Updated: Oct 21, 2020
I was caught against the side of a rock with water pushing against me. I was on the Upper Nantahala in a whitewater kayak. I had boated it before, but this time the water was lower than a typical release and the rocks were more exposed. There was a careful dance of trying to get off the rock while leaning into it so I didn't flip and get stuck upside down. The first time it happened, a man in a small raft got out up river, then careful came out and helped push me off the rock. A short while later, it happened again.
Scared, I said to a friend of mine, "I'm done for the day. Time to get off the river." He looked at me and said somewhat sternly, "Stop thinking about yourself. Pay attention to your crew. Watch what's happening downstream. Watch what's happening upstream. Look out for them and you will kayak better." And he was right. I decided to stay on the river and did what he said. I didn't get caught on a rock for the rest of the day.
This experience offers more than how to handle yourself when think you might die. :-) It really offers insight into what causes stress and one strategy to navigate out of it.
In this next bit, I want to talk about what happens when we let our instincts run wild like a dog off a leash, and why does a leash-less mind create so much stress. Then, I want to discuss why focusing on connection (connections to others, to ourself, to our environment, to something bigger than us, to our purpose), helps stress to fall away, our discernment to improve and allows us to make calm, productive decisions. Ready?
Lost In Our Head
Stressful thinking happens when we get lost in our head. Lost in our head is the place where we get sucked into a narrative that our brains create to keep us safe. It's caused by fear, uncertainty and uncomfortableness where our instincts are trying to make those things go away. It's where we strategically doubt ourselves and what's possible, where we feel overwhelmed, worried, defensive, or rationalize why we have to tolerate more than we should. It's also where we slip away from being present and let our fearful instincts take over.
Getting lost in our head is like a dog off it's leash because we let go of our power and have no agency to direct ourselves. We are instead at the affect of our mind. The story is in control, not us. We stop being able to tell the difference between what's real and what's the mind's story - a story where we are anticipating threat and seeing the world through a lens where people and situations are out to get us.
Surprising (not really) we feel stress. The story itself is stressful because it is full of fear and the need for self-protection. Believing that we don't have any power is also stressful. And the crazy thing is, none of it is real. It. Is. All. Made. Up. by our minds when we let them off the leash.
Connection, which is one of the COR.E Dynamics disciplines of mastering yourself, is really about presence. You are connecting to what is real for you. When you do that, you automatically pick up the leash, get out of your head, out of instinctual, fear-based, unexamined thinking, and back into reality. You take control. While connection in and of itself offers many benefits, it's also a strategy you can use when you notice you're under stress and want to pick up the leash and stop the fearful mind.
Here are a few kinds of connection that help create mindfulness and presence. When you feel stress, which of these would work best for you, and how can you help yourself to remember to try these in the moment?
Connection with other people - Just like what I was instructed to do while kayaking (How are they doing? What are they communicating? What's going on for them? What's something I could ask them to get curious and find out more?)
Connection with yourself - What am I thinking? What am I feeling? Where did this idea come from? What's going on in my body? What am I worried about? What am I avoiding? What do I need to face? What do I need right now to do the things I have chosen to do?
Connection with your environment - This is why some people like to go for a run, a hike, go fishing, visit a museum, visit a garden, or just be in nature. It doesn't have to be any special environment but if that works for you, why not use it? Just pay attention to what is going on in the space around you and notice what you like, what you don't like and what you are indifferent to as a way of being present.
Connection with your higher self - Connection to your higher self takes on many meanings. This could be the "you" that has clarity of your purpose and is the compass of where you are going. This could be the "you" that is infinitely kind, embodies your values and is the compass of your being. This could also be God, a higher power, your intuition or anything that energetically sits above you in this moment that you can lean towards.
Connection with your purpose - If you have a purpose that guides you, remind yourself of your why, of your bigger picture. This is another way to connect to what's going on for you rather than allowing your mind to focus on unreal threat.
Remember, it takes practice to notice when we slip into fear-based, instinctually thinking. Our brains are really good about going there because they are built to anticipate threat. Even the smallest thing like a package showing up on your driveway rather than by your doorstep can cause a series of stressful, defensive thoughts if we aren't careful.
Connection is a mindfulness tool, a tool that resurfaces you into the present. Once you notice stress, or once you notice a story taking off in your head, lean into a connection to keep your mind on the leash and not running wild, unexamined, creating stress and causing you to react rather than consciously respond.