Monday, December 23, 2013

Kayaking the River of Life - Self Limiting Beliefs & Adaptive Thinking

It took me a couple decades to figure out how much of an impact how I think (and what I believe to be true) about an experience influenced how I perceived that event, and furthermore, how my actions moving forward (in relationship to that event) would be affected.  Flashback 25 years prior: I am in lock-down psychiatric care, yep, I am institutionalized. (read more on the depression story here if this is the first you're hearing this information)  I believed I didn't belong in an institution.  I was in shock, angry and upset.  Doctors & case workers would interview me in therapy sessions, and I acted like I was completely above it all.  In group therapy, my body language was a collective "go f**k yourself" and I absolutely refused to participate.  How the patients there were treated and managed seemed to me a little bit how I imagine prison might be, but instead of everyone being a danger to each other (i.e. fights between prisoners), most inmates were just on watch for being a danger to themselves.  A couple of days into that experience, I finally started asking questions of myself and the doctors.

"How long do you expect me to be here, doctor?"

"3 months or more, Jimmy."

It was June, and I was just graduating (if one can really call it that) from elementary school and preparing to enter middle school.  It was a huge transitional time for all kids, but I was put in a whole other category of transition.  It would be like most 16 year old kids are getting drivers licenses and I'm completing a program to pilot the next space shuttle mission.  Except I was 12 pushing 13.  Well, at least chronologically I was that age. This experience launched me into a whole other mode of consciousness about life, the fragility of freedom, the societal agreements about what sanity is, and really put me in a place where I felt desperately alone in the world (for a great many years).

"3 months is my whole summer!  I can't be here 3 months!!!"

"Then you'd better start cooperating with your caretakers and case workers, Jimmy, and pretty quick."

So I started to (figuratively) dance.  Like an organ grinder monkey, I learned some tricks.  It was at that moment I realized that there was no turning back.  The institution was my new reality at least for the time being, and I had to adapt or die.  If cooperation was what would get me out of there, i.e. not fighting against my circumstances, then I was going to be the poster child for institutionalized good behavior.  I was 3-4 years every other patients junior.  The older kids began to take me under their wing, make sure I was protected and cared for (by the other kids).  If you were against the grain with those kids, some horrible stuff happened that I won't dare describe to you, as it's simply a sad, tragic situation.  I was released within 2 weeks.  Making so much progress, the doctors said, that I could be moved into normal life with out patient psychiatric therapy sessions.  Life started to flow in the direction I desired again.

Imagine the energy and direction of your life like water flowing down a river.  There are times the water isn't moving very fast and you can pretty easily navigate your kayak back and forth to either side of the river, even turning your direction upriver if the water is calm enough.  Then there are times you hit Class IV rapids (or worse) and instead of navigating, you're just trying to pass that section of the river safely.  You aren't thinking about the banks or even where you want to go, you are mentally present and in the current moment, each paddle stroke is a critical one, getting through the tough part to where the water will settle down again.  Going backwards (at least while in the water) at that point is completely out of the question.

Life moves like the most powerful river you can imagine.  More often than not, it flows in one direction (we all are getting older each and every day, there is no getting younger chronologically).  We can fight that flow, but we'll be much more powerful and efficient learning to work with the flow, and the occasional ebbs, and then the flow again.

For parts of 2013, my life seemed calm.  I had time to really think things through.  Reflect on what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be moving forward.  I/we hit some Class IV 'life rapids' in November (my partner in crime Kate broke her leg and will require 9-12 months of rigorous healing, relearning how to walk, drive, and eventually, another surgery, then hopefully, someday soon, she'll run again) and I've been doing all I can to survive since then, and just now the waters are starting to calm down a bit.  This river is still moving swiftly, so I am mindful that I'm likely close to more rapids, but I'm calm and present to the work there is to be done.  I'm mostly at peace with my situation. Mostly.

This principle is applicable to life, athletics, career and even romantic relationships.  There's a time to think and plan, and there's a time to act with little to no time to think.  And the more willing you are to accept your present circumstances as they are, the higher efficiency you will have in your ability to navigate to calmer waters where you can think about where you want to be next.  Plan, act, plan, act.  But we don't get to choose where the rapids happen.  Yes, we can feel the water start to move more swiftly (in our lives, there are always signals and indicators if we are paying attention for them), and you can anticipate, but you rarely know whether something will be Class II, Class V, we really just need to work to be as ready as possible to adapt.  When an undesirable event happens, of course there is a normal progression of shock, awe, frustration, sadness, etc.  But if you spend a ton of time feeling sorry for yourself (and working to get others to feel sorry for you), it's precious time and energy wasted, energy that could have been spent getting you back to where you want to be.  We all freeze in moments of trauma.  It's the moment you realize you're frozen that you have a choice to start moving, or just complain about being frozen.

A smooth river never made a skilled kayaker.
I am not suggesting that you shouldn't ever be upset.  Just consider that there is a point where we personally prolong the upset by getting others around us riled up about our situation.  We want to hear "I'm so sorry that happened to you" over and over and over again, and there's no gold in that. It just cements the energy and emotions around those events in place, and makes us stagnant.  Think for a moment about that family member or friend who wears their trauma(s) like a badge, and dumps them on you when you ask "how are you doing?"  You sometimes start to avoid that person (oops, that call went to voice mail again).  Moving forward becomes increasingly difficult for you (or them).  Imagine when someone hears about your difficult situation and says, "I'm sorry" and you can turn it around (adapt to the moment) and say, "don't be sorry for me, this event gave me new perspective and I'm now more clear about which direction I am headed. Maybe you could help me move in that direction?" Suddenly, you are one step closer to creating the new environment and life that you seek.  Instead of in the same place you were, hating your situation for much longer than necessary.

I acknowledge that this rule is much easier stated than followed.  My last 6 weeks has been the one of the toughest month and a half periods of my life.  But as is often the case with something difficult, it has been rewarding, it has been profoundly moving, and it has given me clarity of purpose.

Take a look at situations you might be presently struggling with.  If you are an athlete, look at how being upset and wishing a moment (in a race, or in training) be different than it actually is stops you from your forward progress.  I have been known to throw a few tantrums at aid stations in 100 mile mountain races, shhhhhhhhhh, don't tell anyone.  This can literally apply to any unexpected circumstance.  Moving forward, you have a choice to create a new pattern of thought and behavior that empowers you, and maybe you'll start looking at the rapids in life as something far more interesting to navigate, possibly even exciting and exhilarating...

One more thing. Class U / Class VI rapids will get you killed quick, so don't go chasin' waterfalls...

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