We live in an age of anxiety. The troubles and terrors • both of natural and human origin • are real. But that does not mean we need to succumb to anxious thinking. Indeed, anxious thinking usually makes things worse. Better to set anxious thinking aside through the exercise of awareness, habits, community, and intention. Read on to learn more of how this works so that you, too, can know in your bones that “everything is going to be all right.”
It’s ironic that our trek toward spiritual wellness would take us, this week, to a discussion about anxiety. Last week you may remember reading about the server problem that delayed delivery of our newsletter. I happily announced that the problem had been solved • only to have it recur all over again. For the second time in as many weeks, some people did not receive their copy of Provisions until Thursday, and there was nothing we could do about it.
On Sunday, my anxiety level rose as the recurring problem became apparent. It was embarrassing, disconcerting, and troubling • especially given my announcement and knowing that we have readers who look forward to receiving and reading their weekly issue on Sunday morning. I thought about sending out another copy, using a different system. I tried contacting my Web host, on his day off, to see if he could do anything to fix the problem. I spent a couple of hours stewing about what to do, and then I remembered Rule Number 6.
What’s Rule Number 6? Allow Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, to tell the story. “Two prime ministers were sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: ‘Peter,’ he says, ‘kindly remember Rule Number 6,’ whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws.”
“The politicians returned to their conversation, only to be interrupted yet again twenty minutes later by an hysterical woman gesticulating wildly, her hair flying. Again the intruder is greeted with the words: ‘Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.’ Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology.”
“When the scene is repeated for a third time, the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague: ‘My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?’ ‘Very simple,’ replies the resident prime minister. ‘Rule Number 6 is: Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.'”
“‘Ah,’ says his visitor, ‘that is a fine rule.’ After a moment of pondering, he inquires, ‘And what, may I ask, are the other rules?'”
“‘There aren’t any.'”
Rule Number 6 got me to laughing at myself, and that made all the difference. “Who do you think you are?” I pondered with amused incredulity. “This is neither rocket science nor brain surgery. This is a modest reflection on the meaning and measure of life that can easily wait a few days before it completes its journey through cyberspace. So settle down and relax. Enjoy the day. Don’t make yourself crazy!” On the heels of such self-coaching, I worked out in the yard, cooked up a storm, and curled up with a good book before retiring early for bed.
Two weeks ago I had another experience of such self-coaching, following minor outpatient surgery. The surgery went well, and I was allowed to go back to running on the third day. Everything was progressing on course until, about a week after the surgery and in the middle of the night, I experienced a painful tear of the wound accompanied by fresh bleeding.
The pain was so intense that it radiated out, in throbbing waves of warmth, to all parts of my body. I took some deep breaths to calm down, but I was soon experiencing chest pains and a serious case of anxiety. Even though it was after midnight, I called my doctor to be coached as to whether or not to head to the hospital.
“It sounds normal to me,” he said, “and if you go to the hospital, there’s really not much we could do. So I suggest that you wait it out.” Easy for him to say! Between the pain and the subsequent rush of adrenalin, I could not sleep and I could not find a comfortable position lying down.
Thank goodness for La-Z-Boy Recliners! I went downstairs, stoked up the fire, found a blanket, took some more deep breaths, and turned on the television. Surfing through the channels, I was both amazed and numbed by how many infomercials were being broadcast at 3:00 in the morning. Their constant drone was enough to dissipate my anxiety and put me to sleep.
12 hours later, at noon the next day, I was even more amazed to be feeling pain free and completely normal again. The bleeding from the night before was gone. And although it took me several more days to recover from the lost sleep and the adrenalin rush, less than a week later I successfully paced a friend to his second marathon finish in Birmingham, Alabama. Now that’s what I call recovery!
It reminds me of an old flower lady who used to sit inside a small archway when I lived and worked in the inner-city of Chicago. She would have flowers for sale, on top of a spread-open newspaper, for passersby. On one particular day, noticing the smile on her wrinkled old face, I said to her, “You sure look happy today!” “Why not?” she answered. “Everything is good.”
