Pivoting Away from What Feels Natural
“We have a choice from the moment we know that we have a choice.”
Many decades ago, when I was single, my back suddenly “went out.” I was in such excruciating pain that I feared the slightest movement would inflict permanent injury.
I crawled on the floor and phoned friends. It was after midnight, but they called my doctor at home (as I said, this was a different era). My physician said, Get him off the floor.
My pain was so severe that even my massage therapist friend was scared to move me. It seemed natural to have my attention riveted on the pain and fearful thoughts about what the pain meant.
My friends spent the night; the following morning, they managed to get me off the floor.
Restoring full mobility took over a year of yoga instruction with a physical therapist. The therapist believed, too, movement had to be reintroduced gradually.
Learning yoga was a boon. I became proficient enough to do a proper headstand and handstand, but lingering pain remained.
A few years later, my back went out again. By then, I had another tool in my healing arsenal, the pioneering work of the late medical heretic Dr. John Sarno.
Despite any evidence of structural issues such as “slipped disks,” Dr. Sarno believed that almost all back pain was psychogenic. The cure was “knowledge therapy,” read his books, accept the diagnosis, and get on with your life. Sarno imparted knowledge that movement would signal the brain that there was nothing wrong with the back.
It felt natural to protect my back and resist the pain. It appeared I would have to reduce the pain before I could move. I was wrong. In truth, I had to move to ease the pain.
What I learned to do was lean into the pain until my attention shifted away from it. This is my experience and not medical advice. For more about Dr. Sarno’s work, see these books (here and here) and these articles (here and here).
Now, for a moment, I invite you to consider an upsetting thought or feeling holding your attention. You may believe the upset must be sorted out before you can move on.
When we have upsetting thoughts, it seems natural to have our attention riveted on the upset and what it means. It may feel natural to ruminate.
To put your upsetting thoughts and feelings in context, understand this—you have 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts daily, and none of those thoughts define you. Thoughts and feelings arise in you, but they are not you, and you don’t need to grip onto them or sort them out.
Psychologist David K. Reynolds says, “You don’t need to work with ‘feelings.’ You don’t need to express them or ‘get them out.’ You just need to notice them and go on with your life.” In short, “you don’t need any mental preparation before changing what you do.”
Notice when your mind is full of grievances, busy constructing scenarios that will never come to be, full of should haves and could haves. Reynolds asks us, “How much of modern life is the equivalent of studying outdated television listings, listening to recordings of last week's traffic and weather reports, clipping expired coupons from yellowed newspapers?”
The more one focuses attention on the suffering—noticing how unpleasant it is, trying to get rid of it, wishing it didn't exist, comparing the self with others who don't appear to suffer in this way, worrying about when the suffering will appear next, emphasizing other difficulties related to the suffering, complaining that the suffering is greater than is deserved and can be endured, and so forth—the more one's attention is diverted from everyday tasks and responsibilities and joys.—David K. Reynolds
We alone are responsible for gripping our thoughts. My leadership students used to joke that this truth was good and bad news. Learning this meant they could no longer pretend to have no choice over their state of mind. Viktor Frankl wrote, “We have a choice from the moment we know that we have a choice.” Until we understand the nature of thought, it seems we have no choice.
Knowing is not enough. “To know and not to do is really not to know,” wrote Stephen R. Covey. Yet, learning and doing is a process, not a one-time event. Resistance may arise as we pivot towards separating ourselves from the thoughts we hold about ourselves. Don’t fight with resistance. Fighting with resistance is a strategy deployed by resistance to maintain resistance. Without judging ourselves or justifying our thoughts, we simply notice our resistance and move on to the next learning opportunity that life will soon present.
This Thursday, March 16th at 12 pm EDT you can join me live for a Freedom Hub webinar where I will talk about experiencing more inner freedom by uprooting our attention on conditioned thinking. After my slide presentation, there will be time to ask questions. Register, and you will receive the Zoom link an hour before the webinar. A recording will be available on YouTube and other channels.
Thanks for reading Mindset Shifts—Essays by Barry Brownstein! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I have doctor’s Sarno’s book, and David Reynold’s “Playing Ball On Running Water”, and his “A Thousand Waves”. I love all these books, and have found them most useful.
Thank you. Just what I needed to read today. I’d love to join that webinar if I’m able.