Life Ain’t for Wimps

Not for Wimps

When I first got the news that Hurricane Nate was going to pummel our southern shores this weekend, my head reeled.  I felt like one of those inflatable punching dolls that pop back up as soon as you knock them down only to get another blow to the head.

“Holy Mackerel!”  I said, right out loud.  “What next?”

What was next, it turned out, was a vivid memory of Uncle Ron’s stern, booming voice informing me in no uncertain terms that he had studied the Bible extensively and could assure me there was no such thing as a holy mackerel.  I felt roundly chastised at the time and took great care never to mention the fish in my uncle’s presence again.  It took me years to realize he was teasing me.

I always smile when I think of Uncle Ron.  His deep voice may have been intimidating, but he always had a twinkle in his eye.

Maybe that’s why the phrase “Holy Mackerel” came to mind when I pondered the stream of mind-boggling events that’s been confronting us lately.  It was to remind me of Uncle Ron and how he taught me that fear could be a foolish response to life’s confusions.  You see, my Uncle Ron was a learned man, possessed of great intellect, humor and wisdom.  If I hadn’t interpreted his voice as threatening, I might have had some interesting and enlightening conversations with him.

And so it is with life.  News of fires and earthquakes, hurricanes, terror acts, and floods can be frightening.

Or not.

Life ain’t for wimps.  It comes with its bruises and blows.  But it’s we who decide whether to respond out of love or out of fear to what’s happening in the world around us.  Choose fear and you could be cheating yourself out of a great conversation with life.  Choose love and you open the door to unlimited possibilities.

Author Anais Nin wrote, “Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage.”  And courage is nothing more than keeping on even in the face of fear.  We come equipped to survive, so we respond to threats by going into full-alert mode.  And that’s a good thing.  If a tiger’s coming at you, you want to notice it and get the heck out of its way.  But once you’ve done that, or have determined it wasn’t a tiger at all, you gotta switch back into love-mode even if you’re still charged up with adrenalin and suffering from knocking knees.   There’s always something beautiful out there that you can do.  Pick a flower.  Smile at a stranger.  Pet a dog.  If you just cower in a corner because somewhere in the world tigers roam, your world gets awfully small, and you with it.

But get back out there and love, baby, and pretty soon all that energy that was fear converts into amazement and gratitude and a willingness to engage in life, whatever it brings.  Look at it and whistle, “Holy Mackerel!” at its string of surprises.  Then get yourself some mustard and have that fish for lunch.

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How I Beat the Swamp Monster

Overcoming Negativity

Yesterday I fell into a pit of ornery crabbiness.  It was sticky and thick, and if I had to name a color, I’d say it was a dark and ugly grayish-green.  Sort of like the scum on the edge of a smelly swamp.

(Oh!  I hope you weren’t eating, were you?)

I struggled against it all day.  I hated it.  I kicked at it and yelled at and grumbled and growled.  But no matter what I did, it clung to me like some kind of rubbery slime.  It was awful.  And I was really ticked off, because, you know, I’m Ms. Happiness and I’m not supposed to be in such a state at all.

I tried all kinds of things to free myself from it, and just when I’d managed a breath of fresh air, Whap!  Another glob of it would come flying at me and spread all over my mood.

It was quite late in the day when I heard a little whisper in the back of my mind say, “Remember the music.”  I’ve been doing a little research on the effect that different musical tones have on us, both physically and mentally.  What was that wavelength I’d heard about again yesterday?  Oh, yeah.  528 Hz.

I entered the phrase into YouTube’s search and found a huge list of videos that played meditation music based on that particular frequency and picked one at random.  After about 10 minutes, I noticed that the air around me was soft and clear.  The light was, too, and all the colors were beautiful again.  It was as if some gentle cosmic fan wafted a cleansing breeze across the landscape of my mind.  I was relaxed, and open, and floating on a sea of contentment.  My sense of humor returned and I laughed at all the misery I’d put myself through during the day, acting like some little kid having a tantrum.  In my mind, I reached out to that crabby little self I’d been all day and gave her a big, soft hug.

“It’s okay,” I told her.  “Everybody falls into bad moods now and then.”  She wiped her tears and smiled at me.  Then I imagined that we put on some music and danced together, holding hands.

You know, the impact of sound frequencies on us isn’t some airy-fairy gooledegook.  It’s very real and the subject of some interesting research.  Sound waves alter our brains and our biochemistry.  Some sounds can heal, and some sounds can harm—even those beyond the range of our physical hearing.

Think about the way a person’s voice varies with the emotions being expressed.  The same words said in different tones can convey entirely different messages.  We can sometimes distinguish between a lie and a truth by the quality of voice in which it’s told.

Anyway, I wanted to turn you on the 528 Hz tone.  Just in case you find yourself wallowing in a pool of sticky negativity.  It will lift you out, clean you off, clear your mind, open your heart and set you free.

And even if you’re in a great mood to begin with, it will mellow you out and add some extra sparkle to your day.

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The Parable of the Oyster: Compassion’s Power

Pearl of Compassion

Harry was an oyster who lived an ordinary oyster life.  He bobbed around the floor of the sea, pushed here and there by its currents, happily sucking phytoplankton and algae from the water as it passed over his gills.

One day, a tiny chunk of something hard and rough made it inside his shell.  Caught there, it was quite painful, given the softness of his interior.  If he had been a human, this irritating fleck might have been something like a cruel word hurled at him, or a wound caused by an accident or even by an unexpected change in circumstances.  But for Harry, it was a rock-hard particle and he didn’t like it at all.  It hurt.

