Spiritual Networks

Making the Worst Turn Out for the Best

Allan Schnarr, M.Div., PhD.

“I see it now. You have a hard time with disappointment.” It seemed like such a revelation when my second therapist said it to me twenty five years ago. I smile now with hindsight, and I’m thinking, “Well, yeah, but doesn’t everybody?” It’s not a question.

Life is brimming with experiences of frustration and disappointment. I got a parking ticket last night. I’d run out late to get some medication. No parking within a couple blocks in my Chicago neighborhood when I got back. So I parked with part of my car sticking out past the no parking sign. I even got up early to move my car so I wouldn’t get a ticket. Too late. At 12:14 a.m. an officer of the law created a consequence that I did not intend. I did not want this.

I need. I want. I expect. How can I not? And, when I do, as the Buddhists say, impermanence will be my relentless teacher. Recently I chose to install a program on my computer to back up and save my files. The program reformatted the external hard drive where I told it to store the backed up files. In so doing, it erased thousands of precious files already on the drive. I did not want this! I felt sick with fear when it happened. I went through three tech specialists until I accepted that something I treasured deeply was gone. I grieved and smiled as I recognized how attached I’d gotten to some of those files. I was secretly clinging to them, setting myself up for the suffering that the Buddha predicts.

Feeling sick with fear was visceral. The bottom had fallen out of my belly. Not surprisingly, a few days later I ended up with a ten day bad cold.  As I have learned to do, I slowed down and allowed time to listen to the illness. The word that rose to meet me was vulnerability. I checked the dictionary: vulnerability means capable of being physically or emotionally wounded. That rang true, but was simply stating an experiential fact. Anyone can be hurt at any time. My recent experience was more specific. I’ve been in a developmental transition for the last couple years, approaching the age of sixty five, and facing the growing evidence that life is increasingly, definitively not under my control.

As I sat with experiences from the last shaky couple of years, a new definition of vulnerability came to me: the experience of the loss of the illusion of control. Though vulnerability is a simple fact, I live my life pretending it does not apply to me. Everything is under control. Denial sets me free! And then along comes an experience that is not what I want.

I need. I want. I expect. I have always done my best to act in such a way that I get what I think I need, or at least what I know I want. As long as I can expect that what is going to happen matches what I need or want, all is right with the world. If not, I am anxious or depressed. As with each of us, I have my history with loss and trauma. Bad things have happened that I could not prevent. As the losses added up early in my life, I became increasingly intent on figuring out what I had to do to get everything under control. I thought I had it all figured out until age thirty when it all fell apart. Since then I’ve been intent on getting better at letting go.

Life is relentless in offering opportunities to learn how to let go. Again and again, along comes an experience of vulnerability, and if I listen closely, I discover yet another illusion of control. Paradoxically I only feel suddenly vulnerable because I’ve been pretending that I wasn’t. As soon as I recognize that I am, I have an opportunity to get a little more real.

I’ve created a simple three step model to offer guidance through such opportune moments. It’s a process to help me get increasingly grounded in the truth of my own experience, and to find therein my own unique transformational process.

Here are the steps:

  1. Mindful Acceptance: Face the reality of the disillusioning event.
  2. Clarity of Meaning: Focus a new belief to replace the old one.
  3. Transformational Choices: Set the old to trigger the new.
Sometimes life is harsh, and it’s really hard to accept what you don’t want to be happening.

1. Mindful Acceptance

Face the reality of the disillusioning event.

    • Someone I love has severe chronic pain.
    • The transmission on my ten year old car just died.
    • An agent who read my manuscript just turned me down.
    • The meal I just made doesn’t taste good.
    • Another workshop is cancelled with too few registrants.
    • I am having a heart attack.

The more significant and unexpected the loss, the more challenging it is to accept what is actually happening. When my heart attack began, waking me from a sound sleep, I was immediately convinced it was an upset stomach. I got up and took some antacid. I waited a little bit and laid back down. The pain slowly and steadily kept getting worse.

My mind was fighting hard.

“I eat well. I exercise. I meditate. I’m in my early fifties. I’m in great shape. I can’t be having a heart attack.”

Step one is to step through the denial. In order to do this, I need to confront and let go of the illusion to which I am clinging. There is a belief that needs to meet reality.

