A mindful program for lasting change
Serenity, courage & wisdom
I strive for the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
There is a written transcript immediately below the audio player.
Transcript (edited for clarity):
This wording is an adaptation of what is known as the Serenity Prayer. A theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, initially wrote it. So it was very much intended as a prayer. However, thinking about it as a prayer distracts you from the way that it works.
If you just think of it as a prayer, you believe that these qualities of serenity, courage, and wisdom are going to be given to you by God. To push the logic to its extreme, you have to do nothing at all about it, but simply pray for it, and one day you will be changed. It will happen to you.
Now, that is not at all the spirit in which Reinhold Niebuhr wrote this. And it’s not the spirit in which even the traditional Twelve Steps think of it. Keep in mind that most of the steps are bout ways to change attitude and behavior. The “prayer” part emphasizes to religious people how important it is: so important that they’re asking God’s help. If you don’t believe in God, then you have to find a way to do it for yourself. And people who believe in God also believe in making an effort to help God help them. So the difference is not as big as it might seem at first.
So let’s sidestep the notion of prayer and go into why these qualities are essential, and how they are at the heart of what the Twelve-step process is. It’s right there from the very beginning. Remember that Step One of the Proactive 12 Steps is that “there is a big difference between who I want to be and what I do. I am stuck in what I do.” So from the first step on, you are confronting the issue of what it is that you can change and what it is that you cannot change.
At the very beginning, in Step One, you are at least dimly aware that there is some difficulty in changing at all. Then you engage in this process to find out what it is that you can change, and what it is that you cannot change.
So what about serenity? Well, as you have discovered through this process, the change does not happen by forcing yourself to be somebody you’re not. And it certainly does not occur by blaming yourself for the things you’re not doing. Progress comes from deciding to understand what it is that is happening. So you’re not forcing change from the very beginning. You have a sense of acceptance of what is.
“Acceptance of what is” is another way of stating: “accepting what you cannot change.” Accepting means finding some degree of serenity with it. If you cannot change it, you’re not going to keep banging your head against a wall. You’re going to simply notice that this cannot be changed and figure out what it is that can be changed.
Finding serenity and acceptance does not mean that you are abandoning any hope of change. You are merely figuring out where you have a grip, some possibility of changing, and where you don’t. You are orienting your efforts where there is a possibility.
Now, what about courage? Through this process, you have been figuring out that courage does not mean pushing yourself to do silly things. Courage does not mean jumping out of a tenth-floor window because you dare yourself to do that. If it doesn’t work, if it’s going to doom, it’s not courage. It may be lore like stupidity.
What you have been figuring out is that courage lies in confronting your vulnerabilities, accepting them, and staying with them. Doing this is very different from bluster. It is much softer, but also much more intense, much more difficult. You’re not avoiding feeling the difficulty, but you’re learning to stay with it.
Step 12 of the Proactive Twelve Steps
My life reflects a growing sense of respect and compassion for myself and others.
The following audio is a commentary on Step Twelve for the 5th edition of the Proactive 12 Steps. See written transcript immediately below the audio player.
Transcript (edited for clarity):
What does it mean to have compassion for yourself? Essentially, this is what you’ve been doing throughout these steps, instead of harshly judging yourself.
Instead of forcing yourself to do something against the sense of fear or hurt that you experience, you have been trying to understand what it is that made you do what you did. This has helped you realize the difference between understanding and condoning.
Understanding does not mean condoning
As you have seen through this process, understanding does not mean justifying, rationalizing something that is not something you want to happen. It’s not giving up. Knowing yourself gives you a better way to change than forcing change without understanding. So that is the exact opposite of condoning. We are talking here about finding a way to make changes that work, that last, that are sustainable. That is changes that you are happy with, as opposed to changes that you force on yourself through some abstract idea of what you should be doing.
Throughout this process, you have learned to be aware, to respect, and to understand different parts of yourself that may conflict. You started Step One with a sense of noticing the difference between who you think you are (or who you want to be) and what you do. You have been finding ways to get unstuck based on a better understanding of the forces in conflict.
As you stay with this process, you realize that it is not just you; it is human nature. So that adventure, that journey you had in understanding yourself better, is not just about understanding the specifics of the situation. It is also about understanding the way it affects all of us human beings. You now see your experiences as part of the human condition. Your struggle is simply the form that it takes for you. Every human being experiences some form of suffering or another.
