Living by the List

 

I live by lists. Or, rather, I do now.

I came to lists later in life. Lists imposed order on the chaos of my life- on the deluge of commitments and appointments that often left me drowning and gasping for air. So many things were carried away on the currents of life that I found myself overwhelmed, over-committed and sadly, under-performing in many areas of my life.

And then- somewhere along the way- I discovered the magic of the list and now my life is ruled by its rhythms and routines.

As a person who once chafed against the constraints of schedules, worried that they would quash my creativity, I now embrace the list and the order it brings. I have learned to channel my creativity through the list and I am happier and calmer for it. My work is also better.

Now, my morning begins with a meditation and moves into lists.

With my morning coffee, I organize my day (and my thoughts and my life.)

I engage myself in a visualization of my day- where will I go, when and in what order. And as I mentally walk myself through the day, I write down the steps.

My list includes things like “shower,” “eat breakfast” and “call mom”- because you need victories in a day. There is a joy to crossing things off the list and it gives me a little momentum.

Not all the things on my list are easy to do. Sometimes my lists include blogging, client appointments, grading, lecture preparation and housework. On other days my lists include organizing, presenting, networking, and caring for my children. My lists can be subdivided into smaller lists (grade 6 papers, review readings for first half of lecture, promote blog, email son’s teacher, attend coaching conference, read LinkedIn posts, review math facts with daughter). And each task on my list may itself be subdivided when I sit down to do it.

My lists shrink and grow throughout the day as I cross items off and add them on as they come to me.

My lists are connected to yesterday and to tomorrow, with unfinished items carrying over, insisting on being finished and remembered despite the limits of a 24 hour day.

I externalize my memory onto a pad of paper because my own memory seldom can carry all of the things I need it to. My house is littered with notebooks filled with lists. They are the record of my days, weeks, months and years*- of a life full of tasks, accomplishments and meaning.

* Note to self- add throwing away old lists to the to do list.

O’ Captain! My Captain!

Robin WilliamsRIP Robin Williams.

Robin Williams was an amazingly gifted man. His joys and his sorrows were palpable to the audience- whether he was performing stand-up or acting. He made all of us feel: laughter, elation, sadness and pain.

His manic style and twinkling eyes were a part of my childhood- and when I heard of his suicide- I cried. I was surprised by how hard it hit me, but I believe it is also a testament to his gifts as an entertainer that I felt so connected to a man I never met.

I also cried because it always devastates me when I hear that someone who has battled depression has lost their fight. The joy and laughter that Robin Williams gave to so many was not available to him when he needed it on Monday. And the world is surely a less joyous place as a result.

Robin Williams was always very open about his demons- his struggles with depression and addiction were quite public. His larger than life joy came with a larger than life sadness. His battles with addiction and depression were violent and on Monday he lost his fight.

And this is what is tragic about depression. At 63, Robin Williams had many previous battles with depression. There were, I am sure, many days where he felt the urge to end it all. But every other day he was able to fight. For whatever reason, he did not have enough fight left in him on Monday. And tragically, that means he will never have another day, another chance to fight again.

Depression robs you of perspective- blocking out the joys of the past and the promise of tomorrow. It is a total eclipse- one that feels like it will last forever and in its darkest moments, makes you believe that it is not worth living in a world without light.

But depression can lift. And the darkness of the eclipse, if given the opportunity, will lighten- maybe not to noon day sun right away – but at least to the misty promise of dawn. If you can hold on through that darkest hour, the light does return.

Too often our society asks people to battle alone. We stigmatize depression, mental illness and addiction. We offer callous advice- telling people to cheer up or suck it up. We call those who suffer weak when in fact; fighting depression requires Herculean levels of strength. There is help for those who have depression; therapy, medication, and even meditation. But clinical depression sometimes is resistant to treatment, just as some cancers do not respond to chemo and radiation. Still- it is important to keep fighting.

I don’t know what Robin Williams was thinking on Monday. But I don’t think he could have anticipated the way the world would grieve for him. I don’t think he knew the sorrow his death would cause. I don’t think he knew or felt how deeply he was loved. I wish he had because maybe, just maybe, that knowledge could have helped him to hold on just a little longer.

So to those who are struggling- hold on til the dawn. Reach out for help. Call a therapist or a friend. You do not need to battle alone. The sun will re-emerge and so will you. Live to fight again tomorrow. The dawn will be better for having you in it.

 

Paying Attention to STOP Signs

Stop

Before my children could read, they knew what a STOP sign looked like. The bright read octagon with the bold four letters called out to them as a symbol long before they could match the sounds to letters. It’s a sign we all recognize, and I suggest today, one we should bring more readily into our daily lives.

For me, the STOP sign is tied up with the practice of mindfulness. In mindfulness, STOP is a powerful acronym used to help interrupt the cycle of reactivity and bring attention back to the moment.

