Welcome to the middle path

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Sporadic photos and notes from a Psyche-midwife, cheerleader, anthropologist--aka clinical social worker in therapy practice. Photos are usually mine except for those of historical events/famous people. Music relevant to the daily topic is often included in a web video embedded below the blog. Click on highlighted links in the copy to get to source or supplemental material. For contact information, see my website @ janasvoboda.com or click on the button to the right below. Join in the conversation.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Resolution #31: Create a Map for Your Destination

First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.  --Epitetus

    This is it-- the final day of the 31 days of resolutions.  Thanks to you that have made this journey with me.  It was fun and challenging to make a decision and stick to it even when other things tried to distract me.  Now it's time to get to work on putting these words into practices.

The vision must be followed by the venture.  It is not enough to stare up the steps - we must step up the stairs.     --Vance Havner

The month's grand finale' is to craft a visual inspiration for your 2011 goals.  Known as vision or dream boards, these tools serve to provide inspiration and reminders to your intentions for your life.

If you don't know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else. --Lawrence J. Peter

The steps:
Get a large piece of cardboard or posterboard. 
Gather up some old magazines.  If you don't have any, there's usually places in town where you can find them free or cheap.  Here in Corvallis, the local Folk Thrift store keeps a stack of donated mags near the exit door.
Clip out pictures that signify what it is you want in your life.  These can be concrete or abstract.  For example, you might choose a beautiful forest scene to remind you to practice your shinrin-yoku, or as a connotation of increased relaxation.  Perhaps you've decided to increase your fitness or lower your impact on the environment and place a picture of someone walking or bicycling.
Add words, if you wish, to emphasize or expand your choices.  
Place your vision board in an area you can see it regularly.  Spend a few moments each day or week to remind yourself of your intentions.

If you get intimidated by this process, an alternative is to simply place the pictures and words into a container.  You still need to get them out and look at them once in a while to help your focus.  Thanks to my dear friend Peggy for encouraging me in this last resolution.  She suggests that if you're more into the 3 dimensions, you may want to have a table where you can place objects in addition to pictures.

I've said before I'm not a big fan of books and films promoting the idea that one gets desires and needs met simply by wishing them.  But I do think we have a lot better chance of getting where we are going when we have a destination in mind.  Refining our goals cognitively and visually keeps us intention and aware.  Maybe the universe will meet us halfway or maybe we get there mostly on our own.  But when we are paying attention, we are much more likely to find what we are looking for.

It is never too late to be who you might have been.  ~George Eliot

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Resolution #30: Resist Reactivity

I got to Oregon indirectly.  I fell in love with the Willamette Valley while visiting a hospitalized friend many, many years ago.  He'd been severely injured in an auto accident.  I stayed a few weeks as he drifted in and out of coma and slowly began his recovery from a traumatic brain injury.  I knew then that this was where I wanted to live.  He came to visit us a few years after we moved here, long after his accident.  We went to eat at  Nearly Normal's, a local restaurant.  It was an appropriate choice.  During the meal we talked about our lives over the ensuing years.  When I told him a funny story, his laughter filled the room. When I talked about hardships, so did his tears.  His intense reactions were so unusual that a waiter came to ask him if everything was all right.  He replied earnestly:  "Don't worry, it's just brain damage."

A common sequela of brain injury is a "emotional disinhibition", or lack of  squelching of our full emotional range.  But the truth is, there's a big variation in individual emotional expression.  Some of us are pretty contained.  Our ecstatic and our distressed don't look all that different.  Maybe I shouldn't say "us" here-- I have a much larger range.  Think of it like singing-- some people have a musical range (distance between the lowest and highest note they can sing) of maybe an octave and a half.  Others may have four, even five.  Everything in between is pretty much average. 

Back to our subject.  Our emotional reactivity-- or range-- can get us in big trouble.  If we underreact to important things (think denial, numbness), we get in trouble.  But more often, it is our over-reaction that causes harm.  We think the worst and suffer in advance about consequences that never happen.  We are sure we cannot withstand discomfort than in hindsight we barely remember.

Here's the visual I use with clients.   I call it the Drama Dial.   Think of a meter like the top 50% of a clock.  Imagine it divided into thirds.  On the left side is numbness, coldness, deadness.  But when we are dysregulated, we are usually way over on the far third.  We feel crazy, anxious, fiery.  Our thoughts and behaviors are impulsive and disorganized. Our goal at this time should be to get back to the middle.  I picture the Dalai Lama, with his incredibly peaceful smile.  He looks like a bomb could go off and he would say-- hmm, that was loud.

The goal is that sort of compassionate observation, without reactivity. 

And this is the vision.  To get to Door Number Two, that place in the middle where we can with calm curiosity look at the messes we are making.  And we can decide on new paths. 

When you are thinking of making changes in your life, and are filled with dread and discomfort, imagine yourself dialing things back down.  Imagine you are the eye in the hurricane, watching all the fearsome action but filled with still and quiet.  Observe your narrative about your fears of change, your clinging to Known.  Like the Dalai Lama, look at yourself with total love and compassion.  Forgive yourself for the disasters of your emotional thinking and open your heart to the possibility of positive change.

One to go!
Many, many thanks to you who have written comments about this 31 day journey.  They have lifted my spirit and kept me moving.
Today's vid:

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Resolution #29: Respect The Intention of Your Resistance

This one may sound like a puzzler.  But a big reason we can have a hard time changing is because of that baby in the bathwater.  In other words, many of the harmful things we do have a positive intention or a pleasurable immediate effect.  It's the implementation or its aftereffects that get us in trouble.

We avoid something because it makes us anxious.  Wanting to be less anxious is a reasonable intention.  But when we have it hanging over our heads, we get guilt, shame, sometimes increased costs and troubles-- and in the end, more anxiety.  Identifying what we give up by changing, whether it's momentary anxiety or future unknowns, can help us address resistance factually or by developing new skills.

