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The Next Step to Bewilderment…And Other Wisdom from Martha

jan2016Bewilderment Lesson 2:
Don’t Swallow Poison

Last month I invited you to join me in a process I call bewilderment (the effort to be wilder) with a series of simple steps. The first of these, as we saw, is CALM DOWN. The second—my New Year’s resolution for 2016—is DON’T SWALLOW POISON. If you take these first two steps, virtually all the wondrous, magical, fulfilling things you’ve ever hoped for will finally reach you. Yet, of the thousands of folks I’ve coached, only a tiny percentage will even experiment with Step Two.

By “Don’t Swallow Poison” I mean refusing to internalize anything that causes pain, sickness, or extreme distress. We do this pretty well when it comes to food. When I was about five I had stomach flu after eating a lime Popsicle. I’ve never eaten a lime Popsicle since.  Avoidance of nausea is one of the most powerful responses we possess.

It’s weird, then, that most of us continue swallowing thoughts that sicken us, over and over. “Swallowing” thoughts simply means believing them. When we believe a thought that’s wrong for us, our hearts and bodies struggle, retch, and spasm, trying to eject them. It’s not a subtle reaction, yet we grimly keep down our poisonous beliefs by refusing to question them.

“I’m bad.” “I’m ugly.” “I never get it right.” Just hold those thoughts in your mind and feel how sick they make you. I mean physically sick—weak, tired, achy, and vulnerable to stress. Then begin focusing on any evidence that refutes them. “My dog thinks I’m good.” “Some parts of me are beautiful.” “I got a lot of things right today.” Pay attention, and you’ll feel your sickness begin to lessen.

This year, try vowing not to swallow any belief that makes you sick. This isn’t easy. Few people ever try it. But the reward is incalculable: greater ease and joy in everything from sleeping to paying your bills. And if you can use the first two steps even part of the time, you’ll find yourself growing freer and more true to yourself, ready for the next step to be-wilder-ment.

Not to Worry: 10 Things to Stop Worrying About

Photo: Simon Hayhurst/CC BY 2.0

Photo: Simon Hayhurst/CC BY 2.0

Everywhere I turn these days, people are urging me to worry. “Restaurants are swarming with bacteria!” shouts a local news promo. “We’ll tell you what to beware of!” From the computer in my lap, a parenting blog warns, “There’s plenty to be anxious about.” Noting the pallor of my furrowed brow, a neighbor clucks, “I think you should be more concerned about your health.”

Friends, there are many areas in which I need encouragement, but worrying is not one of them. I worry the way Renée Fleming sings high Cs: Effortlessly. Loudly. At length. You may be similarly gifted, because worrying comes easily to a certain subpopulation of humans, namely those of us with pulses. We’re constantly creating new, worry-based strategies for living.

But worrying is worrisome: It’s stressful, and as we all know, stress will kill you. I worry about that a lot. So today I’m striking a tiny blow for sanity with my list of ten things you can officially stop worrying about.

1. What’s on Your Plate

“If I can just finish this project,” says my ultrabusy friend Nancy, “I can stop worrying.” She’s said this every time I’ve ever spoken to her. No matter how much work Nancy finishes, by the time it’s done she’s fixating on a whole new crop of chores. In our achievement-obsessed society, this is “normal.” But I realized just how insane it is when a friend was dying of cancer. On her deathbed she managed to joke with me, “Hey, at least I only have one more thing on my to-do list.”

Instead of fretting about getting everything done, why not simply accept that being alive means having things to do? Then drop into full engagement with whatever you’re doing, and let the worry go.

“But,” you may be thinking, “I can’t just cut my anxiety loose! It isn’t under my control!” I empathize with this argument. I also know it’s bunk. To stop worrying about something, simply direct your attention toward something else. Personally, I like to interrupt my flow of worry by imagining—vividly—what I’d do if an elk walked into the room. See? Distraction works.

2. Needing Help

I used to be one of those people who spurned assistance—from other people, from God, from chemicals. Not anymore! These days—whether I’m begging for divine intervention, enlisting a fellow coach to help me overcome my aversion to e-mail, or refilling the awesome prescription that helps me sleep no matter how disruptive my schedule—I pretty much walk around hollering, “Help wanted!”

