Professional Student of Life
Musings from the path of personal growth
You can’t run away from trouble. There ain’t no place that far. ~ Uncle Remus
Other things you can’t run away from: boredom, anger, anxiety, grief, loneliness, a sense of meaninglessness… you get the picture. All of those things come with you, no matter where you go. And running away doesn’t have to mean physically leaving. You can try to outrun your troubles by staying busy, getting into one new relationship or job after another, shopping, watching TV, “buffering” with alcohol or food, and so on.
It’s such a human reaction: when we’re unhappy, we automatically look outside of ourselves for the culprit. What do we need to change “out there?” What’s wrong with our situation, and how do we fix it (or, failing that, at least make the pain less noticeable)?
The problem with this external focus is that it distracts us from the real source of our discomfort, which is almost always internal. Even if there are circumstances that legitimately need to be changed, when we act too hastily we usually just recreate the same unhappiness in a new iteration.
So what can you do if you’re not feeling happy? Try sinking in a little deeper. By that I mean: make an assumption that it isn’t a mistake where you are right now, and it isn’t random, either. Make an assumption that the situation you are in was handpicked for you at this very moment to be the perfect vessel for your highest good to unfold – and then study it intently.
What is going on, exactly? What feelings keep coming up, and in what situations? What repetitive thoughts or judgments do you have? (I’ll never have a good relationship.) Where is this like other situations in your past? What do you fantasize about? (If I could just find a different job, my whole life would be better!)
Take your time, and get crystal clear about your own role in the relationships or situations that appear to be causing your unhappiness. Yes, you can still make a change eventually, and once you become aware of your patterns you’ll have valuable information to help you choose better in the future.
Often the changes will even happen by themselves, once you’ve identified and dealt with the internal patterns that have kept you stuck… there’s simply no longer a purpose for them. And it’s also possible that the self-knowledge you gain will help resolve the problem without making any external changes at all.
I’ve spent much of my life feeling discontented with present circumstances, trying to get somewhere different from where I am. Only recently am I coming to appreciate the perfection of my life exactly as it is, even when it seems far from perfect – maybe especially when it’s far from perfect. I am here in this exact situation for a purpose. Why run away (even if I could)?
I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex. ~ Oscar Wilde
In society’s endless quest for everlasting joy and happiness, I would like to suggest that humble pleasure has taken a backseat that it doesn’t deserve.
Simple, everyday pleasures are often overlooked but, in the end, they are what give savor to our lives. Pleasure often has to do with the senses, and always with the here and now (even when reminiscing about the past, the pleasure you feel is in the present moment), so it’s a great mindfulness practice. Taking note of pleasure also sparks gratitude, which leads to an overall increase in your sense of wellbeing.
One of the funnest practices I know is to make an ongoing list of all the things that bring you pleasure. Anything is allowed, but you get bonus points for items that are calorie-free and don’t require money! Let your list be as quirky as you are. Here are some questions to get you started:
What things please your senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing?
What aspects of the seasons, weather and time of day do you love?
What holidays and traditions?
What did you love to do as a child?
What feels like luxury to you?
What do you like to do when you’re alone?
What do you like to do with friends and family?
What could you spend hours doing?
What subjects spark your mind?
What do you like to read or watch or listen to?
What are your favorite colors/animals/landscapes/stores/pieces of clothing?
Here is a (very) partial list of my own favorite pleasures:
3. The smell of roses
4. Christmas tree lights
5. White chocolate mochas with whipped cream
6. Snow falling
7. Road trips
8. Fascinating documentaries
9. Empty churches
10. Hearing wild geese fly
11. A hot bath
12. Outdoor music festivals
13. A real afternoon tea
14. Walking to get ice cream on a warm summer’s night
15. The smell of pipe smoke
16. Cozy slippers
17. Riding a bike (downhill!)
18. Taking a nap
19. Frosted shortbread cookies
20. Window shopping on a sunny day
21. Bookstore/café combos
22. Any baby animal
23. A loudly purring cat
24. The sound of running water
25. Children’s books with wonderful illustrations
Keeping a list will help you recognize and savor pleasures that might otherwise pass by unnoticed. Make it a daily practice to seek out the small things that bring you pleasure, because those small things are what ultimately add up to a happy life!
