There are various ways to prepare yourself for what might come your way, whether that’s a tough work project, a crisis, the loss of a loved one, an argument with your partner, or the zombie apocalypse.
One way is to get everything ready for anything that’s likely to come: get all your survival equipment, prepare your skills, plan for your work projects, get your affairs in order, think through your arguments, and so on.
The trouble with this is you don’t know what’s coming. And so you’ll spend your entire life preparing for various things, and not really be ready. And who wants to spend their life just preparing?
Another way of preparing is learning some skills that will have you ready for just about anything that might come.
This is the survival kit of living, as featured on Zen Habits.
First, the philosophy: you can’t prepare for the details of every single possible thing that might come your way in the future, because the future is uncertain. Instead, realize that the external events are just details … the real thing to prepare yourself for is what happens internally. And it’s pretty much the same thing. So we’re going to learn some internal survival skills that will help us deal with anything the future holds.
Second, a little prep before you prep: I’ve found that while the external details aren’t as important as what you do internally, it’s still good to have your house in order as much as possible. That means have your finances in order — get out of debt, or at least have your debts listed with a plan to pay them off as soon as you possibly can, have an emergency fund, spend less than you earn, invest as much as you can. That means simplify your possessions and your time. Get your health in order — focus on eating more whole foods (especially vegetables) and less processed foods, get active. Once you have these things down, the rest of life is much, much easier.
The Survival Kit
If you learn these things, you’ll be ready for anything — from regular work and personal events to crises of all kinds, to major losses and life changes.
- Mindfulness. This is the foundation — without practicing mindfulness, you won’t be able to do the other skills regularly enough for them to be useful. You can practice mindfulness simply by meditating — focus on your breath for a few minutes every morning, to start with. As you get better at mindfulness, you will get better at noticing what’s going on inside you as external events happen. For example, if someone is yelling at you, you might be mindful of your body at that moment and notice an increased heartbeat, a panicky feeling in your chest, a hot flush in your face, or something like that. Mindfulness of your body’s responses alert you to what might be going on in your mind.
- Watch your internal response. As you start to notice your mind’s responses to external events, you can begin to guide your response. For example, if you are given a large project at the last minute, you might notice your breathing getting shallow and your chest tightening, or your jaw clenching … you can then see that you’re extremely anxious about this, maybe resentful that you’re being asked to do this on a short deadline. You can then examine those responses — anxiety, resentfulness — and decide how to act, rather than being controlled by them.
- See what you’re holding onto. When you have a difficult feeling, like anxiety, anger, resentfulness, fear (including procrastination) … there’s something you’re attached to that’s causing the feeling. It can be difficult to spot this at first, but with practice you can see it in an instant. If you’re angry or resentful, there’s an ideal situation you would like, and are holding onto, that doesn’t match up with reality. For example, maybe someone has said something mean to you … you might be angry because (ideally) they shouldn’t treat you that way. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or not — if you want things to be different than reality, you’ll be angry or resentful or frustrated. Noticing what you’re holding onto is an important step.
- Let it go. It’s impossible not to ever hold onto certain ideals … but if you see that the ideal is causing you pain, you can be compassionate with yourself and let go of the ideal. Sure, people should treat you nicely, but that’s an ideal that’s not always going to be true. Letting go of the ideal means embracing the reality that there’s a wide range of behaviors that people will have, and that’s a part of life. Humans don’t always act ideally. We need to accept that, and not force an ideal on reality.
- Respond appropriately. Acceptance of reality doesn’t mean you do nothing. It means you let go of the ideals causing the painful feelings, and then figure out how to respond without the anger, frustration, anxiety, resentment. Responding to a person or situation in anger or resentment (for example) doesn’t usually result in a skillful response. If you can let go of the ideal and let the painful feelings go, you can respond more skillfully. When my child breaks a dish, for example, I can get angry (“They shouldn’t break dishes!”) and yell (not skillful), or I can let go of that ideal and the resultant anger, and see if the child is OK, and then calmly and compassionately talk about how to avoid that in the future. That’s a more appropriate response. When we respond in anger or frustration, we only compound the problem. Responding calmly and compassionately means we’re going to be able to deal with anything that is in front of us, whether it’s a crisis or a loss or an angry loved one.
- Stay in the moment. We make situations worse when we replay the past in our heads (“How can they have done that?”) or think of all the things that might go wrong in the future. In the present moment, things are OK. We can meet the present moment with calmness and compassion, if we can stay in the present. That means being mindful of when our mind is stuck in the past or speculating about the future, and returning to the present as much as we can.
- Be grateful & accept the moment for what it is. Reality can suck, if we want it to be different … or we can accept reality for what it is, and be grateful for it. This takes practice, because it’s hard to be grateful when you feel you’re being treated badly, or you’ve lost a job, or you’ve lost a loved one, or you’re battling illness. But this is the reality you have, not the ideal you wish you had. And it’s a reality that contains beauty, if we choose to see it. This skill makes us much more at peace with whatever we need to deal with.
It might seem overly simplistic to say that this survival kit of dealing with life will help us be prepared for any situation. And it is. But there’s nothing wrong with simplifying things, if only to help us focus our efforts on what’s most important.
In my experience, these skills matter. They make a huge difference. Practice them, and see how you’re able to deal with life in an entirely new way.