Journal to Remember

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journalingI’ve journaled for years and stopped journaling. I’ve handwritten my journal and typed it. I’ve done gratitude journals and “feelings” journals. Journals are good. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Journaling per se that is.

As we age, some of us have more difficulty find a “good reason” for getting up each day. We lose both focus and goals. We can feel “futureless” as if most of life has now passed, and we are merely awaiting the end.

That’s a seriously bad place to be. And much of what I write about here is designed to give people reasons for living fully every day. So I want to talk about journalling, in that sense–how it fosters planning futures, and feeling that one’s life has meaning.

As we approach the end of yet another year, we are bombarded with “year-end” reflections: the best music, the best movies, who died, significant events of the year. And we tend to then look at our lives and seek to realize what we have encountered during the year–our successes, failures, attainments and so forth.

You know what? That can be quite difficult to do. Memories grow dim a lot faster as we age, the mundane is swamped by the truly important. But often something of great significance overshadows things that when collected are fairly significant themselves.

And think as we may, we often can’t think of all those little things that can add up to a meaningful year of accomplishments. Just as important, a good recollection of the past year can show patterns and raise ideas of what direction we might move in the new year.

I’m not one to do “New Year’s resolutions” since I find that we are way more energetic in the listing than we will ever be in the doing. We end up disappointed in our lack of will power and dedication. But I do have one this year.

Only one.

To journal.

Not even every day. But often enough during the week that I can put down things I do, think about, plan, or otherwise dream about at any given moment. But not for the usual reasons–to get a better hold of who I am and what I desire. But rather to catalog my year.

You see, I think that the week between Christmas and New Year’s is a perfect time to go through a journal and taken note of what you have accomplished. What you finished, started, or partially worked on.

We might find for instance, that we haven’t read as much as we would like to. We might find that we did a lot more crafts over the year than we had thought. If you have been thinking, as I have, of opening an Etsy store but lamenting that I have nothing to put in it (crafting so slowly as I often do), you might be pleasantly surprised at how many things you have made over the course of the year.

You might find that while you didn’t succeed in weight loss, you published over a hundred recipes, and that you are eating much healthier as a result. You might get inspired to do something with those recipes–gather them into a printed cookbook for gifts for instance, or to sell on your new Etsy site!

You might find that you were a lot more charitable than you thought, giving of time and money to a lot of worthy causes over the year.

You might find that you’ve really stuck to an exercise regime, better than you actually thought.

The easiest way to journal for this purpose is to set up a private blog which you can go to in seconds and jot down quickly whatever comes to mind that you think might be worth noting. You don’t have to worry about sentence structure and punctuation since it’s private.

I would suggest that you periodically print off the pages and put them in a notebook just for ease of reading at the appropriate time. It’s so much nicer to sit in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee or tea and just peruse your writing. Do that in bits or in large swaths of reading. Make note of what you wish to account for, even in the border if you wish.

Don’t think of this as work, or as something that has to be done in some “correct” fashion. Think of it as a workbook that will enable you periodically to assess what you have done, and what you want to do differently in the future.

Read it once a year, or seasonally, or whatever works for you.

It’s terribly important to believe that you are doing something valuable with your life, no matter how it is structured. It’s important to feel accomplished and capable. You will be utterly amazed at just how capable and productive you have been if you have a record to look back upon.

This is not to become some neurotic new set of rules. It’s not to “increase” output next year, or do a “better job”. It’s simply to enable you to reflect on just how much you do do every year, or every month. It’s meant to make you feel good about yourself, and that leads to. . . .

Feelings of self-worth, happiness, joy, peacefulness, awareness, gratitude, commonality with others, humility, patience, and a whole slue of other traits and feelings that are worthwhile.

So give it a try. Make it as easy as you can. But do it.

The Happiness Gambit

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stressfreeThe average person, I’m told, doesn’t think actively about whether they are happy or not. I think that’s partially true at least.

Those who have lived fairly even lives, where things have gone along pretty much as planned and expected probably don’t think about how they feel about their life. They are too busy living it. And I’m convinced that ranges from the garbage collector to the college professor. For it has little to do with class or profession.

It has to do with relative acceptance that “this is life”. There are not a lot of extraordinary highs, but no devastating lows either. If you drew it across a graph, the mean would be close to a straight line.

On the other hand, people who have experienced too many lows, and have an active understanding of being “unhappy”, well they rather know what happiness is I suspect. At least I find that I do. I know what it’s like to be unhappy so I can state with some precision what makes me happy.

