Strategies of Behavior
So we skate along, hoping to avoid the fears that we don’t want to address—such as the fears of loss of control, of failure, of being unworthy, of being alone, and so on. Rarely do we question our strategies—usually we just blindly follow them. But in following them we define our own self-limiting boundaries, and our life narrows down to a sense of vague dissatisfaction.
Isn’t it true that for most of us, most of the time, we’re content to blindly skate on the thin ice of life, mostly taking our life for granted. We choose strategies of behavior to try to control our world—in part, to help us avoid the anxious quiver in our being. I’m talking about strategies that we’re all familiar with, such as trying harder or seeking diversions.
I want to describe some of these strategies more specifically, and as you read about them, see if you can recognize which ones best describe your own. I’m also going to describe the fear that may, in part, underlie each strategy.
There’s the strategy of trying to make the world into a better place, trying to make things right—perhaps to avoid the fear that things will never be right, particularly that I will never be right. This is the basic strategy of perfectionism.
There’s the strategy to give or nurture, hoping to find security in being needed and appreciated—perhaps to avoid the fear of being unloved. This is the basic strategy of the helper.
There’s the strategy of achievement, of getting ahead—geared to override the nagging sense of inadequacy or unworthiness. This is the familiar strategy of trying to be on top of things, or at least appearing to be on top.
There’s the strategy of dramatizing our suffering, to elevate ourselves in our uniqueness, trying to get the acknowledgment we crave—perhaps to cover over the sense of being hopelessly flawed. This is the basic strategy of trying to feel special.
There’s the strategy of trying to keep our world in order—to ward off the feeling of danger and chaos. This is the most basic control strategy. And there is the companion strategy of withdrawal, again to avoid chaos and danger.
There’s the strategy of conformity and compliance—seeking the comfort of fitting in or following an authority. This is the strategy of being dutiful and responsible—perhaps to avoid the fears of insecurity and groundlessness.
Or the strategy of negativity and defiance—to avoid the pain and fear of feeling like you’re nothing. Some of you may be familiar with this as the strategy of doubting and yes-butting.
There’s the strategy of seeking business, adventure or pleasure—perhaps to fill the holes of longing and loneliness. This is the basic strategy of diversion.
There’s the strategy of appearing strong and self-reliant—to avoid the inner terror of appearing or feeling weak. This is the strategy of the asserter and confronter.
And there’s the strategy of being laid back and detached—to avoid the fears of engagement, confrontation and rejection. This is sometimes described as the peacemaker strategy—the primary effort being to keep things mellow.
Do any of these sound familiar? Once we recognize our own strategies, we need to ask ourselves: are any of these strategies really successful? In general, the answer is that yes, they can somewhat help us negotiate through our complex world; and they can temporarily put our fears at bay. But when they fail, we can see that we’re always just one crack away from falling in the icy water.
So how do you understand practice with these strategies? The first thing that’s required is that we be able to learn from our disappointments. I’m talking about the disappointment we feel when our strategies don’t really work in getting us the comfort that we want. And then, very specifically, to be able to see our disappointments as our path. This requires first acknowledging the sense of entitlement that our strategies are based on, for example, that we shouldn’t have to be uncomfortable, or that life shouldn’t be so difficult.
Then, once we acknowledge the disappointment of our strategies not working, we can refrain from trying to manipulate our life to make our strategies work, and instead use the discomfort as our wake-up.
Wake-up to what? First, to simply seeing what’s actually happening—to seeing where we’re blindly caught in our conditioned patterns. For example, where are we just trying to look good, or where are we seeking approval, or where are we caught trying to fulfill our attachments or cravings—for food or sleep or comfort in any form? Where are we trying to avoid feeling anxiety or insecurity, through trying to control and manipulate our world?
Again, once we recognize our patterns clearly, the practice is to refrain from replaying the strategies. Even though the strategies don’t really work, the human tendency is to keep doing them over and over, like a rat in a maze. So to refrain from the replay is a big step.
The next step, perhaps more difficult, is to open to feeling the fear that drives the strategy in the first place. This definitely takes patience and perseverance, because another of our human tendencies is to turn away from our fears. Yet, practice asks us to turn toward them—which simply means we’re open to actually feeling them, to surrendering to or residing in the discomfort as best we are able.
Please remember: when we feel discomfort or anxiety it almost always feels that something is wrong. The immediate tendency is to pursue our conditioned strategies—whether to try harder, or to hide, or to seek escape—in the hope that we can get away from the discomfort or anxiety. But to feel anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong. The only thing it means is that we’re feeling anxiety. In other words, we’re simply having a conditioned response.
So instead of following our usual strategies, the practice is to first recognize what’s going on—to see our anxiety as just a conditioned response. And second, to consciously refrain from our strategies of control and escape. This allows us to take the third and transformative step of returning to and surrendering to our experience itself, where we can begin to get a taste of real freedom—and where we can experience the equanimity of dwelling in the heart of awareness.