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. …In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth. ~ Henry Beston
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about enlightenment – what it is and how to attain it. For me, enlightenment is composed of three things: awareness, presence and acceptance, and I think animals have a lot to teach of us about the last two.
Presence is simply being here fully, in this moment; not enmeshed in “stories” about the past and future. For animals in the wild, particularly, not being present in the moment would result quickly in being someone’s dinner (if you were a prey animal) or going hungry (if you were a predator). Obviously, animals can learn from the past, so it’s not that they don’t have memories, but they don’t stew over what happened to them when it’s not directly pertinent to their present circumstance. How many of us can say the same? Likewise, they don’t project into the future, worrying about what might happen. Fluffy is blissfully unaware of the impending vet visit up until the moment you get the cat carrier out of the closet. (And then it’s a quick break for under the bed if you’re not careful.)
Which brings us to acceptance, which, as you can see from Fluffy’s reaction, is not the same as passivity. Animals will take any and all actions available to them in the moment to free themselves from harm. In fact, they’re a lot less likely than many humans to accept a lousy circumstance when they have the ability to escape it. But, if you have ever watched a beloved pet endure a painful condition, you know the true definition of the word “stoic.” They simply hunker down and endure. Although of course I can’t fathom the content of their thoughts without language, it doesn’t seem to me that they are spending the time railing against their fate with the kind of “Why me?” stories most of us indulge in. They simply accept what is happening in the moment with a grace and dignity that is breathtaking.
As humans, we are both blessed and cursed with the large neocortex that gives us language and the concept of a self. In a way, you could almost equate this development with the “fall from grace” that led to being kicked out of the Garden of Eden (metaphorically speaking). Both presence and acceptance are much harder to achieve with the constant chatter and story telling of the human brain. On the other hand, this remarkable brain also gives us the ability to achieve the third component of enlightenment: awareness. Animals have great sensory awareness – which I consider a component of presence – but I don’t believe they have the ability to be self-aware or “awake” the way humans potentially can. (Although I could be wrong! Mammals do display emotions and pro-social, altruistic behaviors – but is this truly a conscious choice or “just” an evolutionary adaptation to living in a group and/or raising young that are dependent for long periods?)
I really love pondering these questions! Even that is evidence of the beautiful neocortex at work. The human brain can be both our worst stumbling block and (through awareness) the necessary gateway to enlightenment.
I think the most important question facing humanity is: Is the universe a friendly place? ~ Albert Einstein
If you knew for certain that the universe was a friendly place, how would your life be different? I think many of us believe this in a general sense, but the concept often goes out the window when something "bad" happens. And yet, those situations are exactly where the rubber really hits the road.
I've been pondering this since attending Byron Katie's School for the Work, because a friendly universe is what she unequivocally experiences. As she puts it, without "the story of a past" (which can lead to guilt, regret, anger, etc.) or "the story of a future" (leading to anxiety, fear, attempts to control) we are left with the friendly present. Without the images of past and future, we are aware of all the support available to us in this moment: the chair that holds us, the air we breathe, the body that breathes it.
I had a chance to test the theory of a friendly universe yesterday. Walking out to where my car was parked along a city street, I found that it had apparently been damaged by a hit and run driver, too severely to drive. Of course, I was immediately flooded with images of repair bills and deductibles, as well as the repetitive refrain "It's not fair!" How could this be friendly?
After calling the police and the insurance company, I went to work "inquiring" into my thoughts. When I clutched at the thought that the whole situation was unfair and unfriendly, I felt angry, worried and upset. This is what Katie calls suffering. When I experimented with letting the thought go, I had at least a few glimpses of how this could possibly be a friendly happening. For one thing, I've been trying to make up my mind about whether to go carless, and this seemed like a big nudge in that direction.
