Life Balance Library
Take out what you need, right now. Explore guided meditations, stories from our strategists, and thought-provoking articles.
Want to know what really happens during our 1:1 sessions? We asked Strategist Ron Ames to share all, from where he begins with his creative clientele to the tools he utilizes in sessions to help them on their path to well-being...
“I have always been fascinated by tools, their gleaming physical quality, the beauty of a purpose-built design. My love of tools, technology, and the nature of how things interconnect is my life’s work.
In the film business, I build workflows and pipelines to manifest creative storytelling. In my role as a Life Balance Strategist, I use tools to help individuals and groups discover perspectives and means to skillfully and intentionally manage change and transition in the unfolding of their lives.
The Art of Life Balance Strategy
Like my well-worn physical tools that I use to build things, and my digital tools that I use to create fantastical film images, the tools that I employ as a Strategist are dependable, elegant and powerful. Some are simple and easily utilized and some are more complex. Like all works of craft, the use of the tools for change must be engaged in a wise way with skill and a sensitive touch. That is the art of what we do.
Cartographers use compasses, angles and fine pens to describe the world they see. Navigators use chronographs and sextants to find their place in time and space. The navigation tools used by Life Balance Strategists help us find where we are in our current change and on our life path.
The Life Balance Strategy Process
We start right where we are, right here, right now. We look for the question. We learn to love the question and not concern ourselves with an answer. The question rebounds and echoes around the room. It takes patience and courage to stay with the question.
Armed with a question, we use a series of clear analytics to discover where we are in our adult development. What are our goals and values? Are we fulfilled? What are our unmet needs and longings? The Life Balance analytic tools have been built with wisdom and have been tested and proven for clarity and efficacy. The process helps lead us to clear direction.
We delve into the shadow side of our lives, leaving no part out. We leave behind “shoulds” and “coulds” and instead we look for real possibility, finding the path to get from here to there. All costs are weighed so decisions and actions can be taken.
Powerful Protocols Guide the Way
Two unique developments of our Life Balance protocols are the map of The Journey through Change and The Path to Well-being. These maps allow us to know exactly where we are on the great adventure of our lives. Knowing where we are and what to expect provides great comfort and helps us to move forward with surety, even in difficult circumstances.
Some of the other tools we enlist are knowing the difference between ambivalence and ambiguity. Both of these factors can lead to inaction and missing opportunity. Life Balance Strategists guide individuals and companies in coming to terms with ambivalence and ambiguity and to boldly make decisive, creative decisions.
In the chaos of both personal and creative endeavors, a simple but powerful tool is the pause. In moments of emotion, conflict, confusion, great excitement, joy or a creative breakthrough, we pause, breathe and reflect. We allow insight to arise to inform a skillful response. This tool has personally helped me on numerous occasions and kept me from adverse consequences.
Are You Ready to Make that Change?
As so many of the people who have availed themselves of sessions with a Change and Transition Strategist will tell you, these methods and tools really work. The collaboration between client and Strategist creates possibilities for great intentional change and helps us face change that arises from unexpected causes and conditions.
I bear witness to the importance of living life intentionally. My own life changes and transitions are rich and exciting. When anxiety and insecurity arise, I have strategies and tools to effect positive change. I encourage you to attend a Change and Transition Workshop or work with a Strategist. Learn that change can be met with strength and resilience. Find your own power to change. If you are in the midst of change and need guidance, work with a Change and Transition Strategist. You don’t need to face change alone and unprepared.”
About Ron Ames
Ron Ames is a filmmaker, meditation teacher, and Life Balance Strategist who specializes in supporting creatives, leaders, and professionals through changes and transitions.
Request a 1:1 Strategy Session with Ron here.
One of the primary ways values and intentions manifest in life is through priorities. We create priorities based on the things that matter most to us. They give direction to our life. They help us set appropriate goals and rank them so that in any moment we know what we’re about and what we want to accomplish. They also help us allocate time and resources, organize activities, and make decisions. Knowing your priorities, remembering them under pressure, and acting from them are essential skills for living authentically.
You undoubtedly have numerous immediate and long-term goals you hope to accomplish in your life, as well as tasks you’d like to undertake and activities you’d like to do. Realistically, you’re probably not going to get everything done that you want to, so it’s essential, if you are to experience a sense of fulfillment in life, that you know which goals or tasks take precedence in any given moment. Also, each day you are faced with situations that require you not only to take action but to choose those actions from a range of possible responses. If you are to retain a meaningful relationship to life, especially during difficult times, you will need a clear sense of what’s most important for you.
Lack of clarity about priorities can be a major source of emotional chaos. When you don’t know your priorities, you’re prone to succumbing to whatever entices you in the present moment, even if it doesn’t help you achieve what really matters to you, or to letting others determine how you spend your time. And if you have a number of professional and personal goals but you haven’t prioritized them, you will inevitably encounter conflicts as you try to achieve them all. Over time these conflicts can be devastating to you and cause pain for those you hold dear.
