The alarm clock breaks her slumber. Beep . . . beep . . . beep. Before getting out of bed, Susan’s mind starts racing: Big presentation at work today! She walks to the bathroom, brushes her teeth, showers, and gets dressed – all on autopilot. Her mind is preoccupied and agitated. Suddenly realizing that she has lost track of time, she begins to rush. In her hurry to get out the door, she spills coffee all over her khaki pants.
“Oh, $%#@!!!!” she yells. Her shoulders tense and she throws the cup in the sink. “Damn it! I’m such a klutz.” She stomps upstairs to change, cursing the fact that she’s ruined her pants and barely can afford to have them dry-cleaned. My life is a disaster, she thinks.
With her heart beating wildly and knowing that she’ll now be late for work, she rushes to her car and tears out of her driveway. She drives recklessly, cutting people off in traffic and creating a ripple of negative energy in everyone with whom she comes into contact. And then . . . the sound of a siren. Susan is overwhelmed with frustration and rage.
Her negative thoughts spin out: I have the worst luck in the world. I don’t deserve this ticket. My boss is going to be furious with me for being this late. I’ll probably blow the presentation and . . . what if I get fired? My day is trashed.
When Susan gets to work, her stomach is tied in knots and her back stiff. She enters the office like a dark cloud and performs badly during the presentation. That night, Susan goes home feeling like a failure.
Poor Susan. She blames the spilled coffee for triggering the chain of events that started her terrible day. Like most of us, she points to an unhappy event as the cause of her troubles – not realizing that it was how she reacted to the situation, not the situation itself, that ruined her day.
We are rarely aware of how our thoughts trigger our reactions to stress. The time between an event and our response to the event is so short that we don’t even notice the negative thought in the background. When we are not aware of our background thinking, this is what it looks like: coffee spills . . . (Damn) . . . “Oh, $%#@!!!!” In the nanosecond that follows the spilled coffee comes the thought and stressful feeling (Damn), followed immediately and unconsciously by profanity. On the other hand, when we are consciously aware of our background thinking, there is a pause after the stressful thought and we notice a “fork in the road.” A choice becomes available to us: We can follow our usual road, swearing and getting upset, or we can observe and shift, thereby choosing an entirely new trajectory.
So, can we train ourselves to pause? Can we learn to actually derail the habituated response and proceed intentionally? Can we develop new reactions to stress, new habits that not only lessen our suffering but actually increase our inner peace?
Yes! Practicing Shortcuts, that is, well-being exercises that are linked to established daily patterns, makes our lives more peaceful. Shortcuts (tools linked to triggers) allow us to experience calmness and clarity, acceptance and gratitude, love and connection on a regular basis. They help us develop new habits of pausing, habits of redirection away from stress, and habits of “waking up” to life’s riches. Moreover, when we’re in a potentially downward stress spiral (and it happens to all of us), we can use Shortcuts to react differently . . . to respond peacefully.
Imagine that Susan had been practicing the Shortcuts as daily habits for a few months before her big presentation. Let’s watch her day unfold as tools become triggered by her activities and experiences:
The alarm clock breaks her slumber. Beep . . . beep . . . beep. Before getting out of bed, Susan’s mind starts setting her peaceful intention (“Daily Dose”). Brushing her teeth, she opens herself with curiosity to the day’s activities (“Morning Glories”). As she showers, she lets her worries go down the drain (“Catch and Release”), and then she gets dressed. Suddenly realizing that she has lost track of time, she begins to rush. In her hurry to get out the door, she spills her coffee all over her khaki pants.
She gasps . . . (Damn) . . . and shakes her head, aware that she is at a fork in the road; she makes a choice. She takes a slow deep breath to center and redirect herself (“How Low Can You Go?”). As Susan changes her pants, she laughs and shifts her attention to things in her life for which she’s grateful (“Glad Game,”).
On the road to work, she opens her heart to others (“Stop, Drop, and Roll”). Before her presentation, she relaxes with a visualization that helps shift her energy (“Take Me Away”). Susan continues through her day feeling confident and calm.
Impossible? Not really. Shortcuts that are triggered throughout our day help us to access the well of inner peace that already exists within us. If we do lose our cool, using these tools will interrupt the spin cycle of stressful thoughts so we can get back on track. Over time, as we intentionally redirect our responses to stress, the neural pathways in our brains actually change, “wiring” us for new, more peaceful responses to life.
Which reaction to spilled coffee would you rather have?