Getting stuck is easy, but learning how to get unstuck in life is often more challenging. Avoiding getting entangled in the first place is usually a better strategy. Just ask the woman who used Gorilla Glue in place of hair gel.
Bringing home a puppy is straightforward but giving it back once you fall in love is more complicated. Planting a tree is simple, but removing it once it has grown roots is more complex.
In the same way, getting stuck in mental, psychological and emotional ruts is uncomplicated, but getting out of these ruts is often significantly more difficult.
One way of looking at these unconscious habits is through the poem An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters. The poem originally appeared in There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery by Portia Nelson, an American popular singer, songwriter, actress, and author.
James Hollis mentions the poem in his book The Middle Passage. He writes, “…the necessity of consciousness, has been expressed rather humorously in the Autobiography in Five Short Chapters.”
The poem speaks to our tendency to fall into the same metaphorical holes, over and over, leaving us feeling lost, stuck and helpless without a way out. In our own lives, not only are we not powerless to our habit patterns, but we get to choose the conditions we feed leading to falling into the holes or keeping us out of them.
In the process, we develop greater awareness, self-compassion and well-being. Ultimately, we discover how to walk down a different path altogether.
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost. I am helpless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
Does that sound familiar? It does to me.
Many of us live our lives feeling as if the world were chaotic, outwardly and inwardly, and that life happens to us in unexpected and unpredictable ways. This first chapter of the poem is about the sense of powerlessness that can cause us to struggle in our lives.
It refers to the depth of confusion hindering our ability to live the life we want — conscious, intentional and empowered. Without such qualities, we tend to fall into the same mental and emotional holes, again and again.
For example, we may feel stuck in a relationship and unable to change the situation. Or we may act and speak in ways harmful to others and wonder why we behave that way. It’s as though we journey along the same well-worn paths of anxiety, worry and rumination leading us away from where we want to be while not knowing what’s happening and why.
This first chapter is not just about being lost, but also about feeling lost. It describes the difficulty of being consumed by strong emotions and repetitive thoughts. It’s as if we are walking in circles in what is referred to in Buddhism as Samsara, or the unending cycle of unsatisfactoriness.
It can feel as though our mind and life were governed by unconscious impulse. When our mind or heart is driven by thoughts, emotions, or mental states, we tend to swing between possibility and hopelessness, excitement and boredom and happiness and sadness. These extremes, especially moods, can leave us feeling disempowered and out of our control, even desperate.
It may feel as if there is no safe refuge and that too many external obstacles stand in the way of our happiness and our circumstances are fixed. Feeling lost, confused and hopeless is painful and often leads to even more powerful and painful feelings of self-doubt and depression.
According to James Hollis, “Typically, what blocks people or keeps them stuck is there’s some archaic fear that’s being triggered in their psyche. All of our fear ultimately tracks back to two sources: something feels overwhelming to us; it’s bigger than we are; we can’t handle it. Or if we move in a certain direction, we’re going to lose our friends, lose our partner, lose our sources of affection and security, and so forth…If you can smoke out what the fear is, in most cases, it’s not going to happen. Were it to happen, a person would have grown up in the meantime.”
At the same time, these feelings are also the source of our awakening. Our bodies, minds and hearts is our classroom, and our day-to-day experiences are our teachers.
Unlike our instinctual habit of running away from pain to find freedom outside of the difficult, here we’re asked to discover freedom within the difficult. Rather than finding ever more sophisticated ways of suppression or repression, we turn toward difficulty because that’s ultimately the source of our liberation from confusion and struggle.
Sorrow doesn’t ask for resistance or judgment but patience, allowance and understanding. Rather than trying to shape the world to our ways, our task is to meet the world as it is. Maybe the first step on the path of waking up and living mindfully is to know pain as pain, just as we know pleasure as pleasure.