In mindfulness the acronym has the following meaning:

S = Stop (or pause)
T = Take a breath
O = Observe
P = Proceed

How does this work? Imagine yourself, if you will, in a moment of strong emotion; perhaps your coworker has bailed on a project- leaving you with an extra five hours of work, or maybe your child has forgotten his homework for the 3rd time this week and is giving YOU attitude when you suggest he should be better organized, or perhaps you are at the store and you see the latest technology gadget and you are overcome by the desire to own it. Ordinarily you might find yourself sending out a nasty email to your colleague, yelling at your child or purchasing an expensive product that you do not really need and cannot afford. This is where the STOP practice can help you.

As you get ready to send the email, yell at your child, or head to the check-out counter, take a moment and Stop. Press pause before you move into action. Now that you have stopped, Take a deep breath. Observe yourself. How is your breathing? Notice how your body feels. Notice your feelings and name them (Frustrated, Angry, Desirous). Once you have observed these things, Proceed.

You will be surprised by the power that the STOP method has. By inserting a pause between stimulus and action, we are able to pull ourselves back from actions and words that we might later regret. Additionally, the very acts of pausing and noticing can short-circuit strong emotions and empower our prefrontal cortexes thereby engaging executive functioning skills that manage planning and emotional regulation. Stopping in such a manner often ensures that the way we proceed is more thoughtful and in keeping with our own best interests.

By using this method you may find that the email you send to your coworker is more courteous and productive. You may notice that you are able to diffuse the situation with your child, helping him brainstorm ways in which he can take control of his homework. You may discover that you do not really need to buy the product today and that by waiting a day or two to think over the purchase, you avoid an unnecessary expense.

So next time you are feeling overwhelmed by powerful emotions, summon up your personal STOP sign. Stop. Take a breath. Observe. Proceed. You’ll be glad you did.

Just Begin Again

Meditation can be hard. Sitting still, focusing on your breathing… in and out, in and out. It’s easy for your mind to wander. Indeed, the practice of meditation is not really about having a blank mind, but about controlling the wandering of your mind when it inevitably strays. There are some mornings when my meditation practice (and there is a reason they call it practice) does not seem to be going well- when my mind is so crowded with lists and worries, and my allotted meditation time feels like an eternity that  I contemplate getting up and just getting on with my day.

At these moments, the voice of my teacher comes to me. “Just begin again” she tells me. No judgment, no recrimination, just begin again. And I return to my breathing. In and out. In and out.

Just begin again. Her words are powerful and grounding. And truly, they are important outside of the confines of meditation. Life is about trying and failing and trying again. When we fail, and we all do, we must begin again.

Psychologists refer to this ability as resilience. Some people are naturally resilient while others must work at it. Some people are able to rise over and over again and claim victory from defeat. But for others, through learned helplessness and difficult life circumstances, they get stuck.

We attach so much shame to failing that sometimes the process of beginning again feels like an admission of defeat and not a sign of resilience and triumph over circumstances. At these moments, it is important to find the strength to begin again. Just begin again- because that is what life is about. In my teacher’s suggestion is kindness and gentleness. Her voice in my mind urges self-forgiveness and quiet urging to continue.  We can train ourselves to become resilient, by getting up, and beginning again.

Just begin again. It is simple and difficult at the same time. We must begin again because there truthfully is little alternative.

Just begin again. When love withers, when a career falters, when health fails, just begin again. The rhythms of life tell us this is possible, from the sun rising every morning to the changes of seasons to the ebb and flow of the tides and the moon. Just begin again.

Just begin again, knowing that you will do so many times in your life. Meditation is the art of calming a busy mind- of starting over again and again. One of the reasons that meditation has such powerful effects on our lives is because if we practice the art of beginning again in meditation, it makes it easier (not easy) to begin again when life is tough.

So, just begin again. Without judgment. Without recrimination. With gentleness and kindness. With love. Just begin again.

What Was the Best Part of Your Terrible Day?

We’ve all had that day. The one that begins with the horrible realization that you have overslept, and then proceeds to the coffee machine malfunctioning, an angry email from the boss about a project that is running 6 months behind, progresses to your getting stuck in a 2 hour traffic jam (that you usually avoid because your alarm gets you up to be on the road before the chaos of rush hour), and results in spilling drive-through coffee down your shirt. This is the day when the local sewage main ruptures and begins spewing waste into your basement which you find upon your return home as you stand in a foot of filth, calculating the cost of this to your already tight budget.

If you haven’t had that day, you’ve had your version of it. So let me ask you, what was the best part of that day?

I know, you think I am insane. You think I am one of those happy, cheerful people with framed posters of inspirational quotes against a beautiful natural scene hanging on my wall. I assure you I am not. I like sarcasm and snark and have at times enjoyed the nectar of my own despair.

But several years ago while taking a class on positive psychology (an area of study that was in many ways contrary to my default settings), I decided to take one of the practical suggestions from the literature. Because I am a mother, and have the natural authority to do it, I brought my family along for the experiment.