Kinship with others
Through your experience of suffering, you may be drawn especially to those people whose kind of struggle is closest to yours. For instance, it makes sense for alcoholics to gather together, as it fosters a sense of kinship. They feel they understand each other better because they’ve been going through some very similar challenges, and this unites them. The same thing goes for other Twelve Steps programs for various forms of addiction.
The Proactive 12 Steps are not just for people who are dealing with addiction. They are for all human beings who are dealing with the pressures and fears and difficulties of the human condition. And so, at first, get close to people who are more like you. Progressively, you also get to understand that the kind of suffering you have does not set you apart from the rest of humanity. It is the specific way in which you are experiencing the human condition. And so your heart opens up to better understanding other people in the world, as you feel a kinship with them.
Feeling a kinship with others does not necessarily mean that you understand the specifics of what happens to them. On the contrary, it might be dangerous to think that you fully understand anybody. If you felt that way, you might get more closed, as opposed to wanting to hear about their experiences because you’d feel like you already know. So we are not talking about having a sense that you get it, that you know how everybody functions.
Through your suffering, you come to appreciate the value of becoming closer to people by being compassionate with their plight. And you become more aware of the possibility of finding some common ground if you dig deep enough.
A deeper understanding
Step 11 of the Proactive Twelve Steps
I keep facing reality mindfully, moment by moment, with a mindful pause.
The following audio is a commentary on Step Eleven for the 5th edition of the Proactive 12 Steps. See written transcript immediately below the audio player.
Transcript (edited for clarity):
Step Eleven is a way to expand into the experience gained throughout the whole process. Here, you are building upon the lesson of Step Ten. This time, you are not just paying attention to the causes and effects of your actions. You are being mindful in all aspects of your life.
What you have gained throughout this process is not just a better understanding of yourself and the ability to change behaviors, however important that is. Over time, you have started to learn new habits, new ways of living. The new ways of living are not just behaviors. They have to do with the attitude you have toward living life, moment by moment, mindfully experiencing life.
The change is not just in how you act. It is in how you approach life. Mindfulness is not a means to an end, however practical and useful it is to accomplish your goals. Being mindful is an end in itself.
Now, of course, the goal of being mindful all the time could be incredibly overwhelming. Besides, it is unrealistic. We’re not talking about some perfectionistic notion. What we’re talking about is a practical sense of mindfulness. It involves the practice of pausing, moment by moment. We talked about this way back when in Step Three: “To find myself moment by moment, I take a mindful pause. ”
Now we are circling back to that. We are going back and saying: “OK, you have paid a lot of attention to all kinds of things about your life. You have made changes, but let’s go back and pay attention to that skill that you have developed during that time.”
Taking a mindful pause
You may not have consciously developed the practice of taking a mindful pause. However, you have been practicing it just by doing what you did. You have been paying attention to your behaviors. And you have been noticing what it feels like when you are avoiding what feels painful or challenging.
By paying attention to what it’s like to change a behavior, you have developed your ability to pay attention to your inner sense of self. So, don’t worry, as you approach Step Eleven, even if you feel: “Oh no, I never practiced the pause very much, if at all.” You likely did. You would not be here if you hadn’t. So this step is first an invitation to notice the many ways in which this kind of mindful pause has become more ingrained in you.
Mindfulness is not just something that happens when you stay cross-legged, you recite a mantra, or count your breath. There are many mindfulness meditation techniques. But mindfulness is not limited to these techniques. There are different ways to be mindful. It helps if you remember that mindfulness essentially means being more able to pay attention to what you’re doing and to be present with it. For instance, thoughtfulness is very much part of mindfulness.
With a mindful pause, you give yourself a chance to notice the default mode. You see what you do without thinking. You give yourself a chance to notice that there might be alternatives. It does necessarily mean that the other options are better. You may not even have to act differently. It’s just that you are giving yourself a chance to notice. It’s a way of slowing down. It’s a way of feeling that you have more options. In doing that, there is a calming effect. There is a grounding effect. There is a sense of opening and expansion that happens. Don’t you want more of this in your life?
Under pressure and fear, there is a sense of having no options. Being under pressure feels like you are caught in a vise, and the walls are squeezing you.
Step 10 of the Proactive Twelve Steps
I keep paying attention to the causes and effects of my actions, and act accordingly.
