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A flare of anxiety in a pretty perfect day
My husband went skiing with his brother! While I try to avoid using exclamation points, this one feels warranted because it is expressing two excitements. The first (and smaller of the two) is my excitement for him because he’s always wanted to ski at Lake Tahoe. The second (and, really, I had to refrain from using 5 exclamation points) is my excitement for me because it feels like an eternity since I’ve had a sustained period of solitude.
My first day on my own was an almost completely unscheduled Sunday. The one thing on my calendar was a visit with friends that I’d been looking forward to for weeks. The day felt like a wide-open swath of possibility. Late that evening, I checked the time as an episode of the sudsy, girly Netflix show I had been anticipating watching since my husband booked his flight ended. I was surprised to find it was time for bed rather than time for another episode.
Instantly I felt a little hitch in my mood that felt suspiciously like the way I feel when I don’t make it through the list of things I need to do on a busy day. Thankfully, part of my intentional practice for 2022 is to use familiar feelings like this as alarms that I may be falling back into my old, habitual, “gotta-get-it-all-done” ways. My New Years hope is to use these alarms as reminders to check in with the inner situation I’ve created for myself.
Turning inward to see what is going on
As the inner “alarm” sounded, I paused and reflected on my day. I patted myself on the back for getting my two “shoulds” done. I smiled as I remembered the great conversation I’d had with my friend and her husband. I thought how nice it had been that my sister was free to talk while I walked the dogs. I celebrated the hour or so I spent in my chair devouring my favorite mystery writer’s latest book.
When I realized what the problem was, I laughed out loud. I discovered that, in the back of my mind, I had been planning to watch two episodes of my show and I’d only had time for one. Instead of stretching luxuriously with the pleasure of a day to myself, I was making myself feel somehow disappointed by not “having all the fun.” (You’re laughing with me, right?)
A sense of scarcity may be caused by our minds rather than the events of our lives
In a piece she wrote for the Living School for Action and Contemplation, Cynthia Bourgeault refers to a fascinating neurobiology study done by the Institute of HeartMath using MRI imaging. The study reveals that we humans create feelings of scarcity such as the one I felt that Sunday evening after a long day of doing almost anything I wanted.
It turns out that when we respond to life (in my case the fact that it was bedtime) with an initial negativity or constriction (again, in my case, the fact that I subconsciously had planned to watch two episodes of the show), we process the event through the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for “fight or flight” responses. When it swings into action, adrenaline flows and we feel defensive.
There I was sitting on the couch, in full control of the remote and my “schedule.” As I made the conscious decision to head up to bed another deep-seated part of my brain responded to my habitual Santa-like habit of checking my list. When it discovered that I “didn’t get it all done,” it released a surge of adrenaline. That little spike of hormone is what caught my attention.
We can choose to navigate life from a different part of the mind to avoid some anxiety
Bourgeault goes on to explain that it is possible for us to choose to respond to life’s stimuli with a sense of relaxation and interior spaciousness. When we do so, we process the event through more evolutionarily advanced parts of our brain – the neo-cortex and prefontal lobes. Not only do we avoid the spike of adrenaline, but “the rhythms of our brain and heart come into entrainment. We move into an inner coherence which makes possible an outer coherence: a response marked by intelligence, creativity and compassion.”
My old habit of needing to get everything done – even when “everything” is as silly as another episode of a show – is a great example of inner constriction and the sense of urgency it can create in us. What this did, according to Bourgeault and my personal experience, is “catapult [me] back into my small self with its insatiable sense of anxiety and threat.” What this response lacked in intelligence, it made up for with an astonishing indifference to my sense of wellbeing.
Choosing inner relaxation can mean having a sense of humor when you feel yourself tightening up
As I was excited for two reasons at the start of this essay, I am pleased for two reasons as I finish it. I am pleased that I noticed my old, limiting habit of creating a sense of scarcity and anxiety for myself. I am even more pleased (worthy of !!!!! pleased) that I was able to laugh when I realized what was happening. That laughter catapulted me back into my joy for a day abundantly, spaciously full of things that make me happy.
Perhaps you and I can promise one another to compassionately choose an inner perspective of relaxation and spaciousness, a stance of “all will be well?” When we approach each day with a sense of abundance rather than creating a sense of scarcity as I did for a moment on my couch, I think we will be well on the way to changing the way we experience our lives.
If you’re working on developing the self-awareness needed to live a mindful life, you might consider the practice of Daily Examen that I teach in the free video on the spirituality page of Yoga With Spirit. Within a week or two, I think you will find it a powerful reminder of the abundance of day to day life.