Nothing to Be Grateful For

Sometimes my life sucks and it feels like everything is going wrong.  Sometimes it feels like the world is going crazy, and I along with it.  Sometimes it feels like I’m all alone and no one cares.  Sometimes it feels like there’s more bad in the world than good.

Despite what is going on in the world, or going on with me, I always, always can count on the following:

  • I am grateful for my wonderous body, that gets me from place to place and does what I want, even if sometimes I’m in pain or feel uncoordinated.
  • I am grateful for my amazing mind and brain that can help me solve problems and imagine, even if I my memory fails me.
  • I am grateful for the ability to touch and feel a hug, even if I don’t have anyone to hug.
  • I am grateful for my growing ability to feel love and joy, even if sometimes I feel depressed and angry.
  • I am grateful to have ample food, shelter, clothing and modern amenities, even if I have to fix, procure and maintain them.
  • I am grateful for the family, friends, acquaintances, students and co-workers in my life, even if they might disappoint or annoy me.
  • I am grateful for the friendliness and kindness of strangers, even if sometimes they can be rude and inconsiderate.
  • I am grateful for the freedom and opportunity offered by our country, even if sometimes it feels oppressive and depressed.
  • I am grateful for our beautiful and miraculous Earth, even if sometimes she feels cruel.
  • I am grateful to feel connected to all things on Earth and in our universe, because I know I’m never alone even if I feel lonely.
  • Most of all, I am grateful to have a positive and grateful perspective on life because I know that every day we are on this Earth that it is a miracle to celebrate.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. “ – Melody Beattie

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Does Success Breed Complacency?

Stretch yourself

Stretch yourself

I was in yoga class recently, confidently going through the series of poses when the instructor said, “I want you to feel successful.”  And I thought, “Huh.  What a strange thing to say.”

A week later, another instructor in cardio class said the same thing.  It must be the new exercise instructor mantra– help others feel successful.    And feeling successful is good, right?

For some reason, the gym makes me very contemplative, and since then I have been struggling to answer this question.  In the end, I have finally made some progress by continuing the yoga class analogy.

I started yoga in the yoga-for-the-masses kind of class.  It was very gratifying at first:  I can make an elegant tree pose!  A beautiful warrior pose! I feel strong and graceful!  I got to wear cute yoga clothes!

But then I wondered if I was doing the poses correctly and whether I could get more out of a yoga studio-type class.  And what a difference 20 people and $20 make.

The good news was that I probably was not doing anything to hurt myself in mass-class.  The bad news was that I wasn’t getting the most out of each pose because I would tend to stop when it got too uncomfortable.  I learned in yoga studio that by simply rotating my hips or shoulders a few more degrees, I could get much deeper into the pose and much, much, much more out of it.   But it was HARD.  And if it wasn’t hard, I was doing it WRONG.  A dying tree pose.  A wobbly warrior pose. Sweat galore.

I wrote recently about how I learned much more on my educational journey when the curriculum really challenged me.  Today, as I ponder my 3 AM question about complacency, I see that I have a complacency tendency that I should be more conscious of.  There have certainly been other instances in my life where I would kind of catch myself doing or saying something like “I’m in a rut”  that indicated I was in a rut.   Or boredom.  Boredom is definitely rut-defining for me, as is feeling distracted.  If I’m really engaged and in “flow” with my task, I am focused 100% on that task.  If my mind is wandering, then I’m only engaging superficially and I could benefit from a re-evaluation of my strategy or effort level.

Like yoga class, I think the feeling of success can breed complacency across the many facets of my life.  I don’t think the other extreme, feeling like a failure, is desirable either.  Yes, it can give spectacular results sometimes.  In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,  Amy Chua talks about the Chinese parenting philosophy of withholding praise to motivate achievement.  I can speak from first-hand experience that the approach works, damaging to the psyche though it might be.

So what to do?  How do we find the right balance?

Again, I turn to my yoga experience to conclude that the solution lies with having a guide, a mentor, or a coach.   My mass-class yoga class was full of empty praises, “Your form is perfect!” when I knew darn well that almost no one in the class was doing the pose properly, myself included.   This is guidance for the masses, so it only applies to some vanishingly small fraction (come to think of it:  not so dissimilar from this blog).  But in yoga studio, the instructor gave individual attention to correct gently while cheering our increments of progress.   My own academic, professional, and personal experience affirms the impact of a wise coach or mentor.  A few adjustments in my course, encouragement to continue, and acceptance of my shortcomings by my mentors allow me to sink deeper into my role and be more successful, instead of just feeling like it.