He focused his attention on it, fully feeling the pain.  It was awful, with a sharp, burning quality.  and all he wanted was for it to stop.  While he focusing on it, he happened to think that this must happen to other oysters, too.  He was not alone in his suffering.  Many, perhaps thousands, of other oysters were feeling this exact pain.

That thought made his oyster-heart fill with compassion that such was the fate of so many of his kind. He breathed in the pain for all the oysters that were afflicted, and when he breathed out again, his breath carried his compassion to all the others, and his wishes for them for relief from their suffering.

In and out he breathed, taking in the shared pain of all the oysters, and breathing out compassion for them.  And as he did this, the pain he felt became more bearable somehow.

Several minutes (which is a long time in an oyster’s life) passed before he noticed that his oyster-body had responded to his compassion by wrapping the irritating chunk inside him in a smooth, lustrous coat.  He returned to his breathing, just in case his compassion was easing the pain of his fellow sufferers as well.

Weeks later, Harry shared the story of his experience with an oyster-friend of his.  “That explains it!” his friend exclaimed.  It turned out that he had ingested a painful particle as well.  He had struggled against it mightily, but it only dug more deeply into his soft oyster flesh.  Then one day, something in the water seemed to whisper to him, “You are not alone in this.  Be kind to yourself and patient with this irritation.”  It had seemed a great mystery to him, but now he realized he was receiving his friend Harry’s love.

“Knowing I wasn’t alone helped so much,” he told Harry.  “Somehow it made it all easier to bear.  And I felt so much love for all the other oysters who were suffering that it made me more patient with my own pain.”

Harry and his friend carried their little rocks inside them until the day they died.  And while they were never the same, their compassion coated their wounds with layers and layers of beautiful light.  Their suffering ceased, and they lived out their days in peace.

Much later, a young boy wandered along the shore and came across the shell that had held Harry’s body.  Out of curiosity, he pried it open and, to his great surprise and wonder, discovered it held a luminous pearl.  “Dad!” he cried.  “Look what I found!”   And his father burst into tears at the sight, for the treasure brought a solution to his own brand of pain.

We are never alone in our suffering.  And our compassion for those who suffer as well has more power than we will ever know.

*     *     *

Harry’s compassionate breathing is a practice called Tonglen.  Buddhist Monk Pema Chodron leads a guided meditation of it here, and describes it in some depth here.

 

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Focus on the Good

Focus on the Good

I don’t know about you, but personally, I’m getting awfully tired of watching the violent protests that seem to be erupting almost daily around the globe. Sure, I understand that a lot of things need fixing in our world, and I appreciate dedication to promoting a worthy cause. But those who practice violence and destruction do nothing to further the betterment of our situation, especially when they utterly fail to carry any message proposing workable solutions to the problems they are railing against. What if, instead of focusing on perceived evils and shortcomings, we devoted ourselves to identifying and promoting the things that further the flourishing of humankind?

Almost 20 years ago, professional psychology asked itself the same question about its own direction. It had been focusing almost exclusively on illness and giving little attention to identifying the factors that promoted individual well-being. When it turned its attention to searching for the life-promoting traits in people, the science of positive psychology was born. And studies world-wide are now proving that we live happier, more productive, creative and satisfying lives when we focus on building our strengths than we do when we focus on trying to improve our weaknesses.

Remember the saying, “What we focus on expands.” Focus on what’s wrong and you get more of it. Focus on the good and it increases.

What Goodness Is

Don’t fall for the idea that goodness is relative, that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The good in life is what supports it, what lifts burdens and alleviates suffering. What’s toxic is action that produces suffering where it doesn’t have to exist.

When the founders of positive psychology got the idea to identify what things contributed to the Good Life, they looked at the qualities that people found most worthwhile across cultures and across centuries of time. They ended up finding six general categories of time-tested values that were held in high esteem all over the world:

  • Wisdom and Knowledge
  • Courage
  • Humanity and Love
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Transcendence

These virtues form the pillars that uphold civilizations that give rise to the Good Life.

Under these virtues, the positive psychologists identified character strengths that were linked to each category. (See: The 24 Personal Strengths: An Overview)

Strengths and Virtue

These strengths are the vehicles by which we creatively and productively move forward in the world, the means by which we bring the six universal virtues into existence, both in our individual experience and in the world as a whole.

When individuals become aware of their signature strengths, they can use them as a channel for joyfully pouring energy into work that contributes to the well-being of all. Strengths such as curiosity and “street smarts,” for example, are expressions of the virtue of knowledge and wisdom. People who possess them invent new and unconventional ways to get things done. They value practicality and look for ways to make things work in the real world.

Instead of bowing to the mob or basing their choices and actions on currently popular slogans and memes, people who use their strengths to foster the expression of universal values discover genuine depth and meaning in their goals. They focus on creating the Good Life for all, and they work to understand more and more clearly what the Good Life truly entails. They look for ways to increase the deliciousness of life, to promote the things that make living worthwhile. The torches they carry are the torches of truth. The fires they build are the fires of freedom.

If we want to build a better world, one that is just, and balanced, and wise, we need to hone our focus on the Good and to promote it, each in his or her own way, each with his or her own strengths. The wrong is all too evident. The way out is to focus on the Good.

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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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