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Rose, Thorn, Bud: Self-Regulation Tools for Flourishing

Directing your attention toward the most important object of your choosing - and then sustaining that attention - is the most consequential decision we will make throughout the day. We are what we pay attention to. Chris Bailey, Canadian writer and consultant

The umbrella concept to use when thinking about how to deal with suffering and promote flourishing is self-regulation.  As human beings we are constantly receiving all sorts of stimuli.  We pay most attention to the threats unless we intervene to work with ourselves. 

One fun and powerful way to use and cultivate self-regulation so that we are more resourceful and happy is to use a sort of mind-game called rose, thorn, bud. (In a previous post I mentioned that it’s best to come up with at least 4 roses for every thorn.)  

We can think about each day awakening to a gigantic garden. We take charge of our attention so that we look for the roses – those wonderful or positive experiences. It could be as simple as sharing a laugh with a friend or learning something new! We savor them, are grateful and notice that there are indeed a lot of roses.

Now, we can’t help noticing the thorn, a little weed that popped up in our garden. It represents a challenge or something that isn’t going quite the way we want. Maybe we had a disagreement with someone or found a task difficult or failed at something. One way we can deal with thorns is to think of ourselves on a hero’s journey on a quest.

Each challenge and setback make us stronger in ways that help us achieve a significant goal – allows us to offer something useful to offer the world. It makes the encounters with the thorns purposeful – they can’t win out (in previous post).

And here's a little magic coming up which we have not yet pondered: the bud. The bud represents something we're looking forward to or something we want to grow in our garden tomorrow. It's like planting a seed of hope or excitement for the future.

It’s powerful...prospection.  Renowned psychologist, Martin Seligman introduced the term and the concept in 2012.  He said we can draw ourselves into desirable futures (rather than allow ourselves to be pulled back by the past).  Yes, it takes some self-regulation which thinking about the bud helps us with. 

As we get older, it can become more difficult to use prospection, to pull ourselves into positive futures. But it can be done. My friends with terminal (and aren't we all terminal?) cancer tell me that they keep things on the calendar to look forward to.  They are going down their “bucket list,” or maybe calendaring a visit to see their kids, planning a special place to eat out, setting a date for connecting with a friend they have not seen, or finishing an important project (often for someone else).

We had a friend, Ronnie, who was experiencing kidney failure – had to have dialysis every other day.  Her life looked horrible when seen from the outside.  But she was amazingly happy. She liked to play bingo…which she looked forward to.  She worked on a special beading project of the last supper which had significance for her.

My father, in addition to his birthday ministry (mentioned in the previous blog) which he looked forward to each day, also had another on-going project, the "Chapel of Love." He hog-tied friends to find supplies and provide labor for converting a little shack on his property into his vision of a place where people could come and meditate and pray. He was scheming each day for what he would do the next day.

Buds can come in as many varieties as roses – thousands. When I did executive and life coaching (and received coaching myself), there was a form with several questions we filled out ahead of each coaching session. One of the most productive questions was one that triggered prospection, turning our attention to the bud...

What opportunities can you see?  

Again, opportunities come in many varieties. Opportunities to enjoy nature, to hike a new path, to get together with a friend, to learn a new language, to explore our family history, to attend a concert, to mentor another, try out a new recipe, to write a poem, to watch the best TED talks, to see all the Oscar nominated movies. For me, it’s often about finding a new book.  

We can direct our attention in ways that help us be less anxious, less depressed, less impulsive and reactive, more productive, happier, more successful, more compassionate, and resilient.  It helps to have tools.  Self-regulation tools. Self-coaching tools. Attention directing tools. 

Many people have had dramatic increases in well-being simply by asking themselves periodically to note what they are grateful for. Others are often helped by directing themselves to look for a silver lining.  Those are attention directing techniques, self-regulation, self-coaching tools. I also sometimes use Japanese Naikan and Jesuit Ignatian reflection questions which help me direct my attention – what have I given today, what have I received, where have I helped, where have I caused another harm or pain which I need to address…

By taking a moment to reflect and prospect using a tool like roses, thorn, and ending with a bud each day, we are helping our brains be more mindful, more aware, see the full scope of reality, opening ourselves to possibilities and opportunities, and diminishing the negativity bias which triggers our threat systems and unleashes chemicals which hurts us physically and mentally if done for long periods of time.

Mind-wandering is often a set up for mind-suffering. And these days we have flashing lights and gizmos and screaming headlines everywhere which can be challenging for our brains. We can give it some help...and better flourish. It's not only the smart thing, but the kind thing to do for ourselves.

How might we journey together to The Good Life by learning to use self-regulatory, attention-directing tools?



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