Remember the expression “good cop, bad cop?” Or that image of the devil and the angel perched on someone’s shoulders, whispering in her ear, “Yes, steal your brother’s candy bar! He’ll never know it was you!” or “NO! You love your little brother and would feel so guilty when he notices it’s gone and starts crying…”
Lately I’ve been pondering such contradictions within myself after having hit a rather bad patch in my life, attitude-wise. Already a constitutionally glass-is-half-empty type, after two years of unemployment, I started to regard my situation as” glass-is-nearly-empty and catastrophe-is-imminently-upon-me.”
It’s not like my bad feelings and thoughts were unusual – which made it so easy for me to justify my negativity. Thousands are unemployed now, and certainly I’m not alone in being worried about paying bills and the security of my future.
But the funny thing is that I had not been laid off, like all those others, but had actually quit my job. I had made this rather bold move after much thought and upon realizing I had enough money saved to make it possible. I would consider it a sabbatical, allowing myself time to explore personal interests – creative projects, travel, volunteer work – and see where it might lead. I pledged to give myself up to a year off. After that, I’ go back to work.
I proceeded to have the time of my life. Those first 12 months were liberating and a total lark. Life was wonderful!
But a strange thing happened almost the minute when that agreed-on year was up. I started to worry about the future, scolding myself for having led the life of a grasshopper instead of my usual ant. The economy was even worse than when I had quit my job, so my confident little plan to start working again wasn’t proving to be so easy. Three months, six months, twelve more went by, and still no full-time job. By the time I’d reached two years of unemployment, I was a nervous, negative wreck!
Rationally, this second year, that felt so bad, was really not that different from the first, blissful year: I still had money to live on, a roof over my head, food to eat and clothes to wear.
So what had changed? One thing only: my attitude.
Luckily, thanks to some urgent coaching from family and friends (i.e., getting yelled at), I had a much-needed epiphany: I realized that the only thing TRULY amiss was, indeed, my thinking. I had allowed the bad cop /devil to have power over me. For the first time, I had faith in the much-repeated aphorism that we choose our thoughts and its corollary, that we can choose to think different, healthier thoughts.
But how to do this? For me, it meant going back to some basics that I’d allowed myself to neglect: I needed to reinstate my meditation practice, and I needed to practice mindfulness.
Meditation would help me clear mind of the negative, help me focus, and calm my racing heart as I breathed in renewal and breathed out the toxins (both thoughts and CO2).
Practicing mindfulness encompasses many things, but one important part for me was to train myself to remain neutral between attachment and aversion. In other words, to neither grasp so fixatedly at certain outcomes that I freak out when they didn’t happen, nor allow myself to be such a knee-jerk reactor to things that irritate or dismay me, but which really, in the grand scheme of the cosmos, aren’t so important. I need to try to calmly abide in that famous Buddhist “middle ground.”
My epiphany only happened a couple weeks ago, but I’m already feeling much better – less nervous, insecure and despairing; more lighthearted, carefree and hopeful. Instead of bad cop/good cop or a devil on one shoulder, angel on the other, I am imagining a legion of serene, untroubled Buddhas surrounding me.
Recommended book: In the Face of Fear: Buddhist Wisdom for Challenging Times, Barry Boyce, editor and the editors of the Shambhala Sun, ShambhalaSun Books, Boston, Mass. 2009.
- Sunday Morning Epiphany (bridgesburning.wordpress.com)