Many persons struggling with obesity don't fully recognize their intentions of holding onto excess weight.  Getting to a healthier weight can be about more than giving up the easy comfort and quick dopamine hits of certain foods.  It may mean facing sexual attention, dealing with anxiety around intimacy, or losing an excuse for avoiding life changes put off until that extra weight is gone.

Similarly, most things we say we want entail not only gains, but losses.  Sometimes the loss is just predictability.  Sometimes it is more.  Figure out what your resistance wants, and see if you can find a healthy way to replace the intention without the troublesome behavior. 

Friday, January 28, 2011

Resolution #28: Acknowledge and Challenge Resistance

Note:  Not my art.  Wish it was. Thank you to Glenn for tracking down the artists, Alex Koplin and David Melkejohn..  Keep them in art supplies by purchasing the print and get more info on their work at  h34dup.com  

OK-- back to work.  Three to go!  Finishing off the month with ways to improve our chances of making those resolutions, we have today's topic:  why it's so hard to change.

In a previous post, I talked about brain's desire to hang onto to instant dopamine hits as a reason we don't change.  Of course, it's not that simple.  We want things to be different, really we do.  But despite our intentions, we end up back in the same old places.  There are other forces at work besides chemistry.  A chief one:  we prefer predictible crap to the unknown.

Imagine you are standing at a cliff.  Wait-- make that clinging, very uncomfortably.  If you let go, maybe you fly and land in a much better place.  But maybe you just crash to a very messy end.
When faced with the big Don't Know, we tend to tell very scary stories.  The plane will crash, the relationship will end with not only a broken heart but a painful divorce.  We won't get the interview and will end up living under the bridge. 

Occasionally, parts of the story may be true.  Things may not work out exactly the way we hope, especially if we have unrealistic expectations of perfection.  Life is messy.  But rarely do they end as badly as we imagine when we can't even bring ourselves to try.  Still, to protect ourselves, sometimes we can't even get as far as beginnning to make the changes that might possibly lead us to happiness.  We repeat the same behaviors, sometimes hoping for a different ending, and sometimes just addicted to predictable ones. 

Tomorrow's post will talk about what we fear giving up.  But today, look at just the fear.  Spend a little time looking at ways you sabotage your own success.  Question whether you are trading comfort for happiness.

Related post:  What Anxiety Wants is Predictability

And instead of a song, today we have a poem.  Cheesy but powerful!
Autobiography in 5 short chapters
By Portia Nelson
I walk down the street
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in
I am lost… I’m helpless
It isn’t my fault
It takes forever to find a way out

I walk down the same street
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I pretend I don’t see it
I fall in again
I can’t believe I am in the same place
But, it isn’t my fault
It still takes a long time to get out

I walk down the same street
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I see it is there
I still fall in… it’s a habit
My eyes are open
I know where I am
It is my fault
I get out immediately

I walk down the same street
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I walk around it

I walk down another street

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Resolution #27: Don't Feed Ethel

Most of us have a loud and annoying bully in our head who tells us Bad Scary Stuff.  I've decided to name it "Ethel".  Please forgive me if you are or have an Ethel in your life that you love.

Ethel says things like:  "You can't do it.  You're a loser.  Why try?  You don't deserve to (fill in the blank:  be happy, healthy, out of debt, in a good relationship)."  She tells lots of scary stories with an authority that is quite convincing.  Ethel gets bigger and stronger every time you listen to her.  

Today's resolution:  Don't feed Ethel.   

When that doubting voice shows up, don't even bother talking back.  It's OK to talk to yourself. Tip:  Unless you're alone, don't do it out loud.

Tell yourself: "That's just Ethel, doing her deal."  Tell yourself some facts, like "I've been scared before and done fine anyway."  Or "I don't really know how this will turn out, and I won't know anything more if I don't try."  When Ethel has no attention, she tends to wander off.

Extraneous news:
Four more to go!  I can taste the relief.  Here's a couple of comments sent to me today about the 31-day challenge thus far.  I appreciate comments and conversation.  Don't be shy!

Erica, a lovely local therapist, wrote:
I read your blog this morning...  Here are a couple thoughts you engendered for me:
     When temptation is at hand...
Sometimes I think of future self as tomorrow's self (which helps that immediate gratification self latch onto something close at hand), so I ask "what will I, tomorrow, look back and thank me, today, for doing right now to get closer to that goal. 
    Sometimes, the best I can do is "damage control"--i.e. to take a hard day or down mood and at least not make it worse with dysfunctional cognitions or behaviors.  "Damage control" reminds me that not making it worse is sometimes the most positive thing I can accomplish.  Then surely the next morning I look back and thank myself for "not making it worse."  Make sense?
And my great pal Hal, who designed my pretty work website, wrote:
Miss Jana,
Hearty congrats on your sustained resolution to write January Resolutions... To ease you into February, for yer remaining 5...consider, please, if you will:
* Resolution #27: Find an Answer to All the Giraffe Ennui
* Resolution #28: Stay Away From Those Taco Bell-Bottom Trousers
* Resolution #29: Embrace Your Inner Bingo; Polka Nights
* Resolution #30: If You See That Fork in the Road, Take It
* Resolution #31: Sing the Body Electric...But Wear Rubber-Soled Shoes, Eh?
Your indentured servant,
Wally Ferblunghit
For more Hal and some good reads, check out his website:  http://hdklopper.net/ 
Today's musical vid:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Resolution #26: Set Reasonable Goals

Got Goals?
The average New Year's goals are big and nebulous.  Lose weight, get fit, get solvent, be happy.  The goals are great; it's the objectives that are missing.  Think of goals as the endpoint and objectives as yardlines, or markers on the way.  You need some sort of feedback that you're making progress and the goal is acheivable to keep up your momentum.

