On a recent walk across Central Park one morning, on my way to my office, I found myself in the midst of several dogs encountering one another along the way. On my left, going in the same direction as I, was a large gray dog – not quite as big as a Great Dane, but in that category – and on my right, coming toward me, was a medium-sized Spaniel of some sort. I noticed them, as I usually do, as I also enjoyed the open sky overhead, the other dogs playing along the way, the bare trees, and all the other captivating sights along the way.
Suddenly, the gray dog began to growl and lunged for the Spaniel, jumping in front of me to get to the other dog. I found myself saying “Whoa!” out loud, as I continued to walk. The four-legged encounter continued behind me with much growling and carrying on.
As a young child, I often was chased home from school by a local dog, so my body has memories of growling as not a good thing. I noticed a wave of adrenaline fill me when the large dog lunged across the front of me, and then I noticed that I wasn’t adding anything to the initial charge. My thoughts focused on how much I don’t understand about dog play –or dog encounters – and that all was well. Continuing to walk along, my body settled and returned to its usual relaxed state I tend to experience on these morning walks.
The experience reminded me of how powerful it is to be aware of our reactions to life’s events, and to notice whether we feed more fuel to upset or if we move into returning to the present moment and calming ourselves. Of course, sometimes we can’t calm right down, but we do have the opportunity not to add additional disturbing or distressing mental content to the experience through our thoughts.
For this week’s experiment, I invite you to notice your spontaneous responses to upset, and to notice if you feed those responses with continuing thoughts of distress. Many of us grew up with a habit of adding fuel to the fire of upsetting experiences, and it can become a powerful and transforming practice to learn to shift away from the upset into what’s happening now, in this moment, when our experience has moved on from the initial encounter. For example, if you have an unpleasant interaction with someone along the way, do you move on into the next present moment once the immediate experience is over, or do you find yourself chewing on it mentally, adding to your upset?
If you find yourself adding fuel to the fire, notice what happens if you choose to shift your awareness to what’s right in front of you now, or if you offer yourself soothing input, such as, “Wow – that was a challenge. I’m glad it’s behind me now.” Or, “What did I just learn from that experience?” Or whatever other response supports knowing that the experience is over and the next present moment has presented itself?
As with all the experiments, play with this one and be sure to have curiosity as your constant companion. The goal isn’t to catch yourself doing something wrong. Rather, it’s to offer an opportunity to become more skillful at moving on through unexpected moments of distress or discomfort into the qualities and opportunities of the next moment.