The Wisdom of Engaging with the World

Engaging with Life

I’m one of those people who spends a significant number of hours each week surfing the web. Primarily, it’s my curiosity that drives me. I like to explore ideas, spot trends, and just in general see what’ going on out there.

This week my travels brought me face-to-face with more insanity than usual. By week’s end, I concluded that it’s an absolute marvel that the world functions at all.

But it brought insights, too. And it took me back a few decades to the wisdom of zen philosopher Alan Watts. I first encountered his work when I was living in San Francisco during the infamous “Summer of Love,” the cresting of the so-called Hippie era. Contrary to popular conceptions of the time, many of the people who gathered there that summer were young and ardent intellectuals searching for new solutions for society’s ills.

On Sunday nights, the local radio station carried a program called “The Transcendental, Multi-Lingual Two-Ton Mustard Seed,” which featured in-depth conversations with people like poet Alan Ginsberg and philosopher Alan Watts. Watts’ philosophy intrigued me. It seemed a natural extension of the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau that had captured my mind the previous autumn. I bought a few of his books and read them while I sat on a platform of a light house in San Francisco Bay.

Now here I was, encountering him again. Just in time. He rescued me from a slide into despair over the sheer madness I was seeing unfold in the world.

I had a partial grasp on understanding the conflict and the willingness to latch onto any passing idea that promised safety from chaos. Jordan Peterson had explained that people form and use their beliefs as a way of protecting themselves from the unknown, which appears to them as a potential threat. The more frightened they are, the more overwhelming the world seems, the tighter their hold on their beliefs. So we end up in imprisoning beliefs that set us at odds with those whose beliefs differ from our own.

But Watts went deeper. In his book The Wisdom of Insecurity, he says this:

“To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet. We look for this security by fortifying and enclosing ourselves in innumerable ways. . . These defenses lead to divisions between us, and so to more insecurity demanding more defenses.”

The answer is to keep breathing, to recognize that life is an endless, every-changing flow. If you try to put running water in a bucket, he says, you won’t succeed because the bucket traps it and it can no longer run. And you can’t encase life in a belief system either. Because life is an infinite flow. The best you can do is to engage with life fully, to be fully present in this very Now, which is all there really is.

That’s easier said than done, of course. Our minds are chattering monkeys. But you can practice and get better at it and stay present for longer and longer periods of time. And when you do, you get glimpses of how exquisite it all is, and how much you truly are one with it.

I heard a story once where a child asked her grandmother, “Is everyone like this?” The grandmother asked her what she meant. And the child replied, “So much bigger on the inside than on the outside.”

Qigong master Chunyi Lin leads students in a meditation where the key phrase is, “I am in the Universe; the Universe is in me.” Practice being fully present in the Now, and the inside and outside become one, as the two sides of a coin.

You don’t have to believe it. It’s not a matter of belief. Just be the river, and let life flow on.

 

 

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The Wisdom of Restraint

When I was a little kid, my mother taught me a lot about dealing with people whom I didn’t especially like. Basically, there were only two rules. I them both under the heading, “The Wisdom of Restraint.”

The first one was about guarding what came out of my own mouth, and the second one was about unkind things that others said to me. And today, when the divide between differing opinions is so sharp and deep, I’m grateful for Mom’s teachings.

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice . . .

The first one–the guide for how to speak to others–was, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It took me a while to understand that she didn’t mean I should never speak my truth if it was likely to offend. She meant I had to learn to express myself in a way that took others’ sensitivities into consideration and to respect them, no matter how silly or dumb their viewpoints seemed to be.

But until you’re mature enough to articulate your truth clearly and with tact, the “don’t say anything at all” part of Mom’s rule is a good guideline, and one which, it seems to me, a lot of us could well learn to adopt. If we spent less time mindlessly parroting slogans and sound bites and more time listening to reasoned, researched, and fact-based arguments, we might find that we had something worthwhile to contribute.

Otherwise, all we’re doing is adding fuel to already raging fires. And that’s no way to find workable answers to our world’s deep and complex problems. In fact, it makes them worse. It keeps us from even knowing what questions to ask in order to find solutions.

If you’re having trouble understanding how someone on the other side of a political argument could possibly believe what they believe, I highly recommend you take the time to listen to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful Ted Talk, “Healing the Divide.” And heed his advice, too, about reading Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. This time-tested guide will show you how to say things tactfully and help you communicate more effectively in all aspects of your life. You can download it for free here.