Other positive consequences might appear with time. Often when we look back we can clearly see how some of the worst experiences in our lives have held the most profound blessings - ones that we would not trade in hindsight. It would be nice if we could spare ourselves some of the suffering in the present that comes with resisting what happens. If the universe is truly friendly, can we simply trust that in the moment and relax into the support that surrounds us right now? I'm working on it.
Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.
~ Dr. Suess
This is not the first February post I have devoted to self-love. Those of us who are un-coupled in the month of love tend to plug our ears and whistle until the 14th finally passes. But, in or out of a relationship, the advice to “love the one you’re with” always applies. What would happen if you treated yourself to the delighted fascination and attention and care you would focus on a love interest?
You are so beautiful. Yes, you. Wrinkles and all. Or pimples and all. Or balding and all. Have you ever noticed how, when you see photos of yourself at a younger age, you look so wonderful? But you didn’t know it at the time, because you could only see your “flaws.” The same thing will happen, years from now, when you see photos of yourself from this time. Why can’t we appreciate what we have when we have it?
No one else is like you, or will ever be like you. Embrace that. Embrace the so-called flaws too. I am coming to appreciate quirkiness more and more as I grow older and quirkier myself. And don’t you love to be around people who are comfortable in their own skin? It makes everyone else more comfortable too. Stop caring so much what other people think, and care what you think of yourself. Approve of yourself.
Find the things that you love to do and do more of them. Study yourself intently. Stop once or twice a day to do this: put your hand over your heart, close your eyes and breathe. Try it now. It’s a way of sending love to yourself, of appreciating the body that carries you around all day long and the selfless intentions that inspire so much of what you do. Care as much about how you are feeling as you do about everyone else. Care more, even. The happier you are, the more light you shine into the world. Truly, everyone benefits when we each take care of ourselves.
Treat yourself with great tenderness. Try not to berate yourself for mistakes or be dismissive or impatient with your feelings. Take a nap every once in a while. Give yourself a break. Tell yourself, “It’s okay for me to feel this way.” Often, the worst part about feeling sad or scared or lonely is that we also somehow feel it’s wrong, or a failure of some kind, when really it’s a perfectly normal part of being a perfectly normal human being. Let yourself be merely human. Let yourself have the full range of human experience, and not just the “good” stuff all the time. It makes for a richer life in the end.
I am trying with all my heart to take all of this advice. I really am learning to be my own biggest fan and supporter. Curiously, it doesn’t make you more egotistical. It actually makes you more generous and joyful and more likely to notice and celebrate others’ uniqueness and worth. The more I love me, the more I love you, too.
No matter which side of the great divide you find yourself on, there seems to be a consensus that we as a society are going through a rough patch, to put it mildly. I’ve certainly felt it, and I tend to be one who takes the long (and less excitable) view of history and evolution.
I was bemoaning the current political, economic and ecological situation with a friend the other day when a phrase slipped out of my mouth that made us both stop dead in the midst of our conversation. Even with all the dark and scary things that are happening in the physical realm, I said that I couldn’t shake the sense that, underneath it all, everything was really working together perfectly for good in the world, as if there were some sort of conspiracy of light going on.
I love the subversiveness of co-opting that reactionary word – conspiracy – for such a radically optimistic and life-affirming movement. If there is a conspiracy of light going on, I’m joining it. I think we serve the conspiracy of light with every peaceful thought, kind word, smile, or compassionate action we take, no matter how small. And the conspiracy of light serves us back: It’s a two-way street. We are strengthened and made more joyful by everything we do to make others stronger and more joyful. I saw a cartoon by JM Nieto that perfectly expressed this. The captions went like this:
Why so optimistic about 2017? What do you think it will bring?
I think it will bring flowers.