Setting Priorities to Live By
Priorities fall into two categories: outer and inner. Outer priorities are those things you want to achieve or do in your life, and inner priori- ties are how you want to go about accomplishing those things from moment to moment. In other words, your outer priorities are about doing, and your inner priorities are about being. Both are important and must be continually weighed against each other and balanced according to your values.
In a sense your inner priorities are more important than your outer priorities because they help you determine your outer priorities, and they help you maintain your balance even when you fail to achieve your outer priorities. One way to understand just how important your inner priorities are is to reflect on how bad you feel when you violate your own ethical code (even if no one else knows you have) or when you hurt someone else while seeking your own gain. Is this feeling of disappointment in yourself worth it to you? Probably not.
Your values and intentions form the foundation of your inner priorities. So in setting inner priorities, you are specifying how you wish to feel inside no matter what you are doing. Begin by naming your values and intentions and reflecting on what brings you peace of mind and joy. Acknowledging that you are a work in progress, set reasonable priorities that are truly possible for you to live out in daily life. As best you’re able, rank your inner priorities on a scale of 1–3, with 1 being your most important priorities and so forth. As you do this, you begin to see which priorities support others and that together they form a web of priorities that can help ground you in daily life, even in the heat of intense desire, anger, or fear. Through this process of ranking your inner priorities, you also begin to understand how to balance your priorities. For instance, one of your priorities may be to tell the truth about what you feel and think and another priority is not to cause harm, so you develop a habit of what in Buddhism is called right speech, which involves saying only what is true and only if it is useful and timely.
In setting outer priorities, reflect on what matters most to you in both your professional and personal lives. What are your ego needs? What levels of physical comfort and financial security do you require? How critical is having a sense of professional achievement? Do you need others to like you? Or is admiration or respect of others more important? How essential is being in nature or having time for your hobby or your art? As with inner priorities, you will discover that your outer priorities also form a network, with some supporting others. You may be pleased with some, shocked by others, while some priorities may seem like anomalies. For example, some people discover to their dismay that vanity is a priority for them and mistakenly feel that they must work to rid themselves of it. You will certainly encounter conflicting priorities. But at this stage simply acknowledge all your various priorities and weigh how each one feels to you, without judging whether it should be a priority. You can’t discern which ones are best without first understanding the forces in you that are vying to be lived out. Moreover, an unacknowledged priority can later sabotage your chosen priorities.
Once you feel as though you’ve identified all your outer priorities, you can then start to sort and discard them. Let go of the ones that are the least critical, because you have limited time and energy. You are not trying to be perfect but rather to establish a set of realistic priorities that work collectively and that you feel neither ashamed of nor guilty about. Just as you did with your inner priorities, rank your outer priorities on a scale of 1–3, with 1 being your top priorities and 3 being nonessential but nice if you can find time for them. As you rank your outer priorities, you will begin to see how it’s possible to strike a balance among them. For instance, if exercising every day and career advancement are both top priorities for you, you may realize that you need to get up earlier in the morning to exercise before going to work and give up your less essential predilection for being a night owl.
Integrating Your Inner and Outer Priorities
The final step in setting priorities is integrating your inner and outer priorities into your life. There will be times when they are in conflict and you will need to decide which one is more important. For example, you may have to decide between pursuing an inner priority such as creativity and an outer priority such as financial security. If developing your artistic abilities requires many hours of practice and expensive instruction, you may decide that for now it’s more important to put energy into work in order to pay your bills.
I can’t tell you how many priorities to set; however, I will caution you that fewer are better because you can only be continually aware of a few. Also, if you set too many, you will increase the odds that conflicts between priorities will occur, which obviously defeats the purpose of setting priorities. Only you can determine how many priorities is a comfortable number for you to consciously work with.
Although these steps are intended to help you get started setting priorities, living from your priorities involves more than just thinking about them and creating a list that you memorize. It involves developing a felt sense of your priorities, continually clarifying them in your heart as well as your mind, and then living them out as best you’re able. Sometimes you will forget them. In some situations you will not know what your priority is. At other times your priorities will be in conflict. Such uncertainty and conflict do not mean you have made a mistake; you are not doing anything wrong when this happens. Life is simply like this.
Don’t Blame the Messenger!
In most difficult situations in life, there is almost always a message to be discovered about something you need to learn or a habit you need to abandon. A difficult situation may signal unskillful behavior, weak judgment, poor boundaries, sloppy thinking, inadequate planning, or inferior communication or listening skills on your part. Understanding the message redeems the situation from simply being a bad experience. However, we sometimes receive our most important messages from hurtful messengers and the messages are hidden in upsetting forms of communication. Then it becomes emotionally difficult to separate the message from the messenger, and the message from the form it takes.
