Getting Unstuck

Matthew Hepburn
December 29, 2021

So, chances are, New Years 2022 wasn’t quite what you expected. Some of us gathered with friends and family; some of us stayed apart. Some of us are just tired and even bored of the pandemic; others may be newly anxious.

As it happens, before many people even knew how to pronounce the word “omicron,” our team at Ten Percent Happier began creating our New Year's Challenge, which I’m co-leading with Dan Harris, around the theme of “Getting Unstuck.” While that phrase means different things to different people, one of the main parts of the Challenge is learning how to move forward while living with realities that aren’t under our control. We didn’t realize how relevant that would become.

But it’s not just omicron. In all of our lives, there are things that we didn't ask for. You can't just wave a magic wand and get some new in-laws, or start a new work situation or, for that matter, return to your life from 2019. As you might guess, a core meditative approach to living happier and more peacefully is to recognize that we don't necessarily have control, and to relax the attempts to control what we can’t. But when it comes down to it, we also don't want to give up on things that are important to us! So the question is “If I don't want to struggle against things I can’t control, but I don't want to give up. Then how do I approach life? How can I take the wheel and steer my life in the right direction without fighting against the way things are?” 

We actually explore fourteen answers to that question in the Challenge, which starts tomorrow.To give you a taste, here are three of them.

1.     Paying Attention

If there’s something difficult or problematic in our inner or outer life, we have to learn and understand the subtle forces that keep it in place before we can make any lasting change. And the only way to learn and build understanding is to give that area our attention. So, the first thing that we have to do is find some willingness to actually pay attention to the parts of our lives that are difficult, or stuck. 

That's not easy. Usually, if our attention is on something painful or uncomfortable, we either want to run away from it, or try to immediately fix it. In either case, we're rejecting it in some way – it's actually hard to keep paying attention to something that doesn't feel good. So, as we explore in the Challenge, it takes practice to actually allow difficult feelings to be present. You didn’t ask for this feeling, or this situation – but here it is. And you have a choice to meet it with caring attention, and a whole lot of self-compassion. And that presence can lead us towards what we can change.

2.     Remembering Your Influence

You may not have complete control over all of your life, but you do have influence in every single moment. While you didn't create the situation confronting you in any given moment, you do create your responses, if you’re conscious and aware and intentional about them. And those responses influence the future. 

So, if you think about it, every single moment that we're responding to our lives, whether it's something pleasant or unpleasant, difficult or idyllic – when we're responding consciously, we're influencing our future.

For example, suppose you’re in a relationship – family, professional, whatever – that is challenging. You may well be stuck with that relationship.  But you don’t have to be stuck with the same old responses to it. You can practice treating interactions with the person with a little bit more patience, a little bit more understanding. And when you relate to this moment with a little bit more patience, it probably will change how you (and they) show up in the next few moments. You won't have control, but you have tremendous influence as these moments build on each other.

3.     Asking for Help

Finally, getting in touch with a more refined sense of how we’re struggling might lead us to reach out to other people when things are difficult. That isn’t always easy. Many of us have inherited the belief that it's noble to struggle alone, to toil alone. I certainly did.  

One of the things that I recommend for people with this belief is to start by noticing the times when you are the person that helps others in their struggles. That can mean anything from bringing a meal to a friend who's sick to lending an arm to someone struggling to climb the stairs. If you do it with mindful attention, you’ll likely have the internal experience that it feels good to help people, to feel generous, to know that you're benefiting somebody else.

And then an Aha! moment can go off: if we feel good when we’re generous, we realize that asking for help is actually giving them an opportunity for them to feel generous, kind, and helpful. And that feels good. Our asking for help is actually its own kind of gift to this person—a gift of mutual connection. Leading with our common humanity, we open the door to a dynamic of kindness and generosity, and that feels good to everyone involved..

This all comes from being present with what it feels like to help others. In my case, I had to learn it for myself: I had to experience that sense of connection, and how good it felt, before I could feel OK about reaching out to other people for help. 

We need each other, when times are tough, when we feel stuck, or even just when we feel lonely. Fortunately, it feels good to be in it together.

Matthew Hepburn is a straightshooting, clear thinking, and dedicated meditation teacher. His personal practice caught fire over the course of several extended meditation retreats and volunteering to teach Buddhist meditation in prisons in his early twenties. Now he shares his love of contemplative practice with people on intensive silent retreats, through dedicated daily life practice as a core teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, and as the Senior Content Strategist for Ten Percent Happier.

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