Op/Ed

Lessons in listening: Hold worry and attachment lightly

This season of late summer’s harvest settles my memory back to my childhood grandparents’ kitchen. My recollection is of the counters and formica table piled high with beets, beans, tomatoes and ball jars — all — sticky and stained with the juices of cuttings. The yearly stovetop canning ritual was in full force and savory aromas filled the hot and steamy air. Quite frankly, it was a beautiful, delicious, and colorful mess. I would be their runner — bringing jar after jar down the wooden cellar stairs and delighting in the small moments of cool repose in the dark root cellar.
My favorite part of the visits to my grandparents’ home was my Sicilian grandfather’s warm welcome when I opened the front door. As I was one of 11 grandchildren, he might not get my name right initially, but his enthusiasm was ever present nonetheless. My grandfather considered any visitor’s arrival as an opportunity to sit down and pour a short glass of red wine for himself. Graciously and with a mischievous chuckle, he always offered me one as well. He would then settle in and listen to my various tales and adventures, expressing wonder and amazement at the most mundane details. He would always impart wisdom as well — drawing on his childhood in Sicily or his time working on the railroad or being in the South Pacific in WWII. The twists and turns of his stories would vary but his message was undoubtedly consistent: Worrying is useless. If something is bothering you and there is something you can do to change the situation — then do it. And if there isn’t something you can do, then let it go, “‘cause worrying doesn’t change a darn thing.”  He would usually emphasize his final point with a firm fist to the table as he finished the last drops of his wine.
As I’m writing this, I can’t help but wonder if all the grandchildren got a similar recitation, or if he perceived me as particularly fretful kid. Regardless, I took his advice to heart and soul and credit him as my first, unbeknownst, mindfulness teacher. His portly countenance wasn’t the only Buddha-like feature of my grandpa: He was practicing present moment living — not leaning back in regret or leaning forward in worry. He was experiencing wonder and joy when it was there, and also accepting when life was, well, just plain sucky.
I have been thinking about this acceptance in relation to my coaching role, as the greatest challenge for my clients is often the internal challenge of attachment. They have attachment to what should be, what ought to be, and above all, what they want. And quite often, by the time they meet with me, they don’t want their desire actualized today, they wanted it yesterday. I honestly pass no judgement here, as this is a common and well known refrain for me as well.
On an ideal day when the sun is shining, everyone you interact with is well rested, and the new work computer system is working seamlessly; what you want is a more probable outcome. Practically speaking, though, we get to choose and control some variables in our life, but certainly not all of them. This is where attachment and worry can intersect. We can become preoccupied by worry and judgement when we attach to a particular outcome — be it a number on the scale by a certain date, a fully checked off to-do list, or an outcome from a meeting with a colleague.
I meet with one client that is usually a rock star when it comes to meeting her Fit Bit steps. If she isn’t at her 12,000 steps by the end of the day, she will march it out around the yard to meet her goal. Her family likes to chuckle at her marching around in the dark, but there’s no question that they are witnessing dogged self-care. The tenacity with which she approaches her fitness goals aligns well with work ethic as well.
The last time we met, though, she had uncharacteristically not met her 12,000-step goal. In investigating her process, I learned that she was frustrated about a work computer failure that impeded her ability to get her planned work done, which in turn, derailed her health goals as well. Her attachment to her planned work day had her stewing instead of marching. By identifying and understanding her attachment, we were able to come up with a list of ways to hold her intentions and plans less tightly. I like to imagine it as if I’m holding a butterfly. I have to hold just enough to that it doesn’t fly away, but if I hold too tightly, I will crush the beautiful creature.
So, the first step in her process was to identify her attachment. She was solidly attached to getting a particular type of work accomplished that day. The second step was to have a list of options next to her desk if the following day proved similar. On this list were choices such as getting up and going for a walk outside, doing other non-computer items, or taking a meditative break. The third step was letting go of the attachment and actually attempting one of the alternatives. This step was where she identified her most resistance. She was mad and frustrated — could she or did she actually want to let go of her feelings?
Her initial response was to groan and chide me about my unshakable positivity, making lemonade out of her metaphorical lemons. This made me laugh out loud, as putting a shiny spin on life is definitely not my intention. But, acceptance of the situation exactly as it is — I can get behind that. We aren’t required to like our life situations, we just need to make a little more room for them. When we do this, we can be in reality and honor our feelings, once again holding both lightly. The beauty of doing this is that as soon as we accept life, shift and choice is possible, because of the one certainty in life is change.
On that note, I won’t wish you a happy weekend. I instead extend ease of being with whatever presents itself.
Laura Wilkinson is a Nurse Practitioner and Integrative Health Coach at Middlebury College. Learn more about her and her coaching at middlebury.edu/middleburyintegratedhealthcoach.

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