To the New Graduate: Learn to Fly

Learn to Fly

A friend asked me to write “one of your letters” as a graduation gift to her son. I did, and sent it in my weekly newsletter to my subscribers.  Now a whole new batch of graduates (and subscribers) have come along.  So I wanted to share it once more, and to wish all you new grads the very best.

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“You were born with potential. You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dreams. You were born with greatness. You were born with wings. You are not meant for crawling, so don’t.  You have wings. Learn to use them and fly.”  ― Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

Dear Graduate,

Rumi’s right, of course.  But it’s hardly the whole story.  This learning-to-fly business is no easy thing.  Nor is it quickly learned.

For one thing, you have to want it—that ability to soar above the crowd.  You have to keep fighting against the pull of mediocrity.  You have to want freedom more than you want to belong.

Those ideals and dreams you have in your heart?  Define them.  Write down what you want and why and keep your reasons close at hand.  You will need reminders when the headwinds are strong, when storms come.  And storms will come.

No one succeeds without chalking up a list of failures.  Don’t be afraid to fail.  Be afraid of not trying to win.  “Wisdom,” an old saying goes, “comes from experience.  And experience comes from making mistakes.”  There’s no shame in that.  Setbacks and failures are life’s gifts to you, sent as corrections to your course.  Be daring.  Take risks.

Keep a good helping of forgiveness in your pocket.  Mostly you’ll need it for yourself.  It will keep you from tearing yourself down needlessly and will help you maintain your humility while you continue your upward climb.

Learn not to blame circumstances or other people when things go wrong.  The key to success is the acceptance of full and complete responsibility for every choice you make and for every action you take, for your own response to whatever is happening.   When you inadvertently hurt others, be quick to apologize and make amends.

To the best of your ability, maintain your health.  Eat wisely.  Exercise.  Get sufficient sleep.  Learn to relax.  Adopt some form of meditation.

Maintain flexibility of thought.  Consider opinions that oppose your own.  Be willing, if it serves truth, to discard every belief you’ve ever held.   Demand truth, whatever the consequences.  And to the very best of your ability, be honest with yourself and others; that’s what the practice of truth demands.

Nevertheless, be kind.  Be gracious and tactful.  Allow others the respect and compassion they deserve.  These are the hallmarks of genuine maturity and of leadership.

Take time in your life for pleasure and play.   To be alive is a profound privilege.  And your gratitude is best expressed through your laughter and your joy, through your appreciation of life’s beauty and goodness and fun.

Above all, vow to learn to love, as broadly and fully as you can.  For love is the wind which lifts us, and the power that enables us to soar.

You have wings, my friend.  Learn to use them, and fly.

Congratulations on all your magnificent successes thus far!  You have honored yourself and your loving family and made all of us better with all that you have achieved.

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In Celebration of the Nurturers–A Tribute to Mothers

Mom and Son

As I was thinking about what I wanted to share with you today, it dawned on me that it’s Mother’s Day here in the States.  For me, it’s a day filled with happy and meaningful memories of a woman whose character I find myself appreciating more and more deeply with every passing yea.  I genuinely hope that you can say the same, and that, if your Mom is still living, you’ll tell her so.

The thought occurred to me that in today’s climate of speech policing, this day set aside for honoring mothers will probably soon become “Parents’ Day” or “Carer’s Day” or some such thing.  But that’s a topic for another time.

Right now, it’s still “Mother’s Day,” and I asked myself what the essential quality is that all mothers share.  I had to think about it for a while, because mothers, being human after all, span the whole spectrum from “bad” to “good.”  But I think I finally put my finger on it–at least if we set the truly pathological ones aside.

What Mothers Do

The one thing all mothers do, the one quality that behooves us to be grateful for them, is that they nurtured us.  Even the most disadvantaged ones, the most disinterested, the most careless, did what was needed to keep us alive.  Even if that meant, in some cases, giving us away.  Here we are; they did what it took to make that happen.

For the ones who did the bare minimum, let’s use this day to offer them our forgiveness and compassion.  They don’t know what they missed.  And they did the best they could.

And for the ones who took the time and spent the energy  not only to feed, clothe, and house us, but to nurture us with an abundance of love, let’s take the time to reflect that love back to them, whether they’re still with us or not.

Let’s think about what they nurtured in us—what they taught us to value and appreciate, how they instilled manners in us and showed us ways to successfully negotiate in the world, how they passed on traditions so we would feel linked to the past, how they said that the only thing they wanted was for us to be happy in our lives and how they did all they knew to do to make that possible.  Let’s think about the pride they took in our achievements, and their unqualified forgiveness when we fell short of the mark, about the way they comforted our hurts and celebrated with us our moments of joy, about how they instilled in us the meaning of the word “home.”

