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Emotional Chaos to Clarity Study Guide For Book Groups
Thank you for choosing to read Emotional Chaos to Clarity in your book group. The purpose of this study guide is to provide you with a variety of perspectives and suggestions for exploring the teachings offered in this book. The topics in this book can reopen old wounds or trigger feelings of inadequacy or vulnerability, so it is imperative that the group set clear rules of engagement, including honoring confidentiality and refraining from criticism or ridicule. It is also vital that members of the group not give advice to the others or try to fix one another’s problems.
Discuss the Three Major Themes of the Book
The first major theme is the development of mindfulness. Mindfulness is more than simply being present and accepting the moment; it involves meeting the moment with your deepest values.
Suggestion: Divide into dyads and practice saying mindfulness out loud with one another for three minutes each. By this I mean, say whatever is true right now. For example, "I'm aware of a sharp pain in my knee. I'm aware of the blue sky. I'm aware of my breath catching in my throat. I'm aware of the orange curtains." And so forth. Doing this practice trains you to notice what's happening moment-to-moment and to realize how quickly it changes. It may feel a little awkward at first, but if you do the exercise with a few people you will find it fascinating.
The second major theme is intentionality, the commitment to living all the moments of your life based on your values as you move toward your goals. It is genuinely possible to experience a sense of purpose in life, one that is based on living from your intentions, regardless of almost all external circumstances. This is a remarkable truth that has held my wonder for decades and has been a major source of inspiration.
Suggestion: Discuss how each of you understands the idea of intentionality and describe a time in your life when you felt a sense of purpose. You might also discuss just how important the feelings of intentionality and purpose are to you.
The third theme is that of choice which empowers you to move from a reactive to a responsive mind. As you master these three areas, you gain clarity and lessen the emotional chaos in your life.
Suggestion: As a group, discuss the areas in each of your lives where you habitually fall into a reactive mind. As a homework assignment, have everyone observe their own pattern of reactivity then report back to the group. Notice how just being mindful of the arising of a reactive mind state seems to affect it.
Explore the Other Important Themes of the Book
1. Shifting your relationship to ego.
I chose to devote the second chapter of the book to the questions of how identity is created and how our ideas about the self trap us in a cycle of suffering. Such a discussion is challenging for many readers because we all have unrecognized attachment to our various identities. Being told they are temporary can generate resistance. Despite my concern that readers might feel resistance, I decided to place this chapter at the beginning of the book because having mindfulness about how you create identity is an essential understanding for gaining clarity. I felt it needed to unfold in the reader’s mind throughout the book, rather than being introduced to the reader at the end.
Suggestion: Have each person say which of the identities presented in the book they have historically identified with and which ones they identify with now. Additionally, discuss how each identity has some germ of truth in it but also why it lacks permanence. Of course, you may also want to discuss whether you think I’m wrong!
2. Building a habit of intentionality.
Suggestion: Look at the chapters “Starting Over,” “Starting your Day with Clarity,” and “Knowing What’s Really Happening” and discuss how these three skills combine to support developing intentionality.
3. Making skillful decisions.
Suggestion: Have each member of the group describe their history of decision-making—naming times they were skillful and times they were not. Is there a pattern? What can be learned? Also, looking at the five kinds of decisions, which ones are the most difficult for each person?
4. Living with difficulty.
Although the chapters on expectations and living with difficulty are in different parts of the book, there is a distinct relationship between them.
Suggestion: As a group discuss the relationship between expectations and difficulty. As a homework assignment, have each person notice when expectations arise in their daily life and answer these questions: Which of your expectations are based on old stories and childhood conditioning, and lack choice? What happens when you start being mindful of expectations?
5. Overcoming ordinary compulsiveness.
Ordinary compulsiveness is a constant source of emotional chaos, yet it lends itself to being readily clarified.
Suggestion: Either in a group or in dyads, have each person describe how compulsiveness manifests in their life. Then have each person describe how they felt listening to the others, whether they felt compassionate or judgmental. Discuss how the wisdom reflected in the chapters on balancing priorities and keeping boundaries support overcoming ordinary compulsiveness.
6. Developing decision-making skills.
Attachment and reactive mind states create an undesirable environment for making decisions. In contrast, the clarity that comes from knowing what’s really happening and the commitment to doing the right thing create an ideal environment for wise decision-making.
Suggestion: Have each person state what the word clarity means to them, and answer these question: How often do you feel you have clarity when you have strong emotions? In which area of your life is it most difficult for you to have the clarity that allows you to know what is really happening? In what way does your fear of making a poor decision block your decision-making process?
7. Exploring the imaginative possible.
Being mindful of when you reach a point where you believe a certain attainment is possible is extremely valuable in the inner development process. I call this point the “imaginative possible.” It is a point of imagination because you can imagine or conceive that some change is possible even though it has not happened. Although almost everyone has had such moments, many people are unaware when they occur.
Suggestion: In dyads, have each person state what the term imaginative possible means to them and describe one or more such moments in their life. Have each person answer the question: What prevents you from opening to possibility more fully in your life?
8. Ending self-violence.
Suggestion: In groups of three or four, take turns reporting your individual history with self-violence, whether it’s over-scheduling, self-criticism, or denying yourself opportunity. How would clarity of intention and mindfulness balance these tendencies?
9. Practicing forgiveness and gratitude.
Suggestion: Have each person describe the ways they are skillful in forgiving others (and themselves). Also have them name a situation in which they have struggled with forgiveness and how it felt. Discuss how gratitude can help with forgiveness.
10. Having faith in the path.
Suggestion: Have each person state to the group whether they believe it is really possible to significantly increase the clarity in their life. If so, what do they think the obstacles to finding clarity are? In what way might the teaching on starting over play a critical role in staying on the path to clarity? Have each member of the group declare their commitment to growing in clarity. When doing this, it is appropriate for other members of the group to acknowledge the commitment of the person who is speaking.