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  • Writer's pictureSuzanne Dudley Schon

It's Time to Look

Look at what you are looking at. Look at what we are looking at.

As a society, we have become pretty aware, in some cases hyper aware, of what we are putting into our physical bodies.

Are we watchful of what we are feeding our minds and our spirits?

Whether through research studies, articles in Psychology today, or even good old common sense, we know that our brains and bodies are wired to adopt habits to survive. Using habits we conserve energy and mental bandwidth. We learn routines. We become more efficient. And, like the animals that we are—we can be trained whether by choice or default.

Think about how you brush your teeth. Make coffee. Load the dishwasher.

Once you have established routines they are stubbornly difficult to change. Sometimes that’s great. Sometimes it’s not.

Because the knowledge of our trainability and predisposition for routine is widely understood, there are countless businesses that have made it their mission to utilize this information to benefit their bottom line. This can happen through marketing or in the consumption of the product. Take a closer look at commercials and what they activate. And habits we have around our cell phones? They are entirely Pavlovian driven (remember how dogs respond to the bell… and started salivating?).

Yeah… that’s us.

I would posit where we haven’t looked enough, is in the nefarious use of fear. Yes, fear—that primal force that essentially subjugates our ability to access executive function and reverts us into the reptilian responses of fight, flight, freeze, and submit.

Sometimes it’s sneaky… like a low-grade fear of missing out. Or fear of social failure (don’t have the right dress, shoes, lipstick, abs, thighs or nose, oh no!).

And sometimes we sign up for it for “fun”—watching a movie that scares the socks off of us. We lap up the temporary adrenalin pump and rush of relief we feel afterwards.

And sometimes we sign up for it thinking we are being responsible adults. We read, watch, and listen to the news. We want to stay current.

When I was eight, it meant curling up in my dad’s lap to watch Walter Cronkite deliver neutral information about the nation and world. It was measured and reassuring because we were learning about what was important to be aware of as citizens. The news was meant to inform. Hence—inform-ation. While not all of the content was cheery, there was a sense of it being simply, “what was occurring.” The feeling was not that much different than the way it felt when my sisters would fight with my parents: discordant for sure, but underlying the disharmony or conflict was fundamental love and safety.

Now we have news giants. Media machines cranking out… product. Product to drive profits into their coffers, a drive to get people… watching. The headlines are crafted to grab you by the throat, make your pulse shoot up, alarm you until your bloodstream is flooded with cortisol.

We are learning what seems to be dire information that frightens, causes worry, and sets off fear responses to which the brain determines, quite swiftly, is important to stay on top of from here on out. Think how quickly one learns not to poke a hive of hornets, where the hornets are located, and to be on the lookout for them at every turn.

After all, aren’t our decisions as good as the information we have? We try to learn in order to protect. So now, we will go to that news source to find out the latest. We soak up the newest alarming headline so that we’re “up to date,” “informed, ” current, “aware of what’s relevant.” Again and again and again. Soon our heads are spinning with confusion and panic. In danger, instinctively, automatically, habitually we return to feed on “news.” We are hooked. Addicted.

Few people notice they have been ensnared. Not many can pay close attention because we are cranking through our days over-stimulated and under-connected, in relationship with our phones more than our partners, and consuming the news like a lemur pressing a lever to get a raisin.

Because of the bots and algorithms driving the news and Facebook feeds, we are getting more and more curated content that polarizes us with every click. Opinions and fears and emotional reactions are engrained deeper and deeper into the neural grooves of our exquisite brains.

We are puppets, terror dripped into us through the IV of TV or whatever your particular “source.”

Yes, and…

I write this fervently because yesterday I succumbed. I forgot. Failed to be aware of the flood of news I was ingesting until I found myself barely able to do work, wringing my hands, and alternating between catatonia and bouts of weeping, awash in despair. I fell in deep and was sinking fast. I had to do something.

I pulled out an old improvisation tool. The, “Yes, and…” It’s a way of getting a scene un-stuck. And, as a life and leadership coach, I’ve applied it for years to help clients move forward, and as a parent I invoke it’s special powers multiple times a day, and I’ve used it personally for my own mental health and survival.

