The Jailbreak of Anxious Annie

Those of you who have been following me for a while may have noticed that my art tends to be clean, clear, simple, and tries to make a point. Without knowing why or how, these values had unconsciously become the only way I felt comfortable creating. Until yesterday.

Before we get to show and tell, let me offer some backstory.

My partner, Vince, is one of the most satisfied peaceful people I have ever met. He has been trying (upon request) to help me practice the method he discovered to become as satisfied and peaceful as he is. It basically works like this:

Illustration: navigating with GPS

Step 1: Set Your GPS. Pick a direction you want to go in life and look for a thought and/or a feeling that evoke having achieved that result. For example, if you’re an introvert wanting to feel at ease around people, your new thought might be “I feel relaxed and happy in social situations.” Then imagine what it would feel like to be smiling and at ease among friends and strangers.

Note: Finding the feeling is more important than finding the thought, because in reality, the only reason we even have the goal is because we believe achieving it will enable us to feel a certain way.

Step 2: Allow The Resistance.  Next, place gentle attention on everything that comes up in resistance to what you say you want. Maybe you think, “This is way too hard.” or “But I hate small talk.” or “People are boring.” or “Can’t I just socially distance forever?”   You will also likely notice physical and emotional reactions to your goal such as contraction, panic, deflation, agitation, lust, ache, grief, need, and my personal least-favorite, hatred.  As these arise, you don’t have to do anything but notice and allow.

That sounds easy enough, but in my experience, it is not. Most of us are way too practiced at dealing with resistance either by trying to shove it back down, “SHUT UP! I’M MEDITATING ON LOVE!”  or by giving in, “Yup. Too hard. I’m gonna go have a snack.”

The invitation here is to release the temptation to repress or react, and instead, allow.  It may feel like trying to relax while the emotional equivalent of mosquitos and wasps fly around your most private parts. But eventually, the thought or feeling will fade, which will be clear because the mind begins to wander. At that point, you go back to step 1 and repeat. Again, and again, and again.

What makes a goal stressful is believing that 1) we need it to be happy that 2) we probably can’t have it.  For two decades I said I wanted a partner, but every time I was around attractive men, I would energetically hide, silently telling myself I didn’t stand a chance and suddenly remembering all the reasons I was better off single.

The first step of Vince’s process allows us to feel what it would be like to have the goal now, rather than waiting for it to be achieved. In doing this, the need to achieve the goal diminishes because we start getting the benefit now rather than waiting. Also, it gets us comfortable with the idea of having the goal. Notice, if you can’t even comfortably think thoughts about your goal, how likely is it you’ll actually take steps toward it? 

The second step allows us to face all our limiting thoughts and beliefs around the goal. The more we face them, the less scary they become. It’s the adult equivalent of proving to yourself that there are no monsters hiding under the bed by actually checking. The more monsters we un-verify,the longer we can meditate in the positive feelings of our intention. Eventually we’re so practiced at the good feeling that we don’t even need the goal anymore! At that point, it might happen, or we don’t care, but either way, we’re at peace.

Comic: person leaping into the stars
Text: Someday when you're as BIG as the universe you'll look back and see that your path of fear and your path of growth were one and the same

I believe this is the process the Affirmation/Law of Attraction schools are often pointing towards. One problem I’ve found is there can be an over-emphasis on step 1, when the real juice is in step 2. It would be kind of like if Frodo sat down and imagined he had the ring, but he didn’t actually face the obstacles to getting it. This process is more about the journey than the outcome. It invites us to lean in to our desires as well as face our fear, grief, and limiting beliefs. By the time we’ve done all that, the original goal may seem way less important than whole and healed human we’ve become.

This is Vince’s experience anyway. I can’t say I’ve stuck with it long enough to find out yet, though from all the reading and workshops and practices I’ve done, his method makes a LOT of sense. Also, I live with a walking talking role model of inner peace, so he must be on to something…

You might be wondering, then, why haven’t I stuck with the process yet.  I WONDERED THAT TOO!  Until… three nights ago, Vince was taking me through the steps again because I was so frustrated about not being able to stay committed to a style of meditation.

He said, “It doesn’t matter what you pick, just pick something and focus on it.”

Comic: sometimes it's hard to know where to focus

And that’s when I had my lightbulb moment: I SUCK AT FOCUSING 

(Sorry mom. She hates when I use the S word.)

Of all the affirmations and meditations I’ve tried to adopt over the years, none of them ever caught on for very long. I thought that was because they weren’t the right ones or I hadn’t found the right one yet for me or I’m too weak for the emotional mosquitos. But No! The real reason is because my Focus muscle is a flabby pile of goo.

