What happens when life doesn’t deliver as planned? When you travel half way around the world for personal retreat, but instead of transformational enlightenment you’re faced with a monkey mind wracked by boredom, discomfort, confusion and distress?
I was about 16 days into my time in Thailand when I realized I was counting down the days, when the thrill of adventure was replaced by increasing physical discomfort and mental agitation. Following is my 3 step adversity reset plan, along with my Pre-Gratitude approach to New Year's planning.
1. “No matter where you go, there you are"
Sure, I knew I was bringing the same old me into retreat. A human brain wired for comfort and certainty, an ego-driven preference for action, a boatload of unconscious expectation. I knew I had the same old stress prone brain, but it wasn't
But, it wasn't until the third day of holing up in my room streaming Netflix that I had to admit things weren't going as planned. I was not so much Zen as zoned out, caught in a repeating cycle of discomfort and distraction. Aversion and escape intermixed with bouts crazy thinking.
So I did a "name it to tame it" and called myself out on my own distress. Which proves to be a good first step, as current research shows acknowledgement (affect labeling) actually turns down the volume on neural distress.
2. Avoid Salt in the Wound
l was not having fun. Flitting from bed to bench to beach to motorbiking, my agitated search for physical comfort escalated along with my annoyance at everything. My discontent over rudimentary furnishings, cigarette smoke in the dining area and sand fleas on the beach were only fueling the fire of my malcontent.
I realized that my desire for things to be different was adding to my own unhappiness, like salt in a wound. It was time for surrender. I had to drop the struggle and accept exactly where I was in the moment -- discomfort, displeasure and all.
So I surrendered to self care and inertia, trusting that "doing nothing" was exactly what was supposed to happen on this particular retreat. I reminded myself that circumstances always change over time, that my achy body and pissy attitude truly wouldn't last forever, no matter how it felt in the moment. I also soothed my inner perfectionist by recalling, daily, the wisdom of my teacher Richard Miller: "In every moment, each of us is doing the very best that we can. Otherwise, things would be different." My own best efforts during this trying time were all that were required. Good enough was enough.
It's true that surrender brings relief. Letting go of the fruitless push to control allowed me to physically and mentally relax back, finding some measure of comfort before heading into the long journey home.
3. Dose the Critic with Kindness
Wedged into economy seating with 2 blankets, three pillows and a sacral strap, boredom quickly took a backseat to discomfort about halfway into a grueling commute home.
It was after several hours of moderate success with distraction (audio, video, meditation, stretch, repeat) that I noticed the nature of my internal dialogue. "Nothing is working!" "Another 13 hours and 2 more flights?!?" “If I were a master of mindfulness, I’d have this under control”
What a mean and critical soundtrack was looping though my brainspace! Surprisingly unkind and definitely not helpful, I remembered the power of Kristen Neff's Mindful Self Compassion Breaks and spent the last half of my return reminding myself that hardship wasn't my unique punishment and now was the time to replace the critic's dialogue with kind gesture and compassionate thought. Whew. Another science based remedy that works, increasing levels of oxytocin and feelings of trust, calm, safety, and connectedness. From Seoul to Seattle, these practices shifted by physiology and facilitated an increase in own self compassion.
New Year's Resolution? More Carrot, Less Stick
So what next? I returned to an inbox full of advice on New Year's resolutions, along with a nasty headcold and a screwy sleep schedule. It all felt like more strive than thrive, and was the perfect place to begin my annual Pre-Gratitude list, a personal practice 3 years in the running and still under refinement.
Once again, I used the foundational concept of heartfelt desire as a starting point. I like setting my direction based on increasing overall joy, and feel the power of identifying those places where I want to soften and let go to mitigate my own suffering. This year's list is once again fore carrot and less stick, with just enough ambiguity for grace.
Unfortunately, in comparing my 2017 and 2018 lists, I found a lot of overlap and not much evidence of forward movement. Progress was made, to be sure, but it was a bit too nebulous for satisfaction. So my 2019 Pre-Gratitude list is a combination of both big ideas and incremental SMART goals to tangibly guide my progress.
My 2019 resolution is to make a plan and work the plan, to trust and adjust, to live every day with self compassion and accountability. Stay tuned for quarterly revisions and list updates over the coming year, and consider sharing your experience.
Drop me a line. How do reset from adversity? What do you do for annual direction setting? Do you have a successful strategy for staying kind to yourself while sticking with the slow process of real personal change? Email me at Sb@peoplespause.com and let me know!