Professional Student of Life
Musings from the path of personal growth
A blessing is a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal and strengthen. ~ John O’Donohue
I confess that I have a love/hate relationship with goals. On one hand, I've always loved making lists and scenarios of what I want to do and have in the future. Frankly, I can daydream till the cows come home. But as I travel further down the road of spiritual growth, I'm becoming very leery of this "living for the future" mindset.
I know that the future and the past are both ego territory. The mind loves anything that keeps it planning and scheming, or reminiscing and regretting. Meanwhile, we miss what's happening right under our noses. It's possible to live your whole life without ever truly being present.
This year I decided to approach my usual new year's resolutions from a different standpoint - more as aspirations and targets to aim for than destinations to reach or accomplishments to tick off a list. The ego is all about what we can accomplish (Doing), while the soul cares more about how we do it (Being). Ego also relies on white-knuckled willpower to get the job done, which isn't nearly as effective as the simple power of intention and attention.
And so this is how I'm hoping to live the coming year:
When it comes down to it, I’m convinced that if we just did the first thing on this list, to the best of our abilities and as often as possible, all the rest of the list – and everything else we hope to accomplish – would take care of itself.
That is my #1 intention this year – to simply be present and live each moment with awareness.
Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind. ~ Henry James
As my daughter grew up, there were many times when I found myself trying to put challenges she faced (often academic) into perspective. Although I don’t actually believe in the traditional “pearly gates” version of heaven, I once jokingly asked her whether she really thought St. Peter would require her to know her multiplication tables before he’d let her in. It’s absurd – but it highlights the chasm between what seems so urgent and necessary in a day-to-day, worldly sense and what is actually, truly important.
On that score, I’m with Henry James. If we simply try on a consistent basis to be as kind as we can humanly manage, I think we are doing very well. Being kind is different, in my opinion, from being nice. Niceness seems to have a lot more to do with keeping up superficial appearances and/or an unhealthy desire to please. (I’m sure you’ve noticed that plenty of “nice” people are not actually very kind!)
Kindness is all about the other person. Oddly, many of the kindest people are very shy and actually loathe being caught in the act. True kindness is more often extended to the outliers, anyway – those who have no way of returning the favor. What it’s really about is simply recognizing the basic humanity that makes us all, utterly and forever, equals. Kindness may be as simple as looking someone in the eye and truly seeing them.
Kindness is also something that we need to extend to ourselves. In fact, being critical or judgmental or even cruel to others inevitably means we treat ourselves the same way. We have to recognize and love our own basic and flawed humanity before we can allow ourselves to do that for others.
I wish that kindness (not niceness) was actively taught in schools and homes, along with all the other skills and achievements that are more apt to be emblazoned on proud parents’ bumper stickers. I’m happy to say that my daughter is a very kind person, even though she still doesn’t know her multiplication tables. I hope that she will be happy and successful in life, yes – but the fact that she is kind is what really makes me proud to be her parent.
The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. ~ Mary Oliver
What you do one day, or a couple of days a month – whether for good or for bad – ultimately won’t have much impact on your life. What you do most days most certainly will. It’s like compound interest: A couple of cents or dollars a day seems meaningless in the first few years, but over the course of a lifetime it can make you rich. Or conversely, a small, insignificant poor choice, made regularly, can sabotage your life by barely perceptible degrees.
I’ve been taking a hard look at my own habits lately, after reading Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits, by Gretchen Rubin. The book gives an exhaustive list of strategies that can help or hinder attempts to change behavior patterns, and some good reasons to pay attention to what you actually do on a daily basis (as opposed to what you wish you were doing).
Rather than attempting a total overhaul – since I’m more of a Moderator than an Abstainer, in her terms – I’ve been looking for ways to make my wanted habits easier (and therefore more regular), while making the less desirable habits, like visiting the very tempting bakery down the block, or having a glass or two of wine at dinner, into more occasional treats.
But before getting too far in the process, I found that I had to back up a bit and figure out what I actually value the most, because there just isn’t time to cultivate every good habit I’d like to take up. What I found was that in some areas I was already doing a pretty good job. For instance, I value reading, and make sure that I get a lot of time for it. I value connection with my friends and family, and I also have a good track record of maintaining those ties (although I did decide to increase the frequency of emailing my parents!).
In other areas of value to me, my habits needed some tweaking. I value spirituality, and as an important part of that I value meditation. However, I wasn’t as consistent with my regular sitting practice as I wanted to be, because I was always physically uncomfortable sitting on the floor. Once I found a meditation bench that allowed me to comfortably kneel, and then – bonus! – downloaded an app to track my sessions and connect with other meditators (it’s called Insight Timer), I suddenly found myself on an almost effortless roll.
