This time of year is for many of us a time of stress and reflection. The days get shorter and much of the time it seems as if we are wandering around in darkness waiting for things to change. We may be pursued by haunting images of past relationships and mistakes we have made. We may feel like we are doing things over and over the same way expecting different results. We may become painfully aware of our repetition compulsion even as we charge around trying to get something to fill us up. We may dread the end and fear death.
You all know I’m talking about Pac-Man, right?
No, seriously, by now everyone on the planet, gamer or not, must know that Pac-Man is not just a fun video game but a compelling spiritual meditation. First off, Pac-Man is walking a labyrinth over and over, focusing on his path, how mindful is that? And then there are the ghosts, don’t even get me started on them. They pursue him constantly, like the specter of death or the ruminating thought that can’t be shaken. They are constantly somewhere on the board with him, yet Pac-Man is essentially alone in the world.
This would all be pretty depressing if it weren’t for the power-ups. Traditionally there are four of them, in the form of larger blinking white dots in the corners of the maze. You probably recall the drill: Pac-Man runs away from the ghosts until he finally eats one of those power-ups. And then everything changes. The ghosts turn blue and run away from him, and he can eat them for more points. Yep, turns out Pac-Man applies good old Buddhist principles to the whole situation: He faces his fears, and moves toward them. As Pema Chodron would say, Pac-Man goes to the places that scare him and leans into the sharp points.
Ok, so back to you and your life, or your business or your family or your health, whatever situation or ghostly thoughts are running around the maze in your head. Let’s do some Pac-meditation on them:
1. Who’s chasing you? Take a moment to stop rushing around and ask yourself what are you worrying about? Are you legitimately busy or being hectic? Remind yourself that in this present moment, the people, places or things you may be avoiding are probably not really there in front of you. If you aren’t physically moving, then remind yourself of that with a breath or two. If you feel like you are moving and you really aren’t, gently remind your mind of that. And if you are moving, try moving like you are walking a labyrinth not running around a maze: purposefully, single mindedly. Mindfulness is the difference between a maze and a labyrinth.
2. Don’t let the bouncing fruit distract you. This time of year especially it is easy to get thrown off course because you can become fixated on one goal: The perfect gift, the perfect holiday dinner, the New Year’s resolution to change X,Y, or Z. Much of it is hype or a collective hysteria. Look again, there isn’t one special dazzling fruit (or pretzel) that you have to have to win. Nope, it’s just ordinary time, the present moment stretching out before you like a string of yummy pellets. Enjoy those quiet unassuming moments where everything is calm and sufficient.
3. Know your ghosts. Take a few minutes now to get to know your four ghosts. This doesn’t need to be all psychoanalytic. Just try to list off 1-4 things that are most pressing to worry about. The ghosts often have less scary identities than you may suspect:
Those are the traditional names, but now let’s have you take your ghosts and put your names on them. For example they could be:
Try to limit the ghosts to four--Remember, this isn't Space Invaders. What are the most pressing urgent concerns? The goal is to get them down and begin to do what Michael White referred to as "externalizing the problem."
Now you're ready for...
4. Identify your power-ups. What are those things that help you feel more powerful, more effective? Some people identify a song that powers them up to go to the gym. A favorite quote can be your power-up. In my office I have one of those Staples Easy Buttons which some people find useful. My own personal power-up is an Iced Venti Americano at Starbucks. Sometimes power-ups are specific to the particular ghost you are dealing with, sometimes one power-up works for many different ones. This is not a new concept, people have been using talismans for years. Object relations folks would probably call power-ups "transitional objects."
Last, but not least:
5. Use your power-ups. This is not as easy as it sounds. People often forget they have power-ups even after they have identified them. You need to make sure your power-up is ready at hand. If yours is an Easy button, you need to keep it at your workspace in plain view. If it is fresh orange juice you need to make sure there is some in the fridge. If it is a song it needs to be downloaded on all your gadgets. If prayer or meditation is your power-up put the cushion on the floor in front of your bedroom doorway. Enlist your partner or family members to remind you that you have these power-ups. Then use them no matter how silly it feels, no matter how hopeless you feel. Just. Use. Them.
This isn't the only time of year you can use power-ups, but it is definitely a good time to start. Not because it is the holiday season, but because it is the present. Right now you are awake, so you can reflect and take action. The only person stopping you from logging off and figuring out your ghosts and power-ups is you: Game on!
Mike Langlois, LICSW
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