My friend was sobbing. She was in crisis. It was her one year anniversary of her husband leaving her for another woman. Although they were experiencing a lot of turbulence for a long time, she had not expected him to leave so abruptly and with such finality. After trying to cajole him, threatening him, and stalking him, he had given her an ultimatum to stop her “acts” or he would bring a restraining order against her. This was the final blow to her self-esteem. Since then, although she was trying to rebuild her life, she was still prone to self-sabotaging acts like food addiction, falling for an unavailable man, and setting herself up to feel like a loser. She had learnt some things in her therapy, but one year was still not long enough to build her self-esteem back.
“What should I do?” she asked. She desperately wanted to do something to feel okay, but it all felt hopeless. She did not want to talk to her therapist because talking about it would make her feel worse. She was having a hard time accepting that there was nothing she could do to get her husband back. She really wanted to write to her ex-husband about the new insights she had in their relationship, but she knew she could not. She was done writing pages and pages in her journal.
She wondered if she was ready to forgive him, but she could not. She was not ready to forgive herself either, for all the stupid mistakes she had made. She felt ashamed and lonely, but it wasn’t something she could shed by rational explanations.
Finally, together we had an insight into what she would and could do: NOTHING! She would just keep leading other parts of her life, even when she was not feeling on top of her game. She will just wait for the life events to give her insight into the right direction.
Doing “nothing” may seem counterintuitive to our belief that any situation demands problem solving and conquering. It may seem like denial, or accepting defeat. But in fact it is a gentler way to “conquer” adversities. The real insight into how to do “nothing” comes from the twenty-five hundred year old ancient Buddhist meditation tradition which has been introduced to our culture as “mindfulness meditation.” Before explaining how they are connected, let me outline when and how to do nothing.
When in crisis:
Step 1: Some crisis demands immediate action; do it quickly. If your child has a severe asthma attack in the middle of the night, you run to the emergency room. If someone is charging at you with a stick, you duck and do whatever self-defense tactic you can think of. If the deadline for submission is now, you press the “send” button now.
Step 2: More often than not, jumping the gun is not required and the immediate constructive action to a crisis is not obvious. However, it can be so stressful or painful that our tendency is to take desperate action to make us feel better in the moment. We tend to resort to self-harming behavior in this impulsive reaction.
Before that night, my friend had written a cajoling email to her husband admitting the mistakes she had made. She has not received any nice email back, and it made her angry at herself for taking too much blame. There is temptation to throw a tantrum like a two year old, when we don’t get what we want, but then we get negative attention or no attention just like a tantrum does. Sometimes, we know what the right thing is, but it seems too far away or unreachable. My friend knew that she needed to build her self-esteem back, but it was not going to happen that night. Besides, she was convinced that she was never going to feel completely happy again.
This is exactly the time when you do “nothing.”
Step 3: While you doing nothing directly about the problem at hand, you keep leading your life with an open mind that you will get an insight into what do to next. Be mindful of things that are meaningful to you and do them even when you may not feel really up for it.
My friend’s sister’s son was getting married in two months. She had been given the responsibility of managing an important planning portion of the wedding. My friend was very tempted to tell her sister that she could not take up the responsibility because she just would not be able to focus. But once she decided she was going to do nothing about her failed marriage or the pain around it, she had an insight. “My close relationship with my family is very dear to me. I want to be there for my sister. I will regret later if I miss out on this event. I am going to help her the way she wants instead of just immersing myself in my pain.” This decision not only made her relationship with her sister stronger, but the validation from her family and friends about her good planning made my friend feel much better about her own capabilities.
Step 4: When you do get an insight into what you want to do, still do nothing for a day or two! Allow that insight to be on your mind. This period could inform you of the possible consequences of your action. If any consequence is not good, ask yourself if you can bear it.
If you still believe in your insight, go ahead and take the action.
How Does Mindfulness Meditation Help?
Step two sounds good on paper, but it is not easy to do in practice. Is there a method to doing it? Yes, there is: Mindfulness Meditation Training. In this type of meditation, you pay complete attention to what your body and mind is experiencing at the present moment, without judgment, and just observing. You do not try to “fix” the bad things about your experience or “modify” the experience, but simply observe the experience. In this process, you notice that the experience changes moment by moment. For example, if you are paying mindful attention to your fingertips for five minutes, you will notice that the sensations such as tingling, temperature, and tremor will change subtly in five minutes. When you do mindfulness meditations, your brain is learning the message “this will pass too,” when there is pain. As shown in neurological studies, mindfulness meditations mitigate the anxious response to situations, increase will power, and increase tolerance for pain. It allows you to wait patiently in spite of the stress and the pain.
Step three is perhaps the most important aspect of this method, because of the “insight” you get when you turn away from actively trying to solve the problem. Mindfulness meditation is also called “Insight Meditation” (Vipassana). When you learn to observe your emotions without falling apart and with a calmer mind, some insight falls into your lap. This insight typically reveals a facet of your own capabilities you may not be fully aware of. This can lead to new goals and new directions in problem solving.
This is what I say. Start learning mindfulness meditations and practice it for whatever time you have – even if it is two minutes at a time, a few times a day. Go on to longer and deeper meditations. This will help you to do “nothing” when in crisis and you will still come out to be a winner.
Dr. Swati Desai is on sabbatical from her position as the Director of Integrative Psychological Services at the The Akasha Center for Integrative Medicine, and is currently working on the App 2meditate as a founder. For more, please visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Image courtesy of Joseph Barrientos.