How to Not Cry Over Spilled Milk

Spilled milk

Recently I knocked from my fridgetop an adorable little bottle of Spanish balsamic vinegar my mom brought from Barcelona. I was feeling especially grounded that day and somehow, before it even struck the floor, I was over it.

On a different day I might have sworn and fretted about it, cursed myself as I picked up its pieces, felt bad about wrecking a thoughtful gift from my mom, and pondered my chronic failure to keep my belongings organized and in good condition. One thought may have led to another until I decided I was in too bad a mood to write than night, watched nature shows and ate Ben & Jerry’s, and went to bed disappointed with myself.

Sour moods are like that — infectious and self-sustaining — and they’re born in the moments when we feel resigned, disappointed or incompetent.

Normally, when something breaks like that, there’s a rather strong reaction. The body tenses, gasps, swears, maybe groans like Homer Simpson. The mind sulks, scowls or scorns itself.

It doesn’t feel good. We feel run over, shameful, wasteful, distinctly worse off than we were before this (latest) minor tragedy. A little cloud forms over one’s head: loss.

Loss is an emotion all of its own. It’s the feeling of wrongness or injustice that comes over you when you suddenly don’t have something you feel you should.

At the very least, we experience an unpleasant spike of frustration, but often the crappy feeling lingers for minutes, hours or longer. Sooner or later we accept it. Naturally, sooner is better.

Right after you dump that Coke on your keyboard or discover that crack in your windshield, you might curse yourself, or someone else, or God, for wrecking something that was perfectly fine. It didn’t have to be that way. What a waste. Life was fine, and now it’s not!

Surely, before you read this post, you weren’t thinking about the all of thousands of little losses you’ve suffered in your life: dishes that were dropped, ice cream cones that were fumbled, plans that were rained out, afternoons that were wasted in front of the TV. Everyone has countless tiny disappointments in their past.  Thousands of awful little moments that — in their time — strained our heartstrings and made us frown.

But obviously you got over them at some point. You had to. Even if you couldn’t accept it at first, life moved steadily away from ground zero until you couldn’t help but be done grieving that particular plate/shirt/girl/expectation.

Almost always, these little snafus have no measurable far-reaching effect on our lives, but in the moment, they hurt. And once we feel that sting, it’s hard to find the perspective it takes to see it for the inconsequential hiccup that it is, in the grand scope of life. You still have to deal with the fallout of what happened anyway (stained clothes, lack of ice cream) but that’s certainly easier when you’re not crying about it, or wishing it didn’t happen.

What if we could bring acceptance to these little losses, without the seemingly mandatory “grief period?”

I’m not talking about the death of family members, or the flooding of your home. I’m talking about the thousands of little tragedies that spoil so many of our moods. The disheartening but ultimately minor losses we strive so hard to avoid: the ding in your car door, the game-winning field goal the other team scores, the grass stain on your jeans you know will never come out, the bland meal you paid thirty bucks for.

This kind of stuff can make a mood bad, and a bad mood can infect the rest of the day, to say the least.

There seems to be a clear sequence to these mini-tragedies:

1) Something unfortunate happens
2) We react emotionally; life seems to be suddenly worse because of said unfortunate thing
3) We accept that what’s done is done, and we carry on from wherever we are

Step two is never fun, and it seldom accomplishes much. Depending on the severity, it can last a few moments, a half hour, a whole afternoon or longer. Worst of all it leaves a person more vulnerable to other emotional reactions, as long as it does last. That’s the stuff bad days are made of.

So how do we skip it? Step one is instantaneous, and thus, easy to get through. Step three feels good. So it’s only the middle part that sucks. Acceptance will happen eventually, so why do we have to get through that pointless emotional gauntlet to get back to “all is well”?

The trouble is, the reaction is mostly automatic. Emotions are reflexes; it’s really hard to insert a dose of reason into the tiny sliver of time between the smashing of glass and the souring of the mood. By the time you can remind yourself “It’s okay, this kind of stuff happens, it’s no big deal, I’ll just clean it up and move on,” the blow has been struck, and the emotions are already swirling.