Unfortunately, other than generalized categories, it’s not easy to translate to another person. I’ve set out some guidelines that I found helpful–basically to bring an equilibrium to life, wherein mind, body and spirit are actively nourished. When I’m unable to “feed” some part of myself, I begin to experience unsteadiness in my reaction to the world.

But I don’t claim this works for everyone. Certainly some people are consumed with a passion for something and they can neglect other things as long as they continue to feed the passion. There are people who energize and feel complete only when working at their profession, others at their hobby. They neglect regularly other aspects of themselves with no seeming ill effects.

I suspect they are not the norm however. Most of us need some equalizing between our different selves.

But I was reminded after something I read a couple of weeks ago, that there is a common thread that meanders through all these things. It’s the absence of something that is the true key to a “happy” life.

It is hard to define happiness as we have realized. It’s harder yet to quantify it or even to tell when it is operating in another. It relies on self-reporting and thus on the idiosyncratic beliefs of the beholder. It may be to some no more than a general feeling of well-being while to others it may be regular doses of exhilaration during an experience.

So what is absent in the happy person?

In a word, STRESS.

It is hard to be happy when one is fretting and worrying about anything. While it is generally true that money can’t buy happiness, insufficient funds to live decently causes stress. One can hardly feel happy when worrying about whether there will be enough to both feed and pay the normal bills.

Similarly, chronic pain or worry about a catastrophic health condition are not conducive to a joyous life.

The same goes for relationships that have gone stale or have died. When people spend more and more time apart by choice, the impending retirement looks like a death sentence instead of the opportunity to engage in things that work never left time for. It is no secret why there are many divorces as retirement nears and people contemplate spending more time with a person that they have spent 15-20 years devising ways to avoid.

So, in structuring one’s life, keeping stress at bay is surely a real choice we can make to avoid unhappiness. And that leads us to what so many of us fail to do regularly–turn inward and examine in brutal thoroughness our “life”.

We must do this for a very real and serious reason. Left unchecked, stresses build over time, often encompassing more than aspect of our personhood. When we reach a certain point in all this, we “run out of options”, “feel trapped”, “see no end in sight” and feel that “this is our ultimate fate”. At that point, there MAY be no real solution. The problems may become so entangled that it’s impossible to solve.

Too, too many people find themselves here, living hopeless lives, beaten and defeated, merely going through the motions and looking for whatever solace can be temporarily gained through alcohol, drugs, sex, or other palliatives.

It would be a shame to suggest that there are no answers, and indeed there are, but it requires, as I said, a firm commitment to be ever vigilant of one’s emotional being and to catch the frustrations, angers, impatience, melancholy, blues, and so forth early enough to do something about them.

Some examples are:

  1. Health issues can be avoided to some degree by eating good healthy foods regularly and exercising. Preventive care established as early as you can will help you avoid more damaging health issues later. It’s not a guarantee, but its sure good insurance.
  2. Pick your profession carefully, and experience as many interests as you can manage before settling. Problems in the work place should be worked on before they become critical and before you are locked into a job you can no longer afford to quit. Plan for the future, with further education and networking to leave situations that are dead ends, unhealthy emotionally, or where you aren’t being fulfilled. It’s one thing to stay another five years, it’s quite another to stay for 25.
  3. Constantly examine your personal relationships especially those that are significant (where you are living together). Look for weaknesses, discuss small problems before they become large ones, seek ways to enjoy a new hobby or interest. Seek professional help if necessary. If it’s dead, get out early, or at least give yourself  time to plan how to go it alone.
  4. If little things set you off, recognize that this is not normal. Everyone faces problems from flat tires to deflated souffles, to not getting into the preferred college. If you are not taking these things in stride, and learning lessons from mistakes, then seek professional help. You will only get angrier, meaner, and more unhappy as you age.
  5. Develop methods of de-stressing over minor but normal stress. Learn coping mechanisms for the small things, and big things will be seem more manageable. There are numerous methods of meditation, places to  relax, teas, inspirational music and reading material. Breathe.
  6. If you are faced with a big problem, list all the steps that you need to take. Then forget about all but the first. Concentrate on that alone, and work toward it. It’s the magnitude that causes the stress. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. It’s true. Focus only on what you need to do today, this hour, this minute. Coming through a difficult situation with grace is a huge boost for your emotional well-being.
  7. Don’t ask yourself a lot whether you are happy. Happy people don’t. They just live. If life just sort of flows along evenly, then you are there.
  8. Remember you can always make it better, even if it’s only the way you look at it.

Avoiding the Blame Game

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Mother_and_Daughter_ArguingWe are each and everyone one of us the product of our genes and our life experiences. No doubt one of the most influential relationships we have is with our parents. They form us in ways that we hardly know and drive a good many of us to swear that “I’ll never treat my children like that!”