Goals can be lofty and large, but objectives need to be concrete and measureable.  Want to get fit?  How will you know when you are?  What will it take to get you there?  These smaller steps are your guideposts, and meeting them keeps you from getting discouraged and giving up.  If you are currently a couch potato and want to be a runner, you don't start by signing up for the Boston Marathon.  You start by getting off the couch and getting around the block. 

I know I have told this story before, but it bears repeating.  Long term goals are like a lighthouse.  We may never get there, but if we are heading toward the light, and reorient when we find ourselves stumbling around in the dark, we are going in the right direction.  How do you know when you are in the light?

To use this resolution, pick a long term goal.  Write it down.  Then find two or three small changes you can make that show you are heading the right direction and commit to them.  Alternately or additionally, each day notice anything you did that supports your goal.  For example, if you want to be more ecologically conscious, maybe today you walked to work, ate local food for lunch, and went to the library instead of purchasing that magazine.  Writing down what you did will trigger you to remain more intentional in your behavior.  If you say "I am going to use my treadmill an hour a day tomorrow" and then find yourself avoiding it, start by just dusting it off and turning it on to see it still works.  Maybe set a goal for walking on it for two minutes.  Most likely you will decide to do three and see you've already met and exceeded your goal.  Focusing on what you did right is more encouraging that despairing about what you haven't yet done. If you are feeling overwhelmed by your goal, it's too big.  What's the smallest step of incremental change that will be an improvement?  Try that a bit and you will probably exceed it.  Your success will reinforce your efforts. 

5 more to go!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Resolution #25: Listen to what Future Self wants

 My New Year's resolution-- to write a blog each day in January about resolutions-- is close to being met.  Whew! I am feeling proud.  At times I have the attention span of a fruit fly and the discipline of a labrador puppy.   I surprised myself by sticking to it. These last few posts will be about bettering your chances of making changes and moving toward the life you want.

Every January, about 45% of Americans resolve to better themselves in one or more ways.  Over a third of that group never even get started.  Most of the rest give up before meeting their goals.  According to Lauran Neergaard, AP medical writer, our brains are hard-wired to respond quickly to immediate rewards, and that's what most bad habits offer us. Future self wants to retire with savings, but present self needs to get that upgraded IPad. Future self may want to be thin, but present self really, really wants another slice of pie.   And that instant hit of dopamine from pie in the mouth is a lot more tangible than pie in the sky.

To help motivate yourself, get a better picture of where you want to be.  It's a lot easier to get somewhere you want if you have a destination in mind.

If your long term goal is a big one, picture the results.  Then ask yourself what you can do today to walk in that direction.  When temptation is at hand, ask future self what it wants-- then distract, refocus, or find some less-harmful way to hit that reward system.

More on goal setting tomorrow--
Today's song by the luminous Karen Savoca.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Resolution #24: Make A Joyful Noise

 Continuing on our increasing happiness theme...
I woke up today just a little off.  There were some reasons:  a good friend had come and gone from a visit; I'd had a packed weekend with friends, family and nurturance and now it was Monday and I'd overbooked my schedule for the week.  I was having trepidation over how I was going to juggle all the plates in motion for the week.

One of my (many gorgeous, brilliant and multifaceted) sisters recently wrote:
"My joie de vivre has had me accused of both being phony and erratic.(A colleague) even told me to stop putting crack in my cereal. ;) To the doubters- let me assure you, my happiness (to paraphrase Seinfield) is real, and it's spectacular."  When a reader inquired as to the secret of her perennial cheeriness, she said she thought it was innate-- that joy was her default. Though I also know she moves continuously toward joy and positive thinking, I think she is right.  Her temperament is naturally happy.  You can see it in her baby pictures-- sunny, smiling ear to ear.  I don't think I got the same set of genes.  In my childhood photos, I have sort of a perennially worried or distracted look. Even though I have a good love of fun, my genes seem to push me more toward introversion, introspection and sometimes melancholia.  I appear to need to be much more intentional to stay cheery.

Since about 1976, research supported the idea that we have a happiness set-point-- a baseline we return to after attempting to increase it with a big change or inflow of stuff/cash.  But newer research has challenged this idea.  The brain is much more pliable than once thought-- at every age.  And as pointed out in this week's blogs, we can move our set-point with community, gratitude, laughing, smiling, and feelings of personal agency.  
So how did I move mine today?
Singing!  I intentionally sang all the way to work, the happiest songs I could think of.  "When You Wish Upon a Star", yesterday's blog theme "You've Got a Friend In Me", and "Zip-a-dee Doo-dah".  And even without my rational support, I was in a good mood.  I sang between sessions, I sang all the way home, I sang making dinner.
Music can soothe the savage breast, and the cranky or melancholic one too.  Of course, music can change moods in many ways.  It can move us to tears, sad or other; it can raise tension.  There are whole industries based on using music to manipulate mood and behavior (think Muzak).  Even listening to sad music is helpful to mood overall-- it helps us identify and process emotional material, allowing it to move and shift.  But if you are wanting to lift your mood, put on something cheery and toe-tapping and be a curious observer to the results.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Resolution #23: Encourage Community

Feeling isolated?  You're--so to speak-- not alone.  Despite our fat facebook friends lists, Americans are spending less time in group and individual interactions and counting fewer people as confidantes than in previous history.  We work more, move more, attend church and civic groups less, volunteer less, walk less.  We have fewer sidewalks and front porches, all which used to encourage us to bump into our neighbors.  We watch videos and streaming concerts instead of attending theaters and live music.  In general, our places of worship, schools and other commnunity gathering sites are larger and usually outside of our immediate neighborhood.  Our banks and grocery stores are owned by anonymous corporations who don't know us or our individual needs.  All of this results in feelings of isolation and anonymity.

