Sensations of Overwhelm
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
— Mark Twain
One of my favorite things about going on vacation is the anticipation of it. Right now, our family is just weeks away from heading back to our most cherished summer get-away in Martha’s Vineyard. I have already spent countless hours lost in imagination, daydreaming of hot apple fritters at Back Door Donuts, sunsets at Menemsha Beach, and lazy strolls down Circuit Avenue with Mocha Motts coffee in my hand.
It is such a gift to be able to fully experience these kinds of imagined scenarios as if they were really happening. Somehow, it seems to prolong the joy of the actual vacation.
But what if my imagination is out of focus and, instead, the imagined scenario is scary or overwhelming? No one wants to experience those things as if they’re really happening.
And yet, we do.
We feel those out-of-focus imagined scenarios as physical sensations in our body. We’ve been taught to call them things like “stress-induced” tension, tightness, stomach aches, or even pain.
But what if those things are actually part of the kindness of our design?
For a very long season, my imagination ran wild with stories of overwhelm. The stories involved urgent, high-stakes scenarios that looked very real and true. My mind would say things like, “I’ve GOT to get this done. There is so much riding on this. Oh, God! Who am I kidding? There are not enough hours in the day. I’m not sure I can handle it.”
In the midst of my mind’s stories, I would notice an uncomfortable tightness growing throughout my chest and neck, often accompanied by elevated blood pressure and a racing heart. Since I hated those symptoms, I added them to my list of things to work on and figure out.
It was explained to me that the stories of overwhelm and the intense physical sensations were signs that I had too much on my plate, and that I needed to do a better job setting boundaries and saying no. OR, that I needed to do a better job managing those damn imagined stories in the first place!
But, something seemed very off about that explanation.
I was curious about the fact that all imaginations are prone to dramatic, intense stories, AND there are millions of people who accomplish far more than I do without any sign of stress or overwhelm. Something didn’t add up. What was different for them?
I set out to learn more about these people who are able to achieve great things while living with great ease. As it turns out, they have a few things in common.
First, they don’t waste energy trying to figure out or manage the imaginary stories that involve scary or overwhelming themes. Even the shitty stories are just noticed. There is no attempt to modify or rationalize them. There is a simple understanding that all stories are safe, transient, and inherently neutral. These amazing groups of relaxed, productive people don’t TRY to leave their stories alone — they just know it makes no sense to get involved.
Second, they aren’t obsessed with themselves or how they’re doing, feeling, or measuring up. They don’t view the world through a distorted me-centered lens. They know that they are part of something much larger than themselves. They are inextricably linked with an intangible, universal intelligence beyond what they can see, hear, or touch. As such, they know that they are held, carried, and guided.
Third, they see that, at various points throughout life, every human will experience the things we call joy, grief, excitement, devastation, hope, failure, triumph, and humiliation. Since this is a given, they don’t waste a single ounce of energy trying to hold any experience at bay.
After all, all experience is simply Life arising in the moment. The people who live with the greatest ease seem to meet each experience as it unfolds, knowing that they are part of the unfolding. Experience is not separate from them or happening to them. It simply is. And it needs no management or figuring out.
Finally, the people who live with the greatest sense of ease seem to know that the mind’s ideas about what should and shouldn’t be happening are incredibly biased and limited. So they don’t hang their hat on outcomes. They do the very best they can in any situation, of course. But, then they release the outcomes to that same intangible yet trustworthy universal intelligence that is beyond their intellect’s grasp.
Identifying with out-of-focus stories such as, “I can’t handle it,” “It’s too much,” or “It’s all on me” is SUPPOSED to feel awful. (Read that again)
If it didn’t, what incentive would there be to wake up to the lies being believed?
Imagine if it felt GREAT to believe, “I can’t cope” or “It’s all on me to get this right.” You’d be compelled to stay stuck in that distorted reality indefinitely.
Life is so much wiser and kinder than to allow you to identify with the scary, overwhelming stories in your imagination. It will always do its best to wake you up. It will arise as something you call a racing heart, a knot in your stomach, a pain in the base of your throat, a tension in your head and neck, or a myriad of other brilliant, perfectly-tailored sensations.
As bodily sensations are seen for the gifts they are, there will no longer be a need to fight them, manage them, or figure them out.
You are free from those chains.
In the absence of managing and controlling, ease is revealed. It was there all along, just waiting for old, worn-out beliefs and concepts to fall away.
From a place of ease, Life can look like absolutely anything. It can look like pulling all-nighters to seal a deal at work, or it can look like quitting work altogether to spend more time in the garden. It can look like hiring a personal assistant to give you more time to relax, or it can look like going back to school while keeping a full-time job and running the PTA.
Ease gets to look like anything because it’s who-we-are when we’re not identified with out-of-focus stories playing in our imagination.
Imagination is a gift. We get to relish it, swim around in it, and savor it.
And when it falls out-of-focus (which it will), the intelligence of those brilliant sensations and symptoms will wake us up and walk us back home to ease.
Ease is our natural design.