Our Not-So Hidden Humanity

It’s true there are a lot of jerks out there. They cut in line. They tailgate. They yell obscenities.   They don’t acknowledge you when you hold the door for them. They don’t say hello or thank you at their cash register or service counter.

And that’s the minor stuff inflicted on strangers.  Yet that is the stuff that can bring us down and ruin hours or even days, especially when feeling stressed out like often happens while traveling.

Yesterday, as I was making my way to DC on the train, I was exquisitely tuned into the opposite phenomenon: acts of kindness and humanity in strangers. Here’s what I observed:

  • A large group, waiting patiently in line, not crowding each other
  • A gate agent going out of her way to help out-of-towners
  • Travelers volunteering helpful information to those that seem confused or lost
  • Strangers smiling at other people’s children
  • Parents making sure their own children have their needs met
  • A parent teaching his teenage son to give up his seat for female passengers
  • An offer to help me with my bag when the escalator wasn’t working
  • Passengers seated by an out-of-order restroom informing others when they approach
  • Someone asking to make sure I wasn’t injured when my bag fell over
  • My seat companion sharing with me her love and pride in her children

Granted, all of the above are small stuff too. But those small gestures of humanity, kindness and generosity of spirit are everywhere.  They demonstrate our unseen but tangible connection with each other that so many people create so naturally.

Sometimes I am resistant to feeling that connection with others because I’m pretty shy.   It’s easier to stay caught up in my head or my cell phone than to allow these micro-connections to be made or observed.  By being open to seeing or receiving such gestures of connection, I am inspired to seek connections too.

Being open to these beautiful, small gestures, I feel a great sense of hope, pride and affinity for my fellow man.  What could’ve felt like a disaster – late train, late night, turned into a gift.

 

Give Thanks… For Yourself

My dear friend Mitzi is so right. We don’t spend enough time being thankful for who we are and the positive impact we have on others. Too often we are only focusing on how we fall short, we’re not enough, and what we can’t do or what we should be doing instead of stopping to smell our own proverbial roses.

Others may be better at seeing your gifts than you are.   If you cannot identify your strengths and the ways that you positively impact your world, you should A) take those strengths assessments I talk about all the time (VIA and Clifton StrengthsFinders) and B) do the Reflected Best Self exercise. This is one of my favorite exercises! Go ask 30 people to describe a time when you made a contribution. Likely it will surprise you in a very good way (see suggested social media campaign below).

I don’t struggle with my self-esteem like I used to in part because I’ve made a conscious effort to use my gratitude strength more intentionally and frequently. I discovered that, though gratitude is among my top 5 VIA strengths, it was not apparent to those around me. Effectively showing my appreciation for others and for our world also required that I appreciate myself, including the strengths that I have and my passion for creating positive change around me. To ignore the gifts I was given and only focus on my shortcomings is like telling your loved one that the sweater they picked out for you is the wrong shade of green: the blessings in my life

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are not good enough. Also, focusing on the little wins during the day is rejuvenating, energizing, and generative. Best of all, since gratitude has been shown to be good for your health while strengthening relationships and positive emotion, adding one more major thing to be grateful for (yourself) can only be good for you.

I also don’t believe it’s arrogant to be grateful for your strengths and abilities. It’s not saying we’re perfect or better than others; rather we are just choosing to focus on what we do well and how we contribute, and feeling good about that.   By using our strengths and assets to improve in our weaker areas, we can even improve our shortcomings while still focusing on our strengths. What a win-win!

Dear Universe: thank you for my ability to see the best in others and to help them grow into that person. Thank you for the ability to do the same for myself.

PS – I’d like to start a social media campaign for us all to do the Reflected Best Self exercise.  Post this on your timeline:  We all need to be more aware of the positive impact we make on the world.  Please help spread the idea by helping me with this Reflected Best Self Exercise.  Comment here regarding how I make a positive contribution to the world, then put this exercise on your timeline so that others can reflect your best self back to you.