“All my years of dedicated self-care, all the bodywork, all the emotional and spiritual wisdom in how I live – it all wards off severe illness. It gives me control of my health. It has to. If I’m not in control, then my fear is. Images of the intolerable arrive to assault me. The pain will just keep getting worse until I die. My wife will be so profoundly alone. I’ll never see my daughter again. I’ll live and be an invalid the rest of my life. I’ll be in a nursing home. We’ll spend everything on my care, I’ll get well enough to eke out an existence, and we’ll be destitute.”

The belief I needed to recognize as illusion was that all my self-care gave me control over my health. I would never have a serious health condition! Never . . . not!

Again and again, the pain commanded my attention. Snapped me back to reality.
          “It is happening now. I am having a heart attack.”
With each slow and steady breath, I acknowledged the truth.
          “It is happening now. I am having a heart attack.”

Fortunately for me and those I love, my clinging to the illusion of control was short-lived. I had learned not to get mesmerized there. I accepted that the heart attack was real. It wasn’t long before the ambulance arrived. I got through the heart attack without damage because I listened to the truth of my experience in the moment, and not to my suddenly outdated belief.

Let it be what it is. The whole that it is.
Nothing less than it is. Nothing more.

2. Clarity of Meaning

Focus a new belief to replace the old one.

In order to accept what is happening, it may well be necessary to identify and let go of an illusion. Getting to acceptance is a good first step, and, if I will remain attentive, the disillusionment has only begun. Every experience of vulnerability uncovers further meaning about how I’m living my life.

If I’m listening, I come face to face with what has been, what needs to die, and what new life may come to be. Vulnerability provides the opportunity for further personal transformation.

In order to recognize the opportunity for change, I need to explore the pattern in what is not working.

My wife, Leila, and I have just been through what I consider the hardest year of our lives. She has been dealing with a serious illness, and I have been confronted with caregiver stress. In order to get to what I needed to change, I had to face what was not working for me in the way I was coping.

Through the recent severe Chicago winter, I came to rely more and more on coffee and chocolate to energize my belief that I had the energy to cope with my stressful life. By the end of the winter, my stomach was in serious distress. The reflux had gotten so bad I couldn’t lay flat to sleep. I knew I was in trouble. As synchronicity would have it, I’d just been to a professional workshop on the Gut Brain, where I’d learned that antacids and acid blockers interfered with the healthy bacteria in my belly. I was determined to try and be free of them, and spent a week with alternative methods of reflux recovery. My stomach calmed down, and I decided to do the Lemonade Diet to give my digestive system a chance to rest and heal. Three days into the fast, my reflux exploded.

The disillusionment was staggering. This fast had always been a revitalizing physical and spiritual experience. I grieved as I accepted that I needed to be more thorough with the reflux recovery methods. And so, I focused my meals on the foods that are more alkaline as I came off the fast. The first day I felt great! Then the second day I rushed with adding some acidic foods, and increasing the volume of my intake. Pow! The reflux was back.

I spent the early part of a second sleepless night in three days mindfully sinking inside the disillusionment. The physical distress and anxiety were intense. As I stayed with them, it became clear to me that a deeper, more profound change was essential if I was to heal. What I soon came to recognize at the core of my gastric explosions was my addictive neediness. My wounded little boy self was convinced that he wasn’t enough, that he was lacking something that had to come from the outside. It became bluntly clear to me that the ‘more’ he craved would never be enough.

I needed to accept, at a deeper level, that I do not have control over satisfaction nor disappointment.

I recognized the spiritual illness, the belief that the universe was not abundant enough to meet my needs, that I’d always feel deprived unless I could play God and make things happen. Then I allowed myself to listen for a new belief, a mantra, that would support a healing shift in me. When the words came, I felt their challenging and liberating truth.

I am receiving everything I need
And letting it all go.

I stayed with it for a long time that night.

(Breathing in) I am receiving everything I need,
(Breathing out) And letting it all go.

I needed to let go of my fearful, self-defeating beliefs, and settle into a more lifegiving way to orient my choices. The universe is abundant. I do not need to grasp and cling. If something is not good for me, I do not need it. All I need is given. My wife’s ongoing illness, and my self-defeating method of coping, provided me with an opportunity for transformation. Such a realization is valuable to the extent that it translates into new choices.