If positivity research is a bit muddy on some things, it is in consensus on one:  social connectedness increases happiness and health.  A meta-analysis of nearly 150 studies found strong links between mental and physical wellness and feeling tied to community.  Read a NYTimes article about it here.

For this resolution, do a social inventory.  How many people in your extended family, neighborhood and community did you connect in the last seven days?  How can you increase it this week?  And what is one thing you can do to increase connectivity within your community?

There's so many ways to work on this resolution.  Spend more time in your front yard, and greet your neighbors.  Volunteer.  Throw a potluck.  Call or write an old friend or family member.  Need more?
150 things you can do to build social capital: from bettertogether.org.

Related posts:  CONNECT
Nourished by Community

Today's song:

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Resolution #22: Have a Good Belly Laugh

 Laughter really is good medicine.
A good belly laugh releases stress, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, and increases immune activity. It provides health benefits similar to taking a jog (though perhaps without the calorie loss-- so don't completely take to the couch). 

Laughter connects us to others, reduces social and internal tensions, shifts perspective in positive ways, and relaxes our bodies for long after we stop giggling.  And most of the time, it's free!

Humor is an individual thing, and what some find funny others will find offensive or just dumb.  With that caution in mind, here's some web resources to get you going:
Funny or Die videos
The Onion News
Tweet Me Harder Podcast
The Institute of Official Cheer

 For a brainy look at laughter, listen to Radio Lab's Laughter episode.

Today's video is an intro to laughter yoga. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Resolution #21: SMILE!

 You have a beautiful smile.  Let's see it.

Smiling tends to send signals to the brain that you are happy-- whether or not you are first feeling the smile.  In one study, subjects holding pencils in their mouths in ways that moved facial muscles similar to what happens with a smile, their bodies received similar benefits to persons smiling from happiness.

Smiling also attracts others, and makes them more likely to smile back. 

I had a client many years ago in Texas who struggled with social anxiety and depression.  She was a PIB-- what we called people who dressed all in black back before we'd heard of Goth.  I never had seen both her eyes at once, since she usually had her hair covering most of her face.  One day (trust me, you can get away with this kind of therapy in SE TX), I told her I was getting tired of seeing her all raggedy-assed  in my office and by gosh she better show up next week looking good.  Wear something bright, do something different with that hair.  She was bumming me out.  She humored me and agreed.

The next week she walked into my office wearing a colorful dress and a face-cracking grin.  I didn't even know she had teeth!  I asked her what was up.  "I've had a great morning.  The bus driver flirted with me the whole drive.  Your mean secretary smiled at me."  She'd created a positive feedback loop.  By looking self-confident and happy even before she felt it, others responded to her more positively, and she felt better.

The challenge this month:  smile intentionally at least ten times today.  Whether or not you feel like it-- but do it like you mean it.  See what happens.

Click here for a sweet article on 10 good reasons to smile by Mark Stibich, PhD.
If you have a bit more time, read Eric Jaffe's well-researched article on the Psychological Study of Smiling.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Resolution #20: More Experiences, Less Stuff

 Continuing on our theme of improving levels of happiness...
Research on this one is clear.  You want to be more happy?  Focus on getting more experiences, not more stuff.
Study after study finds that material gains, whether it be a bigger house, a new car, or those great shoes, lend only very temporarily gains in personal happiness.  While buying stuff gives us a rush, that little hit of dopamine is pretty short-lived, and we quickly return to our baseline of happiness-- and some get caught in the addiction of trying to repeat the quickly passing thrill.  Trust me or look it up-- there's plenty of research to support the idea that what matters to us is what we did and who we did it with, not what we got.  Or think it about it yourself.  Are your most cherished memories about getting that big screen TV?  Often as not, they are times you spent (especially in new situations, such as a vacation) with people you loved.

Today's resolution:  plan some time to have an experience.  It doesn't have to be grand or expensive, just interesting and unusual, or with someone whose company you love.  One of my favorite birthdays was going to check out the 3D museum in Portland.  We'd planned to see the Velvet Painting museum as well, but it had closed.  Still, it was such a quirky, wonderful day that I'll remember it much longer than the presents I received.  I'd wanted to go to this little hole in the wall place for years and never had.  Not long after, I wrote a list of a 100 things I'd enjoy doing within a few hours of home (or here).  Visiting Crater Lake, fingerpainting for the first time since grade school, going on a photo scavenger hunt-- all sorts of experiences, big and small.  Some I've crossed off, and some I look forward to.  Make a similar list, and make time to cross a few off this month.

Interestingly, while getting more money or stuff doesn't improve happiness, giving it away does.  More on that tomorrow.

Onward to Adventures, Tiny or Not!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Resolution #19: No News Is Good News

 "Garbage in, garbage out".  --computer programmer saying
             Got Fear?
If not, check out the nightly news. 
Better yet, turn it off.  Skip the news headlines and read the comics.  Not forever, necessarily.  Take a fast from the news for a day or a few.  Maybe you don't need to know about that horrible thing that happened in that place you never heard of before today.  It doesn't mean you don't care-- but if you aren't going to do anything about it, or more likely, you can't-- well, maybe you really don't need it in your head.  Perhaps you have enough suffering going on in your own personal day.  Or maybe even today is going pretty well and you are feeling good.  Let well enough alone for a change.  Take a little fast from human misery and disaster.  This might include forgoing television crime dramas as well.

Hungarian researcher Attila Szabo found that students watching 15 minutes of newscast had sustained negative changes in mood, affect and anxiety.  These could be mediated with 15 minutes of relaxation practice, but my guess is that few of us counter the time we spend reading horrific headlines or watching violent imagery with intentional relaxation exercises.  The news can give us distorted perceptions of risk to our safety.  Did you know that crime in every category went DOWN in recent years?  That more people in the US will die from peanuts than terrorism over a given period of time? 

So give it a break.  Give yourself a break.  Take some time off from bad news, crime shows, cry-in-your-beer songs and tearjerker movies.  Life's hard enough, huh?

