Thursday, August 22, 2013

Let the sun shine in

This morning, I read an open letter from a old friend to her business partner, documenting the wild and awesome adventure that the past year of their lives has been.  Here is some of what she wrote:

"A year ago, I opened up [Roost House of Juice, in Portland, Maine], the city I love, with someone who has now become one of my best friends and part of my family.  This last year has been wild.  And I am proud to say that [we] have stayed committed to this path of sacred commerce, using business as a path of (and to) awakening.  I have awakened in so many real human ways.  I have learned so much about honoring the flow of life.  I have learned that open, honest, loving communication is one of the most precious, divine, radical, and transformative things in this world, and bringing yourself into relationships and showing up as you are is of utmost importance AND it is so unbelievably awesome to be around people that not only accept all of you as you are but so thoroughly encourage you to be all that you are.  We all learn these lessons in different places, on our different paths, and all we can do is do the best we can and hold space for it all.  I am Grateful for being willing to take a risk, to dive deeply, to be okay when things don't work out and to be present for when things do.  There really is no destination in this life... Just really be in it fully, genuinely, deliberately, and who knows what will happen..."

I could not have thought or said this better than she did!

After reading (and "liking") this inspiring post, my first thought was "how cool, she's so smart and brave." Next I thought, "I want to move to Maine and open a store! become a yoga instructor! eat only organic!" So why do some people live the lives we think we want? Why don't we all live the lives that we think we want?

As I said in my first post, I believe the lives we lead are in every way a reflection of what's in our hearts.  All you need to do is observe your life in order to see a visualization of what you've prioritized, up to this moment.  Each choice we make is a demonstration -- actual proof of what's in our hearts. What kinds of things have you prioritized in your life, and what is the result of those choices?

For one, I am grateful that when I scroll through my Facebook news feed, I am still acquainted with people like Jeanette, who I haven't physically shared a social circle with in many years.  I know I have prioritized maintaining connections with good friends, and some level of contact with amazing acquaintances. As I continue to scroll my feed, I see other yogis, fitness enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, nature lovers, animal lovers, music lovers, and all kinds of others -- many posting inspiring or interesting things they've written, done, or photographed, or re-posting inspiring or interesting things they've read or seen. When I stop to think about it, I am fiercely grateful to be connected to so many amazing people. (I am also fiercely grateful that I've remembered to stop, and be grateful.)

In my life, I guess I have prioritized a sense of security. I've calculated risk and kept it minimal. I followed the path of my college major into a solid career that I've been at for the past seven years. At 25, I bought my first piece of property -- my fifth anniversary of living here is in two weeks. When I compare my life to some of the adventures other people are on, I worry, is my path too straight? Why have I prioritized this kind of stability over more creativity, when I have so many, oh, many! creative dreams and desires? What kind of life am I creating?

I guess my goal has always been to strike a balance. (I took my Libra sign of the level scales to heart.) I'm trying to do what I love and find a way to make it pay, as I always felt The Goal to be. Growing up, I saw that poverty can be devastating -- a serious challenge to Total Body Happiness in so many ways (including increased stress and improper nutrition). I also witnessed the effects of truly poor choices on your life and the lives of those you love: drug addiction, crime... I guess all that scared my personality right into playing it straight. So, too, I'm sure, is everyone upon whose paths I admire attempting to do what they want to do and find a way to eat. You do what you know based on your experience; you follow your strengths and go where they lead you. Given that this is my personality and I am who I am, I can't honestly say that I would be happier living any other way. Your life is as it is for a reason.

As Jeanette says, "We all learn these lessons in different places, on our different paths, and all we can do is do the best we can and hold space for it all." AND, "showing up as you are is of utmost importance."  So my advice to self today is, appreciate others as fully as you possibly can.  Appreciate them until it makes your nose sting and your eyes well up with tears -- love them so hard that it makes you cry. Be so proud to know them that your ribs expand and you feel like your heart is going to burst out of your chest. Then, take a breath, and return to your present moment. You have appreciation for others, and that is beautiful.  And your path is beautiful too, because it is uniquely you. To be genuine, and to experience the present without criticism -- that's the real path. You can be on it, or off it, no matter what you do from 9 to 5 (or 7 to 11, 3 to 12, no matter what you do)!

