? Learn from it. Make it right if you can. Apologize if you’ve affected someone. There is no point reliving and beating yourself up.
Now let me make the link between the past and present moment and consciously living. Let’s say we are in the present, I am driving home after a long day at work. I might find myself reliving the past and re-experiencing all those unpleasant emotions. But are present events causing these emotions? No. It’s only reliving the past that is causing it. Right now, all that’s happening is that I’m driving home. By utilizing the art of mindfulness – observing myself without judgment – I notice that my brain has gone to the past and I am now experiencing that disappointment or embarrassment or hurt again and my energy is draining. I remind myself the past is the past, I have learned, I’ve done everything I could to make it right, and now I am going to simply refocus my thoughts on right now – back to present time. This is the conscious choice that I making; I am not simply reacting to where my thoughts have gone. In present time, there’s nothing happening to make me feel those feelings. Once you recognize where your thoughts are, you simply bring it back to now. As I mentioned, it’s a skill to practice so that conscious living becomes more and more second nature, a lifestyle.
The last major concept to understand is the idea of control. What can we actually control? The answer is simple – ourselves and that’s all. Sure we can attempt to influence by our words and actions as that’s what we have control over, but that’s about it. Since we can only control ourselves, the choices we make are key in our journey for peace. We always have two basic choices to make: Either be a puppet to everyone or everything else, pulling my strings to the point that I’m getting pulled apart, or make conscious choices about what to do about the situation. One of my favorite lines is: “It is what it is. Now what do I want to do about that?”
There are many factors that can and will impact us: A rainy day that spoils the big outdoor event you’ve been planning for months; the person that doesn’t hold the door as you are struggling with an armful of groceries; a bird that stains the windshield on your newly washed car, and the list goes on. Just how many of those situations can we actually control? None. However, many of us sure do get upset and find ourselves feeling just like we were in the traffic jam. The point is, if we can’t control it, there’s no need to waste our energy trying to change it, the same approach that we took for dealing with the past.
Returning to the question of how to apply all of these concepts in planning for the future, let’s look at planning for retirement. Many of us are worried about being able to retire comfortably. Whether its 5 or 15 years away, we hope that we’ll be able to make ends meet. Is there a point to worrying about it? No. But we do have to have a plan. How is this being in the present if we are planning for the future? We have to focus again on what we can control. If I want to retire in 10 years, for example, what I can control now is taking stock of my current financial status. Then I can see what, if anything I can do right now to help ensure a comfortable retirement. If there are some steps to take (cut down on expenses, contribute more to the 401K etc.), then I need to make a list of what those steps are and prioritize them. If I’ve decided I can only get number 1,2, and 3 on the list done today, then I don’t have to think about the rest now. And when I’m taking care of #1, I don’t have to think about #2. When I’m focusing and taking care of #1, I am in the now, the present moment. And when the brain chatter comes back reminding me about #100, I tell it to go away because I’ve already decided that it’s way down on the priority list. Mindfulness at work in that I have observed where my thoughts were and then I consciously decided where to redirect them. Instead of worrying about the future, I just have to make a plan and carry out the plan in the present. When I’m doing what I need to be doing in the present, then I can be at peace. There are no “I should be, or what ifs.”
You might be thinking, “Yes, I can do all that, but what if I already know it’s not enough for my retirement.” I’m not suggesting that things will always be ideal. I am recommending, however, that the best we can do is to make the best of what is. Change what you can when you can and be at peace knowing there is nothing else that can be done. There is no point worrying if there is nothing else you can do. If we are always focusing on whatever we can control (ourselves) and doing what we can do, then all the worrying, stress, and anxiety about the “what ifs, and what should/could have been” is a waste of energy leaving us far from our goal of peace.
Here is another example to help understand this idea of choice, future, present, control. Back to the big outdoor party that you’ve planned for months from now. What if it rains? So what can you do now? Create a contingent plan ready that is ready to implement if necessary. Now you have eliminated unnecessary worry.” When the day comes, and the forecast tells you it’s going to downpour, isn’t it still easy to get mad or disappointed? Absolutely! It’s human nature to have feelings and reactions. However, does getting mad or upset or disappointed stop the rain? Will being mad help you enjoy the event or will to take away from your fun and drain your energy. If you let the weather get to you, then you would be merely reacting and getting your strings pulled. That would be one choice. The other and more logical choice? Think differently. Sure it may not be ideal. Sure it may not be what you hoped it was going to be. Rather, since “it is what it is” use conscious choice to focus on what you can control and make the best of what is. Thank goodness you planned ahead and had a contingent plan. You anticipated what might happen in the future (rain), and in the present, you made a plan to be executed if and when necessary. You don’t have to worry or think about the “what if” anymore. When the future event becomes the present, you are to enjoy the company of your friends under the big canopy you set up. Disappointment vs. enjoyment? You choose.
One last example that I want to apply these concepts to is a factor that often gets in the way of people feeling at peace – people. My father, my mother, my brother, my friend, my ex, my supervisor, my teacher, my somebody made me or makes me feel like I’m not good enough. Just because they treated you “less than” doesn’t mean that you are. Sometimes they are no longer alive, yet we still are affected by them. Since we cannot control them, in the practice of living consciously, the question is: How do you feel about yourself? Who do you want to be? What do you aspire to be or do? Then you redirect your thoughts and energy to appreciating yourself, working on the things that you would like to improve or change, and accepting the things that you cannot change (I always wished I were taller. Oh well!). And as for all the people who treat or treated you “less than,” realize than if they were happy peaceful people, they probably wouldn’t be telling you how worthless you are.
Are you thinking: “Well, this is all nice and good if you aren’t faced with a major catastrophe in life such as the ones mentioned at the beginning of this article?” I will not minimize or trivialize what some people have had to face or are facing. Nonetheless, you have two choices – be drained for the rest of your life, or choose to pick up the pieces and focus on what is and what you can do. I chose to write, hoping that somehow, I will touch someone else’s life to help them find peace. It is one thing I could do about the future in the present.
In a nutshell, living consciously means making conscious choices and directing your life rather than reacting to it. In order to do that, practice the skill of mindfulness – stepping back and observing yourself without judgment. Note how you are thinking and feeling. Are your thoughts or what you’re doing energizing (making you feel upbeat and positive) or draining (being angry, resentful, inpatient etc.). If energizing, do more of that. If draining, then make a conscious choice about what you want chose to think about and/or do. Focus only on what you have control over. It’s you, and you only in this moment, not the past you or the future you.
I will end with a tip I have given to clients to help them choose their course of action in the present. I suggest they ask themselves this question: When I put my head down on my pillow tonight, will I be proud of what I have said and done today? Hopefully, the answer will guide you into making a good decision now – in this moment – so that you can be at peace with yourself now and later.