Additional resources: 
ODE:  "the magazine for intelligent optimists"
YES! Magazine:  Powerful Ideas, Practical Options
Daily Good:  News that Inspires website

Today's feel great video:

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Resolution #18: Notice What's Going Well

 OK, enough with the heavy stuff and suffering.  Not that it goes away, but sometimes we need to go away from it.  The next few days' resolution are all about increasing your "subjective experience of well-being" and "perceptions of life satisfaction",  aka happiness.

Like suffering, happiness is a temporal state.  We can't hang on to life's highs any more than we should hang on to its lows.  But there is nothing wrong, as stated in our own bill of rights, in the pursuit of it.

Resolution #5 talked about some research that showed that doing something different tends to increase folks' measurement of their happiness.  Researcher Martin Seligman also found that if people were asked to write down for three things daily that went well for one week, along with their understanding about why that might be, they showed significant gains in perceived happiness at baseline and in follow-up testing at one and three months.

Noticing what isn't wrong in our lives helps us direct attention to our strengths and resources.  Give this simple exercise a try and see if things begin to shift a little.

If you are interested in participating in Seligman's happiness and positive psychology research, there are several current studies open.  Click this link for more information.

Below is an (older) video in which Segilman explains how the "Three Blessings Exercise" works.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Resolution #17: Ask for Help When You Need It

 Most of my close friends work in some sort of caregiving profession.  Great at offering assistance to others, we are considerably less comfortable asking for it ourselves. 

But a few days ago after another "what, this too?" evening, I felt completely tapped.  I thought of my friends, nearly to a one having recently experienced a life-altering crisis or loss.  And out of the blue, I called a Native woman I had met years ago, who I knew to be a healer and a person of profound compassion and wisdom, and asked for help.

I didn't know what to expect.  I had only been in true conversation with her once, over 15 years ago.  I've seen her in crowds a few times since, but I doubt she saw me.   We had no personal relationship.  I wasn't even sure what I was asking her for, except help.  I explained to her that my circle had been impacted over and over in the past few months.  That we were all "ministers" in one way or another, putting out energy for others, but we were now in need of receiving, of being ministered to.  That we were from diverse spiritual backgrounds, some with formal practices and some with none at all.

With no other information, and not even knowing me by name, she said yes.  She offered up dozens of possible times; without hesitation my group opted for the earliest one.  She drove a long way to be with us (as did some of the group) and led us in an evening of deep reflection and community.

We were to a one profoundly affected, cared for, and grateful.  It was a very powerful experience.  She was also very moved, she said, to be asked, to be respected and trusted for her years and her wisdom.  It was a win-win.

And all I did was ask.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Resolution #16: Use Your Voice

 Continuing on the theme of honoring the vision of Dr. King, today's resolution is to let our voices be heard about something that matters to us, and in defense of those whose voices are being silenced or ignored.

We can keep this resolution in small gestures or large.  We can support small local business instead of large, anonymous corporations.  We can donate time, energy or goods to causes that do humanitarian work. We can tell people in gentle ways if their language is harmful ("retarded" and "gay" used as slurs, for example).  We can write letters to our news editors.  We can encourage our representatives to take on issues around human rights and dignity even if they may be politically unpopular.  We can demand our own country show leadership in addressing climate change, treating political prisoners within the bounds of the Geneva Convention, and caring for vulnerable populations on our lands.

Use your voice.

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

   --Martin Niemöller, pastor and social activist, 1946

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Resolution #15: Get to know an "Other"

It's Martin Luther King's birthday.  The real one, not that day some of you get off work.  In honor of his beautiful and powerful life work and inspired by Elizabeth Lesser's wonderful TED talk, which ends this post, today's resolution is to open our hearts to someone who is very different from us.  Someone who scares us, pisses us off or just challenges our comfort level.

I may have mentioned in a post here some time ago that a local retired physics teacher, Pat Canon, started a group to do just this during the period of the contentious Bush/Gore elections.  Concerned about the black and white, middle-school bullying nature of what should have been civic dialogue, he asked devoted members of both ends of the political spectrum to come together in dialogue.  Their goal: not to persuade, but to understand the view of the other.

In my work I come into intimate conversation with people of all sorts of beliefs.  I listen with as open a heart as I can muster to grasp how they have come to their views, so that even if I disagree with those views, their actions in light of them make sense to me.  For example, a gay son feels rejected by his evangelical parents.  But in their perspective, his orientation may forever separate them in the afterlife-- and their condemnation of him comes, believe it or not, out of love and fear, not hatred.

Most of the time, the more we understand about each other, the less fearful and reactive we will be.  In light of the recent events in Tuscon and their alleged motivation (here I am talking about political views, not mental illness), it is more important than ever to remember our common humanity instead of our separateness. It is time to get way past tolerance, and to understanding.

This video will give you some guidance on making it happen.

Related posts:
Resolution #12:  Accept Others

Friday, January 14, 2011

Resolution #14: Accept Yourself

You knew this was coming, right?
We started with the easy stuff.  Accept small unpleasant realities.  Accept your emotions and thoughts. Accept differences in others.  Accept that you can't know everything/the future.
Those were training wheels.
Today's challenge is to work on accepting yourself, with all your present strengths and limitations.  Accept that like every other human being, you have inherent worth and dignity.  Accept that you are no exception to the idea that nobody's perfect, and that you should treat yourself as you believe others should be treated. Accept that you have feet of clay, and a perfectly luminous soul inside of an imperfectly human carrier.

Entering this practice does not mean we abdicate our morals, growth or right intentions.  It means accepting that sometimes we are hitting the mark, and sometimes we are missing it, and we are still worthy as long as we are willing to accept our mistakes, misunderstandings, lack of knowledge; as long as we are willing to make amends and keep trying.  Or maybe that even when we feel we can't keep trying, we are still worthy of love, of redemption.

