Each June about 400 people gather early on a Saturday morning determined to run to the top of Mount Evans, a 14,264-foot mountain located an hour’s drive from Denver. This year I was one of them.
The run started at 10,600 feet of elevation and conditions were windy with intermittent snow flurries. I stood at the start contemplating the 14.5 mile, three or so hour run to the summit. I was ready to go but not expecting what I was about to experience.
Watching the Monkey Mind
As with most of my runs, as I started up the highest paved road in North America, my thoughts were arbitrary. I thought, can I keep this pace? Will I get cold at the top? Am I going to hit the wall at mile ten?
Then I began thinking about the wind. It was blowing at 20 to 30 miles per hour at times. Instead of fighting the wind, I decided to change my thinking. I knew it was silly to resist or curse the weather conditions. The wind was going to be with me for three hours. I decided to welcome it and to fully and joyfully experience the intensity of nature as it was unfolding.
Then I started thinking about pain. Physical pain is often a part of an endurance event. I don’t like it and even fear it, not just during an event, but even in the weeks leading up to a race. Sometimes it’s pain in my hips or back, or the general discomfort of fatigue. This time, however, I decided to look forward to the pain, to welcome it when it came. Then something interesting happened—it never came. Of course, I ran out of oxygen from time to time and got a bit dizzy above 13,000 feet, but there was no pain and no resistance to pain.
Breaking Mental Habits
Instead of allowing my mind to indulge in addictive mental activities like judging myself or other runners or worrying about the future, I could choose what I wanted to think about.
Just as I chose how I was going to relate to the wind and my pain, for a couple of miles I chose to focus only on my running, no mental rambling just one foot-fall after another. Then something unexpected happened.
I started to feel a bliss that was more exhilarating than a runner’s high. I experienced what felt like complete mental clarity and heightened awareness, like the moment in meditation when I’m completely present.
What followed is called in Zen, Samadhi or unreasonable joy. This is a state of mind where you experience something deeper than your thoughts and emotions. Your mind is completely clear and you understand the true nature of who you are. Okay, this is definitely worth the $50 race fee and some tough training runs!
The way your mind works is analogous to viewing the world from inside a bubble. The bubble is composed of your beliefs—the stories you make up about you and the world around you—and it distorts how you experience reality.
If you develop the ability to observe your bubble in action, you will notice how it makes you feel and react as you do. People do things, events happen—some of them really harsh or painful—but in the end, unless you choose differently, by default your bubble will determine how you process what happens around you.
For example, no fellow driver, family member, employee, supplier, or spouse can make you angry or ashamed. People do things and, because of your bubble, you feel happy, sad, angry, or scared. The wind didn’t make me feel angry or scared, it was how I related to the wind that made the difference in the way I felt about it.
On my run, the more I chose to be present to what I was experiencing—no fleeing or resisting—the less my mind jumped around and the more alive I felt. I wonder what life would be like if I experienced this all the time.
What kind of magic elixir were they dispensing at the aid stations on this run? How was it possible to feel bliss instead of pain or fear?
How to Make Conscious Choices
You don’t need drugs to run up Mount Evans or to meditate for twenty years to be able to consciously choose your response to a situation. Starting right now, you can choose how you experience any situation and override the judgment, distortion and reaction your bubble can cause. Yet your bubble is sneaky so it takes practice to develop the skillful means of bubble busting.
Your reality is what you make it. Too often, you react instead of respond and it costs you leadership and relationship effectiveness, not to mention generating your own angst.
Every day you’re presented with challenges, some that stir up an emotional reaction and some that have you feeling like you are running up a mountain. Here are four approaches that will help you chose how you will respond:
- Notice Your Thinking. The next time you’re anxious, angry, or judging yourself or others, take note of your thinking. What stories or beliefs are you telling yourself that create those feelings? Are you indulging yourself in negative thinking? Catch yourself in the act and choose a different thought.
- Slow Your Thinking. Smart people are often relationally challenged because they easily get impatient. Relationships and connection take time and intention and often turn on very subtle queues. Take the risk of being bored. Be fully present and listen deeply. You might be surprised how satisfying your connections with others become and how, with just a little hesitation, your quick reactions become grounded responses.
- Move Toward Your Pain. Your mind will always seek comfort. In the process, you resist what’s happening right now. Your happiness becomes dependent on something changing around you. But what if you can’t change what’s going on around you? It’s counterintuitive to embrace your discomfort, yet if you do, you will discover the real source of it. For example, you may want someone to apologize to you who won’t. The choice is yours. You can wait for the person to make you happy, or stop making that person the source of your pain and find the real source of your pain. (Hint, it’s inside you and is something you can change.)
- Create a New Story. You can change your bubble. You can create new beliefs and stories that are calming and empowering. On my run, I could have made up a story that I’m slow for my age or that I should have trained more. I can easily change that story. I can think of how few people are doing this crazy thing and how cool it is that I can stand on the mountain, let alone run up it. You can do the same thing with your interactions—create a more curious, empathetic story about yourself and others.
The next time you push your buttons, use one of the four approaches described above. You’ll be more present and acquire a new resourcefulness when it comes to handling adversity and conflict. I’m sure you’ll have a chance to practice today.