The Waiting is the Hardest Part- and Perhaps, the Most Important

Spring

I live in the Northeast and it will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard about our record breaking winter that I am pretty tired of the snow. It feels unbelievable now that I actually welcomed the first blizzard of our season. Now as I look out on the towering snow banks and the menacing icicles hanging from my neighbors’ roofs, it easy to forget that a month ago I thought snow was beautiful. These days I dream of spring and wonder if I will ever see my lawn again. Given the sheer quantity of snow, it appears I am going to have to wait.

And waiting is hard. In our fast paced society we almost never have to wait and when we do, we measure the time in seconds or minutes. An hour wait is unacceptable to most of us. We have places to go and things to do. We have no time for waiting. We certainly have no time for winter.

We are uncomfortable with the rhythms of our ancestors who had to submit to the cycle of seasons. Indeed, merely several hundred years ago, people had to submit to the will of dark nights whose completeness was only punctured by the light of moon and stars and the flickering glow of candles and lanterns. We are now masters of the clock even as we become servants to our technology.

What we have lost is the value of rest and even hibernation. Perhaps you have experienced periods in your life where you have “gone underground” for a bit- when the demands of life seemed a little too much and too overwhelming and you responded by doing and communicating less. We are often made to feel bad about those times- as if our dropping out was cowardice or perhaps a sign of depression (and for some it may be). But for many it is actually a sign of self-care. Sometimes what is happening is that our bodies and our psyches are telling us that it is time to slow down. It may even be time for a nap…or two.

Quiet “unproductive” time is actually really important. Underneath the snow, plants and seeds are getting ready. They are gearing up for an explosion of color and life. They are gaining energy to grow and blossom. They are not dead (although perhaps just a little buried).

They are waiting.

The rest that nature takes culminates in growth and life. Similarly, the rest we take facilitates creativity and health. Sometimes we need to hibernate. We need to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world and quietly grow things within ourselves. When we are ready to shovel out and step into the sun, we will be capable of more than we knew was possible.

So as I look out the window and see the sun gently warming the snow, I must content myself with waiting and the knowledge that beautiful things are happening beneath the surface.

Recipes for Resilience: Ideas in Opposition

Resilience
I was recently asked to speak at a local high school on the topic of resilience. I was flattered by the request, but my first thought was; “sure I know things about resilience from my professional life, but I may not be the best person to speak with in terms of personal experience.” And then I paused and laughed. I realized that I could come up with at least ten things in my life that had required resilience including the murder of a family friend, a major professional transition and having a child with a serious medical condition.

The fact that I could not come up with these examples instantly was not a sign of creeping senility (though I am not ruling it out), but actually part of resilience. The fact that these episodes in my life no longer define me and that I do not carry them with me every moment of every day, showcases my resilience- my ability to bounce back.

This moment of forgetting made me think about resilience in terms of ideas in opposition. When I spoke to the students, I explained the four sets of tensions in the following way:

  1. Letting Go & Remembering. Resilience is about being able to let go of past trauma and move on. If we carry our burdens around with us all the time, they are simply too heavy and we will not be able to move forward. Resilience requires a little bit of forgetting or letting go.However, this letting go is not about repressing bad memories. It is about integrating them. It is important to remember so that when we encounter difficult situations, we can access our own learning from the past. Resilience is about remembering the past in order to avoid that which we have learned is toxic and utilizing our hard won skills to handle what cannot be avoided.
  2. Knowing Who You Are & Being Able to Change. Resilience is about knowing who you are and what is important to you. Life is challenging and it’s a good idea to spend some time figuring out your values. What is important to you? Where do you want to go? Who do you want to be? Your answers will help guide you as you move through life. If you have thought about these things in advance, when you encounter difficult choices or problems, you will be able to make decisions that are in line with your values and who you are.However, the other side of the tension or opposition is the importance of being able to change. Life will inevitably challenge you and throw road blocks in the path you have chosen. Sometimes, resilience is about persevering and moving those boulders out of the way. But other times, resilience is about deciding that it’s time to chart a new path; that the rocks are too heavy or perhaps not worth moving in the first place. Life changes us and we should not be afraid to change course simply because it is different than the plan we once made.
  3. Connections and Being Alone. Resilience is about connections. Studies show that having deep personal connections with friends or family help foster resilience. It is essential to cultivate such relationships so that when life knocks you down, you have someone to give you a hand up (even if the hand is really just an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on).But resilience is also about the ability to be alone. It is about being able to sit with yourself, enjoying solitude and quiet. It is about sitting quietly without having to reach for your smartphone to text or post on social media. It is about being whole on your own without needing another person to fill you up.
  1. Feeling Deeply and Humor. Resilience is about being able to feel powerful emotions- from love to sorrow, from joy to pain, from passion to fear. Resilience is about being able to sit with these deep emotions- even the uncomfortable ones. You can never outrun those feelings. It may take a little while- a week, a month, a year, a decade- but eventually the things you run from will catch up to you. Being able to sit in sadness and feel it- really truly feel it- allows you to move on. Deep emotions are where resilience (and our very humanity) is cultivated.In opposition to this is the importance of being able to insert just enough distance between you and the emotion to laugh. I have come to believe that humor is an essential part of resilience. Being able to laugh at absurdity and pain is an important coping skill. There are certainly people who use humor as a way of not coping- and I am not speaking of this type. Humor, at its best, allows you to see something from a slightly different perspective. This slight shift can take enough of the edge off a situation to allow you to stay and be present. Your humor can be snarky and sarcastic or light and fluffy- but laughter is truly one of the best medicines.

