SORTING AND FACING: PRACTICES TO ACHIEVING BALANCE IN WORK AND IN LIFE
I am writing this article from a place of what might be called a senior citizen perspective. I have been working since I was 13 years old – a total of 13 years of part time work and 41 years of fulltime work- and I can honestly say that this journey of my work life has supported my psychological growth, stamina, and resiliency and has helped me to discover the threads of my soul’s purpose. It has been a privilege to work and I am grateful for all the opportunities I have had and am still having. Overall, I see my work life continually calling me to mature and grow up and to align myself with the “spirit” behind my work. It is a consistent invitation to look at my attitudes and projections towards the idea of “working” as well as to deepen my faith in myself by examining and trusting in the truth of my own experience rather than someone else’s version of my experience. For me, working is a vehicle for discovery, exploration and expression of my particular strengths and talents, and conversely an invitation to look squarely at the obstacles within me that prevent me from a full expression of those strengths. I also regularly review honestly what motivates me to make the choices I make and what attachments and distortions prevent me from looking squarely at these choices. In these fifty-four years of working, I have been summoned to open up to qualities like curiousity, stamina, patience, endurance, reflection, wisdom, courage, honesty, etc.
I can articulate these realizations more readily now that the original angst of sorting and facing has diminished somewhat. I can say that the life lessons I have learned and continue to learn have been accumulative and it is much easier to navigate now than earlier — because I have cultivated a lot of experience at sorting and facing along my own journey.
We all need to develop the habit of sorting and facing so we don’t waste vast amounts of energy ignoring and blaming. Lessons, faced and met and integrated by us will endure and strengthen over time. And even though the types of problems don’t necessarily change, the experience of angst diminishes and the freedom and joy increases. We just get better and better at not wasting time, taking responsibility and learning from each glitch that along our path. Achieving balance is like that. We see, we face, we sort, we act, we integrate, we move on.
Easy to say but it is so worth the effort of learning this rhythm and attitude. I can say personally, I am so grateful for my life lessons on balance. There is more space, more faith, more freedom, less attachment, more joy, less judgment. So it is in this spirit of reflecting on this journey that I share a few guidelines and habits I have learned and am continuing to learn about the notion of balance and its relationship to the work and life we choose.
- REFLECTION IS EVERYTHING.
There is so much written these days about the importance of reflection in our work. In fact many professions are now making reflection a mandatory requirement or at least a strong recommendation for membership – nursing, psychotherapy, teaching, corporations. Cultivating this capacity to look at your work and yourself in action ignites creativity and expansive thinking. Reflection opens up the door to wonder and to look at things from a larger perspective. We cannot change what we don’t look at or are not aware of. There is no capacity to choose if the choices are beyond the field of one’s awareness. One of my favourite quotes from Jung is: “What remains unconscious comes to us as fate”. Working and living unconsciously is the recipe for repetitive, often stale, patterns of thinking that then attach themselves to behaviour. The famous Italian psychoanalyst, Roberto Assagioli reminds us that: “form follows thought”. People generally stay unaware because it is familiar and safe. However, old ways can also becomes deadening and outdated. I cannot think of one successful person I know who does not have a habit of a reflection – it is a practice where the imagination for creative problem solving is ignited and new possibilities emerge. Reflection helps us to examine and find a productive and innovative response to situations, circumstances or events which normally might trigger us to act out of impulse, old habits and patterns. Brain researchers say we are wired to react and protect – that it is our automatic first response to new and unexpected situations. The impulse is usually to maintain safety and to preserve the status quo. We like to be safe. As we learn in the coaching program, people like knowns and fear unknowns. But after a time there is an urge to change and expand. Growth is about expansion and movement. So the natural rhythm of our journey becomes one of rest and growth. If the immediate response to any tendency to grow is to run for safety, there is contraction and life become stagnant but nevertheless safe. It explains why many people fear change and the adage, “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know” begins to make sense. However there are times when a new and different response becomes necessary, either through crisis or a chronic discomfort with the status quo. Reflection helps us to examine these critical points, to curtail our first impulse to push aside and ignore, and to assess the situation for new ideas and responses. Unless we cultivate this habit of examining events as they present themselves and to sort through to the most productive response that creates a new balance and harmony, we are reacting and defaulting to old patterns which have outworn their use. Habits of reflection help us make better decisions and open up new vistas.
2 MINDFULNESS AND PRESENCE
Linked to reflection is the practice of mindfulness – the capacity to be present to your experience moment by moment. This practice builds a resiliency to staying in the present moment and to notice the changes from moment to moment. It teaches that things change from moment to moment and that we can track this flow of experience in its nuances and fluidity. It also teaches us that we can bear change. It trains us to practice letting go of a position, a self state, an idea, a belief because yielding to the flow of experience presents the certainty that those states are changing and we can survive those changes. A cultivated habit of mindfulness reduces the perseveration of repeated thoughts and feeling, attaching yourself to stories of what did happen or what can happen or what might happen to what is happening right now. Mindfulness develops the capacity to show up in the here and now and to give the gift of presence not only to others with whom you work but to yourself and to your experience – a true present for everyone!