When I destroyed the cute little vinegar bottle, widowing its olive oil companion, I happened to be in a very easygoing mindset. Without even frowning, I just tore off some paper towels and sopped it up. Then I went on to something else, and life continued without a hint of despair. Somehow I had managed to slip past that nasty ‘middle phase’ of the process. Instant acceptance.

For me, this kind of perspective comes and goes, but I was especially conscious that day. The reason I was able to accept it without reaction was that I had accepted it before it happened.

As usual, the Buddhists had this one figured out centuries ago. They learned to outsmart the emotion of loss with this ingenious directive: see everything as already broken.

Everything in life is impermanent. If you’ve got the perspective to realize it, all forms come and go, without exception. Things break, fade, get lost and spoiled. No exceptions.

Or if you prefer it in Fight-Club-speak:

On a long enough timeline, the survival rate of everything drops to zero.

~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

There can be no argument with destiny, and it is the destiny of all forms to eventually cease to exist. They are constantly on their way to becoming something else: a broken or weakened version of themselves, debris, rubble, dust.

Objects are created, used, enjoyed and eventually broken. Fibres are woven into clothing, serve as such, then fade, fray and fall apart. People are born, develop, age and die. It’s actually quite beautiful, if you can zoom out far enough to see that there is a whole process at work here.

Pick up any object you value. Your jacket, your laptop, your sunglasses. Turn it over in your hands, and admire its beauty and other qualities. Consider all it does for you.

Now, picture it broken. Crushed, frayed, destroyed. Know that everything is slated for destruction in some way, in due time.

This isn’t a recipe for pessimism; it’s just making peace with the fact that things can’t help but change, and this unfortunate turn of events was supposed to happen.

When you look at things with the mind that they are already broken, suddenly you become grateful for everything that remains unbroken, and all it can do for you. When it does eventually break, instead of “Oh crap!” you can smile and say, “…and there it goes. As it should.” And it seems right.

There is an incredible peace that comes with real-time acceptance of change. You can see right into the passage of time itself, look it in the eye, and be okay with it. And if you’re okay with change, you’re okay with everything. You don’t have to choose which changes you’ll accept, you just accept the universe, along with its unchangeable habit of changing, as the package deal that it is and always was.

If you’re ready to face this beautiful truth fully, use this exercise on a pet, a loved one, and yourself.

The bottle was already doomed. It just needed me to get to its next destination.

R

Learn to live in the present

Everyday mindfulness has transformed my life, and has for countless others. You can use it to reduce stress, deal calmly with trouble, and experience joy and peace throughout each day. Making it a habit is easier than you probably think. Learn how.


{ 44 Comments }

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 1, 2009 at 7:42 am

“…all forms come and go, without exception. Things break, fade, get lost and spoiled. No exceptions.”

The verbs appear to be “negatively skewed” in your statement.

Some other synonyms could be: motion, balancing, change (psychosomatic), arrangement, culmination, separating, flow~ shiva…

…I dance a lot it seems when I write here…

Years ago I sat down with a pair of scissors and cut up all of my CDs…took me about three seconds to realise that I did miss them. I still miss that Pearl Jam album…tho not replaced it.

Sometimes we need to let go to truly appreciate what/who we are spending time. This does not equal gone.

David October 1, 2009 at 7:55 am

Well, any negativity is only in the interpretation. Society has given the ideas of destruction and decay negative connotations that they might not deserve. I’m talking about how to see beyond just the negative aspect of destruction.

Which Pearl Jam album?

Find yourself with a smile... October 1, 2009 at 8:28 am

At one point, I found myself very disturbed by the impermanence of the talent Pearl Jam displayed on ‘Ten’

;-)
.-= Find yourself with a smile…´s last blog ..Top 10 Habits for Super Effective Study =-.

David October 1, 2009 at 9:56 am

They do have a lot of forgettable material, but there are some gems in there. I think Vs, Vitalogy and Yield are all stellar albums, just not as accessible as Ten.