To use, “yes, and…” you first acknowledge “what is” (yes, this is so) and go from there (and this is also so). (If you say “no” or “but” it stops the scene and requires even more effort to get it going again.)

So, yesterday, I spoke it aloud: “yes… (it is how it is)... AND… (What can I do in this very moment?). I applied it. And started to ask myself what I might do to help others and myself. I took care of some menial tasks to get the ball rolling-- gave the dogs their medication. Laundry. Wrote a long overdue thank you note. Paid some bills. Prepared dinner with my family. Thought about how fortunate I am.

Having some personal traction, then I looked to the bigger picture.

What could I do about the news that had me so undone? Only what I had under my control. I turned it off. Covid-19 and all it’s spikiness would still be there. The facts and figures would still scroll if I turned away to take care of myself. Take a walk. Listen to music.

If we push pause, literally and figuratively, we have choice and freedom restored in an instant. The single act of disconnecting – from whatever it is that might be toxic to our systems—is powerful. It is the tipping point, the pivot between an exhale and inhale. It is the bounteous opportunity held in every moment… that we tend to forget, or forget that we have available within reach. Always.

Once we pause, putting on hold the fast-moving trains of commerce and thought, we hold infinite possibilities.

Currently, we have an external situation that is forcing pause and retreat. And what exactly is retreat? What does it look like in our lives? What is it we are retreating from? And what are we retreating to?

Given the current covid-19 pandemic crisis, we have an externally imposed pause and in many cases order to “retreat.”

In this retreat time, I have read wonderful articles and blogs suggesting making “quarantine goals,” that are goals comprised of the things we tend to push down the road for a rainy day activity. The goals we never end up doing because we tend to live under the tyranny of the urgent. Goals like reading a book, writing a letter, cleaning a closet, and making bread.

From a business perspective, we can examine what to do in response to the current situation. How can we adapt so we are still relevant? How can we adjust in the short and the long term to become more nimble? Fluidity, uncertainty, and constant change will become more and more the way of the future.

Other personal recommendations include connecting with friends and family through the many platforms available these days –from a phone call to a Zoom virtual cocktail party, yoga, or cooking class.

Most importantly this retreat time might be invaluable for us to realign with our deeper purpose. Time to identify our unique gifts.

Are you good at making people laugh? Are you handy? Able to buy a neighbor a meal from a restaurant offering take-out so that it’s a win-win-in many directions?

What I have shared with my family is that we might look to do one thing each day that is a gesture of care and kindness for oneself, one’s family (however we define that and consider to be our “family”) and the greater community.

In this way, people can identify their value as a human, not as a dollar sign or a job title. It brings us back to our true selves, not a chosen identity. Our cores—made of light and love.

When we bring ourselves back to our essentials selves, isn’t it easier to recognize that we are all one? That we all have value? That we all have gifts and innate beauty? And from this nakedness, we see our strength, our resilience, and can combine to be extraordinary and oh so luminous.

Along with being a credentialed leadership and life coach for over 12 years, I recently went through training as a yoga teacher. This physical, mental, and spiritual practice has brought me a renewed sense of peace and connection. From it, one of the many gifts I received and carry with me is the use (in language and in action) of the word, Namaste, which basically means, the beauty and the light in me, honors and sees the beauty and the light in you. It is about the interconnectedness of us all.

Can you imagine the impact of this scenario on a larger scale? What if we paused our newsfeeds, retreated in a moment of breath and peace, and came to look away from our screens and instead to the light in ourselves and others?

I see it happening. Yesterday, a woman who lives down the road delivered daffodils to each neighbor as a little surprise of spring. A friend’s son wore a Santa hat for three days straight. The local general store partnered with the bookstore to deliver goods and books. A viral video of a little girl advising people in Spanish about the corona virus, who’s parting words were, “Listen to me and repeat after me, ‘Todo va estar bien. Todo va estar bien (Everything will be okay, everything will be okay).’”

And it will be.

Especially, if we look … with care.

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