Victor MacGill Chaos and Complexity
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My first book..

When the Dragon Stirs

Healing our Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, Myths and Legends

When the Dragon Stirs Book Cover

The Dragon

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My next book...
Gonna Lay Down my Sword
and Shield

A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

Mandelbrot Set

Articles by Victor

Mandelbrot Set   Fairy Stories
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Mandelbrot Set  Complexity
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Mandelbrot Set  Spirituality

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of all talks

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My first book..

When the Dragon Stirs

Healing our Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, myths and Legends

When the Dragon Stirs Book Cover

The Dragon

Line


My next book...
Gonna Lay Down my Sword
and Shield

A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

Mandelbrot Set

Articles by Victor

Mandelbrot Set   Fairy Stories
Line

Mandelbrot Set  Complexity
Line

Mandelbrot Set  Spirituality

Line

My next book...

Gonna Lay Down my Sword
and Shield

A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

Mandelbrot Set

LineMandelbrot Set

Coping with Distress through Acceptance

You have no doubt heard the saying used by Alcoholics’ Anonymous:
 May God grant you the serenity to accept the things you cannot change,
the courage to change the things you can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

 So, when we can do something to change things in our life then we should, but we should also recognise that some parts of life are beyond our ability to control and when that happens, we need to accept that we can’t change it and move on.

 Part of the skills we need in life is about being positive; standing firm, not giving up and making changes in our life. Positive thinking is real and does work, but it needs to be seen in a wider context. Sometimes we need to accept that we can not have everything we want and that events will not always turn out as we would prefer. We must know that there are some realities we must accept, no matter how painful that is. I would venture to say that most of our suffering in life comes from fighting what can not be changed.

 People leave us, hurt us, betray us, we miss on out jobs we wanted, we get injured, get sick and die. We do what we can, but at some point we must just accept that we can not control everything.

 We cannot control the past. Maybe we could have done things differently that would have ended better, but what happened is what happened. We can only accept that the past is the past, no matter how unpalatable that might be.

My favourite saying is a Zen saying by Suzuki Roshi. It is, "Life is like a ship that goes out to sea and sinks." That sounds terrible, but it contains great wisdom. After his retirement my father went to live in a monstery in Japan. After about two years he had to return to New Zealand to apply for a permanent resident visa, which could have been rejected. He was sad about leaving Japan knowing he might not be able to return. The monk who was with him said, "The only way you could have avoided the pain of this parting is if you had never come." Life is full of beginings we may not like and endings we may struggle with, but they are part of life and we must accept them.

We do not like to cope with distressing situations where we are not in control, but some people can put up with more distressing circumstances than other people. Some people seem to glide through difficult situations that would see others totally unable to cope. If we use the image of a container that holds our distressing parts of our lives we cannot change, then some people have a larger bowl and others have a smaller bowl.

Somebody like our Prime Minister, Helen Clark, has a large bowl to cope with the high level of responsibility and stress in her life. You and I have smaller bowls, but that is all right, so long as our bowl is large enough to contain the level of anxiety we experience in our life.
When the level of anxiety and distress in our life is greater than our capacity to contain it, we must do something about it or we will have a complete mental collapse.

Ideally we will either find a way to reduce the level of distress by dealing with the cause of the anxiety or we will increase the size of our bowl so it can contain more anxiety. Often we find these approaches too difficult and resort to less effective means of coping with the distress springing from our life situations.

We often respond to unsurmountable distress by resorting to addictions. Our life situations lead to distress. Rather than deal with the situation, we try to just deal with the anxiety resulting from the situation rather than resolve the cause of the distress. Addictions are short term solutions. They allow us to feel better now, but then create even more problems later. Resorting to alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping or chocolate allow us to feel better right now, but eventually cause more problems than they solve.

Taking on addictions are a bit like adding more height to the bowl for a short time, but in a way that weakens the whole bowl, so it is more likely to break.

Another way we try to cope with an overflowing bowl is distorting the way we interpret the events occurring in our world. We may try to deny an unpalatable reality and pretend it does not exist. Often when we hear shocking news our response is to say, “Oh no, It can’t be!” We are trying to deny the event and pretend somehow that it has not happened.