For example, imagine you’ve been fired from your job due to what management calls a “bad attitude.” Maybe you believe you are the only person in the organization that fights for what is right. While that might be true, you may have created a lot of unnecessary suffering by being divisive and undermining morale. In this situation, the form of the message is getting fired, the messenger is your boss, and the real message is that you have not learned to stay mindful of your inner experience when you are triggered by external factors at work. However, it is possible to train yourself through mindfulness to “remember” that you are more interested in receiving the message than giving into the emotional resistance that arises.
How to Separate the Message from the Messenger and the Form of the Message:
1. Stay with the experience without getting lost in judgments or comparisons, or getting caught up in endless “what if” mind games. Practicing compassion and loving-kindness toward yourself is extremely useful in helping you stay with the unpleasant experience.
2. Identify the form of the message. So often we are simply overwhelmed by the form the message takes—such as being left by a spouse, being overlooked for a promotion, being severely criticized, or being taken advantage of in some fashion—and we fail to identify the message.
3. Re-frame the messenger. Usually, it is clear who the messenger is—an unhappy spouse, a friend who won’t return your calls, or a sibling who always takes advantage of you. However, it is critical that you re-frame that person as the messenger rather than getting lost in their shortcomings or your history with them.
4. Listen to the messenger, but never give away your authority. You’re being given a message from life—only you can receive the message and know what it means. Sometimes you have to wait for your emotions to settle before you can receive the message. Also, it’s not unusual for there to be more than one message. The message may reflect a pattern of behavior or a series of shortcomings in you that causes similar problems to occur repeatedly.
5. Cultivate a true desire to know and grow in wisdom. Receive the message with humility, knowing that you do not know everything about yourself, and accept your own imperfection.
6. Ask a friend, a psychotherapist, or coach to help you identify the message. Before you take any feedback, tell that person what you think the message is after telling them the story. Often just saying it out loud to someone else helps clarify the message.
7. And be patient. In my own life, I can recall situations where I was quick to get the message and how empowering that was, even though I was feeling bad. I also recall other situations where it was months—even years—before I could comprehend the message.
For Your Reflection:
1. Think of a current of past difficult situation in your life. Try to separate the message from the messenger, and the message from the form the message takes.
2. What do you think you need to learn or abandon or understand?
3. Do you find yourself in similar difficult situations time and again? Is there a message you are not receiving from these experiences?
For Further Study:
Listen to Phillip’s talk on separating the message from the messenger and the form of the message.
Not on My Terms
How often does life not go our way? When we really pay attention, is it every day, every minute? While we may not want to accept it, impermanence is a natural law of the universe.
We are now living through a particularly powerful moment in life. History is amplifying our experience of ‘not on my terms.’ At this moment, the global pandemic is delivering unimaginable impact across the world and in millions of homes – the forever loss of loved ones, jobs disappearing by the millions and an unknown economic future. This in turn is creating real emotional internal struggles such as anxiety and depression. In just the last month I’ve seen clients lose their jobs, their businesses and worst of all, their loved ones who have had to leave the planet alone without even a hand to hold.
So how to can we possibly come to terms with this?
The first step is to notice where you are right now, without judgement, comparison, or attempting to fix it. It’s been said that desperation or inspiration can bring us to our greatest moments of surrender and vulnerability. Moments like these can transform our entire perspective on life. This age of uncertainly may be our greatest moment of possibility.
Once you begin to meet this moment with an open heart, you become available to what you don’t know. Then you can begin to respond rather than react to the external world. How are you reacting or responding right now? Is it coming from a place of resentment or forgiveness? Fear or compassion? Envy or gratitude? This is the moment to shift the way you choose to respond to the external and internal catalysts in the world.
For thousands of years spiritual leaders, psychologists, and great thinkers have talked about how significant transitions in life happen: some come through lightning bolt experiences, but for most of us, transformation comes slowly over time. For change to occur, especially during times like these, we must begin with incremental steps.
It’s through this step-at-a-time work that we come to terms with what our life is, rather than what we think it should be. We can begin to literally change the way we react to the world through a thoughtful, mindful response. In turn, our experience of the world changes – no matter what is going on “out there.”
Turn this moment of uncertainty into your greatest moment of possibility by using the following skillful practices daily:
Start where you are – cultivate vulnerability and an open heart
Share – find someone or a group to connect with and share this experience together
Support – create a daily mindfulness practice to support this transition in life
And Repeat – until you find equanimity.
Here is a short, guided mindfulness meditation for arriving in the present moment, just as you are.
Good Transitions Take Time
This is my message to you. You have time. You can settle in with this. You can sit and think and sigh and wonder. You can squirm. You can live in the past and imagine the future. You can do nothing. You need to do nothing. To do this right, you need to do nothing. Literally nothing.
