When something painful throws us for a loop, there isn't a pause button to hit. Often we are simultaneously picking up the pieces, healing from the physical and emotional pain, and hustling like crazy to take care of all of our daily responsibilities WHILE WE SUFFER.
The world does not stop and allow us to heal.
In these circumstances, we often only see 5 minutes in front of us, because to look any further ahead feels overwhelming. The depression, rage, or grief can feel all-consuming.
But it is vital--even in these circumstances-- that we find a way to step back from the overwhelming grind and take perspective.
If you do not know where you want to go, there is absolutely zero chance that you will get there.
Until you know what you want, you can’t take action to get it. That’s why, no matter how exhausted you are, it is vital that you make time to consider exactly what changes you want to make and how life will look on the other side.
If you want to overcome suffering, it is key that you define your desires.
I know how hard this first step is, so I'm sharing an audio of a guided visualization I like to do with my clients. This is a very relaxing way to start the process of envisioning what change might look like.
I recommend creating a ritual for yourself around this audio. Set up a comfortable place for yourself, perhaps drape yourself with a blanket and light a candle or some incense, and set up a journal and pen so that you can easily write about your experience afterward. Allow yourself about 10 to 15 minutes for this experience.
Once you’ve decided to define your desires, there are so many ways to begin.
Vision boards are popular, and they are a step in the right direction, but oftentimes a vision board is simply a collection of images and words without any plan mapped out for getting to the places they describe. When you are recovering from trauma or the pain of loss, simply looking at images of where you’d rather be can feel like a slap in the face if you don’t have a plan for getting there.
I'm going to share two processes I like to use with my clients to help them define their desires.
If the thought of engaging in either of these practices feels too overwhelming, take a moment to lie back and listen to the guided meditation above. That may be enough for today. Be gentle with yourself.
DEFINING DESIRES EXERCISE #1: Merlin process
I call this exercise the Merlin process because legend says that Merlin lived backward through time, which gave him the ability to apply the lessons of his future to his present moment. This exercise achieves a similar result.
After listening to the guided meditation above, take a few deep breaths and then begin to write. Write IN THE PRESENT TENSE about what your life is like now that you have moved through your suffering and are living the life that you want to live, surrounded by the people you want to spend time with, feeling the way you want to feel, doing the things that nourish and feed you.
Describe what your life looks and feels like---what happens when you wake up in the morning? How do you spend your time? What is your baseline emotion?
It is key that you write this in the present tense! This allows your brain to believe in the reality of these possibilities NOW rather than projecting them into an always-distant future.
For example: “This morning I wake up when the first rays of sun hit my face. I feel so grateful and well-rested. It feels so good to wake when my body wants to and not having to set an alarm. I hug my kids and make myself a cup of tea which I drink slowly outside, feeling the sun on my face. Then I have a few hours to write….” And so on.
Place this writing where you can see it and take a few moments each day to close your eyes and imagine yourself in the reality you described. This reminds your brain what your intentions are and helps you to prioritize the thoughts, emotions, and actions that will take you in the direction of your desires.
DEFINING DESIRES EXERCISE #2: Finding the Slogs
If the Merlin process does not come easily to you, or you find yourself muttering a bitter “yeah right” when you review your writing, this is the exercise to start with!
Break your average day into one-hour increments, starting when you wake and ending when you go to sleep. On each line, write the thing you hate most about that hour and what feeling is associated with it. For example:
TIME SLOG EMOTION
5 am I hate waking up this early. exhaustion
6 am I hate fighting with the kids to get up. resentment
7 am I hate leaving the house right when it is so peaceful. sadness
8 am I hate wading through the pile of work emails. overwhelm
And so on. Now take the emotions you’ve listed and, on another sheet of paper, write down their opposites. For example, my emotions listed above were:
Exhaustion, resentment, sadness, overwhelm
Finding the opposites to some of your emotions may be challenging. Take some time with it. Close your eyes, imagine the negative emotion flooding through your body, and notice what your body feels like when you experience that emotion. Then try to consciously feel the opposite. For example, when I imagine resentment I can feel my jaw clench and my stomach grip; so I try to consciously relax my jaw and breathe into my belly. Then I notice what emotion comes up. Sometimes getting into the body in this way can yield surprising insights.
So now I have my list of opposite emotions:
Vitality, gratitude, joy, spaciousness
Your opposites may be very different than mine, and that’s totally fine. We all experience emotions in slightly different ways.
Take your list of opposite emotions and think about places in your life where you experience them. For example, there is a moment in my day when I am walking home from work and I pass a mock orange tree that’s in bloom. The scent fills the air and suddenly I remember that I have finished work for the day and I am heading back to people I love. Instantly my heart fills with vitality, gratitude, joy, and spaciousness.
Find some point in your day when you feel at least one of your positive opposite emotions, and take a little while to examine it. What is it about that moment that gives you the positive feeling? What are the circumstances surrounding it? What scents, sights, textures, sounds, and tastes are involved?
Now use what you’ve learned to try to extend this moment of positive emotion. In the case of my example above, I might consider bringing a few branches of mock orange in a vase to my workplace and smelling them deeply throughout the day to remind myself of the moment that’s coming in the afternoon. Or I might take a walk on my lunch break and call up that feeling of freedom and motion that I feel when I am walking toward my home.
Any opportunity you get, let yourself experience and savor those positive emotions. That’s enough for now. When you’re ready, you can move on to the Merlin Process exercise.
We don’t have control over our life circumstances, but we do have control over our thoughts and actions.
When we choose to expand the experiences that feel good to us, we are already overcoming the forces that hold us in suffering.
Defining your desires has the same effect as when you hear someone mention an obscure artist and suddenly you see her paintings everywhere. Or when you need to buy a used car and suddenly you are noticing cars for sale on every corner.
This isn’t magic—it’s simply that you’ve gotten your brain onboard.
You’ve told your brain that this information it’s been filtering out is suddenly relevant, so it begins to notice for you. “Oh, cars are important now? Okay, check. Look, there’s a car for sale!” When we take the time to define carefully where we want to go, we use this to our advantage. We get our brains onboard.