February 09, 2013

First World Problems

Are you distracted from the truth that everything is basically okay? I often am. 

I didn't get my favourite seat on the bus yesterday morning; it was snowing and there were no cabs when I left home to go out for dinner last night; I woke up this morning feeling anxious about work; a friend said something that hurt my feelings; the market didn't have the kind of cheese I wanted; and my hair doesn't look right as I'm getting ready to go out tonight.

I know what you're thinking: rough life, right? Yet each of these things bothered me, however briefly, and created annoyance or hurt or stress or disappointment.

When I teach mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), one of the classes in the eight-week program is dedicated to coping mindfully with unpleasant emotions. In the discussion about mindful emotion regulation, we identify that negative feelings often stem from wanting--and not getting--things our way. That is, we want there to be taxis at the taxi stand, we want our favourite seat on the bus, we want our friends to be sensitive to our feelings, we want to look good all the time, and we want to be in a good mood. We want things our way.

It's easy to get so caught up in wanting what we want that the smallest deviations make us all worked up and unhappy. What's more, as soon as we get what we want, we usually want something else or something more. On the bus yesterday morning, I was initially pleased to get a seat on a very busy route that usually has standing room only. But no sooner did I sit down than I was distracted by the thought that I would prefer to sit further back. This morning I definitely was getting my way as I leisurely drank my coffee and read a magazine before heading to the gym--yet I was irritated and upset by my lingering anxiety. Although my Saturday morning was actually pretty lovely, I wanted it to be completely lovely. I wanted it my way.

What helped me snap out of it was one of the phrases we use in MBSR in the meditation related to painful emotions. Participants are asked to sit quietly and reflect on several questions, including the following: "Am I distracted from the truth that everything is basically okay?"

This question is great because in 99% of cases, the answer is YES. Yes, everything is basically okay and yes, I'm distracted from that truth. Yesterday, I was distracted from the pleasure of getting a seat on the bus by the existence of a "better" seat. Today, I was distracted from the truth that I was having a lovely morning by the prospect of the even lovelier one I wasn't having. Last night, I was distracted by the lack of cabs from the truth that I was happily headed to nice restaurant to enjoy a meal and a bottle of wine with good company. In each case, there's no question that the truth was that everything was basically okay.

The examples above are mostly minor upsets, but the lesson is equally applicable to weightier matters. Consider expecting parents, for example: All they want is for their baby to be healthy. Once a healthy child is delivered, though, it's easy to immediately switch to unhappiness with the hospital food and irritation with the grandparents, forgetting the truth that everything is basically okay. 

Asking yourself "Am I distracted from the truth that everything is basically okay?" is a genius cross between getting over yourself and counting your blessings. The next time you're fretting, moping, or seething, try asking yourself the question. If you're like me, most of the time, the answer will be yes.

Let me know what happens!

PS: You can also try "Does everything have to be perfect in order for me to be happy?"

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