Recently, I attended an afternoon workshop by Mark McCooey, a very successful businessman involved in multiple industries and several non-profits. The workshop covered problem-solving techniques he’s developed, based partly on the work of Byron Katie. The presentation followed the outline of a book he’s working on.
I found his approach to life’s challenges excellent. It can bring you peace in difficult circumstances but it may require some deep looking. I’ll paraphrase from notes, adding my own perspective.
The first thing to recognize about problems is that they’re only problems as long as we don’t see a solution. Once a solution arises, our stress levels drop – even before it’s implemented. In other words – everything is perception, even the problem.
As Mark observed, if we have no expectations, we have no problems. When we disengage the identified me and recognize our nature as the cosmic Self, that unlimited perspective changes our perception of ourselves and the world and heals many old wounds. Challenges will still arise but when they are no longer personal, they will not bring the weight and stress they once did. Nor will we tend to create problems for ourselves with expectations, though it may take time to wind down the many old habits. The ultimate solution to problems thus lies in spiritual awakening.
The second thing to note is that our first reaction to a new challenge is to drop into our animal brain with a fight, flight, or freeze response. The reactive self experiences stress and uncertainty. The body shifts blood flow away from the higher brain and gut and into the animal brain and muscles. It demands something be done, now, even if nothing can be done. Just remembering something we’ve forgotten can elicit the stress response. Or noticing we don’t know where something is. The style of our typical response (anger, fear, withdrawal) is usually based on long-established habits from our childhood. That in turn is based on those circumstances and family examples, plus our own temperament.
Mark recommends we never respond to a newly perceived problem immediately, unless it’s a small one. Rather, if we wait until the initial reaction settles, we can shift back into our higher rational mind and make much better, more creative choices. The best way to relieve stress and stimulate the prefrontal cortex per research is with effortless meditation – which is good for awakening too.
Once settled, the first step Mark suggests is we ask the question:
Who’s problem is it?
Often, we can spend a lot of energy and stress over a circumstance we have no resources to do anything about. The problem does not even belong to us.
The 3 types of problems:
1) Yours: if it’s your problem, it’s solvable by you only and with the resources you have.
2) Someone Else’s: if someone else has the resources, it’s their problem. You may need to bring it to their attention or support them in the process, but if it’s theirs it is only theirs to actually resolve.
3) God’s: no one has the resources but God. (substitute nature, universe, or similar if you don’t like that word) If you don’t control it, let it go. Put another way, let go and let God.
Note that God also controls all outcomes. You control your actions but not the results. This is a key teaching from the Bhagavad Gita.
For example, perhaps someone in the family has an addiction. In the case of an alcoholic husband, only he can solve the problem of the addiction, much as the rest of the family may try. Others may help support them in finding treatment, but the addict must take the responsibility and seek healing. No one else can do it for them, just as no one else can learn their lessons for them.
However, that initial problem may create problems for others that they can address. For example, the wife of an unrepentant alcoholic has the choice to stay in the relationship or not. They also have a choice around how they respond emotionally to the circumstance. But they cannot solve the addiction itself. Expectations the addict will change will only lead to our own suffering.
There can also be a whole chain of people involved, such as in trying to deal with or cover for the alcoholic. But again, only they can solve the core problem. If they are unwilling, the others have to let it go and decide how they will deal with how it impacts them. Tough love.
In another potent example, a terminally ill child. The parents and family can do their best to provide care and comfort and research options. But they have to leave the outcome to God. They have no control over that.
You may also find some problems are shared. You have some of the resources and can be part of the solution. However, you have to be very clear that it’s not all your problem and you or others don’t try to make it so.
Why do we get involved in problems we can’t solve? If we have the illusion we can do something about it, it avoids a feeling of being helpless. However, this just delays the inevitable and often leads to deeper suffering. Ofttimes, it can also be tied into our sense of identity and illusions of control. As I mentioned, this can take some deep looking.
If the problem does belong to us, it’s important to address the main aspects of the problem and not get caught in minor details. After identifying it’s your problem, identify the biggest obstacle and look to resolving that. For example, you need a job. Are you spending most of your time seeking and applying for jobs? Or making nice spreadsheets of possible employers, polishing the resume, and so forth?
The Either/Or dilemma
Often we see a problem as black and white, a this or that choice. This is another symptom of being in the reactive animal brain. Often, hybrid solutions are possible that address both sides. This requires time for the higher brain to process and synthesize.
For example, do you stay in a dead-end job or go back to school for training? Perhaps there is a weekend training option that lets you support yourself while getting the training. In other words, both. The job isn’t so dead-end then.
If we’re going to actually help someone with their problems rather than becoming part of the problem ourselves, there needs to be some clear ground rules. Use gentle, quiet truth.
1 – you need to be clear it’s their problem before you even get involved
2 – they need to be clear it’s their problem
3 – they need to be clear your help is not you taking the problem (#2 again)
4 – they need to be demonstrating that they’re doing what they can
Once they recognize it’s in their power, ask them to make commitments to action steps, even baby steps. If they take no action, you cannot help.
If they come to you with a big story or drama, they have not yet defined the problem. You may be able to help them get clarity. The problem should be able to be stated in one or two sentences. First, the problem is defined, they recognize it’s theirs to do something about, and then action steps are identified.
In this regard, women tend to see issues more in relationship and thus may take longer than men to come to clarity but the result is a more comprehensive solution. So men, be patient and let them share. It can be part of their process. Sharing a story is not a problem. Regurgitating it over and over without change is when it’s an issue. Then it’s being turned into a belief.
If they are unwilling to take responsibility & action steps, you cannot help. Sometimes people get invested in their drama and just want to keep telling their story. You may be able to challenge them with baby steps but if they keep telling the same story, you’re just enabling it. Sadly, some people need to suffer more deeply before they’re willing to let go. Until then, there’s little you can do except tell them you’ll be there when they’re ready.
Perhaps a friend has a health crisis and needs support through it. But then the crisis is over and it’s time for them to reengage life. If they’re still asking for the same support and you give it, then you’re enabling a dependency. Instead, can you help them see steps to take to become sufficient again?
Define, take responsibility, and act may sound obvious but all of us can get caught in loops, reacting habitually to a circumstance without stopping to consider what the real issue is. Only then can it be addressed. A key red flag is when you find yourself telling others an excuse story over and over. Another flag is when your health is taking a hit because you’re unwilling to deal with the potential change being called for by life.
Mark also explored a number of other dynamics, like identifying the primary reactive mode people you engage with favour and how to mitigate each. He plans to hold a further session to explore others layers. I look forward to this and his resulting book.