Divorce Recovery 101: The Do-Nothing Approach to Coping

Divorce can feel overwhelming on any number of levels.  Any transition is hard, but divorce brings added challenges, from dashed illusions and disappointment for some, to basic logistical realities that seem to require Mensa-level organizational ability.

The tendency for many of us is to rush to action—or at least to feel that we should be managing all aspects of our lives all the time.  Never mind that there weren’t enough hours in the day to do everything before splitting up.

Loneliness can exacerbate the drive to keep busy.  We fill our time with work, friends, family, TV—whatever keeps us moving and prevents the slide into despair.

Another approach to getting it all done?  Do nothing. S-T-O-P.  Particularly when you feel the busiest, most scared, or most lonely.

Sitting still can feel harder than scaling a mountain.  That’s a good sign it’s time to try it. Sometimes, what’s hardest is exactly what’s best for us.  We don’t stop because, on some level, we’re afraid to. We’re afraid that if we stop our life will fall apart—on the outside and on the inside.  So we keep running.

But the fear that drives us may have something to offer, if we slow down and listen.  As Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron writes in her book Things Fall Apart,  “Sooner or later we understand that although we can't make fear look pretty, it will nevertheless introduce us to all the teaching we've ever heard or read... Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth."

You can test out this idea yourself.  See what happens if you stop and touch the truth it reveals, even for just a few minutes.

Here’s how to start a practice of stopping. I think of this as the Do Nothing approach to coping:

1. Get comfortable.

You can sit crossed legged on a mat, or just sit on a chair.  But sit upright.  Your mood will track your posture, so use your position to move your mind into a calmer, more powerful place. 

2. Close your eyes.

3. Pay attention to your breath.

Notice the way your breath comes into your body through your nostrils, the way it travels into your lungs and down into your limbs.  When you can’t take in any more air, notice how the breath moves out of your body and out of your nose on its own.  Notice this exchange that happens again and again without you forcing it.  Your body takes care of this amazing intake and outtake.  I know this sounds a lot like mediating, but I don’t call it meditating because we have so many associations with that word. There are hundreds of schools of meditation, and most people start to worry about whether they are doing it “right,” or getting the “right” outcomes.  The Do Nothing Approach to Coping is different because there are no expectations.  Simply stop and notice your breath, the amazing capacity your body has on its own.  Notice your breathing with a beginner’s mind, without labels.

4. Stay seated. 

Yes, your mind will keep racing, but don’t let your body follow.  When you want to get up, continue to stay seated, and keep trying to pay attention on your breath.  When you notice your attention has gone elsewhere, just bring it back to your breath.  Again and again.  This is still not “mediating;” don’t let that label distract you.  

5. Repeat. 

Commit to the Do Nothing Approach to Coping twice a day for a week.  Your sitting practice can be just three minutes long.

In just a week, you will begin to notice, slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, that something amazing is happening: sitting down becomes what you want to do.  A respite from everything else.  And then, this sense of success translates into the aspects of your divorce that are actually a lot harder than sitting in a chair in your own living room.  What scared you begins to become what you turn to.  What were you were worried about again?  Sitting and breathing deactivates their ability to spook you in quite the same way.

Were you worried about being in transition?  The air is always coming into and leaving your body—your body is never not in transition.  Were you worrying about money?  You need very little money to stop and sit.  This fact can give you a new awareness of what you really need and what, perhaps, feels essential because it’s customary.  Are you worried that your expectations aren’t being met?  The air keeps coming into and leaving the body without your needing to think about it, independent of your expectations.  The present has its own life, independent of the future and past.  Being alone?  You just sat for three minutes in total self-sufficiency!  Imagine how much longer you could last.  (Okay, maybe only six minutes at first, but that’s a start to relishing your own company.)

Breathing can even relieve worry about how your children will do.  

Sitting still helps you see that what you thought your kids needed aren’t the most important things—that if they can have their own inner center, they’ll be okay, and that if you have your own inner center, you can help them hold theirs.

I don’t mean to suggest that sitting still and following your breath for three or six minutes a day will change everything.  But in those minutes, and afterwards, you might feel a perspective shift.  That shift can let you start questioning your story, particularly the negative and self-defeating aspects of it.  Questioning the story you’re telling yourself can let you start to feel more accepting of life as it is.  Nothing bad happened while you sat.  You came out of that experience no further behind than when you started, only three minutes used up, and refreshed by the break from the huge weight of the to-do lists we all carry.

You might even start to notice that this time-out paradoxically creates more time because it makes you more efficient.  Your mind, to some very small degree, has also stopped, and without the worry and endless list-making, can reach decisions more quickly and clearly.  It can better appreciate what you have and all that is going well, the simple pleasures and gifts that you can access any time—if you stop to notice them.  


Nadia Colburn brings together mindfulness, writing and yoga in her online class, Align Your Story, and she works as a coach for women in transition. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, slate.com, The Boston Globe Magazine, and other places.  She is a founding editor at Anchor Magazine: where spirituality and social justice meet. Nadia holds a PhD in English from Columbia University and a BA from Harvard, and has taught at MIT, Lesley and in workshops around New England.  She is also a certified Kundalini yoga teacher and an Order of Being Aspirant in Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village tradition. See www.nadiacolburn.com.