The following audio is a commentary on Step Ten for the 5th edition of the Proactive 12 Steps. See written transcript immediately below the audio player.
Transcript (edited for clarity):
After going through steps Four through Nine, you could legitimately feel that you have turned a page. You could think that all that’s left now is to live happily ever after. Indeed, you are much more aware of what it is that makes you do what you do. You have identified patterns, you have understood what is behind them, and you have deeply understood how to change these patterns and applied these changes in real life. It is possible that, when you hear about Step Ten and about continuing to pay attention to the causes and effects of your actions, you feel that it’s a bit restrictive. But the idea here is not that you are naturally evil, and if you stop paying attention, you will misbehave.
Admittedly, this is the connotation that the original wording of Step Ten has in the traditional 12 Steps. The original text talks about being “wrong” and “admitting it.” The Twelve Steps of AA reflect a moral context in which there is a clear sense of right and wrong. You are hurting other people. There’s a genuine danger to this approach. It presumes that human nature is inherently evil.
Living in fear of yourself
If you feel that way about yourself, chances are you live in fear of your nature. You feel cramped because, at any time, you might do something terrible, hurtful to other people, unless you are always vigilant. Not only is it unpleasant to live with that sense of having to be constantly vigilant, but it’s also counterproductive. It adds to the pressure you are already feeling. You probably don’t need more of it in your life. Adding pressure keeps you into a hopeless loop, a vicious cycle: You keep pushing, pushing, pushing to improve, to be the best that you can be. As you keep pushing, you are cracking under too much pressure. This cycle feeds itself.
What we are talking about in the Proactive 12 Steps is something very different. Instead of fostering a sense of distrust in your abilities, you acknowledge your accomplishments and build on them. You see how going through steps 4 through 9 has been helping you understand yourself more. You see that this has been helping adapt what you’re doing to be the kind of person you want to be.
There is a sense of pleasure and liberation in being more aware of who you are and to change what you notice happening as it happens. There is a lot of satisfaction in being able to do this moment by moment in your life. When you feel this way, the process of Step Ten is very pleasurable. It is the opposite of feeling a rigid control, living in constant fear that you’re going to be doing something terrible. Instead, it is a process of enjoying being conscious of your life and appreciating it moment by moment. You are enjoying the mastery of being able to be who you want to be moment by moment.
Mindfulness as liberation
Ultimately, being mindful does not mean adding to your burdens. It is satisfying, as opposed to something that is imposed on you to cramp your style.
To use a practical example, let’s say that you intend to be mindful when you eat. You would like to notice and enjoy your food. If you turn this into an internal critic that is always criticizing the way you eat, you turn this into a nightmarish experience.
It’s much better to see it as an opportunity. You say to yourself: “I might be more conscious of how I eat and of how I enjoy my food.” When you notice that you’re eating without any sense of satisfaction, you don’t criticize yourself and put pressure on yourself; you don’t force yourself to find joy.
Step 9 of the Proactive Twelve Steps
I apply these new mindful behaviors in my everyday life.
The following audio is a commentary on Step Nine for the 5th edition of the Proactive 12 Steps. See written transcript immediately below the audio player.
Transcript (edited for clarity):
So far, we have been emphasizing a sense of going slowly, step-by-step, to better deal with what is blocking you from doing what you want to do. But eventually, there comes the point where the rubber meets the road. You put into practice what you have been preparing for.
The key here is to stay mindful
It’s not an either-or proposition. It’s not either you change your behavior, or you are mindful. It’s both. If you only focus on your conduct, it may happen in a blur, as you are forcing yourself to do what you believe you should be doing. You will likely be tense, not quite emotionally present as you’re doing it. This kind of change is not going to be lasting, and it’s not going to be satisfying. You’re adding stress and pressure to your life. In some way or another, it’s going contribute to your level of general and happiness, and lead you to act out. So it’s no good.
Applying things in real life does not mean forcing yourself to look from the outside as if you’re doing it. It means being present, mindful, grounded in doing it.
Recalibrating your expectations
Since we’re talking about changes that have to do with coping mechanisms, these changes are going to be difficult. The changes are not going to be smooth, and you’re not going to feel comfortable about that.
So if you expect that it should be smooth, you’re going to be disappointed. I want to recalibrate your expectations so that you’re realistic. You’re going to be noticing all kinds of turbulence inside. And that is good.
