A couple days ago, I was sitting at a computer in a hot classroom in South Korea, struggling to figure out how in blue blazes to teach English to kids who don’t understand the words coming out of my mouth.
Earlier that morning, I had taken the wrong bus and ended up being late for work. By my estimation, the day was going poorly. I felt a bit frustrated, in over my head.
Then, I caught myself and took a step back. I realized that by indulging such negative ideas and feelings, I was doing nothing but fueling my own stress. I’d allowed myself to become overly consumed by the minutia of my day to day life. I was sabotaging my own peace.
I closed my eyes, took a couple deep breaths, and reminded myself of something: These problems that seem big right now are but tiny obstacles. Embrace them. You are capable.
It was incredible what a difference a bit of reflection and conscious breathing did for me in that situation.
Of course I was having a bit of trouble with lesson planning. I am not a teacher by trade (I’m not sure what I am by trade, but that’s another story), and I’ve never taught English, let alone to kids who don’t speak it.
I needed to remember this, give myself a break, and relax for a moment. All was well. Once I did this, the lesson planning went much more smoothly, in part thanks to many kind people on the Internet.
Gaining Perspective on “Bad” Things That Happen
Like anyone, I become stressed, frustrated, and irritated. It’s unavoidable, and I don’t expect it’s something I’ll ever entirely overcome.
However, while these feelings are ordinary and to be expected at times, they become all-consuming if we aren’t careful. This seems even more true nowadays in our high-stress world of fast-paced lifestyles, endless to-do lists, and infinite flashing lights vying for our attention.
Most of us allow the unexpected hiccups in our lives to derail our sense of calm for days or weeks at a time. We wallow and wish we didn’t have such awful luck, instead of stopping to consider that it is our perspective, not our circumstances, that needs to change.
If you take a Buddhist’s view on the matter, as I tend to do, you can train yourself to understand that our expectations lead to our suffering.
If we constantly expect that things will go in a particular way, we will be forever disappointed and angry when they do not. Because we’re resisting life.
Turn this idea around a bit, and you produce a simple axiom: embrace whatever is happening to you.
The sooner you accept whatever is occurring, the sooner everything is okay — the sooner you’re at peace with the world and can go about your day from a place of enjoyment and appreciation, rather than resistance and bitterness.
Also, keep in mind that when we expect things to be one way, we place the label “bad” on anything that does not go according to plan. This labeling habit in itself is powerfully counterproductive and seriously hinders our ability to be content with our lives.
How Can We Possibly Embrace Everything?
As I said, I am no guru, and I trip up. I forget to embrace my circumstances sometimes, but I have improved dramatically, simply by trying.
So, the first simple step you can take is:
1. Try to be More Aware
Unless you really want to improve your day-to-day life, things will remain the same. However, if you actively attempt to understand that your thoughts about what is happening to you are more important than what is actually happening, you’ll soon be on your way to a place of non-resistance. In a large and real sense, we allow ourselves to feel and think whatever we are feeling and thinking.
2. Recognize Your Inner Monologue
We’re all talking to ourselves in our heads all day. If we can become conscious of how we’re thinking and reacting to given situations and people, we can learn to pause and reflect more often on how our thoughts are helping or hurting us. This is a crucial aspect of awareness. If you hear yourself complaining internally or becoming angry with someone, it’s time to stop and reconsider.
3. Stop Labeling Things as “Bad”
As I alluded to, the mere mental action of categorizing everything that happens to us within a good-or-bad dichotomy leads to much of our suffering. Some people would go as far as to say that “good” and “bad” things don’t exist, that it’s all in the label. If you’re not prepared to go to that extent, at least try to think of it this way: Most things that happen are just things that happen. They are simply moments to be experienced, and most any moment has the potential to be peaceful, if perceived correctly.
Just try to develop the habit of pausing to ask, “Is this actually a big deal?” If it isn’t a nationwide famine, plague, war, or genocide, chances are it’s something minor.
I wrote a full-length article on the power of conscious breathing. To be brief, simply closing your eyes, taking a few deep breaths, and focusing deliberately on your breathing can make aeons of difference in your ability to manage stress. Breathe deeply and let the weight slide off. All is well.
5. Be Present
Being present, or being mindful, is related to conscious breathing and basically means living in the felt experience of the present moment. It means focusing on the sights, sounds, and bodily sensations of this second and being here, now. Read my article on mindfulness for more.
We’re often quick to condemn others and project our own insecurities onto them. Rarely do we stop and realize that everyone is living a life as complex, messy, and challenging as our own. We don’t know what the people we meet have seen or been through. If we can come to understand this, we can begin to see that we’re all in this life together, doing our best to meet its challenges.
When we care only for ourselves, everything that happens is an opportunity for self-pity. Conversely, when we empathize and cultivate compassion, we can think first of how others feel and are affected. This effectively denies us the chance to worry and mope about ourselves. It was Plato that said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
A lack of gratitude is frequently the culprit when we find ourselves feeling down or irritated by something that is happening. If you’re able to read this, consider yourself more fortunate than the 3 billion people worldwide who cannot read. If you woke up today with more health than illness, you are luckier than the one million people who will not survive the week. Take nothing for granted. So many of our “problems” are inconsequential.
8. Just Stop Complaining
The words we speak in our daily lives have immeasurable power. When we say something aloud, we reinforce the idea in our minds several times over. When we complain constantly, we begin to convince ourselves that we are victims and that the universe hates us. On the other hand, when we talk about ideas and tell stories and make jokes with people we love, life seems to expand and invite us to lap up its sweet nectar. The choice is yours.
Practice, Practice, Practice
I’ve worked for a while now on honing the type of awareness I’m talking about, and I’m able to catch myself fairly quickly when I begin to sulk and complain internally about a situation.
Then, I’m usually able to take a step back, reassess the source of my discontent, and realize that my troubles have almost always been caused by excessive nitpicking, a lack of appreciation, or a lack of compassion.
Practice is paramount. It’s true that only those who want very deeply to change their ways are able to do so. But, what a blessing it is to know that if you desire to change the way you see the world, you really can do it.
Having done this for some time now, I can say that each night when I reflect on my day, I’m always able to see the sum of what happened to me as “neutral” at worst and “positive” at best. Even if things actually kind of “sucked”. I wish the same for you.
“Write it on your heart
that every day is the best day in the year.
He is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day
who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Photo Credit: D. Sharon Pruitt