Many times, we attempt to plan ahead while forgetting that plans are just best-case scenarios. Daniel Kahneman, PhD (Author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) noted, “the planning fallacy is that you make a plan, which is usually a best-case scenario. Then you assume that the outcome will follow your plan, even when you should know better.” I recently attended another silent retreat which brought me to realize he was right.
I planned ahead for retreat the best I could given what I knew based on past experiences and my limited fortune-telling abilities. Prior to leaving, I mentally rehearsed potential emotionally charged situations and how I could manage with my skills. For months in advance, I made sure I had contingency plans with respect to time, transportation, lodging, dog-sitting, food, lots of dark clothing, toothbrush, and a maybe even potential rendezvous with friends from college. It was too good to be true because Godzilla showed up about 48 hours into the five day retreat… of course it did. A crisis arose in my absence, and I felt powerless in my ability to problem-solve.
I did not have a ‘Godzilla plan’ even though I discuss the idea weekly with my individual clients and skills classes. I use this as an extreme example because so often do we believe we have thought of every potential situation that could possibly emerge, only to have something happen beyond our best efforts, plans, and ‘worst-case’ talks. How could I not see this coming?! Multiple judgments and ruinous thoughts careened through my mind. Fears about the future slammed about while my rapid heartbeat thudded in my ears. I was holding my breath as adrenaline began its unwelcomed walkabout just before lights out. PERFECT TIMING.
…what should I do?
Spinning, catastrophizing, ruminating, and shaming. The gamut of emotions and thoughts, urges to ‘fix’ things from 2000+ miles away. The desire to ‘make everything better’ weighed heavily to the point of hyperventilation as I paced my tiny room. I would have to leave early. I would not be able to see my friends. What would happen going forward? How would I ‘make this right’, whatever that even means?
How often have you asked someone, ‘what should I do?’ only to be told something unhelpful, condescending, or almost impossible. I had a professor in graduate school who would say, ‘how the hell should I know?!’ when we asked her questions about what to do in certain situations. Once infuriating, now reassuring. I do not have to know, nor can I control everything. I am not omnipotent. Would I even want that type of power…? Probably not.
…what could I do?
I realize I am making this sound easy. It is simple to do, and the reality is that doing so is extremely strenuous. I did not want to experience pain yet if I did not accept the situation and my limitations, I knew I would experience tremendous suffering. My Wise Mind kicked in.
Sit zazen, be patient, walk, breathe, and accept the situation as it is.
Radical acceptance of what actually happened even though I did not approve, enjoy, or want it. When I teach about this skill or review it in session, I often tell folks it is the idea of ‘accepting down to your guts’, as in one’s entire being. Body and mind interconnected. This is not some sort of checklist we can knock out in five minutes and expect to never reappear. Nope. We often believe that we have accepted situations, yet time and time again, the practice of turning the mind and using willingness to radically accept makes the process grueling.
I realized what I could control and decided to make the most of my time. I could sit zazen (rough translation - sitting meditation.) I could feel the surge. I could notice the space between each breath. I could allow the tension to surface without holding onto or pushing away. I could reach out for help without breaking the noble silence. I could ask my teacher what he might suggest. However, before any of that I had to accept my powerlessness in the moment, practice self-compassion, and try to sleep.
The next day, I began to attune both emotional regulation and tolerance. I could apply what I teach. I could use this as an opportunity to practice and fully participate in the experience of being with my body sensations, catastrophic thoughts, rampant emotions, impulsive longings. As Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values wrote, “I sit down, live with it for a while, then without turning away from it, pick it up.” I could accept my emotions and myself.
Discomfort. Pain. Fear. Grief. Nauseous. Failure. Imposter.
The only passage through is by accepting reality rather than believing the inner narrative of how ‘Godzilla destroyed everything you cared about because you are an idiot who does not know what they are doing…’, which is not a passive action by any means. It is not surrendering or giving up. It is being courageous enough to breathe with what is happening while bringing my attention back over and over. I listened to my Wise Mind and used my skills. I sat with the internal storm on the cushion. I walked kinhin (walking meditation) with the rest of the retreat members. All of us interbeing. Each probably battling their own Godzilla.
I fact-checked, repaired, and brainstormed. I changed travel plans and communicated as effectively as possible. I conveyed to my teacher the distress about Godzilla, how I responded, and asked whether he had any other suggestions on what I should do? He validated and empathized yet could not change anything. I did all I could. Now practice my practice.
Brad Warner, Sōtō Zen priest, author of numerous books about Zen, and blogger (http://hardcorezen.info/), wrote “Pay attention and be willing to accept things you don’t really want to accept.” How are you to accept the unknown?
We have to figure out what might work by learning from past situations. Sometimes knowing what you do not want may be more important than knowing what you do want. We can leave what does not work where it is while creating a more stable foundation upon which to build.
I did not expect Godzilla’s cameo and would prefer no future appearances. However, even though I know how to prepare for Godzilla, it is possible Space Godzilla arrives!
I managed the situation and found meaning within the storm.
Let’s hope Mothra does not blow into town… - CSR
*Yes, we are aware that the image in this post is not Godzilla. Seems all those images are copyrighted and we wanted to stay out of trouble.