Often it's much more difficult to see the mystical beauty and genuine goodness in ourselves and in our own lives, but you're doing something right if you can appreciate it in others. You're doing something right if there are others around you to appreciate. If you feel bored, if you feel boring, if you feel lonely or lost, just look for that light in everything and everyone you see around you. Know that you are a piece of the source of all of that, and your light will shine just as brightly as anyone who you admire if you choose to continually cast off darkness, despair, and doubt, and just let the sunshine in.

Open your heart: in comes the light. Keep it open: the light returns to others. 
Namaste, Jeanette!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Live the life you want to have lived!

The life you're living equals the life you will have lived... so you better attempt to live it with intention.

The past 2 weeks have shown me how important it is to maintain a big-picture view of life, in relation to goals. There are so many opportunities that can present themselves, and whether you accept or reject the challenge shapes not only the kind of life you live, but the kind of legacy you'll leave behind.  

My great-aunt died this past weekend.  I think of my memories with her in the mornings of my early childhood.  We'd come down from our 3rd floor apartment above the family's 1st floor heating oil office in Roxbury, Massachusetts.  She would be on the phones and doing the billing on a typewriter and I would come and sit on her desk, age 2, 3, 4... She said she could often hear me coming because I'd sing all the way down the stairs. (As a singer, I found it especially sweet of her to relate this anecdote to me.)  The sun'll come out, tomorrow, still a favorite song.

Later, when we didn't live above the oil office anymore, my grandfather still picked me up after school one day a week. We'd get a snack at the Ho Jo off the highway, and then go back to the office, where I was always glad to see Auntie, and Auntie always seemed glad to see me!  Maya Angelou says that children's opinion of themselves is shaped by the look you have on your face when you greet them.  Auntie always had a warm, welcoming face, and gave big hugs into her ample bosom! Throughout her life, she really was a gentle woman (so, the singing of that hymn made us all cry in church).  She was also tough when she needed to be, like in the office, standing up to a bunch of grouchy men stained with oil.  Auntie was caring, kind, and a sweetheart.  Her life touched many lives.  She will be missed by my whole family.

At her funeral mass, I learned that for as long as she was physically able, she cooked for other people in her apartment building who were not able, creating her own little meals-on-wheels program.  That struck me, because toward the end of her life, she had unbelievable swelling in her legs and had a very hard time getting around.  I know there must have been a time when she pushed through the pain in order to do what she loved: cooking, and helping her friends and neighbors through her cooking-kindness.  As the priest said, "this is the way that she imitated Christ."

Thoughts about mortality in the wake of a death...  
Who you are today will be who you are tomorrow, and so on and so on, until your last day of life.  No metamorphosis will turn you into some old person version of yourself.  Day after day, you will continue to look out at the world through your eyes (which will have seen many decades go by if you're lucky). This concept brings up a lot of thoughts and emotions for me.  In relation to Total Body Happiness, it reinforces these main objectives.