3, STUDY AND WELCOME THE INTENSITY OF YOUR EXPERIENCE
One of the significant aspects of our lives that fuels a lot of self-judgment and shame, is our relationship to our intensity, particularly emotional intensity. What do we feel passionately about? What stirs us? Who stirs us? Can we bear the intensity of noticing our experience and the feelings and thoughts it stirs? One of the main ways we cheat ourselves and our access to the wisdom we need to keep the rhythm of growing and is by stifling our experiences and expressions. I am remembering the line in the recent movie “The King’s Speech” in which the stammering king screams our his rage with a burst of certitude, passion and explosive awareness: “I have a voice!” “Yes you do” welcomes his speech tutor.
We too need to welcome and study our own intensity and surround ourselves with friends and partners who value your voice and intensity as as you welcome theirs. Our strong feelings announce to us that we are out of balance – anxiety, anger, grief, sadness, – all inform us of our experience and truth and beckons a sorting. We are so afraid of being “too much” and so spend quite a bit of energy imploding, quieting our passions, our truth, our expression, our contributions and talents so that we don’t register what we need to register in order to self regulate and to bring ourselves into balance. In contrast, we can also explode, indiscriminantly discharging this intense energy, blaming others instead of taking responsibility and studying the our intensity. Either way is a form of diluting one’s truth to oneself. Nelson Mandella, in his inaugural speech challenges our fears of being big: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Depending on the early learning we had in your family, our neighbourhoods, schools and churches, we have learned which emotions were allowed and acceptable and which were not.. A denial, a repression or a distortion of one’s emotions cuts off a valuable source of truth. Without that truth, we cannot self regulate our lives, we cannot know what is wrong, and thus we cannot create balance. Get comfortable with acknowledging and sorting big and uncomfortable feelings like anger. It means something is not right. Without that information, you cannot deal with the things that need your attention. Most people have a taboo emotion that they don’t allow or feel uncomfortable with. Get close to it, study it, let it inform the truth of your experience. Let yourself experience the flow of your intensity. It won’t kill you and the more comfortable you become in welcoming your experience no matter what, the more information you will have about what you need to stay in balance
- WHAT ARE YOU CARRYING?
I particularly like this question because I have found that when I feel out of sorts, it is because my energy is being drawn away from the present towards those tasks I have not done or people I have not faced. Now, when I feel unbalanced or despondent, I habitually take an inventory of what is hanging around my psyche. Who or what am I carrying that is weighing me down? Who haven’t I spoken to? What has been left undone? Often, I find that I am busy ignoring something that needs my attention. It nags me repeatedly and I spend a lot of consistent energy pushing it aside again and again. Usually it involves an encounter with someone, a task, a request, etc. For example, I am terrible at responding to emails from friends, and have a habit of putting off a response until “I have more time to answer properly”. The burden of carrying undone tasks is becoming more conscious to me and I am appreciating just how much my energy gets hijacked by keeping such life tasks and events dangling. When I become aware of my habit of putting aside tasks for later, I use self talk to warn me: “you know what happens when you put off this task, you carry it and then it become a major task later on”, followed by a soothing message: “it won’t take that long and you will feel so much better afterwards”. And it works! And it’s true!
Another area that I try to bravely address is one around my relationships. I know how difficult it is to be forthright and honest and to stand up for yourself. My default position has been to cave in, to smooth over and diminish and dilute my message. However, I have found that without exception the weight of dealing with issues directly, cleanly without backing off and without blaming the other person has been one of the most healthy habits I have cultivated. The experience of standing up for myself and stating my truth- no matter what the outcome- has really been energizing in so many unexpected ways.
Having said all this, the serenity prayer inviting us to learn the difference between the things we can and cannot change speaks to a a third aspect of unburdening our stress and that is the practice of letting go of impossible situations. Another “easy to say, difficult to do” habit to cultivate. The practice of reflection will help with the “sorting” of what to work on and what to let go of. The most important thing is to not carry things you don’t need to carry.
- EVENING REVIEW
I close with this lovely exercise which my colleague and friend, Molly Brown outlines in her book, “The Unfolding Self”. I use this exercise frequently to keep the channels of self awareness open, to cultivate new qualities and habits and to develop the practice of reflection, observing, and non judgment.
This exercise is best done at the end of the day, just before going to sleep. Review your day in your mind, playing it back like a movie, only backwards, beginning with where you are right now, then the time of late evening, then the time of early evening, then the dinner hour, the afternoon, and so on until the morning when your awakened.
Use this review to examine yourself, WITHOUT JUDGEMENT, and your life as a whole, or you may focus on some aspect of yourself, on some pattern yu would like to know more about, on some specific inner process you ay want to explore. The ATTITUDE with which you do the review is most important. When you examine your day, do it as much as possible as a detached, non-judgmental observer, calmly and clearly registering each phase of what has happened. Then move on to the next phase without excitement, without becoming elated at an apparent success or depressed and down on yourself about an apparent failure or mistake. The aim is a calm registering in consciousness of the meaning and patterns of the day, RATHER THAN A RELIVING of it.
As you review your day, you also have the opportunity to OBSERVE your immediate reactions to the review – judgments, emotions, regrets, and hopes. Allow these responses to register calmly as well.
It may be useful to write down your observations together with any insights or impressions that come as part of your personal reflection journal. Over time, you will probably have a valuable catalogue of your repetitive patterns. The key practice to this exercise is to cultivate your capacity to OBSERVE WITHOUT JUDGEMENT- not to relive the day.
(Molly Brown, 1983, The Unfolding Self, p 113)