So Sunday night, I restarted Vince’s practice with a brand new goal: “Clear intention and joyful follow through.”  At first, the idea sent pleasure shivers down my spine. At first. Then came the tsunami of thoughts and feelings that DID NOT like this goal:

Are you F’ing kidding me? That is so F’ing cheesy.  

Yeah. Right. As if. You haven’t had a clear intention in your life. 

That’s not true! I have! 

Ok, even if you have, you never follow through on ANYTHING. 

Clear intention? How on earth can you get clear in a world with so many conflicting truths?

Who is even really there to have this goal? 

Life unfolds, it’s not your job to try to control it. 

Why do you want to be joyful all the time, who do you think you are, pollyanna? 

Clear intention is prison. 

I hate this goal. 

I want to do something else. ANYTHING ELSE. 

See? See? You don’t stand a chance.

Honestly, I don’t even really care about this goal anyway… 

Needless to say, as simple as Vince’s process is, I do not find it easy.  It’s kind of like someone telling you, “Just walk into that cave of hungry, vengeful, patronizing Lions over there and all your dreams will come true!Yay!”

But I persevered because some part of me realized that if I didn’t learn about focus, then I might not be able to lean in to any of the other goals that matter to me.

So Monday morning I walked into the mosquito-wasp-lion cave again. It was just as hard. And Tuesday. You’d think this would get easier as you go, but not so far. The voices seem to get sneakier and more convincing. Vince has confirmed that in his experience it can take months and sometimes the hardest part is near the very end. But the key here is months. Most of us have spent years complaining about goal-stress we never actually make much progress toward relieving. 

The other day I was watching a moth repeatedly bump into our newly cleaned windows while a door stood wide open across the room. I could so relate. How often have I thought I could see the way through, so I try over and over and over and over, never getting the hint that freedom might be in the other direction. 

So anyway, Tuesday morning, after another trying meditation, an inspiration hit: Rather than meditating on Step 1 and Step 2, which requires focus, the very thing I think I lack, why don’t I create about them? So I created two pieces of art. The first was to reflect my goal:

Collage: Clear intention and joyful follow through

Sure enough, as I cut, colored and pasted, the voices of objection arose. By the time I was done, I was a vibrating ball of resistance and stress. I decided to name this ball “Anxious Annie” and I said to her, “Your turn.”

With a whoosh of relief, and a frenetic speed, Anxious Annie tore through my scrap paper collection looking for visual reflections of her inner angst. She found zigzags and swirls and numbers and letters. She found faces with emotional turmoil and colors and patterns that have no business being in the same room together, let alone the same piece of art. She did and redid until finally she held it up for me to see.  “Enough of your clean comic boxes with straight lines and perfect rhymes. This, Leah. This is how I feel.” 

Collage: Anxious Annie

“Enough of your clean comic boxes with straight lines and perfect rhymes.

This, Leah. This is how I feel.” 

I want to pause to point out something interesting that I have only just noticed while writing this. Anxious Annie is supposed to be my resistance. She is what happens when I try to make myself focus on something. And yet, her arts-and-crafts session lasted more than two hours, during which I don’t even think I got up to pee. Flabby focus muscle? Suspicious.

What I’m thinking now, is perhaps my focus muscle is just fine, but my forcing muscle is weak.  Maybe I only struggle when I’m forcing myself to focus.  Either that, or Vince’s process is already beginning to take effect.

I suspect it’s both. While I was creating the first piece of art, the one about clear intention and joyful follow through, almost everything in me wanted to quit, but I stayed with it because clear intention and joyful follow through is my goal (step 1). The result of allowing all that tension to surface was meeting Anxious Annie and finally allowing her to express herself , rather than shame her, judge her, and shove her back down (step 2).

When Annie started to create, I thought she was going to make a cacophonous mess I’d never show anyone. But as she went, I discovered the beauty in her chaos. To me, it was a beauty more raw and personal than I’ve been able to create in my more calculated comics. In allowing Annie to take over, I was reminded of a different flavor of focus: The kind arises naturally from trusting one’s own interest long enough to fly away from a closed window in hopes of finding the open door.

Recent Inspiration

The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal.
This book is a 10-week journey to cultivate willpower. It’s what inspired the idea of meeting my resistance like a friend I should get to know.

Willpower by Baumeister & Tierney
Willpower is  a fascinating education on the biological science behind focus and follow-through. Ever other page I have to stop reading to tell Vince what I just learned.

The Little Prince (Movie, 2016) A stunning reminder of the power of art, beauty, and allowing one’s self to be one’s self. I cried the entire movie as much from the movie’s message as my awe of its creators

Leave a Comment