“This” is the transition you have been contemplating. Maybe it’s a move, a job change, a career pivot, or retirement. Or maybe divorce or becoming an empty nester. Maybe you are the initiator or maybe you just got surprised. These are journeys that take careful planning. Careful planning takes time and sometimes that means not doing very much at all.
I learned this in my mid-40’s, when I suddenly found myself retired as a result of a severe career pivot that I didn’t see coming. I went from running a big business and having a great team, to having nothing to do and no team. Then I did what I’m urging you not to do. I got busy. Really busy. Instead of using my “retirement” to get well and contemplate my next chapter, I began joining boards of directors and became a yoga teacher (because just practicing yoga wasn’t enough). I took zero time. In doing so, I ran right by the open door of contemplation. I missed an enormous opportunity to stop and think about my life. What happened? What do I do now? Where am I in my life and where do I want to be? Where am I supposed to be?
At that point, I hadn’t met Phillip Moffitt or heard of The Moffitt Method. If I had, I would have known that when faced with a major change or transition, you need time to settle, to rest, to examine and to plan. I would have known that every transition has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And, while being in the middle of a transition is scary, you have to go there. You have to be in this space where you have left behind…who you were, what you were, what you had…but are not yet where you are going or who you will be. This is the part I missed. I busied myself right through the middle and it cost me. Live and learn.
Now, several years later, as a Strategist trained in The Moffitt Method, I help individuals and leaders think through and successfully move through major change and transition. Over the course of several conversations, I help people navigate from the near shore (contemplating/deciding to make a change), into the water (the middle place, that is so ripe for exploration and so crucial to a successful outcome), and then up onto the distant and new shore (commitment to change based on a clear understanding of values and self). This is an amazing journey….your journey. It takes time.
Recognizing the Suffering in Your Own Life
An excerpt from Phillip Moffitt’s book Dancing with Life
The Buddha identified three kinds of suffering: the suffering of physical and emotional pain; the suffering of constant change; and the suffering of life’s compositional nature, which creates a kind of pressure and unease that is constantly present, even in the best of times.
The first kind of suffering is the obvious suffering caused by physical discomfort, from the minor pain of stubbing a toe, hunger, and lack of sleep, to the agony of chronic disease. It is also the emotional suffering that arises when you become frustrated that things don’t go your way, or upset about life’s injustices, or worried about money or meeting others’ expectations. Each day you have many experiences that cause you to be disappointed, anxious, and tense, from getting stuck in traffic to forgetting to complete an important task to snapping at a loved one during an argument. Isn’t this true? In matters of love, family, work and self-acceptance, do you not experience these sorts of negative emotions over and over again?
In addition to the suffering you experience as a result of painful, traumatic, and uncomfortable events that happen to you, there is a second type of suffering that you confront on a regular basis. That is the suffering caused by the fact that life is constantly changing. Doesn’t it often seem as though the moment you have found happiness in life, it disappears almost at once? Something really good happens at work, or you and your partner spend an intimate morning in bed, or you share a precious laugh with your child, and then bang! It’s over. Now you’re worried about a deadline, or fighting with your significant other, or coping with your child’s needs, and all those pleasant feelings are replaced by worry, fatigue, and the weight of responsibility. In truth, no moment is reliable because the next moment is always coming along fast on its heels. It is like a constant bombardment of change undermining every state of happiness. The mind never finds a place to sit back and enjoy life without fear. Isn’t it paradoxical that the one constant in your life is change?
Like everyone else you do what you can to try to prolong, enhance, and increase the number of pleasurable moments in your life, but nothing consistently works. There is always the next moment of the dance. No matter how much you attempt to distract yourself (and you may be one of those people who are great at creating distractions), your nervous system still perceives the changing dance, even when you are not aware of it, and it suffers, oftentimes even more so because you are trying to ignore it.
No doubt you have felt the pain, confusion, and stress that this constant flux brings to your own life, with one moment being desirable and the next displeasing. The implications are vast: You make every single choice every day within this context. You cannot escape from the continuous dance. It is an impersonal, universal truth of life. None of us – not even the wealthiest, wisest, the most powerful – gets to be an exception. We all feel pain, we all lose loved ones, we all get ill, and we all die.
Furthermore, every day, even during the pleasant moments, do you not experience an underlying unease about the future? This worry and anxiety is a manifestation of the third type of suffering Buddha identified — life’s inherent unsatisfactoriness due to its intrinsic instability. Even if you are fortunate in terms of your physical and emotional health, and even if you live in a secure environment with material comforts, your life is still filled with uncertainty. Disease, accidents, emotional disruption, economic setback, and death constantly lurk around the next corner. Do these threats not make you feel anxious and insecure?
