- Steve Sphar, JD, ACC
Meet Life Where It Is
Life is a river. The force of its energy is always pulsing through us. If we stop for a moment and let our awareness fall into silence, we can feel its flow and the direction of its desire. We can tap our intuitive insight when we listen deeply.
The friction points in our life are where the river’s flow meets the rigid banks of our wishes, preferences, and fixed ideas of how things ought to be. When the friction is low, life flows easily. The river moves between the banks and we float along the eddies, confident in our ability to meet whatever comes. We stake our claim, we reach our goals, our cup is full. The dice seem to roll in our favor and we revel in our success, giving perhaps a bit too much credit to our own efforts.
It is when the friction increases that things get more interesting.
When the landscape of life requires change, as it inevitably must, the river seeks a new direction. Sometimes (rarely) we like the change and flow with it. More often, the change disrupts our sense of what we want or what we think we deserve. And so we fight to keep the river on its old course. Our ego-self swings into battle, becoming our own private Army Corps of Engineers, using mechanics to keep the strength of nature in its proper place. This rarely lasts for long. The force builds, the levees bulge, the eddies grow into white water, until the river breaks free and goes its way, leaving behind what looks like destruction but is actually just change.
These friction points are not to be taken lightly, they have real-world effects. All of us face things in life we don’t like from minor irritations (like bad drivers) to major setbacks (like a serious illness or the loss of a job). These events impact our lives and can cause genuine suffering. But our typical reaction is to fight the change and strive to eliminate or suppress the painful disruption. This striving actually intensifies our pain instead of relieving it.
A far better strategy is to meet life where it is – to place as much faith in the river as in the shore. With all its twists and turns, rapids and waterfalls, to meet life where it is requires us to show the strength of acceptance.
Accepting life as it presents itself is not a kind of giving up. It is not acquiescence in the bad behavior of others. It is not an excuse to retreat in the face of adversity. Acceptance is a clear-headed acknowledgement of what is squarely before us in this exact moment. It has the courage to see facts as they are and not shrink back; to feel whatever emotions arise and move forward anyway. Accepting life’s full offering, the good and the bad, allows us to take informed action that is more aligned with the currents of the river, more capable of intuiting the long view of life’s direction.
Below are three tools that can help you meet life where it is: reframing control, feeling feelings, and having a conversation with your future self.
Reframe Your Concept of Control Most of the time, we manage the daily routine of life quite well. From paying our taxes to closing a sale to holding events for a school committee, we know we are able to plan, control and implement our decisions. We believe that we can “make things happen.” We get used to this sense of control and we attribute success to our personal efforts.
But our sense of control is just that, a sense. We could even say, a false sense. When we step back from the daily routine, we start to see just how little control we have. It is an illusion of control really, an illusion that can be upended at any moment. The list of things beyond our control is long: an economic downturn, devastating weather, a bad health diagnosis, accidents, termites in the basement, heavy traffic, the local factory closing, crime, earthquakes, other people’s stupidity, rolling blackouts, and more too numerous to list. Our personal efforts can stop none of these. We are more at the whim of the world than the helm.
Our true scope of control is quite narrow. Depending on how we approach this realization, it can cause anxiety or it can free us from unreasonable expectations. Our lack of control could cause us to fear the bad things might happen to us. Alternatively, we can realize that bad things will happen to all of us, regardless of our fear. Our fear does not prevent bad events, it just wastes energy. This change of perspective can help us meet life where it is specifically because we recognize we are not in control.
Feel Your Feelings One reason we fight the river and strive to control events is that we are afraid to feel our feelings. Our minor successes fool us into thinking we can change the course of life, that we can avoid loss, sickness and even death. These events cause us discomfort, pain, unhappiness and grief. Striving for control can delay or suppress these unpleasant feelings, but it cannot eliminate them.
Emotional energy does not go away. It collects in the storehouse of our psyche until it causes physical problems, manifests in anxiety or depression, or mistakenly unloads on the wrong person.
A better strategy is to open to feelings as they arise and learn to process them in real time. Fear, anger, grief, dismay, all of these emotions have information for us. All of them register in the body. Learning to stay open to our somatic sensations and deciphering the information inherent in our emotions can help us meet life as it is.
Talk to Your Future Wiser Self We have all had the experience of making it through a difficult time and then saying, “if I only knew then what I know now!” Recall one of those times now. Hold in your mind two versions of you, the “you” that went into the challenge and the “you” that emerged after. The later version of you is wiser and more capable. It could counsel the earlier version of you with ideas and advice in how to meet the challenge. It would reassure you that you will make it through intact. And it could describe how the challenge, though painful at the time, ultimately gave you valuable insights and benefits.
This is a universal experience. No matter what problems you are currently facing, you can borrow from this experience to help you gain perspective and have more acceptance for what is true now. To have a conversation with your future wiser self, try these steps:
In your mind’s eye, picture your future self, the one who has weathered this storm. It doesn’t matter that you don’t currently know how things will work out, there is a “you” out there in the future who has survived and maybe thrived. That is who you are bringing to mind.
Sit with this “you” and talk to him or her about what you are facing.Ask for guidance. Ask what you learned from this experience.Ask how it made you better, or made things better for others.Hint:the longer you keep the conversation going the more you will learn. Early answers in the conversation can be quick and easy.Later answers draw more deeply from your own intuitive wisdom.
Write your conversation down as you talk. There is something special about writing that activates a deeper part of your wisdom. Writing slows down your rapid-fire thinking and forces you past the superficial nature of your easy first responses. The mechanical process of writing expands the exercise beyond a purely mental activity.
To meet life where it is means to embrace acceptance as a lifelong practice, a path that is challenging but infinitely rewarding. Practicing acceptance builds your stamina and confidence for future trials. It brings an ultimate sense of peace that you cannot obtain through striving. But perhaps most important of all, acceptance opens you up to life, all of it, the wondrous and the disastrous. When we are in a state of striving, we constrict, we clench both our external and internal muscles to brace ourselves for battle. When we live in acceptance, we can open and feel fully alive. It is this open state that allows us to experience all that life has to offer. It is an openness born in trust – trust in the river, trust in its final destination, and trust in ourselves to weather all the starts and stops along the way.
About the Author
Steve Sphar is a seasoned leadership consultant with over 25 years experience partnering with executives and managers to create sustained positive change. He was a practicing attorney for 12 years before turning his law and business experience to the field of leadership consulting. He helps managers and executives develop their leadership potential though one-on-one coaching, leadership training and facilitation of executive retreats. Read more about Steve.
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