I don’t mean to criticize the mass-class teachers.  After all, there’s only so much you can do when you have a class of 35.  And sometimes we just need to go do something to feel successful, especially if the rest of our life feels like a wreck.  But I do wonder if we too easily have a tendency to lean towards the easy rut, rather than adjusting to take the bumpier but also more fruitful path.

In the book True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, Bill George discusses the importance of having a personal board of trustees….you know, to keep you “honest” and on the right track for each facet of your life.  To me, it’s more than whether it’s the right track.  Their role is also to challenge you to make sure you’re really stretching yourself in a productive way that’s right for you.

Not everyone is as fortunate as I have been to have a wonderful support network.  But support is where you find it.  I have never been afraid to ask for help at work, but somehow more reluctant to do so in my personal life, initially.  When I opened myself up to the wisdom and guidance of others, and acknowledged my need to do better, I was actually able to be more successful.  Those mentors and role models were all around me, if only I was open to their lessons.

As for yoga, the mass-class fits my budget and schedule for most days, and I can apply what I learn in yoga studio to self-correct and concentrate on sinking deeper.  I go back periodically to make sure I don’t develop any new bad habits.  And so, I can finish each class feeling like a winner.  Namaste.

(NOTE:  Neither of the subjects in these two pictures is me.)

Sink in

Sink in

“(Life) is about the journey, not the destination” – Dad

A beautiful journey into the unknown

A beautiful journey into the unknown

What if you went on a long, long trip, eagerly anticipating your Disney-like vacation in paradise only to find that it’s a Motel 6 adjacent to a traveling carnival and a parking lot?  What if this long, long journey were your life, and your destination wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, or you never got where you wanted to go?  You will have just spent your whole life anticipating something that will never happen the way you expect.

We each journey along several axes:  education, professional, personal, spiritual, physical, intellectual and many others.  When I look back on my life, I believe I’m usually traveling on one or two axis at a time, then I might switch to different ones.   I imagine that the challenges we perceive as we move along each axis differ from person to person, and perhaps even as a function in time.  For example, my educational journey was easy easy easy harder extremely-hard, and that story will have unfolded differently for someone else.

Quickly answer:  Which is better – easy or extremely-hard?

Yes, during easy, I had a fair amount of self-confidence in my ability to be a good student.  However, I would probably characterize those periods as lacking growth.  The opposite, on both counts, was true during the extremely-hard stage.   Being in a program that was truly challenging to me meant I was pushing my boundaries, and thus my comfort zone.   Though in the midst I had a huge confidence crisis, even to the point of dropping out of school briefly, the process of requiring that I push, stretch, and test myself allowed me to learn more about myself and know that I could do more than I had imagined.

The sports analogy also applies here.  Athletes (I’m not one so I’m only surmising here) can stay in their comfort zone and be competent, remain competent.  But if they want to truly excel, they must push themselves to the edge of their ability (and comfort zone) over and over again.  What if Michael Phelps was satisfied with just winning his high school or regional tournament, and stopped there?

Our knowledge and abilities are like a bubble, and we’re in the center of that bubble.  If we don’t push on the bubble from the inside, our sphere stays static.  Or worse, our bubble contracts.   But if we can go to the edge and push, though we may venture outside our comfort zone, we are also expanding our minds and abilities.

When I think about the periods of my life defined by stasis, my mental image of myself is on the couch watching cable TV.  Actually, I spent much of my college years doing just that.  I have also had years of active stasis – the work/family/life rut where I’m running like crazy but not feeling like I’m making any progress.  Rushing to get nowhere.

When I think about the periods of my life defined by growth, my mental image is one of blossoming, renewal, birth.  The most active growth occurred when I stuck my neck out and took a chance, and was willing to go way outside my comfort zone.

In between the two, between stasis and growth, was fear and clinging to the center of my bubble to various degrees.  Unfortunately for me, change mostly occurred when I was feeling bad:  literally sick, depressed, disoriented, confused, frustrated, angry, or hurt.    I don’t think that’s unusual, actually.  I think much of the time, change is instigated by discomfort of some sort.  If we’re not uncomfortable, why get off the figurative couch?

The psychological process of change is well known, but I’m not sure most of us apply those theories to how we journey, evolve and change in our own life.  We might kick ourselves for not being able to change, but change is a process.  We have to traverse each stage for change to occur, and some stages are harder to leave than others.   We change when we’re ready to change.