Mom’s Second Rule

Okay, I know it’s not well-understood in today’s victim-culture, but Mom’s second rule holds wisdom nonetheless. She didn’t make it up. She just recognized it as sage advice that I needed to know: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

That rule taught me that I didn’t need to be offended just because someone was being offensive. If I was secure in myself, I could take their words as an expression of their opinion and nothing more. And they were as entitled to their opinion as I was to mine.

Everybody lives in his own reality bubble. But we all share things in common, too. If what you say shocks me, I don’t need to react defensively. Instead, I can tell you that I don’t see things the same way. I can be curious about why you see things as you do and, if you’re open to talking about it, share my own viewpoint and reasoning with you. Who knows? Maybe we’ll end up being the best of friends. Maybe we’ll be stimulated to continue talking about the issue over time, and both expand our views in the process. Maybe we’ll cordially agree to disagree, to like all the other things there are to like about each other.

In essence, the “sticks and stones” rule is about learning how to respond rather than to react. It takes practice. It goes against our natural grain. But it’s a pathway to peace, both internally and between opposing parties. And these days, when our weapons are not sticks and stones but implements of total destruction, it’s the only pathway we can take and still survive.

Wishing peace and healing for us all.

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Focused Intention: Remembering Your Best Self

Your Best Self

 

Whether you’re trying to improve a relationship, get to the gym more often, finish that report, or clean out the garage, one of the keys to achieving your goals is remembering your best self—the you who you want to be. The things we’re aiming to achieve, after all, are a reflection of the values we hold and the traits we want to express. Maintain a focused intention on those things and watch the barriers to achieving your goals melt away.

Here’s a simple two-part process you can use to move more easily toward any goal.

Identifying Who You Want to Be

First, think about what you’re hoping to get from achieving your goal. Ask yourself the classic “WIIFM” question: What’s in it for me? Even if the result you’re aiming for is represented by something tangible, like that finished report or a clean garage, if you think about it, what you really want is the feeling that you lived out a value that you hold in high regard. You want the experience of holding the mindset or attitude that the process of achieving your goal asks of you.

Suppose, for example, that you want to improve your relationship with your partner who has been irritating you lately. What mindset or attitude could you adopt that might smooth things out? Who do you really want to be when you relate to her? Someone who is more patient, maybe? More caring? More empathic? More cheerful?

Imagine setting an intention to express those traits. Imagine how it would feel being that person in your relationship. Imagine how your partner would respond to a person like that.

Or suppose you have to work on an assignment that you’ve been putting off. Who would you have to be to dive into it? What traits could you express? More curiosity? Keener interest? A heightened sense of responsibility? More inventiveness?

No matter what you’re aiming to achieve, your goal is asking you to focus on being who you need to be in order to achieve it. When you identify the traits you want to use and develop a focused intention to live them in your daily life, they will carry you toward your goal. It’s just a matter of remembering who you want to be—and step two, below, will show you how to remember.

If you need a little prompting to decide what traits you might want to adopt, check out this handy little list: Positive Traits for Building Your Best Self.

Focused Intention

The second step in remembering who you want to be is creating a focused intention using a simple practice called the PARK technique. It anchors your intention to live out the traits you want to express, and doing it takes only a minute or two.

Begin by choosing two or three traits you think will work best for accomplishing your goal. Then say to yourself, preferably out loud, “My intention is to be filled with ___________ and _________ .”

Next, take a couple minutes to close your eyes and remember a time when you felt each of them and let yourself experience that feeling as fully as you can. Feel a little smile on your face and, as you feel your first intended feeling, say its name while you tap the heart region of your chest three times—“Capable. Capable. Capable.” Then do it with the next intended feeling.

Great! You have created your focused intention. Next, you activate and strengthen it with these two daily practices:

First, as soon as you wake in the morning, before you get out of bed, remember your intention, repeating the traits to yourself.

Second, as you go through your day, do the PARK exercise to reinforce and nurture it. (A great way to remember it is to do it on the hour, or to do it before each meal.) Here’s how:

PPause in whatever you are doing, momentarily setting it aside.