I was actually surprised by how motivating I found the app to be. This is the strategy of “monitoring,” and I’ve decided to see if it will also jumpstart my generally non-existent exercise habit. Health is definitely a value of mine, but you wouldn’t know it if you saw how much I don’t exercise. I’ve ordered one of those fitness trackers that look like a bracelet, and signed up for a somewhat pricey gym where you work with a trainer. (If I have an actual appointment, I’ll probably keep it.) I’m also using the strategy of piggybacking one habit onto another by doing 15 minutes of yoga immediately following my meditation.
Finally, since I’m a writer and I value creativity, I’ve decided that I should actually write a little bit every day. Formerly I’ve been pretty streaky with my writing. I’m using a wall calendar to keep track of my writing days, and setting the bar pretty low (I count it even if I only write for fifteen minutes, but I’m finding that fifteen minutes often leads to much longer).
What are you doing, or not doing that you wish you were, on a daily basis? What little things can you do that will set you up for success? What’s really important enough to you to do most days? I put a little note on my mirror to remind me of how I want to spend my days, and therefore my life:
Everyday I: meditate, write, connect with loved ones, and move my body.
A season left to itself will always move, however slowly, under its own patience, power and volition. ~ David Whyte
I love that old Zen phrase "chop wood, carry water." It brings me down to earth every time I get too wrapped up in the realms of mind or spirit - because even too much spirit isn’t a good thing! We are still physical beings inhabiting a physical body in a physical world. Whether we like it or not, we still have to take out the trash, brush our teeth, pay bills.
After my divorce in late 2015 (following a twenty-year marriage), I went on a spiritual deep dive that ended up lasting two full years. During that period I burrowed deep within myself, spending a huge amount of time reading, writing, meditating and attending classes on personal growth. Looking back now, I jokingly refer to the sterile suburban apartment where I lived as my Himalayan cave! In many ways I was truly living the life of a monk on a spiritual quest.
But eventually the seasons of life change. Recently I moved to a tiny but very cool apartment in the city. The game of life is swirling all around me here, and I'm itching to get off the bench and join in again. It’s as if the past two years of going inward have finally taught me the rules that were never clear when I was playing before. Suddenly my trajectory has changed and I’m focusing outward, eager to take what I’ve learned and test it out on the gritty playing field we call the “real world.” (Never mind that one of the rules is that it’s all actually just an illusion!)
Not that I’m abandoning my inner work – the goal is to take it with me into everyday life. I still meditate, read, journal, say my affirmations. I turned a whole wall of my new bedroom into a giant vision board that I can see from my bed. But I also went out and got a “real” job outside the house (just a regular old job hosting in a restaurant, which I’ve never done before). Joined a gym. Bought some clothes that were not yoga pants and sneakers. Thought about dating (okay – not very seriously). Got some blonde highlights that I immediately regretted.
Let me emphasize that I didn’t leave my cave because I thought I should (and I didn’t go into it in the first place that way either). It wasn’t a decision I made with my mind – it just happened. After my divorce I needed the time apart to process and understand where I had lost sight of myself. It was a restless, ungrounded feeling that told me that phase was ending. To be honest, it’s scary to leave the cave – but then, it was scary to enter it in the first place. We can never know how long a phase will last or where it will lead, however much the mind craves the answers ahead of time.
And, in reality, these phases are simply opposite sides of the same coin. It’s neither better nor worse to be spiritually or physically focused – we can get to the same place by taking either route. For me, for now, it’s about toting that barge and lifting that bale. But my prayer shawl is still hanging on the back of my door, waiting for me!
You live out the confusions until they become clear. ~ Anaïs Nin
Many of my clients – and I, myself – are searching for clarity. I know it when I find it. The swirling energy, the circling, repetitive thoughts, suddenly fall silent. It’s a distinct physical sensation of coming together, of gathering all my energy into a solid, shining core – a calm, grounded “knowing” in the center of my chest, like a low hum.
Have you felt that? It doesn’t come from your mind. In fact, when you attain clarity you often still don’t have a clue what you’re supposed to do, but you stop being worried about that. You know that you’ll know when the time comes. Knowing in this moment is enough. Clarity and certainty are not the same thing.
You find clarity by focusing on the wordless messages of your body, not the clamoring of the mind. You can’t think your way to real clarity – you feel your way. It comes from tuning in, over and over again, to your own energetic/emotional state. Can you feel it? Are you scattered all over the place, trying to guess what others are thinking, imagining consequences to various courses of action, wondering anxiously what’s going to happen?
