While reading the Declaration of Independence the other day, I was pleasantly surprised to come across the following in the second paragraph:
All experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
I realize that the authors were referring to the abuses of an unjust ruling government. However, this idea can also be applied to personal suffering at the hands of a nervous system that shifts into survival mode at the drop of a hat. We can find ourselves doing the same things over and over again and feeling resigned to the belief that this is just how things are or who we are. Even if the results we get are unproductive or even destructive, we go back to the same behaviors. In other words, we will suffer until we are tired of suffering. This is because parts of the human nervous system are wired to get us to do the same things over and over -- this is based on the simple premise that whatever we have done in the past has contributed to our survival.
Now imagine that you are tired of suffering. Imagine that you decide that you are going to do things differently. Imagine that you have chosen to "abolish the forms to which you are accustomed"? Choosing and committing to a new response to a familiar situation can bring renewed energy and excitement. And... it will eventually bring you face to face with all the strategies that the survival system has for steering you back toward doing what you have always done. Your survival system will use thoughts and sensations of anger, fear, boredom, desperation, restlessness, sadness, dissatisfaction, fatigue, and anything else it can produce to get you to go back to your old, familiar behaviors. Even if the change would facilitate growth, health, and happiness, the survival system will do its best to derail your new plan.
The sabotage of the survival system is not a problem. It is just part of being human. If you practice being present, you can see the thoughts and sensations that your brain uses to nudge you back toward suffering. If you practice being open, then you can accept these thoughts and sensations as nothing more than the results of activity in your nervous system. If you practice being purposeful, then you can respond to whatever is happening based on what really matters to you. You are not a victim of this system that creates suffering -- you are a willing participant who always can choose another way.
The foundation of personal freedom is the practice of being present, open, and purposeful. You can practice anywhere and anytime. The survival system of your brain is not going to go away -- it is always going to see and present the world through the lens of problems and limitations. You always have the choice to see the thoughts and sensations it produces as the truth or as information that may or may not be useful. Here is The Practice that builds this skill:
Bring attention to:
The sounds, sights, and movement happening around you
The sensations of tightness, looseness, fullness, emptiness, heaviness, lightness... happening within you
The thoughts about what these sensations mean -- anger, happiness, sadness, fear, stress...
The thoughts about why you are experiencing these sensations -- "It's because..."
Stand or sit upright with arms and legs uncrossed
Relax your belly on the in breath
Drop your shoulders on the out breath
Allow the corners of your mouth to relax
Bring attention to your chest while accessing gratitude and compassion
Notice that the thoughts and sensations you experience are not solid or permanent
What do I want to be true about my life in this moment?
How is this situation an opportunity for me to practice what is most important?
What is the next, smallest, valuable action that I can take?
Take that action or schedule that action immediately
Have a practice that works for you? I invite you to share your experience in the comment section below so that others will benefit.
Dave Mochel is the founder of Applied Attention; a company dedicated to teaching people how to tap into their incredible capacity to respond calmly, positively, and purposefully in any situation. He translates research in neuroscience, behavior, and performance into simple principles and practices than can be incorporated into any activity or organization. The result of his work is reduced stress and anxiety with improved performance, relationships, and quality of life. For more information, visit www.AppliedAttention.com
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