When things fall apart, your urge is to do something—anything—to put them back together. But what if you can't do that right now? Martha Beck on the hidden blessings of life's little low points.
"I don't know why this is happening!" Rachel wrung her hands like a pioneer laundress. "I'm a good person. I work hard. I'm kind. But lately everything's going to hell. My boyfriend broke up with me, my job was downsized—now I've got mono. What did I do to deserve this?"
The answer? Rachel was born. Her very existence is the occasion for multitudinous peaks and troughs—lungs inflating and deflating, muscles contracting and relaxing. We live in an up-and-down, ebb-and-flow universe, yet we'd much rather flow than ebb. When we find ourselves in the troughs between the peaks of life, some of us (like Rachel) become resistant. The rest of us (like me) panic.
Right now, with the global economy in a trough and social institutions toppling like bowling pins on beer night, it's quite likely you're either experiencing a downturn like Rachel's or worrying that one is on the way. As much as I wish I could offer strategies to sidestep a low point, what I can offer are a few tips on the gentle art of surviving what I call the in-between place.
Step One: Relax into the Valley
I'm writing this in a dark airport hotel in Africa, after being stranded in a freak five-hour traffic gridlock that blocked all access to the airport. Dozens of planes took off empty, leaving hapless passengers haggling for seats on later flights. A thunderstorm struck as I waited in line outside for seats that were ultimately unavailable. It knocked out the electrical power just as the Bank Gods back in America decided I couldn't possibly be where I am and barred my access to cash.
Now, compared with a life trough like Rachel's, my travel snafu is trivial. But it still gave me that vertiginous, unsupported feeling of everything going wrong at once. Ruined plans and unfulfilled expectations remind us that we have little control over most situations, and that our very lives are—I'm sorry, but it's true—temporary. This scares us so much we resist every downturn, from a demotion to a breakup, as if it were death itself. We clutch at straws, passionately embrace denial, or pretend things won't go wrong (even when they already have).
These options—trust me, I've tried them all—don't work.
If you're going into a valley, do what you did as a small kid on the big shiny playground slide: Let go and ride it down. Accept that what's happening is happening. Then immediately implement step two.
Step Two: Fear No Evil
Get expert tips on Dan Howard's Web site, IntentionalResting.com
Step Two: Fear No Evil
Every traditional wisdom culture has metaphors for the ups and downs of life. In the Good Book, there's a particular reference to difficult times as "the valley of the shadow of death." The Psalmist who coined the term promptly recommends the best way to travel through it: Fear no evil. Couldn't be simpler, right?
Unshakable calm is fabulous in theory, but in practice—when your dreams are shattered as Rachel's were, or even when you're soaked, cashless, and confused in a foreign country—fearlessness may seem impossible. It isn't.
I just relearned this from a wise fellow traveler: a tired, cranky 1-year-old whose mother was waiting in line ahead of me, wild-eyed with stress. The kid, catching Mom's vibe, looked ready to pitch a full-on fit. Great, I thought as he opened his mouth and drew a deep breath. Just anticipating the shrieks to come was enough to cut through my last nerve like a chain saw. But instead of screaming, the baby looked directly into my eyes, furrowed his brow, and said, "Oy-yoy-oy!"
I swear he sounded exactly like Rodney Dangerfield.
I laughed out loud, which let the rain hit my tongue, which reminded me: I had water. I also had half a candy bar. I even had one credit card that still might work. Most important, I had friends old and new, a world of human beings who've been visiting the valley of the shadow regularly since infancy. I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, oh worried, precocious, articulate African baby.
It often surprises me that such simple encounters can switch off fear, but it's neurologically inevitable; psychologists have found our brains can't simultaneously experience fear and appreciation. That's why it's so helpful to make a list of things that give you comfort, support, and hope. When things keep going wrong and fear returns, lengthen your list. As this practice trains your brain not to fear, you'll notice there are wonderful things to be found in the valleys between your so-called peak experiences.
Step Three: Get the Message
"This is more than coincidence," Rachel brooded. "Screwing up so many things at once? Something out there is trying to ruin my life." I agree with Rachel that when we tumble into a really deep valley, something more than chance often seems to be at work. But after years of coaching, I believe whatever's "out there" isn't trying to ruin our lives. It's trying to save them.