It is important to:
  • Be happy.  Your happiness radiates unto those around you, and this is no small thing.  You have the power to positively impact the lives of those around you, either lessening or increasing their burden and stress. Who do you want to be?  What affect do you have on others?
  • Be healthy.  Just as you don't suddenly turn into "an old person" one day in your mental and emotional outlook, so too does your body age gradually, day by day.  You have the power to maintain your core strength and go into each year of your life with as much vitality as possible.  This will affect how you age over time.  I look at my aunt, who suffered immobility in her later years.  She was a big lady for a lot of her life (although she still lived to be 86!).  Keeping the body strong and agile today impacts tomorrow and tomorrow.  Do squats while you can.  Someday, your years of squats will help you get in and out of a chair.
  • Share your life with other people.  On a path to self improvement, it can seem easier to be more solitary than social.  From a mental health perspective, it's more difficult to multiply other people's issues and agendas to your own. From a physical health perspective, social activities can also present challenges: "I can't go out tonight because I have to do my workout," or, "Beer and pub food aren't on my diet."  Nurturing and expanding your relationships with others can require active cultivation of your psychological and emotional flexibility.  It's a challenge, it requires practice, and it's worth doing because in the end, all we really have are the lives we've touched and the impact we've had on the people and the world around us.  As for the beer and pub food, that's where it's important to strike a balance, and set your goals high.  If you're on point with your exercise and nutrition on the large majority of days, you'll have plenty of room for french fries with friends occasionally.
Between work, family, and all things life, I've had some ups and downs with my completing daily goals in the past week and a half.  I'm repeating week 4 on my workout calendar.  As my mom reminded me yesterday, just having a goal means you're still doing better than you would be if you didn't.  There have been times when I had no goal, and months upon months have passed without a real workout.  When I aim to nail a workout every day, I tend to at least go for a walk on days that I don't work out, or I fit in some other kind of exercise.  Last week, my boyfriend and I took 2 ballroom dancing lessons, and that was pretty awesome.  

I've also noticed that life really does not get in the way as much when I achieve my goal to get up early and work out in the morning.  The only obstacle I face in the morning is getting out of bed early enough, which is undeniably hard for me, especially if I've had less than 8 hours sleep. But lots of things can arise in the course of a day to prevent me from being able to work out after work.  So, I still see become a morning person as a totally worthy goal toward my total body happiness.  It's not always convenient or comfortable, but I believe it will improve my life, so I'm going to keep trying.

See the big picture.  Extend some patience, forgiveness, and kindness to yourself and those around you.  Don't let any slip-ups lead you to believe that your goal is no longer worthy or possible. It's never too late. Just keep trying. 

Can I become a morning person by my 30th?  Less than 2 months to go!  The challenge is on.  :)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

"God damn it, you've got to be kind."

Being kind isn't always easy, for lots of reasons.  Two main reasons (revenge-seeking behavior, and attention-seeking behavior) seem to be the most common kindness-obstacles that I face.  I don't necessarily have the answers, but I have thought of some questions.  These are the things I'm asking myself when these situations arise.

Someone has been unkind to you: Maybe a stranger has rudely cut you off in traffic, or worse -- stolen from you, or victimized you or a loved one in some other way. Maybe a family member or friend disregarded you, or made you feel insulted or unloved.  When someone is unkind to you, why should you feel or show any kindness to them?