That’s how you “live out the confusions” and none of it feels peaceful, although to a certain extent it’s an inevitable part of the process. I once read that when a missile is launched at a target, it initially veers back and forth quite a bit. As it approaches the target the oscillations become smaller and smaller, until it eventually “locks on.” I think finding clarity is like that. We have to experience the oscillations in order to find the target – but we can get better and better at recognizing when we’re not locked on.
Although analytical, “left brain” thinking won’t get you to clarity, it does help to hold the question loosely in your mind and slowly let it turn over in your subconscious. I like to let my mind wander over situations or future possibilities and, as long as I’m not trying to “figure things out,” I usually get some good information. It comes in the form of feelings and sensations – the body again. This general direction feels good, that one feels bad. This thing is important to me; the other, not so much.
It helps to avoid specifics and keep your focus a bit hazy – otherwise your mind will jump in and start trying to figure out the “cursed how’s.” For clarity, you really don’t need to know how, only what. What do you really want in this situation? What is actually important to you here? Knowing the answers to these questions is what brings clarity. You will feel it on a visceral level, as your body gives a resounding yes!
Once you have that yes, your job is to keep your focus there. Again, the mind will ply you with all manner of suggestions, cautions, excuses, caveats and the like. Ignore it (this gets easier with practice) and keep tuning back in to the feeling of clarity or inner knowing, however it shows up in your body. Use it as a touchstone to evaluate future courses of action, and it will lead you unerringly. It will also speak volumes to the people around you, because we all respond instinctively to clarity, in ourselves and in others.
A person susceptible to “wanderlust” is not so much addicted to movement as committed to transformation. ~ Pico Iyer
I love to travel, and yet I often find the act of traveling to be extremely uncomfortable – which is probably, in the end, why I love it so much. What seems delightfully charming and exotic prior to leaving home is often (in reality) strange and unfathomable and sometimes even downright unpleasant. Traveling hurls you out of your comfort zone – and yet you gladly pay for the privilege.
I grew up moving around the country with my family (both coasts and the middle), but my first real travel adventure was as an exchange student in Australia. I cried for most of the first three months, even though I loved my host family. And then I cried about the same amount of time when I returned home. That year opened my mind to the realization that there are many different and equally viable ways to do... everything. My family and country represented just one of those ways.
After that, I was hooked. I went to London to work as a nanny for a summer when I was 19, practically paralyzed with fear on the flight over. I traveled Europe alone for six months later in my twenties, experienced adventures on six continents, crisscrossed the US several times on mammoth road trips and lived in Germany for eight years. I traveled in planes, trains, cars, boats and on foot.
And every trip I took turned out to be some combination of the sublime and the wretched. That’s what makes travel so addictive. That’s why people buy travel memoirs called Worst Trips Ever. Once you get through the rough spots (assuming that you do) they always make the best stories. Experiencing the challenges and discomforts of exploring a totally new corner of the world – which you can do in Chinatown as well as in China – is what makes travel so transformative.
At home we set things up, as much as possible, for our own comfort. We know which restaurants we like and what to order there, the best way to get to work, and where to buy whatever we need. We can ask for directions or help in the unlikely event that we get lost or accidentally leave our ID in a taxi. Traveling, on the other hand, can make even the most accomplished and successful adult feel like a child – and that’s good for the ego every now and then.
Traveling is often an exercise in patience. Unless you have enough money to ensure a five-star experience everywhere you go (which somewhat defeats the purpose) things are often not at the level of comfort or convenience you might wish for. A lot of traveling is downright boring too: waiting for planes, looking for something to eat, deciding what to do in an unfamiliar town that shuts down unexpectedly for several hours in the middle of the day. The only way to really travel happily, I’ve found, is to suspend all expectations and allow yourself to be delighted when things do turn out well.
With all of that, I sometimes wonder why I keep on traveling, especially when I’m in the midst of one of those uncomfortable experiences. Robert Louis Stevenson said that to travel was to feel the “needs and hitches” of life more clearly, to “come down off the featherbed of civilization and find the globe granite underfoot.”
Travel keeps me growing: I learn about myself while I’m learning about the world. Traveling forces me to question what’s normal, and makes me feel more alive and awake. It’s much easier to be mindful in a place where everything looks, sounds and tastes new and different. And I keep those fresh eyes for a while even after I return home. The toothpaste or shampoo I bought in another country reminds me for a while that there are other languages besides English.
And when I gradually start sinking back into my comfortable routines, it’s time to start dreaming about another trip!
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.