Whenever worries and anxiety overwhelm your life, people tell you, “Just relax.”
Thanks, that’s wise advice, but how the hell do you do that? You’d love “to be light and free,” but that seems impossible when you’re feeling heavy and enslaved. How do you do it?
What follows are two practical, yet profound ways to let go of your worries and anxiety. Use these two skills to lighten your load and unchain yourself from everyday frustrations.
I learned these two techniques from pilgrims who walk the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail. In their honor, I call it the Pilgrim’s Perspective.
A Quick Quiz
First, consider how you would react in these five situations:
- You’re on a subway train that’s stalled in a tunnel and you’re told to exit and take a bus because of a “mechanical problem.”
- You have to make an important call when your cell phone battery dies.
- You’re remodeling your kitchen when the contractor makes an error that sets you back two weeks and $500.
- You need cash fast and there are 10 people in line at the ATM.
- You’re going out to a job interview, all dressed up, when a taxi cab hits a puddle of water and drenches you.
Do you feel worry and anxiety rising in you now? If so, let’s see how you can make it go away by using the Pilgrim’s Perspective of Space and Time.
Skill #1: Perspective of Space
The second you feel stressed, step out of your body and imagine that you’re filming yourself at that very moment. Slowly begin to pull back the camera, so that you no longer fill up the screen, but that there are others in the camera frame.
Pull back further, so now you could see the entire building you’re in, with the room being just a minor part of the structure.
Next, pull back even more, so you could observe the city you’re in, then the state, then the country, and then, perhaps, even the Earth itself.
At some point during this process you should start to realize that whatever just happened is really not that important. It may seem important in the place where you’re standing, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not important.
However, if you are still upset, continue pulling back the camera. See the Moon, with the Earth in the background, then Mars with the Earth as a little blue globe, then out past Pluto where the Earth would be a speck of sapphire against a black canvas.
If you’re really having a bad moment, pull back to our celestial neighbor, Proxima Centuri, and realize that you can’t see any planets, and that the Sun is simply a bright star in the heavens.
And just for fun, pull back to our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, where there is no hint that our solar system is dangling near the edge of a spiral arm of the Milky Way Galaxy.
It is usually at that moment that you will realize that surely someone from the Andromeda Galaxy really cares about the subway’s “mechanical problem.”
“When he feels the wind blowing through him on a high peak or sleeps under a closely matte white bark pine in an exposed basin, he is apt to find his relationship to the universe.” ~Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an avid hiker
When I walked across America four times, there were plenty of challenging moments during my pilgrimages. However, months of hiking in the mountains and sleeping outside in the wilderness under a tarp helped me master the Pilgrim’s Perspective.
Countless times it helped me overcome the adversities of wicked weather, pesky mosquitoes, and nasty slips. It also let me survive 45 days without a shower. However, the guys walking behind me didn’t fare so well.
Try having a Pilgrim’s Perspective of Space next time something gets your goat. Someone may have cut you off while you’re driving, but the world continues to function.
You may not have closed the sale, but your country will probably survive and frankly doesn’t care. You may have broken a nail, but the planet Earth will pull through, barely.
“Interestingly, according to modern astronomers, space is finite. This is a very comforting thought—particularly for people who can never remember where they have left things.” ~Woody Allen
Skill #2: Perspective of Time
The second technique is similar to the Pilgrim’s Perspective of Space, but instead puts you in relationship with time. Let’s return to the example of your outfit getting drenched right as you’re about to go to an important job interview.
You’re worried and anxious about what your potential employer will think. Here’s how to use the Perspective of Time.
The moment you get drenched, freeze that moment in time—just stop. Next, fast forward your life and see what kind of impact this event would have on the very next day.
Often, it’s already meaningless. In this case, however, it might still be stressful, so you need to fast forward to the next week. Chances are this event will begin to fade in importance, although it’s possible that you’ll suffer from getting rejected for the job.
To gain some more perspective, fast forward to the next month or the next year. By then getting drenched before your interview will no longer be a traumatic event; on the contrary, you might even be laughing about it with your friends. It became a quasi-tragic story that’s fun for the whole family.
However, let’s assume that you have a propensity of envisioning some pretty dire scenarios. A year from now, you imagine you’re still reeling from your drenched-outfit experience because your career is now somehow ruined because of it.
So maybe you need to jump 5, 10, or 20 years ahead and see yourself having overcome this career disaster. You finally adopt a new career, find a great job, and live happily ever after.
However, let’s say you’re feeling pretty negative. You imagine that because you didn’t get the job offer, an evil person did. This jerk rises to the top of the industry and uses his money to sponsor nefarious operations that lead to the destruction of the United States and the domination of the entire planet.
This is when you need to hold the fast forward button for a while. Maybe 500 years from now the unholy kingdom will finally be overthrown when the power shifts to the Eskimos thanks to some serious global warming.
Finally, if that doesn’t make you feel better, there’s always the ultimate fast forward—jump five billion years ahead. Our Sun will run out of fuel, expand, consume the Earth, and then fizzle out. End of drenched-outfit story.
One hopes that at some point during the fast forward, you will realize that getting drenched before a job interview is not a big deal in the infinite stream of time.
As absurd has this exercise may seem to some, it can truly help place any event in context, giving you perspective to deal with it in a calm, stress-free manner.
“The most happy man is he who knows how to bring into relation the end and beginning of his life.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Practice using both of these Pilgrim’s Perspective techniques by retaking the quiz at the beginning of this article. Instead of magnifying such events, do the opposite: pull back the camera and fast forward the clock.
You will quickly realize that events that initially produce worries and anxieties will instantly fade away as you change your perspective. Now, at last, you can relax!
This article was adapted from a part of chapter 7 of Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Life Lessons from Backpacking Across America. It first appeared on Tiny Buddha."