I love the quote that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other guy to die.  Whose mind do all these hateful and negative preoccupations live in?  Yours, and only yours.  Awareness (aka the mind) is like a huge empty field: you can hold whatever you want in there!  Do you really want to fill up your awareness with anger, negativity, and unkind thoughts? These thoughts raise your stress level, thereby lowering your Total Body Happiness.  Instead, here's a game plan for what to do when someone is unkind to you:
  1. Evaluate the perceived unkindness.  On your journey to mindfulness, learn to be aware of what you're doing, and the consequences that your actions have on others. You also must realize that others might not be as aware of themselves as you're learning to be. Was their hurtful action intentional? Was it intended to harm you personally? People say and do a lot of things without "thinking." Try not to be insulted when someone doesn't instinctively realize they've hurt you.  Only certain very gifted people can read minds. :)
  2. To vent or not to vent?  That is the question.  Yelling profanity out the window may yield little benefit, and could put you in a dangerous situation.  Singing out a string of swears in your car, on the other hand, might release some of the tension you feel and make you laugh.  Try, "I will fart on your mother, you scum-sucking snake!" (When you're venting, steer clear of racial slurs; those are seeds of violence and hate -- plus why be cliche when you could be original?) Then, move on -- and that is key.  Remember, mindfulness is about staying in the present moment without judgement. See things for what they are: if you're alive, you're okay.  Redirect your attention to something calming and appreciate what there is to appreciate: a good song on the radio, the sunset beyond your windshield, the fact that you are taking lots of lovely breaths without even having to think about it.
  3. Evaluate the benefit of voicing your feelings to a family member or friend.  Sometimes it's worthwhile to talk to the person about how their actions made you feel; other times it's not.  If you think talking about it will produce understanding between you and the other person, and prevent the situation from happening again so frequently, then tell them how you feel in a non-accusatory way. We have to establish our boundaries with other people: it's possible the person does not know when they've crossed the line with you, emotionally, because everyone's different.  However, if this person continually crosses the line, and projects negative emotions compulsively, it's a good bet that they won't completely change as a result of your feedback.  In that case, you may want to save your breath.  
  4. Keep an open heart.  Keeping an open heart doesn't mean making yourself a doormat, ready to be stepped on and sullied with the dirt of everyone who would choose to wipe their feet on you.  It means not carrying around anger.  When your heart is open, emotions flow in and out of it, just as breath flows in and out of your body. Try to find compassion for the person who has wronged you. "She is criticizing me because she thinks I can take it.  She perceives me as strong, and perhaps she feels weak.  Perhaps she is trying to increase her strength by diminishing mine. It must be exhausting and hellish for her to feel that way."  There are a wide variety of things that could be going on in someone else's experience that would cause them to be negative toward you. The second you even start to attempt to find compassion for them, you'll notice that you feel less anger.  But once you've put yourself in their shoes, you don't have to stay there.  People have all kinds of problems: some of them will never be fixed, and even fewer of them will be fixed by you.  If you're dealing with someone who consistently treats you with unkindness, pray for their happiness -- from afar if you have to.  Cultivate your own happiness, whatever it takes.  
Is it boring to be kind?  We live in a culture of tabloid rumors and extreme closeups.  Societally speaking, people seem eager to discuss everybody else's flaws and shortcomings.  You don't have to buy tabloid magazines or watch TMZ to be part of that.  Most of us have friends who like to pick other people apart, for comedic sport.  Some of us even take part in this ourselves.
  • What do you do when you're in a social situation where the tone of conversation among others is consistently negative or derogatory?  Personally, I find that incredibly boring and unpleasant, but lots of people seem to find it funny. The bottom line is, people who put other people down are unhealthy to be around.  You will find yourself repeating their behavior to participate in the conversation. Your mind might even begin to look for other people's flaws as compulsively as your friends do.  This is not a worthy use of your time or attention.  Focus on the positive. Should you try to defend everyone that your friends verbally attack behind others' backs, and attempt to squelch their negativity with kindness? You can try, and I wish you luck! People who exhibit compulsively negative behavior are often not open and receptive to changing, just because you point out the good in what, or who, they're criticizing. Sometimes it's best to walk away.  Consider the steps: 
    • Is the person even aware of the implications of their actions? 
    • What is really behind their negativity? 
    • Will telling them how you feel improve the situation?  
    • If this is the way they often behave, do you need to distance yourself from this person? 
  • What do you do if you notice that you are constantly criticizing others?  Ask yourself the same questions.  Consider how what you say affects other people.  Remember that other people are just as complex, important, and worthy of understanding as you are.  If it's just a bad habit you need to break, then educate yourself to find better things to talk about. There are plenty of critical, interesting conversations to be had.  If you can't think of any, consider broadening your horizons by learning something new, reading more, listening to news radio, and/or taking your head out of your ass and observing the world around you. If you feel consistently irritated by something someone says or does, remember that it's not always your responsibility to tell them what you think.  Try to figure out if there's a deeper cause of your irritation. Relationships are difficult, but they become easier when you take responsibility for yourself instead of dumping all your feelings onto others.  You have a responsibility to behave as kindly as possible, and if you find that impossible, then you have a responsibility to accept that chronic negativity and putting down others is a problem that you need to solve, for the benefit of yourself and those around you.  
Kindness is like mindfulness: you don't just arrive at it one day and stay there. You have to consistently cultivate kindness for it to stay alive. Every time you are challenged with the temptation to be unkind, whether it's motivated by the company you keep or feelings from inside you, you have an opportunity to stop, breathe, and choose your behavior.

