Life is responsiveness, they say. To live is to respond.
But what do we actually respond to?
Sometimes it’s an awesome sunset, the caress of a loved one, an inspiring poem, or beautiful music. Those are peak moments of pure responsiveness.
But for most of us, most of our waking hours, we primarily respond to our own thoughts. We tell ourselves stories all day long, and we respond to the stories instead of to life as it is. We do this much of the day, every day, without even realizing that we’re caught up in stories rather than living life.
Here’s an example. Imagine you’re sitting at your desk. In ten minutes there will be a meeting where your boss is presiding and you are presenting. You’ve prepared. You’ve practiced. There’s nothing more to be done. There’s no reason you can’t just relax, have a glass of water, and wait quietly for the meeting time.
But that’s not what you do. Instead, you tell yourself story after story about what’s going to happen in the meeting. Some of the stories may be pleasant. You perform well and get praise from your boss. Some of them may be unpleasant. You slip up and get criticized by your boss.
In either case, your mind isn’t quiet. And your body isn’t quiet either. You can’t relax because you’re responding to the stories. When you respond to the pleasant stories, you feel excitement. You may slip further into a fantasy about a rosy future. You may get so caught up in the fantasy that you start to be dissatisfied with the present. And when you respond to the unpleasant stories, you feel anxiety and other kinds of distress. You may slip into a fantasy about a very unpleasant future, one where you have to work overtime, get demoted, or even lose your job. Then you respond to that story and feel even greater distress. You may start recalling past incidents where you were criticized (more stories!) and feel distressed about them too.
Does this sound familiar? I expect it does, because it’s standard operating procedure for most of us most of the time. And we usually don’t even realize it.
So that’s the problem. We respond to our thought stories about the future and the past. We put ourselves through hell because we’re much more interested in the stories than we are in life as it is here and now.
That’s the problem. What’s the solution?
The solution is simple. Yes, simple. Simple, but not easy.
Here it is on a silver platter:
Become less interested in your thought stories and more interested in living here and now.
See what I mean? Simple but not easy.
Why isn’t it easy? Because our habits are strongly established. We pay attention to our thoughts. We tend to respond to the stories. Even when our rational mind says a story is baloney (like the one about botching the presentation and getting fired), we still find our bodies responding as if the story were true. Which means we feel distress. The throat tightens. The gut clenches. The heart beats faster. We interpret that as distress, as anxiety, and half the time we don’t know why we’re feeling it.
So if the rational mind isn’t the answer, what is? Mindfulness. Mindfulness training lets us begin to see the whole picture clearly. It lets us begin to distance ourselves from the thought stories, to become less interested in them, and to become more interested in what life offers us here and now. The resulting relief and relaxation can be immeasurable.
Thanks for reading. Comments and shares are welcome!