ABecome Aware: Allow yourself to become aware of the present moment. Do a quick body-scan, closing your eyes if you like, and let go of any accumulated tension. Then notice the data your senses are bringing to you: What are you seeing? Hearing? Smelling? Tasting? What is your skin feeling? Also, do a quick review of all you have accomplished in the past hour and acknowledge yourself for it. You can do all of this very effectively in a matter of a 10-15 seconds. If you can take a full 30 seconds with it, enjoying the richness of the moment, you’ll find it especially relaxing.

RRemember: Briefly touch your heart center and allow the feeling of your intentions to be in your awareness for a moment. Know that they are alive within you and gently guiding you. (If you’re in a public situation and uncomfortable touching your heart center, simply turn your attention to your heart.)

KKeep on Task: Return your attention to the task at hand or with the next one on your list.

That’s it! Choose two or three traits as vehicle for reaching your goal, install your intention to be immersed in them, do a morning reminder when you wake and practice PARK as you go through your day.

This practice is one of the favorites of my coaching clients, by the way. I hope you’ll give it a try and experience the wondrous well-being and success that it can bring you as you move toward your goals.

Wishing you delicious intentions!

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Finding Meaning in Your Life

Finding MeaningIf  you got to this page because you were searching for an article on finding meaning, chances are you’re feeling dissatisfied with your life in some way, as if it should be more than it is.

Maybe you’re lonely or feeling empty, or insignificant.  That’s what meaning is, a feeling of personal significance, a feeling that your life matters, that you’re important in some way.

You are.  You do.   That’s the bottom line.

Need more convincing?  Read on.

Four Things to Know About Meaning

First of all, you’re not alone in looking for meaning in your life.  All the Big Brains who study and research and contemplate meaning agree that, on some level, every single one of us searches for it.  We all want to know that there’s some purpose for our being here.

Meaning, says psychologist Michael F. Steger, Ph.D., lets us make sense of our lives and lets us live purposefully in the world.  “Meaning,” he says, “is a unique expression of what makes us human, and what makes us great when we’re at our best.  The data from four decades of research are clear, meaning matters.”

Secondly, you matter to you If you didn’t, you wouldn’t even be looking for answers.  You wouldn’t care about relieving the pain of your loneliness, or your dissatisfaction, or your sense of insignificance.  Let yourself say this to the person reading these words:  “I matter to me.”

You’re important to yourself, too.  You’ve set everything else aside right now just to search for some understanding, comfort and healing.  You’ve let yourself be your top priority.  Own it: “I’m important to me.”

A third thing to know about meaning is that it isn’t the same thing as happiness, or success, or fulfillment, or being loved.   You can experience your life as meaningful even in the midst of great sadness, or failure, or loneliness, or pain.  You still matter; you’re still important.  There’s still a reason for your being.

“But what is that reason?” you may cry back to me.

Well, that’s where things get a little complicated.  I can tell you my personal answer and I can tell you about the reasons that others have suggested, but in the end, you have to discover your answer for yourself.  Because the final thing to know about your life’s meaning is that it’s personalized.  Your reason for being may be the same as mine.  But it may be different, too.  You get to decide.   Meaning isn’t something that the outside world gives you.  It’s something that your life offers you through the living of it.

How to Find Your Meaning

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist from the last century who probably thought about meaning more than anybody else ever has, said that we can find meaning in three ways.

The first way is through creating something or doing some kind of activity or work.   The second way is through engagement with the world or with another person.  And the third way is by taking an attitude of defiance toward suffering.

Defiance Toward Suffering

Let’s start with the last one first.  If you’re suffering, just by finding this article you were exercising your defiance of your pain.  You had already made up your mind not to let it rob you of your meaning.   You had chosen to rise above your pain, to be greater than it.  And you were doing more than that, too.  You were exercising courage and the will to keep on keeping on.  Both of those qualities are personal strengths and clues to what gives your life meaning.  You’re saying, “I’m important to me.  I matter.”

I knew a woman who suffered from an incurable disease that slowly paralyzed her body.  When it forced her to retire from her work, she vowed that she would do at least one useful or creative thing every day.  And she did, and it gave her life meaning.

Toward the end, the only creative thing she could do was smile.  And she did that, too, every day.

She used her ability to accomplish something to defy her pain and suffering.  What a valiant spirit!

Finding Meaning through Work and Activity

In his beautiful  article on finding meaning through work and activity, minister Lee Woofenden offers this explanation for the way that our work contributes to our life’s meaning:

“…our most real and human aspect is the love and understanding that forms our mind or spirit. This is what makes us truly human. And the world of our thoughts and feelings is the one that we inhabit most intensely and deeply.