Staying present for experiences and giving them our full attention rather than trying to escape is a radically different way of living. But if something keeps showing up, perhaps we’re meant to observe it, make peace with it and find freedom within it rather than trying to get rid of it. Being with experiences in this way is a skillful means for how to get unstuck in life.
Of course, in this uncertain and ever-changing world, we experience both joy and pleasure as well as adversity and difficulty. And though we may wish for eternal bliss, we cannot, no matter how skillful our defenses, ever totally shield ourselves from despair.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in the same place.
But, It isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
It’s easy to relate to this, isn’t it?
We fall into the same hole again, but we don’t really know why. The word “again” itself carries a sense of foreboding or failure, as in “Oh no, not again.”
At times we can have a kind of awkward attachment to falling into the same hole while pretending we don’t see it hoping for a different outcome. “I’m about to fall into the same hole of impatience and hope it has a different outcome. Oops, I guess it didn’t.”
This reminds me of the story about a boy who asks his mother, “Mom, imagine you’re surrounded by a thousand hungry tigers. What would you do?” After giving it some thought, the mom replied, “I don’t know. What would you do?” To which the boy answered, “I’d stop pretending.”
Rather than acknowledging the situation, the mind tends to find fault with others and ourselves. If I were a better person or more skilled, this wouldn’t be happening, and I wouldn’t be feeling this way. The mind seeks to blame when we feel helpless, and yet finding fault heightens suffering — ours and others’.
It’s as if the mind asserts itself in an attempt to keep us from descending further into helplessness, which can feel like defeat. And this inclination of mind tends to feed the opposite propensity, which is to compensate through success. Often this leads to the difficult pattern of feeling good when we “succeed” and bad when we “fail.”
My friend Danny likes to say, 'It’s like being in a relationship lacking intimacy where you haven’t made love with your partner for months. Then one day you come home to find your partner in bed with the UPS person—and even though you were a co-conspirator all along — you act surprised.'
Aversion itself may be unsettling, but the self-righteousness of blaming another person feels pleasurable, or at least it appears as enjoyable.
When my wife left me, I was hurting and disoriented. I placed 100 percent of the blame on her. Later, I realized perhaps I had something to do with the breakup after all and laughed at myself. I was willing to assume 10 percent responsibility at first. Still, over time I realized I was responsible for at least 50 percent of the ending of our marriage.
Eventually, I would realize that for me, divorce was the end of living unconsciously and the beginning of living consciously.
Often we become attached to things, which may not be in our best interest but do enhance our self-view. Or they are familiar and offer a sense of security and safety. Those moments when we know something isn’t good for us, and yet we do it anyway, are opportunities to discover why we behave that way.
What compels us toward behavior that doesn’t serve us? We don’t want to keep falling into the same holes, yet something keeps us stuck in uncertainty. It’s as if our loyalty were split.
I recently sold shares in a company, yet I still feel compelled to look up the current share price. Why? Because if the price has gone down, I will feel relieved, but if the price has gone up, I will be frustrated with myself. It’s the latter feeling where I tend to have a perverse attachment to finding fault with myself as if I should have known better than to sell.
So this is really the core, to discover what inclines the mind toward actions not in our best interest. Whenever we go along with something that doesn’t serve us, we know we’re going to end up in the same hole.
We may pretend, “It doesn’t matter if I think aversive thoughts or indulge in a few moments of fantasy or craving.” And yet it does because we’re strengthening the neural pathway, and the habits of aversion, fantasy, or craving, and inclining the mind toward falling into the same holes . So we’re seeing for ourselves what causes us to get stuck and how we can get and stay unstuck.
Instead of pretending not to see something, we’re being asked to notice what we’re feeding our hearts and minds—that which leads us into or out of the holes. The more wisdom grows within us, the more likely we will let go of the habits leading to falling into and getting stuck in the same holes. Getting unstuck is that simple, though it's not easy.
