Photo by Austin Neill

It’s all a matter of interpretation. Or how to surf the waves of life

Life goes with ups and downs. We all know that and experience that. And while the ups are very enjoyable, don't underestimate the value of the downs.

When I’m experiencing an up, life is a breeze. I feel very inspired, have a lot of energy. Things come easily and without effort. The meaning of life seems obvious.

But then there is the inevitable down. Gone is the inspiration. Gone is the meaning. Everything takes so much more effort. And even when all those efforts have been made, the end result isn’t quite as beautiful as when I’m experiencing an up. In come the negative thoughts. And that is exactly the moment when mindfulness can be of tremendous value.

Is there anything wrong with the down? It’s all a matter of interpretation.

Let’s have a look at other patterns of ups and downs:

  • Ebb and Flow: has anything gone wrong when there is ebb? Are we afraid that the water will not return?

  • Day and night: when we are experiencing a sunset, are we afraid that the sun will never rise again?

  • Breathing in and out: when we let go of our out-breath, are we afraid that we will never receive the oxygen again for our next in-breath?

  • The seasons of the year: we know that they all come back. We are not afraid to lose the summer. Some of us may not enjoy the winter so much, but summer will always return.

The funny thing is, we are not in control of any of these things. And so we are not afraid. But as soon as we think we are in control, we become afraid. We fight the downward movement, the ebb in a desperate attempt to stay in the flow. We are not letting go.

But are we in control? Can we really stop the waves of life? Have you ever been successful in staying in the ups and preventing the downs? That would be like stopping the earth from turning. Maybe you have the illusion that you can do that for a period of time, but no way will you succeed at that forever.

As for me, I don’t really enjoy the downs. I definitely prefer an up. But when experiencing a down, it does matter how I interpret it. Because how I interpret it, determines if I will feel okay about it or not.

First of all, it helps me to practice patience. Okay, I’m experiencing my personal ebb right now. It’s just a matter of time before the flow will return. An example of this is my sense of direction in my professional development. When I wanted to become a software developer, a couple of years ago, I had an enormous sense of direction. I experienced the flow for many months, enough to teach myself programming and get a job as a developer. After a while the ebb started to enter my life. I still enjoyed the programming and the learning, but my sense of direction was disappearing. I had no idea how to move forward. What to focus on next. If you would have asked me what my goals were for the next year or so, I wouldn’t have been able to answer.

Eventually (in fact, that is where I am right now) the flow came back again. The enthusiasm, the inspiration, the sense of direction. It’s like breathing in and out. In my life as a developer I will have periods of more inspiration and periods of less or no inspiration. But my need for learning and developing myself is something that keeps returning.

But what is happening during a period of ebb? For me that is usually a period of more inward focus. The outward movement of productivity and success is blocked for a while. When you are on an escalator downwards, but you want to go upwards, you would have to make twice the effort to get where you want to be. But maybe your destination is in the basement right now. The basement of your mind.

When I have very little energy, suddenly taking care of my body becomes my top priority. I’m still learning, but not about software development, but about cooking healthy meals for instance. I’m learning how to say ‘no’ without feeling guilty (which is a very valuable skill by the way) and say ‘yes’ to all the things that preserve and restore my energy. I’m forced to look at limiting beliefs and inner conflicts because they are in my face and I can’t avoid looking at them any longer. I need to rest and meditate more. Make space for new insights by seeking the silence.

The periods of ebb are also periods of great growth. But not professional growth, but inner growth. If you fully allow those periods of ebb into your life, they will prove to be of great value.

Often there are several waves going on simultaneously. Large waves spanning a couple of months or years, and small waves of a couple of hours or days. Be mindful of them, see what good they bring into your life. Even the downward movements have meaning. Although you may think you are in control, you are actually only in control of your interpretation. Of what it means to you when you experience a high or a low. Are you afraid of drowning, or are you learning to surf the waves?

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