Treating other people negatively will never benefit you.  People who laugh at your jokes about other people, or who feign interest at the negative things you have to say about others, will keep you at a distance because they know that no one is exempt from your criticism. Decide what kind of person you want to be and consistently keep that inspiration as your primary focus.  It's not always easy, but it's always worthwhile.

My goal is to be consistently kind.  I hope that will increase my happiness, as well as the kindness and happiness of those around me... and if it doesn't, my heart will remain open to you -- from afar!

One last point: as in Vonnegut's quote (pictured above) don't take yourself too seriously, and keep your sense of humor intact as often as humanly possible.  I am learning to let more things go, and the result is that I find myself being offended much less.  Almost everyone is doing the best they can, and most people are not trying to hurt you.  Cut others a little slack, and if they really don't deserve any, try killing them with kindness.

I'd love to hear your thoughts! Have you ever known someone who is compulsively negative? What challenges do you face when it comes to being kind? Are you part of a community of kind and caring people?  

Thursday, August 1, 2013

With awareness and discipline, anything is possible.

There is a moment of choice in the midst of every bad decision.  Before we hit that extra Snooze that really makes us late; before we eat or drink something we had planned to avoid; before we say something we don't mean; before we gamble away our last $50; there is always an opportunity to stop and redirect the behavior.  What differentiates the times when we are able to resist temptation, from the times that we choose not to, or the times that we don't even stop to think about our options?

My answer is blindness: the opposite of awareness.  Other words for this could be unconsciousness, indifference, or detachment. If awareness is continuously awakening to the present moment, then blindness is being led into darkness by temptation, as if self-awareness doesn't even exist in that moment. The Snooze button drives us.  The cookies drive us.  The excitement, or the rush, or the distraction drives us, and we forget ourselves and our enormous capacity to control our behavior if we choose to take the reins.  

In Buddhism, the demon Mara tried to distract the Buddha with temptation in order to bring him away from his quest to become enlightened.  Mara represents temptation toward all kinds of alluring things that provide instant gratification, which a disciplined spiritual life doesn't necessarily offer.  The Buddha was able to resist Mara's temptation.  He touched his hand to the Earth (symbolizing connection) beneath the Bodhi tree where he sat (symbolizing wisdom, growth, beauty), and that is said to be the moment when he first became enlightened.  

The Buddha beneath the Bodhi tree, resisting Mara, the demon of temptation.
Remaining in a state of awareness requires continuous effort.  You don't just arrive at it one day and remain there.  Some days you feel connected; other days you feel lost, and sometimes you feel connected in the morning and lost by the afternoon.  You have to laugh at how difficult something so seemingly simple can be. It takes continuous effort to remain mindful of the present moment.  It also takes continuous effort to remain mindful of a greater goal.

I've been thinking a lot about how those two aspects of being alive intersect with one another: the present, and remaining in it, alongside having a greater goal.  Here's what I know: No goal that's not in line with who you essentially are and what you essentially want will be successful.  The word "essentially" is key here. Who you are may always be changing slightly but essentially, you are always the same person.  Create a goal that's like that: big enough to accommodate your ever-changing self.  Goals like health, balance, and calm will always be compatible with the best version of yourself at any given moment.