Conditions continually arise and pass through our minds, bodies and hearts. Remaining still amidst the difficulty allows us to see self-doubt as self-doubt and loneliness as loneliness. This creates the possibility of softening, opening up, and allowing unpleasant conditions to just be.
Mindfulness teaches us every moment is worthy of our complete attention. Waking up is worthy of our total commitment. Learning to be with what is, then, is the first step in waking up and discovering that being lost is not the only option. So this is how we ultimately find happiness and freedom.
Intellectually this all sounds simple, but it’s a radically different approach for most of us.
First, we need to acknowledge that much of our lives is not our fault. Did you wake up this morning choosing to be sad or lonely? Or decide it would be a good day to be impatient and angry, perhaps even irate? Did you wake up and decide to be frustrated, impatient and fearful?
We didn’t choose the body or family we were born into. I come from a long line of judgmental people. My father is critical, and apparently, his mother was even more so. She and her sister used to go to public places to make fun of people. Her mom, who had come from Ireland to nanny for a wealthy New York family, was told she would need to lose her country girl ways and learn to be a proper woman. I imagine she adopted a similarly judgmental attitude toward others, which cascaded down the generations.
Our family informs how we react to our circumstances. Not only do we learn the appropriate way to react to the world, but the “right way” too. In your own family history, you may see loneliness, blind ambition, greed, anger, impatience, aversion, anxiety, fear, doubt, and unworthiness, among others.
It doesn’t matter if you’re good or smart, goddamn things fall apart. - Built to Spill
Others have and continue to influence our lives just as we influence those around us. The views, habits, stories and behaviors of others have unconsciously informed our understanding of and unique confusion about the world. And yet no one is at fault because each of us is subject to our own particular circumstances.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in…it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
For many of us, the path of waking up can feel like swimming against the current of our own beliefs, fears, doubts, and habits. This has been true in my own experience. When we feel overwhelmed and powerless, noticing the repetitive nature of our thoughts, emotions and mental states can be helpful.
How often do you get caught in the same cycles of rehearsal, rumination and resentment? How long have you been carrying the same psychological and emotional habits? When tend to be surprised when qualities like ease, calmness, or joy arise, but in the midst of confusion and struggle, we’re rarely surprised. It’s as if doubt, aversion, and craving are our old friends.
If we see the same habit patterns often enough, we may begin to think these habits of mind are the truth of who we are. What we repeatedly think shapes our mind and ultimately, our sense of self.
A National Science Foundation study found the average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, and 95 percent of our thoughts were the same as the day before. While you may have had some new thoughts today, we can notice how mechanical most of them are.
These habits of mind can seem like bad news, but actually, it’s good news. These habits are not who you are. Instead, they are simply psychological and emotional patterns. Habits can work against us and get us stuck in negative patterns that don’t serve us well, or they can work for us as we develop the habits that do.
More importantly, emotional and psychological habits and mindfulness cannot coexist. So every moment of paying attention further weakens a habit that doesn’t serve us. And the more we pay attention, the more our sense of self dissolves. Patterns of greed or aversion, for example, are seen simply as moments of desire or hatred rather than proof we are a greedy or aversive person.
Can you see the difference?
One aspect of habit patterns is they attempt to make the world more familiar and safer. Stepping out of habit and into the unknown is scary and demands great courage.
We all know how to use suppression to try to get rid of the unpleasant fantasy to avoid discontent and willpower to try to overcome things we don’t like. Stripped of these habitual reactions, we are invited to respond to what is, rather than what we think is, and to see the world, ourselves and other people entirely anew.
Rather than trying to stop the world from changing, our task is to stand still for the world. While slowing down, we begin to see the world is not as threatening as we believed. In fact, standing still in the world is what makes us safe, not manipulating external conditions offering only a temporary sense of safety.
Once you become aware of your habits, it’s important not to go about systematically uprooting them. The habit of self-view will grasp anything to gain control and make the world stand still for us to make it less threatening.