Yes? How come?
Because I am planting flowers.
Let’s plant flowers now that will continue to bloom in 2017 and beyond. Let’s serve the conspiracy of light, and be conscious of and grateful for all the ways it serves us. And let's remember this: In the end, light will always win out over darkness. Love is always stronger than fear. Always.
Only when we pause to wonder do we go beyond the limits of our little lives. ~ Rod McKuen
At the end of every swiftly passing year, like many people, I spend time thinking about what happened in the previous twelve months and what I wish for in the coming year. Though I no longer make resolutions, I do set intentions about the things I want to do and the ways I want to show up in the world. Here are the three big questions I ask myself:
1. Why am I here? It’s important to continually ask this question as you go through life, because the answer will change quite a bit. Your purpose and focus depend on the stage of life you’re in – the agenda for early adult life is very different from mid-life and end-of-life concerns. What is most important to you right now? Is that where most of your time and energy are going? How can you make it even more of a priority in the coming year?
2. What do I want? Equally important, but different, this question focuses on what makes you feel happiest. We are spirits, yes, but we’re also flesh and blood humans enjoying a physical experience. What people and activities light you up inside? How much time do you spend with them? How can you spend more time doing what you really want to do this year? Prioritize your joy.
3. How can I serve? In the words of Frederick Buechner, where is the place that “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet?” What can you give to others that feels really good to give? It’s important not to make this a sacrifice, because it won’t be sustainable, and it won’t truly feed anyone that way. Look for ways to give of yourself that also give back to you.
Set some time aside to really ponder these questions. I like to do it in the dark early mornings in front of the lighted Christmas tree. None of us knows what the new year will bring, but we can celebrate all that we have and are now, and set intentions that support who we want to become. I wish you all a truly blessed year in 2017.
A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together. ~ Garrison Keillor
It’s that time of year again, full of mixed feelings: anticipation and dread, celebration and stress, connection and alienation, all wrapped up in Christmas paper and topped with a shiny bow. Let’s all take a deep breath and set the intention that this year, for once, we’ll stay in our own business, own our own projections, and see what comes up as the perfect opportunity for personal growth. That truly would be a Christmas miracle.
Family-of-origin issues are classic components of the holiday season, which is fraught with memory as well as real-time, close-quarters contact with many people who are safely at arm’s distance the rest of the year. I’ve already had my first bout with this, and the first opportunity to put my “personal growth” intention to the test. These are the things I’m concentrating on to keep out of trouble:
1. Staying in my own business. This means rigorously watching my own reactions so that I can be aware when I’m starting to feel triggered, and then taking care of my own needs rather than expecting someone else to change so that I don’t feel triggered. It also means not trying to rescue or fix anyone, not “setting anyone straight,” not trying to control people or situations... in other words, not doing most of the things I count on for holiday entertainment once the turkey is dispatched.
2. Owning my own projections. In practice, this means questioning any and all assumptions I might be making. I may be positive, based on decades of personal research, that so-and-so is thinking such-and-such, but can I really know for sure? Nope. So maybe I can give them the benefit of the doubt. Projections happen when you feel triggered by one of your own issues. You’re upset, you “project” that feeling outward, and all of a sudden everything everyone says contains a sinister double meaning. When I’m feeling reactive, I try to be extra cautious about how I interpret others’ words and behavior.
Unfortunately, even if you do both of the above perfectly it won’t necessarily keep you out of conflict, because everyone else probably hasn’t gotten the same memo. If the fight finds you in spite of your best efforts, you can still use these two strategies to minimize the damage.
First, resist the urge to fight back and take the argument into the enemy’s camp. Offense might win games in football, but it doesn’t help to keep the peace. Try to listen calmly to the other person’s grievance and begin by clarifying any misunderstandings or false assumptions they might have made. Then apologize sincerely if that’s warranted, but remember that you aren’t responsible for the other person’s projections, only your own. Sometimes people just see what they want, or expect, to see. You may be sorely tempted to justify or defend yourself, but it rarely helps.
