Woman in Field of Grass

The “Wild and Precious” Present

I’m currently participating in a writing group that meets on a monthly basis. Between each of our meetings, one of the facilitators sends out a topic on which all of us in the group are invited to reflect and write for our next session together. Today, as my post for this blog, I would like to share the inspiration for the group’s most recent topic — an excerpt from a poem by Mary Oliver — and what came to my mind related to anxiety as I thought about it.

Here in Indianapolis, Indiana, we have had snow and ice on the ground in the neighborhood where I live since the day after Christmas (as I write these words, it is January 8). Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t mind snow, at least initially. I don’t even mind ice — well, for a few days, anyway. After almost two weeks, though, as beautiful as I may find the snow and ice at first, I am past ready for the stuff to melt. Then, I’m okay if it starts all over again — really. I just want a break! Actually, to be absolutely honest, I want an opportunity to walk to the mailbox at the end of the work day without ice skating in my slick-soled dress shoes — to not have a break (of an arm or a leg, that is!). If I were on a reality TV show during any given winter, I would be the cast member (in)famous for wacky arms-waving, yelling-out-loud (and cursing under my breath!) incidents of nearly losing my footing every time I walked out the front door. Yeah, I’m that guy. I’m sure sometimes that my real-life neighbors get together, snickering behind the curtains of the window with the best vantage point, just to watch.

Given this winter context, the topic for the writing group — a couple of lines from a poem called “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver (House of Light, 1990) — strikes me as especially ironic, and welcome. After so many days of snow and ice on the ground, I’m ready for a bit of summer — however I can get it! In the poem, the narrator contemplates creation, the company of a grasshopper that eats sugar out of her hand, and she enjoys herself — just being — in fields of grass on a summer day. The lines that the group facilitator asks us to reflect on for our writing this month come from the very end of the poem, when the narrator turns to the audience with a question. In my own head, I hear the question as the narrator’s response to an imagined reprimand for spending the day in what some people would surely interpret as an indolent, even self-indulgent fashion:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

What comes up for me when I read these last lines of Oliver’s poem is what I heard the narrator just describe doing with her own “wild and precious” life during a summer day that she spends in fields of grass — attending to the moment, to her experience in the moment. I hear the narrator’s question, then, as a call to live in the present — a practice that, in my own experience, is so often a challenge when I am feeling anxious. Anxiety has a knack for pulling me out of the present moment, whatever may be happening, whether I’m judging the experience that I’m having as a positive or negative one, and setting my mind racing along the lines of “What if … ” and “Then what … ?” If I’m in the middle of an unpleasant experience, the anxiety does not help — I feel only more miserable, in fact. If I’m in the middle of a pleasant experience, the anxiety cheats me out of enjoying it. Either way, anxiety gets me worrying about things that may never happen, at the expense of being present to whatever is happening in the here-and-now, and being able to make conscious choices about how I want to think and feel about those things, and how I want to respond behaviorally. What is it that I plan to do with my one “wild and precious” life? My own answer to Oliver’s narrator is that I plan to be as present as I can manage to be. Like everyone else with a similar goal (I know that you’re out there!), I am always learning how to do so.

When I feel anxious, I’m aware that I have begun to focus my thinking on fears and doubts. I get caught up in my head this way, with side effects that I notice in my body: an upset stomach, palpitating heart, sweating, and restlessness. When I feel anxious, I am plagued by restlessness of my mind as well, in the form of poor concentration — on everything except what I’m feeling anxious about! What helps me when I’m feeling anxious is to bring myself back into the present moment; I am often able to do this by getting out of my head, centering and grounding myself in the sensory experiences of my body. I may take a few slow, deep breaths, concentrating on my experience of those breaths (the sensation of air filling my lungs, my abdomen expanding, and then the reverse) instead of the anxious thoughts that are spinning in my head. I may take a few sips of cold water, noticing the temperature of the water in my mouth, against my tongue, and down my throat as I swallow. At this point, I may then remind myself of what is going well in my life, a few reasons for feeling grateful, giving thanks, in the present. If I have more time, I may decide to take a walk (if there is not snow and ice on the ground!) or go to the gym, listen to music that comforts and soothes me, or meditate. I may use the idea of “Worry Time,” postponing my worry until a certain period later in the day; when that time comes, then, I usually find myself bored by my anxiety before my allotted “Worry Time” is over.

