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  • teresamckee

The Picture in Our Minds

I think today we should start by taking a nice deep breath in through the nose and then exhale by sighing with relief. A really big sigh. Ready? In….ahhhhh. Thank you, I needed that. I needed that because things are changing again and there’s a part of me, the oldest part of my brain, that really wants to resist. My amygdala, like most of yours, interprets change as potential danger. And frankly, I think it’s tired of the constant changes we’ve been experiencing over the last couple of months.

Resisting what’s happening does no good whatsoever, of course. Most of us have to make a choice now. The old brain wants to resist and if we do, that’s a choice. Or we can begin to lean into what’s coming and start adapting to what’s occurring. That’s a choice, too. The changes will come, regardless of our choices, but our choices will determine whether our outcomes benefit us or cause us more suffering.

We hold a continuous picture in our minds of how things “should” be. Anything that interferes with our picture causes stress, disappointment, upset, anger or fear. As a teenager, if we picture what our first car will look like - probably a shiny red sports car - and the day arrives to get the car and we end up with an old yellow VW Bug, instead of excitement about getting a car, we’re disappointed. We still have a car and the freedom that offers, but it’s not what we pictured.

I think the reason the divorce rate is so high is due to our pictures. We create a picture of what marriage should look like. That picture was developed based on our observations of our parents or grandparents perhaps, or from a movie we saw, or from a novel we read. Then we get in it and it doesn’t match the picture. It’s not all love and romance and spending every minute together in bliss. It’s hard work and can be frustrating and we realize "eternity" is a very long time.

We all have pictures of what our jobs should look like, how our bosses should behave, how much money it will take to supposedly make us happy and what retirement looks like. We also have a picture of what society should look like, how our fellow citizens should behave and how the world should work.

These pictures create our perception of reality. We forget we made up the pictures and that perception is reality. It’s our reality, but there is no one reality. We each experience life completely differently. Two people can look at the same thing and interpret it differently based on perception. And when we recognize that someone else doesn’t see that thing the same way we do, we determine that they are wrong and we are right. And this, as crazy as it sounds, is how we live and why there is so much strife in the world.

It’s difficult to grasp that it’s all in our own minds. Consider today. Most of us are still at home. What’s your perception of that situation? Are you still stuck at home against your will when you should be at work or playing at the beach? Or are you spending a quiet day at home, catching up on all of the things you previously didn’t have time for? Same situation but vastly different perspectives that have a very different impact on our sense of well-being.

We’re seeing a lot more resistance now, at this phase of the global shut down. As people begin to protest in groups, demand their rights and violate mandates, they are resisting the situation. Refusing to wear a mask or to physically distance is another form of resistance. Governments are now rushing to re-open the economy which is really a form of resisting the resistors. They acknowledge that re-opening now is probably not a good idea and will lead to an increase in illness and death, but they resist following scientists’ advice because they want to be re-elected or want to avoid a riot or want to avoid being held responsible for the potential economic collapse that may be coming.

The truth is, no one actually knows what is about to happen. Science has been wrong before. Economists have been wrong before. Politicians have been wrong before. In fact, we never know what is coming. We only think we know because of our pictures. Our perceptions create our reality.

What all of these people we see on the news are really resisting is change. I don’t think most of us have even really grasped the magnitude of change that is occurring right now. Most of the changes we’re facing are not really due to the pandemic. We were already heading for these changes on a massive scale, but at a much, much slower pace. The pandemic simply sped up the process dramatically.

We’ve known for some time that artificial intelligence was going to change the way we live and work. We knew remote work was going to become the norm at some point because it’s much more efficient and less expensive than millions and millions of people going someplace else to do their jobs. We knew that economic disparities were reaching a breaking point. We knew that, at least in the United States, our health care system, our education system, and our government structures were crumbling. We knew that homelessness and food insecurity were continuing to increase across the globe. And we knew that we were facing dire environmental consequences from continuing to live the way we were living. Most of us knew it, but kept it somewhere in the farthest reaches of our minds because it was too overwhelming to keep in the forefront.

Then the pandemic hit and brought all of these facts into startling focus. Now we have to choose. Resisting what’s coming means we want things to go back to the way they were. Many of us don’t want to have to learn new skills, consider career changes or alter our lifestyles. We want to keep the picture of our life the same.

All of this change doesn’t match our picture.

Exacerbating this uncomfortable condition is that we don’t have a new picture to replace our current picture. All we can see now is massive unemployment, thousands of businesses shutting down, millions of people getting sick, and an alarming lack of leadership telling us how to put our lives back together.

But we can choose how we want to live and who we want to be. As governments open up the world again, we can choose how far we’re willing to step out into it and when. We can consider whether our careers can continue in some semblance of their former state or whether it’s time to make a change. We’ve basically been given a big do-over, whether we wanted it or not. We can choose to take advantage of that or not. In other words, we can decide to change the picture in our minds or not.

I am not implying that this is easy by any means. I’ve been going through it myself over the past two months and it’s challenging. My mind first wanted to wait and see if I could go back to the way things were. But that’s just not realistic. My career until March 19th here in L.A. largely included conducting live, interactive workshops to help groups learn how to get along with each other and be successful. It was conducting leadership retreats in conference centers and hotels. It was conducting one-on-one coaching sessions in person. It was facilitating group meditations. It was occasional speaking engagements at conferences. And over the course of one week, as I cancelled event after event after event, I had to use all of my mindfulness skills to not allow panic to take over. One day, my calendar was booked solid for three months out and the next day, completely empty. It was definitely a sucker punch.