How often in your adult life have you experienced the queasiness and unease that come from a sense of meaninglessness in your life? Think of all those occasions when you felt as though you were wasting your life, or sleepwalking through it, or not living from your deepest, most heart-felt sense of yourself. Remember the times when you’ve felt as though there is little you do each day that has any real, lasting significance. We’ve all fallen prey at some point in our lives to such constricted, dreaded, almost unbearable dark times of self-doubt and existential angst.
What the Buddha is pointing to is that suffering is an experience of the mind. He’s not offering you relief from pain; he’s offering you relief from the extra mental reactivity that causes your misery. At first this can seem foreign, but in fact it’s consistent with the roots of Western understanding of suffering. We’ve just lost our connection to it. Our ancient wisdom bearers knew life was hard, and they too discovered that there was a difference between the pain of life and your reaction to it.
Discovering the Clarity of a Responsive Mind
For most people, learning to move from a reactive mind state to a responsive mind state is the single most helpful tool to reduce suffering and increase well-being. See if this practice can make a difference in your life.
How to Differentiate between Values, Intentions, and Goals
Many people lack clarity about their values, intentions, and goals. We often lump them together and delineate them in varying ways. As we live out the chaos of our lives, it is inevitable that our values, intentions, and goals become enmeshed. However, they are essential reference points for staying true to ourselves and bringing clarity to confusing situations in daily life. Here’s how I differentiate between them.
Values reflect your understanding of what really matters to you. They are shaped by familial and cultural conditioning, personal experience, and the wisdom of your understanding.
Values can be situational, temporal, hierarchical, and subjective; thus, many of your values are somewhat fluid in daily life. However, as you develop inner maturity, you adopt certain values that do not fluctuate — these are your core values. From these core values you create intentions. You may have many core values from which you create a few essential intentions that you are mindful of moment-to-moment in the midst of chaos in daily life.
Intentions form the basis for determining how you meet each moment and they keep you true to who you are as you move toward your goals. Unlike goals which are future-based, intentions always relate to the present moment.
In daily life, your intentions reflect the essence of who you are and reflect what you believe matters most in life. They shape your words and actions. As you develop inner maturity, you realize that being true to who you are is more important than achieving goals and that many of your goals can only be achieved through staying true to your intentions.
In my view, there are two essential intentions for living skillfully — meeting life with an attitude of loving-kindness and not causing harm with our words or actions. Values such as generosity, patience, persistence and forgiveness all support these basic intentions.
Goals are aspirations for the future that you seek to achieve; if they were not in the future, they would be achievements already. You may be accomplishing a certain goal already, e.g. being a good parent, but the effort is not over, so it remains a goal.
What’s the Key Difference between Values and Intentions?
An important distinction between values and intentions is that you can have values that lack commitment whereas intentions are active in the moment and focused on being a certain way right now. Intentions are where the “rubber meets the road,” where your values are reconciled with your goals, and where you give witness to what is essential to you as you dance with life.
Want to Discover Your Core Values and Intentions?
Download our free worksheet to clarify your deepest values and identify your essential intentions
Experience vs. Interpretation
A crucial skill for minimizing emotional chaos and sustaining clarity in your life is the ability to distinguish between your experience and your interpretation of your experience.
For a more in-depth exploration of this topic, read Phillip Moffitt’s article “Knowing What’s Really Happening: Experience vs. Interpretation”.
Freedom from Fear
Living in a fear-based culture inevitably affects your state of mind and the decisions you make. As a citizen you may become more compliant, more willing to surrender your rights for vague promises of safety. As an employee you are less demanding, less willing to take risks. And in your personal life you are more security oriented, and thus less open to new possibilities-all because you see the future through the lens of fear. Viewing life in this manner is not skillful. It is not that such concerns lack legitimacy -this is undeniably a time of danger and instability in our society, and unwise actions and indifference could destroy the future for our children. The problem is that the lens of fear distorts what you see. It focuses primarily on the negative, exaggerates the potentially threatening, filters out alternative views, and causes you to compromise your core values out of the urgent need to survive. Fear when not named narrows your vision, shuts down intuition as well as common-sense reflection, and promotes violent actions. Stated more simply, fear that is not recognized and tended to with mindfulness takes the life out of life. Your life energy is lost to dread as the body braces and the heart closes in anticipation of what is to come.
It is difficult living in a time of fear, but here you are, and the challenge becomes finding a way not to be consumed by it. This is best accomplished by first observing your responses to the culture of fear that surrounds you. You can then use this knowledge to work with your personal fears. Your reaction to dread and to uncertainty about yourself, your abilities, and what may happen to you imprison your spirit. Learning to work skillfully with fear is essential to your finding freedom and happiness.
As you deepen your spiritual practice, you will inevitably encounter all your fears, some of which you may not even know are within you. Being alert and curious about your fear allows it to become your teacher as well as to serve your growth. This gives purpose to what is otherwise meaningless suffering.