Being open to the possibility of change makes change much easier.  Knowing that growth and opportunity are on the other side of change, both good and bad, makes the change less scary.  Successfully navigating change makes change easier the next time*.

Right after my separation, I had periods of time when I felt absolutely terrified by my new life.  This verse reminded me that there is much beauty in the unknown, if we let ourselves see it.  And if we enjoy the flowers, the company, the sunset, the food at the Waffle House on the road to Disney, who cares if Disney turns out to be a traveling road show?  We’ve just had a long, long, wonderful ride.

“Be not afeared

the isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs
that give delight and hurt not
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.” – 
(my man) William Shakespeare, The Tempest

*See also:  Can You Spare Some Change?

Emotional Health 101 – A Mini Primer

primer

Starting with the basics

We are all taught how to have good dental and physical health, as we know involves exercise, brushing regularly, eating right.  But few of us are taught the fundamentals of having healthy emotional relationships with self and others.  It’s something so fundamentally important, yet they are lessons most of us must learn on our own, the hard way.

I never even knew such a thing existed until recently.  Never thought about it much actually, but should’ve. And wished I had.

So I’m sharing here what I wish I knew 35 years ago:

  • Be positive – Your perspective of yourself, others and your situation is only one of many truths.  Remember, there are 360 possible degrees to every angle and you don’t have to be wedded to your current angle.  Choosing a positive, forgiving perspective is healthier than criticism and judgment.  Positive people are also more creative and productive than negative people, so nurture peace and joy in your heart. (See Uncover Your Truth and De-Stress in One (Sort of) Easy Step)
  • Choose growthPrioritize growth and improvement over the need to feel perfect or righteous.  You’re awesome and amazing as a flawed human.  So are those around you. Celebrate that!  But we all can grow to become more self-actualized on every level (emotional, physical, intellectual, etc), no matter how together we may think we are/need to feel.  (See Healing the Perfectionist)
  • Keep your powerEveryone is responsible for their own feelings.   You cannot make someone else happy, unhappy, loved or unloved. Likewise, others cannot make you happy or feel loved, and they can only make you unhappy or upset if you allow them to. (See (Not So) Great Expectations)
  • Nurture yourself and others – Follow your passion, even if as a hobby, without guilt.  Encourage the same in others.  Also, you can’t take care of others or your responsibilities if you don’t take care of yourself.   Time for your passion, health, rest and relationships is critically important.  Don’t begrudge yourself or others for making time for self-care. (See Your Passion is Right Under Your Nose)
  • Live your own life – It’s impossible to please everyone.  Attempting to do so means you give away your identity, your power, and your adherence to your principles. Consider the opinions of others but make your own decisions about your own life, and let others do the same.  Living your own life also means letting others make their own mistakes and learn to fail without critique, blame, or undue interference.  Children need guidance, of course, but they should be steered towards age-appropriate independence of thought and action. (See The Darker Side of Nice)
  • Have boundaries – Remember that when others criticize you, blame you, or try to control you, it reflects more their own self-judgment and guilt rather than your shortcomings.  Do not take it personally but also do not allow them to mistreat you.  It’s important to tell others how you should be treated, and to firmly and kindly enforce that behavior. (See I’m Rubber and You’re Glue)
  • Take some risks/try something new – Don’t be afraid of failure or trying something different.  Having a narrow safety zone makes it harder to be successful or to flourish.  Trying and failing is better than failing because you didn’t try… so give it a try!
  • Nurture your relationships – Relationships are more important to happiness than righteousness.  Accept that truth is almost always subjective and relative, and then you will have nothing to fight about. (See Conflict:  Damned If You Do)

“Would you rather be right, or happy?” – Dr. Phil

  • Live in the moment – Worrying about the future or harboring resentments from the past creates unhappiness and are counterproductive.  Do what you can to prepare for the future, but live in the Now.  The Now is the only thing that’s real, since the past is subject to interpretation and the future is unknown.   (See Soothing the Child Within)
  • Detoxify your unconscious scripts   Our emotional baggage hides deep within, often controlling our view of the world and our behavior with invisible strings. Uncover and challenge those beliefs about yourself and others that are probably so ingrained, you may not even be aware that you have them.  What’s worse, what are probably your worst fears (expressed as hot buttons) become your self-fulfilling reality if not managed.  (See Your Shadow Self, and My Self-(Un)fulfilling Reality)
  • Forgive – First, forgive yourself for being a normal, flawed human being.  Then, forgive others.  Forgiving others is for your benefit, not for those you are forgiving.  Remember, we all have our hot buttons that feel real to us.  Explore, forgive and manage your hot buttons, and don’t judge the validity of someone else’s.  Forgiveness is healing to yourself and others, so forgive early and often.  (See Finding Forgiveness, Moment by Moment)
  • You’re not alone – No matter how badly you feel or how badly you believe you’ve screwed up, you’re neither the first nor the last to do so.  Nor are you alone.  Feeling bad for long periods of time is not normal and is treatable – don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Struggle and facing adversity is a normal part of life. It’s what we learn from the struggle that’s important.

