Here are some more practical, mechanical steps you can take to go from being reactive in a potentially stressful situation to being nonreactive—in other words, responding appropriately. We call this “crossing the bridge”.
WHEN YOU’RE being nonreactive, we say that you’re responding instead of reacting. When it comes to stressful situations, responding means moving through the three key elements until you’re in touch with what’s real and what’s not real, and you’re choosing where to put your attention, which is on what matters and what you can control, right now. To get there, you’ll have to first become aware that you are stressed. You’ll do that by paying attention to your stress indicators. Then you’ll become aware of your judgements (your strong preferences for what should happen) in the situation and you” let go of those. Yes, no one said it would be easy! That will free you up to make the choice of where to put your attention and what action to take.
So, here are some practices you can learn, and which you’ll hopefully remember, and use the next time you’re in a potentially stressful situation.
Surrender your preferences
Let go of all your ideas of what should be happening right now, or what must happen next. Let go means letting go; like the bungee jumper on the edge of the bridge, you may not feel like it or think it’s a good idea, but you can surrender into the jump, surrender into the let-go.
— What labels / judgements am I holding onto?
— What outcomes am I afraid of?
— Is it really the end of the world / my life / my family’s lives (or does it just feel that way)?
The clouds are not the sky (applied to the event)
This is from the awareness introduction that is offered in Module 1 online. It teaches you to observe your thoughts the way you would observe the clouds in the sky: as always arising, changing shape, disappearing. In this case, you’d apply the same principle of understanding to the stressful event:
— Recognising that it will pass
— Recognising that most problems will take care of themselves if you let them, so which one needs your attention?
Treat the event as a messenger
As you would do for an emotion, treat the event as a messenger; take the message, and let the messenger go. The message is usually something like: “What do I need to put in place so it doesn’t happen again?” (Be careful, sometimes, the answer to that is, “Nothing, it just happened, and we caught it in time. It’s unlikely to happen again.”)
Reframe the situation
Look for the unexpected positive outcome. Eckhart Tolle, in his book A New Earth, tells the story about the man who wins the lottery and, when people say how lucky he is, replies, “Maybe.” The man has an accident in the sportscar he bought with the winnings, and ends up in hospital. People say how unfortunate he is. He replies, “Maybe.” While he’s in hospital there’s an earthquake and the man’s house collapses. If he’d been home, he might have died. How fortunate you are, people say. He replies, “Maybe.” And so on. The truth is, you don’t know how things are going to turn out. They could present an opportunity.
Red Zone check
When you realise—or somebody points it out to you—that you’re treating the situation like it’s the end of the world, add this extra step: play out the worst-case scenario. Keep asking yourself: And then…? And then…? Do that until you reach the end of the road. You’ll find that you’re capable of dealing with whatever happens.