Another Day in Eden

Sunrise in Eden.  Photo Credit:  tonyconigliophotography.com

Sunrise in Eden. Photo Credit: tonyconigliophotography.com

Recently, I had the rare delight of watching the sun rise, marveling at the drama and spectacle of something that happens every day. The changing colors. The clouds chasing each other across the sky. The sound of the doves and cicadas. The sun rays reflecting off the tops of the clouds. A perfect, balmy temperature. Something so spectacular only happens in Eden.

Indeed, I was in Eden. I was spending the weekend on this beautiful, vast property in the Texas countryside.  Cows, lakes, and nature galore.

But what was it that I was enjoying? Sunrise, trees, sounds? The ingredients of Eden are present everywhere, whether from the deck of my house, or on a bench in Manhattan. Wherever we go, beauty, wonder and plenty abound.

We need not travel to Eden. We are IN Eden. We were banished from Eden only in our minds.   And just as easily as that, we can go back. We only need to stop and make the choice.

We Are Inconstant

Despite the many problems we have in this country, we are still among the most fortunate people in the world. While we must continue to strive to improve our country and our world, we also should not forget that we have probably the highest quality of life in the history of mankind.

That privilege, however, will not likely last forever. Our individual fates are also fragile: it only takes an accident, a major illness, job loss or natural disaster to turn our fortunes around. Here by the grace of God…

I know that everyone knows this on some level.   But it’s all too easy to forget and behave as if this privilege is our right and ours to enjoy forever.   In fact, everything is impermanent and subject to change or loss.

Strangely, I’m grateful for when we have a hurricane and we lose power for several days. Such a loss provides a vivid reminder for how dependent we are on the things we take most for granted. When the power goes out, we disconnect from the TVs and computers and spend time walking and visiting with our friends, family and neighbors. We spend more time attending to our food and physical environment. We never take a balmy evening or a cool breeze for granted when the heat pump is on vacation.  And when the lights come back on, we have a precious few minutes before we start to take the electricity for granted again.

Spend a minute thinking feeling gratitude for the following items that we tend to take for granted. Which of these are you most likely to take for granted as being constant in your life? Going forward, see if you can remember to be grateful every day for some of the things you’ve been taking for granted:

  • Clean air
  • Water – clean, accessible and plentiful
  • Sewage services – down the tubes without smell or contamination
  • Electricity – lights, refrigeration, washer/dryer, HVAC
  • Shelter – warm/cool and dry
  • Clothing – sufficient in quality, quantity and even style
  • Ready transportation and good roads
  • Food – plentiful, safe and varied, and even prepared for you sometimes
  • Friends, family and neighbors
  • Technology, like Star Trek
  • Entertainment – 24/7 of all kinds
  • Safe community
  • Community and government infrastructure – stable and largely functional
  • Health care – accessible and comprehensive (for the most part)
  • Good health – body and mind
  • Jobs and economic opportunity
  • Education – at all levels for all people

Let us savor our good fortune.  Let’s hope it lasts.

 

Celebrating Life

photo credit:  tonyconigliophotography.com

photo credit: tonyconigliophotography.com

Think back to the last time you had a near-death experience or had just recovered from a nasty illness or setback.  Remember how you felt?  You probably felt exuberant, so alive and grateful to be living.  That feeling is elating.

What separates that moment from any other?  In other words, on a daily basis we tend not to be acutely aware of how precious and beautiful life is, but perhaps we should.

Perhaps we should.

If you think about it, it’s a huge miracle that we exist in the way we do at all: sentient beings living cooperatively on this beautiful planet, enjoying the benefits of culture, technology, health and affluence (mostly).  That we have plentiful and delicious food, entertainment, employment and education (mostly).  That we have friends, loved ones, and even great colleagues (mostly).  That our bodies even allow us to sense the glory of nature, smell delicious food or aromatic flowers, feel the softness of a child’s skin or kitten’s fur, taste the sweetness of a ripe piece of fruit, and hear a classic symphony.   Yes, it’s a true miracle.

Instead, what do we focus on all day?  Our problems, what we don’t have in our lives, what are loved ones are not doing or providing to us, our discomforts, our failures, our shortcomings.  I can hear some of you thinking:  yes but I have financial problems/a bad boss/a chronic illness/an abusive relationship.  I’m not saying our lives are perfect.  I’m saying that we have so much to be grateful for despite our problems.