Think about it: Humans are the only creature in nature that resist the pattern of ebb and flow. We want the sun to shine all night, and when it doesn't, we create cities that never sleep. Seeking a continuous energetic and emotional high, we use everything from exciting parties to illegal chemicals. But natural ebbs—the darkness between days, the emptiness between fill-ups, the fallow time between growing seasons—are the necessary complements of upbeats. They hold a message for us. I heard that message an hour ago, when I relaxed in the rain. Rachel heard it when she put aside fear just for the duration of our conversation. If you listen at your life's low points, you'll hear it, too. It's just one simple, blessed word. Rest.
Step Four: Rest Like You Mean It
Step Four: Rest Like You Mean It
My friend Kathy Kolbe, behavioralist extraordinaire, often wears a T-shirt that says DO NOTHING WHEN NOTHING WORKS. If nothing's working for you, if you feel as though you're pushing forward against the grain, the most productive and proactive thing you can do is nothing. Nature is turning you inward, to gain power through peace, rather than outward to gain power through activity.
If this feels alien to you, watch animals. When nothing's working for them no matter how hard they try, they curl up or stretch out and surrender. They love the valley of the shadow: It's a dim, quiet, perfect place to gather strength. In Africa I watched a pride of lions, tired from an unsuccessful hunt, lie down and purr like tractor engines for hours. One of my friends observed, "You know, they rest like they mean it."
Most humans, by contrast, rest in a state of anxiety, guilt, and unease. We don't mean it. This keeps life's downtimes from fulfilling their natural function, which is to restore and heal. I'll never forget the day a client told me she was "de-e-e-presssed," speaking so slowly that I heard "deep rest." This was accurate: Even grief, when accepted fearlessly, is restorative. Some therapists call it "the healing feeling." So, though we often see life troughs as the universe's conspiracy to ruin us, they're actually our own true nature inviting us to lay down our weary heads.
I learned this from a man named Dan Howard, who spends his whole life teaching people "intentional resting." After half an hour's instruction, Dan's presence and simple methods melted me like butter. I think I was purring myself. You can learn more from Dan's Web site (IntentionalResting.com), but for now, I'll summarize.
When to rest? When you feel even a little bit like Rachel did during her recent ebb, or like I did struggling through travel hell, life is inviting you to sink into rest. To some degree, you'll feel blocked, tense, joyless, weepy, weak, and hopeless. Strangely, you'll probably feel certain that simply resting—doing nothing when nothing works—would be disastrous. This is the lie of the crazed human ego, resisting the natural peaks and troughs that define all nature. See through it.
Get 5 tips on how to conquer your resistance to rest
How to rest? Here are some of Dan Howard's instructions for conquering your resistance:
1. Find the spot in your body or mind that's experiencing the most intense discomfort.
2. Instead of avoiding or covering up the feeling, pour your attention into it.
3. Think the word relax. Notice what happens.
4. When you've had about a minute to relax, think the word rest. Offer it as an invitation for your tired feet, your cramped back, your broken heart. Actually say to yourself, "I'm resting for my heart now."
5. Mentally scan through your body and mind, inviting each troubled thing to rest.
I had to do this a few times before it kicked in. Then I felt a visceral ka-chunk, as if a misaligned part of my body had slipped back into place. The more I practiced, the more quickly and deliciously the feeling recurred. The simple intention to rest, consistently applied, turns the valley of the shadow into sweet surrender. Honestly, it's that simple.
When I'm talking to clients whose lives have hit a low point, it's always quite clear that life is telling them to rest. When I walked Rachel through Dan's exercises, she practically fell asleep in my lap. As she's continued to rest, luxuriously doing nothing when nothing works, her body and heart have healed.
Of course, when I'm the one typing on a rapidly draining computer battery in a place where a questionable infrastructure has temporarily failed, things seem much more dire. I'm quite reluctant to stop struggling, appreciate my way out of fear, and listen to my life saying—sorry, what was that? Oh, yes. Rest. But when that's your only option, as it seems to be mine, I invite you to join me. Until things improve and something starts to work, let's lie down in the cool, shady valley...and rest like we mean it.
3 creative ways to (finally!) relax
Printed from Oprah.com on Saturday, March 8, 2014
© 2014 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.