Are my helpers crutches? You betcha. Mama needs crutches, and she doesn’t worry one little bit about using them. If you worry about needing what you need—a shoulder to cry on, a standing date with a shrink, whatever the shrink prescribes—come to Mama, and she’ll smack you upside the head with her crutches until that worry flies right out of your mind.

3. Your Children

There was a time when I spent many hours worrying about my kids. In fact, I was so worried my firstborn would feel unloved that I “soothed” her constantly, blasting the poor child with a fire hose of anxious energy. It’s a wonder she survived.

My second child, who arrived with an extra 21st chromosome, eventually led me to a shocking conclusion: We don’t actually have much control over the way our kids turn out. Genes do a lot of the deciding, and the owner of those genes does most of the rest. Some kids let parents have a great deal of influence; others don’t. Either way, people blossom when we love them, not when we worry about them. Worry just teaches worry. Let it go.

4. Your Face (and Hips, and Butt…)

As long as we’re on the subject of DNA, let’s take on the big kahuna of worries: our appearance. Ten bajillion product ads notwithstanding, your looks are another thing that’s basically genetic. Stressing about them only deepens the facial creases that make everyone in your family resemble perturbed bulldog puppies. Key phrase: everyone in your family.

Instead of obsessing over your own appearance, try noticing—and mentioning—beautiful things about everyone else. This will make people adore you, which, last time I checked, is what most of us are hoping to achieve by worrying about our looks in the first place.

5. What You Own

The trick here is learning to reframe your perspective. For example, my friend Kathy always lays a colorful towel over her expensive tablecloth before serving her twin 7-year-old granddaughters a snack. One of the twins recently said, “Grandma, you don’t need to worry about us spilling. Spills are just memories.” If you’d rather live surrounded by pristine objects than by the traces of happy memories, stay focused on tangible things. Otherwise, stop fixating on stuff you can touch and start caring about stuff that touches you.

6. Everything You’re Doing Wrong

I don’t know any perfect people, but I know many who worry about being perfect. They exercise religiously and serve their families home-cooked organic free-range Tofurky recipes. They are unbearable.

I love the Buddhist concept of enlightenment as living without anxiety over imperfection. You can strain every fiber of your being trying to be flawless, only to face inevitable failure—or you can stop worrying about perfection, which instantly makes everything feel great. Save time and tofu: Choose option two.

7. The Past

I agree that your divorce settlement was a travesty of justice on par with the sack of Troy, that your last boss was abusive, and that you shouldn’t have calmed yourself with so many Cosmopolitans prior to testifying before Congress. I do not agree that worrying about it now will do any good.

The word worry comes from the Old English wyrgan, meaning “to strangle.” When we fixate on something in the past, we grab our own histories by the throat, cutting off the flow of physical and emotional energy that keeps us fully alive. To start the flow again, look forward. Think how you can apply what you’ve learned. Let your divorce teach you to negotiate assertively, your horrible boss help you spot and avoid other creeps. Let the debacle at Congress send you to a 12-step meeting. Embracing the lesson always loosens the stranglehold of worry.

8. What People Are Saying About You Right This Very Second

People are always telling me elaborate stories about the elaborate stories other people are supposedly telling about them. “I know people mock my pain,” growls one client. “Everyone expects me to be strong,” says another. “You think I’m expendable,” sobs a wife, while her husband protests, “You think I’m a robot.” All of these people are wrong, but they’ve got company. We all worry what people think about us—until we decide not to waste the energy.

When I first started coaching, I noticed that I never worried what my clients thought of me. Why not? All my attention was focused on understanding them. I watched like a Martian observer, not a vulnerable peer. This took me out of worry mode, and it helped clients feel seen. By not worrying about what they thought of me, I accidentally ensured that they thought well of me.

Today, pretend you’re a Martian gathering data on humans. As you notice what they do and say without focusing on your fear of their opinions, you’ll feel less self-conscious, and they’ll feel the nonjudgmental attention they’ve always wanted from you. Win-win.

9. Your Account Balance

I have nothing against the globally sacred rite of worrying about money. Except this: People, it has no payoff.

I stopped worrying about money when I was unemployed, living on credit card debt. It wasn’t that my ship came in. It was just that I’d decided to try writing for a living, yet I was too worried to write. So I proactively pushed aside worry as I worked. Did I make money that day? No. Did I make money sooner because I stopped worrying? I think so. Did I enjoy my life more from that moment on, regardless of how much I had in the bank? Abso-freaking-lutely. Go about your business, whatever it is, with full energy. And drop the worry. Watch how much stronger your moneymaking skills become when you’re not dragging around a hefty load of anxiety.