Let’s think about the sacrifices they made for us, the events they attended they didn’t want to attend, the things they did without in order to serve our wishes and needs, the fulfillment of some of their own dreams so that some of ours had a chance to come true.

That’s an awful lot for one human being to be able to do for another.  And the wonder of it is that most moms–and stepmoms, and foster and adoptive moms–consider it a privilege and wouldn’t trade their roles for anything in the world.

It kind of gives you hope for the world, doesn’t it?

Wishing you a day of happy and grateful reflection about the special nurturers who mothered you.

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Slaying the Dragons of Chaos

Dragons of Chaos

I’ve been listening lately to lectures by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson,  a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, whose complex thoughts attract me with their depth and insight.  When you listen to him, you need to stop doing anything else and truly listen.  He speaks quickly and packs each sentence with layers of meaning.  But listening thoughtfully is worth the effort it requires of you.

One of the ideas he conveyed in the lectures I heard this week is that dragons, in mythology, represented (among other things) chaos.  And that slaying them makes you a hero.

Our own lives are a constant battle between chaos and order, and to be a hero in your own life means you slay the dragons that are bringing chaos to it so that you can have less confusion and greater clarity and competence in your life.

The first step in battling your dragons is the toughest.  You have to face the fact that they’re there.  You know that they are, and that they’re keeping you from being all that you can be.

Dr. Peterson says that the secret of overcoming your dragons is to take responsibility for them.   Taking responsibility builds you character and gives your life meaning.  It allows you to aim for a living on a higher level than you are now.

Here’s how he says to do it.  You know there are things in your life that aren’t in order, where you’re not together, and they’re causing you some discomfort or suffering.   Every morning, or every night, ask yourself what those things are.

Ask as if you’re asking someone you really want the answer from, not telling yourself or preaching, but sincerely asking what need to be put in order.  You can easily name five of them he says, “Bang. Bang. Bang.”  These are the little dragons of chaos.  “And they’re just little, but that’s good, because you’re not much of a hero warrior, so maybe little dragons are all you can put up with right now.”  So you name them and the begin sorting them out.

You ask yourself which one you’ll put some work into, even if the work is tedious or boring, or whatever it is that’s been allowing you to put it off.  And you do the work.  You sort those things out.

And what happens is it will bring more order into your life and when you wake up tomorrow, you’ll be just a little more focused and together.  Then you ask the same question, and the next problems will be a little more complex and challenging, and you sort those out.  And you keep going with this, and you become stronger and more clear-headed for the next set of dragons you take on.

If you continue to do that, you’ll find that your room gets cleaned, your health improves, and your house gets put in order, and then maybe you can stick a finger out and begin looking at the dragons in your community.  By that time, you’ll have some real personal power and self-confidence, and some practice at identifying dragons and taking them on.

Now that, he says, is an interesting and exciting game.  “If you started doing the things that you know you should do and you did that diligently, what the hell would you be like in ten years?”  You might not reach the very pinnacle, but you’ll be a lot better off than you are now, a lot less self-pitying and resentful, with a lot less suffering in your life, a lot less cruel to yourself and other people.  “And that’s a pretty good start.”

So here’s to slaying dragons.  Which ones will you start with today?

Wishing you a sharp sword and hearty determination!

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How to Be Your Own BFF

Serendipity led me this week to an interesting and beautiful YouTube video by Dr. Kirstin Neff on “Resilience and Self-Compassion.”    Neff’s done a heap of research on the topic of self-compassion and her way of sharing it inspires you to get a whole lot better at practicing it.

Essentially, self-compassion is being kind, supportive and caring toward yourself—learning to be your own Best Friend Forever.  It’s learning to treat yourself the way you would treat people you care about, especially when they are in pain.  And it’s adopting a kind of reverse golden rule:  Don’t do or say to yourself what you wouldn’t do or say to others.

We tend to be awfully self-critical, to beat ourselves up with our self-talk and self-destructive behaviors, when we feel we’ve failed at something, or acted badly in some way.  It’s almost as if we somehow believe that if we tell ourselves what louses we are, we’ll do better next time.  But in reality all we succeed in doing is making ourselves feel worse.

You know how we have this built-in self-defense system to protect us from threats?  Way back in time, it was meant to keep us from getting eaten by tigers or bears.  But in today’s world, the most prevalent threats aren’t to our physical selves, but to our self-concepts.  What happens when we beat ourselves up is that we become both the attacker and the attacked—a truly excruciating situation!  We generate floods of anxiety-producing cortisol into our systems when we do that.

