Imagine you’re a taking a late afternoon walk through your favorite woods. The distant chatter of birds and the tranquility of the late slanting sunlight is suddenly disrupted by the appearance of a large black bear. Upon seeing you, the bear raises to his back feet, lets out a roar, and starts eyeing you like a prime rib. What do you do?
When faced with such fear, there are likely four responses. First you run as fast as you can. Second, you freeze, third you faint, or four you try to fight (really?). What you probably won’t do in those first precious moments is to try to figure out when you will write your next blog post or how to resolve that issue with a friend/relative. That’s because when we are deeply stressed, all the blood from our brain drains away. While we might “think” we are thinking, all our energy and brain power is focused on survival. And even though you likely won’t be faced with a bear in the woods anytime soon, anything that triggers fear, anxiety, outrage or loss is reducing our ability to think clearly and react wholeheartedly. An antidote? Refuse to take most things so seriously.
I can hear your objections very clearly right now because I had the same when I first heard it. During the last few weeks, I have continued to read and listen to podcasts by author and speaker Jim Dethmer. In the book he coauthored, The Fifteen Commitments of Conscious Leadership he explains why one of the commitments is “Living a Life of Play and Rest.” At the core of that commitment is the admonition, “Stop taking most things so seriously.” I’m reminded of the quote by Mark Twain that goes something like, “”I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
“But wait?” I said along with probably every other person who has read the book. “Some things are serious and need to be taken seriously—or that bear will likely eat me!” Dethmer does not fight or resist that response any more than he does with any of the other reactions people have to his work. But he does offer the bear in the woods story and put it all in context with his work around conscious leadership. Yes, it is important to address that bear when faced with an actual bear. However, most of the time our reaction is to take less important things and blow them out of proportion, laser-focus all our attention on them, and try to fix or fight them as fast as possible. Only then, once the issue isn’t so close and personal, that particular issue loses its urgency—and often we can’t remember what seemed so important at all. Of course, even if the problem does stick around remember that anytime we respond out of fear/stress, it will likely not be our best response (remember no blood in the brain?) It also offers a perfect example of living below the line versus living above the line (see previous blog post).
So when faced with something we call “serious,” do we respond below the line with hyper-reactivity and let defensiveness, worry and/or fear cloud our minds? Or, do we do our best to pause, breathe and consider that our seriousness about the issue won’t help? Are we fighting with the experience and trying to force things to go our way? Or can we shift above the line and accept the situation, breathe, trust there is a solution we can live with, and then do our best to be curious about how the issue will be resolved? When it comes down to it, how we respond is either below the line with reaction, judgement and fear, or above the line with trust, openness and curiosity.
If you are anything like me when dealing with a “serious issue”, I don’t usually relax, stay lighthearted and allow my body and mind to relax. Again, I’m not talking about things that need immediate attention and are critically important to us. I’m talking about when something seems enormous and overwhelming and makes us cling to a fix-it, get-er-done attitude where hard work, struggle and seriousness seems to be the best and only way to resolve it. Instead I am suggesting we develop a willingness to allow the situation to unfold easily, effortlessly and within its perfect time. An excellent reminder is Richard Carlson’s book where he says, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all small stuff!”
I don’t usually think of myself as too serious of a person. But the more I was able to honestly look at myself, I realized that my willingness to play was frequently conditional. If the situation isn’t too serious, then sure, play is good. But a perfect example (at least for me) popped up last week when I started thinking it was time to write another blog post. While I’m starting to relax into my new schedule of a post every other week or so, I could tell that in the back of my mind it was becoming a concern. “I don’t want anyone to think I’m giving it up, do I? How long is too long between posts? Will people stop reading the blog at all? I’d better sit my butt down and get serious about writing something.” All these thoughts were lurking in the woods of my mind.
Then wham! I’ve been dealing on and off with high blood pressure for about a year now. Unfortunately finding a medication that keeps me well-regulated has proved tricky. Last week I woke up with skyrocketing numbers and ended up going to the ER. Fortunately they confirmed it was only my blood pressure and sent me home. But for anyone who has dealt with the experience, it takes a number of days to calm it down, feel normal, and then find a new medication that works. Okay, so maybe writing that blog post isn’t as serious as I thought.
Then, just when I was starting to feel better, my appointment for my COVID Booster arrived. The doctor approved it and said I should be fine, and I was—until about ten hours after the shot. While definitely uncomfortable for about 24 hours–I survived. Needless to say the blog post was still not happening. But you know what? During that time I also listened to that podcast of Jim Dethmer where he clearly said, “stop taking yourself so seriously!” And I realized that during the last week or so I was adding to the discomfort of my brain and my body by allowing my mind to go back to those reactions of worry and concern about my blog. I was clearly being too serious about something that didn’t need to be serious!
Now I suppose if I need money from my blog to buy food for my children, or I had a life-threatening illness, that would be more of a concern. But I am fortunate that neither are the case. I know not everyone is in that position. But what is important is the growing awareness of what triggers me about being serious. When you think about it, anything that you think is serious usually shows us where around issues where we hold some fear, anxiety and/or lack of control. Instead, if we can shift to being above the line we bring ourselves in the present moment with trust, peace of mind and a willingness to look for and explore a variety of options.
Of course, Dethmer is clear that being below the line isn’t bad—and yes, dealing with certain things right away is critical. Living below the line is often necessary for our survival. But I’ve been noticing that so much of what I call serious and believe to be so is just the story I tell myself about it. When I think about certain topics it is easy to slot them in the category of serious when my story about them appears threatening, scary or uber-important. Think climate change, think COVID deaths, think Kyle Rittenhouse—those are serious issues, right? But it is how I react to them, the story I tell myself about them, and what I feel is my personal responsibility for them that makes them look like big black bears that I alone must fix. When I do that I am reacting from a place of threat and loss. Like with a bear, I am limiting my responses to gut reactions rather than possibility, innovation, hope and collaboration.
So much of what is good about consciousness work is recognizing my own habits or reactions during different circumstances and then deciding if that is the way I want to proceed in the future. It’s not so much about whether I am above the line or below it—it is more about recognizing where I am in the moment, why I’m there, and whether I want to shift to a better perspective to change it. Dethmer and his co-writers are convinced that more light-heartedness, play and rest allow us to access our inner creativity, appreciation and joy when dealing with every circumstance we encounter. As for me, when I stopped making this blog post something serious I had to do, I wrote it in a couple of hours. Remember, the SMART choice is to give yourself a break, refuse to sweat the small stuff and refuse to take ourselves too seriously.