Now, if your experiences of anxiety are anything like mine, they may feel a bit like losing your footing on the ice — out of control, scary, potentially embarrassing if someone is around to see, tending to induce anxiety about having another such experience in the future (which means, then, a sense of anxiety about anxiety … ack!). Clearly, being able to be present to the moment in the midst of such experiences can be a challenge. As corny as this may sound, I often say to myself, “Wow! I’m feeling really anxious right now! How do I want to handle this experience of anxiety in a way that is going to feel helpful to me?” I remind myself that what I’m going through is only temporary, and won’t kill me. Though I would much rather be experiencing myself as “idle and blessed” in fields of grass on a summer day than seized with a sense of anxiety, whatever the context, I do my best to practice the kind of radical attention to the “wild and precious” present moment of life that I find exemplified by the narrator in Oliver’s poem. I think of the present as “wild” because, even with all of my anxious “What if … ?” and “Then what … ?” thinking, I know that I can’t actually control the outcome of events with that thinking (though anxiety constantly tries to convince me otherwise!). I think of the present as “precious” because, when I’m able to make conscious decisions in the moment about how I’m thinking about things, feeling, and how I want to respond behaviorally, the benefits to increasing my sense of calm and confidence are invaluable.

Here’s to your own increasing sense of calm and confidence!

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts at thoughttonic.com; you can follow this blog, by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or RSS feed.

Sour Face

A Lemon for Your Thoughts?

Several years ago, I had a friend who was in the market for a new car. In the process of car shopping with this friend, I decided that I would sell the car that I was driving and get a new car for myself as well. I got my new car, which was actually just new to me, and for a while everything with the car went smoothly. Once the warranty on the car expired, however, I began to have problem after problem; some months, the car seemed to be in the repair shop as often as it was in on the road! One day, while my car was in the shop for the umpteenth time, a coworker (who had given me many rides to work) challenged me to consider that my car could be called a “lemon.” The car had seemed fine at first; in fact, it had worked fine — for a while! The car wasn’t working the way I wanted any longer, though; it wasn’t going to be able to take me where I wanted to go.

As we begin 2013, many of us will be thinking about where we want to go this year — figuratively, at least, in terms of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives. If we aren’t happy with our weight, for example, we may be planning a new gym routine, or to change our eating habits. If we are tired of losing track of when bills are due, or where we have left our keys, we may be considering ways in which we can improve our organization at home. So often, whatever it is that we want to be different in the new year, we frame a related resolution in terms of something that we “need” or “have” to do. We think, “I need to lose 10 pounds — no more excuses!” or “I’m so sick of not being able to find anything — I just have to get organized!” And why wouldn’t we have these kinds of pressured thoughts, given the sense of anxious urgency that we sometimes experience to make these changes in our lives? Unfortunately, as helpful as such thoughts would seem to be in motivating us to take action, and supporting us to maintain what we start, I don’t know that they work very well for many of us; in fact, I would argue that these kinds of thoughts — “I need to …” and “I have to …” — can actually get in our way of creating the differences that we want for ourselves, in our lives. Just as we can talk about some cars as “lemons,” we can talk about certain thoughts as “lemons,” too; they end up being more trouble than they are worth, and sooner or later we realize that they just aren’t able to take us where we want to go.

What makes these kinds of thoughts “lemons”? What’s wrong with saying to ourselves, “I need to …” or “I have to …”? Let me clarify. From my perspective, the issue is not one of right or wrong, but what works best or most often for us, and what does not. In my own experience, when I am thinking in terms of “I need to …” or “I have to …” I notice an internal grimace, an energetic “sour face,” so to speak (think about the expression on someone’s face when that person tastes the tartness of a lemon). For me, “I need to …” and “I have to …” create a sense of motivational “drag” rather than enthusiasm or excitement. I even start to feel a bit anxious about what it is that I have resolved to do. “I really need to get to the gym today!” “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening!” I have come to associate the tense response that I experience with the idea that these thoughts come from a fearful or an already anxious frame of mind. “I really need to get to the gym today because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening; it will be awful if I don’t get it published on Monday morning like I told myself I would!” Do you hear the anxious all-or-nothing thinking in “I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” and the catastrophic thinking in “it will be awful [if I don't finish this blog post by Sunday evening] …”? How about the possibility of selective attention and memory in the second of these examples if I told you that one time, I had trouble getting a post done by Sunday evening, but was able to work on it on Monday, and just published it Monday evening, then, instead of Monday morning? The world did not end.