Fear Is Like This
Fear itself is not necessarily a bad thing-healthy, balanced fear can be very useful. It can serve as an alarm, a call for action, as in “Take your hand off the hot stove!” As a distress signal it triggers a sense of apprehension about the future, to which the body reacts by secreting adrenaline and other chemicals that give you the motivation and energy to act. As an experience of uneasiness, it can be a call for reflection, asking you to pay careful attention to your actions or decisions, or to reconsider a situation. It may well be your intuition warning you to be cautious. Unfortunately, most struggles with fear are of the irrational, repetitive, imagined variety.
Despite having often experienced fear, most of us do not have a clear definition of what it means in the context of an individual’s life. What one person classifies as fear, someone else would call anxiety, or another might label panic. If you are to work with fear as a way of knowing yourself, it is helpful to sort through this confusion in order to clarify what you are feeling.
Fear is usually described as an emotional response to a perception of danger, which elicits certain neuromuscular and chemical reactions in the body. You feel it arise in response to something that you see or that you hear, to sensations in your body, or to thoughts and emotions that appear in the mind. The presence of fear may be the result of an accurate perception as well as a completely distorted one. Regardless, it is your belief in the perception and your interpretation of its implications for your well-being that control the level of fear you experience.
Hence, fear is an internal experience, a subjective response to the immediate moment or some future event; therefore, you should regard fear with objective skepticism and not treat it as an absolute truth. This calls for you to develop a certain distance from fear, to see it as a phenomenon that is predominant in this particular moment, not the ultimate decision maker in your life.
There are two ways in which fear may be contextualized in order to begin working with it mindfully. The first one is to treat it as one of three responses on a spectrum of frightened reactions to something. Lowest on this spectrum is apprehension or anxious agitation, which is sometimes called anxiety. Then there is full-blown fear, a far more stringent response by the nervous system. If the fear keeps expanding, it will accelerate into the highest distress response: outright terror or panic.
Each of the three responses is subjective, happening inside you. But the more established you are in mindfulness that is learned in meditation, the less likely you are to escalate from apprehension to fear and then terror. In order to dis-identify with fear as it is arising, my teacher Ajhan Sumedho suggests making a mental note to yourself: “Anxiety is like this; fear is like this.”
Another skillful method to gain insight is to make a distinction between fear and the anxiety of life itself. When there is a specific object to be afraid of-a noise in the dark, a verbal threat, an uncertainty regarding a commitment, the outcome of a medical test, a truck veering into your lane-what you feel is fear in relation to that object.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is anxiety about, rather than of. You are anxious about growing older, or your child getting hurt, or your marriage lasting. There is no specific object of alarm. Instead you are responding to the frailty and temporary nature of existence.
The truth is that you will never be absolutely safe. All things change constantly, even what is most precious. You know that you and those you love will die, but not when or how. This is the angst of life, the price of being a conscious human being. It is not a flaw, although many people cannot let loose of seeing it in such a manner. It is just the way life is constructed. When your awareness of this vulnerability is triggered, you can be swept into panic, collapse into depression, or desperately try to distract yourself. One of the values of spiritual practice is that you are able to come to terms with this anxiety in a conscious manner. Your life becomes more integrated because you are no longer trying to deny or avoid what is true.
Naturally, what often happens is that you compound the misery of a particular fear you may be experiencing with this general anxiety that is inherent in the human condition. When this takes place, the turbulence of all your apprehensions pours into the specific fear, and you suffer more. For instance, you simply forget a meeting, yet you are traumatized, certain that you are losing your ability to focus. Or someone disappoints you and you collapse into complete self-hatred, fearing that you have no worth to the other. With mindfulness practice, you learn to see how the untrained mind is agitated by the human condition and how not to allow this general anxiety to fuel your fear in a specific situation. You also gain tolerance for the unpleasantness of uncertainty and also the naturalness of your own imperfection. You have confidence that “life is like this.” You cannot and are not supposed to miraculously fix it; rather, you gain the insight that happiness and peace come from relating to life just as it is.
Levels of Fear
You can begin to deepen your understanding of how fear may be affecting you by becoming mindful of the four levels of alertness in your body and mind. First is the normal state of alertness you experience walking down the street, driving, or being at work. You are awake to change in the environment. If you suddenly perceive a possible danger, the body-mind switches to the second level of alertness, vigilance. This is natural and healthy, and the vigilance ends once the danger passes.
The next level occurs when there’s a prolonged sense of anxiety or fear. The body-mind goes into hyper-vigilance and stays there ready to fight, flee, or freeze in place until the trauma passes. Hyper-vigilance creates a tunnel-vision effect in which you primarily experience life through the lens of fear or anxiety. It can become a pattern if your life is so challenged that you repeatedly fall into this state.
Hyper-vigilance in adulthood can have its roots in childhood trauma, or result from working in a hostile situation or from being in relationship with a psychologically or physically abusive partner. Someone who is hyper-vigilant often interprets interactive signals differently than the norm and as a result suffers much tension and misunderstanding. Our society is presently showing signs of being in this hyper-vigilant stage.
