When Everything Seems To Be Going Wrong
I’ve had a bit of a rough week. I’ve been working as an attending physician on an inpatient service populated with incredibly sick patients, several of whom are intensely angry about their diseases and are projecting their anger toward me and the team of residents with whom I work. The medical informatics project on which I’m the physician sponsor has just gone live with its most ambitious and radical portion and many physicians are nervous and resistant and are acting out in negative ways. I’m struggling to find the time to practice Buddhism, to work on my book and this blog, fulfill my work responsibilities, my relationship responsibilities to both my wife and son, continue a regular program of exercise, get adequate sleep, and relax. In short, in the last week my life has felt a bit out of control and a little overwhelming.
In a previous post, The True Cause Of Depression, I discussed how having multiple problems at once seems to cause more stress than having only one or two. I likened the handling of challenges to balancing a “plate” of a certain size and suggested if we pile too many problems onto it, not only do we risk having it topple over, we often find ourselves wanting to pitch the whole thing on purpose. That’s certainly how I’ve been feeling. So I thought it might be helpful to review the strategies I use when my life-condition slips.
And a slip in my life-condition is what’s really to blame. Certainly many people are facing far more oppressive circumstances than what I described above (especially the very patients I complained about). But the degree of pain and suffering people experience can’t be calculated by observing their outward circumstances. Pain and suffering always occur as a result of a low life-condition, explaining, among other things, how millionaires can be miserable.
A famous story tells of a buddhist who went to see a mentor of his for encouragement about a particular problem he was having. However, before he could even begin to explain his circumstances, the mentor pointed to a large oak desk and asked him to lift it. Bewildered, the buddhist replied, “There’s no way I can lift that. It’s way too heavy.” To which his mentor responded, “The problem isn’t that the desk is too heavy. The problem is that you’re too weak.” His point was that our ability to win isn’t determined by the size of our problems but by our own strength and determination. When you feel overwhelmed by your own life, rather than focusing on finding a different set of more manageable problems (as if that were even possible), you should look for ways to raise your life-condition so you can gain access to the wisdom, courage, and energy you need to solve the problems you have. If you don’t have a process or a practice that does this for you, find one. Willpower and intellect alone are often insufficient.
This is the real answer about what to do when everything seems to be going wrong: find a way to transform your perspective so that obstacles feel like opportunities. But if that seems too abstract, or you’re having trouble finding a practice that works for you, or you’re not interested in finding a practice at all, I’d offer the following techniques for making yourself feel better when you feel bad. These are just clever tricks—some comforting thoughts really—but ones that you might find useful.
- Visualize yourself succeeding. Like a professional skier envisioning every twist and turn of a ski run before making it, imagining yourself on the other side of a problem even in the abstract can activate a powerful belief in your ability to succeed. Even if today you have no idea how to win, a belief that you can—even a “blind” belief—can be empowering if it’s a belief in yourself.
- Avoid making important life decisions when your life-condition is low. The kinds of thoughts you’ll have in general are always more reflective of your life-condition at the moment rather than the circumstances in which you find yourself. You’ll best avoid future misery if you can consciously recognize when circumstances have gotten you down and thereby produced gloomy feelings and defeatist thoughts—which, when your life-condition is higher, are nowhere to be found.
- Imagine you’ve already achieved a desired goal (one you’re completely confident you can) and bathe now in the joy you anticipate you’ll feel later. I’ve often found that daydreaming about future successes lifts my spirits by bouncing my mind out of my present difficulties into future imagined glories.
- Force yourself to focus on one problem at a time. Focus on what’s easiest, most important, or that which you can solve soonest. Reducing the total number of challenges confronting you will be an enormous relief and help combat the tendency to feel defeated when facing what seems to be an overwhelming number of problems.
- Wait. My four favorite words for weathering all storms: this too shall pass. Think of entering into a waiting mode as an active process, not a passive acceptance of whatever fate has in store for you. Other good things often happen that raise your life-condition and enable you to handle the mess you’re facing more easily. You may think you know all the bad things that are going to happen, but outcomes we anticipate—good and bad—most often don’t turn out the way we envisioned.
- Access your creativity to solve problems. Reduce the chatter in your head by listening to moving music or by meditating. Solutions often bubble up from the subconscious when the conscious mind floats.
- Find something to distract you. Take a real break from thinking about your problems when you’re not actively engaged in solving them. Because it’s much harder to turn off obsessive thoughts about the challenges facing you than turn on more positive thoughts, finding something genuinely distracting is the best strategy. Humor works for me as long as it’s humor that’s genuinely funny. Nothing wrong with taking a break from fighting the good fight to recharge your batteries. In fact, strange as this may sound, there’s nothing wrong with engaging in controlled denial. As long as you don’t let it prevent you from acting when action is required, it can be an extremely effective way to combat anxiety. Or…
- Take on your anxiety directly. Identify the thoughts that make you anxious and follow them to their logical extreme. Wrap your mind around what it would feel like for your worst fears to be realized. What would you do then? Often if we force ourselves to imagine the worst in concrete terms it feels less frightening than it does when we imagine it abstractly.
- Ask for help. You don’t have to do it all by yourself. I struggle with this one a lot, not because I have any aversion to asking for help, but because I just rarely seem to think to do it.
- Accept that you must face something unpleasant. Stop worrying about experiencing pain. Stop trying to avoid it. You’ll make it through and survive. Prepare yourself to feel whatever there is to feel. The longer you wait to feel it, the more anticipatory dread you’ll feel as well.
- Whatever you’re going through actually does represent an opportunity for growth. The thing about cliches is that they’re mostly true.
- There will come a time when you’ll struggle even to remember what’s causing you so much angst today. It’s hard to project yourself into that future, but if you stop think about it, you’ve almost certainly already forgotten about most of the trying experiences you’ve faced in the past (not, of course, the life-changing experiences—but most things that get us down on a daily basis are much more mundane).
WHEN YOU FEEL COMPLETELY DEFEATED
Or maybe it’s even worse for you than I’ve described. Maybe you feel like everyone and everything is conspiring against you, that no one sees things quite the way you do, and that you’re alone in the wilderness and the world. Whether this is actually true or not is irrelevant: if it feels as though it is, it can’t but help plunge your life-condition into the world of Hell, the lowest of the Ten Worlds.
When this is how you feel, you must summon up the stand-alone spirit. Even if everyone and everything—the entire world—is pointing left, if you believe the correct direction to point is right, then point to the right you must. If you feel within whatever context your problems are occurring that you have the gift of sight in a country of the blind, you must fight to help others to see until either they do or you learn you were wrong, not they.
Society, discovery, and culture are advanced by people who have every reason to remain seated but who stand up anyway; by people who resolutely and consistently point out what they believe is true. If you do this despite whatever fears the prospect of doing so brings, eventually others will be emboldened by your example and stand up with you. And then you’ll have made a worthy contribution to the world.