May 25, 2014

Rest in the Not-Knowing

One of my clients is going through a period of uncertainty in several areas of his life. He's trying to determine whether or not to sell his business; he and his partner are trying to decide whether or not to try to adopt a child; and they are considering moving to another city. None of the issues are near resolution, and my client finds the uncertainty difficult to tolerate.

During our session this week, I suggested that he try to "rest in the not-knowing and see what happens." My comment startled me a bit because I don't usually say things like that. Rather, I'm likely to help clients weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each option, or to guide them in exploring the thoughts and feelings associated with each possibility. This time, I surprised myself even further by following up with "When we make space for not-knowing--rather than frantically trying to allevaiate our discomfort by settling matters immediately--possibilities that might not otherwise present themselves can bubble up to the surface."

As different as this is from some of my other therapy interventions, I'm confident that it's true. Last week I attended a six-day silent retreat, during which there was nothing to do but meditate. During this exceptional week, my mind and body were free from their usual tasks of working, socializing, shopping, cooking, exercising, organizing, planning, and scheduling. Thus liberated, my mind came up with a collection of new and helpful ideas and insights, none of which had surfaced over the course of prior months and years of stressful contemplation and rumination.

When I shared this experience with my client, he remembered that during his three-week vacation over Christmas, he had made a deliberate effort to limit his rumination over a work problem that had been causing him grief for months. He reported that the spaciousness of mind created by that decision had resulted in significant insights that allowed him to consider the situation with greater clarity, and to perceive options that hadn't been mentally available to him before. He concluded our session by assigning himself the therapy homework of tolerating not-knowing, rather than one of our usual CBT assignments like recording thoughts or making a list of pros and cons.

We can't go on a meditation retreat or take a four-week vacation every time we're facing a big decision, so how is the idea of tolerating not-knowing applicable in everyday life? The answer is that even without a retreat or a vacation, we can create mental spaciousness by sometimes choosing to put aside our lists of pros and cons and our step-by-step plans for arriving at a resolution. This choice protects the mental real estate that, given the chance, could house an insight or a creative solution.

The next time you notice that your mind is caught in endless or unhelpful speculation and deliberation, see if you can instead create some mental space for yourself by tolerating not-knowing. What happens? 

May 19, 2014

Something Will Happen

Take a second to think of the last time you were stressed out and plagued by what ifs? "What if I miss my flight?" "What if I hit 'reply all' instead of 'reply' on that last email?" "What if no one likes the dessert I made for the party?" "What if I made the wrong decision to end my relationship?"

Now think about what ended up happened on an occasion when your what if came true--when you did miss your flight, you did hit reply all, your dessert wasn't good, and you did break up with your partner too hastily? What happened?

You probably either caught a different flight or stayed overnight; your email overshare was probably problematic, embarrassing, or not a big deal; people probably ate your dessert or you went to the corner store to pick up ice cream instead; and you probably either got back together or got over it eventually. That is, something happened. 

In her book "Real Happiness at Work," American Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg writes that when her mind sets off a cascade of anxiety about a hypothetical scenario, she uses the phrase "something will happen" to regain her calm. I love this because it's true 100% of the time! Something always happens.

I wish I had known about something will happen last Christmas: I was taking a long trip with a connecting flight halfway across the continent and there was a blizzard on the eve of my departure. My mind frantically reiterated "What if my flight is cancelled what if my flight is cancelled what if my flight is cancelled??" As always, the answer was that, if the flight was cancelled, something would happen: I'd get a later flight, I'd fly the next day, I'd cancel the trip altogether, but no matter what, something would happen. And it did.

Something will happen also works for bigger issues. One of my friends has trying to get pregnant for a year with no luck so far. She frequently topples into the rabbit hole of "What if I don't get pregnant this month? What if I never get pregnant? What if two or three or five years from now, I still haven't gotten pregnant!" The answer is that something will happen. It might be eventual pregnancy. It might be a decision to consider adoption. It might be a change in how important pregnancy is to her. But no matter what: something will definitely happen.

Something will happen is the answer to any what if question. Next time you're fretting about being late, making a mistake, or any other what if scenario, answer your own question.

Does it help?