The final level of body-mind response to fear is the frozen traumatic reflex that occurs when danger is continuous or your nervous system loses the ability to perceive that the danger has passed. It can occur if you are thwarted in your effort to fight or flee and are locked into a pattern of incomplete motion. Or it can also arise when you brace or contract for an impact, such as often happens in auto accidents. It can also be caused by threatening emotional situations, particularly in childhood.
If your circumstances were such that you continually sought to avoid drawing attention to yourself or you repeatedly contracted muscles to armor yourself against physical or verbal blows, these responses become a permanently frozen part of your neuromuscular system and can be triggered by stress. You can try to detect a frozen fear pattern in yourself by noting sensations of unease or numbness in the body, or feelings of mental disconnection or of not being in the body.
It might take you quite by surprise, but hyper-vigilance and frozen responses will usually present themselves at some point in your meditation practice. Almost everyone seems to have some degree of locked-in fear that needs to be released; however, the amount varies dramatically. Usually you will experience some physical and possibly emotional discomfort when it starts arising. Sometimes it might be accompanied by unidentifiable images or memories of a specific event; at other times there is only a raw sense of fear or of bodily discomfort. Because it is unpleasant, there is a tendency to distract the mind or to simply give up meditation. It has been my experience that if you can stay with the uncomfortable experience, it will eventually unwind itself in both its physical and mental aspects.
The Fear-Based Person
Some individuals so habitually view the world from their various fears that they are referred to as living a fear-based life. If you are such a person or know such a person, you know well what this means. There is very little mental rest for such a person, because life seldom seems safe, even just temporarily. You continually mistrust your judgment or question the reliability of others, or both. You perpetually second-guess yourself and also others, always seeking yet one more opinion or assurance. You may change your mind frequently or endlessly postpone making decisions in order to seek more information. If you buy something, even if it is at a good price, you feel, “I paid too much; I could have gotten it cheaper,” or “There must be something wrong with it.”
It is confusing when a fear-based person has developed the ability to pull you into salving his worries and solving his fears. You feel bombarded by the person’s apprehensions, and you carry anxiety that is hard to shake because it is not yours. Being mindful that this is occurring will allow you to separate from fear that is not yours and to develop a protective boundary. Some people who orient toward life from fear lack this skill and thus find themselves being the odd person out. Others shun them to avoid the constant alarm they broadcast. The skillful reaction to this isolation from fear, whether it is in yourself or another, is compassion.
If you are fear based, you might move from one obsession or worry to another as a way to cope with your general anxiety. When you go to a meditation retreat, you get to watch the mind become agitated and actually look for a problem to grab hold of, and you come to see that what the mind chooses to focus on is not reliable as a priority. One yogi I met on retreat learned to say “my old friend fear” whenever his mind contracted into fear. This enabled him to no longer give it credibility, and the world became a safer, more enjoyable place for him. But beware of identifying yourself as a “fearful person.” You may often see life through the lens of fear, but it is only a mental state that is coloring your perception; you are not that fear.
This is a critical understanding. If you jump into a cold lake and your body gets cold, you don’t suddenly think you are a cold lake; you are simply cold as a response to the environment. Fear is like that: Your nervous system may be flooded with the sensations of fear, but this is still only a response.
Meditating on Fear
Most people who start practicing mindfulness of fear realize for the first time how much of their behavior is motivated by fear. If this happens to you, you may begin to feel discouraged or possibly defensive, or to adamantly assert that your fear is justified and even needed. You are used to fear and you know how to work with it, so these responses are natural. It is as though you are afraid to be without fear! Of course, you might be right; I can only report that it has not worked that way for the yogis I have known. Without exception, as their reliance on fear has diminished, their sense of well-being has grown.
You can see what is true for you by mindfully working with some of your smaller, more approachable fears and then seeing what happens. Be patient, please. It helps to remind yourself that fear is not a stigma. Even the Buddha had to work with fear, which he describes in the “Sutta on Fear and Dread” in the Majjhima Nikaya.
Although it may seem as though fear is dominating your decisions, if you look more closely, you will find that there’s an energetic response that is even more powerful, and that is love-love in all its forms: appreciation, generosity, caring, tolerance, patience, creativity, and service. The core spiritual teaching about fear is that it inevitably arises whenever you experience a sense of separateness, either from others or from the environment. Fear overwhelms the mind, causes you to project that which you find despicable in yourself onto others, breeds paranoia, and fuels self-justifying, self-serving behavior.
As you grow spiritually and begin to see how interdependent all of life is, your sense of separation diminishes, and fear then starts to lose its grip. For this reason it is sometimes said that a person who has fully realized the dharma is completely without fear. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, there remains the ever-present need for practice.