Recognizing your mother or father in your own behavior is enough to send a fair number of us to the bottle, the shrink or to a monastery.

My parents were both wounded people who unfortunately met each other. My father was the product of a hard father and a mother who hated the father and later men in general. He was pliable enough to do as she bid to get along.

My mother was the product of a nice enough father but a mother who would today be diagnosed as a bipolar. Unmedicated, she ended up in an asylum and my mother was often in foster care since her dad was a railroad man and away from home for days at a time.

Both, for various reasons became “conditional lovers”. By that I mean that they apparently concluded that love was about being good, and rejection and disgust was expected when one was not. This they both expressed to me, not just as a child but well into adulthood.

I do not fault them for this, but I recognize the pain it caused me as a child and as an adult. I struggled with self-esteem issues for decades.

To explain is not to solve. To say that I grew up in a dysfunctional home is to say nothing very new, since most people do to one degree or other. There are few of us who have the benefit of the perfection of parenting expressed in the “family sitcoms” of the 60′s and 70′s. They presented us with all that we were not, and we searched for that family, some of us for all our lives.

To admit that you were one of the wounded is not an excuse, but a starting place. I know plenty of people who use their childhoods as an excuse, or worse yet, because they find that accusation too frightening, have transferred their anger onto some other group or person as being the one at fault for all their troubles.

We are all good at doing that of course. It’s hard to look at oneself and take responsibility for the state of one’s unhappiness. You cannot forever blame others. At some point you have to take responsibility for your own future and happiness.

You have to be willing to fix what is wrong. This is what introspection is all about. It’s what growth is all about. It’s about what maturing is all about.

If your history is filled with failed marriages and/or failed relationships, then you have to begin asking yourself–what am I doing to sabotage my life? Almost always the answer is fear–fear that the real you isn’t loveable and that may be because significant people in your past have made it clear that to them you weren’t.

This doesn’t mean of course that you are fatally flawed. In fact it’s not about self-blame at all. It’s about digging into the fear, finding out why you feel that every relationship is a test of “do you really really love me?”

The signs are obvious. Are you the perfect partner for the first few months–always doing whatever you perceive the other person likes or wants? This can’t go on forever, and it’s not fair to blame the other person when you start asserting your own likes and dislikes. To them it appears that you’ve suddenly changed, and indeed you have. Don’t blame them for walking away scratching their head. You were the dishonest one, too afraid to be who you really are, because somewhere along the line you learned that the real you might not be loveable.

You are loveable, however you may have some really bad traits as a result of being conditionally loved way back when. You may “test” people, be more accusatory over minor things, be suspicious, jealous without reason. You may be more “needy”, more demanding of affection, reassurance. If these sound familiar–then you need to fix you before you can expect someone else to join your life.

The way to do this are myriad of course. Professional help may be the way to start–it can give you some good insights about how deep the problems are, how complex. Unweaving the person our parents tried to make us into from who we really are can be tough. Or it may be glaringly obvious after just a few sessions.

Books help, but always remember that every “self-help” writer writes from their own experiences and though you may share some examples, you won’t fit all, and you also will have been more traumatized by some than the other person and less so regarding others. So these are just jumping off points to decide what you will benefit from most.

Getting older helps in that one becomes increasingly tired of “being what others expect”. Becoming more authentic comes naturally as you age–you don’t have the time to waste any more.

Model people who you know who seem well-centered, happy, and at ease in their own skin. These are wonderful people to talk with if they are willing. They will probably tell you that they have problems like everyone else, but you will find it helpful to recognize how they don’t let small things overwhelm them. Their sense of calm self-assurance can be a positive expression of what you can achieve with work.

Make sure that you develop ways of being successful. Be a great quilter, or golfer, or a great friend, by learning to be a good listener. Volunteer and realize how good you feel as a person. Learn something new and enjoy your success at developing a new skill. Be a good citizen–learn the issues, participate, vote. Take a class.

If life in your sixties is nothing more  than waiting for  the kid to call or the grandkid to be dropped off, then life has sadly passed you by. Happy people are having relationships with friends and significant others. They are traveling, engaging in hobbies, volunteering. They are busy, busier than they were in their working lives. They are hard to catch up with. I find that entirely too many people on Facebook spend all their time talking about the “good old days” and their children and grandkids and their hope to see more of them.

They have their own lives, and you need one too. It’s time to stop blaming others for your life, and take charge of it. It’s never too late to be YOU, for you are so very worth it.

 

 

I Would Have Told You. . . .