If you have carefully considered your goal and determined it to be a truly worthy one, perhaps this is where self-discipline comes into the picture.  Learning to train the mind, and the self, is not easy.  If it were easy, everyone would be walking around totally self-actualized, living fully to their own personal potential.  Instead, most people have something, or many things, that they're capable of doing better in their lives, but they lack the necessary discipline.  Perhaps they haven't created a plan to get themselves away from negative behavior,  toward a determined goal, or if they have, perhaps they haven't stuck to it.  Or, maybe there was a flaw in their plan for self-improvement, and instead of revising it, they've just given up altogether -- perhaps time and time again.  Whether or not you can stick to a plan when it's not fun anymore, or when it's not exciting and easy, must be all about 1) whether your goal is worthy of the effort, and 2) whether you're disciplined enough to do the work and see it through.

I'm at at a crossroads.  In one direction, I see a path that stretches far into the future.  Maybe I've mastered this mindfulness thing so well that I'm mindfulness trainer.  I have overcome my anxiety, chronic stomach problems, and bouts of irritability and depressive mood.  In other words, I have seen the full realization of my goal.  Here's what it looks like, practically speaking, in relation to the Total Body Happiness guidelines I've created:
  • Waking up early becomes natural to my body.  I feel ready to get out of bed at 6:30.
  • Exercising in the morning becomes natural to my body.  I wonder how I ever lived without it.
  • Meditating daily becomes natural to my body and mind. I benefit from connecting to my body, my surroundings, and the source of all awareness, and I've found a regular time that works for me so that it's more natural than forceful.
As a result of this routine, I benefit from:
  • better connection to the natural circadian rhythm
  • more exposure to sunlight, instead of sleeping through it with the drapes closed
  • more hours, and more spaciousness of time, within my waking day
  • faster metabolism as a result of eating and exercising in the morning
  • routine, and the stress reduction and improved physical well-being that comes with it
It's Thursday, and I've only sat for formal meditation two mornings this week.  I've exercised in the morning once, although I've still worked out every day as scheduled.  If I continue to release the grasp I have on my goal, by losing sight of the reasons why I want to wake up early and the benefits I anticipate having from it, then this experiment will fall into the ranks of other failed experiments.  I will have given into temptation, because discipline is more difficult than instant gratification.  (In my case, Snooze, Snooze, Snooze).  I will fail to grow and improve as a result of overcoming the morning-discipline challenge toward Total Body Happiness.  

I need to redirect myself.  Do you?  Here's how:  

Be gentle.  Be as kind and compassionate to yourself as you possibly can, as you would be to someone else: your mother, your brother, your friend, a total stranger, a beloved pet.  It really is okay.  Give yourself credit for the things you've done right:
  • I've nailed every workout this week.
  • I haven't had any panic attacks, and if I've had the faintest inkling of anxiety, I've quickly reminded myself that panicking is a choice that I don't have to make, and I've snapped out of it and back into awareness.
  • No stomach pain or lingering headaches.
  • I've been practicing informal mindfulness "minis," such as breathing exercises, throughout each day even though I haven't sat for formal meditation as much as I've planned to.
  • I've identified that I've started to lack discipline, and I'm taking action to regain it.
Identify the reasons why your goal is becoming more difficult to achieve, and be honest!
  • I haven't been going to bed early enough.  
  • I've been hitting Snooze mindlessly for an hour because I'm tired, instead of summoning the awareness inside of me that knows I will feel less sleepy once I'm up and about.
  • I've told myself, "I've been feeling much better lately," as if I'm cured.  I shouldn't tell myself, "I feel better, so I don't have to do this anymore."  That really makes no sense. Feeling better should tell me that my experiment is working, so I would benefit from keeping at it.  I should say, "I feel better, so I will keep doing this."
With mindfulness, you always get a clean slate.  There is no need for guilt nor punishment.  You haven't failed, you've just learned something new about the challenge.  (I'm SO giving myself a pep-talk right now.) New breath = brand new opportunity.

I believe that waking up early and establishing a positive morning routine is possible for me.  Anything is possible.

I look forward to my cardio workout this afternoon, getting to sleep on time tonight, and an early morning wake-up tomorrow.  :)