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column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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August 10th, 2009

What Works: HALT — Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired

Avoiding triggers and staying connected to God

 
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Ever want to bite someone’s head off just because they had the misfortune to cross your path when you hadn’t eaten lunch? Or hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before? Or when you were already angry about something else? Ever sit alone — or worse, in a crowd — and feel lonely and irritated at anyone and everything?

When I was on Father Dave’s radio show in June, we talked a little about HALT. Ever since then, I’ve been wanting to write more about it. Self-help is full of acronyms and aphorisms and a lot of them are more cute than useful, but this one is a keeper. Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired: When you feel irritated or anxious, one — or more — of those four conditions is likely at play.

And if not noticed and tended to, they can lead you to very bad places: explosions at others, self-destructive acts, relapses into addictions.

The genius of HALT is that it reminds us of several things at the same time:

  1. To halt before we act out, and reconnect with the divine.
  2. To tend to our physical and emotional well-being — not just go running around on fumes without eating and sleeping.
  3. That these feelings are ephemeral, and once we see them for what they are and let go of our attachment to them, they lose their power over us.

Conscious contact and acceptance

The common thread with Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired is that they take us away from conscious contact with God, which is our natural state. They kick up fear — either an obvious survival fear or a subtle fear that we’re not going to be OK down the road. Fear, as I see it, is not a thing of itself; fear is the absence of God. Fear, in essence, means you’re not trusting that things are as they’re meant to be; you’re not trusting God’s plan.

If you are accepting Reality — God’s plan — wholeheartedly, then you are not afraid of anything. If harm threatens you, you respond appropriately but have no reason to fear. Don’t get me wrong; I experience fear. Everyone experiences fear. I’m just saying that when I do, I’ve fallen away from God, even if only for a moment.

Why does knowing this and reminding myself of HALT help? Because we usually think that the thing we’re upset about is the thing we’re upset about. HALT reminds us that the real issue is our lapse in acceptance — that this thing we’re upset about merely had the misfortune to cross our path and become the focus of our upsetness. And — and this is the real point — in realizing that, often our upsetness dissipates like the meaningless delusion it is.

Even if I’m not able to recover my serenity, I can see the disruption for what it is, and console myself with the wonderful line from the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening:

“If all you can do is wave goodbye to yourself as you go over the waterfall, this is a billion times more important than changing anything. Seeing creates a new relationship within yourself, and eventually that new relationship will bear fruit in the power to do.”

Ignoring the signals

Hunger and tiredness signal basic survival needs. In my recent column about the spiritual value of getting enough sleep, I talked about how being overtired can make your nerves raw — how it can bring your ability to be irritated right to the surface. The added message in HALT is that we tend to ignore our body’s signals of hunger and fatigue and keep plowing through our day — or week, or year — while our sense of dis-ease increases. Until that poor person or inanimate object happens to get in our way.

HALT reminds us to take care of ourselves so we don’t wear ourselves thin. Many of us are so out of touch with what normal feels like — eating when hungry, sleeping when tired — that seeing this linkage is a revelation. And it can take some practice. (And not to be a broken record, but one of the best ways to practice awareness is daily meditation.)

Loneliness is a survival issue too. We are social creatures, designed to live in community, in interdependence. While some of us may do better alone than others, it’s not natural to be lonely. Being lonely is not the same as being alone. We can be alone and still feel connected to our loved ones and the whole universe. But feeling lonely is feeling disconnected. As Anthony de Mello, S.J., says in Awareness, “Loneliness is not cured by human company. Loneliness is cured by contact with reality.”

Being with others can help though! I often experience God through other people, and frequent contact with others helps sustain the feeling of connectedness. Besides supporting our survival and giving us glimpses of the Divine, fellowship also helps keep us on the Path.

“Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.” (Proverbs 27:17)

Therapy, confession and 12-step work all emphasize the importance of sharing one’s fears and schemes with other people. As long as I keep an idea in my own head, I can avoid looking at it honestly. Often, simply saying it out loud in the presence of another person is enough to reveal its flaws.

Detachment

An old spiritual teacher of mine, Amanda, used to say, if you were in a perfect spiritual state then, forget about getting slapped and turning the other cheek, someone could punch you square in the jaw and your reaction would still be, “How sad for them that they felt the need to do that.” Of course, none of us are there, but her point was that responding with anger even to a direct attack signals a lack of detachment.

Anger, like loneliness, comes out of the illusion that you are separate from others, and both anger and loneliness deepen that sense, taking you further out of conscious contact with God. And this then leaves you prey to all the fear-based illusions that follow — of separation from others, of scarcity, of the need to defend yourself and your stuff.

For people with rage issues, it’s obvious when they are out of touch with the divine, but even if your M.O. for anger is quiet fuming or irritation, the effect can be the same.

So the next time you realize part way through your day that you’re anxious or irritated, or if you find yourself entertaining fantasies of escape into past addictions, HALT! And then ask yourself if you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, and whether you might feel better if you took care of those things.

The sidebar on the right breaks that down a little more, but this is really a simple method. The hard part is stopping in the moment when it’s most needed.

Do you already use HALT? Share your experiences with it. Or if you try it after reading this column, come back and share what happened. You can comment below, or send me an email at phil at bustedhalo.com.

 
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The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Tom

    Great article! I have been using this for about a year or so and recently had the opprotunity to share it with someone else going through a recovery process. I was searching for more information on it and found your article. Nicely down. Having been through a divorce is extremly debilitating as with and recovery, the problem that exist is always present because we live in an imperfect state or sin filled world. Thankfully HALT is one tool that brings us closer to realizing the potential for grace, mercy and forgiveness. It begins in us in reconcillation and HALT is a large part of it.

  • Kristine

    I thought this was a great article. I am going to use many of these ideas today in our open topic AA mtg. Thanks for the inspiration

  • Jerry Sanders

    I have been in recovery from the addicition of alcohol for 23 years. In my daily journey I hear confused and angry words named spirituality. Prior to my recovery I had less and less interaction in my religious faith. I returned to worship after 30 years and the nagging questions, anger, and saddness as to my fit in it has surfaced. I am not proud to be a Catholic nor proud of its faith community.

  • Alli

    Phil:

    Thank you for continuing to share your experiences in recovery. I am currently going into my 4th month of sobriety through the support of a 12 Step program (and ultimately God). I have to say HALT has been one of my favorites (not so cutesy and more helpful). Again, thank you for your honesty!

  • Josh

    Great article. Thanks for this. I’ve been using this one for a while now and sharing with my colleagues and students at the college where I work.

    I would just add that I think all of these emotional/physical states are perfectly natural (even though they may not be our most “natural” state of deep connection with God, our selves, others and our world). I think recognizing them as natural (or at least very understandably human) we can resist the temptation to fight them.

    I also think that connecting with the causes of these emotional/physical states can offer a path back to connectedness. For instance, anger may be a response, a visceral connection to a real injustice and loneliness can remind us for the need for more than just superficial relationships.

    Thanks again for the really great article!

  • jamie

    you forgot bored.boredom can lead to relapse.

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