Our human journey (and I am very probably repeating myself) is like moving toward a lighthouse.  We are being guided to a good place, and if we stumble in the dark, it is important to reorient ourselves to the light.  We don't necessary get all the way to the lighthouse, but if we follow that path, we are heading in the right direction.

Keep on truckin',

Related reading:  Radical Self-Acceptance by Tara Brach
Today's video:  It's a long one.  It's worth it.  Come back when you have time, or find it on TED.com

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Resolution #13: Accept Uncertainty

I am being lazy for the 13th day, but hey, you get what you pay for.

Today's challenge is to accept unpredictability and what we cannot know.  Much unneeded suffering is caused by expectations that cannot or may not be met and our desire for predictable outcome.  Other times we suffer because the stories we tell ourselves about the future are horror stories.  And as I've mentioned before, if they never happen, we suffer for nothing; if they do, we suffer twice.

It's fine to prepare for a future based on reasonable prediction.  It's great to save for future needs, protect health now to enjoy later, invest in hopes of later return.  But none of this guarantees a particular outcome.  The most we can really know-- the answer to most of our questions is:  Don't Know.

Linked below, a repeat of a sermon (chat?) I gave at the local UU a few years back.

A Sermon on Uncertainty

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Resolution #12: Accept Others

"It's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds,"  --President Obama at today's memorial for the victims of the Tucson political shooting.

I said these were going to be small and simple resolutions, but there you go--these last ones really aren't.Still, they are great practices that can increase your peace of mind, and I hope you will give them a shot.

Today's resolution is about accepting others JUST AS THEY ARE, whether you like them, agree with their thinking or behavior, or are comfortable with their limitations.  It's putting into action the idea that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity, and that ultimately we are much more alike than different-- we all suffer, have hopes and fears and gifts and shortcomings.

For this practice, I suggest picking someone who occupies more or less neutral space in your landscape.  Ideally we can practice with everyone, including family and partners-- but there's usually less baggage starting with someone with whom you have little history.

To start, notice negative judgment.  "She's lazy."  "He's short."  "She's bossy."  "He's illiterate."  Now separate facts from beliefs.  To do that, you need to articulate both.  "She didn't work out today" is a fact, while "she is lazy" is a belief.  Now look for the judgments behind the belief.  Let's go with the last one.  "He misspelled several words in his email" is a fact.  "He's illiterate" is a judgment, unless you've tested him.  "Everyone who posts on the internet should always use proper spelling, and people who can't spell are idiots" is a belief/judgment as well.  For this practice, choose to suspend support of your judgment, or at least question them.  Is it possible someone who spells poorly could still have very important things to say?  Could still be wise in other areas besides spelling?  Is it even really your business whether someone else is a good speller?

When we spend less energy judging others, we have more time to really see them.  Today, extend the grace of acceptance in imperfection to others.Acknowledge that you have no control over another's behavior, feelings, or thoughts.  This doesn't mean you don't have an impact (and thus responsibility), but that is another post.

Today's reading:  believe it or not, this prayer was printed in Reader's Digest.  It's Buddhist in origin but universal in intent (There is one law, and that Law is Love).  It's meant to be done as follows:  first imagine someone for which you have neutral feelings, say a checker at your local grocery.  Say the prayer for them.  Then think of someone of whom you are very fond, and say it for them.  Now think of someone with whom you have difficulty and repeat.  Then repeat for yourself, then for all people.  I have found this a very helpful way to find peace and compassion with someone with whom I am having a troubled relationship, because if they are free from fear and suffering, they are less likely to be treating me poorly.
May (see above)  be peaceful.
May (see above) beings be happy.
May (see above) be safe.
May (see above) awaken to the light of their true nature.
May (see above) be free. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Resolution #11: Accept your emotions

 Yesterday we talked about practicing accepting little unpleasant realities (rain, lines, rude drivers) without resistance.  This one is a step up.  These are called practices because even with intention and repetition it is difficult to do consistently, let alone perfectly.  But it is easier with practice.

The key to emotional acceptance is the middle path-- neither indulging, reacting or grasping nor denying, stuffing, misinterpreting.  Emotions should serve as data, even as we remember that some data is noise, not signal.  In other words, moods can arise from physical events such as hunger, hormones and exhaustion.  They can come from psychological events such as bereavement and emotional stress.  Sometimes these are important, and we should pay good attention because they give us clues to take action.  Sometimes they are junk mail, and we should not get too excited about the message within. 

Here's a personal example.  About once a month, I get pretty negative and crabby.  I curse under my breath at drivers, I get offended by how people use their shopping carts to invade my personal space, I feel hopeless about the future of the economy and the world.  I get tearful if I see a cute puppy or a soldier or an elderly couple holding hands. For about 24-36 hours, I meet all the criteria for clinical depression, and probably a few for Intermittant Explosive Disorder. 

Believe it or not, it took me a few years to realize this is what happens to me every month.  It's called PMS.  And regardless of whether I do yoga, therapy, or nothing at all it disappears after a day.  Once I figured it out, I realized that interpretations I make during those days (life sucks, everything is stupid, I'm a failure) are completely suspect.  If I can remember what it is, I just don't get excited about the feelings-- I ride them out.

Moods are usually transient.  The really bad ones are deceptive in their intensity, as they somehow feel more real and more important than the good ones-- which are sadly also transient.  When they are persistent-- too high or too low too long-- they deserve investigation.  Otherwise, they deserve a cocked eyebrow, at most.

Today's practice:  Accept your emotions as they arise, and try not interpreting, judging or getting attached to them.  Mostly, try not to be really reactive to them.  Use this language:  I notice I am X.  I accept I feel X at this moment.

See what happens.

Related post:  You  Are Not Your Mood

Today's Video

Monday, January 10, 2011

Resolution #10: Accept reality as it is

This one is a tough one, so we'll be resolute practicing it for a few days. 

