The street outside my house is torn up right now, as the City of Fort Collins pursues four different projects, including replacing sewers and gas mains. Lots of heavy equipment, but surprisingly little noise—except for one all-pervasive irritant: those back-up beeps. I had never realized before how much time those diggers and dozers and pourers and lifters and carriers spend backing up! Forward a little, then back, beep beep beep, then forward a little more, then back, beep beep beep… To get into position to do anything, it almost seems they have to do more backing than forward-ing.
So after a few weeks—yes, it’s been weeks—of constant reminders, I decided maybe I was being asked to take a look at this whole backing-up thing. And sure enough, I realized that to accomplish just about anything well, I too have to do at least as much backing up as moving forward. Here’s what I’ve learned about backing up with grace…
Backing Up Mentally
When I get uncomfortable emotionally, feeling resistance to life building in the form of fear, anger, or other forms of misery, it’s a signal that I need to back up mentally. Before I can take a new run forward at life from a different angle, I need to back up over some old, all-too-familiar ground. Here’s the most graceful way I’ve found to do that.
First, I have to wrench my attention away from whatever it is that’s gotten me riled up, put on my inner-listening ears and ask myself three questions.
1. What stressful story am I telling myself about this?
Usually that’s easy to answer: it’s whatever my mind is saying right now—over and over!—to “explain” my current emotional reaction.
The details change, but the themes are boringly repetitive. My personal favorites appear to be “It’s his/her/their fault. They done me wrong…” or “This isn’t fair…” or “What if (insert scary outcome here) happened?... ”
2. What are the beliefs driving this story?
Next I’ve learned to pare the story down to its basic assumptions. What would I have to believe about me, about life, about others, in order to listen so avidly to this mind-story?
Almost always the beliefs turn out to be all too familiar, the usual sneaky suspects that come creeping back to try to crash my party again and again. Here are a few of my personal go-to’s: “Life is unfair to me. I am a victim with no choices.” Or, “It’s all their fault. I am a blameless, guiltless victim with no choices.” Or, “Living is terrifying. I am a weak, powerless victim with no choices.” Or my all-time un-favorite: “People have a moral obligation to behave the way I want them to. When they don’t, they are victimizing me. I am a moral, righteous victim with no choices.”
3. Does this story-belief package serve me?
Not “Is it true?” Just “Does telling this story and believing these things serve me?” Big difference.
Because by this time I’ve backed up far enough to get some perspective, and I realize that this story has made me thoroughly miserable. My body’s unhappy, my heart is shut down or aching or quivering in a corner somewhere, and my celebration of life on this planet has ground to a most unpleasant halt. It’s not about what “they” are doing anymore, or about what “life” is threatening me with. It’s about what I am doing to myself by listening to this oh-so-hypnotic story-spell…
You might think the answer to this third question is so obvious I wouldn’t even have to ask it. But I do. And I need to answer it, loudly and clearly: “This story does not serve me!” My inner ears need to hear the bald truth: this seductive story is just another fake ID presented by an old, unwelcome and very disempowering belief, in an attempt to crash and disrupt my life-celebrating party. I need to say “No” to that belief and show it the door yet again.
So, how to do that part? Not so hard, actually. It just involves a bit more backing up. For that pernicious story has now built up a simmering emotional charge in me, an ongoing stirred-up state that will affect every decision I make, every action I take—unless I take the time to dump that charge, now, before trying to take another run at the situation. Here’s what I’ve learned to do:
Backing Up Emotionally
1. Once I’ve seen that my current story doesn’t serve me, I back up a little deeper into my inner realm and pick up some favorite imagery that works for me. (Powerful stuff, images. Big earth-moving equipment …) My personal favorite: a pair of golden scissors that I use to snip off the story-line where it spins out of my head—I see it as coming out of my right temple. SNIP!
2. Now, quickly, quickly, I just invite the wave of story-generated emotion to pass through my body, with no story attached, no “because.” I snipped the story line off, so I’m not angry “because,” sad “because,” or fearful “because.” I just feel what I feel, letting the wave of emotion freely rise and fall. And with no story there to hold it in place, the feeling will come and go in seconds…
3. As I feel that wave of emotion subside and spread out into the ocean of my being, I let myself spread out with it. And floating here in stillness I discover a large, clear space of peace and freedom. A place where my choices can be just mine, just now, uninfluenced by interpreted past or imagined future. A place where I am free to take a new run at the outer situation, from a different angle. Or not. I am free to react the old way, take a different action, or refrain from any action. Mine is the decision, and mine the neutral space in which to decide.
Freedom. Choice. After I identify and let go of the unhealthy story and beliefs. And after I dump the leftover emotional charge. Now, and only now, am I free to make clear, healthy choices about what I will—or won’t—do next. After I’ve backed up. Beep, beep, beep….
You might say, “But all that would take so long, and when I’m in a life situation I don’t have that kind of time! I can’t just go off and meditate for awhile or whatever and then decide if I’m going to yell at that idiot or not.”
True. Fortunately, this little backing-up exercise can be practiced on its own, in your private space, before you go out to do some earth moving. And my experience is that after practice, lots of it, the whole backing-up sequence takes seconds, not minutes or hours. For more on this, and lots of practice, you might want to check out my CD, Making Friends With Feelings.