06/28/2015 10:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Solve Your Problems by Not Trying to Solve Them

Let's take a look at how we go about problem-solving. First, what exactly is a problem?

"Problem" is defined as:

a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.

The words we use are important. Included in the very definition of "problem" is the idea that it needs to be dealt with and overcome, and moreover, that the person who has the problem will be the one to do it. Also, the word "regarded" is critical. If we regard something as unwelcome or harmful, that is what makes it unwelcome or harmful. If we chose to regard it a different way, it might be neutral or even welcome.

We all believe that we have good reason to regard certain circumstances as "problems." Sometimes it seems really obvious. Say you get in a car crash. You break your arm and end up in the hospital, and the car is totaled. Definitely a situation both unwelcome and harmful, right?

In one sense. At the same time though, you can imagine how one person might have this experience and be hugely troubled by it. Another might have the same experience and not lose their peace of mind. It can't be the situation, then, that is the source of our unwelcome feelings...

Words again


fun with words: when you want to cross but cannot walk on water, it's Row vs. Wade

A key to not feeling saddled, stressed, troubled by problems -- whether a car, a relationship, depression, or your finances -- is noticing that we are the ones who labeled the situation as unwelcome or harmful. In other words, we created the problem. The situation itself was neutral, but we defined it with the words we use about it.

None of this is particularly groundbreaking commentary. But there's one more important piece to this. Once we hear this information, it's easy to think that we have to do something about it. It seems that the trick to learn is how to think about things differently. Positive thinking! Visualization, affirmations!

There's nothing wrong with those strategies, except their success rate is spotty, and that says something about them. It's plain hard to keep constant vigilance of your mind to make sure you don't think a negative thought. This itself can become a source of stress.

This is where the importance of the words we assign recurs: When we "fix," we're saying that something is broken. So, what do we do about it?


What we don't hear often is this: The thing to do is.... wait for it... nothing. Seriously.

This is really delicate information, and subject to misunderstanding, so bear with me. By doing nothing, I don't mean sitting on your couch and reducing your participation in life to a minimum. What I do mean is that when we clearly see the problem, we don't attempt to do anything about it. It involves being OK with not knowing the answer right away. And it involves putting that need to figure things out on hold for just longer than we're used to.

Every human being has innate wisdom, and this is how we allow it to come out.

Sometimes wisdom emerges in the form of taking a particular action. Not fixing doesn't mean becoming inanimate. If anything, it tunes us into the natural rhythm of life and makes us more alive.

It's so easy to become aware of a problem and then go about looking for a strategy to fix it. But most often, when we're looking for a solution, we're actually looking in the same direction the problem came from. We have to look in a different direction. That direction is inside, from which real wisdom and answers emanate.

To illustrate the point, a personal example seems to be in order:

Waves of anxiety


Recently, I was sitting on the beach. It was a beautiful day, but for some reason, a wave of anxiety overtook me out of nowhere. It wasn't about anything in particular, it didn't necessarily have a cause, but it was strong. And when I felt it, I could quickly and clearly see how the problem was entirely in my head, because what is anxiety but thoughts spinning out of control? I kept telling myself I'm experiencing my thoughts, I'm experiencing my thoughts, I know about this stuff, I just have to wait and they'll go away, why aren't they going away... and so on. I became scared and I wanted it to end. I looked around, at the sand, at the ocean, at some gulls... and for a few seconds I forgot about my anxiety. And then I remembered, wait, I was just anxious, I need to get rid of that! And so began another cycle -- shorter this time -- of noticing how this was all in my thoughts, and trying to think the right thought to get myself out of it. And then I got distracted by the wind in the shrubs, and I wasn't anxious. This repeated until eventually I looked back on my anxiety in the rearview mirror, and it wasn't a threat.

The anxiety went away. But how? Everything I attempted to do didn't help. If anything I got in my own way and made it worse. How did it heal then? It healed because the nature of our bodies, our minds, and of life, is healing.

By getting distracted by some birds, it allowed a space for a new, non-anxious thought to enter.

And that's what always happens, right? Our thoughts remain in our heads only as long as we think them.

We think that we have to solve our problems, but what if it's not up to us? What if we just keep moving within the flow of life and trust wisdom to emerge at the right time?