“You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” ~ Albert Einstein
Sometimes it can feel like you are caught in a firestorm of overwhelming and uncontrollable thought. Concerns, doubts, “What if’s”, “Yes but’s” swirl through your mind pulling you into the fierce grip of anxiety. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call these swirling thoughts stories. If you pay close enough attention to your mind, you will see that it is a relentless and compelling storyteller. And sometimes it is difficult to know what is real and what is not.
The bottomless pit of stories
When your mind is bombarding you with images and thoughts that create anxiety, it may be tempting to analyze your stories in order to disprove them—to find counter-arguments and new evidence to give yourself a reprieve. But if you do, you may find yourself slowly (or quickly) entering a war with your obstinate and frenetic mind, bargaining with new “What if’s” and “Yes but’s”, new counter-images, in what seems like an endless and futile Ping-Pong match. And no matter how many balls of impressive reason and rationale you hit back, and how well you strike them, your resolute and slippery mind only seems to one-up you with a more compelling argument.
Even seeking help from others can be a subtle means of staying in the trenches of battle. We often seek council from family or friends hoping they collude with our counter-argument strategies and validate the stories we want to be true. And if they don’t tell us what we want to hear we get frustrated and discount their viewpoints. And the firestorm rages on.
With enough pain, and perhaps self-awareness, we soon discover that we cannot win the fight. More stories are never enough. Stories only lead to more stories, a bottomless pit, a thick fog that we get lost and overwhelmed in. The only way out is to give up story making all together, and to sink into reality.
The compassionate truth
Compassion is meeting ourselves where we are, in our truth, in this very moment.
It has been said that the truth shall set you free. This has been my experience—truth has certainly helped me move beyond the frenetic overwhelm of my mind’s stories; the ones that seem so convincing, so real. Truth continues to be the doorway out leading to greater peace of mind and clarity.
When swirling stories are rampaging through your mind, ask yourself, “What is true for me right now?” For instance, what may be true for you is that you are confused, or you are struggling to trust, or are afraid, or you feel powerless to your stories. Sink into that for a moment. Let it be enough.
A while ago, I was struggling for many days with the fact that I may need to move. My lovely partner told me that she could not foresee herself living in Vancouver much longer because she could not handle the busyness and noise, and because she felt healthier in small towns. This possibility plagued me because I love my home and community so much. I was suddenly at the whim of an onslaught of overwhelming images and stories stampeding through my mind: not being able to find a new community and place that feels like home; leaving behind the people and neighborhood nooks I adore; the added travel on top of what is already a very busy travel schedule; and not being happy in general. My stomach felt tight, and I even gave myself a headache at the thought of all this. Yes, quite dramatic! Finally, while laying in bed, I asked myself, “What is true for me right now?” In other words, what do I really know for certain? I could not, in all sincerity, vouch for certain that I would be moving, because even she was not 100% clear. And even if I could, moving was not here and now in my experience; it was still in the future. Liberation always happens in the NOW, where truth is found. Our stories, on the other hand, always exist in the past and future.
So what could I vouch for that was present? In that moment I realized I was confused and scared. That was the true heart of the matter in that very moment. That is what was real, a hundred times more real than the stories stampeding through my mind. When I let myself sink into that truth, I suddenly felt calm—a calm-clarity that astounded me, and that lasted for days after. It was as though the concern wasn’t even there at all, and had never existed.
It was only after a few days that the fear-based stories reappeared in my mind; but this time their teeth were less sharp, and their bite less ferocious—they had far less intensity, and didn’t hang around for nearly as long. And, for the most part, it remained that way. There was something about the truth of the moment that seemed to give no ground for my anxious future-based stories to stand on. Truth was much more powerful than my fears.
It begs the question: What is the cause of our suffering—what is out there, or in our mind?
The body is our barometer. In a myriad of ways, it always informs us how far we are from truth.
There is a calming effect in our mind and body when we allow ourselves to rest in the obvious, not the ambiguous. Facts are liberating. Stories are full of uncertainty, and can lead to more uncertainty. But truth is liberating because we bypass what cannot be substantiated and sink into what we know is real. This is our first act of self-compassion—acknowledging the absolute truth of our experience—now. Stories dissolve in the face truth. They have nowhere to hide.
While sinking into truth may not change the external circumstance, it can change how we view and respond to our situation. With calmness, we have greater clarity, supporting healthier and more productive decision-making. We react less, and respond more. That is our responsibility—our ability to respond.
