Gifts, Great and Small


The best gifts don’t come in packages at all

Sometimes clichés are actually true. “It’s better to give than receive” has actually been shown to be more beneficial for the giver than the receiver both psychologically, and when at work, professionally. And you don’t have to necessarily be like my friend Mimi, who each year on her birthday gives a gift or random act of kindness for every year she has blessed us with her presence on this earth. You don’t have to wait for Christmas either. And, even better, these gifts are free, don’t need to be wrapped, and take no additional time on your part.

Ah, I’ve turned into a snake oil salesman, you think. Is this too good to be true?

You be the judge of these gifts:

Your Undivided Attention, With Openness and Acceptance – You interact with others all day, ranging from the few seconds it takes to pass a stranger on the street to lengthy conversations with loved ones. The quality of that interaction has more to do than just the duration of that meeting: it also has to do with whether the recipient has your undivided attention. Furthermore, if you approach that interaction with positivity and openness (as opposed to negativity, judgment, and the need to control), that 2 second to 2 hour interaction is its own gift to the recipient.

Your Forgiveness – We live in a complicated society and culture where it seems like even the most benign gesture, action or words can hurt or offend.   If you feel someone has wronged you, consider your own failed attempts to avoid offense. Others most likely are trying their best to avoid trespass, despite what may seem like malintent. Forgiveness is a big gift to them, and an even bigger gift to yourself when you can let go of resentment and hurt.

Space – Sometimes others just need space: space on the road, space around their physical being or home, space without interaction or pressure, or space to just make their own decisions, process, and reflect. Maybe you need your own space. Give it to yourself as a way to give love to yourself.

These seemingly small gifts can actually be major even though they are free and take little or no extra time. Remember, like any new habit, these practices may feel awkward at first but will feel more natural with time. Observe the gift’s impact on others and how they make you feel, as the giver. My guess is it will feel like the best part of Christmas, every day!

Heading For the Rocks

A calm spot on the James

A calm spot on the James

There is pretty much no place I’d rather be than on the beautiful James River here in Richmond. But I think I’d rather be soaking my feet in the river rather than trying to navigate the rapids from the water’s surface.

I took my second kayaking lesson this past weekend, the first lesson nearly two decades ago (obviously it did not captivate me then either). Most people are surprised to learn that the James has Class 4-5 rapids running through downtown, and that the water is clean enough to swim in and fish from. The part of the river on which I was trying to learn to kayak was probably Class 1 or 2 at most, fortunately, because I am just not a boatswoman (is that a word?). I’m just terrible at navigating the little boat as it courses through the rapids. It’s just not intuitive for me to figure out how to steer, especially as the situation rapidly (haha) changes.

Welcome to life, Susanna.

Indeed, the more that I see rocks or a stalled family member that I want to avoid, the more likely I am to end up beached or worse, flipped over on said rocks or family.

The upside is that – hey, we’re all in this together – and now we have many laugh-worthy moments.

The other upside is that – hey, I finally figured out that the 20-year old guide taught me an important lesson that I of course didn’t listen to. He said to look to where you want to go, not the rock you’re trying to avoid because you unconsciously steer to the place you’re looking.

It’s true for life. Why would paddling be any different?

It’s hard not to look sometimes. Those rocks and pileups are like an accident on the side of the freeway that you just can’t help but stare at. But I know if I gawk, I will slow the traffic for those behind me, or worse, end up creating an accident for myself or others.

My own life is that way too. Sometimes I can’t help but focus on the grotesque and the problems and the failures and the logjams. When I do, I inevitably become part of the problem rather than the solution.   Unlike paddling the river, being part of the logjam is not so laugh-worthy.

Toward the end of the journey, I started to do much better by focusing on the path I wanted to pursue as opposed to the rocks or pileup I wanted to avoid. I ended up doing better and feeling more in control of my destiny. The small successes started to build my confidence that I am not mere tinder at the mercy of the whims of the river. I learned that I can control the focus of my attention and thus chart my course both metaphorically and literally.

So can you. Bon voyage and smooth sailing, fellow travelers!

Princess For A Day or Three

I’ve never understood the girlish fascination with princesses and being a princess.  Raised by Chinese immigrants in America, I was familiar with the concept but never really got it.  I think I was nearly 40 before my parents ever referred to me as their princess.  Back when I was growing up, the princesses in popular culture looked nothing like me:  I looked more like the evil stepmother.

The culture in Texas in the 70’s and 80’s also reinforced my sense of not being special.  Rather, I was pretty invisible, usually being ignored in restaurants, at deli counters and by men in general.

I’m not writing this as an ode to Poor Me.  I’m simply observing the juxtaposition of those expectations of usually fading into the background with my experience in the last few months where I have been Princess Galore:  50th Birthday Party (surprise party, no less), Graduation and a wedding, all in about 6 weeks.   Center of attention.  Photos.  Toasts.  Gifts in abundance.  Pampering.  Friends and family from afar.  Compliments and congratulations.