This focus on the negative is not a bad thing necessarily.  It can be adaptive and good, but only to the degree that we are solving that problem by focusing our attention and energies on it.   But at that point when we are simply worrying or complaining instead of finding a solution, we’re wasting precious time, energy and the opportunity to savor our incredible lives.

If you’ve been living your life this way, you don’t have to feel bad.  The past is the past, and all you have control over is this very moment.  So in this moment, what do you choose?  Pain and heartache?  Or joy and gratitude?

You may have squandered some of your past but don’t squander your now, and your future.

What do you choose?

Learning Patience

Our strengths are our weaknesses (and fortunately, visa versa, because I’d be in big trouble!).  My creativity, zest, and desire to get things done are great assets – until they’re not.  Put me behind a slow driver or in front of someone who doesn’t get it or wants to deliberate, or in the middle of a slow, boring process and I’m at my worst.  Impatient, antsy, impulsive and hyper are adjectives that have been used to describe me.

I’ve figured out a way to turn that frown upside down and turn my liabilities into an asset.  I’m not talking about the upside of the creativity/zest/activator.  I’m talking about the downside.

I like to use the story of the Buddha – sorry, bear with me once again – as a metaphor.  The Buddha liked to keep a student nearby who was impatient, antsy, impulsive and just generally annoying.  Someone once asked him why he insisted on keeping the student so close by and the Buddha said, “She is not my student.  She is my teacher.” (haha I am the Buddha’s teacher!)

I’ve always told that story in relationship to difficult people, but in this context I’m telling it in relation to myself and when I am my own worst enemy.  One of the things I have had to struggle with the most in my lifetime is that voice in my head (mine, that is) that is constantly somewhere else.  That voice is in the past being unhappy about something.  That voice is in the future worrying about something.  That voice is in the present complaining about something or someone, usually myself but often someone or something else.  Unfortunately/fortunately the antidote for that voice is being present, and meditation is the best exercise for that.

I have to admit that I don’t meditate that much these days but I do work at being present on an ongoing basis.   The little devil in me in the form of impatience, boredom or annoyance are the perfect cue to practice being present:  I’m not exercising either these days (but I will.  soon!) so I do some isometrics.  I stop to practice gratitude and appreciation of the beauty around me.  I use my compassion for someone who is going as fast as they can or doing the best that they can.  I stop and think about my loved ones.

I’m embarrassed to say that these opportunities to practice being present are all around me as I’m frequently resisting the urge to be bored or annoyed.  I’m proud to say, however, that I think I’ve reached a milestone because an usually long and tedious responsibility has recently become a pleasant and enjoyable occasion.  I imagine my being present also improved the experience for those around me as I stopped fidgeting and looking completely unengaged.

I can’t help but reflect once again that our shortcomings are our opportunities.  If we fail to look at our shortcomings we are missing out on probably what we need the most to cultivate our well-being.  I once was unable to look at my shortcomings at all, but by thinking of them as strengths on an effectiveness spectrum, I can see them for all that they offer.  Where in your life have you been stuck and given up looking for a solution?  You have the tools and skills already.  Take  a fresh look and make it happen!


The Things They Never Tell You About Being A Mother

Being a Mom isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

It’s so much better.

I never want to take for granted the gratitude of others.   But for me, Mother’s Day is also about celebrating one’s children and being grateful to them for enabling me to be in the best role I’ve ever had.

Here’s why I’m grateful to my children on Mother’s Day:

