• The Knox School of Santa Barbara

Mindfully Building Immunity & Influence over Circumstances


By Dave Mochel


This month has been a highly textured period of life -- lots of unexpected travel, twists, and turns. At one point last week, I found myself in downtown Los Angeles traffic and my parking brake randomly applied itself -- leading me to skid to a stop in the middle of a busy road. This was more than a bit unsettling. My brakes had been replaced the day before and, apparently, something was now wrong with the computer that controls the emergency brake. I called the place that had repaired my brakes, and they told me to just bring the car in and they would have a look at it. The problem was that they were two hours away in Santa Barbara, and I was scheduled to speak here in Los Angeles in three hours. So, I had to figure out another solution. At one point in my life, situations such as this might have led me to curse the heavens, pound the steering wheel, draft nasty op-eds in my head, or to speak unkindly to the customer service person. All understandable human responses -- and all a waste of energy. After many years of sitting quietly every day and practicing paying attention to the comings and goings of thoughts and sensations, I have found that I can be a bit more graceful in these unexpected and unwanted circumstances. I can feel the feelings associated with the situation without being driven by them. I can work the problem without as much drama. This doesn't mean that I pretend to be happy about what is happening -- it just means that I can shift my energy into something useful sooner than I used to be able to. We all have this capacity -- accessing it just takes practice. We can build our immunity to the ups and downs of life. We can find some stability in our ability to feel what we feel and to focus on what matters most. Ironically, the less we focus on our circumstances to determine the quality of our lives, the more positive influence we are likely to have over our circumstances. When we count on the conditions of life to determine the quality of our experience, we are a living ping pong ball. Good weather = good day. Bad weather = bad day. Being treated with respect = good day. And so on. The alternative is to take some time to notice and accept our internal reactions to what is happening. Then we can shift our focus toward kind, effective action. The meditation teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, uses this great mantra when she finds herself upset or struggling: "Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Breathe. Let's pay attention to what is happening; then we'll figure out what to do." I love this. I love the compassion and the wisdom of acknowledging the emotion without having it determine your response. So, on the day last week in Los Angeles, I called around and found a place nearby that could disconnect my emergency brake. It was a short, tense drive to get there, and they were very understanding and helpful. I was able to make my appointment to speak and get home safely. Not what I had planned, but an adventure with a story to boot. Learning to work skillfully with our nervous system responses to life is not something that is widely taught. This leaves many of us with two options -- suppressing or overreacting to emotional discomfort when it shows up.

Days like these make me so grateful that I was taught this practice so many years ago. If you had told me then that it was possible to move gracefully through this kind of situation, I would have thought you were some kind of PollyAnna, out of touch, self-help, crystal-sniffing, unrealistic, optimist with something to sell. And yet... Dave Mochel is the CEO of Applied Attention and author of Good Life Practices. Dave works with faculty and students at The Knox School. You can watch his TED talk here .


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