Conversely, if you expect that it all flows naturally and effortlessly, you’re going to be disappointed. You might disconnect from your feelings to not notice how stressful it is when you try to apply these new behaviors in real life.
I want to emphasize that the behaviors we are talking about are coping mechanisms because situations that trigger them are very stressful for you. As a result, you bypass the difficulty and go to a default mode. The bypass is related to the intensity of the stress that’s generated by the situation.
It hardly matters how much you have rehearsed alternative behaviors. When it comes time to implement them in real life, you’re back into the stress of the situation. And so it would be astonishing if it went smoothly. I would like you to be ready for that.
Remember that it’s going to be emotionally challenging to make these changes. You’re going to have a hard time trying to be emotionally present and mindful as you try to behave differently. So you need to engage your curiosity toward noticing how not present you are, how stressed you are, how difficult it feels. The turmoil is not strange. It is the lack of discomfort that would be strange.
A practical example
To make it a little more practical, let’s go back to the example that we used in Step 8. We were talking about somebody who has difficulty saying “no,” not just to new projects, but even saying “no” to people coming in and interrupting to talk about something. And so let’s say you’re that person.
In Step 8, you identified some ways to behave differently. For instance, say Tom comes into your office, asks if you have a minute, and you say: “Oh, sorry, Tom, I can’t do it right now, but what about this afternoon at 3?”
When you hear me say that, it feels OK. There’s no stress or pressure in my voice. But when Tom comes into your office, this is not the case. You are feeling jittery, feeling nervous,
Step 8 of the Proactive Twelve Steps
I explore alternative behaviors and rehearse them in safe settings.
The following audio is a commentary on Step Eight for the 5th edition of the Proactive 12 Steps. See written transcript immediately below the audio player.
Transcript (edited for clarity):
So here we are very much in the thick of the step-by-step approach to changing questionable behavior patterns. By now, you have much more understanding of why it’s not a “Just Do It” attitude. We’re talking about patterns of behavior that have risen to cope with something overwhelming.
“Overwhelming” means it’s happening at a gut level. To make changes that are effective and sustainable, you have to go slowly. Not slowly for the sake of going slowly, but to be able to address the problem that caused the avoidance and coping behavior. So in this step, you are not yet about making any changes in real life. You are exploring and practicing possible changes in the privacy of your mind. That is, not with the intensity that is involved in interacting with others.
Baby steps are not just for babies
You might think that this is too much of a baby step. Well, it helps if you put it in perspective. Just look, for instance, at boxers. Practice in boxing is not limited to fighting. It involves using a punching ball. You also practice improving your form.
In martial arts, judo, karate, Aiki-Do, people spend a lot of time learning the movements slowly and deliberately. They practice the form in addition to doing practice fights. And all of this practice is not just for beginners. Even extremely advanced martial artists do that.
There is something similar in golf. Training does not just involve playing golf. You also practice the movement, the swing, and visualize how to do it. These should be mindful movements. To learn them better, it helps to practice them without the stress of the actual game, the pressure of performance.
A practical example
So let’s take a simple example. Let’s say that the behavior pattern you want to change is what happens when you’re at work, and people ask you to do something. Part of it is, they are asking you to do something, and how you manage that. Another part of it is the interruption.
When you think about it, you notice is that you tend to either be too accommodating and say yes, or you are irritable or negative or angry when people ask. You let people interrupt whatever you’re doing, you accept to take on more, and you end up feeling overwhelmed. You take on more than you can handle, even if that is listening to somebody else’s problems when you don’t have time for that. Being too accommodating, or being negative and angry, doesn’t work well for you (and others).
You’ve already paid attention to what emotional logic was involved in that. You’ve already got a sense of the level of pressure and fear that it brings up for you. So you understand why your automatic answers are what they are. And now you’re brainstorming some ways in which you can respond to people differently. To do that, you look back at past situations. What happened today? Last week? What other moments do you remember? In Step 8, you look at them, not in terms of understanding why, but in terms of seeing how you could have done something differently.
Do you have a minute?
And so you remember an interaction with, say, Tom last week. He popped into your office, or your cubicle, and said: “Do you have a minute?” Reflexively, you said yes. But you did not have a minute. You were in the middle of something essential to you. And when you were listening to Tom explain whatever he wanted to tell you, you were in a state of inner frenzy, all tied up in knots because you were not able to hear him. You were still thinking about what you needed to do.