Identifying Specific Patterns
Gayle and I have a friend who as a scientist has made several important discoveries. His guiding principle when taking up a new problem within his two fields of study is “Data, data, and more data.” Likewise, a good place to start in dealing with any personal problem, especially a familiar pattern, is to broaden our awareness of all aspects of the difficulty. We practice looking at our life as if seeing it for the first time.
In a sense, many people start their day in perfection. They set their purpose, and their purpose is good. But soon something happens that “makes” them forget the goal. At least it appears to force them to forget or to discard their purpose. That in itself should tell them that they are largely unaware of how they participate in getting off track. Events do not force. Reactions force.
To better see the part we play in sabotaging our purpose, we might start by making a record of everything that upsets us as we go through the day—small upsets and large. For example, we can be certain that whenever we become irritated or annoyed, we have forgotten our goal for the day. Something just threw us off track. What specifically was it?
Since at first glance it appears that an event caused the lapse, we record the event. Soon we will look at the events again and differentiate between what happened and our reaction, but for now it’s good to assess just how often we lose our hold on happiness in a single day.
During your morning period of preparation you will reach a certain level of happiness, which of course may vary from morning to morning. Use this level as your guide for the day and note any circumstance during which you fall below it. Is it in rushing to get to an appointment? Is it in the letdown after making a purchase? Is it during a disagreement with a friend? Is it while on the phone with a relative?
After several days of taking inventory of what upsets you, you are now ready to look for the pattern behind these upsets. In an attempt to avoid responsibility, we try to perceive every difficulty as uniquely caused. We think we plainly see a new person to blame or a special set of circumstances to justify our reaction. Yet seeing these does not exclude the possibility that our pattern of participation is the same.
Obviously we need to take responsibility for our patterns. It should be noted, however, that responsibility does not mean guilt. Guilt is an inefficient reaction, yet indulging in it is not without consequences. Guilt blocks insight by focusing our attention on ourselves and excluding the people we affected. Unless it is a deeply felt remorse for what we have caused and a strong determination to undo the damage, guilt is just another form of self-indulgence, which is probably what caused the harm in the first place.
In looking over in one sitting the list of upsets that have occurred over several days, the pattern of our involvement can often be seen within the similarity of emotions that we felt throughout this diversity of events. We now focus on this little complex of emotions and ask ourselves, “What does this feeling remind me of? When have I felt this before?” These questions in turn bring to mind other difficult situations from weeks ago, years ago, and sometimes even from our childhood.
Now we are alert to this feeling, and as we go about our life we notice it well up within us again and again. What is this feeling saying? If we were to put it into words, what would those words be? By looking at it carefully each time it comes up, gradually its meaning becomes clear—not because we have guessed what it is but because we have seen what it is. The process I am speaking of is not a play of ideas or an intellectual exercise. It is passionless observation. What emotion drives these upsets, and what thought drives the emotion?
The upset-generating emotions and what they mean will of course differ with each person. What will not differ is the fact that our unhappiness has a central pattern, and that pattern can be seen if we are willing to look. We are not responsible for what the day brings to us, but we are responsible for reacting to everything in the same miserable way—even if it’s only slightly miserable!
Hugh Prather — How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy (pp. 77-79)
For quite a while I have attempted exactly what Prather suggested above. When it came to understanding my own personal feelings and being aware of my reactions to life’s circumstances, I had several things hindering me. First, being male went against me. Males have a tendency to assume they don’t have any feelings and if they do happen to feel something they dismiss it altogether. Next, I was raised in a stoic family where true feelings were buried and expected to align with the family’s already-prescribed-array-of-feelings if shared. Lastly, I spent decades unaware of who I was as a person and what I personally believed to be true. My values had not been wrestled with and clearly defined for myself. As a result, the notion of Prather’s statement, “Events do not force. Reactions force.” was completely foreign to me. What does he mean reactions force? What about what so-in-so did to me? That is what the problem is really about. With my feelings easily manipulated and thrown from event to event, I had absolutely no way of stabilizing myself. I was simply a victim of whatever events showed up that day.
But eventually, I’m happy to say, things began to change for me over a long period of time. It feels like it happened overnight, but it took a lot of personal reflection and wrestling with my reactions to things to realize I WAS THE ONE WHO DETERMINED MY OWN HAPPINESS! Nobody else could determine my happiness for me. Me and me alone.
Events do not force. Reactions force.
It was my reaction to the events that were causing me problems. And what I finally discovered was simply being able to name my feelings in the moment made all the difference in the world! Here’s how I started:
Any event that happened, I had to get in the habit of pulling out my Feelings Wheel on my phone and see exactly how I felt about the event that occurred. Amazingly, as someone who has stoically tiptoed through life, I began to see that I experience a large array of emotions and feelings on a daily basis. My previous assumption that I don’t feel very much was simply due to my ignorance and unawareness. We all have feelings whether we realize it or not. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, the feelings we have as a result of events play an enormous role in our overall mental health.
That brings me to something else that has helped me tremendously:
A while ago I downloaded an app called Pacifica that is designed to assist with your mental health. A few times throughout the day it sends me a notification and asks me How Are You Feeling? After thinking about how I am feeling for a few minutes, I turn the Mood Dial to great, very good, good, okay, not good, bad, or awful. Then, I click on the Add Feelings button and add 3-8 feelings that accurately describe how I am feeling in the moment. If I feel it’s necessary, I then add some writing to further describe the events that preceded my feelings.
Pacifica also has many tools that can be used to assist you on your mental health journey. I have only used the free version (there is a premium version) and I have noticed a drastic increase in my positive feelings since using the app. If you try it, let me know what you think of it.
When it comes to our own happiness and mental health, we all have to discover what works best for each one of us personally. You are not just a victim to life’s circumstances. Events do not force. Reactions force. Pay attention to your reactions and you may actually discover a pattern that you can address and drastically change your future.
Have a blessed day.
Peace and Love,