  • Yes, being a parent can be exhausting.  But for me, it was an energizing experience overall.
  • Yes, sometimes I just wanted them to go to bed or go to school, but mostly I looked forward to every chance I could just hang out with them, get a hug or hold their hand.
  • Yes, sometimes it was just hard work, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else, doing anything else, ever.
  • Yes, sometimes it was just yukky, particularly during the diaper or barfing (yes we had that) stages, but I loved seeing my naked baby several times a day and getting to play with his tummy (there wasn’t really an upside to the barfing stage, in retrospect, aside from the great stories I can tell – subject for another blog).
  • Yes , sometimes it was just frustrating and aggravating, but there was 10x as much joy as frustration. Besides, there was a lesson about myself to be learned during those times though I admit it took me a long time to learn them.  I had as much growing up to do as they did, and they were my teachers.  If you think about it, kids can only do what they can do.  So blaming the kid is like blaming a dog for barking or pooping:  it only reflected my need to control or my unrealistic expectations.
  • Yes, sometimes I felt it was a thankless job, but I know how they feel about me and the unique role I played in their lives.  Any time they willingly choose to spend time with me feels like a thank you note in disguise.
  • Yes, sometimes those life stages were difficult and challenging, but I thought they were all amazing and I enjoyed every one of them (some more than others).  It was an honor to watch them grow and transform through each stage.
  • Yes, everyone told me how much work it is raising kids but no one told me what an utter and complete joy it is.  I loved almost every minute of it and, now that they’ve flown the coop, the time with them is ever more precious.

So you Moms out there who are fortunate enough to still have your kids at home:  savor the moment, all of them, and find the silver lining and personal lessons during the challenging times (if you’re not already).  Perhaps the mothering experience will be more than you bargained for too.  Happy Mother’s Day!

Photo credit: tonyconigliophotography.com

Photo credit: tonyconigliophotography.com

An Abundance Mentality

We all have shadow beliefs, most of them unhealthy.  A shadow belief is one that we’re unaware of and frequently impacts our behavior and world view.  For this reason, I feel it is important for us to identify our shadow beliefs so that we can deal with them so that they do not unduly color our perspective in counterproductive ways.

Identifying the belief is only the first step in dealing with it.  We tend to carry these beliefs like rose- or grey-colored glasses, preventing us from having a clear and unbiased view of events.  My belief as many of you know has to do with deprivation – an underlying belief that I won’t get what I need.  Therefore, I tend to collect and save the things that I feel are essential to my well-being (including Post-Its. Don’t ask me to explain that).  Emotionally it means that I tend to view disrespect or disregard as a hot button issue, whether warranted or not.

During my recent XXth birthday party, my friends and family set out to blast holes in my deprivation belief system.  Boy did they ever.  I floated on a cloud for several days.  My chest felt lighter and my heart more open.  I’ve been wondering what the long term effects are, and a week later, I feel like I’m interfacing with the world in a new way.

Instead of being in the habit of noticing deprivation, I’m noticing abundance as a baseline.  It’s not that I haven’t noticed abundance before.  It’s just been less natural to me than noticing deprivation.

Here are the places I’ve been seeing abundance:

  • The basics – We totally take clean air, water and our beautiful earth for granted.  These are not available to everyone.  Some areas are in draught, polluted, or devastated due to weather, war or neglect.  In the past I might’ve noticed how the weather was too humid or the weeds in my garden instead of the flowers, clear sky and squirrels.
  • Our lifestyle – We take our homes, pets, running water, communications, electricity, safe communities, infrastructure and transportation, health care, insurance, affluence, education, and availability of food, goods and services, whenever and wherever we want them also for granted.  These are really luxuries and we should treat them as such.  In the past I might’ve just complained about the traffic, slow internet speed, the absence of a convenient coffee shop, or the price of the pair of shoes I wanted instead of realizing that our comfort is so intrinsic to our expectations, we don’t even notice how fortunate we are any more.
  • Our loved ones – Life is precious and so is time with our loved ones.  We squander that time by letting days go by without showing or telling others that we love them, by not making the most of the time we have together, or by fighting or bickering.  Celebrate the people you love.  We don’t know how much time we have together.  In the past I might’ve been spending too much time being critical or upset about what others should be doing or saying instead of finding ways to show them that I love and value them.
  • Our access to opportunity – You want to be a doctor?  An entrepreneur?  A musician?  You only need to just go do it, read about it, file an application, set up a website or whatever.   In some places, many activities are taboo for certain groups, or the resources are not there to even get started.    In the past I might’ve worried about how I was being unappreciated at work instead of being grateful I’m employed at all, not to mention in a job that is interesting, impactful and challenging.
  • Our communities – So much good is happening everywhere by some really incredible, kind, talented and generous people. However, we often measure others against a very specific yardstick that would happen to make only one person look really good: ourself.  In the past I might’ve felt better than others to make up for my own insecurities instead of seeing the best side of them and valuing all they have to bring to the table.

