Sunday, March 6, 2011

Circumstances: A Single Cell

Circumstances have little impact on how we live our lives, and yet we attribute so much power to them. We think that by changing our job, our location, our weight, or even our hair we will open up all new possibilities in our lives. Or conversely, we get into a car accident, get dumped, divorced or fired, and we feel as if it’s the end of the world. Buddhist philosophy teaches that good and bad things don’t happen to us, but rather we put those labels onto the events in our lives and treat them as one or the other.

Win the lottery = good. Get cancer = bad. Even though these “events” can precipitate either or both positive and negative consequences. Many lottery winners end up broke or in debt a few short years after their windfall, and we all know cancer survivors who say their diagnosis was the best thing that ever happened to them (I am one of them).

"We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand," said Randy Pausch, the now famous college professor who used his terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis to teach others to really achieve their childhood dreams through his Last Lecture, which was also published as a book. While many of us would look at Randy’s life, and his three young children and shake our heads at the tragedy of it all, Randy himself focused on living, and his humor and intelligence in the face of death has inspired millions.

I am learning that circumstances don’t have to play any role whatsoever in how we feel because whatever is happening now will change soon anyway. Rising above current circumstances can have an amazingly transformative effect on our lives. It is not so much the circumstances themselves that impact how we feel, but rather the story we tell ourselves about them. Of course we are going to react immediately to whatever the situation is, but after the initial shock wears off, we have the opportunity to choose how we frame it.

For a long time, I lived with the story I’d concocted about why I was single. I told myself it must be because something was wrong with me, that I was unlovable or unworthy of a lasting relationship. Getting cancer and then having a hysterectomy piled even more evidence on because now I was also “damaged goods” and had even less chance of finding someone who would love me.

On the flip side, I recently lost a significant amount of weight due to a new diet I have adopted because of a cancer recurrence. I look and feel better than I ever have in my life. I have enormous energy, and I get a lot of compliments. However, going from a size 12 to a size 6 hasn’t significantly altered the external circumstances of my life, no matter how many years I spent telling myself that life would be so much different if only I could lose 30 pounds.

Now, I have let both stories go, knowing that it wasn’t the circumstances of my weight or my single status that was affecting my life, but rather the story I was telling myself about both and so many other things too. Keep in mind that these “stories” were subtle, playing in the background of my beliefs. They were rarely conscious and obvious in my daily life. That is why these records can play for years and impact all of our interactions in life – because we don’t notice them.

The stories in our lives were initially developed as a survival mechanism. Something happened that made us feel uncomfortable (or worse) and we made up a story about it in order to get through the pain, and unconsciously to try to avoid the same “mistake” again. Thus are beliefs cemented in our psyches and allowed to play there unnoticed, but affecting everything in our lives for years to come. The stories themselves aren’t good or bad either – they are simply a part of being human. However, they can limit our ability to live our lives as fully as we are capable of, and they can also make us miserable if we let them.

I have recently come across a tool to help release the limiting beliefs and stories that we all carry around with us. It is called by different names: EFT – Emotional Freedom Techniques or tapping most commonly. It involves physically tapping on different points on your head and chest in order to release the stories that may be holding you back or causing pain. The tapping points correspond with energy meridians in the body – similar to acupuncture, reiki or other ancient Chinese healing tools.

However, while counseling or techniques can be helpful in speeding the process along, you don’t need them to release your limiting beliefs. Sometimes a simple awareness of them is enough to help you begin the process of letting them go. So just start paying attention. What do you say to yourself when you eat half a chocolate cake in one sitting? Find yourself for the thousandth time in debt? Get in a fight with your parents? Lose your favorite pair of earrings?

Start to listen to what you tell yourself, and you will be amazed at how often it is negative and unaffirming. I have often said that I say things to myself I would never allow anyone else to say to me. Most of life is lived between the ears. Our thoughts constitute most of our consciousness, and while there is nothing wrong with positive thinking and daily affirmations, they might not make much difference if your underlying story is telling you something completely different about yourself.