I did not want to feel like that ever again.
So I changed.

3. Transformational Choices

Set the old to trigger the new.

The change I need to make can be elegantly clear in the moment of realization. If so, my choice is evident: I say no to an old way and yes to a new one. If only I could do this once, in the moment of grace, and have the change completed. Unfortunately, I cannot make the choice only once. Fortunately, I need to make the choice again and again. Each time I do so I forge my new way of being. With each choice I free myself from an old habit. With each choice I say who I am now. With each choice I make myself new.

Death and rebirth is not an easy path.

What I decided to do was ground myself in my new belief, to use my new mantra as a focus for frequent meditation. I told myself I’d breathe and center several times a day. And I did so. And I stayed with my healthier alkaline/acid intake. And my stomach was doing great. And my denial crept in.

A week later, I missed coffee so much, I decided to have a mocha. Maybe my stomach will be fine now. It took me a whole day, with a return to frequent antacids to calm the storm inside. The feedback was clear. Somewhere in the course of that day I noticed that I had let my mantra drift into the background. I’d been kind of lightly brushing by it now and then. Of course I believed it. I could move on. Not!

And so, I rededicated myself.

Now, let me humbly admit that a week and a half later my stomach was feeling great, and so I tried another mocha, with the same distressing results. I know! How could I? The answer was in my old belief. At this point, I acknowledged to myself, did my best to accept, how deep my hunger goes, how desperate it is. Clearly I needed to deepen my practice. I really needed to choose the shift, again and again.

I decided to breathe with my mantra before, every time before, going to social networking. I’ve been doing this for a little over a week now. Every time I do it, I notice the anxious resistance, the scrambling neediness inside, the crying out for something other than what is happening. As I managed to stay with the mantra steadily for several days, I began to notice the needy hunger at other times, after a meal, after an emotionally challenging experience. And what began to happen naturally then, was that the mantra came to me, and as I stayed with it even for a few moments, the hunger passed. This has continued happening with regular ease. The restless craving comes. I notice it. I turn to my mantra. I breathe. The hunger passes. I’m relieved – and increasingly confident.

This pattern led me to the insight that guides step three: set the old to trigger the new. Such a grand liberating paradox: as soon as I notice the old pattern pulling at me, I wake up to my intention to choose the new. Again, and then again, I choose to change. With every choice I set the new pattern in place.

Through every rise and fall of this learning curve, it has become more and more clear to me how facing my vulnerability moves me into transformation. Clearly each moment of vulnerability is the opportunity to choose transformation. All I need to bring to it is awareness and choice. I have walked this passage many times in my life, and I’m delighted that this time I have found a way to chart it.

Being born is the work of a lifetime.

How to Make the Worst Turn Out for the Best

  1. Mindful Acceptance
    • Remain bodily grounded in what is actually happening now, and the vulnerability that comes with it. Breathing in, letting it be what it is. Breathing out, letting go of making it something else.
    • Allow disillusionment: this is not about how I wish it were, or how I wish it weren’t. It is what it is.
    • Confront the pitfalls: fear(what could go wrong?), shame (what’s wrong with me?), guilt (shoulda, woulda, coulda), humiliation (everybody sees what’s wrong with me). Watch these come and let them go.
    • Keep returning to acknowledge what is actually happening. Breathe!
  2. Clarity of Meaning
    • What is the old pattern in my way of coping with such an event?
    • How is it self-defeating?
    • What are the roots of the old pattern?
    • What was the payoff that set it in place and kept it going.
    • What belief kept this payoff enshrined?
    • What new belief can support a new pattern? Create a simple mantra that holds this belief.
  3. Transformational Choices
    • Clearly and specifically articulate the new pattern (i.e. my choices, what I will actually do differently).
    • Create a recurrent ritual that grounds the new choice within the mantra.
    • Mindfully notice when the old pattern is engaged. Stop. Replace it with the new. Each time: no to the old, yes to the new.
    • Daily Review: look back over the poignant moments. Applaud the new choices. Notice when the old pattern persists. Reset the intentional shift.
    • If the old pattern is frustratingly persistent, return to #2.
    • If the pattern is relentless, seek help with a behavior change specialist (psychotherapist, addictions counselor).

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