“And yet . . . if our thoughts and feelings have no means of expression, they also lack a certain sense of reality. It is not enough for us to simply feel strong feelings and think enlightened thoughts. We humans have an innate drive to express those thoughts and feelings through our words and actions, and in our relationships with our environment and our fellow human beings.”

It’s the physical expression of our inner spirit, Woofenden says, that allows us to feel fulfilled.

I heartily invite you to read his entire article for deeper insight.

“Work” doesn’t necessarily mean the job you do for a living, of course.  It can mean gardening, washing the car, or sweeping the floor.  But it does also mean your job.  And if you think that what you do for a living isn’t meaningful, you might benefit from looking at it a little differently.  Try seeing how what you do fits into the bigger picture, how it has its place in a complex organization that, in some way, helps your fellow man.

Whatever work you’re doing, the more of yourself you can put into it, the more meaningful it will be for you.

Engaging with Life and People

Psychologists who are studying the ways that a sense of meaning shows up in our lives are discovering that when you ask people what was meaningful to them in the past couple of days, they’ll name times when they were doing things they enjoyed, whether that was a solitary hobby or having lunch with a friend.

It’s often the moments of simple pleasure that make our lives feel worthwhile.

“Finding meaning in life can be exciting when you bestow loving focus, attention and care on to what you do,” writes Naveena Gerrits  in her wonderfully helpful article on engaging in meaningful activities.

She provides a big clue to extracting meaning in that sentence: give your activities your loving focus, attention and care.

Doing that will keep you rooted in the present and help you enter the flow state, that space where you’re so engaged that you lose all track of time.

If you want to find a path to meaning that suits your personality and style, Gerrits’ article is a fabulous place to go for suggestions.  She lists dozens and dozens of activities you might explore, broken down into the headings:

  • Creative Forms of Expression
  • Hobbies  – Work – Career
  • Ethics – Contribution – Society
  • Environment – Nature – Cosmos
  • Relationships – Family – Home
  • Spirituality – Religion – Philosophy

The Ultimate Meaning

Throughout the ages, humans have been trying to find the meaning of life.  The ultimate reason for our being is one of life’s ultimate mysteries.  The answer you choose to the question, “Why are we here?” like the answer to finding the meaning in your own life, is a personal matter and depends, in large part, on your spiritual or philosophical orientation.

You may even decide that, because it has no one-size-fits-all answer, the only honest answer is “Beats me!”  It’s too big a question for most of us.

But “What makes my life worthwhile?” is a question that hits home for us all.  Your answer may change as your life changes.  You may find it in relationships today, in your work tomorrow, or in overcoming suffering at some point along the way.  Think of discovering the meaning in your life as a day by day adventure.

Every day, try to do something that gives you a sense of satisfaction, achievement, relatedness, contribution or pleasure.  Let your personal interests guide you in finding them and experiment from time to time with new things.  You can print out a copy of Gerrit’s list or bookmark it and review it every now and then for ideas.

Increase the attention you give to your health, too – to the quality of your nutrition, to giving yourself adequate amounts of hydration, exercise and sleep.   The healthier you are, the easier it is to feel zest for life.

Take the VIA (Values in Action) Survey and learn what your highest personal strengths are.  Then find ways that you can use them more often and in different applications in your life.

Try keeping a gratitude journal to increase your awareness of the things that let you feel good about being alive today.

And every day, tell yourself “I’m important to me.  I matter.”  Because you are, and you do.

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Our site has a wealth of articles that can help you live a more meaningful, flourishing life.  Browse through the topics in the Article Index while you’re here and see all that’s available to you. And pick up a copy of our free Quick Start Guide to Fabulous Well Being for more easy and powerful ways to enrich your life.  Just fill in your email at the top right of this page.

 

Photo by robby m

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Living with Heart: Hope, Optimism and Future-Mindedness

Hope
“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”  ~Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

 

Of all the character strengths, one of my very favorites is the strength of “hope, optimism, and future-mindedness.”   When you have hope, when you believe there’s a reason to keep on, your life takes on a luster and an energy that encourages you even on the darkest days.

I’m talking about hope as a noun, a state of being.  Yes, sometimes it has an object attached to it and acts like a verb:  I hope he wins.  I hope it doesn’t rain.  But even then, what we’re really saying is that we have hope inside us, that it’s active in our lives.

