The Only Way Out is Through
A week ago some colleagues were reminiscing about my early days as a Board Director. They remembered things I said and did that created anxiety and some “trauma” for them. As everyone laughed at my “rookie mistakes,” someone who met me just five years ago said, “This is not the Mike I know.” She only experienced me as patient and calm with the occasional slip into an anxious outburst. It was like everyone was talking about another person.
Ten years ago I discovered journaling and began a mindfulness practice. I create time each morning to meditate and write. And over those years I’ve noticed I am becoming calmer, less reactive, and more centered. The conversation at the end of that meeting helped me to see that my efforts are working. But the moments in mindfulness practice are not always calm.
One morning I began my sitting practice as usual. I lit a candle, started the coffee, and began to settle myself by noticing my breath, the relaxing of my limbs – legs, abdomen, and belly. I remembered the news story about the girl who escaped from her home where her parents chained all of her siblings to chairs. I thought about how she got out and how she convinced people to believe her. I had a vivid picture of her riding up with the police to her home and freeing her brothers and sisters. . ..
Wait a minute! Where was I? Oh Yeah! Morning meditation. I focused again on my breath, relaxing my body, my chest, my neck, my arms, I could feel a sense of calm washing over me. I wondered how another little girl I’d read about in a story to my children years ago had escaped similar circumstances when her family was stricken with diphtheria. She had to run and convince authorities of the outbreak. I had a vivid picture of her telling this to health officials and then racing to her family in the back of the state police car.
Wait! What? Again? Where was I? Breathing. Relaxing. Mindfulness.
Then I realized something was trying to get through to me – there was a theme of danger and escape. I decided to turn my attention now to these insistent thoughts instead of my breath. I asked them: “Guys, what are you trying to tell me?" It was at that moment I remembered I was facing a problematic meeting first thing that morning. I was feeling some level of fear, and I wanted to escape, or even better to have someone race up, lights blazing, and save me. I need some kindness.
Then I whispered to myself, "Dude! You are facing a pretty difficult meeting. It’s tough to have to do something this hard so early.” It was as if my father was reaching out to me and whispering in my ear. “Son, it's not easy for you to face all of this."
After I said these kind words to myself, I did feel a little freer from the intrusive and unwanted thoughts of fear, anxiety, and worry. And when I went to the meeting later that morning, I felt calmer and less worried, more open and willing to engage, less reactive and more responsive.
The only way out of toxic thoughts is to go through them. None of us wants to hang out with difficult or nasty thoughts. We all want to get rid of them, make them go away, think of something else, do anything to distract us. But those efforts to suppress or distract ourselves from unwanted thoughts and feelings – only amplifies them, makes them stronger.
What if these unwanted thoughts are trying to tell us something and be helpful? What if we could befriend these thoughts, just for a minute and ask them – “Okay? What are you trying to tell me?”
So here’s the way out:
Stop and Look! – Mindfulness creates a space to stop running and to look at what is going on in our mind and heart.
Ask! – I like to think of these thoughts as annoying friends, so I ask them – What are you trying to tell me? Now I can stop running, avoiding, and suppressing – Which never works anyway.
Be Kind! – We are so used to the self-critic that self-kindness doesn’t feel normal. Being kind feels like a pity party. Imagine a dear friend, a grandparent, or a parent reaching out and embracing us with compassion. It is freeing.
We are in this together! – The last thing is this. Unwanted thoughts and situations plague us all. We are not alone in our suffering. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news – My suffering is not special – it is part of our common humanity.
When we practice these simple steps, we can begin to live feeling safe, happy, and free from suffering. Painful thoughts are our inner warning system that things aren't right, and they are not there to hurt us but to help us.
This simple meditation can bring you a sense of inner calm and peace. Some toxic thoughts are rooted in deep trauma and to face these thoughts, you may need help from a friend, a pastoral counselor, or a therapist to befriend them to show you the way through.
May you be safe, free from suffering, and live with ease.
“Self–Compassion,” Kristen Neff, Ph.D.;
“The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion,” Christopher K. Germer Ph.D.