What’s New this New Year?

I love this time of year, especially the ritual of ushering in a New Year. With its promise that we can wipe the old slate clean, and write a better story on a new, refreshingly (as yet) unsullied one, what’s not to love!

What will your ‘better’ story be this year?

At a meditation a few years ago the teacher spoke of how “sometimes we are eyes without feet, sometimes we are feet without eyes.” We can have a clear and defined vision of what we want but take no steps to get there, or we can take a lot of steps in various directions – be in constant motion in fact – without any sense of where exactly it is we’re going.

The tricky part is connecting eyes and feet, not only identifying what we want, but also taking meaningful and sustained action to get there.

For many of the clients I work with, the meaningful action required paradoxically has less to do with motion and more to do with finding a willingness to be still.

When anxiety is the issue, motion is generally not a problem. We go to great lengths to escape anxiety, or at least attempt to keep it at bay. We may turn down invitations to socialize, engage in rituals that give us a sense of control in an uncontrollable world, or opt to avoid any people, places and things that make us feel uneasy. All of these ‘feet’ align with the ‘eyes’ of easing our discomfort, but if our vision is actually to have a bigger, more engaged, and more engaging life these footsteps will not get us there.

The step we need to take to move in that direction is to increase our capacity to sit with and bear the feeling of anxiety that comes when we are stretching our comfort zone, testing our limits and beliefs. Seeing that the experience of anxiety, while undeniably uncomfortable is not intolerable, is a key step to breaking the hold it has on our lives (and our feet).

Letting it go

The first time I heard Frozen‘s Elsa belt out the now ubiquitous “Let it Go” song, I thought it had a familiar ring. That’s because when I ask clients how they think therapy could be helpful to them, “I want to learn how to let it go” is a common response.

The ‘it’ can be a distinct trauma we’ve survived, or the soul-crushing never-ending hum of anxiety. It can be loathing or criticism we heap upon ourselves, a hurt someone else has inflicted, or some other painful emotional pressure. Whatever it is, we all want to learn how to let it go.

By the time difficulty with letting it go has announced itself as a problem, we’ve tried many different ways to get it gone. We’ve drunk (or drugged, or fed, or TV-viewed, or worked, or exercised, or sexed, or slept) ourselves into oblivion, we’ve taken Elsa’s approach and tried to ignore and conceal what we’re struggling with, we’ve started new relationships to get over the hurt of old ones. And yet ‘it’ stubbornly remains, outwaiting and outlasting our efforts to make it go away.

The paradox of letting it go is that we first have to let it come. We have to let ourselves identify and experience what we’re feeling, and accept it. Tory Brach, author of “Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha” defines radical acceptance as having two elements, “an honest acknowledgment of what is going on inside you, and a courageous willingness to be with life in the present moment, just as it is.” Radically accepting something doesn’t mean condoning it, liking it, or resigning yourself to having it always be so, it simply means becoming more willing to experience all that is present for you in this moment without judging it, resisting it, or pulling away from it. It means noticing your desire to judge, resist, and pull away, and radically accepting that as well.

Carl Jung said that “What you resist, persists” while Buddhist Shinzen Young chose to articulate the issue using a mathematical formula: Suffering = Pain + Resistance. We cannot influence our experience of pain – what has happened has already happened – but by learning how to bring more acceptance to the experience we can save ourselves some suffering.