We are all on a personal journey.  Our lessons come to us when we are ready, and our paths are all unique.  As such, there are more lessons ahead of me, so this list is far from complete.  What other lessons should be on this list?

Four Ways to Become More Patient

patience_small1

I’m one of those people who jab the elevator button to get it to arrive faster.  I tend to stand as close as politely possible to the person in line in front of me so I can be ready when it’s my turn.  I’m usually in a hurry whenever I drive, whether I’m in a hurry or not.

I simply am eager to get the next thing done so I can hurry up and relax.  Like all things, this “activator” trait is both a curse and a blessing.  I’m a pretty productive person and the feeling of accomplishment motivates me.  But I am also typically not a patient person.  Waiting and anticipating are usually hard for me.

Until recently.

It has not been a conscious effort, where I worked hard to hurry up to become more patient.  But as I look back and reflect, the change has been a great side effect of other changes going on in my life.  But I should also point out that my newfound patience is also specific to a certain type of waiting, i.e. when I’m waiting for outcomes that I have no control over.

When I do have control, I continue to jab at elevator buttons (well it seems to work), and do the busy-bee thing until my task has the outcome I desire.  When I don’t have control, I can now let go of my expectation and impatience.

When I’ve reflected back on what is a huge change for me and the underlying reasons, I believe it has to do with the following four things.

First, I’ve learned to let go of things that I cannot control.  If I can make a difference or an impact, then by golly, off I go to do my thing.  Complacent, I am not.  However, if I can’t control it (and unlike the elevator button, I try to be realistic here), then there’s no point in investing time and energy in futility.  That effort is better spent elsewhere.  Important reminder: we cannot control other people’s actions, thoughts or feelings even if we think we should be able to.   We can try to influence them, but influence is much more difficult if emotion is tied to their thoughts or logic.

Second, I’ve learned to be more present. Worrying about the future fosters impatience.   You just want to get to that future where you know the outcome, instead of enjoying the moment you have now.  It’s hard to be impatient when you’re focusing on the present moment.  But the present moment is all we have.  Savor it.

Third, I’ve learned to accept outcomes without judgment.  Whether you believe outcomes are God’s will, the universe’s will, or neither/both, what is undeniable is that if the outcome has already occurred, it was meant to be.  Because it Is.  If it has happened already, then it is our reality.  Period.

“Expectation is the root of all heartache” –  (my man) William Shakespeare

Finally, our choice is now whether “when life hands you lemons, (you) make lemonade” or you just sit there feeling sour and dyspeptic.  Setback is opportunity, even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment.

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us” – Alexander Graham Bell

Despite my usual impatient M.O., I have also always believed that things always work out best in the end.  To me, that statement is not a cliché, it is my reality.   I believe that paradigm is true for me because I’ve always been able to find the silver lining in situations, both good and bad.   I also believe, as Bell implies, that being receptive to an alternative happy ending makes it more likely that a happy ending will occur.  It might even be better than the one you imagined.  Maybe that’s the advantage of having a limited imagination – life is better than we often give it credit for.

“There are more things on Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” – (my man) William Shakespeare

Bringing Personal Meaning to National Tragedies

Terror at the Boston Marathon

Terror at the Boston Marathon

I had a sense of déjà vu after the bombing in Boston on Monday.  It brought me right back to 9/11, Sandy Hook, and Columbine and was akin to a seismic shift in my world.   How about you?

Almost 3000 died in the 9/11 attacks, 26 including 20 children at Sandy Hook, and 3 in Boston but with over 170 casualties.  The images from each event are of unspeakable loss, senseless violence and lives changed forever.  No doubt, such catastrophic events not only impact the victims and their families but the whole country as well.   After 9/11, the whole world mourned with us.