Once you’ve taken care of your part in the conflict, be willing to let it go. This is probably the hardest part of all, but you can console yourself with the knowledge that you’ve just done some really impressive personal growth. Go get another piece of pie and know that I’m cheering you on in spirit.
May there be peace in all of our homes and hearts, in this season and always! And if there can’t be peace, at least let there be personal growth.
The aim, if reached or not, makes great the life. Try to be Shakespeare, leave the rest to fate. ~ Robert Browning
One of my favorite teachers and authors, Martha Beck, once used an analogy that has stayed with me for many years. She said that when you fill a birdfeeder, you can’t stand right next to it and try to coax the birds to come. You have to walk away and let them find it themselves.
This applies to all of our work in the world (and in fact to every relationship). You can never force someone to take what you offer, no matter how good your intentions or how much you think they need it. You can only offer what it is you have to give, freely and without expectation, and then wait to see what life will make of it. The more you hover and fret and try to force the outcome, the less likely those shy little birds will ever come to your feeder.
There’s a place for marketing in this world of commerce, but marketing will only go so far. Self-promotion has become a way of life for many these days, with the daily onslaught of Facebook feeds fueling that trend. It takes strength to resist the tide, to stand back and quietly offer your best to the world without expectation of acknowledgement or return.
I’ve learned this lesson in spades since I published a book last year. My conscious decision was to let it make its own way in the world, finding its own readers and trusting that the people who needed it would be drawn to it as mysteriously as the birds that inevitably find the feeder once you leave it alone. My ego constantly wants to get involved – worried and disappointed when “nothing happens,” preening and proud when someone praises me. I have to keep patiently coming back to the birdfeeder analogy and walking away from my need for results.
Now my work is taking on a new twist that will challenge my ego even more. Through some classes I’ve taught and a few on-line articles that were published, I’ve unexpectedly developed a small flock of birds that keeps coming back to the feeder. Although I’ve been a certified life coach for several years, I haven’t previously offered 1:1 coaching, since writing and classes seemed a better fit. I'm opening that door now so that I can add spiritual direction to my offerings at the birdfeeder. May it bring exactly the birds who need this nourishment the most, and feed us both!
Why are you always wanting to get something or go somewhere? Why not just relax and be here, simply existing in all your cells, inhabiting all your body? ~ A.H. Almaas
So often in life I’m in a hurry to get to the punch line, the pay-off, the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve always been more of a future-oriented than past-oriented person. School helps foster this. There’s always something to work toward and wish for: Summer! The end of finals! The next class up, or the next degree!
I finally realized this (in retrospect) many years ago. I had been living for half a year in Hawaii, within walking distance of a beautiful, secluded beach. It sounds idyllic, and you would have thought I’d be relishing it, right? The thing was, I was ready to buy a house – it was the logical next step, I thought – and I couldn’t afford one in Hawaii. And so I moved back to the mainland. It wasn’t until later that I questioned my haste in moving on to the next thing, when I actually had a pretty good thing going in the present.
I still struggle with really embracing the part of the path I’m on right now. When it’s good it could be even better, and when it’s bad I really want to get the hell out of Dodge. Slowing down to look around and truly experience the life I’m in now is a discipline I’m practicing. Even with the good things, you can only really savor so much at once. If you were eating at a fine restaurant, would you order every good thing on the menu at the same time? Probably not, and you wouldn’t enjoy it long if you did.
Imagine life as a sumptuous, eight-course meal. The expert waiters take their time in bringing you each delicious course, so that you can enjoy it fully and be ready for the next one. There’s no need to feel anxious or hurried… you know that the next course will get there at exactly the right time. Waiting a little even adds to the experience, so that you really appreciate what comes next. All you need to do is relax in the moment, savoring what’s in front of you, inhabiting all your cells.
That’s how I want to live my life!
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