Loving-kindness practice is the classic antidote for fear. If you see through the lens of love, you are not afraid of what is out there in the same way, even though it remains just as difficult and may still succeed in harming you. Your relationships to fear and to yourself are thus changed by experiencing the threatening aspects of life through the lens of love. Doing loving-kindness practice formally for just five minutes each morning, followed by saying loving-kindness phrases as you go through your daily routines, may well begin to make a difference in your life. I specifically suggest doing the following loving-kindness meditation to work with fear: “May I find freedom from fear in my life. May I also in turn help others find freedom from fear in their lives. And may I meet the fear in our culture with the courage of the open heart, which acts with decisiveness but never divisiveness.”
You can begin practicing mindfulness of fear today. When your mind seems to be caught in a storm of thoughts about how bad the world is or about something in your own life, take a moment to notice what happens in your body. Then notice how your mind is communicating with images and words. Remember to be curious and receptive without taking any of it personally. Let your heart open to the suffering the fear is causing.
The story is often told of a monk who lived in isolation in a cave where he painted beautiful murals on the wall as part of his meditation practice. With his strongly developed concentration and acquired skill, he painted a ferocious tiger that appeared as real as any live one. It seemed so real, it scared him to death! All things that arise in your mind are like the monk’s brush strokes on the cave wall-none of them, not even the ones that seem to be the most solid, are composed of lasting, unchanging substance.
When the fear feels stuck, realize that you are clinging to a perception that is merely painted on the walls of your mind. It’s this clinging, not the danger, no matter how genuinely threatening it might be, that is the cause of your greatest distress. The proper response is threefold: continual mindfulness of the fear, deep compassion for the suffering it is causing, and cultivation of equanimity that allows you to stay with it. You will find that the dharma will do the rest.
What Change and Transition is Next in Your Life?
Change is inevitable. Change is sometimes forced upon us, sometimes arises in the natural progression of life and sometimes must be initiated after a personal epiphany. Some changes we deal with easily, such as rescheduling conflicting commitments. Some changes are difficult and uncertain, such as the loss of capacities accompanying aging.
When chaos erupts in our lives, demanding we reconfigure to restore order, how many of us are truly prepared? Unfortunately, most of us are often unprepared and resistant. Being unprepared for change is not a sign of personal shortcoming.
We are generally unskillful encountering major change. We may intentionally or subconsciously avoid engaging with change in an unconscious attempt to ward off discomfort. Yet discomfort is the very thing that will grow deep inside of us the longer we delay facing necessary change. Embracing significant change and transitioning through it effectively is usually a great challenge.
These questions are designed to help you take the first steps in the journey through change. Designed to challenge and engage, we recommend you allow sufficient time to do complete work. Be honest with yourself as you use these questions to become aware and clear about the change you need to attend to now. The sooner you accept the need to do the work required for change, the less disruptive the process can be. “It’s better to dance with change than be dragged around the dancefloor.”
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
Become Aware of and Accept Change – a Guide
Write answers to the questions that resonate for you…
- What question keeps occurring for which the answer is not obvious? (You may want to list several questions, then choose one you most resonate with)
- What has become important to you that wasn’t previously?
- What are you ambivalent about? (run hot and cold, how you feel oscillates, you’re “of two minds”)
- Where do you experience ambiguity? (don’t know how you feel, don’t know on what basis to make a decision, don’t know what you think, feel or value)
- Where are you feeling recurring anxiousness?
- Where are you feeling stuck?
- What feels out of balance right now?
- What are you trying to bring into balance in your life, your family, your company?
- What are you trying to maintain the balance of?
- What do you want more of in life? What do you want to reduce or eliminate?
- What is your primary focus in life? Is this still appropriate?
- In what area(s) of life do you not feel genuine, authentic?
- What do you feel guilty about?
- What do you feel shame about?
- In what domain(s) of life are you not living consistent with your values?
- Having achieved your personal and professional goals, do you have a new direction and focus?
- Where you have been forced into a professional transition that is not of your own making (your company downsized or went out of business)? What new possibilities and opportunities are open for you and how will you proceed?
- What change is essential for your continued well-being?
Congratulations for taking the time to reflect and answer authentically. You have taken the first two steps in the journey through change.
If you now feel doubt, fear and/or uncertainty, you are at the third step in this journey. This is completely normal – you are right where you should be.
The next two steps are:
- Acceptance of the need for change
- Owning the change
If you lack clarity on how to move forward from here, you may wish to consider my help as a SkillfulChangeSM strategist, trained and certified by The Life Balance Institute in The Moffitt MethodSM. For those seeking a guide on this journey, I am here for you. Others have used my help to notice, accept, design and act with change, to feel empowered to make choices and to live with those choices. Our work is neither therapy nor life coaching, but rather a unique approach: advocating, guiding, collaborating, analyzing, strategizing and empowering you to plan and act effectively.
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