As far as years go 2003 was my family’s annus horribilis. After struggling with her health for some years, one of my best friends quite unexpectedly died in her sleep. Shortly afterward George Bush ‘shocked and awed’ the world by invading Iraq – again. A few months later my mother died after a very short bout with cancer. Around the same time as Mum left us, the business my husband and I run went into general administration.
Yes indeed. 2003 officially sucked. If you’ve ever been caught in a surf rip you’ll understand the feeling. Your first instinct when you realise you’re in a rip is to struggle and swim hard against the undertow. But the more you struggle the more you feel yourself being propelled further and further out to sea. When this happens on a Sydney beach you’re moving so fast towards the open sea you’d swear the tip of New Zealand’s north island will come into view before you’re rescued or you drown, whichever comes first. A very scary feeling made all the more scary when the surf lifesaver who comes to your rescue points out that struggling against the rip is the primary reason people die. The struggle exhausts you and in the panic, you take on water.
Rips are weird though. A dear friend of mine has been the Big Wahine of the Avalon Surf Club in Sydney’s Northern Beaches for some years. She told me that a rip will only propel you as far as the surf break then it peters out. If you can stave off the panic, stop struggling and go with the flow, you’ll eventually come to a stop. You might be in really deep water but at least you’re not completely exhausted and hurtling towards New Zealand at a rate of knots. Then you have a few options for survival – treading water until help comes, start swimming back to shore or maybe catch a wave in. You might even meet up with a friendly surfer who’ll paddle you in on their board. All of these choices will seem like a snack after you’ve done the hard ‘letting go’ part.
Struggling, fighting, striving and working harder than needed to overcome obstacles is a natural state for most of us. Like it’s the way life (and surf swimming) is supposed to be. I wish I’d known about the surf rip survival strategy and the Law of Least Effort (Law 4 in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success) back in 2003. That whole year was a struggle to (1) overcome crushing grief at the loss of loved ones, (2) not cry or throw a punch at the bean-counter administrator when he told us (and a room full of creditors) that we were ‘clearly incapable of running a profitable business’, (3) keep calm and not spook the staff or the children.
After many months of struggle the punches kept on coming. Wine became one of the five major food groups for the adults in our family. Quite a few valued staff members headed for the exits. We lost more than one paying client. American Express issued several letters of demand. Full on panic set in. Like flies trapped in a bottle we buzzed around in a terror-fuelled adrenaline rush trying anything we could think of to reverse our fortunes, sometimes several things at once. We even found a buyer for our business who, sensing our desperation, attempted to winkle our clients away from us so the entity they had agreed to buy would be worthless when the time came to pay up. Charming.
This was the final straw. Already heart-broken and reeling from the knocks, we finally came to the conclusion that while the fight to get our lives back on track needed to continue, the struggling and panic simply had to stop. It was too exhausting, too soul-destroying. I clearly remember the moment I made the choice to surrender the struggle but by that time I was so beaten up it was more a survival instinct than a conscious decision.
Nevertheless, almost instantaneously, things got better. Sure the problems were still there and they still needed concerted attention, but there was more clarity and peace somehow. Books I needed to read started throwing themselves into my path. I was reminded of rituals I’d long since given up, like asking for help and expressing gratitude, and when reinstated in my routine they brought release and hope. Once, when I was worrying about how we would make it through Christmas, a dividend cheque from a small investment left to me by my mother showed up in the post.
You could say this experience is one of the reasons the Seven Spiritual Laws are very real for me and why the Law of Least Effort is one of my favourites. I knew nothing of this law, the path of least resistance or even that rips only take you as far as the surf break when I was going through 2003. And yet I got to that place of surrender in the end, more by feel than by torchlight it’s true, but there nonetheless. Now as I read Chopra’s three tips on experiencing the Law of Least Effort they have special significance for me:
Acceptance – Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life experienced a physical and emotional nadir before she came up with the The Work, a series of four questions that when answered truthfully, help us to challenge the thoughts and worries that cause us suffering. Katie as she’s known, was literally pushed into a state of acceptance, of getting real and not ‘arguing with what is’.
I’ve found time and again that acceptance is the necessary first step toward making your way out of any situation. It’s like that old joke about two travellers lost on an Irish country road who stop at a farmhouse to ask for directions to Dublin. The farmer says to them, “Well, if you want be going there, I wouldn’t be starting from here.” When you’re in a tough situation you already know it’s not where you’d like to be. Still, it’s where you are and you can only start from there. Struggling against the reality that you’re lost won’t help you to chart a course out of there.
Chopra puts it very evocatively, asking us to “accept people, situations and events as they are, not as you wish them to be, in this moment. When you struggle against this moment, you struggle against the entire universe. You can intend for things to be different in the future, but in this moment, accept things as they are.” Being a perfectionist workaholic, whether in crisis situations or just the frenetic day to day, I’ve always found it a challenge to get present and actually arrive at a place where acceptance can happen. If you’re that way too check out these great Working with Mindfulness meditations from Mirabai Bush on the MoreThan Sound website. These are a great way to access some calm at work particularly when dealing with the disaster de jour.
Take responsibility for your situation – When Mum was sick my sisters and I would complain about how heartless her Oncologist was or that her GP should have been paying more attention. When our business was in crisis my husband and I wasted a lot of time and emotional energy having circular conversations about what went wrong, blaming ourselves for our situation, wishing we hadn’t made those mistakes, yada yada yada. A waste of time is the very best that can be said of these blame-games we indulge in when things don’t go our way. Chopra has a better idea, “Take responsibility for your situation without blaming anything or anyone, including yourself.” And then he caps this off with the essential reason why: “Every problem is an opportunity to take this moment and transform it into a greater benefit.” Trying not to blame anyone, even yourself, is jolly hard. Consciously choosing to look for opportunities arising from the problems at hand at least gives you something more constructive to think about.
Practice ‘defenselessness’ – Defending yourself and trying to convince others of your point of view, is truly exhausting and ultimately futile. It’s best to conserve your energy for the things that matter.
A couple of years after 2003 my older sister, a mad keen ocean swimmer, encouraged me into a rip to speed our progress out to the first buoy in an open sea race. The first leg of these races is typically the most tiring and harnessing the rip’s power really helped. What? Using a rip (or a life crisis) to one’s advantage instead of struggling against what is? I’d like to see that. Turns out, I actually did.
P.S. Seth Godin, author of Tribes and marketer extraordinaire recently posted a very timely blog on how risk, fear and worry seem to show up together but they are not the same. He talks about uncoupling those carriages, so to speak, so that you can open the door to your best creative work.