So step one in learning to be your own BFF is to notice when you’re attacking yourself.  When you feel upset, pay attention to what you’re saying to yourself.  And if it’s words of anger or condemnation, stop it!  Instead, give yourself some caring understanding.

Use the phrase “Stop/Look/Do.” Stop what you’re doing.  Look at what you’re doing.  Do something kinder.

Self-compassion, like compassion for others, is a response of the heart.  It’s treating yourself with kindness, with soothing and comfort.  It’s like giving yourself an internal hug.

Another clue that you’re indulging in self-disrespect is to notice when you’re wallowing in your suffering, saying things like “This shouldn’t be happening to me,” instead of acknowledging that life isn’t perfect, that none of us are, and that bad things happen.  Recognize that suffering happens to everybody, even the kind of pain you’re feeling right now.  You’re not alone in experiencing it.  It’s part of the universal human experience.   Psychologist Tara Brach recommends saying to yourself, “This is suffering.  Everybody suffers.  May I be kind.”   It will save you from feeling isolated and singled out when life deals its inevitable blows.

Instead of running away from your pain or disappointment or trying to fight it, let yourself “be” with it, feeling it without judging it, allowing it, accepting it as pain.  “This is suffering.  Everybody suffers.  May I be kind.”   Then be kind.  Open your heart to yourself and feel compassion flowing toward you, from you.

A lot of dividends come from practicing self-compassion.  It creates more resilience in us.  One study found it was the single most important factor in how well people recovered from divorce, for example.  Another study found that those who practiced it were far less likely to suffer from PTSD even when they had experienced more warfare than those who didn’t.  It helps build better romantic relationships, too, and enables us to be more forgiving and to maintain a broader perspective on trying situations.

You can learn more about it at Neff’s excellent website  and can even take a quiz to determine how self-compassionate you are.   For now, a simple way to begin being kinder to yourself is to practice Tara Brach’s simple formula:  Attend and befriend.

Wishing you a week of deeper kindness and friendship with YOU, because you deserve it.

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It’s Not About You

Occasionally, when I’ve drunk coffee too late in the day and can’t sleep, I listen to the late night radio show “Coast to Coast AM.”   Okay, sometimes, when they’re talking about Big Foot or Reptilian Abductions, I put on meditation music instead.  But this week I caught an interview with Neale David Walsh, author of the Conversations with God series that was so popular a few years ago.  He’s out with a fourth book now, Awaken the Species, and he was talking about some of the main concepts it covers.

In case you’re not familiar with the Conversations series, or not even vaguely interested in reading what somebody says about God, you may find it intriguing that the first point the voice that Walsh identified as “God” had to make was “You’ve got me all wrong.”

As Walsh pointed out in the interview, even if you’ve dismissed the idea of the existence of God entirely, if that sentence has even a smidgeon of truth to it, it suggests that you may want to question what you do believe about the possibility and nature of an unimaginably conscious Supreme Being.  (Maybe it’s the source of the code, for example, that makes up the matrix of existence.)

That suggestion—about questioning beliefs—prompted me to remember one of the most challenging and valuable assignments I was ever given in college.  It was the final exam in a course called “American Thought and Language,” which covered significant (and often opposing) ideas that had arisen in the country since the time prior to the Revolution up to the present.   The assignment was to write an essay entitled “I Believe,” in which we were to discuss a few of our personal beliefs and give our reasons for holding them.

Every now and then, I assign that essay to myself again, just to uncover the beliefs that are driving me now and to examine them.   If you’re up for the challenge, I heartily recommend it.  It’s very revealing.

But that’s not the main thought that I brought away from the Walsh interview.  The idea that struck me most deeply was one Walsh shared when the host asked him what was the biggest piece of advice he could give people, based on his latest book.  Walsh said he would tell people what he was told was the most important thing: “Your life isn’t about you.  It has nothing to do with you.  It’s about everyone whose life you touch and the way in which you touch it.”

My whole being breathed a sigh of awe over the profound beauty of that thought.  Imagine what it would be like if each of us asked, “How can I help?  What can I do to make your life easier, more comfortable, more peaceful, more pleasant?”  What if we looked for ways we could give encouragement to each other?  If we set out to make the environment a healthier more beautiful place?  If we listened to each other more?  If we looked more into each other’s eyes?  If we looked for ways to ease another’s burden or to alleviate some of their stress?  If we did our jobs knowing that they were contributing, in however small a way, to the well-being of others and took joy in that?

So that’s the thought I leave with you this week, the message that it’s all about every life you touch and how you touch it.

I wish you the insight to see what’s needed, and the generosity of spirit to give as only you can.

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