We are problem solving people, and perhaps this results from what writer Joe Quirk calls the bitch gene in his book, "It's Not You, It's Biology."  We go out, it's cold and dark, and we (or some ancestor, thank you) says hey, let's put some clothes on and make a fire.  Thanks to our tendency to notice what's lacking in reality, we figure out ways to make it more tolerable.

But some things we can't change.  And we spend lots of energy moaning about them.

Author Thom Rutledge says the mathematical formula for pain is the difference between expectation and performance (substitute outcome/reality).  I've also heard it said that pain is inevitable, but suffering results when we add resistance to reality. 

Today's assignment:  try to notice when you are resisting an unpleasant reality.  Make an easy one-- it's rainy and you wish it were sunny.  You didn't make the light when it was green.  Something little.  Practice on these smaller annoyances and simply accept the facts as they present themselves.  Here's the dorky formula-- dorky, but powerful.  "I wish (x) and I accept (y)."  "I wish it was sunny and I accept that it's raining." It's powerful because the energy we use to resist reality can be either put to rest or used to make modifications that make it easier to deal with.

Today's quote:  "It is what it is."
As in whatever, dude.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Resolution #9: Be Generous

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.--Winston Churchill

There are many ways to practice generosity.  It's a little late to reflect it on your 2010 taxes, but gifts of goods or money to your favorite charity are always welcome.  Don't worry about it being a small amount.  Think of it this way-- if every Oregonian gave a penny a day to say, scholarships to deserving impoverished commnunity college students, that would be $10,000,000 a year.  Every little bit counts.

You needn't give money to be generous.  Here's other ways to spread your wealth.
1.  Lend you ear to someone who needs to talk.
2.  Share specialized tools and equipment with friends, neighbors, schools.  My dad lived in a neighborhood that had a "tool library."  If you need an air compressor, serger, tile cutter or somesuch twice a year, it makes more sense to borrow one than buy one.  Just be sure you're willing to loan what you have as well.
3.  Share your talents and skills.  Volunteer to read or tutor at an elementary school; do maintenance at a local nonprofit, give a talk in your area of expertise to a community group.  Translate a language you know for someone who needs it. This one is wide open.  What can you do well? 
4.  Share your energy with someone whose is lagging.  Run an errand or cook a meal for someone sick or grieving.
5.  Share information.  OK, be careful with this one. I'm not talking about unsolicited advice.  But you may have an insider's scoop that can ease another's path or brighten their mood.  For example, when I got started in my practice, at least three therapists came forward to offer me forms to use  and client referrals.  I've done the same for another four or five.  I've had friends help me learn how to use my sewing machine, make a pie crust, etc-- all really appreciated.
I think I've only touched the surface with this one.  Look for the chance to be generous in some small or big way tomorrow.  As always, I am happy to hear what you did.

A few words about these resolutions:  these are all ways to improve your health and happiness in small ways.  I hope you will try checking each one off sometime during the month, though most are easy enough to do every day.  I will post a checklist on the blog shortly.  Print it out and see which ones you can hit at least once in the next few weeks.

I bet there are lots of videos about people's generosity and sharing on the web.  I found one about a dog first.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Resolution #8: Mind Your Manners

Today's homework is to practice your Ps and Qs, and bring back the civil part of civilization.   (Thanks, Hal!)

Use politeness words:  please, thank you, you are welcome, I'm sorry.
Let others go first, hold a door, look at people when you're speaking, smile. 
If you're visiting with someone else and not on call for emergencies, turn off your cell phone.
Try not to pay attention if other people are using their manners-- focus on being part of the solution.  But if you notice others being courteous, be appreciative.  If it's in a customer service role, tell their employer it made a difference.

Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.  If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use. --Emily Post
Today's video provides tips for you Facebook users:

Friday, January 7, 2011

Resolution #7: Shower the people you love with love

Annie at the river, shining her light.

I know I said last night (er, earlier this morning ) that I would talk about reality today, but with this little sleep, it has a pretty tenuous hold these parts.
Instead we have a fabulous back up resolution:
"Shower the people you love with love, and show them the way that you feel."  Don't wait.
 And I'll let the music below suffice for the blog.

Resolution #6: Know and Act on a Priorty

I had this grand vision, see, of getting it right this year-- 30 resolutions in 30 days, and they were going to be numbered, written and released on the calendar days corresponding.

"If you want to make the Gods laugh, make a plan", some smartypants pantheist said.

Thursday night I planned to go to the Arts Care exhibit opening at the Arts Center-- two of my dear friends, who are wonderful artists and stellar vessels of love and light, were showing some of the work they do as part of a community project bringing healing creativity to the ill.  I've been making art (or at least watching them make it) with these and 6 other women on the coast during twice yearly retreats for 18 years.  But a few days ago we found that one of our own was diagnosed with a Really Scary Illness, so the remainder of us gathered tonight to send our loving intentions to her from too far away as she faces surgery tomorrow.  We broke bread, lit candles, sang out to her, made an alter of her pictures (she has the most whimsical smile), and told stories as we held her in our circle.

I left at 8 explaining I had to go fulfill this commitment I'd made to blog a resolution a day throughout January. We'd done what we'd come to do; it was fine.

I got home and debriefed a rough, sad day with my sweetheart, who stroked my arm, listened and was the triple C we all love him for (cool, calm and collected).  When he asked me how I was doing, I said I was so sad my stomach hurt.  Huh, he said, mine's feeling a little funny too.  I said I was sorry if I had upset him and he said no, I think it was something I ate.  There was a quick little transition from normal sweetie to the kid in the exorcist-- like in seconds.  I will not fill in the blanks for you but it ended with him too weak to talk or walk, pale and clammy, 911, the whole circus show.