Other people may try to minimise that unpalatable reality and dilute it down to something that can be coped with. They might say, “What I did wasn’t really that bad.”

Still others will blame other people for a situation so as to avoid their personal responsibility. It can enable us to feel as though we are distanced from the situation.

Yet other people will try and justify their behaviour saying, “I did not have any choice. I was forced into what I did.”

Now, I want you to imagine that you have gone to the circus. As you walk around you see a door with “popcorn” written on it. When you go through the door, however, you find you are in the lion’s cage and by the look on his face it’s past feeding time.

You are going to feel distress. Your bowl really is going to over flow. What is going to be the best thing to do? Eat some chocolate, drink some alcohol, deny that there is lion there, minimise it and say it is only a big cat, blame someone else for not putting the proper sign on the door, or justify your actions in coming through the door.

Any of these actions will result in you getting eaten by the lion. These responses sound ridiculous, but replace the lion with the addiction of your choice, which will also eat you if it can and it doesn’t sound so silly!

Accepting the reality that there really is a lion in the cage who will eat you with you will provide you with the best chance of coming up with a solution that might save you, because you see it as it is. We will never solve a problem for as long as we deny it exists.

A further way we avoid seeing the world as it is, is by taking our awareness away from what we are experiencing. When what is happening is too distressing, we zone out, glaze over and take our awareness away from the situation. It is another form of denial; of pretending that what has happened has not really happened. The most obvious way of doing this is by looking away from what we do not wish to see or putting our hands over our ears so we can not hear, or we can just do it all in our mind. Whatever is happening is still happening, but we shut it out of our awareness in an attempt to distance the event to give us enough space to cope. Again, by avoiding reality as it is, we are less likely to be able to make the best decision as to how to cope.

To accept reality is to acknowledge how much the bowl is really overflowing. There is, of course, a point beyond which no amount of coping is possible and we have a complete collapse. We usually try to find a positive way of dealing with a situation, before revert to a harmful means of coping. Sometimes a harmful way of coping is our only alternative to avoid a total breakdown. Even though our denial is maladaptive, at least we are still around to try and undo the situation later. Doing this will have consequences we must later deal with.

So, what are some more positive ways of coping with distress? How can we tolerate distress and keep it in our bowl.

We can learn to cope with distressing situation by developing our ability to tolerate distress. Some people are naturally calm in distressing or dangerous situations. They are able to turn off the distress signals and remain calm, so they can still choose the best action, rather than panicking and making the situation worse. These people are able to cope with the level of distress in their bowl being nearer the brim and still function efficiently.
It is not all just whether we are born with it, tolerating distress is a skill we can learn.  

We can cope with a bowl that is getting full is by using mind techniques. Meditation, Tai Chi, massage, listening to calming music and other relaxation and breathing techniques, which all increase our ability to remain calm in difficult situations enabling us to continue making good decisions. Through meditation we can reach deeper levels of ourselves and tap unknown abilities within us that can help us in our distress and anxiety and with our daily tasks.

I mentioned before how we often take our awareness away when we find a situation distressing. We can turn this around to use as a coping mechanism. Instead of taking our awareness away, we can consciously refocus our awareness on our experience. Thus is often called being mindful. Mindfulness has been used by Buddhist meditators for thousands of years and is increasingly becoming accepted by modern day psychologists. The more we can be present with ourselves and the world as it really is, the more we are equipped to cope with the fullness of our experience.

By being mindful, we avoid the trap of being judgemental. We can accept reality as it is without making judgements and making parts of the world wrong. As soon as we judge something as wrong, we lose the ability to see it as it is. We become attached to the event and begin to suffer when things do not turn out as we would have wished. Our pain is not because of the event, but because of our attachment to the event and our judgements.

Mindfully accepting our experience is not the same as approving of the experience. We are just accepting that that is what is happening. If we can accept the event without making judgments, we can then make the best decision about how to express our disapproval and create a better future.

Instead of avoiding pain, by learning how to bear pain skilfully we increase our mindfulness. Our bowl gets bigger and we are in the best position to make the best decision on what actions to take.  I would like to conclude by repeating the Alcoholics’ Anonymous saying: 

May God grant you the serenity to accept the things you cannot change,
the courage to change the things you can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
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