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To Be OBE or Not to Be, You Choose

December 26, 2012

In the frenetic lead-up to the holidays this year, I kept revisiting an oppressive and frankly scary state of mind that peeked out from behind holly-encrusted Christmas decorations and burst forth from the comforting depths of a pitcher of holiday eggnog like the Creature From the Black Lagoon. You know the feeling. It’s that sense of dread that you are going to be literally squashed under the weight of too many things to do without enough time to do them.creature

I have occasionally gotten a bit over-confident on a treadmill and cranked it up to about 4 notches faster than I could really maintain for any reasonable period of time, and then did the “dash of dread” in which you push yourself beyond your capabilities out of sheer terror that you will be literally flung across the gym in front of hysterically laughing hardbodies before you can crank it back down to a pace that doesn’t threaten to explode your heart.

So you know that feeling right? I thought so. I once had a patient who had been in the Navy and he referred to it as OBE: Overcome By Events.  An online definition reads: “a term of military origin used when a situation changes so rapidly that previously proposed courses of action are no longer relevant.” (The same online search yielded a few interesting alternative meanings for OBE, including “Out of Body Experience,” “Order of the British Empire,” and its pejorative step-cousin “Other Buggers Efforts” because the former is often awarded to small time politicians and councilors who only APPEAR to do a lot of work and hence are often said to have received it for “Other Buggers Efforts.” But I digress.)

So the question becomes: what, if anything, can one do when that familiar OBE feeling arises? Run faster? Freeze like the proverbial deer in the headlights? Take them all on with the grim vengeance of Chuck Norris or the magical wizardry of Harry Potter? Good luck with that. Take a look back on how you have coped with being OBE in the past and ask yourself, “How’s that workin’ out for me?”

Why not ask yourself a question at that quintessential overwhelmed moment? What if you contemplate the silly but simple question: “What am I afraid of?” Could you possibly just notice the fear arising and rather than give it legs, you just noticed it washing over you? Would it be possible to pause, breathe and look deeply and curiously at it?

Note that the definition points to “previously proposed courses of action.” In other words, we had other plans for how things would go, and when they didn’t go that way, we are flummoxed, fearful and flailing because we don’t know how to make them go that way. When we don’t float through the holidays, relaxed and oozing good cheer, issuing forth handwritten Christmas cards and homemade gifts while sipping mulled wine and tucking in the happy children, we panic. We start to try to exert a certain degree of control that we don’t actually have in order to make things “right with the world”, or at least our idea of how the world should be. Anne Lamott, in her recent book “Help, Thanks, Wow” references an old joke that is relevant here. She poses the riddle: “What’s the difference between you and God?” The answer: “God never thinks he’s you.”

Perhaps one possibility when feeling OBE, is to let go of trying to prevent being overcome. What if you just watched it all unfold, from the safety of your own two feet in the present moment and waited to see what happens? You might be surprised. Try it when that feeling arises in meditation, as if you will literally be swallowed up by all that has to be done, and here you are messing about, frittering your life away on a meditation cushion while important things are not being done. Watch it. Breathe. Watch some more. Feel what happens. Breathe again. Notice what arises with curiosity. Notice dread. Notice fear. Notice the faint but unmistakeable sound of holiday joy happening. Breathe in. Breathe out. Notice what it feels like to stop running from or to anything at all. Choose a path for yourself and re-engage when you are ready, secure in the knowing that events cannot actually overcome you, but you can definitely overcome the feeling of OBE by simply BE-ing instead.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Lorraine Chase permalink
    January 1, 2013 11:33 am

    Steve, thank you for this insight and all your articles. I hope this is not too much sharing:
    OBE early Dec with holiday demands that I insist I am too old for. However, Les & I worked together as the great team we use to be. I relaxed and had a lovely month. Now OBE has struck again and I feel as if I have to make life decisions that I am not ready to make. Even thinking about them brings deep sadness and dread. I will breath in and breath out; notice fear and dread and maybe notice that I am not alone. love and best wishes for the new year Lorraine Chase

  2. January 1, 2013 11:45 am

    Thanks for sharing Lorraine. That’s the think about OBE, it keeps coming around and the best we can do is to recognize it as a creation of our own minds and repeatedly let go of it. Kind of like those shampoo instructions: “Lather, Rinse, Repeat” — “Get OBE, Let Go, Repeat” Happy New Year!

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