They also put on the absolute best concert I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been to more than a few. :)

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 1, 2009 at 3:41 pm

gee David~ when the quote was re-interpreted Palahniukian style~ there was no resonance of neutral or positive verbs methought :-)

The album was 10

My favorite of all ever
Right there with you Find Yourself was…

At this moment I am letting go of the fact that I do not have a ticket to Winnipeg to experience Ingrid Gatin perform live~ MySpace download it is then…

Positively Present October 1, 2009 at 7:58 am

Really great post and such a good topic. LOVE that you used a Fight Club quote. Palahniuk rocks!
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..light up your life: 5 ways to make your path brighter =-.

David October 1, 2009 at 10:27 am

Thanks Dani. Chuck is a wise man!

Nate St. Pierre October 1, 2009 at 8:06 am

Interesting . . . at first I thought this sounded like a life outlook I made up when I was 10 years old, and told my dad: “Expect nothing, and you’ll never be disappointed.” I think his reply was, “That’s a pretty dumb outlook on life.”

But then I realized that you’re talking about something a little deeper, a little stronger, a little more true. Your last main paragraph is very cool, and I especially like the last line:

“The bottle was already doomed. It just needed me to get to its next destination.”
.-= Nate St. Pierre´s last blog ..Give It Away =-.

Find yourself with a smile... October 1, 2009 at 8:41 am

A very nice post, David.

Although if the wrong person read it… they might accuse you of being Buddhist. :-)

It is interesting being able to let things go.

The impermanence of objects was challenging to accept. The impermanence of people (particularly loved ones) was even harder.

The ever changing nature of my own emotions is the challenge I’m still working with… sometimes the initial acceptance seems to intensify the emotion. Sometimes the shifts and changes in energy are overwhelming.

On occasion, the ups and downs seem like more than I can handle.

Sometimes, if you want to get where you are going… or if you just want to enjoy yourself… you have to ride the wave!

keep smiling,

Ben
.-= Find yourself with a smile…´s last blog ..Top 10 Habits for Super Effective Study =-.

David October 1, 2009 at 10:05 am

Same here Ben. Reminds me of the phrase “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

Benjamin October 1, 2009 at 11:58 am

Very Nice!

(sooner or later I’ll get this commenting thing down) :-)
.-= Benjamin´s last blog ..3 Powerful Concepts for Goal Setting & Spiritual Growth! =-.

David October 1, 2009 at 10:01 am

Yeah I am talking about something different than just expecting the worst so that it doesn’t disappoint you. It’s more like knowing that you can’t really ‘have’ anything because time will claim it anyway. Everything owned is only borrowed, so enjoy it while you have it and let it go without a fight when time comes to claim it.

Though I don’t think your 10-year-old outlook is dumb at all! Expectations are attachments, attachments are guaranteed suffering.

Srinivas Rao October 1, 2009 at 8:52 am

David,

This is a timely post. I had a day like this yesterday because the surf got blown out early and then I came home and broke a wine bottle. What’s amazing is that you have identified exactly what I was feeling and by understanding the process we can change it.

David October 1, 2009 at 10:11 am

It applies to milk, wine, vinegar, and any other fluids!

John October 1, 2009 at 9:54 am

“And the award for interesting new take on something well known by all goes to…” ;)

Ha ha, yeah David this is awesome. I think I was doing this already, but it was more of an unconscious act. Whenever my laptop crashed and lost all of its data (which doesn’t happen that often, no worries) I got that “Wow, really?” feeling, but it eventually passed.

It’s just as you say. Whenever anything breaks, you should expect it to already be broken. It makes moving forward that much easier.
.-= John´s last blog ..Dreaming v. Realism: My Thoughts on Both =-.

David October 1, 2009 at 10:18 am

Hi John. I think something like a full-on laptop crash would send me into a temporary bout of insanity. Good on you for being so cool-headed.

Your reaction reminds me of another Buddhist lesson that applies. Whenever anything happens, pleasant or unpleasant, one says “Is that so?” The idea is to train yourself to accept first without condition, interpret later.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 1, 2009 at 3:56 pm

the child living with that monk in the lesson you mention got a great head start in letting go…

reminds me of this one…

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

Twan October 1, 2009 at 10:12 am

It’s weird cause often I zoom right past number 2 to the chagrin of my wife who claim’s I am a robot. Too many time’s I skip passed the “omg this happened to me/you/us” stage and right into the “how do we fix it” stage.