As awful as those events are, what is also equally, and possibly more disconcerting is the number of people who die each year due to accidental death, suicide and homicide.  According to the CDC, over 120,000 and 38,000 died in 2011 from accident and suicide, respectively.  The good news is, homicide fell below the top 15 causes of death starting in 2010 to a mere 16,259.   Combined, that’s approximately 3 people per minute who die from these seemingly preventable, tragic reasons.

But why do Boston, Sandy Hook and 9/11 feel so much worse compared to the literally scores of people dying from preventable tragedies each day?

I’m sure the reasons are many.  But for me, the other thing I mourned when the twin towers came down in 2011 was not only the 3000 lost lives but the feeling that my world would never be the same.

The reality is, of course, that the world has always been a dangerous place.  Up until 9/11 though, I was able to insulate myself from that reality.  Even with scores dying from preventable deaths every day, and right here in my own community, I was firmly and undeniably invested in the concept that the world is a safe and logical place.  Maintaining the façade of this belief is sort of like a James Bond movie – it requires a suspension of reality despite all logic or available evidence.  In this reality, bad things only happen to people who are doing the wrong thing, are in the wrong place or are with the wrong people.  Though I never went so far as to blame the victim, a part of me believed that.  It couldn’t happen to me.

Maybe that’s one reason, in addition to the loss of life, why Boston, 9/11, Virginia Tech and Columbine are all so upsetting to us.  They all did happen to people just like me.  Just like us.   Now I have to confront, head on, my delusion about being in control of my world, each time it happens.  And it’s happening at a rate of what seems like every few weeks.  More frequently if you include the international community.

Intellectually, I knew control was an illusion.  In my heart, for years, I deluded myself that it was also my reality.    So, in addition to 3000 lost souls, on 9/11 I am mourning the loss of my illusion of control over my environment, my loss of innocence.  Each tragedy thereafter serves as salt in that wound.

The world has not changed.  The world was not markedly different on 9/11 compared to 8/11, or on Monday compared to Sunday.   I have changed.   Does that mean I should act differently?  Feel differently about myself or the world?  The world is the same – so do I become paralyzed by fear and anger now anyway?

I think it’s foolish to take unnecessary risks;  these days we need additional precautions.  I’m not going to travel to Syria or walk in unsafe neighborhoods.  I will still lock my house and car doors.  We should still pursue justice for the guilty for the sake of everyone.  But I refuse to let someone else determine how I should feel in this world – whether I walk with peace, love and forgiveness, or fear, hate and vengeance.   I choose to keep my personal power and look for ways to be a positive influence, despite local, national or international events.  I don’t have any control, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take action – write a letter, donate money, volunteer, speak my mind, donate blood, attend a rally.

In addition, I believe it’s also important to remember that if we are in mourning, it is because we have been blessed with a precious gift.  Even though my feeling of almost complete safety was a delusion, it also represents that in this country we enjoy an unparalleled level of affluence and security, even now.  Our brethren in the Middle East do not enjoy even our current level of security, and haven’t for generations.  How can we resent the loss of a privilege that too few in the world enjoy?

It’s also up to each one of us to create meaning out of a senseless loss of life  and our own loss of  innocence.  The Sandy Hook parents have rallied to create peaceful reform in response to their unimaginable loss instead of seeking vengeance and hate.    We too have the choice as to whether to perpetuate violence – whether physical, psychological, financial or emotional, or to foster peace, love and healing.  

We also have the choice as to whether to live in the past with our anger,  in the future with our fear…. or in the present savoring each precious moment on earth.   Yes, feeling that we have no control makes each day feel more precious.  Like the control we never had, our brief time on earth has always been precious, even if we have taken that time for granted.  Maybe, in exchange for our loss of innocence we gain a new appreciation and awareness for what we’ve had all along.

Gratitude

Gratitude

The Joy of Loss

The tragedy in Boston leaves me at a loss for words, so I am posting an earlier blog on loss.

Silver Lining

This morning I am trying hard not to throw myself a little pity party, complete with doting guests and a big, fat slice of succulent chocolate cake.  Last night, not so much.  Chris and I had a nice dinner at a new Indian restaurant and he held my hand and listened to me whine.

Thus, this morning I am feeling better but reflecting on the nature of love and loss.   I won’t go into details of the profound or superficial losses that are accumulating in my heart as I’m not indulging that pity party anymore.  But rather, I’m somewhat comforted by the fact that I have something to lose.

I think dogs are a perfect example of having something to lose.  You know from an earlier post that I lost my beloved little dog last month.  I’m fortunate to have two other dogs to blunt the sting of that…

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