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On Choosing Our Focus

by Dr. Jenny Copeland

Stuck. Mired. Both of these words accurately describe how I have felt in recent months. For so many people when such events occur or feelings arise, they are often played out on the battleground of our bodies. Self-care falls to the wayside as we are forced to admit we can no longer continue juggling all our thoughts, emotions, and responsibilities in our lives. We internalize these events we experience as troubling, and may begin to perceive our bodies and ourselves as inherently broken. Those with a history of eating disorders and all varieties of struggles can be triggered into old habits, filled with an overwhelming feeling of drowning. Frozen in “stuckness,” the world continues to spin. What other choice is there?

There’s a story that has been told and recounted many times among my peers, about a wayward practicum student working towards his degree in psychology while throwing pencils at a patient. The intervention was intended to highlight the power of choice we each have in our daily lives when enacted appropriately. The lesson of this therapeutic intervention is that no one can make us feel anything or do anything without our participation. You have choices.

The thing is: fear blinds us. Fear of change, fear of failure, fear of not being enough. Our fears are all-encompassing, meaning we cannot see our choices through what feels like the shambles of our lives. This is especially true in those moments where we are rocked to our cores. We are often taught to not take life for granted, and are reminded of this lesson when the unexpected happens. Loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of relationships, new relationships, conflict: through each of these life events we are admonished that we “should” not have assumed our lives were built on a reliable foundation. As soon as those winds of change reach us, we hold on ever so tightly, frozen in fear of the meaning of these events.

In what way does your body pay the price? What cues, needs, desires do you ignore as you are consumed by the challenges present in your external world? What lengths do you go to physically and emotionally as you struggle to shift your life from the past to the present? David Foster Wallace once said, “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.” Indeed, in these moments, we react out of fear. We cannot imagine our lives without our loved one or job. We second-guess ourselves as we wonder how a new relationship will alter our lives as we know them. Fear is a powerful motivator, encouraging us to close our eyes to the possibilities and dig in our heels as we try to remain in the life we know. We seek desperately to control our fate, to hold onto the life we know, to the life we desire. We create our own suffering.

What are the multitudes of ways in which we hand power for our person over to the external world? How many times have we searched outside ourselves for our identity, only to come up empty? Why, in our most challenging moments, do we turn away from that which may answer these questions? Why do we continue to anchor ourselves in the unsteady world around us rather than resting in ourselves? I suspect these are still not the questions we need to ask. Such questions necessitate us still looking outside our person to find answers. We live in such a manner that suggests we live in darkness, when in reality, we are the light.

The problem is not these events striking fear in our hearts. Rather, we suffer as a result of our reactions to these events; an unyielding attachment to one moment in time. We believe we cannot manage – cannot survive – if we allow this change to come to pass. In reality, change is a matter of willfulness and choice. Fear is just an illusion – a prison of our own making. In his book on yogic philosophy, Meditations from the Mat: Reflections on the Path of Yoga, Rolf Gates reminds us that “We are willing to believe that something outside ourselves will make us whole because we are afraid. Being afraid does not make us right, it only makes us unhappy.”

The illusion, then, is our definition of “the problem” as something external to us, when both the problem and the solution lie within.

So perhaps the more appropriate question is this: who are you? Are you defined by external events, circumstances, or relationships? Are you okay with feeling unsteady when the world around you changes (for the better or for worse)? But most of all, what are you afraid you will find if you turn your gaze inward? The definitions crafted for you by the outside world are meaningless without your participation in them. Only you can define you, because only you can truly know yourself. No one else has that power – or privilege. It is your choice where you focus your attention and how you use this power.

When life is in flux, a part of us craves balance. Unfortunately, the more we anchor ourselves in the external world, the more unsteady we will be. Our foundation does not lie outside of us, it is within us along with our power. It is only waiting for us to realize it is there.

“In the end it is never about control, it is always about letting go. We are the witness, the consenter, the sustainer, the enjoyer, the great Lord, the light of the world. To access power, we need only surrender to the truth of it.”

~ Rolf Gates ~

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