You’ve probably seen the graphic above [if you can't see it, it's here], and it maybe looked like something brilliant and life-changing when you saw it. It is unlikely that it changed your life though.
The stoics had this same roadmap figured out forever ago, and if it worked for them it’s because they knew what skills you needed to get to the big “Then don’t worry” at the center. And they practiced them. They didn’t think anything else in life was worthwhile.
This graphic does make sense, but it leaves out the hard part. The arrows make it look like getting from worrying to not worrying is done in a few stretches of unfettered, instant travel, like snakes and ladders without the snakes.
But some of the arrows represent high-level life skills that need to be identified and practiced if you’re going to consistently make it to the coveted “Don’t worry” at the middle under your own power. I want to break down what it really would take to get from one to the next, not that I’m calling myself an expert at any of them.
Even if you don’t acknowledge this map as your own normal way of doing things, we are all somewhere on it at any time, trying to get to the middle. Some people have been stuck in one place for days, weeks, or years.
I’m going to go over exactly what it would take to put this map to use, so that it can be more helpful than just a feel-good internet meme. There are eight arrows to be negotiated. Here they are, marked up with a red sharpie:
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Answering the question of whether you have a problem or not is the easiest step. If you feel at ease, then at least in this moment you don’t have a problem.
Some might argue that you can have a problem in your life yet still feel at ease right now. You could be overdue on a payment with no plan for repayment, yet be in a moment where you’re surrounded by friends and life isn’t giving you trouble.
I say any aspect of your life situation is just a condition of your life, and does not become a problem until it interferes with your emotional state. In your life there will always be something unsettled, something not figured out somewhere. But it’s hard to call it problematic if it doesn’t currently exert an emotional toll on you.
That isn’t to say that there’s no reason to act on situations that aren’t worry-inducing right now but may be later. I know that if I do my filing now, when I’m relaxed, it won’t weigh on my so much later when I’m already stressed about something else. I did it without it ever become a problem. You can be in a worryless state and still decide to act, to better position yourself against worrisome states that may come along later.
So if you feel worried, the answer to the question is “Yes.” Proceed to 3.
If you have no worries at the moment, then life is good. You slide down arrow number 2 to the holy grail of all human life, which is a sense of centredness and non-suffering. Every thing human beings do is ultimately to get here. High five. Hope you can stay.
Arrow 3 can be passed quickly. If you feel anxiety (known as dukkha to the Buddhist-curious) then you have a problem.
It sounds like everybody will automatically shoot through from arrow 3 to arrow 4, but it is definitely possible to get hung up on the 3-arrow. You could acknowledge that you aren’t problemless, yet insist that the problem isn’t yours, it’s someone else’s.
A guy could say “My wife has a problem: she never listens to what I say.” The problem is his but because he attributes it to a fault in another person, he may not recognize it as his problem. So he’ll never take responsiblity for it, never do anything about it except complain, and he’ll never be able to get to the centre of the map.
If you admit the problem is yours, even if you don’t admit it’s your fault, then proceed to arrow 4.
Ok, you’ve admitted you have a problem, and that it’s yours. Now you enter a position of more power than the chronic complainers stuck at the 3-arrow. “Can you do something about it?” isn’t the simplest question, and maybe isn’t the best question here. There’s one thing you can always do to enter a worryless state, and that’s to kill yourself. But that’s not usually practical.
“Is there something sensible you can do that could alleviate these worries?” is a better question, but you won’t feel inclined to ask yourself that if you haven’t yet identified the problem as yours. Our complaining husband from arrow 3 just won’t get here, because in his mind the only action to be taken is that of his wife.
To proceed from here, to either 5 or 6, you have to think about what might change the condition that’s worrying you. You need to come up with an honest idea of what you’re capable of, what costs too much, what is in your power and what isn’t.
You may find there’s nothing practical to do, and the condition that set off the worries will have to remain until someone else or deus ex machina fixes it, or until it naturally becomes something you don’t worry about any more.
And of course this happens. In fact, of all the tens of thousands of worries you’ve ever had, at any given time all of them are dead except a few active ones. Most died without you having to do anything.
If you figure there’s nothing you can do, proceed to 5. If you figure there is, proceed to 6 instead. If you don’t figure either, then stay here for the rest of your life.
