Our kids have pretty much grown out of singing the road trip blues-“Are we there yet? When are we going to get there? I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I’m bored. I need to go to the bathroom.” Masters of catastrophe, kids are! One of the kids will say, “I’m starving.” I will reply, “Kids in Africa who haven’t eaten in days are starving. You on the other hand, had a sandwich fifteen minutes ago. You are not starving.” Or else, a kid will say, “I’m dying of thirst.” And I reply, “That is highly unlikely but don’t tempt me.” One of our kids, who shall remain nameless, hit the jackpot with the most woeful statement and had us all laughing. After several rounds of complaints, this one said, “I’m dying to death back here.” Dying to death! That could be the mantra for catastrophizing.
We’ve tried banning the expression “I’m starving.” A little mindfulness about the power of language can’t go astray. Of course it’s not just kids who excel at catastrophizing. I found a small lump on my body recently and within minutes I had imagined myself in months of chemo and radiation. I pictured myself bald. Then I day dreamed my death bed scene telling the kids how much I love them and kissing Meg for the last time, wondering if she will remarry. All of this anxiety was created over what turned out to be a boil. It seems it is easier to lance a boil than it is to dissect the workings of the human ego.
Catastrophizing does not serve you well. At best, it leaves you depressed and anxious. At worst it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If the worst never arrives, you worried for nothing. If it does happen, you endure it twice. Catastrophizing tells the stories that pessimism wants to hear to justify its perspective. Catastrophizing is sitting in traffic and imagining that the meeting you are missing is the beginning of the end of your career. Catastrophizing is looking at your child’s report card and imagining that he will never get a college degree. Catastrophizing creates stories with very little basis in reality, feeds the stories with evidence from unrelated situations, spirals in negativity and eventually becomes irrational and closed to all reasonable conversation.
We’re pretty good at it as a society as well. Every time I hear people talking about America sliding down the slippery slope to socialism, my mind goes back to the kids in the back seat telling me that “they’re starving.”
When I read that that 29% of Americans (and 44% of Republicans) believe that an armed revolution might be necessary against the government in the next few years to protect freedom, I can only think of my kids in the back seat “dying to death”.
What reality are these people living?
No one even remembers the hyped up drama about “death panels” a few years back. Some people seemed to think that President Obama would personally be visiting nursing homes with a pillow tucked under his arm. When public conversations become irrational like this, not much is achieved. What WAS all the fuss about?
The passage of the Civil Rights Bill in the 1960s was much the same. Many people became convinced that whites would be enslaved in this new world order. Now, 40 years later, we take the Civil Rights Bill for granted and very few people are worried about a black takeover of the country. As the predicted dates for catastrophe come and go, and as all the anticipated anxiety fails to materialize, we look back and smile at our over active imaginations.
Catastrophizing is often built around pre existing conditions like fear of change and basic paranoia.
The antidote to catastrophizing is not heightened security, and acting out fear, but mastering the mind. Three specific mind mastery techniques are:
1. See alternatives. Your imagination is powerful. So use it to conjure up multiple scenarios rather than fixating on the one worst one. Any of them is possible. Even your most positive predictions may fall short of reality.
2. Stay open. Be patient and allow situations to unfold without overreacting. Don’t be too quick to form conclusions about good and bad. Bad can very quickly seem better once worse happens. Good can easily be forgotten once better happens. There is always more to come. Sometimes good things change so that better things can emerge. Stay open because everything that happens makes you wiser and stronger.
3. Be still. In other words, stop swirling in fantasy about unknowns and dwell in this moment where everything is exactly as it is and couldn’t possible be any other way.
For the most part, life is a mind game and it’s a game you can win.Your mind functions like a committee. The committee is constantly bombarding you with different voices and opinions. One of the members of the committee is catastrophe, the pessimist who wants to remind you to expect the worst. Maybe the voice of catastrophe is simply echoing the voices of people who haunt your life with their negativity;a neighbor, the media, talk radio. They all have their perspective, and they all bring something worthwhile to the table. But none of them holds all the truth. Some of them barely have a half a truth.
There is a still small voice that stands firm in the midst of all the other voices. This is the voice of your true essence, your highest self that transcends and includes all other perspectives and roles. It’s a small voice, not because it lacks power. On the contrary, this is your most powerful voice. It’s small because it has no need to raise its voice in anger, or shout irrational obscenities in meetings. It’s small because it waits to hear the answers to its questions and keeps an open mind. It has no predetermined ideas as to how the future will play out; preferring to urge you to be all you can be in each moment, a work in progress.
It’s a still voice, not because it lacks conviction. On the contrary, this is your most powerful voice. It’s still because it doesn’t fight reality. It’s small because it has nothing to prove and compels you forward with gentle persuasion. It states its case calmly and respectfully, and genuinely looks for win/win solutions.
The intent of spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga, contemplation and so many other practices is awareness so that you know which committee member is ruling your life at a given moment. With this awareness, you can choose to appoint the still small voice as the chair of your mind’s committee. As chair, it can affirm and embrace each voice for what it is, but not be ruled by any one voice. Spiritual practice helps you to tune into the still small voice and live your life with contentment and skilful means.
In this moment, stand firm and be still, all is well and all will be well no matter what the circumstance.