Meanwhile in the ER I get a message from my sister in KC, stupid-thirty in the morning her time, that our dad's on his way to the ER there.   Haven't heard a follow-up but they thought it would be a quick visit to deal with some equipment fail issues and then he's back to acute care rehab.

By the time we got home it was 2 am, sweetie was no longer a Horror Fountain or jellyfish and my midnight deadline had come and gone without the day's blog.  Amazing what a few pints of rehydration, 6 hot blankets, 2 SWEET nurses (yea Lindsey!  yea Laura!) and he is off to sleep the sleep of the just and the just real tired.

More on this theme in tomorrow's /today's blog, Dealing with Bloody Reality As it Is, Even When It Stinks.  Though if memory serves, it had a gentler title when I first thought of writing it.  And I will try to stay on track, God Willing and the Crik Don't Rise.  Meanwhile I am using my vast knowledge of criminal thinking errors (justification, uniqueness)  to say I am STILL ON TRACK: it's still Thursday to me since I've not been to bed.

Some ideas to consider if you take this resolution as homework:
What is calling for my attention?  Whose need is greatest?  What would future self want present self to do now?  Notice a priority in your life and give it its due today.  Maybe that's getting to the gym, maybe it's calling your mother to tell her you love her.  I trust you.  You'll figure it out.

We have competing agendas all the time.  For this resolution, look at your priorities and see what truly needs your attention and will best serve a pressing need.  Remember to count yourself in the equation need-wise.
As in , right now, I need to get some sleep.
ps-- this photo isn't mine because i did not make the summit that day-- Thanks to photog/mountain goat Tom Brennan for the shot.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Resolution #5: Do Something Different

Shake it up, baby.  
Tiny differences in your routine can lead to an increased level of "overall life satisfaction and contentment", aka happiness.  The Positive Psychology movement championed by researcher Martin Seligman, found that making a small change daily led to increases in perceived happiness. Taking a different route to work, dressing up if you usually dress casually or vice versa, or taking a walk rather than watching TV after dinner-- these sorts of variations mysteriously left partifipants feeling better.

Here's an inspiring article on the benefits of change.

Find out more about Positive Psychology here: Authentic Happiness site

Soundtrack for today's homework (of course):

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Resolution #4: Thank Somebody

Today's resolution is to express gratitude to someone deserving, for past or present assistance.
I am going to write a letter to the physician who looked into my father's eyes and stroked his forehead when he was in great pain (you are wonderful, Dr.Tewodros Addisse!).

  1. A postcard to that business or employee that remembered how much customer service mattered
  2. The teacher that inspired you then or now
  3. The neighbor who keeps a beautiful garden
  4. The friend who may think you take their kindnesses for granted
  5. An organization that provides a needed service
  6. A politician who stood up for the voiceless
  7. Someone at your place of worship, school, or other community center that goes above and beyond in volunteering time or skills
  8. An artist that took your breath away
OK, you know what to do.  I'd love to hear about it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Resolution #3: Befriend Your Body

  Hey, what's that thang carrying around your chattering monkey mind all day?  Given it any love lately?

Today's resolution is an easy one, because there are so many small ways to carry it out.  Here's a short list.  Links to more info are highlighted:

1) Well of course, give it a little exercise.  Take a walk, go to the gym, or just dance to some Motown in your kitchen. Check out Lisa Well's new digs at Live Well Studio Live Well Studio and do some restorative yoga or get your ya yas out with some wild Zumba dance.  Dr. Jim Phelps will give you the low down on how this will up your mental health:  read here.

2)  Eat something wonderful that's locally made and grown and doesn't have too many ingredients.  Think about how the sun became it and it is becoming you.  My, you look lovely in that kale.  Try First Alternative Coop for luscious local lectables; or one of the many restaurants that specialize in locavore dishes;
or make a virtual visit to Corvallis Local Foods.

3) Shine on, you crazy diamond.  Get some sun on that skin. Try for a least 20 minutes a day on arms, hands, face to generate that D.  Find out why here:  Linus Pauling's Vitamin D page.

4) Give some extra special love to a body part that's giving you trouble. In one of her memoirs, Writer Anne Lamott  talks about having to go on a cruise after not seeing her thighs in the light for oh, some decades perhaps.  She had worked herself into a tizzy about having the "aunties" as she called them come out into the daylight nekkid.  A friend came over and they spent some time loving on the aunties-- rubbing them with lotion, putting on sparkly stickers and reassuring them they were fine coming out to visit.  I don't know if this is the intervention you particularly need-- but how about a nice hot bath?  A professional massage?  A pedicure?  This is basically a thank you present to your body for doing all the labor.

  5)  Try some relaxation and breathing practices to help release the tension of modern life.  Here's three from Dr. Weil's page:  http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART00521/three-breathing-exercises.html

6) Wear something that makes you happy.  Flannel pajamas do it for me.  My sisters prefer fancy boots and saucy skirts; one says, "Sparkle is my favorite color."  I'm function, they're form.  Diversity is great. What decorations for your skin honor your "unique Eunice"? Which outfits up your confidence, silliness, sexiness, relaxation?  Drag it out and on and pay attention to how you feel in your ceremonial costume.  In a rut?  Mix it up.  If you're always flannels, try on some Goodwill silks and see how Body feels.

Here's a sappy song by Donovan that used to make me grab that old denim and smile and dance..

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Resolution #2: Connect with a friend

Read this article then make and fulfill an intention to spend a little time with someone you love.  Write a letter, make a call, take a walk together.  Let them know how they increase your life.

Want to go deeper?  Block out a couple of hours together and make a logbook of secret adventures to share in 2011.  Check them off when complete and hide the log in a time capsule to be dug up in your dotage.

Got no friends?  Reach out a bit to someone from the past, the neighborhood, your office, that guy reading over there, the woman who chats you up at the coffee.  Look at later resolution blogs for tips on improving your chances of connecting.