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When there's nothing you can do about it

My friends at the Gateway Film Center invited me to share a few mindfulness strategies that would appeal to participants in their 7th Annual Groundhog Day Marathon.

After the sixth screening, I tried to quickly tempt a slew of bleary-eyed Woodchuckers into paying attention to edit cuts, speech rhythms, physical sensations, and emotional reactions during the second half of their challenge.

Some of them had already developed their own strategies: mustache spotting, book counting, and noticing the comings and goings of the soundtrack. This is one of my favorite things about sharing my enthusiasm for paying attention differently -- most people engage in something like this, but don't consider it to be part of a systematic attention-building practice.

In my book, everything counts when it comes to trying to drop your preoccupation with the narrative. Doing it on purpose just increases the odds that it will lead to surprising discoveries about how we unintentionally contribute to our own suffering.  
I love the scene in Groundhog Day where Phil (Bill Murray) wows Rita (Andie McDowell) with intimate details about strangers in the diner. She's convinced that it's just a stunt and dares him to tell her something about herself. 

PHIL: You like boats, but not the ocean. You go to a lake in the summer with your family up in the mountains. There's a long wooden dock and a boathouse with boards missing from the roof, and a place you used to crawl underneath to be alone. You're a sucker for French poetry and rhinestones. You're very generous. You're kind to strangers and children, and when you stand in the snow you look like an angel. 

RITA: How are you doing this? 

PHIL: I told you. I wake up every day, right here, right in Punxsutawney, and it's always February 2nd, and there's nothing I can do about it.

By this point, the audience is strongly on Phil's side because everyone can relate to feeling trapped by circumstances beyond their control.

He's already tried everything he could think of to end his suffering, but the misery of his waking nightmare remains. It's as if the entire community is working together to torment him. To everyone else, it's just an ordinary day, but this just intensifies his feelings of isolation. 

When Phil finally calls off the fight against his situation, he starts to focus instead on the aspects of his experience that are within his control.

He learns to play the piano and speak French. He helps people based on what he's learned about their personal struggles.

His circumstance doesn't change. The weather doesn't change. The people he interacts with don't change.  The only thing that changes is the way he relates to his experiences on a moment-by-moment basis.

What's the result of tweaking this one variable?

His torture turns into transformation.  

He makes himself at home in snowbound Punxsutawney. 

It can be difficult to trust that habitually paying attention to sensory details and perceptions can set the stage for a similar transformation to occur in how you relate to the mundane, looping frustrations in your own life.

We usually have to exhaust our logical strategies for escaping discomfort before we're willing to turn toward it and try to greet it with hospitality. It requires courage to take a counterintuitive step into the blizzard. 

This isn't about forcing ourselves to passively accept an unpleasant situation. We still need to take action when we're able. But what about when there's nothing you can do about it? What can you do then?   

Mindfulness practice is really just about being willing to look closely at the habitual ways we relate to our thoughts and feelings (and how they play off each other) regardless of our circumstances. It's a way to train our attention to build capacities that can help provide a bit of relief when we're out of options. This kind of comfort has to do with taking life's many difficulties less and less personally over time.   

This kind of self-awareness gradually diminishes internal friction that we often don't notice until it begins to dissipate. It makes it more likely that when we find ourselves living in an uncomfortable storyline and there's nothing else we can do, we'll be better prepared to not make it worse. Maybe we'll even discover some kindness toward ourselves or others that surprises us instead of devoting the bulk of our energy into insisting on its resolution.


Two of my favorite podcasts converged this week when Manoush Zomorodi from Note to Self talked to Eric Zimmer from The One You Feed about navigating technology while holding onto your humanity -- and Note to Self's clever Infomagical project

Dan Harris made several funny, Attentional Fitness Training-friendly points in his conversation with James Altucher

This recent Fresh Air interview about mind-over-body approaches to pain is a fascinating blend of accessible science and interesting stories with several nods to attention training through mindfulness. 

What percentage of your time is spent lost in thoughts about yourself? Do you think the proportion is higher or lower when you're at work? I was surprised.  

And I'll leave you with two articles that attempt to bust popular myths about mindfulness that get in the way of experiencing its benefits: "If Mindfulness Makes You Uncomfortable, It’s Working," from the Harvard Business Review and "Six Myths About Mindfulness We All Need to Stop Believing," from The Huffington Post (even though I think myth number three could be dispelled even more thoroughly by acknowledging that other sensory perceptions can be as significant to work with as the breath).  

Take care, 


PS Keep in touch between newsletters by following me on Facebook, signing up for a class or individual coaching, or recommending an attentional fitness workshop in your workplace

Thanks for helping me spread the word about the classes I offer related to attention-specific challenges in the workplace
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