I’m also, shall we say, of an age that I only have a limited number of years left to shore up my retirement savings which are woefully low. Add another blow to my picture of how life was going to go for the next decade or so.

I had to choose. Resist or adapt. I chose to adapt and began figuring out how to conduct workshops online. We even did our first virtual retreat a couple of weeks ago. We had a new online coaching certification program up, and now we’re adding online classes as stand-alone options. But all of this required a lot of open-mindedness and skill-building. I had to learn, largely through trial and error, how to use technology that I was unfamiliar with. I had to change my thinking about social media, which frankly, I didn’t have much use for prior to the shutdown. I had to make myself watch video after instructional video to learn new software and cloudware and I have lots more to learn.

Does my mind try to resist? Yes it does. But the fact is, group gatherings are not likely to happen again for a long time. Resisting that fact is not going to serve me. It would only cause more stress, less income, and negatively impact my health and well-being. It could also negatively affect my employees. They may be grappling with some of the changes they’ve had to make in their work, too, but due to adapting, we’re all still making a living and we’ll figure it out as we go.

Many people are now going to have to face these same issues. Everything is not going to return to normal. Some jobs will still be the same, I imagine. If you were a construction worker, transportation worker or nurse, your jobs may look very similar to what they were pre-pandemic. But if you were a waitress, retailer, travel guide or professor, maybe not. It doesn’t mean those industries will all go away, but that we may have to do them differently. And that may mean learning new skills as quickly as possible to ensure that we have the best chance of recovering economically once the time comes. Most importantly, however, is the fact that we first have to change the picture in our minds.

I think the picture in our minds will be our biggest challenge. Do I like teaching online as much as in person? No, it’s not the same at all. I was energized by other people’s energy at my events. We played games, laughed, sang, danced, cried – it was very experiential and motivating. Now it’s a flat screen where most people are dead silent and I feel like I’m a goldfish in a bowl with a hundred faces staring at me from small boxes on my monitor. A weird thing buoyed my mood about it, however. Late night talk shows. Turns out, they had the exact same problem and are still struggling with how to be funny and clever without an audience, so I felt validated. This feels hard.

I also realized that if I wasn’t comparing it to what it was like before, it’s actually fine. I’m still getting my message out. And now I don’t have to make a thousand copies of handouts, pack bins with games, chimes, buzzers and give-aways, struggle to load all of that stuff in my car each morning and then spend 15 hours a week sitting in traffic. I’m also not physically exhausted by the end of my workdays. I do have "Zoom fatigue" for sure, but that’s something I can probably improve as I tinker in this new virtual world. The point is, it’s different, but not necessarily worse than it was.

The truth is, no one knows exactly what is going to happen. Perhaps there will be a miracle vaccine within months. Perhaps the virus will die out sooner than expected. Perhaps going back out into stores and restaurants won’t cause a spike in illness and death. I hope all of that is true. But my mind is now resisting going back out too soon. As I’m slowly continuing to change the picture in my mind, I recognize that I need to be mindful in remembering that my picture and my feelings are my perception, but not someone else’s reality. I can choose for myself, but not for other people.

Most people are going to have to make at least some changes as they re-emerge from their homes. At a minimum, most will need to adjust the pictures in their minds so as not to create a self-sabotaging barrier to both economic recovery and to enjoying life beyond the walls of our own homes. Our old jobs and activities may look and feel different, but it doesn’t have to be viewed as negative. Just different.

Over the next few days, start to take some time to consider what you want. Mindfulness includes space between our minds and emotions. Try to step out of an emotional response and just neutrally observe your life as it was perhaps last November or December. What did you like about it? What did you hate about it? Start a list, identifying those factors. I think it’s also important to write down your top three values on this list, along with your top priorities. Just get it all down on paper in some form and then start tinkering around. Do a little visioning or day dreaming about what you’d like your life to look like now.

It will take longer than a few days to shift the pictures in our mind and to come up with a strategy for re-entering and navigating in the world again. But the amazing way our brains work is that once you start writing ideas down, your brain will keep working with them, thinking of examples and scenarios. You’ll get a sudden insight while taking a shower (assuming you’re still taking showers). You’ll notice new information related to what you’ve written down while online or watching tv and think, what a coincidence. Only it’s not really – it’s your brain issuing the command to look for what you’ve deemed important by writing it down.

If the thought of all of this overwhelms you, just stop and relax. You don’t have to do this yet if you’re not ready. Forget making lists and tinkering and envisioning. But you can definitely start thinking about it. You can begin the undoing of the current picture in your mind and accept that you might have a new picture or even a blank canvas, if only temporarily.

The most amazing thing of all is that we’re still here, we’re still going and we will get through this. We are resilient by nature – that’s how we’ve survived this long. And we’ll continue to survive, even though we may have challenging experiences. The key to happiness and ultimate health, however, is to thrive, and we can do that, too, by being mindful, open to new ideas and by being willing to do whatever needs to be done for our new realities to emerge.

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