Sinking into truth may not always lead to feeling calm, at least not right away. By accepting what is real for you—that you are confused, unable to trust, are afraid or powerless to your thoughts, for instance—your body may speak to you through strong emotions of sadness, anger or fear. Deep swells of feelings may arise out of nowhere, filling your chest and throat, offering themselves to you to be with, to hold and embrace. Try not to be afraid of them—to pathologize yourself, thinking that there is something “wrong” with you. There is not. You are simply being human. Welcome them into your arms to rest as you would a small afraid child.
Resting in the somatic realm is the second act of self-compassion. It is giving yourself over to your body’s expression of truth, to what is real on the somatic level; it is letting yourself feel what wants to be felt.
The lure of distraction
Much of our story making is in fact an attempt to circumvent truth and our body’s expression of it. We have been taught, on some level, to avoid both—to suck it up, be strong and get on with life; to disregard what is real in our heart, and to live more in our heads; and we have not been supported to understand how the mind works, and specifically, how it will do its best to distract us from what is true, what wants to be felt. As a result, we have become walking storytellers, with minds full of compelling narratives that interest us, scare us to death, and that we unwittingly identify with and allow to run our lives. And so we manage by checking Facebook, watching TV, having another drink, smoke or toke, or through gossip and collusion. But all the while we are simply “managing” our inner world, coping by dancing around what we are afraid to face and be with.
So much of what we call “reality”—what we focus on day to day—is simply our many convenient and imaginative means of distracting ourselves from what is true, what is real within. It is our coping mechanisms. It is our stories played out externally.
Whether through pushing ourselves externally, or pushing down what wants to be felt, a great deal of vital energy is used to deny our truth and body, more than we can possibly imagine. It is where so much of our dis-ease comes from. Our health and wellbeing can be dramatically improved (and our healthcare costs dramatically decreased) if we simply and kindly meet ourselves where we authentically are—if we just say Yes to what is real, and not run from it. If we say Yes to ourselves, perhaps for the first time; Yes to the fact that: I am afraid. I am sad. I am confused. I am lost. I don’t know what to do. I am powerless. I need help, and make this very human state okay; if we just sink into our truth and rest into an honest somatic response by feeling what wants to be felt underneath the stories. Indeed, we can restore our vital energy and health in this tremendous act of self-compassion.
6 Steps to Moving Beyond the Overwhelming Stories of the Mind and into Self-Compassion
The six steps are an act of surrender—of giving up control and ending the battle. The moment you disengage from the stories and focus on truth, you grant power back to your Self, and away from the controlling mind. Your mind will not like it—it will try to pull you back into the drama with yet another counter-punch. But know that it is simply protecting its need to stay in control by keeping you away from uncertainty and present moment truth.
- Notice when you feel anxious, specifically when overwhelmed by narratives in your mind.
- Pay close attention to the stories you are making up, and to your impulse to add more stories—counter arguments, evidence etc.; to engage in a battle and hit another Ping-Pong ball.
- Pause. Take a few deep breaths which helps to slow down your fight-flight-freeze mind. Focus on the space in the center of your chest—your heart center—as you breathe slowly and deeply.
- Ask yourself, “What is true for me right now?” If the answer is, “I don’t know”, then that is your truth. Sink into that. Let that be enough. If your truth is, “I feel powerless to my thoughts”, again, let that be enough. That is what is real for you. You don’t need to change it, just simply accept it.
- Now, if you feel inclined, see if you can sink even further down to sense if there is a deeper truth. Perhaps underneath your sense of not knowing or powerlessness is fear or anger. You sink further by asking, “What is true beneath my feeling of powerlessness?” If the answer is anger, then ask, “What is true beneath my feeling of anger?” Keep asking until you get to the core truth; until you cannot sink any further down.
- Here the somatic realm may begin to stir and speak to you. Feel any feelings that arise as you sink more deeply into your truth. Let them reveal themselves as they may. Try not to resist them, nor judge yourself for feeling them. They are not bad or wrong. Allow them to move through your body. Emotion is meant to move. That is its natural state, hence: energy in motion – e-motion. Let the energy circulate through your body, setting itself free. While this may feel foreign at first, trust it is quite natural. It was when you were a young child, so why should it be any different now?
Seek extra help from a professional if your feelings seem too much to handle on your own. I have sought help through many professionals including therapists, life coaches, healers and more. It’s okay to ask for help, and to know that you cannot do it on your own.
It should also be said that these six steps may not be enough to give you the peace of mind you seek. Sometimes the only thing that helps the storm pass is time. But at minimum, you can accept that you cannot control your thoughts, that they won’t go away, and that you feel overwhelmed by them. Again, for now, try to let that be enough, despite the monkey mind continuing to swing from one dendrite to another. In just accepting that you feel powerless, you may experience some relief.
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Check out Vince’s book: Wild Empty Spaces ~ Poems for the Opening Heart