“The first thing to drop is your stories”
Let’s have a look at the rest of the “story — ”
The Perfect Day
As I wrote last week, the “Perfect Day” exercise comes from a workshop I used to run. Being a Zen guy, I’m fairly practical. I work from 2 simple questions:
- what am I actually doing?
- is it working?
I call these questions the Utility Test.
Most of us crave complexity
I notice that I am in trouble when I make things complicated. The “complexifying” process is a way of delaying taking action. Here’s a client story from the year I spent counselling students at the University of Guelph. A couple of my clients were Postgraduate candidates, and had either a Thesis or a Dissertation to write. Since the two I’m thinking about were both women, let me use “she” for the rest of the story.
My client was both sad and anxious. She told me that she was in the Sciences and had a Thesis due–that it looked like it was going to be 95 pages long. She had no clue how to write such a large and complicated paper.
I let her talk–about her research, about complexity, about how impossible it was to write a 95 page paper.
I agreed with her.
She looked shocked! “But”… but”… what can I do?”
I said, “You can’t write a paper. Here’s what you can do: Turn on your computer. Pull up Word. Type ‘Introduction.’ Then, write the first word.”
Her problem was that she was looking at this big, bad project, of infinite size (those of us in the Humanities are cracking up right now, and thinking “Only 95 pages? My introduction was 95 pages!” But I digress.) and complexity.
Let’s go back to my two ‘utility questions’:
I’m busy”… staying stuck!
What was she actually doing?
Answer: Making her life miserable, while not writing her paper.
Is it working for her?
YES! but only if her goal is to make herself miserable while not writing her paper.
NO! if her goal is to write the paper.
Look at your Perfect Day story. Read it, and let yourself feel what it would be like to have this way of being, exactly as you wrote it. Check in with yourself.
Ask yourself, “If I had this, would I be content?”
Now, take a step back:
- If you have your Perfect Day–if you are living it, good for you! In keeping with the above question, are you content? Are you simply living your days, or are you making things complicated for yourself?
- If you do not have your Perfect Day (and I suspect this to be the case for most of you), what’s holding you back?
Make a list of all the things that must be done before you can begin to live your Perfect Day.
This is your “complexifying list.”
Now, let’s make a significant point here, referencing back to my client.
Her complexifying list was a string of complaints, fears, and dramas. These were not items on a “To Do” list. These were internal dramas with only one purpose: to get her to focus on them, instead of sitting down and writing the paper.
In all cases, our egos are invested in keeping us stuck. We get to a certain point–call it your comfort/discomfort point–and some aspect of your ego starts to toss up excuses not to move forward. So, “stuck” means “stuck in your present story.”
Well, at least my head isn’t really stuck!
Many are the clients who get right to the point of living their lives fully, passionately, and with engagement. There’s this ‘hiccup,’ as they confront their feelings–a sense of new and uncharted, risky, chargy energy arising. Poof! They either stop therapy, or go into ‘defending mode,’ or they argue that things are “Alright the way they are.”
In a sense they are tying themselves up in the knots of their fears, and not noticing the repercussions of being stuck. The underlying dissatisfaction happens despite their success in other areas.
Dropping old ways of being, even painful ways, means risking the unknown. Many would rather stay stuck in the familiar.
For my client to move through her stuck point, she had to
- first of all notice what she was doing,
- second, declare that it was not working, and
- third, do what anyone who has written a major paper has done–she needed to write.
Here’s another version of stuck that may be familiar.
You have your act together in several areas of your life, and notice one of those discomfort / sticking points in another area. Part of you knows you must dedicate time and effort to pushing through the block, yet you scare yourself into focussing your attention on the stuff that is working! You say, “See! I’m doing so well in all these areas!”
And the unresolved stuff goes background, there to fester.
The point of the Perfect Day exercise, and the other 2 questions, is to get you to look at, identify, and confront anything that fails the utility test. In other words,
- here you are, right now, as you are. Accept that this is so–how you are is how you are, right now.
- Admit to the ways you are blocking yourself, and remind yourself of what you are aiming for.
- Have a breath, and create a “To Do list.” Make getting to your Perfect Day a list of do‐able, simple, ‘bite‐sized’ tasks.
The painting at the beginning of this article illustrates a Zen story.
When asked, “What is enlightenment?” the master put down the heavy bag he was carrying.
When asked, “And how does one then live an enlightened life?” he picked the bag back up, and continued walking.
Put down the dramas, stories, fears and evasions. Then, walk.
Next week, we’ll wrap this up with some suggestions about gently holding focus.