Wanting to hide beneath the covers.

Don’t get me wrong.  It was pretty sublime and there is literally nothing better than having those that you love most surrounding you and helping to celebrate the most important moments of your life.   I wouldn’t want it any other way and am so incredibly grateful to my loved ones for taking the time and effort to join me/us.  Truly, I feel so unbelievably blessed and fortunate.

But being a Princess is not the normal state of affairs for the 99.9% of us.  At some point we go back to our daily lives where we instead try to make other people feel special each day.  If I got too used to being Princess, I’d feel deprived and resentful for not being doted on like that on a regular and frequent basis.

So I feel that being a Princess once in a while is pretty freakin’ amazing, but I’m glad I was not raised to expect it.  Instead, when Princess happens, I can view it as a special gift from a loved one and savor every precious moment.

We get married!

We get married!

What You Focusin’ On?

Looking underneath.  Photo credit

Looking underneath. Photo credit

So much of our world is created by our cognitive habits.  What we notice is often habit, how we interpret what we notice is often habit.  Our beliefs are often habit too.  For example, there was a really long period of time where I did not take a look at the opposite political persuasion to really try to understand their perspective beyond the superficial level.

Those aren’t the only beliefs that are habit.  We carry beliefs about ourselves that we don’t tend to question but that might be completely untrue.  Often those beliefs are self-fulfilling.  For example, if I don’t think I’m smart, then I don’t apply myself in school and then I get bad grades.

I think we also carry beliefs about what we want or need that seem to provide an undercurrent to our motivation each day.  For instance, right now when I have some free time or mental energy, I am focused on writing and school.  I love to write this blog and do the homework assignments given to me.  I also love anything positive psychology and I’m a little pretty obsessed with it.

But this just didn’t start with school for me.  I find I usually have an underlying motivation toward one or two things that drives my decision-making when I’m not busy.  Sometimes it has been reading novels, eating or cooking great food, finding quality time with a loved one, taking care of someone, getting rest, working out, watching television, working, dating, or shopping.     This is what I need to be doing at a given time, and sometimes my perception of my need is below my radar.  I have seen others with similar needs but also with different ones, such as playing sports, discussing politics, sharing stories, gossiping, grooming, partying, or making money.

Oftentimes, these focal activities are being driven by an underlying motivation.  Frequently we are simply pursuing something we love, like a hobby or time with a loved one.  But sometimes the underlying motivation has to do with filling a subconscious need such as  getting approval, affirmation, attention, or validation,  or feeling better-than, worse-than, deserving, or must be seen as (successful, happy, cool…., fill in the blank).    For instance, when I’m looking for rest or good food, I have some shadow belief about what I need or deserve:  I’m over-worked or ill so I need and deserve some spoiling.  When I’m shopping or spending a lot of time grooming I may be feeling entitled to nice things, must be seen as attractive, and seeking approval or attention by dressing well.  I write because I enjoy the process, but part of the reason is also for validation – I like the approval and positive feedback I get from others.

That being said, there’s nothing wrong with this.  We are hard-wired to act in what we believe to be our own best interest.  In addition, what would life be without the ability to pursue the things we love to do?  However, when I go over-the-top with my focus and desire, it’s being driven by my subconscious.  Bringing my motivations to consciousness helps me find better balance and other ways to feed my inner spirit appropriately.

What about you?  Do you have a motivation undercurrent driving you to do things for reasons that are below your awareness?  What are they? Does bringing them to light make you feel differently about those activities?

What You Lookin’ At?


A moment to notice.  Photo credit:

A moment to notice. Photo credit:

You know how life is short and we shouldn’t waste precious time with negative people?  Well, life isn’t the only thing that is limited and precious.  So is your attention.  Among millions of stimuli each day, you can only notice and register so many things in a day.  What you notice is probably based on habit.  What are you in the habit of noticing?

  • Do you see that the sidewalk is dirty, or the colorful flowers planted next to it?
  • Do you pay attention when someone is kind to you, like holding open a door for you, or only when people are inconsiderate?
  • Do you notice the smell of the fresh breeze, or only the fumes of a car?
  • Do you notice the smile of your child, even if you see it every day?
  • Do you smell the inviting aroma of your meal, even if you have three of them each day?
  • Do you see the color of the sky as the sun rises, or just the alarm clock that tells you to get out of bed?
  • Did you notice your family member took out the trash, or only that he left his shoes out?
  • Did you acknowledge the compliment someone gave you, or just look for signs of insincerity or reasons to dismiss it?
  • Did you notice the care or creativity your colleague used to complete the task, or just what he didn’t do?
  • Do you see the ice crystals hanging from the branches, or just that you have to scrape your car?

What you notice becomes your reality.  If you only notice negativity, ugliness and pain, that is what will comprise your world.  Notice beauty, kindness, and excellence, and your world will brighten up.  And so will you.