Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Managing negative chatter

On the weekend of April 7-10, 2016, The Stanford Improvisors had a glorious 25th Reunion.  Over 130 students showed up to celebrate their memories of what it meant to be a SImp. They were there to reminisce, to perform with each other, to share life stories and to improvise songs around a piano. It was fascinating to watch the mix of old students (in their forties now with families and mortgages) with the new crop of undergraduates, so shiny with energy and creativity. What they had in common was the training as improvisors which predisposed them to be positive, helpful and supportive.  It was miraculous to watch old and young perform together on stage, making up stories and getting into mischief together.  My heart sang to see all this cooperation.  In a world where our legislators can't manage to do anything together it was heartwarming to observe how much fun got done with a room full of strangers, choosing to play together.  What a miracle.  Being a SImp meant that your team mates "had your back" and would accept whatever nonsense you might put forward.  Nothing like being around 100+ YES sayers.

During the breaks I had a chance to catch up on the lives of some of my old students now living as grown ups in the real world.  One special friend shared stories of recent disappointments at work.  She was struggling not to let the setbacks and annoyances in the workplace get her down.  A new mother, she was missing being with her gorgeous baby daughter since coming back to work from the pregnancy leave.  She found herself having been demoted and now working for a boss who was at best unappreciative of her work. 
Bummer.  I listened and attempted to console her.  "Sometimes when things are falling apart, they may actually be falling into place."  

After the weekend I sent her a card which said:  "The life we're living is not the wrong life." This is a John Tarrant quote that I find comforting.  

A week later I got an email from her which provoked the following exchange.  Perhaps some of this advice can be useful to others who are struggling as well. 

Student: "I received your cards, thank you so much, and thank you for listening to me during our visit.  Life is constantly a series of trials to test my ability to stay positive and do what's needed.  You gave me those skills all those years ago to get through tough times.  It is definitely no small thing."

Teacher:  "You are so right that life seems to be a series of trials. It is for us all. Sometimes if you can find a way to frame the notion of “trials” (which makes sense) into simply “events” it can help ease things.   The Buddhists talk about two kinds of suffering:  1. The shit that happens (pain, disease, death, unfairness, accidents, bad luck, etc.) and 2.  The suffering on top of suffering that our mind creates.  “This isn’t fair.”  "I’m never going to get the respect I deserve.”  Yada yada.  If we can begin to train our minds to not let this thinking run the show we can minimize suffering, at least, I believe."

Student: "What do you replace #2 thoughts with? Because I have many of those thoughts, they are very loud."

Teacher:  "An excellent question.
Well, here’s the thing:  we have zero control over when or whether these kinds of non-supportive thoughts “show up.”  They just appear, and if we give them any juice at all, they will stay and propagate and become creative.  It’s sort of like a bum showing up on the doorstep asking for a handout.  We notice, acknowledge, and maybe even empathize, but we don’t invite him in for a cup of tea. We often do this with our "yada yada" thoughts   by calling someone and complaining for an hour.  Or bitching to our spouses over the injustice of the world.  It's so easy to get the record stuck on: “It’s not fair.”  We get into a long legal debate over the merits, etc.  Our mind is obsessing over the injury or disappointment.  We will never win that case. 

Redirect your mind.  

So, I think the best strategy to dealing with the “suffering on top of suffering” thoughts is to #1. NOTICE what they are:  “Hmm . . .  seem to be having that “life’s a bitch, it’s not fair” paragraph rumbling around in my mind.”  Once you’ve identified a “non supportive thought train”  you are already in some manner detached from it.  The next step, rather than getting into the legal argument is to say, even out loud:  “That’s interesting.  Now what needs to be done?”  Then turn your full attention to something that needs doing and put your mind and body into that:  changing baby’s diaper, going to the store for milk, cleaning out a drawer, writing that thank you note, working on a brief.  Or even finding the “gift” inside the problem. (The asshole boss is also the one who signs my paycheck which allows me to life comfortably.) Tasks that use large body movements are especially good at redirecting the mind.  The trick with yada yada is to REPLACE them not with a counter argument, (that just continues the "having a cup of tea with your misery" metaphor).  Replace worry and chagrin with ACTION:  Doing what needs to be done.  And while this may not permanently get rid of the crapola thoughts, it allows you not to let them ruin your life. Remember “YOU are not your thoughts.  And, at least you get the kitchen clean or the brief written.”  

The longer I live the more I see that life's biggest challenge is learning how to work with the mind around negative and non-supportive thoughts.  I'm not a Pollyanna.  But I am able to see that "Life is good, even when it isn't."  It's helpful to be reminded.

Every moment a new one.  "The life you are living is not the wrong life." wise words from John Tarrant. And good luck redirecting the yada yada into constructive action.