Mental Carpentry and Mindfulness

I want to nail those doors shut against the temptation to re-open them. I am learning that the most effective carpentry technique is to get to the source of why, despite all my best resolutions, I want to go back.

An example: I am currently addressing a temptation to blame others for what goes wrong (and “wrong” is my interpretation) in my life. I have made many vows. I have made conscious decisions that I no longer wanted to participate in the negative thinking lurking behind that door.

It was like a New Year’s resolution. You probably know how well these go. That virtuous conviction that feels so good when you first commit to whatever major change you’re absolutely going to make deflates like a New Year’s Eve party balloon no later than January 2.

I think that’s because the temptation has such a powerful pull. In my case, blaming people is easy. It absolves me of taking responsibility for my feelings, thoughts, and actions. As surely as someone who self-medicates with alcohol or drugs, I surrender personal responsibility.

In other words, escape lies behind that door, and sometimes escape seems irresistible.

Understanding Why

We forget that the behaviors we’ve shoved behind that door once served a purpose. We evolved them to solve a problem. In my case, I experienced some major upsets in a short period of time.

Like all (or most) people, when something goes wrong, I want to know why so that I can keep it from happening again. This is very necessary survival behavior for all species. The deer learns that a human carrying a long piece of metal represents great danger and may develop the ability to sense the threat before its life is endangered.

Humans are hampered by tangled emotions and thoughts directed by an ego with an agenda. This agenda often involves deciding who’s to blame. Survival behavior can be either to avoid this person forever or to fight back.

I was doing the latter—but only in my mind. The low-key chorus in the background sang, “He’s ruined my life, which is hopeless because of him. I want revenge.” And on and on. And I thought I was actually hurting someone other than myself.

Listening at Low Volume

I’m learning to let the chorus sing without getting caught up in its dramatic arias. That means being mindful. It’s owning a feeling without shame. In its ultimate form, it’s unconditional self-love.

And that, I believe, is where we want to be. In that state (I think; I’ll let you know when I’m there), all the doors to past emotions and behaviors can be swinging wide open, but they offer no temptation. We have experienced and accepted their existence. We have faced their darkness, and that allows in the light.

The Trouble with Promises

Have you ever made a promise you didn’t want to keep? This happened to me recently.

I received an unexpected call from a radio show in Charleston, South Carolina. The caller asked me if I was ready to be interviewed.

No, I was not. Although I usually note pending interviews (and any other appointments) in my calendar, I hadn’t made a note of this date two months ago, when the initial arrangements were made. To add to the confusion, I also hadn’t received the two reminders the station had sent me.

I felt totally unprepared and very apprehensive about risking that an unknown number of people would hear me acting like an idiot. This, not incidentally, forms the foundation of many of my fears about marketing work, and it was easy for me to figure out how I “forgot” this appointment.

Since I had about a thirty-second window of opportunity to make a decision, the above thoughts flashed very quickly through my mind. Others joined them. First, and most important, I’d promised the interview, and I consider a promise a responsibility. In line with that commitment, I thought about the announcer, who would be faced with a gap in his programming and about listeners, who might be looking forward to the interview.

In the interests of full disclosure, I confess that the promise, as a matter of integrity, decided me. You’ve probably been in similar situations where keeping your word trumped all other considerations. In such situations I’ve discovered that I can either A. Endure a situation and remind myself that I’m a good person
B. Suffer through it with accompanying resentment
C. Turn it around and have my promise lead me into finding possibility in my circumstances

C., of course, sounds very attractive, but it also sometimes seems unattainable. I can’t remember how many times I’ve unknowingly chosen B., making the fulfillment of a promise I already didn’t want to keep much worse by reminding myself how much I didn’t want to do it.

I find two lessons in this.

The first is to make promises wisely. If I have a negative feeling about it, I’d do better not to make it. Maybe a good person keeps her promises, but she doesn’t have to agree to every request.

A classic example is one of fidelity between partners or spouses. Do not make this promise with your fingers crossed. Don’t agree because you think it’s the right thing to do. Don’t make it with the anticipation that you’ll break it. Don’t even make it in a spirit of resentment, i.e., “This is what I have to do to have the relationship I want, but I don’t like it.”

The most important promise you can ever make is to be true to yourself, to honor and listen to your feelings, to thoughtfully consider any reluctance, and to come to a decision that sits comfortably with you.

I promised to take on the radio interview because to be true to myself as an author in these times, I need not only to write but also to take every opportunity I can get to move through my resistance to self-promotion. That’s a commitment I have to myself.

Having decided to keep this commitment, I also decided to find a way to make its fulfillment enjoyable. I reasoned that the topic, questions based on my book, Animals Have Feelings, Too, was one I knew quite well. If even one human companion got an insight into ways to resolve an issue with a cat or dog, my time would be well spent. Finally, I told my reluctant self that I might have fun.

My commitment paid off. Bob Charles, who interviewed me, was friendly, knowledgeable about my book, and passionate about animals. He asked useful questions. Listeners from around the world asked more. I spent an entertaining hour talking about cats, dogs, and Bach Flower Remedies.

Bob described me as one of the nicest people on the planet. I’m sure there’s a very long line ahead of me, but I didn’t mind hearing it. I have been invited to return to the show.

Overall, it was a huge win, mainly because I kept my promise, not just to Bob but also to myself.

And the life lesson was priceless.

If you’d like to hear the interview, the link is below. As I noted above, it’s about an hour long.

Interview on the Bob Charles Show