“These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Thomas Paine in 1776. What was so relevant a comment on the American Revolution seems relevant again when considering the past several years, and, perhaps most pointedly, the past year. Each of us (albeit some more than others), are bearing the burden of this chaotic time. The increased burden we all experience manifests in increased fear, anger or sadness, and therefore we are much more reactive to our environment. Little things bother us more, and we experience increased depression, anxiety, overeating and substance use. It may also show up in more physical illness, relationship conflicts and performance struggles at work and school.
Just look at what is happening to our military personnel over the past several years. The Defense Department statistics show that the incidence of obesity have doubled in five years and suicides are up dramatically, as are depression and anxiety disorders. The point is not to compare our civilian life to those who are fighting on the frontlines of a war, but instead to show how increased stress leads to reactive, unconscious behaviors that are self-destructive.
It is now, when things are most difficult, that we must enhance our skill base to handle each and every moment with increased consciousness and less reactivity. We know it seems at odds with the nature of things to ask ourselves to NOW, when things are at their worst, rise above the tide of negativity. Yet that is what we must do.
We have developed a simple practice model to use every morning and every night for at least 15 minutes (and whenever you can throughout the day) to help enhance your ability to stay conscious. It requires some effort but may be the key to avoiding an unnecessary argument with your spouse, children, friend or co-worker. It may also help curb the unconscious reactivity that leads to overconsuming food and drink.
When things are tough, many of us dream of getting on a boat and sailing away. We use the acronym BOAT to remember this exercise.
• Breathe: There are many possible breathing models to follow. We recommend Michael Brown’s method used in his book “The Presence Process.” (We also recommend his book if you are interested in doing deeper work). He refers to it as “connected breathing.” Basically, you breathe in and out through your nostrils, making sure that the timing is the same for the in and the out breath.
• Observe: While breathing, observe your thoughts and feelings. Remind yourself that under your thoughts are feeling sensations that drive them. It is the feeling content you are looking to observe.
• Acknowledge: Acknowledge your feelings. Name them. Be honest with yourself.
• Treat: Treat your feelings with a conscious response. Give yourself permission to feel fully. If there is a situation that is causing an uncomfortable feeling, ask yourself what you can do about the situation in a responsible, nonreactive way? Remind yourself that avoiding a reaction can be the most responsible action you can take.