I’m slowly learning that while this might work for my day to day personal problems it doesnt translate well in a marriage because that emotional stage in #2 cannot be avoided for all the up’s and we see as a couple. My quickness to step over #2 leads to a longer time spent in #2 for her alone as I’m off on the “fixing portion”.
.-= Twan´s last blog ..Detailing the Evo =-.

David October 1, 2009 at 10:27 am

That’s a good point Twan. Sometimes others expect us to validate their own reaction. I still think jumping to the “How do we fix it” stage is the way to go, and is most conducive to the mental health of everyone involved. I’m definitely no relationship expert though ;)

Beth L. Gainer October 1, 2009 at 10:30 am

David,

I loved your posting!! Even before you brought up the Buddhists, I was thinking of how Zen your philosophy was. I think people don’t really appreciate what they have got until it’s gone. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of people — unless one trains his/her mind to think in the way you suggest.

For me, that Zen moment was when I fought cancer (I survived, thankfully). I now live life with honesty and joy and try not to fret the small stuff that really doesn’t matter. Of course, every now and then, I find myself cursing when something breaks.

Like all breakable things, humans aren’t perfect. :-)

David October 1, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Thanks Beth. You’re right, that is the nature of people; to seek security and permanence. Two elusive (or nonexistent?) things, no wonder life is so tough for us ;)

Cheryl October 1, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Thanks for the reminder to allow loss to happen. Things break or don’t go as planned and that’s just what happened. How we respond next is key. On Saturday, during jiu jitsu class, I landed on my back and somehow managed to wrench my ankle. What!? How did that happen? Oh no! Should have stopped, but of course, I continued training – class wasn’t over yet. I’ve paid for it all week with a swollen ankle and no training at all. I moped. Then I iced and elevated and watched tv. Life goes on. I’ll train again. Can’t wait!
.-= Cheryl´s last blog ..Add a Juicy New Activity to Your Life in 5 Steps =-.

David October 1, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Hi Cheryl. Yeah, there is some consolation to be found usually. I’m a bit sick today, and I don’t like being sick. But I’m enjoying moping around today, something I haven’t done much lately.

Brenda October 1, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Yep. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Not pessimistic. Realistic. I like your Buddhist quote. Haven’t seen that before. Car scratches, broken bottles. Looking forward to your hangnail post. :)
.-= Brenda´s last blog ..Haiku =-.

David October 1, 2009 at 6:39 pm

Hangnail post is in the works ;)

Patty - Why Not Start Now? October 1, 2009 at 2:04 pm

“Inconsequential hiccup.” I really like that. For me, recognizing that things in life are impermanent actually makes my life richer, helps me to stay in the moment. And makes it easier to let go, when the time comes. I’ve learned that letting go, whether by choice or circumstance, always opens up space for what’s next: everything from a new bottle of vinegar to a new life structure!
.-= Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog ..Ten Qualities of Self-Renewing Adults =-.

David October 1, 2009 at 6:41 pm

That’s right, every ending is a beginning too. There’s a verse in the Tao Te Ching about just that. You can’t have one without the other.

Erin October 1, 2009 at 5:24 pm

You heard the joke about the “Calvinist” who fell down a flight of stairs? He said “Gosh, I’m glad that is over.” Since Calvinist believe everything is predestined that might make you smile. I did enjoy the story about the bottle. If the balsamic vinegar was used, great. If not, no need to form a serious attachment. If you need vinegar, you can get some more. I have been trying to clean out and minimize stuff in my life. I did dispose of a spare coffee pot a couple of months ago, and now my husband is going to work in another town for a while. This is a simple $15 dollar replacement. Not a big deal even if we do get rid of something that may need to be replaced. How much do we keep that we should get rid of? We stress about a lot of things and I agree it can shorten our lives, or make the lives of our loved ones miserable.
.-= Erin´s last blog ..Have An Easy Fast =-.

David October 1, 2009 at 6:43 pm

Haha great joke.

