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For Mindfulness When Things Go Wrong, Call AAA

When Americans get a flat tire, we call the American Automobile Association (AAA). When something unexpected happens to us in life, we would be wise to call on AAA as well. That is, the AAA of self-awareness: Accept what is. Allow what you feel. Act if you can. This is a practical manifestation of mindfulness: one of the key tools at our disposal for developing emotional intelligence.

In my book The Three Dimensions of Emotions: Finding the Balance of Power, Heart and Mindfulness, I refer to an idea that I heard when listening to a lecture by Eckhart Tolle (most known for his best-selling book, The Power of Now). I would summarize it like this: Accept what is externally real, just as it is. Honestly allow what you feel internally about the situation. Then take action if and when you can.

If you or I could practice this in response to the inevitable (if not daily) things that “go wrong,” we would have a categorically better life. These things could be on any scale from something small (a traffic jam or dropping your favorite mug) to something large (having a serious disease or grieving the loss of a loved one). And these things can go wrong in any life space, whether at home with a spouse, at work leading a difficult team on a challenging project, or in any other sphere. So how can we take practical steps to apply this mindful approach?

Accept What Is 

$h%# happens . . . all the time out there in the world. We are often surprised when things go wrong—as if they are never supposed to. This is a product of living in an affluent society. I once complained to a friend who was born in Central America that the rules in soccer are not fair—sometimes the best team will lose simply because of one mistake or a bad call by an official. I will never forget his response. He said, “Life is not fair.” The first “A” in the “AAA” of mindfulness is acceptance of what is, as it is. I did not get the job, my bank account is empty, my child has a learning disability, my spouse has a drinking problem, my government is going in a direction that concerns me. Acceptance is not to be confused with resignation. Acceptance simply absorbs and acknowledges what is, as it is in the current moment. Interestingly, the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous is that of “surrender” to the fact that you are an alcoholic. But there is no end of life events or circumstances that we will have to surrender to, or accept.

Allow What You Feel. 

The next step after accepting your current situation involves facing the feelings that result. External events and circumstances seldom fail to create emotional or psychological reactions internally. This second step is what makes the process real. We feel angry. We feel sad, or even depressed. We are afraid. When we allow the feelings or “feel the feelings”— rather than either resisting them, numbing them or acting them out—we create space around the emotions that allows them to move on and move through us. When we resist or numb them, they get stuck and we become constricted and restricted. When we act out the feelings (by drinking alcohol, screaming at our employees, starting a fight with our spouse), we deny and delay what is inside of us. However, when we take a step back to “name it to tame it”, or recognize the emotions for what they really are—feelings—we allow ourselves time to calm our reactivity.

Take Action If You Can 

Sometimes, after pausing to consider the external event and our internal response, we find there is nothing we can do to change the outcome. In those cases we can only accept and allow. However, often there are things that can be done to either fix a problem or at lease minimize its effect. So why not take action first and skip the difficult process of accepting and allowing? Because the very process of accepting and allowing creates inner space and stillness in the mind. And with this we can think clearly and act courageously.

Let’s take a simple example. The waiter brings you a bowl of soup and—of course you already guessed it—the soup is cold. It is what it is; it’s cold soup. Accept that the soup is cold. Cold soup happens in an imperfect world. You are likely to feel frustrated or even angry. Instead of acting out the feeling, recognize and allow the feeling for what it is: your unconditioned reaction to a disappointment. Feel that feeling, but don’t act out: in other words, don’t let your frustration and anger take over. If the situation were one that didn’t allow for action, then you would simply accept it and either try to enjoy a bowl of cold soup or leave it. However, in this case, there is something you can do. With the inner stillness that you acquired by accepting and allowing, you can calmly take action and ask the server to replace the cold soup with one that is hot.

Now let’s take a more complicated example. My very good friend was having stomach pain. He went to his medical doctor and the MD dismissed it, sending him home with some antacids. This cycle with the MD went on for almost two years, until one day my friend asked the doctor to do some testing. The MD pacified my friend and ordered some tests, which found him to have stage 4 stomach cancer. He was going to die. He eventually had to accept his situation (after trying everything that he reasonably could do with a very poor prognosis). He had to recognize and allow the feelings of deep sadness at the loss of his life, as well as the anger toward an MD who had made a deadly mistake. After he accepted his situation and allowed the feelings as they came, he did everything that he could to die with dignity. I went through this entire process with my dear friend, and he set a shining example of courage and AAA.

Clearly, we won’t all face situations as difficult as my friend did. But we will all certainly face situations capable of triggering a range of potential emotional reactions. May examples such as my friend’s inspire all of us to respond with mindfulness: accept what is for what it is, allow for the feelings that occur and act in constructive ways whenever we can.