How to Handle Stress Without Panicking
Release Your Expectations
Not all problems are this quickly resolved. My flat tire rearranged my day, but you may have a disaster that lingers for weeks or months, such as your brother-in-law. The situation, whatever or whoever it is, will eventually be resolved, but in the meantime it requires accommodation.
Realizing this is like being turned upside down. We hear our plans falling out of our pockets and smashing into countless questions: "How will I meet my deadline?" "Who'll walk the dogs?" "Can I even tie my shoes with this cast on my arm?" Our knee-jerk reaction is often defiant refusal to let go of expectations: Somehow, we insist, we will stick to our schedule.
I've heard you can trap a monkey by putting a banana in a jar, then punching a hole in the lid just wide enough for the animal's hand—not wide enough, that is, for the hand plus a banana. The monkey's refusal to release the banana is what keeps it stuck. This is what happens when we hang on to expectations in the face of crisis, and it can turn a snafu into an utterly fubar situation. Working when you're sick, you end up in the hospital. Rushing tasks after a slowdown, you drop or break or miscalculate something crucial. Pushing yourself beyond emotional limits, you lash out and damage a relationship.
Conversely, learning to let go of expectations is a ticket to peace. It allows us to ride over every crisis—small or large, brother-in-law or end-of-quarter office lockdown—like a beach ball on water. The next time a problem arises in your life, take a deep breath, let out a sigh, and replace the thought "Oh no!" with the thought "Okay." If it's hard to sustain this perspective, go immediately to step 3.
Narrow Your Time Aperture
It took me decades to learn how to surrender expectations. I wanted to let go; I just didn't know the procedure. Then a meditation teacher put it in terms I could understand. Imagine, he said, that your life is going badly—you're underpaid, and you've just discovered that your spouse has started smoking. You go for a walk in the woods, trying to clear your head. Anxiety eats at you: Should you demand a raise? What if your spouse gets lung cancer? Troubling scenarios spin out in your mind. You can't stop worrying.
Then you walk around a rock, and there it is: a bear.
At that moment, it becomes almost magically easy to stop obsessing about your lousy job and your spouse's lungs. You have no trouble surrendering your worries—in fact, as you sprint back to the safety of your SUV, you let go of verbal thought altogether. You've attained the enviable clarity meditators call one-pointed attention.
This is how you let go of expectations: by giving full attention to the snafu at hand. Forget about finishing your errands and focus on holding this bandage to this cut, right here, right now, until the bleeding stops. Do what is needed with full concentration: Find the spare tire, turn off the water valve, call your therapist. Be here now, and you'll realize there's nowhere else you ever need to be.
Next: The new way to make new plans