HOW TO BUILD A BOAT
When times are difficult and challenging, and not the way we would like them to be, our bodies move into 'high alert'. Our threat systems leap to defend us and prepare us for survival. We can become restless and anxious. The default thinking becomes, 'What if.....? and 'What if.....?' soon becomes an assumed certainty! We may be surrounded by confusion, panic, mixed messages. Soothsayers will appear from everywhere to inform us of the imminent catastrophe to end all catastrophes. Although human history has never been short of such threats, dangers and prophecies, we assume that all others were 'dress rehearsals', and this time it's for real. Our perspective narrows to 'now', 'me', and 'mine'. This is natural, understandable and not necessarily unhelpful.
How can we find some sense of balance, reason and resilience when we are gripped with a dread and a negativity that is self-perpetuating as well as prompted by external influences and events?
If we are in a storm at sea which threatens our safety and survival and we have no idea of the sort of vessel we find ourselves in, then our fear will become as engulfing as the angry waters around us. Now imagine that we have intimate knowledge of the vessel. We know it has been constructed to weather such storms. We know the strength and durability of its component parts and structure. We understand that we have means to steer our vessel. We are familiar with the sturdy ropes and the solid anchor. We know where the lifejackets are stored. We see that the vessel has an inbuilt capacity, a deliberate design which prepares it for the storms we would hope to avoid.
None of this gets us out of danger. Even the Titanic went down! Sometimes the 'worst case scenario' really does unfold. But now we have a justified confidence in our vessel and the distinct possibility of survival. It's not just our boat that has an anchor; we have an emotional anchor. The boat and the occupant of the boat are in the storm together and something symbiotic happens. Even if they fail, they will know that they have done their best and not piled unnecessary suffering onto a difficulty.
Analogously, the vessel we speak of may be our minds and bodies working like boat and occupant, but here so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. Understanding how our minds and bodies react to difficult circumstances allows us to shape and influence processes, enables us to cultivate resilience, strength and balance. We teach ourselves to choose a response rather than be swept along by the reaction. We discover that our minds and bodies do not exist in some fixed state that is above and beyond our agency and a considerable degree of control. We are verbs not nouns and we can do something to govern the shape of our lives and personalities. Is there any better news than this, any greater freedom? We are not given any old boat to sail in. We choose what kind of boat we will build.
We cannot take the storm away. We are not in control of that. But we can navigate the storm with a sense of peace, purpose and confidence. We arrive here through a process of patient, detached self-observation, taking deliberate, compassionate responsibility for this 'self' which is heavily clothed in habitual thought patterns and emotions. In time we purposefully discard unhelpful material and build our vessel with components of our choice, fully aware of what we are doing.
We hear much talk today of meditation and mindfulness. Of course, these are not new practices. Throughout human history they have provided a guide, a blueprint for building a safe boat. Those who take the time never regret it.