Most worries, if you’re intent on seeing them through, will follow this road. You won’t do anything about them.
Often they become irrelevant on their own. You might have worried about what you’re going to say when your boss discovers your mistake, and then he never did, or he did and just laughed it off. There was some worry, you did nothing, and the blowup you feared never happened.
It’s safe to say that no matter who you are, most of what you worry about does not happen.
Other times your worry does come true. Just like you feared, you did get reprimanded, embarrassed, taken advantage of or ignored. And you lived, just like every other time.
It should be said that worrying about it happening before it actually happened didn’t make it any more pleasant for you. Worry isn’t going to protect you from anything, it’s only going to show you where some rational attention might be required in your life.
Notice you didn’t have to decide consciously that you weren’t going to do anything about the problem in question in order for it to work itself through, however it went. It’s actually pretty rare for people to consciously decide that “nothing” is what they’re going to do. If you’ve never done it, believe me it can feel really good.
Only if you do actively commit to “doing nothing” as your response may you proceed to arrow 8, the final stretch before worrilessness. Otherwise you will worry right through to the next one.
Ok, so there’s something you can do. You’ve got a problem, recognized it as your problem, and you see that there’s something you can do. But you’re not even halfway there.
Simply realizing that there is something you could do won’t do anything about your state of worry. Committing to doing it is what alleviates the worry. Proceed to arrow 7.
Once you get that “Yes, I can do something about it” behind you, you’re finally headed to the holy grail. But only if you really mean it when you say “Yes.”
This is the the second hardest arrow to deal with, because for the map to work at all, you need to be able to count on traversing this stretch. And that means you have to be able to count on yourself doing what you know needs to be done.
This is called discipline and it seems to be a severe minority of people who would describe themselves as well-disciplined. So, here isn’t a bad place to become exceptional.
Discipline is the ability to get yourself to take action regardless of your emotional state. You will still be in the midst of worry at this point, and you have to know how to make your body and mouth move even though you aren’t totally comfortable yet.
The usefulness of this map hinges on discipline. If you can’t contend with this bit, there’s no reliable way to get to “Don’t worry.” You just have to hope things go your way. This is what I’ve done most of my life, and as a general strategy, it blows.
This step is the hardest of the bunch because it’s where you make a problem a non-problem. You haven’t solved it, and you’re not going to. It may be impossible to solve. It may have implications for the rest of your life. But remember, what makes a problem a problem is what it does to you emotionally.
If the situation does remain, your emotions will attempt to disturb the peace. They will want you to blame, wish and hope. They will try to get you attached to a scenario that is not what’s happening — a bizarro world where there is no disadvantage you might have to accept, no pain to come to terms with.
Usually something happens in our lives, and we react emotionally with some form of “This can’t happen!” Then eventually, if it doesn’t go away, we get over it and it doesn’t feel like a problem any more. That’s a three step process, it’s already happened fifty thousands times in your life, and it’s only the middle step that makes you suffer.
Arrow 8 is the realm of the very wise and very skilled. They know how to skip or minimize that middle step — the highly emotional “This can’t happen!” outburst, which is really an irrational protest against reality itself. Wise people go right from whatever happens to having gotten over it. All it takes is that decision to do nothing (gotten to through arrow 5) and a commitment to welcoming whatever happens as if they had chosen it.
Krishnamurti was all about this. To him it was the only sensible thing to do: engage with what happens as if it isn’t unwelcome at all. This way you spare yourself the pain of resisting reality, and you still get a choice of whether to act in response or not act in response. He lived with the commitment to “Not mind what happens.”
Whether he was eventually going to take arrow 5 or arrow 6 to get to worrilessness, he would end up there nonetheless, unless he refused to either do what he needed to do to change it (arrow 7) or to accept reality as it presents itself (arrow 8.)
Am I good at this? Hell no. But no matter how badly I do it, it really helps to know which arrow I’m stuck on. Is it that I don’t see the problem as mine, that I haven’t decided whether I can do anything about it, or that I have but I’m too lazy or scared to do it? It certainly takes a lot of the confusion and overwhelm out of a lot of dilemmas.
I hope when you first saw the “Don’t worry” graphic on Facebook or Stumbleupon (or wherever) that it excited you. Getting to “Don’t worry” feels complicated, but it’s not. It’s just hard.
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