From Coping to Transforming

In Dancing the Tightrope, I tell the story of “finding the middle”, a maddening exercise devised by Natural Humanship trainer Bruce Anderson. At one point in the experience, he asked me to move away from the spot that I had declared the middle, while being consciously aware of the uncomfortable feeling of doing so. He wasn’t really teaching me to find the middle. He was teaching me to trust my own Tools through accessing my internal guidance system, rather than the Rules that had been handed to me through schooling and social conditioning. Even though it was mere inches to the right or left, the discomfort whispered to me “You’re going die!” His exercise asked me to break a Rule of mine that was set in stone: avoid discomfort at all costs. In other words, one of my favorite coping strategies is to avoid doing things that make me uncomfortable.

But wait, did I really think I would die if I moved from the right or left to intentionally push up my negative pole? (Negative/Positive Pole is a term I learned from Bruce and describe in detail in the book; for more info, hit reply to this email and I will send you the definition and how to use it.) My logical mind knew I would not die; however, when the pressure is high, it’s quite difficult to access a relaxed state of mind. It can be impossible to tell the difference between impending death and survivable discomfort.

As any reader of this newsletter already knows, once my desire to “get back on the horse” (i.e. get over my fear) had happened, I was completely hooked. Horses are so much more than the four feet they lend us to move through the world. They offer infinite dimensions of pressure, which is the very thing we need in order to break away from old patterns.

In my riding lesson this week, I caught myself coping again. When I started the lessons, I specifically asked to learn to ride at the canter, which is faster than a trot and slower than a full-on gallop. For the last few weeks, we’ve been working on helping me improve my balance on the back of a moving animal. Good riders make this look effortless; to do it well, it requires giving up control to the horse. For me, this is highly uncomfortable. During the lesson this week, the teacher said that she would manage the speed of the horse from the ground so that all I had to worry about was balancing myself. While there was a part of me that felt like a kid on a pony ride, I reminded myself that the highest-level riders do the same exercise.

Before we cantered, she had me practice refining my balance as the horse walked and trotted by windmilling my arms, moving them forward and backward and by twisting myself in the saddle, all while keeping my legs steady. Again, I was reminded that balance is a dynamic state, with constant moments of recovery from imbalance to balance, over and over again. In fact, the corrections are the most important part of all. When it came time to move into the canter, she caught my coping strategy immediately. My right hand automatically grabbed the saddle horn. It was a form of comfort, as if I could prevent myself from dying by hanging on for dear life. Ironically, the very thing I was doing to save myself was actually making it worse. She called my attention to it and suggested that the next time, I hold my arms out to the side as the horse transitioned into the gait.

Easier said than done.

The next time, my hand moved to the saddle horn as if from its own volition. Believe me, my brain was telling it to stay put. However, my hand had other ideas. “I’m going to save us!” it seemed to say as it flew to the saddle horn, taking me out of balance. After a few tries, the instructor stopped and looked at me. She said “Lynn, you have a really good seat. Trust it! You can do this.”

That tiny boost of confidence did the trick. The next time we transitioned, the horse and I flew together. My arms stayed out to the side as my lower body moved as one with the horse. My right arm did its job by helping me rebalance moment to moment. The whole thing was gloriously uncomfortable and joyously fun at the same time. A tiny transformation was complete.

The problem with coping is that the very thing we are using to protect ourselves from the horrors of the problem we are coping with is the thing that is taking us away from the real Tools that help solve the problem, instead of simply manage the problem. There may very well be a place for coping, but we don’t have to stay stuck there if we are willing to make the distinction between impending death and survivable discomfort.

My instructor helped me find my true Tools of balance, rather than the crutch that I had always used. When I relied on my internal guidance system to feel for balance, the heat of the pressure burned off the old ways of protecting myself, at least at this level of pressure.

To transform means to change in composition or structure. (Merriam-Webster). Our structure of Rules keeps us within the same form. By reaching for our Tools, we go past the structure of the past to a new answer. The discomfort is the same. The results are very different.

Here are some examples of Rules that I have encountered this week:

  • Money is the best measure of success.
  • In any change, there will be winners and losers.
  • If I speak truth the power, I might get fired.
  • I can’t stand to disappoint people.
  • If I keep myself busy, I won’t have to feel so lonely.

Each of these Rules has a coping strategy to go with it. For example, if money is the best measure of success, my coping strategy might be to focus only on money issues when making decisions. In the case of dealing with winners and losers, I might become overly competitive with my own team members for fear of losing out. If I fear getting fired for telling the truth, I might habitually keep important information from getting to the right decision makers in the company. If I fear disappointing people, I might say yes so much that I end up on the bottom of every priority list.

When we allow our Rules to run us, they are like my right hand automatically gripping for safety while riding. They give us the illusion of helping while keeping us from finding the true balance point.

I’m not saying coping is bad. Coping is a necessary life skill. However, when coping becomes the problem more than its solving, it’s time to get on the balcony and take another look.

What are your favorite coping strategies? In what ways have they outlived their original purpose? Where do you have pain points in your life that might be coming from a Rule that doesn’t serve you? In what ways can you begin listening to your true guidance to transform the situation?

Share in the comments on the blog.