Every night at dinner, we go around the table and say the best part about our day. There is no skipping. There is no qualifying. There is no using the best thing as an excuse to talk about what you didn’t like. You must find one positive thing to say about your day- even if it was a terrible day.

In the beginning it was hard. I mean really hard. There were some days I struggled. There were some days when my kids informed me that there was nothing good about their day. This is when I told them the beauty of the exercise.

You see, you do not need to find one great thing about your day, or even one good thing. You must identify the best thing about your day. Sometimes the best part of a bad day isn’t great in and of itself. Sometimes the best part of the foot of raw sewage in your basement is that you found it before it was two feet. Sometimes the best part of your day is the two quiet moments you had when you entered the house and you actually took a deep breath and relaxed (before venturing into the sewage filled basement).

Over the years this has become a beloved part of our family meals. Some days there are multiple “best” parts of our days (yes- I know grammatically there should only be one thing that is the best- but I am going with the spirit of the exercise here). The exercise causes us to stop and take stock of our days and take us off automatic pilot.

And the effect goes beyond the dinner table. I now often find myself throughout the day noticing when I am enjoying my day. I notice the people around me and the joy that is in my life. Indeed, this simple exercise was the first step that helped me make changes in my life.

It turns out that noticing daily what is good in your life, as the research in positive psychology tells us, leads to greater happiness. I started to notice what gave me pleasure and what made me unhappy. I decided to do more of the things that made me happy and fewer of the things that didn’t. I decided to spend more time with the people who made me laugh and less time with those who made me angry or sad. I decided to notice that even a terrible day has parts that are good. It allowed me to shift and make changes in my life. It helped me begin a journey into a more positive way of living and indeed, eventually led me to mindfulness, coaching and meditation.

So, ask yourself, “what was the best part of my day?” Even if you are standing in sewage.

 

On Finding Holy Spaces

In Jewish liturgy and writings, there are many names for God, several of which are considered too holy to say at all and some that are confined only to prayer. However, the name for the divine from the Jewish tradition that most inspires me is not one of those. It is the word Hamakom, translated as “the space” or “the place.”

What does this mean? For a religion that does not confine God to a physical form (the second commandment prohibits Jews from making a graven image of the lord), what does it mean that one name for the divine seems to tie god to a physical location? This is a name that’s seems to limit God.

But that translation is too literal in nature- for descriptions of God, in the Jewish tradition at least, are always metaphoric. What does it mean for God to be “the space”?

For me, this meaning is found in stillness- the stillness one encounters in prayer or meditation. It is the mental and heart space that is both entirely present and eternal at the same time. To be still so that one can hear the voice of the divine (or universe or whatever spiritual tradition in which you find yourself), is to tap into a power and energy that is contained within you and all around you in the universe.

The word, Hamakom comes from the Jewish tradition, but its meaning extends beyond the confines of the Jewish faith, or really any religion at all. Hamakom is about being present. It is about finding the space in yourself in which you can be one with something larger. It is spaciousness of spirit and mind.

How can we bring this space into our lives? For some the access road is prayer or meditation. For others it is exercise or quiet walks in nature and for others still it may be a generative space of creativity- music, dance or art. The key is that Hamakom can be found in each of us but is not contained solely within us. The access point must begin in the present moment but it simultaneously extends to the eternal. The point of entry is in the individual- the point of enlightenment is in connection.

Where do you find hamakom? How can you bring that space into your life?

An Awakening

Something is happening.  It is percolating in our society- bubbling up in disparate and surprising places.  It is born out of a deep spiritual dissatisfaction with American society though its manifestations are profoundly positive.

We see it in education where parents, teachers and students are revolting against high stakes testing and common core standards. They do so because they love learning and they believe that an emphasis on scores and quantitative data obscures the meaning of education.  They are tired of a rat race that is so focused on future careers, that it loses sight of raising happy, healthy citizens.

We see it in the slow food movement, where people are joining together to promote local communities, traditions and farms.  They seek to restore pleasure to eating, asking people to sit down together for a meal- to savor both the taste of the food and each other’s company.

We see this in the NFL (of all places) where the Seattle Seahawks are including meditation and yoga in their training.  Even in the violent sport of football, this team has found the benefit of caring for the entire player- for his soul, his body and his mental well-being.  They believe they can excel in the game (and their record supports them on it) and take care of their players.

What do these things have in common? They are rejections of the status quo.  They are rejections of our society’s relentless pursuit of the end-result without any regard for the process or journey.  They are statements that the journey matters.  They are affirmations of the importance of being human; of all the different ways of being human.

There are others out there doing innovative things; resisting the march to conformity.  We should honor and encourage these movements (even if we personally might not choose them) because they broaden our definition of what it means to be human.   This broader definition opens up greater possibilities for all of us.