10. Worrying

If your Spanx are now totally knotted from trying to stop worrying, it’s time to take a nice, cleansing breath. Aaahhhh. Remember point number six: We’re not after perfection here. If you’ve felt even a tiny release from worry while reading this list, you’re succeeding. That slight lessening of anxiety is all you need.

Wiggle your worries a little each day, and they’ll gradually lose their hold on you. Trust that you’re already counteracting the barrage of messages that tell us, every day, to worry, worry, and worry some more. Enjoy the liberating sense of bucking the cultural tide. And speaking of bucks, if you have further questions, please feel free to direct them to my elk.

 

Easy Does It

tumblr_lsmnttn3jX1qg5i5zLife is hard. We all know that. It is one of the primary beliefs that helped you gut it out through school subjects you hated, your soul-vampire of a job, and the years when your children, your partner, and your parents all depended on you. When I read through the journals I have kept sporadically throughout my life, I can see how acknowledging that life is hard helps me survive and overcome obstacles.

But, something weird is happening.

It’s not just me; it’s also people I work with, people I coach, and friends from all walks of life. We are being challenged to let things be easy. This is not an altogether new idea. 2000 years ago, Jesus supposedly said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The Buddha tried a life of pain and self-denial, then declared that it was not enlightenment and chose an easier path.

My favorite philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “The great Way is easy, yet people prefer the side path. Be aware when things are out of balance. Stay centered within the Way.”

It seems to me these days that the easy way is no longer an option for us: it is an imperative. What you are meant to do in the world may have begun with difficulty, but from here on, you are obliged to find the easiest path to all of your objectives. We live in a time of astonishing ease, especially those of us in the first world. Almost every day, at least one person says to me, “I can’t believe it’s that easy.” Guess what? It is.

For example, here are some of the things that seem too easy for me. I was educated to spend hours in libraries shuffling 3×5 note cards, searching through stacks of books, and reading thousands of pages in search of one nugget of truth. Now, I can Google “nugget of truth” and come up with over 2.5 million results in 0.23 seconds. In fact I just did it; how about this? “You are a dream of God come true.” That’s just awesome. That’s just too easy!

Another example: Now that I live in the country, shopping means a full-on expedition requiring at least an hour in transit just to buy groceries or a pair of flip-flops. Some of my neighbors recently told me that they shop online and have all of their purchases delivered to their country home. What? That’s just too easy!

Just one more: I have trouble remembering writing deadlines. So, right now, my wonderful Master Coach Jill Farmer is typing up this newsletter as I dictate it, while I’m giving myself a pedicure. Decadently easy!

By the same token, a dear friend of mine recently found a significant other through an online dating service. My daughters create astonishing works of art on their computers that would take thousands of hours to paint on a canvas. When I set out to plant a vegetable garden, a dear friend who loves to garden came and showed me how. We just ate our first batch of potatoes, a small miracle that required virtually no effort on our part.

All of this easiness is causing great un-easiness. At least a dozen people, over this past month, have asked me for coaching because certain tasks had become so easy they feared they were doing something wrong. I don’t think so. I think that a wave of easiness is rising all over the world. Does mean that people are not suffering or experiencing enormous difficulty? Of course not. But it may mean that even solving the problems of the destitute is meant to be an easier task than we believe. It may mean that the everyday labors of our lives are being facilitated by something that is teaching us to use our striving, tenacity, and grit to do things so huge and beautiful that they have never been possible before.

Do this for me: This month, every time you set out to do any task, ask yourself, “Is there an easier way?” Or, “How can I make this easier?” Can you ask a friend for help? Have you tried Googling it? Are there services out there to help you? Might small miracles happen if you simply ask the powers that be for assistance? It floors me when I ask this question to myself and realize how much easier tasks have become. And, the strength I gained gutting it through the hard parts of life is now free to flow into tasks that have one common purpose: to make things easier for others. That’s why all of this is happening, people. We are a species that works to make things easier. We’re getting really good at it. But, unless we drop the idea “life is hard,” we can’t take advantage of the astonishing ease we have created.