Life is full of stresses, and each of us has habitual ways of reacting to those stresses: we procrastinate, run to comforts, lash out or distance ourselves from others, try to exit from a stressful place, mentally complain about others, and so on.
The sad effect of these habitual reactions is that they move us further away from others, and from the direct experience of the moment.
Let’s take a quick example: If you are hurt by the way someone is acting, your habitual reaction might be to complain about them, take offense, get angry, or all of these together. Then you may shut them out and close your heart to them.
The effect of this is that you’ve now distanced yourself from the other person. This is the cause of most of our relationship problems, work issues, racism, political strife, and wars.
Closing ourselves to others as a habitual reaction to stress is a cause of aggression, violence, and pain.
We do the same thing when it comes to our direct experience of the moment. If we’re bored, unhappy with our situation, unhappy with ourselves, stressed or tired, we try to find comfort in food, drink, drugs, online distractions, TV or videos, shopping, porn, drowning everything out with music, and so on. We move away from the present moment, and shut out the world around us.
Moving away from the direct experience of this moment, out of a habitual reaction, is often at the core of our unhappiness and disconnection from life.
These are all based on the same problem—we have habitual reactions to stress that move us further from other people, from life itself, and from ourselves.
Today, I’d like to offer you a practice that I’ve been exploring myself: the beautiful practice of moving closer.
It is scary, shaky, and transformative.
It goes like this:
- Notice you’re feeling some kind of stress—anxiety, pain, struggle, frustration, overwhelm, sadness.
- Notice your habitual reaction to that stress. You procrastinate, try to exit, shut someone out, complain, run to one of your comforts, lash out, yell, hit, medicate, etc.
- Refrain from indulging in your habitual reaction. Instead, just remain still. Instead of complaining, do nothing. Instead of spinning a narrative about the other person and shutting them out, do nothing. Just refrain.
- Breathe deeply into the sensations in your body. When you refrain from your habitual reaction, you are left with energy in your body that still really wants to do the habitual thing. It will be a strong urge. Just sit still, do nothing, breathe deeply, and relax around the energy in your body. Notice how it feels in your torso. Be curious about it. Stay with it. Welcome it. Give it compassion.
- Now, move closer. Someone else stressing you out? After refraining from complaining about them, move closer to them. Open your heart and be fully present with them. Yes, sometimes you have to physically protect yourself—but that doesn’t mean you have to shut down your heart. You can love the person who has hurt you without letting them continue to hurt you. Maybe it’s a situation (or yourself) that’s stressing you out. You are filled with discomfort and uncertainty. You refrain from your habitual reaction, and instead move closer to the direct experience of this moment. You open your heart to the world and love it as it is. You love yourself as you are.
Continue to move closer. Continue to reopen your heart. From this place—not from the place of habitual reaction—see what action you need to take.
It’s an incredibly beautiful practice. And yes, it’s filled with shakiness. That makes it even more courageous.
Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net