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You’re driving at night and the headlights go out: Try harder to see, or pull the car over?

March 6th, 2017

Howdy!

The summer before I entered 3rd grade, we moved from town, “to the country.” I was excited. We had 10 acres and a big yard. I spent hours playing in the red rock cliffs and exploring the land around our home. Come to think of it, that move to the country likely deserves a lot of credit for my love of nature and its role in my life and work.

My brother, Michael, wasn’t born yet, so at the time, it was just my sisters, Alicia and Amber, and I. Our house in the country was located exactly 2.9 miles from town. We all had different interests, which meant my Mom spent a great deal of time driving us to and from our various activities. Now, as a parent of three children, I really appreciate all of the time sacrificed by my mom so we could participate in our activities.

One year for her birthday, my Dad surprised my mom with a red 1966 Thunderbird. Even though my Dad was/is the car enthusiast, my Mom loved that Thunderbird. It was a beauty!

A 1966 Thunderbird, just like the one my Mom drove us in to and from our activities.

After swim practice one evening, my mom was driving us three girls home. It was dark, and we were in the red Thunderbird. My mom knew this road well by now, and, as a result, we made the trip to and from home in short order! We were zooming along, sliding on the car seat in the back from side to side as she took the corners on the winding road, and suddenly, the headlights went out.

I’ll never forget it. We were cruising around “killer corner” and suddenly, nothing. Total darkness. Talk about Epic, and not in a good way… Of course this all happened in seconds, but it felt like an eternity as I recall it now and play it back in my mind. I remember our first instinct was to try to see. We tried harder to see the road and to get our bearings as we tried coaching my mom through the darkness. Probably just seconds later, but later all the same, it occurred to us to use the brakes, slow down and try to pull the car over. I know – go ahead and say it – Duh!

Note: I recently asked both of my sisters about this to make sure it wasn’t just me remembering it this way. They remembered it the same way. And for the record, while none of us is a rocket scientist or brain surgeon, I assure you we have brains and know how to use them. 🙂

I’ve thought a lot lately about this trip home in the red Thunderbird, traveling pretty fast when the headlights suddenly went out. It is a mystery and a marvel to me that when that happened, the first instinct was not to use the brakes and stop the car, but rather to try harder to see what was no longer visible.  

This is pretty much what happens when our life feels out of control, or when something really serious happens that was not expected. Our tendency is to try harder to deal with it while proceeding rather than to pause and to “pull the car over.”

It’s instinctual survival, and there’s not a lot of thinking going on. Things are moving and coming at me quickly, and I’m adjusting on the fly, ducking and dodging but continuing to move nonetheless. Unconsciously saying Yes to everything. Not being mindful because I’m not slowing down long enough to pause and to think.

For many years, it never occurred to me to apply the brakes or even to slow down, or that saying No was an option. I would just react, over and over and over again in a given day, or in a given hour.

Thankfully, I’m much wiser now. Not always, but most of the time, I respond rather than react. I’ve learned, personally, and by witnessing numerous conscious, mindful people, that responding and reacting are two different things. The first is thoughtful, the second is not.

I would say responding is similar to applying the brakes. Not suddenly but gradually enough to be safe and to get an opportunity to size up the situation. Whereas reacting is proceeding blindly at a too-high rate of speed while trying to figure things out in the process and hoping for the best. (Good luck with that!)

Viktor Frankl, a Nazi concentration camp survivor and author of one of my most influential reads, Man’s Search for Meaning, writes, Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.

The challenge for many of us is learning how to create that space – that pause that allows us to thoughtfully respond rather than react.

The answer, in my humble opinion and experience, is to be more mindful. Although I had meditated off and on since my early 20s – for more than 25 years – it wasn’t until February of 2013 that I started practicing mindfulness on a regular basis. For the last several years I’ve included a brief mindfulness practice every single weekday, in the morning, before my day officially gets under way.

And what a difference it has made. It has been nothing less than a game changer. Before practicing mindfulness regularly, I didn’t have that space that Frankl referenced. Especially when I needed it most, during times of stress and overwhelm. Now I am able to create it.

