Imagine the most stereotypical cave-dwelling monk you can muster. Let’s call him Chuck. Chuck the Monk was long-haired, bony, slightly hunched from long hours of meditation. He wore long robes, and of course carried a walking stick to steady himself on the monthly twelve thousand foot shoeless descent to the nearest small village to get a bowl of rice.
Chuck had not always been a monk. He had once been Chuck the Manager, a key executive in the corporate world, but the stress had been too much. Managing a business, and especially managing people, can be fraught with difficulty – a million risks to manage, an overwhelming list of things that can potentially go wrong. Chuck’s mind had become so filled with worry that he decided to give it all up. Radical change was what he needed, and radical change he made. Chuck the Manager became Chuck the Monk, trading his lofty corporate role for the lofty cave of an ascetic in the Himalaya. In isolation, Chuck would find peace.
Chuck was not only a successful manager, he was a gifted artist, and this he did not abandon. Since his cave lacked high-speed internet, he had plenty of time to practice his craft. On a particularly smooth and flat wall, Chuck painted a tiger. He spent years meticulously detailing each individual hair in each individual stripe. When he finally finished and stepped back to take in his masterpiece, the image he had created was so realistic it terrified him. His fight, flight, or freeze response was immediately triggered, and his body was flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. Chuck cowered in his cave, paralyzed with fear of his own creation.
Our work lives are challenging, and some of the stressors are quite real. But like Chuck, all of us are gifted artists – we are capable of painting incredibly detailed pictures on the walls of our minds, so realistic that we lose sight of the fact that they are imagined. Many, like Chuck’s tiger, are years in the making.
What tigers are you painting in your mind? And what should you do about them? The truth is, our minds are busy and our imaginations powerful. They paint pictures whether we like it or not. It can be almost impossible to stop them. Fortunately, we don’t have to. Chuck doesn’t have to stop painting. He just has to notice the brush in his hand. Real tigers are dangerous; paintings are not. The next time you feel your stress level rising, try actually thinking the words, “painted tiger.” Interrupt the process – “painted tiger” – then step back, think of Chuck the Manager/Monk, and admire your masterpiece.