Hope is a kind of positive expectancy that things will turn out well.  It believes that good outcomes are possible, even against all odds.  And it believes that even when the outcome we wanted doesn’t materialize, we’ll eventually discover that, in the long run. our disappointments contribute to our greater good.

The creators of positive psychology’s Character Strengths Survey describe someone who scores high in hope, optimism and future-mindedness this way:  “You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.”

The future is a pretty big place.  Maybe believing that we can influence it is a safer bet than believing we can control it.  But hope and optimism definitely give us stronger cards to play, and they motivate us to take the actions we can to bring our influence to bear.

How to Build Hope

If you’re a bit low on hope right now, I have good news for you.  Hope, like all the character strengths, is a bit like a muscle.  Give it some attention and exercise, and you can build it up.

Hope expert Dr. Anthony Scioli suggests five strategies for building hope:

  1. Set Goals.  Pick something that you would like to accomplish.  It doesn’t have to be anything big, just something you think is within your capabilities that you would feel good about accomplishing. Having a goal gives you some clarity in your life and a sense of purpose.
  2. Enjoy Good Relationships.  From your list of family members and acquaintances, pick one or two with whom you can be open, who won’t make you feel guarded or defensive.  As one of your goals, make a decision to spend time with them once or twice a week, even its just for a good chat on the phone.
  3. Manage Your Stress.  Dr. Scioli suggests that you identify your preferred way of coping with stress:  “Problem solving, seeking support from others, praying, planning in advance, or avoidance.”  Then, he suggests, “make a commitment to practice one or two strategies that are not part of your normal coping repertoire.
  4. Deepen Your Spirituality.  What feels spiritual to you?  Spending time in communion with your God, or higher power?  Involvement in a social organization?  Being with good friends?  Think about ways that you can spend more of your time in this area to build your sense of faith in life’s goodness.
  5. Develop a Personal Mission Statement.  What would you name as the central theme for your life?  What would give you a sense of purpose and meaning?  Accomplishing some larger goal?  Mastering a skill?  Serving others in some way?  Dr. Scioli suggests placing your written statement in a visible place to motivate you when life threatens to get the best of you.

Other practices that can help you build your hope muscle include:

  • Taking care of your health:  It’s a lot easier to feel hope when you’re full of vitality.  Get enough sleep and exercise, eat wholesome, unprocessed foods, and keep yourself well-hydrated.
  • Watching your self-talk:  Practice noticing what’s right in your life, what’s good in a situation, how well you did something, what traits you appreciate in yourself.  Learn to pat yourself on the back now and then.
  • Practicing gratitude:  It will help you notice the goodness that surrounds you and to develop your sense of life’s bounteousness and opportunities.
  • Practicing self-compassion:  Learn to be kinder and less blaming toward yourself.  Become your own best friend and supporter.  Give yourself credit for your efforts and positive attributes.
  • Accepting personal responsibility: When you accept that you’re in charge of creating your future success, you hopefulness naturally increases.
  • Keeping in motion:  Hope thrives on action.  Keep moving toward your goals.

Cultivating Optimism

Hope and optimism are strongly related.  Optimism actively looks for the good in situations, people, and things.  Optimism greases the wheels of hope and keeps it rolling.

Luckily, Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, researched optimism in depth and describes what separates the optimist from his negative cousin in his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.

You can check out my article, How to Make Your Optimism Soar, to learn how to incorporate more of this hopeful viewpoint into your life.

Why Bother?

We live in fast-paced, challenging, often distressful times.  When you look around the world and see all the problems, it’s easy to lose your senses of optimism and hope.  The potential for doom can easily eclipse our perception of the powerful potential for triumph that exists as well.

Cultivating your own personal sense of hope and optimism is one way you can help tip the balance in a positive direction.  You can use this strength to help make the most of your own life, to motivate you toward greater creativity, service and productiveness, and that’s one more life well-lived.

And besides, it makes life a lot more fun. We used to call it “living with heart.”

To send you off with a taste of it, here’s a song extolling its virtue, from the 1958 movie, “Damn Yankees.”

If you found this article worthwhile, please share it on the social media of your choice.  Thanks!  And while you’re here, subscribe and get your free copy of our Quick Start Guide to Fabulous Well-Being with eight positive living exercises that will help you live a flourishing life.

Photo by robby m at Stock.Xchng

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