So what’s the alternative? For me, what works better — and feels better, frankly — is to think in terms of “I want to …” or “I can …” (desire and opportunity) rather than “I need to …” or “I have to …” (desperation and obligation). Now, I can almost hear the objections that I have made to this notion in the past, which are perhaps yours as well: “But I really do need to lose this extra weight because …” For some of us, the reasons for thinking in terms of “need” in this situation may range from controlling diabetes to keeping up with young children to fitting into our pants (“New clothes cost money, and we’re saving for a trip to Florida. Oh, no … what will I look like in a bathing suit?”). However, there is also a “want” that goes along with each of these scenarios that we can apply to our resolution to get to the gym. “I want to get to the gym because I want to keep up with my kids. Plus, it will feel so good to have gone to the gym, to be able to say that I went, that I did it!” For many of us, “I want to keep up with my kids!” will create a very different feeling than “I really need to get to the gym because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” We can talk about this different feeling as having a different kind of energy — anabolic, versus catabolic (terms that Bruce D. Schneider, author of Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), has borrowed from the vocabulary of biology and physiology in relation to the processes of metabolism). Anabolic energy builds us up, supports us, while catabolic energy drains us, tears us down, and fuels our experiences of anxiety. While the sense of pressure that we get from catabolic energy can have short-term benefits — think of a cheetah on the plains of Africa that bursts into high-speed to catch its prey — this kind of energy ends up wearing us and others out if we keep it up for too long (even the cheetah can’t keep up these extreme speeds indefinitely!). For many of us, the catabolic energy of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts just can’t take us as far as (so, ultimately, where) we want to go, and can actually get in our way, then, of creating the positive, sustained experiences of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.

Whenever this time of year rolls around, and I find myself reflecting on what I want to be different for myself, in my life, in the coming new year, I think back to the car that I bought several years ago, and how — for a time, in the context of getting back and forth to work, around town to run errands, etc. — it served me well. When I began to have problems with the car on a regular basis, I had the opportunity to re-evaluate its value to me, and determined that it was adding to my sense of stress and anxiety; I could no longer count on it to take me where I wanted to go. The same has been true for me of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts, and the same may be true for you as well. These thoughts are not special to the end of any given year, of course, but tend to surface in our practice of making New Year’s resolutions. As we begin 2013, I want to think more often in terms of “I want to …” and “I can …” so that I can experience the anabolic energy that will help me reach my other goals. I want to improve my organization at home so that I can spend less time trying to find my keys, or worrying about which bills have yet to be paid, and more time working on my blog!

Where do you want to go?

Best wishes for a wonderful 2013!

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts at thoughttonic.com; you can follow this blog, by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or RSS feed.

Gratitude

Thanks, Not Angst

This week, many of us will be celebrating the U.S. holiday that we call Thanksgiving. On Thursday, November 22, we will gather together with family and friends, ideally over a hearty harvest meal, and take time to give thanks for the people we love and what is going well in our lives. We will count and share our blessings.

Many of us, this coming Thursday, will also be aware of feeling anxious. Our anxiety may be a response to thoughts about the social situations involved in celebrating Thanksgiving itself, or we may already be thinking ahead to the myriad pressures, social and otherwise, that are so often part of the rest of the holiday season. Lucky us, that Thanksgiving provides a ready antidote – in the form of its very focus on gratitude!

A cognitive-behavioral approach to anxiety often looks at how we may be fueling our feelings by what we pay attention to and what we remember. Many of us who experience anxiety tend to focus on what is consistent with our self-doubt, our sense of the world as unpredictable and unsafe, our assumptions that others are thinking negatively of us and will likely reject us, our expectations of a worst-case scenario, and the like. We dismiss or minimize, if not completely ignore, experiences that we could describe as positive and for which we would likely feel thankful. If we are giving a talk and notice that some of the members of the audience seem bored, we do not see that others appear to be enjoying our presentation. If we muster our courage to talk to someone we like at a party, we remember only having tripped over our words at some point, rather than how smoothly the rest of the conversation went. We engage in selective attention and memory.

I suggest that, as a response to anxiety, the practice of gratitude does not simply help us think more positively; it supports us in thinking more realistically. For those of us who struggle with feeling anxious, giving thanks balances out our tendency to concentrate on what we fear and interpret as negative, our inclination to “screen out” all other aspects of and ways of looking at our experiences. Some of us may practice gratitude by writing down what we’re thankful for in a journal every day; others of us may take time to meditate on the topic, or to share our sense of blessings with friends or family members. Whatever methods we choose, the practice of gratitude can, in time, help us develop an increased sense of calm and confidence – one more thing for which we can be thankful!

I hope that you’ll find ways to give yourself the gift of thanks, not angst – not only this Thursday, as you celebrate Thanksgiving, but all year long. What are ideas that you have about how you can practice gratitude? What are ways in which you already do?

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For additional information about counseling and coaching resources for calm and confidence, visit scottburnskahler.com.

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