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!

What You Doin’?

How much of your day is spent mindlessly doing what we always do?  Granted, much of our day has to be just that; having to consciously do every task as if we have never done it before would take all of our effort and attention.  But perhaps a few of the things we believe to be necessary tasks, are really not necessary at all.  Perhaps they’re even harmful or counterproductive. I challenge each of you to re-examine your day as you go about it.  Just one day.  Pay close attention to what you do and why you’re doing it.  Are you acting out of habit, necessity, desire, or because of someone else’s (or your own) expectations?  What are those expectations? I would suspect a significant part of our day is spent without deliberate intention.  We may find that once we carefully examine our motivation for each task, that most of our tasks are consistent with our authentic goals and desires. But likely, some fraction will not.  Some of our tasks are done out of habit of what we tend to notice or believe.  For example, if I only notice what makes me tired, then I will feel tired and find ways to rest.  If I notice things that give me energy, I will feel energized and continue to pursue those tasks.  If I notice things that make me feel sad, I’ll feel depressed and need to find ways to soothe myself.  These beliefs and habits tend focus our intentions, and thus our actions.   That is fine, as long as the task and beliefs are consistent with our authentic goals and desires. What would happen if you gave up those observations, tasks, beliefs, and assumptions that divert you from your life’s plan?  Or just modified them?  What if you then took that increasingly precious time and energy and did something that would feed or nourish your spirit? I think it’s easy as a parent or spouse to get into habits of doing things for other people, even if it’s not good for them or they’ve outgrown it.  I recall a conversation a long time ago when we discussed asking our six year old to start getting his own breakfast.  At first it felt like we had suggested we amputate a good leg.  But guess what?  He did a great job (except for the one time when he tried to put a chicken thigh in the toaster). If you can identify one thing that you have been doing out of habit that you now realize you should change, consider adding this new perspective to your daily outlook.  Remember, what we notice is habit, how we tend to think about what we notice is usually habit, and what we do as a response is often habit.  We can change our habits if they are not serving us well. Go on.  Change something.  Create new habits, perspectives and beliefs that nourish your spirit.    

What You Focusin’ On?

Looking underneath.  Photo credit tonyconigliophoto.com

Looking underneath. Photo credit tonyconigliophoto.com

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?