Now imagine how one might feel each day with an abundance vs. deprivation mindset.  Which one are you?  What do you notice and how does it make you feel?  Keeping in mind that what we notice is mostly habit, what habits can you change to improve your perspective and well-being?

A Surprising Birthday Gift

 

My amazing birthday party!

By birthday tart:  a true fire hazard

I haven’t felt quite the same since three days before my 50th birthday. I feel like I’ve lost something.

You see, I have always held my preconceptions about my world and myself quite close to my heart.  In fact, that hold is a sensation around my heart and chest.   I know that our emotions are actually generated within our brain, but I believe they’re manifested by muscle constrictions and relaxations in our gut or chest.    This particular preconception has told me, every day for most of my life , that I’m not going to get what I need.  That I’m neither seen nor heard. And it feels like a tightness in my chest that only goes away when I make a deliberate effort to relax it and open my heart and trust to the world.

I have been aware of this belief for a number of years and know that feeling ignored or disrespected is one of my hot buttons.  You know – the kind that can send you into an irrational fury or to tears for what seems to others like no apparent reason.  Physically, it’s a welling feeling in my chest that seems to rise up to a boil as my chest squeezes in like a boa constrictor.  That is the nature of our schema, after all.  And I feel like I’ve done a better job each year of being aware of when those feelings surface and then managing them so they don’t ruin my day, afternoon, or even hour.  But they still surface.

So on my 50th birthday, or rather starting three days beforehand, my friends and family have been conspiring to make me feel loved and appreciated.   A surprise birthday party, complete with friends and family coming from across the country.  A champagne party with birthday tarts afterwards, followed by words of appreciation from my loved ones.  Fifty candles, truly, fire hazard notwithstanding.  And not one but two birthday tiaras (I’ve never had one of any kind), one with sparkly gems and the other with pink feathers.    Gifts galore, flowers, meals out, and all kinds of birthday wishes across electronic media in the ensuing days.  It feels as if not a single person has failed to try to make my birthday as special as possible.

You may recall my blog about dreams being the portal to our personal mythology.  I had a dream last night about deciding that if I wanted to, I could fly.  So I did.  I flew for the heady feeling it provided.  I flew for exploration.   I flew for expediency.   I flew because I could.  The only other time I had a flying dream, I was riding on the back of my then-husband.  The flight was not within my control, ala Kate Winslet on the bow of the Titanic, quite literally.  This flight was on my own will and volition, and it lasted what seemed like most of the night.

So my unexpected 50th birthday gift is an increasing lightness in my chest borne from the love of my friends and family.  Thank you, dear friends and family, for the most amazing and memorable gift ever:  being in my life.

Dear God/Universe

Simple pleasures Photo credit:  tonyconigliophoto.com

Simple pleasures
Photo credit: tonyconigliophoto.com

Thank you for all the wonderful blessings in my life:

  • Thank you for making me imperfect so I have the joy of growth, improvement and change.
  • Thank you for difficult people.  They are a catalyst for self-actualization, self-awareness and an opportunity to practice compassion.
  • Thank you for the difficult times.   They taught me humility and made me stretch my capabilities.
  • Thank you for boredom for it invites me to nurture my imagination.
  • Thank you for not letting life always go my way, for I may start to think that life is supposed to be easy and that my initial inclinations are right.
  • Thank you for the gift of perspective.  I can always find the silver lining in every situation and almost always create an opportunity that I hadn’t thought of.
  • Thank you for my gratitude.  I know I often take small and large things in my life for granted, but mostly I’m filled with a profound appreciation for the amazingness of our life and world.
  • Thank you for my capacity to love.  Despite gratitude and perspective, I don’t know if I could live without love in my life.  Thank you also for teaching me that I can love everyone, not just my loved ones.  But thank you especially for my loved ones.
  • I don’t mean to leave out material comforts.  They enable me to pursue the things I love to do, like blogging, cooking, dining out, dancing, theater, bathing, reading, teaching and going to school. Thank you for every one of those too.

What’s on your list?  What should you add?