We all face challenges in life, and more often than not, we feel they are unique to our lives and unlike other peoples’ challenges. However, according to Beth Kurland, PhD, the challenges of being human are more common than we might believe.
She writes, “There are five core evolutionary challenges that we all face as human beings that can take us away from living our lives most fully.”
In her new book, Dancing on the Tightrope: Transcending the Habits of Your Mind & Awakening to Your Fullest Life, Kurland shows us that it is in understanding these challenges, and the habits they are characterized by, that we can tap into our inner resources — which are the greatest tools we have to become more resilient, aware, and empowered.
Some of our behaviors arise out of instinctual programs that made sense at the time, but no longer help us. Kurland writes, “While these more primitive systems of our brains have been integrated in complex ways with our more recently evolved brain systems, there are ways in which — metaphorically speaking — they haven’t been fully upgraded to meet the challenges of our modern lives.”
Distraction, anxiety, fear, and self-criticism can send us spiraling downward while also shutting out the possibility of change. However, hardwired into our brains is the potential to experience growth, happiness, joy, and resilience.
The first challenge is to not respond to false alarms. Kurland writes, “Our primitive brains developed an alarm system to respond to external, physical threats to our well-being back in ancient times, when we lived on savannahs and in caves, when we had to deal with predators, such as lions and other wild animals.”
While the rise in heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol, and adrenaline that accompany the fight-or-flight response is adaptive in times of actual threat, Kurland notes, “It is not necessarily appropriate for many of the challenges we face in the modern world.”
The false alarm has many faces, which are typically rooted in our thinking. “The problem today is that we keep our stress activated simply because of our own thinking — for example ruminating about something that upset us in the past, or something that might happen in the future — even when there is no immediate threat in front of us,” writes Kurland.
Part of the problem is that, on active default mode, our brains often play simulations of past events and imagined futures over and over, which only adds to our suffering.
Kurland writes, “Many of us operate from this automatic-pilot mode of being much of the time. We are caught up in our own thoughts more than we realize, and we don’t notice what is in front of us. We go through the motions of our day, missing some of the best moments available to us.”
Like a noisy person in a movie theater, we also narrate our lives much more than we need — and much more harshly than we need to.
Conversely, we are also hardwired to move toward pleasure and away from pain, what those in the field of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy call “experiential avoidance.” However, the more we try to push pain away and create an unrealistic version of life, the more we also push away a meaningful and fulfilling life.
“The way out of this dilemma is to do what is counterintuitive: lean into the discomfort,” writes Kurland.
Yet another core challenge is that we are often biased toward the negative, remembering criticisms much more easily than praise and holding onto negative experiences while overlooking or dismissing the positive ones.
Overcoming challenges like this requires mindful awareness. Kurland writes, “Mindfulness can help us attend to whatever is arising. The goal here is not to get rid of stress or be stress free (an impossible goal) but to be stress smart.”
Mindfulness can also help us learn to create more helpful narratives, explore the closed off or shameful parts of ourselves, enlarge the positive parts of our lives, and identify what is most important to us, who we want to be, how to align our actions with our values, and how to create our best life.
While life is always a work in progress, we have within us the power to awaken to our most powerful resource — the power to change — and transform life adversity into life opportunity. What we just might find is that we are much stronger than we ever imagined.
Illuminating the habits that so often hold us back and offering insightful and practical tools, Dancing on the Tightrope is a book that will help you cultivate the inner resources to not only stress better, but become much happier in the process.
Dancing on the Tightrope: Transcending the Habits of Your Mind & Awakening to Your Fullest Life
WellBridge Books, October 2018
Paperback, 172 pages