I was recently prepping my daughter for an interview for a summer internship, helping boost her confidence. Time and again we came up against her fear of failure. Minutes before the event she called me in a state of great panic, asking me what would happen if she didn’t succeed at clinching the interview.
Seeing that she was so stressed, I knew that any push towards positive thinking: “I believe in you, you should believe in yourself,” etc. etc. would fall on deaf ears. So, I decided instead to share Stress Relief 101, the first thing I teach in my classes: don’t resist the bothersome thought, choose to think of something else instead, like changing the channel of a television.
I started by asking her what her mind did if I asked her not to think of the pink elephant. She replied that a pink elephant was all that she could think of. So, obviously telling herself not to think of something would not help at all. What might be more helpful under such great stress, I explained, would be to pick something else to think about. “Like a blue dog?” she quipped. Exactly!
So instead of talking about the possibility of failing the interview, together we veered the conversation to something quite unrelated and more calming. We talked about where we could go on our next family vacation and the gators we had seen on our last trip to Florida and so on. As she relaxed and cheered up, I saw once again the power of dropping our obsessive attachment to a worrisome thought or memory.
A few days later, I was myself in the throes of agonizing over something. The thoughts and the anxiety started as a small drizzle in my mind which at first I let pass. Soon it built up some more and before I knew it, I was caught in the midst of an emotional “cloudburst.” I tried to counter it with reason and an action plan, but soon realized nothing was working. A small umbrella cannot hold up against a storm. My only recourse may be to find a shelter to keep me from the onslaught.
With the memory of my exchange with my daughter, still fresh on my mind, I recognized I had been resisting the worrisome thoughts, my “pink elephant,” and it had grown to be really big. The only way out now was to shake off my attachment and change the channel. If these thoughts were the pink elephant, what was my “blue dog”? What thoughts could successfully loosen the grip that my fears had upon me?
I went back to the first principle of meditation that I learned several years ago, and have more recently returned to with Michael Singer’s book, The Untethered Soul, viz. “You are not your thoughts, you are the observer.” Changing the channel meant shifting from the position of being the mind to being the observer of the mind: If the problem was the “pink elephant,” “I” the one dealing with it, was the “blue dog.”
Sometimes under severe stress, when there is no thought that can act as a protective umbrella against the fears generated within us, we must surrender our urge to fight the thoughts. Our attachment to the “fixer” in us who thinks that we can overcome the anxiety by resolving it, is the bigger problem. The only thing that can bring us greater relief at such times is to walk away from it and seek refuge in our soul, our inner witness.
The best recourse in such circumstances therefore is to remind ourselves to step away from the magnetic pull of the “pink elephant” and anchor our attention in the one observing the downpour, the “blue dog.” We stay with the ebb and flow of our breath to channel our attention inward.
The Gita talks about the three ways of looking at the world and how each way brings about greater understanding and peace. The first way is to completely identify with a thing and become it. This way makes us feel powerless in relation to our world and our mind. The second way is to step away from it and see it as separate from oneself. This gives us distance and some relief, but the threat remains. The third way is to see all of life’s infinite problems as different facets of oneself which would mean the solutions also lie within.
This third way depersonalizes it and puts things into perspective, so that one becomes bigger than the problem. I believe T.S. Elliot’s famous quote summarizes this very idea: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time.”
But it all begins with the choice to surrender the power struggle with the problem and step outside of it.
So, in the throes of my anxiety, I started by using the “blue dog” identification to draw me out of my attachment to the scary pink elephant; it felt better. As I continued, now also following my breath, it dawned on me that I, the one experiencing the thought, was indeed the blue dog, the pink elephant, the golden camel, the dark horse, and much, much more. A whole array of images signifying many positive, negative, and neutral possibilities, all living in me, are the many aspects of my larger identity. With this new knowing of my-Self, the “pink elephant” seemed much less scary and way more manageable.
Soon the rain of fear had become a drizzle and I could step out again. I revisited the original issue and found myself coming up with many creative ways to move forward.
The telephone rang shortly thereafter. It was my daughter who had just heard the results of her interview. They said Yes! I let out a whoop of joy and asked her if she was happy.
She said she was, but now was wondering if she could have done better, maybe aimed higher, worried she had perhaps “settled” for less? Sigh…. another pink elephant had entered the room.