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From the Scalpel to the Pen » Archive of 'Nov, 2009'

Why Am I In My Own Way?

Often we undertake bringing about healthful, positive changes in our lives, but we always seem to find ourselves falling short of our expectations. Our resolution just seems to eventually fizzle out. We have the best of intentions. We start off well with lots of enthusiasm and determination. And then, life just starts to get back in our way. We tell ourselves that it’s just a momentary hiatus, nothing more and that we get right back on track; but, we don’t. Instead, we find ourselves on a slippery slope and our determination eventually evaporates.

Every one of us can tell a similar story whether it’s weight loss, exercise, or spending quality time with our kids. As one of my acquaintances put it, “I’ve been losing the same twenty pounds my whole adult life.”

So why do we all find ourselves falling short? The answer: We all exhibit a lack of mindfulness. We deal with our expectations–with what we should bedoing–what the future was supposed to be. Or, we kick ourselves in the rear with frustration or guilt about the past–what we should have done. In both the past and the future, we’ve locked ourselves out of the present (the now–the moment) where the real engine of change and transformation lies.

So let’s say I’ve resolved to finally lose that twenty pounds of extra weight my doctor has told me I need to shed. I get out my healthful dietary plan and recipes. For a few days, I’m all pumped up, psyched. I’m the fervent convert.

The first week goes well.

But then there’s the night when I’m stuck at the office. I get home late. I take some paperwork home to finish that night. I tell myself I can’t afford the extra minutes to cook something so I stop off at McDonald’s. I grab my bag and drive home. Plop my work on the dining room table and start reaching in for a few fries. I turn on CNN to catch up on the news and the stock market.

So where am I in all this? I’m all over the place! I’m bouncing off the walls and my attention is ricocheting like a bullet. I’m not even enjoying the burgers. I’m not giving my attention to the paperwork. And the market dropped a hundred and fifty points, so I’m worried about how my portfolio is going to do tomorrow.

What was I really feeling through out all of this? Resistance. I was not mindful enough to stop, feel it, and recognize when it was happening. I was angry and frustrated that my boss made me stay late. I could have made a healthy meal out of the fridge. It actually would have taken less time and money than the stop at McD’s but, in truth, the burgers were the consolation prize I gave myself for what I perceived as having been treated unfairly and made to stay late against my wishes. So I felt I deserved “a break today”, as the commercials say.

I reacted to my resentment. I did not stop to ask myself what I was really feeling at that moment as I watched the clock ticking away in the office. Nor did I ask myself what I wanted to do about it. I just reacted. And how did I react? Returning to old familiar habits which is what we all do when we react viscerally. As John Shukwit, a behavioral health therapist, put it, “Habit, by definition, is not mindfulness”. Habit is autopilot. We’re not flying the plane. We’re being carried by it. We’re passengers.

After I’m done gulping down the burgers (I ate them so fast while watching the news I was hardly aware of what I ate), I hate myself for it. Oh, I should have just come home and grabbed something. I chide myself that I should be eating healthier. And there are those magic words again–should have (the past)–should be (the future). Guilt in the past. Expectations in the future. Me? Where do I find myself? Nowhere close to being mindful, in the present.

What is the moment? I hate my boss right now. I’m anxious about reading all those files. Right now: I’m bloated; I’m nauseous; I’m taking an Alka Seltzer. Right now: I am feeling better about my diet when I plan out my breakfast because it helps me feel like I’m correcting myself. Right now: Here’s the orange I’m picking for tomorrow’s breakfast. I love the smell. The feel. The organic label makes me feel safe. The whole-wheat toast feels rough and grainy. The egg whites are put in their container and I’m chopping up some neat looking vegetables to add to the omelet. I acknowledge what I’m feeling. Resistance lies in the past and the future. I cannot focus on what I wanted myself to do or what I hope I will do tomorrow if I declare what sensations I have in this instant.

The question that keeps us anchored in the present is: What am I feeling now? And now? And now? There’s no resistance because I’m acknowledging it. There may be anger and frustration over quitting my diet but that’s what I’m feeling and I want to discern that because when I stick to my diet plan I feel healthier.

So asking the right question can keep us returning to the moment. And that’s where our ability to carry out transformational change is to be found. Right now. No regrets. No wishes. Just doing or not doing. Even if it takes a whole lifetime to do it.

originally posted in by Dr. Hamilton

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