The space and pause I am now able to create during times of overwhelm is not long-lasting; it’s fleeting, even. But it’s long enough to be thoughtful in determining how to proceed. For example, it’s long enough to take a deep breath and think about my words before flying off the handle at my husband or sons. It’s long enough to help me course-correct when I find myself reaching for the peanut butter jar. It’s long enough for me to figure out how I want to respond when a United Airlines agent tells me my flight is overbooked and I may not have a seat on the flight I reserved. It’s long enough to prevent me from completely unwrapping a Dove dark chocolate and popping it my mouth. It’s long enough to not hit Send on that email, or Post on that Facebook post that I’m not certain I want to share with the world. It’s long enough to help me notice if I haven’t been in touch with someone who matters to me. It’s long enough for me to choose how to respond. I don’t always make the wise decision, but most of the time, I get a brief space, during which I choose how to respond.

The Universe is funny. Being mindful helps me create a pause that most of the time is just long enough to unwrap my Dove dark chocolate… and decide not to eat it. (This extra reminder in the form of a message, certainly didn’t hurt, either.)

For starting a mindfulness practice, I have many tools, but my favorite is Headspace, an app I highly recommend to friends and all of the leaders I coach and work with. (You can sign up for a free, 10-day trial) Headspace founder Andy Puddicomb has a great Ted Talk. Check it out, and then download the app if you haven’t already. It’s a very simple, guided mindfulness practice, and comes bundled with packets of sessions in categories such as Health, Relationships, etc. I especially like the Health/Anxiety pack, but they are all worthwhile, and I recommend starting with the basic, 10-day, 10-minute practice.

Being mindful not only helps us personally, but it helps those around us, who are affected by our behaviors. Freaking out is not leadership. I don’t know about you but I prefer not to follow people who are freaking out, but rather those who are composed and thoughtful. I’m a Certified Wilderness First Responder and an adventure guide. If someone has an accident during our expedition, even if life and death, it would not be good to freak out or react. Even with time being of the essence – especially with time being of the essence – taking a brief pause to thoughtfully consider how best to proceed is critical.

Mindfulness is hard, but mostly because we make it so. 

Recently, at a workshop I attended, a woman in her 20s stood up and asked about Mindfulness. She said it was difficult because her mind wouldn’t be still; it was full of chatter. Frustrated, she reported that her mind wandered constantly. I didn’t say anything because I had taken a vow of Silence, but I wanted to say this: If your mind is wandering, that’s normal. Sitting still in Silence hardly means our mind is quiet. And most of us are challenged by thoughts, and lots of them, and especially when we slow down long enough to listen to all that’s going on in our head. But in fact, this is what makes it a great practice. Mindfulness is practicing noticing our thoughts and redirecting our attention (usually to our breath). So the more your mind wanders during mindfulness practice, the more practice you’re getting at redirecting your attention. 

I have learned that the easiest way way to learn how to pause before proceeding, how to be mindful, is simply to notice. For those of you who have a hard time sticking to goals and regular practices, Ellen Langer, often considered “The Mother of Mindfulness,” offers two words of instruction for being more mindful: “Pay attention.”

So if you’re not up for 10 minutes of Headspace, try this: Sit for 5 minutes a day without your phone or music, etc., and simply notice. Notice your thoughts, the sounds around you, how you’re feeling, the sound and sensation of your breathing, etc. No pressure – just sit and notice. This is a great start to becoming more mindful and responsive, and less reactive. (By the way, the stress brought on by the ways we react during times of stress is often even worse than the initial stress that generated our reaction. Not to mention the stress our reactions cause others.)

The next time you feel like you’re on a winding road, in the dark, with no headlights – like you’re out of control – take a deep breath, and pull the car over.

Learning how to do this will change your life.

And, finally, thank you so much for pausing to read my blog. I really appreciate it!

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

10% Happier (This is a fantastic book, and a compelling case for having a Mindfulness practice)

Andy Puddicomb Ted Talk

Ellen Langer, on Mindfulness, with Krista Tippett/OnBeing

Man’s Search for Meaning

What I Learned in Silence

Solitude: We Need It and Most of Us Don’t Get Enough of It


I am a certified life and leadership coach, personal development consultant, keynote (inspired) speaker, leadership development facilitator, and adventure guide. I’ve coached 130 individual leaders from across the U.S. during the last 6 years. If you, or someone you know, would like to change your life and/or your leadership impact, I’d be honored to coach you. If you’re interested, please email me. I also bundle coaching with wellness and guided “Epic Adventure.” All of the adventures are “unplugged,” and offer you Solitude and space and time to be inspired and reflective.