When Sadness Strikes

When Sadness Strikes

One of the most helpful things I’ve learned from my studies in positive psychology is how to deal with sadness.  And this week, with its non-stop pictures of the devastation that Hurricane Harvey caused , has certainly provided me with an immense opportunity to practice.

The number one thing I know about dealing with sadness is not to fight it.  That holds true with a lot of painful emotions, by the way.  You let yourself tune right into the feeling, to be as fully aware of it as you can.  Where do you feel it in your body?  What’s it weight?  Does it have a shape?  A color?  Just feel it and accept its validity.  Ask it what it has to say to you, then listen for an answer.

My sadness was heavy and dark, a cloud-like thing wrapping around my heart.  It went beyond sadness, I realized.  It was sorrow, and grief, and anger that such suffering could befall so many.  It held a sense of helplessness because there was little I could to alleviate such a vast problem.

But as I sat with it, accepting it, listening to it, I realized it also contained compassion and love.  And as the week went on, the stories of the countless heroes who stepped out to rescue and serve the affected began to emerge.  And my cloud of emotion took on a wave of soaring pride in my fellow humans, who came from everywhere to do whatever they could do.  And then there was hope, as people started saying that every sense of division disappeared.  In the face of disaster, everyone was simply a human being.

It was mid-week before my attention broadened to encompass an awareness of the horrendous fires sweeping the western states.  And then I learned that another hurricane, even larger and more powerful, is threatening to sweep the east coast next week.

I thought about something Dr. Jordan Peterson said:  “Life is suffering.  The best you can do is pick it up and carry it with as much dignity as you can muster.”   To me that means staying present and attending to the work at hand, doing that work to the best of my ability—whatever the situation.

And then there’s Tara Brach’s admonition:  “This is suffering.  Everybody suffers.  May I be kind.”  Amen to that.  May we all be kind.

Listen, every September I inform my dear subscribers that it’s National Preparedness Month and I nag about taking time to ensure that you have adequate food and water on hand to get you by for a week, at the very least.  Have batteries on hand, and medications you and your family members may need.  Have a battery-powered or wind-up emergency radio.  Do that!  Especially if you live anywhere on the east coast.  Make yourself a little go-bag of things to take with you in case you suddenly have to evacuate.  Don’t let the gas tank in your car fall below half-full.  And here’s a good tip I read this week:  Take photos of important papers, like birth certificates, insurance information, deeds, important family contact information and such and put them on a thumb drive in your purse, go-bag, or wallet.

Consider yourself advised.  Consider attending to preparation today—because, really, you never know when tomorrow may be too late.

Meanwhile, cover those impacted by life’s tragedies with your compassionate thoughts and prayers.  Be kind—to yourself and to others.  Be present.   Then attend to the work at hand, with all the dignity and grace you can muster.

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Share the Light

Share the Light

The grocery store was crowded when I ran in for a few items yesterday, but I managed to find one fairly short checkout line.  In front of me, an older man sat in a motorized cart with a small pile of canned goods in its basket.  It looked to me like it would be an uncomfortable reach for him to lift his items onto the counter, so I walked to the side of his cart and stooped enough to be at face level with him.

“May I put your items on the belt for you?  Would that be a help?”

His lined face brightened into a smile.  “Oh, thank you!  Yes, that would be wonderful.  You’re an angel.”

As I transferred his items to the counter, he told me he had just been released from the hospital.  I saw that one arm had gauze taped to it and he still wore a hospital ID bracelet on his wrist.  “They said my heart was good.  They couldn’t tell me why I’m so tired,” he said.  When he got home, he intended to take a nap.

He told me that he’d lost his wife a year ago to cancer.  They had been together 43 years.  I told him I had lost a son in an auto accident, and I knew what grief was like.  “A man said something helpful to me while I was grieving,” I told him.  “He said that the pain never really goes away, but it finds a special place in your heart to dwell.”   He smiled and nodded.

He put out his hand, told me his name and asked mine.  Then, when I put my hand in his, he covered it with his other hand and said a quiet prayer of blessing for me, asking that I might be blessed with health and well-being and prosper in all my ways.

The glow of that encounter still flows through my heart and serves as a poignant reminder of the power of a moment of kindness.

As I write this, Hurricane Harvey is tearing up homes and towns and lives in Texas.  From the looks of things, the damage will be catastrophic and widespread.  And like most of you reading this, I wish I could offer more than a donation to relief funds.  I’m so tired of witnessing all the suffering in the world.

But my encounter at the grocery store reminded me that even small kindnesses can touch lives in meaningful ways.  And I think nothing is more needed right now than offerings of kindness, every day, at every opportunity.   What if we all looked for those opportunities?  What if we focused on that, instead of bristling with a willingness to take offense?

Who knows what a touch, a smile can do?  Hold a door.  Say hello.  Help carry a burden.  Take a neighbor a cookie or flower.  Say the magic words:  Please, and Thank You.  Tell the people that you care about that you love them.

We might not change the world.  But we can at least tip it a little more toward the light, hey?  I say we all put on our kindness hats and get out there and give it all we’ve got.

 

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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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