Thankfulness… yeah right!
The other night I woke up in a sense panic…
Thinking I would practice what I preach, I figured this would be a perfect time for me to switch out of panic and distress mode and into thankfulness mode. And no matter how hard I tried, it was like attempting to switch a car into reverse while going 80 miles an hour down the freeway…. my internal vehicle was hell bent on running amok, the gears were not jelling… and no matter how much I tried to think thankful and serene thoughts, my internal gearbox was screaming:
“I cannot be thankful right now – are you f….’ crazy? It is time to FREAK OUT!!!”
It was a setback for sure.
“What am I – a hypocrite? Someone, whose medicine doesn’t work on herself? Here I am in a total hissy fit at 3AM in the morning!”
Gradually through some deep breathing and willful attempts to bring myself back into a more rational place, I began to gain access to my training and what I know works. Isn’t it interesting that when we fall head first into “fight and flight” mode, our normal ability to think clearly go out the window? It just does…. It reminds me of an incident I saw one morning on my walk to the beach:
“As I get to an area where there is a patch of wetlands on one side of the busy four lane street, and a developed housing tract on the other, a coyote comes running up from the southwest. He is SO beautiful to behold. An untamed, wild beautiful creature! It is close to sunrise; about time for Mr. Coyote to retreat into hiding. His moves are beyond awe-inspiring – so absolutely fluid – he seems to not touch the ground as he runs. Now coming from the northeast is Mr. Suburbia in his well-pressed khakis, his perfectly coiffed hair and his light blue polo shirt, walking his greyhound dog on a leash. The greyhound gets a whiff of the wild animal and all of a sudden a few thousand years of domestication and selective breeding go OUT the window! Poof gone! The greyhound senses danger – and he becomes pure reactive instinctual power… The dog takes off across the two lanes of highway towards the median strip where Mr. Coyote is getting ready for the confrontation. Mr. Suburbia gets pulled by his suddenly unruly dog across the two lanes of traffic (thank God it was early and no cars where coming). Mr. Suburbia looks like he is practically at a 45 degree angle trying to pull his dog back. This display of raw reactive and untamed power hidden inside of the well-trained Greyhound was awe-inspiring to watch. Finally Mr. Suburbia manages to control the beast inside of his well-groomed greyhound. He pulls his now defeated-looking animal back to the safety of the sidewalk, and the greyhound continues his walk, remembering now once again how not to pull on the leash, and how to stay next to his owner’s left leg synchronized and in check. Mr. Coyote is nowhere to be seen. He is back in the wetlands – no longer interested in battle.”
Just like the well-trained urban greyhound fell prey to its own impulses, our brains still contain the raw, reactive power of our early ancestors who were living in the wild, where each sound and unexpected movement could be threatening our existence. Our sympathetic nervous system is wired to react to stress by cascading distress hormones into our bloodstream, which shuts down access to rational thinking. The idea being that if we are in immediate danger, our bodies need to react (run away) and not contemplate whether this is a good idea. You snooze in the wild, you tend to lose….
Well, in my case laying there with one imagined worst case scenario after another blasting my internal movie screen, I was clearly in reactive flight mode. As I managed to calm myself down enough, I found that it was one of the most insincere and idiotic things to do, to try to be thankful, when I was clearly ravished by fear by all my imagined inner scenarios.
Researchers, who study the brain, have found that we humans pay more attention to negative thoughts and experiences than positive ones. Rick Hanson uses the image that our brains are wired like Teflon for positive experiences and like Velcro for negative ones. So we naturally look at and “stick to” the negative ones first. Again, a remnant from our days trying to survive in the wild: We had a better chance of survival if we, didn’t dwell too much on the blissed-out feeling we had over the antelope roast we ate for dinner. Our lives depended instead on our ability to keep our focus on the possible appearance of that mountain lion, who was trying to get to our sleeping babies, or many other like possibly life-threatening scenarios.
Finally after enough deep breathing to calm my mind a bit from its mad dash to nowhere, I found the inner calm to just acknowledge that I was afraid. I said it to myself:
“I am afraid” “I am worried” “I feel uncertainty”
I didn’t go into major emotional pits over it. I did not dwell on reasons why. I did not analyze or focus on it. I simply acknowledged the feelings I had. It seemed to make me relax a bit. I could finally switch gears. Grateful thoughts were now possible. It was soothing to my soul. The new thoughts dissolved that spot in my abdomen that had felt horrible just moments before:
“I am blessed!” “I have shadows in my life, but even the shadows make the light brighter. I can see it now!”
And I remembered why some researchers believe it is like this: If we carry a strong negative emotion, this takes precedent over even the strongest positive emotions due to the negativity bias, as mentioned above. If we try to access our positive and thankful thoughts, but a large shadow of doom and gloom hang over us, it can be impossible to do so!
Yet the very acknowledgment of the grief, the anger, the fear or the frustration that we carry can be enough to make us we feel better. It is what they call “tellin’ it like it is” in the blues! And one of the reasons, I believe, the blues genre is brilliant to simply allow ourselves the time to be authentically aware of the difficulties in our lives. Tellin’ it like it is! That is what I did there at 3AM… I told myself precisely how I felt, and then the emotion dissipated. It didn’t go away, but it allowed me to also see and feel other aspects. It lost its grip on my emotional lock-down.
Tellin’ it like it is can be compared to a black shirt with glow-in-the-dark print on it in our clothes closet. When it is activated and we turn the light off in the closet (deny ourselves the emotion) it shines brighter and stronger than anything. It is in fact all we see! However, if we simply turn on the light and acknowledge that the shirt with the glowing print is there (acknowledge the emotion) then we see that the shirt is still there, but so is the teddy bear, the nice shoes, and the crisply ironed shirts (or the god-awful mess – depending on whose closet we are talking about…:)). Nonetheless, the impact of that glow-in-the-dark negatively-charged-emotion is immediately put in context once we are able to turn the light on and face the fact it is there.
If you find you recognize this pattern of wanting to be thankful – yet finding yourself unable to, this is a “tellin’ it like it is” process you can try on for size:
I want to be thankful
I can’t because I am scared/angry/sad/etc.
I acknowledge that I am sad/mad/etc. (however at this stage do not dwell on these emotions. Just acknowledge that they are there. Do not analyze, do not critique. Simply observe the emotion from a place of compassion – a place of non-judgment.)
Once the emotions dissipate, allow yourself to find the grateful thoughts that will by consistent practice re-wire your brain and help you get and give more of what you really want in life.