Given her lot in life, that struck me as quite a claim. “Everything is good?” I asked her, “Don’t you have any troubles?” “You can’t reach my age and not have troubles,” she replied. “But I take my cue from Jesus. Easter Sunday comes three days after Good Friday, so I just wait three days whenever I have troubles. By then, most things look a whole lot better.”
Oh, that we might all have such faith! Whether it be through Rule Number 6, channel surfing, or remembering that Easter Sunday comes after Good Friday, we would each do well to avoid anxious thinking.
Unfortunately, in the “age of anxiety,” that’s easier said than done. It doesn’t take many tsunamis, wars, suicide bombings, terrorist alerts, and global warming trends • not to mention old-fashioned poverty, discrimination, and exploitation — to confirm that we are living in difficult and dangerous times. The growth of our technology has clearly exceeded the growth of our humanity, making it increasingly possible for even the smallest of groups to inflict the largest of damages.
All the more reason to anchor life in non-anxious awareness, habits, communities, and intentions. Anxiety is like a rocking chair. We can rock, rock, rock • we can worry, worry, worry • but we never get anywhere. In fact, anxiety usually makes matters worse. To quote a line from Bobby McFerrin’s 1996 hit song, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, “In your life expect some trouble, but when you worry you make it double.”
So don’t do that! Instead, make a point to change the things you can change, to accept the things you cannot change, and to discern the difference between the two. Modify your awareness, habits, communities, and intentions to assuage your anxiety into nonexistence. How do we do that?
First, pay attention to what’s going on in the here and now. What’s really going on? Are we dying? Or is this to be expected and will it pass? Are we seeing the big picture? Or are we looking at only one slice of the pie? Where are the signs of life?
Second, do things that will put the anxiety on hold. Take action! Call the doctor. Stretch, breathe, pray, or meditate. Change your position. Go for a walk. Curl up, if you can do nothing else, in a comfortable chair with the television remote at 3:00 in the morning. Do whatever it takes to shift your mind away from the anxiety and toward something else.
Third, get connected to people who tend to lower anxiety. Avoid the walking encyclopedias of horror stories. Perhaps you know people like that. No matter what someone is going through, they know someone else who ended up dead or disabled as a result of the same thing. To avoid anxious thinking we may have to avoid such people. The key is to set up appropriate boundaries • a task we work on with many coaching clients.
Finally, set an intention to stay anxiety-free. Make sure that your attention, habits, and communities continuously express life rather than death. Marinate your mind in the perspective of Derrick Mahon’s poem, Everything Is Going To Be Alright:
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling.
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the daybreak and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
To avoid anxious thinking, we need to cultivate that “watchful heart.” Noticing sunrises, beautiful cities and flying clouds, noticing our pretensions, pains, and fears, noticing the dying and rising ways of life • in spite of everything • is the best prescription I know to live, moment by moment, as though “everything is going to be all right.”
Coaching Inquiries: What do you know in your bones? Do you see catastrophes around every corner? Or do you see opportunities? Do you take yourself too seriously? Do you assume the worst when things go wrong? Do you see new life where others see death? How could you nurture a more watchful heart?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
I think this Provision series is your most potent since I began reading you.
Thanks for the challenge to Avoid Exclusive Thinking!
I have really liked your “thinking” Provisions. How about doing one on critical thinking, which would include ways of looking with critical eyes at the media?
Someone forwarded me a recent piece you did on the unexamined life, which I really enjoyed. Please put me on your subscription list. Thanks.
Hey, I go 2 school in England I am doing work on children’s packed lunches. I need a product which I would like to be healthy, easy to eat, and could be sold in a shop. Have u got any suggestions or advise? (Ed. Note: How about bags of organic, baby carrots?)
I was researching coaching and came across your site. I’m not sure I need a coach because it seems that I know what I need to do just that it will be a frustrating path because of needing a salary and benefits for the family. Plus all the misinformation out there I’ve been researching to find the right path. It seems almost a waste of someone’s time if I know what I need to do and just have to find a way to get there. Also on how to start up the new career. I would be interested in your honest feedback. (Ed. Note: You can certainly proceed without a coach. But a coach may be able to assist you to get where you want to go more quickly, easily, and reliably. Let us know if you want to talk further.)
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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