How to tell the difference: unbearable or unfamiliar?

My wife and I have been trying to make decisions about what it’s wise to do right now. Visit a friend who has cancer? Go to the store again? Go to the job at the retail store? What we’re struggling with is information, emotion, inference, and uncertainty. You are, too.

The feeling how-can-I-tell-what’s-best is acute now. What is the same as other days, though, is that we select information, we think about it, feel things, believe we’re making sense of it and we act. Most of the time, that’s reaction. Autopilot. Familiar patterns. When the risks are low, we feel comfortable and we do what we usually do. Now, we are anxious because we are feeling the uncertainty that we usually look past.

This is a good time to practice recognizing the difference between reaction and the settled-down feeling of knowing what fits this situation.

How to tell the difference?

  • Do I feel that I have to decide or act right now? You may be trying to get this over with. Rushing resolves uncertainty by sweeping it away or denying it. Do not rush to answer questions because the ambiguity is unbearable. It only seems unbearable to you right now.
  • Do I have the sense that I’m the lynch pin, the bottleneck, the decider? Maybe those things are objectively so, but you can involve others. What do they see, care about, want to see on the other side of this ambiguity? You can’t satisfy everyone, but you could see more of the terrain.
  • Does this box I’m in feel familiar? If you’ve been here before, reflect on how you ended up there last time, what the consequences were, where you felt stuck and where you felt free. Mine the latter for insights and small ways to proceed.

Discernment is knowing the difference between familiar reactions, no matter how effective at the time, and the I-don’t-(really)-know-yet that can feel unbearable


What do I want to be ready for a year from now?


Whatever we are capable of handling today is what we have been preparing for, not last week, but months or years before that. If we want to be ready for whatever comes late in the coronavirus pandemic, or afterward, we could start developing those abilities and capabilities now.

I’m moved by the generosity of folks offering free classes, meetings, services, and more. It’s sure to ease our isolation and discomfort. It may do much more than that. Make the most of it.

And then consider asking yourself…

What was I not ready for that I want to be ready for a year from now?

What do I want to be able to face
or bounce back from a year from now?

Our current vacation in hell

If “social distancing” and isolating yourself sound like a vacation in a very boring hell, consider this.

You’re in hell because you’re not in control.

You’re in hell because you can’t choose who you spend time with.

You’re in hell because someone else is setting limits on you.

You’re in hell because you want…something else.

You’re in hell because some of the things that feel meaningful have been taken away. I’m not thinking of toilet paper. I’m thinking of all the things you do that make up your routine, that feel “like you,” that assure you that you know who you are.

You’re in hell because you do not seem to be who you thought you were.

When we take a close look, none of these experiences throws us into a personal vacation in hell.

But our reactions to the experience do that. We could pay attention. “Whoa. Here I am crashing into my own hell again. There must be something I really want to master, control, break free from, not have to face, not have to feel.”

Remember where you are

Some of us are freaking out. Some of us are propelled into action. And some of us, like me, are just feeling a current of anxiety running through us.

If what we’re experiencing right in this moment is a “problem,” then we’ll look for a solution.

That reinforces the so-called problem.

I thought I was getting sick yesterday. Turns out, I was just holding onto all the worry I felt when I read the news and talked to family. (Everyone is fine.)

We experience a lot of things at once, though we don’t notice. . I felt secure. And I felt anxious. And I thought my risks were low. And my dad is 87. I could go on. I didn’t appreciate how much experiencing these things together contributes to a pent up confusion and wish for some relief.

There’s a time to step away from the sources that spin us up. I’m thinking here of the news. It has been difficult to listen to my wife report things that colleagues said at work. I wanted to check out. There are times when our attention is fragile and narrow. I’m apt to go right to some emotional reaction – restlessness, impatience, the “get me out of here” feeling.

As a starting point, I’m trying to watch out for when I have fallen into some consuming, imagined world, thanks to my reactions. Say, a world of not-enough for all of us, a world in which it’s me versus them, or one in which “they” don’t matter as much as me and mine. Do I really believe in that? Does that isolate me, or does it help connect me to others? Something has taken me over. It usually comes up out of the cellar of emotions.

A better way is to practice bringing attention to this experience right now. It’s not easy to sit with this kind of anxiety and sense of potential threat. It can feel impossible. We’re really quite unprepared. But could you begin by asking this?

What kind of world am I imagining, believing in, and reacting to?

That world is created by our thinking about events, both out there and within us. And not just thinking, but what it brings up from the cellar of emotions.

This approach isn’t a solution. What we’re experiencing right in this moment is painful and confusing. But a problem? Take a closer look.

Ahem. Click the image to learn more.

Balance: Learn to fall

What does presence look like under pressure? Mastery, confidence, assurance, a commanding presence, steady as a rock. These are words we use to describe what we believe we see in people who are getting it right. 

Take another perspective on presence under pressure. Runners are confident, right? What are they doing? Most of the time they’re falling. They’re off the ground, propelling themselves in a direction and headed for the ground. But they know this motion and what to do when falling. 

If you watch a toddler learn to walk, you’ll see that they know that walking is also falling. It’s frightening and confusing and sometimes it causes pain. Here comes the floor again! They look for support, encouragement, and comfort. 

If we want to be centered, present, steady, instead of being like a rock we can think about being like a runner. We could learn to fall in ways that no longer frighten us. But to do that, we need to practice falling, feeling frightened, and not panicking.

Ahem. Click the image to learn more.

Balance: Wanting more

Balance is a fine thing to aspire to, but you may notice that when you have enough of one thing, you find you want more of something else.

This is how it is for me. When I have enough work, I want more leisure. And leisure might mean, going for a strenuous hike, but it might also mean sitting still, reading, and nodding off when I’ve had enough. When I feel that I’m keeping connected to friends and community, I want more time alone. When I’m loved, I also want mental stimulation.

Balance isn’t a matter of trying to have more of something. What if trying to find balance is a matter of really paying attention to the things we’re over committed to, doing too much, too often, and doing them less.

It’s not easy to pay attention to over-doing. That’s because it’s useful, effective (for a while), responsible, even admired and expected.

You could try to notice when you wish for something different – more of something else – what might you be overdoing. Just start paying attention to that. See what happens when you do.

Ahem. Click the image to learn more.