Have you ever experienced a period in your life where you feel like you're frantically trying to keep yourself from drowning? You get your head above water for a moment, only to be sucked under the surface again?
I moved to NYC six weeks ago, and as much as I want to describe the transition as being painless, I have had more "What the f*@% have I done?" moments than I can count; I have seriously questioned everything I know to be true and right; I have cried almost as much as the breakup of 2011, and essentially feel like I've been stripped naked, beaten and deloused.
So, while I still trust the notion that being broken open is necessary to inspire growth, here are five other sanity-reminders I cling to when it feels like I'm being submerged:
1. You are not what you think.
Similarly, your reality is not an "objective" reality. Have you ever had a thought, believed it to be true, and realized later on it was actually a complete fabrication? Our minds (bless them!) lie to us sometimes. They tell us the person we're texting hasn't answered because they think we're the worst. They tell us we're unattractive or worthless or pathetic or lazy, or that we've failed at life if we don't have a partner and 9-5 and two healthy children.
In times of crisis and challenge, our minds tell us things will never get better or our lives have been ruined. However, these are not necessarily truths. These are our subjective experiences, perceived through lenses of biases and assumptions. Take a step back from your mind and remember that your thoughts are merely neurons firing. Say to yourself "I'm having the thought that (whatever thought you are having)" and notice how it becomes less fixed. Don't believe everything you think.
2. You can't always change what you feel ...
... but you can change how you relate to what you feel. How many times have you been told "don't feel sad/anxious/angry?" Our society fears uncomfortable feelings. And yet, uncomfortable feelings are a normal part of life. In some situations, we can change them, but in other situations it's not so simple.
Something we can change, though, is how we relate to what you feel. For example, I'd been beating myself up for feeling anxious, overwhelmed, stressed, and disconnected. When I finally decided to give myself permission to struggle with the transition, I felt liberated. The shame and sense of failure I was experiencing lifted, and I felt more supported rather than judged by myself. You might not be able to make your pain go away, but be kind to yourself for feeling it.
3. Pain and pleasure are both sensations.
In other words, they will also come and go. Buddhist philosophy reminds us that everything is impermanent. Every thought, feeling, sensation, experience, and material item is constantly changing. When we can notice our experience without judgment, and see the emotional pain as sensation, it helps us detach. We don't personalize the experience as much. We can be curious about it; kind to it. We can say, "hmm, isn't this interesting" rather than "I can't take this!" Because we can take it, and it will pass. Bask in your impermanent pleasurable experiences, as they'll be gone at some point, and know the painful ones will dissipate as well.
4. "Progression to the mean."
When things are tough, they will likely improve. But then they'll also likely fall apart, at some point, again. For this reason, when it feels like everything's gone to shit, I like to remind myself of this phrase: "progression to the mean." In other words, I make the decision to trust in the rising and falling nature of life, and assume that there may be a spontaneous increase in my mood, my situation, the weather, and so on.
Two points of caution, though:
- Don't fall into the trap of abandoning agency in your life and relying passively on a spontaneous increase. We still need to actively create change where possible; and
- Don't assume a spontaneous increase means there won't more dips in the future. As Buddhism reminds us, things come together and fall apart, and come together and fall apart again. Ride the waves.
5. We need the bad to fully appreciate the good.
If you've never known loud, how can you appreciate quiet? If you've never known a fluctuation in temperature, how do you know that a hot day is truly "hot?" Our experiences are relative, and we can't viscerally understand the pleasure if we've not experienced pain.
I find comfort in knowing the chaos I'm currently experiencing will inspire perspective; at risk of sounding perverse, we can see our temporary difficult experiences in life as gifts that allow to us to deeply and fully appreciate the blissful ones.