Every unconscious habit tends to derive from one of three mind states: greed, aversion, or delusion.
Imagine going to a party. Someone with the habit of greed walks into the room and sees who to talk to and what kind of food and wine there is. The person with the habit of aversion won’t want to talk to anybody, won’t like the food or the wine and may wonder why they’re even there. And the person with the habit of delusion will likely feel somewhat lost and not quite knowing what’s going on.
I can deal with knowing most, if not all, of my habits, derive from only three mind states. It can be rather humorous when we see them showing up in our lives.
But what are these habits asking of us? They’re asking us to be curious, open, kind, and compassionate. In this way, we are learning to walk down a different path of intention, which better serves us.
These recurring habit patterns are the precursors of our speech, choices, and actions. Surrounding these habits with mindfulness and care begins to soften and release them.
While not just a nice idea, it’s something we practice, again and again.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we never again experience greed. But at that moment, the mind and heart have been liberated from their tendency toward greed. That moment matters in dispelling our self-view and opening our hearts.
As we become more aware of how we relate to our lives, we begin shifting from impulse to intentionality and from reactivity to responsiveness. We are becoming aware of the possibility of choice and that nothing is a life sentence. This is one of the great gifts of mindfulness, and one of the first steps in learning how to get (and stay) unstuck in our lives.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
As awareness is strengthened through mindfulness, our mind is inclined to see the holes we are prone to falling into before falling into them. We begin to see falling in is not the only option. Rather than avoiding or suppressing, instead, we choose not to walk down paths we know from experience lead to struggle.
It’s as if we no longer consent to falling into the same holes. Suppose we see an action, even something as seemingly innocent as reading the daily news, leads to greater anxiety. So we choose not to go down that path. In this way, we learn to become aware of and let go of compulsive behavior.
For example, you may begin judging yourself for being late to an appointment. Still, you catch yourself and see judgment only serves to reinforce the belief you have never been enough. Perhaps you can let go of judgment in that moment or even offer yourself some compassion for the stress you are experiencing for being late.
Holes are not inherently wrong. Instead, we are learning to see them objectively leading to more confusion and difficulty. For me, learning to walk down another path has been an enormous shift — from the contraction of hopelessness to the spaciousness of possibility and eventually to confidence in the rightness of the path. And on the path of liberation, confidence is perhaps our best friend.
I walk down a different street.
As we move from the choicelessness of impulse to the choice of intention and attention, our confidence grows that our thoughts and actions can, and do, make a difference. The path of reactivity and suppression becomes increasingly unattractive until we lose interest altogether. In its place, kindness, compassion and wakefulness grow in our minds and hearts.
We see falling into the holes for what they are—habit patterns born of conditions. When we stop feeding those habit patterns, their power over us diminishes, suffering is reduced, and a profound sense of possibility emerges. Within possibility lies a heart free of confusion, craving and conflict.
Rather than waiting for liberation and happiness or preoccupying ourselves with fantastical ideas of enlightenment, we’re finding freedom here and now in our everyday lives.
I go back and fill in the hole.
Chapter six, which Portia didn’t write about, is we go back and fill in the hole so others don’t fall in.
When I started on this path, I had little confidence, but the teachers on retreat had total confidence in us, students. That gave me the courage to trust the teachers and to keep practicing. And I have complete confidence you too will find your way on this path.
Confidence is vital because it helps counteract the debilitating effects of doubt. Each moment of walking around a hole instills greater confidence in us, no matter how big or small. Small shifts later become big shifts.
Confidence helps us see possibility rather than being convinced of impossibility, which difficult mind states tend to breed. With regular practice and renewal of intention, the sense that the mind is our friend begins to emerge as we move from helplessness to possibility to freedom.
In the beginning, the process of getting unstuck requires significant effort, but over time it becomes more accessible and more organic. When you walk around a hole for the first time, you may just surprise yourself and even celebrate. You may even start to fall in love with being awake.