The last piece of wisdom I offered the students was that although I had highlighted these four tensions as keys to resilience, the truth is that there are as many variants as there are people in the world. What works for one person may not work for another. But cultivating resilience is about trial and error. And the startling thing about resilience is that one must encounter adversity to cultivate it. So the next time you find yourself knocked down by life, realize that life has offered you an opportunity to expand your resilience and if you need to say something snarky to life for that, go right ahead.

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.

Fighting the Zombie Apocalypse

http://lyricallywired.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/zombiesilhouettes.jpg

This weekend I went to the see the newest X-Men movie (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and after sitting through endless previews for depressing action movies and the dark vision of the film itself, I found myself feeling pretty hopeless. Our entertainment environment is filled right now with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic imagery. We conjure flawed super heroes to fight cunning and powerful villains or watch the “everyman” fight off a zombie mob. You might say “it’s just the movies (or TV),” but the truth is that our entertainment feeds and expands upon our fears.

Our ultra-violent and dark popular culture speaks to and from our collective anxiety. A jobless economic recovery, a world overrun with war, shooting sprees that leave children and young people massacred, a government that spies on its enemies and citizens alike, corporate cultures that demand long hours with increasing job instability- all of these conspire to make us feel vulnerable. Our entertainment is filled with stories of heroes (either super or home-grown) who are able to survive and conquer these forces. We turn to fiction for heroes because they seem so elusive in our own lives.

There is no better distillation of this fear than the zombies who inhabit our entertainment- from The Walking Dead to World War Z to any number of video games. Zombies are people who have ceased to be human. They are unstoppable mindless drones who have the ability to turn healthy independent people into the shuffling undead.

Zombie movies are a fun house mirror of our fears- that our world has spun out of control and that we are being turned into zombies. Schools prepare our students to be good workers and work demands that we surrender our autonomy and creativity and become mindless drones. We fear that we and those around us are becoming zombies. We fear that we have become the shuffling undead.

In popular culture the only way to resist the zombie horde is to resort to hiding and violence. The siege mentality of zombie films is again a mirror of our own mentality- looking out only for ourselves, pitted against our neighbors and friends for scarce resources- fighting over the division of the pie and not attempting to make the pie bigger.

Our zombie entertainment reflects our fears. But we have choices. We can, of course, surrender and become zombies ourselves or we can resist. But we do not need to resist as our entertainment counterparts do- by building fortresses and stockpiling weapons. Rather the way that we can fight is by becoming more intensely human.

We can reach out to our neighbors and to strangers with kindness and not suspicion. We can seek out moments of connection with one another. We can stop and appreciate the arts- by listening to music, reading a book or creating something (paintings, sculptures, collages- whatever!). We can stroll calmly and slowly out in nature. We can turn off our cell phones when we come home and make the office wait until tomorrow. We can insist on our own humanity and we can resist fear.

It is not easy. Zombies have captured our imaginations because we live in dangerous and uncertain times. But if zombies are the undead, we must fight them and what they represent by becoming more fully alive.

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.

 

A Voicemail Present

I am long since passed the age when birthdays bring parties and confetti. Nowadays, my cake has enough candles to set off the smoke alarm. Instead, birthdays now offer moments to reflect on my life and my journey.

But I still get presents. And like anyone, I enjoy a good present. This year, the best gift I received came in a surprising form. It arrived in the form of a voicemail.

I turned on my cell phone and saw a message from an old friend. He and I have been playing telephone tag for several weeks and it was nice to see his name. I pressed play and it began as a normal birthday message. “Happy Birthday, Rachel.” And then he continued “let me tell you what you mean to me.. the cool thing about you is..” He went on to enumerate the ways in which I have influenced and inspired him.

I had tears streaming down my face at the end of the message. It was such a beautiful gift. In a poignant one and half minute message, my friend made me feel loved and seen. He gave me the gift of seeing myself through his eyes.

And he has some incredible eyes. This is a friend who I admire and respect, who often serves as an inspiration to me. To know that he feels the same is deeply moving. It made me wonder if he how I feel about him.

How often do any of us take the time to tell our friends what they mean to us? How often do we thank the people in our lives for the way they shape and inspire us? How often do we acknowledge all the amazing individuals who have helped us become the people that we are today?

Research in positive psychology tells us that this giving act not only enhances the lives of those we tell, but enriches our own lives as well. The act of writing a letter of appreciation to someone who has been important to us, increases our own happiness. Gratitude breeds happiness which in turn breeds more happiness and more gratitude.

The simple act of reaching out to an old friend, a new friend, a teacher, a mentor, or a family member to tell them what they mean to you has the power to start a spiral of positivity. So sit down at the computer and write an email, or find that piece of stationary and fountain pen or simply pick up the phone. Give someone the gift of your appreciation.

Which reminds me, I have a phone call (and a favor) to return.