What Can You Do When Nothing Is Working?
Sometimes when inner practices fail you it helps to change the channel.
Posted Jun 12, 2017
What can you do when nothing is working?
Change the channel.
In response to my previous JOT—Find Stillness—a wise therapist, Betsy Sansby, reminded me that sometimes a person just can't find any stillness anywhere. Maybe you have epilepsy or chronic pain, or are wildly worried about a child or other loved one, or have been rejected in love or had the bottom fall out financially. In other words, as Betsy put it, like there's a nest of bees in your chest.
Sometimes the inner practices fail you—or at least aren't matched to the pickle you're in. You've let be, let go, and let in. You sat to meditate and it was like sitting on the stove. You tried to be here now and find the lessons—and wanted to whack the person who told you to do this. You still feel awful, overwhelmed, angry, afraid, inadequate, or depressed. Now what?
Sometimes it helps to change the channel, to take some kind of action. Watch TV, eat a cupcake, ask for a hug, get out of the house, something (not harmful) to shake things up, distract yourself, tune out, burn off steam, etc.
At some point you still have to engage the mind directly and do what you can with your situation. But there is certainly a place for respite or pleasure in its own right, plus these help refuel you for challenges.
Plus, changing channels has the built-in benefit of taking initiative on your own behalf. This helps counter the natural but harmful sense of helplessness that comes from tough times, and it supports the feeling that you and your needs truly matter.
For starters, give yourself permission to change the channel. Sometimes people get stuck in a situation, relationship, or feeling and think it's more noble, awake, open, mindful, accepting, or therapeutic to stay with it, even if it hurts like crazy and isn't getting any better. Sure, let's not err on the side of suppressing feelings or running from the first hint of discomfort. But let's also not err on the side of running laps around a track in hell.
Then do something. It doesn't need to be ambitious. Usually the simpler, the better.
Try physical pleasure—which helps calm down the stress machinery of your brain. Run water over your hands. Roll your head around your neck. Smell an orange. Look at a flower.
Treat your body well. Eat some protein. Take a nap. Go for a walk. Do vigorous exercise if you can. Remember your vitamins.
Broaden your perspective. Look out the window. Consider your situation from a bird's-eye view, a more impersonal angle. Consider how someone (real or imagined) who deeply loves you would look at it. Think about it amidst 7 billion other humans, or in the sweep of history. (Of course, not to diminish, dismiss, or shame your own pain.)
Entertain yourself. See a movie, listen to music, go watch a show. Look at Red Bull stunts, concert videos, amazing pong shots, or rock climbing on YouTube (alright, some of my faves) or whatever you like.
Set something in order; exercise control somewhere. When I feel depressed, I make my bed. Keep it simple: fold one pair of dish towels, separate the big forks from the little ones, straighten one shelf of books.
Connect with others (as long as you don't feel overwhelmed by it). Call a friend. Pet your pet. Sit in a coffee shop full of strangers and enjoy the bustle.
Go somewhere that feeds your heart. Maybe sit under a tree, or by a stream, lake, or sea. Perhaps a church or temple. Or a park with children playing, a museum, or a garden.
Every life is hard sometimes, and some lives are terribly hard all of the time. Do what you need to do. It's OK to change the channel.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books are available in 26 languages and include Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin and has numerous audio programs. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and other major universities, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, and NPR, and he offers the free Just One Thing newsletter with over 120,000 subscribers, plus the online Foundations of Well-Being program in positive neuroplasticity that anyone with financial need can do for free.