February 18th, 2011

This blog is the second in a series of reflections on the lessons in Managing Thought during the recent sudden move of my parents—lessons that apply equally to the big changes and challenges we face every day at work and in life.

When my 85-year old father learned he had three weeks to move out of his house of forty years, he was paralyzed. Recovering from two minor strokes, caring for his wife, my mom, suffering from dementia, living in a house with forty years’ and four children’s worth of stuff, it’s not surprising he was overwhelmed.

When he asked me to help, I wasn’t surprised when my brain also bombarded me with thoughts of overwhelm. I deeply exhaled, invoked the state of wonder and asked myself, What can I say or do in this moment to help my dad? Out popped Lao-Tzu’s wise words, The journey of a thousand miles begins in a single step, and together we decided to take this journey of a thousand miles one step at a time.

I then wondered, What could the first step be? Out popped the wise words of Confucius – To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life.

So I suggested he start with his bedroom.  He went through his drawers and closets and desk, and removed what was to be discarded, donated or sold. When his room was in order, he woke up in the morning and went to sleep at night with the constant reminder of the completion of that first step. He breathed out a sigh of relief, breathed in the power of his accomplishment and felt empowered to take the next step.

When something happens that is different from what we expect or believe or concluded from past experiences, our brains present us with fight, flight or freeze thoughts. Thoughts of overwhelm, paralysis, avoidance, anxiety, fear, this can’t be done, and worry, for example, are all fight, flight and freeze thoughts. When we re-invoke the state of wonder, we receive answers that move us powerfully from fight, flight or freeze in a direction that serves our purpose.

We don’t suddenly accomplish a huge undertaking, we accomplish it in steps.  And when we acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishment of each step, no matter how small, we become inspired and invoke a power within to envision and accomplish the next step. Often, it’s helpful to start with something small that’s highly visible so we are constantly reminded of and celebrating the accomplishment of our first step and subsequent progress. In doing so, we become inspired and wonder what the next steps could be.

My Dad very simply and powerfully, with a bright smile and a twinkle in his eye, said, “Okay, Mare, what’s next?”

What huge undertaking overwhelms you? What one step could you take? How can you celebrate your progress? How can you turn overwhelm into wonder?