I love getting rid of stuff. Every possession has some kind of attachment that goes a long with it. It’s nice to keep only a light inventory of both.

Walter October 2, 2009 at 1:10 am

Change is a very difficult concept for our minds. We prefer to brood in misery than to accept what is. Unless we go beyond our present level on consciousness, we won’t be able to see the beauty of change. :-)

David October 4, 2009 at 8:53 am

Hi Walter. Yes, that’s really what it’s about: raising the level of consciousness from reactivity to unattached observation.

Dayne | TheHappySelf.com October 2, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Yeah, this was a fantastic post! This is the part that really struck a chord with me…

“As usual, the Buddhists had this one figured out centuries ago. They learned to outsmart the emotion of loss with this ingenious directive: see everything as already broken.”

I think if we can look at EVERYTHING in life as broken, imperfect, or damaged…then we won’t suffer so much when we DO lose things, things are lost, or things are damaged.

Excellent post!

Dayne
.-= Dayne | TheHappySelf.com´s last blog ..Zen and The Awakened Soul =-.

David October 4, 2009 at 8:54 am

Thanks Dayne!

Chris Edgar October 3, 2009 at 2:21 am

Thanks for this David. One reassuring way to see this process of things getting “broken” for me is to recognize that Being, the substance out of which all these things are way, can’t break, but can only change its form or appearance. The moments when I’ve actually felt that this is true — that it’s all just a “solid block of reality” like Nisargadatta Maharaj puts it — have been my happiest ones.

David October 4, 2009 at 8:56 am

That’s right, and there is a lot more to be discussed about that idea. It’s all the same thing, just the forms change. I’m going to write about other applications of that particular insight, because it is so powerful.

brigid October 3, 2009 at 4:24 am

its so true that we don’t actually ‘own’ anything,
the joy and attachment we feel towards an object is transient – the joy, the attachment AND the object.

David October 4, 2009 at 8:57 am

Good point. Everything passes, even the attachment.

Ian | Quantum Learning October 4, 2009 at 6:26 am

“I was feeling especially grounded that day and somehow, before it even struck the floor, I was over it.” I just love this line! And the rest of the post. This is really a recipe for contentment and acceptance.
.-= Ian | Quantum Learning´s last blog ..Don’t just do something! Sit there! =-.

David October 4, 2009 at 8:58 am

Thanks Ian. I’m off to go break stuff in the kitchen.

Roberta October 5, 2009 at 3:40 pm

this helped me a lot today. yesterday I was “crying over spilled milk” and the rest of my day was not so good. it was something so minor in the grand scheme of things. I have noticed that sometimes the smaller things are harder to let go of and sometimes the harder things are easier to let go off. The quote you used “seeing everything as already broken” is something I need to remember.
.-= Roberta´s last blog ..new friend =-.

David October 6, 2009 at 11:30 am

I agree, smaller things do seem to be more insidious sometimes. Maybe it’s because there are so many of them that once in a while, one of them hits us right when we’re most vulnerable.

Langston November 9, 2009 at 9:19 am

I live similarly in terms of my understanding of unfortunate occurrences. Sometimes I think simply to laugh and learn when I know I could have prevented something (such as an object falling) if I didn’t spend so many milliseconds watching it fall. What people should realize is that they should not attempt “not to feel” or to block their disappointment. Instead we must allow the emotion to flow through and out of us. Otherwise, it’ll just look good for the moment, but you’ll end up crying someday.

KLEIO KECHAGIA June 5, 2014 at 10:45 am

What about this?
“Do not seek to bring things to pass in accordance with your wishes, but wish for them as they are, and you will find them.”
And: “The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.”
And “Never in any case say I have lost such a thing, but I have returned it. Is your child dead? It is a return. Is your wife dead? It is a return. Are you deprived of your estate? Is not this also a return?”
And ““I must die. Must I then die lamenting? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment?”
And ““Small-minded people blame others. Average people blame themselves. The wise see all blame as foolishness”

All by Epictetus

David Cain June 6, 2014 at 9:02 am

I always agree with what the stoics say. I’m just not sure how to do what they say. Any suggestions on stoic practices, or reading material that covers them?

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