09/13/2012 02:03 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

Welcome to the Fall Term in the School of Hard Knocks

One recent weekend I was helping my 20-year-old pack for his return to college. I began to notice a tightening, churning sensation in my stomach and realized I was beginning to have a mild panic attack.  Empathizing with my son, I was being flooded with phrases that I imagined were going through his head: "It was great to do what I wanted, and not have anyone check up on me.  Now its homework about things I'm not sure I'll ever need to know again... have to prove myself to the new teachers...  grades, ugh!"

I soon realized that it was dishonest to label this empathy, as I had no actual idea of what my son was experiencing; rather, I was having an emotional flashback to my experience of preparing for school.   In recognizing that I was totally projecting my past experience into my son's now moments,  the anxiety lost some of its emotional sting.  Driving to his school, I felt even better, recognizing that I didn't have to deal with teachers, tests, and grades ever again!

Yes, I could re-focus my attention again to my adult life, where the classroom was simply my everyday experience. Like feeling how humid and muggy the air has been lately, the most like that in my memory of Southern California.  Maybe should be no surprise, coming off of the hottest July ever recorded in the U.S. and a full summer that rivals the season long record heat of the dustbowl days of 1936.  On the radio, news of weather-related droughts and fires, and now flooding again in the Crescent Bay.  A glance around the streets finds a nearby (no) service station listing gas at $5.05 a gallon!

The television, papers, and Internet now filled with the national discussion of just how bad things are: One side emphasizes how we are much worse off than four years ago, while the other promotes how much better off we are than where we were headed four years ago.  Meanwhile, most polls show that most people have no confidence in either side, or almost any of our cultural institutions, to improve our state of the union.

"Holy crap," I said to myself.  Maybe it would actually be less stressful to be going off to the bubble of college, rather than heading back into it the school of hard knocks living!

"But when the rain comes you know the flower's gonna bloom;  and when the hard times come you know the teacher's in the room." -- Michael Franti

Sages from every spiritual culture and discipline have indicated that life is about learning lessons, but we seem to have collectively enrolled in an AP class that we aren't well-prepared for, and for which there is no lesson plan!  So what can we do?

First, as counter-conditioned as it may seem, one "peace practice" that can be highly effective in this circumstance is the cultivation of gratitude.  We can take a pause and focus on that which we are grateful for. It may be the presence of a child or other loved one, or even a book, or a song or a favorite meal.  When we are surrounded by the anxiety of what's breaking down, it's important to consciously bring to mind those things that still do work, that do soothe us.

It's important to realize that cultivating gratitude is not a technique to repress the anxiety of our situation or fool ourselves with happy thoughts.  It is, however, a method for piercing the hold of our own projections.  It gives us a fuller, broader, more balanced view of the life we find ourselves living.

I know I sometimes get more worked up over those "big problems" looming over us, which I can read, watch, hear, and learn about, but about which I can do seemingly little.  Especially in today's hyperlinked world of micro-targeted companies'  sales pitches and news organizations' ideological bents.  We might go a full 24/7 of being plugged into a universe that caters to our perceived needs and viewpoints, an insulated, projected feedback loop that increasingly distorts our perspective on reality outside that bubble.

However, my daily life is actually more impacted by: the smile coming from the check-out lady at the local market ("How grateful I am that it is so close and convenient for me!"), the gentleman in the SUV that actually slows down to let me merge in traffic (as I wave a "Thank you"), or the wonderful friend that we trust so much we can leave our precious 20-month-old behind and enjoy a romantic meal ("We should bring her back a chocolate dessert!").

Our thoughts want to solve problems, which is the good news.  The bad news is that this means thoughts tend to focus on problems needing to be solved.  Actively taking moments throughout the day to cultivate a more accurate, full perspective on your day might help you to see the flowers that are blooming, even in the rain!

A second counter-conditioned response we might have is to stop trying to escape the anxiety we feel and instead breathe into it.  Those of us who engage in yoga have the opportunity to "practice" doing this when we encounter strongly-felt challenges right there within our bodies.  Through this practice we "learn the lesson":  rather than pushing the energy away, we can try to stay as calm as possible even while it intensifies, and then use this experience as fuel to motivate us to shift something within ourselves or within our lives.

Maybe we start spending less time on the computer and more time outdoors, or less time on the Internet sites we currently visit and seek out something different.  Or maybe we can spend less time in our own bubble of projections, seeking our own comfort, and instead volunteer to help someone else with more immediate needs.

Which brings us to another practice we can cultivate, which is to draw upon our "collective" enrollment in the school of life.  Despite the vitriolic words and images that emphasize what divides us, it is a fact that we are all in this global community together. Every breath you take is a shared chemical concoction with your families and neighbors.  Probably many of the things you recalled as working, or being positive in your life, are related to or the direct result of the work and service and help of someone else.

So like co-members of a helpful school study group, we can each bring something of value and, in return, receive the support and direction from others to lead us into new ways of living in this changing world.  And that is the ultimate wireless connection we share, and the ultimate way forward to experiencing a life that is "better off!"

"Fill my heart with discipline, put there for the teaching; in my head see clouds as stairs, help me as I'm reaching; the future's made, with better days." -- Eddie Vedder

Let's crack open our books and our hearts.  See you in class!


-- db

For more by Doug Binzak, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.