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rage-gentleness-pain-calmA Facebook “friend” (meaning one of those people you really don’t know, but you somehow knew someone who knew someone and somehow you and he/she befriended each other) just defriended me in a rage of anger.

As I said, I really didn’t know her, and never saw anybody comment on her postings that I knew, so how we became “friends” I’ll never know.

In the last few months she has posted furiously, detailing (and I do mean detailing) her recent surgery, her legal woes, her financial woes, her family woes, her relationship woes, and so on. I’ve tried to be sympathetic, and when her woes entered the legal realm, I offered advice. Peace ensued for never more than a day before the woes would erupt again with the latest installment of who victimized her this time.

A big hint that you are dealing with such a person, beyond the obvious downer of all the misery, is that people are defined in only one of two ways: how they victimize me, or how they support me. Notice the emphasis on the word “me”. People are not good or bad in and of themselves, or as having good attributes along with the usual not so good. They are either actively my enemy or actively helping me through my latest trauma of the day. One can switch from one category to the other in a split second.

I figured it was time to practice a bit of tougher love when her rage erupted over some company or other who had “promised” her a gift certificate to Amazon for $20 in return for her testimonial or good review or some such drivel. After two weeks, and the card having not yet arrived, she was in a frenzy of emailing and telephoning, all to be told it would arrive momentarily. When it did not, she was threatening to report them to the Better Business Bureau.

I chose neither to ignore this rant nor to offer advice or commiseration, but rather to try to lighten the mood and cause her to perhaps see that she was overreacting. I said she was “funny” and when pressed as to what I meant, I suggested that I admired her energy at getting so upset about a thing that happens to all of us. I admitted to having no such stamina, and would have merely filed the information about the company in my head in making a future determination as to whether I wanted to do business with them again.

She erupted in rage at my answer, ending up telling me that I was one more person telling her that she was a worthless piece of crap and she should just go kill herself. That was followed by the pressing of the infamous “defriend” button.

Perhaps I handled it wrong. I’m fairly convinced I did. I hoped to get her laughing and then receptive to some better solutions to her obvious problems. She claims to suffer from “anxiety” and truthfully I have had some experience with that at one point in my life. A few weeks of therapy, a bit of anti-depressant (awful stuff, stay away if you can but a godsend if necessary), and I was well able to cope with any further incidents.

I would have told her that mild depression can be really successfully dealt with. She already sees a therapist and takes drugs for her condition, but there are really really easy ways to cope by simply following a few rules of the road.

  1. At the outset of feeling out of control (i.e., rage, feeling frenetic, don’t know which way to turn), find a place to sit down, hopefully in a quiet place.
  2. Close your eyes, and begin to breath deeply. With each intake of breath, count until your lungs are filled, then release slowly counting as you breath out. Make sure that the out breath takes longer than the intake by two counts at least, and more if it is comfortable. Do this until your heart slows and you feel calmer.
  3. Then set a timer for 20 minutes and do one of the following: (1) follow your breath in and out. Should thoughts intrude, gently return to the breath. (2) visualize the place you most love such as a beach, a mountain view, wherever you would love to be. Try to imagine the feel of the sun, the breeze, the smell of mountain flowers, the touch of silky beach sand. Relax in your haven (3) Practice loving kindness. Start with loving yourself as a gift, then expand to people, friends, a city, country, a planet, the universe. Offer simple love to animals and plants (4) Pray for friends and those you love that their day is peaceful and pain free. (5) focus on a mantra and repeat it slowly again and again. Whatever you do, don’t allow thoughts to intrude. Once you recognize them as such, return to your choice of meditation technique.
  4. Engage in a gratitude journal. Write down five things each day that you are grateful for. During the day, when you start feeling bad, sit down and review these items.
  5. Engage in some form of activity. Take a walk, swim, bike or anything that requires movement. Your chemical makeup will change and it will help you feel better.
  6. Only when you are quiet and peaceful should you look at the problem at hand. What can you do? What should you do? Are you over-reacting? Is what happened to you unique or part of simply being alive in a complex world? Do you bear some responsibility for your own problem? If so, what can you do differently to avoid sabotaging yourself? Be honest and be frank with yourself, but recognize that all people are flawed and make mistakes. You’re allowed to do so too. That doesn’t make you a bad person. But you can change those things you dislike with patient, caring effort.
  7. Don’t blame your past–your ex, your parents, yourself. These are given. While they may have created difficulties in your life by past behavior, today is a new day to heal and move on. Forgiveness is for yourself, not because somebody deserves it. Forgiveness allows you to stop suffering.

Hopefully after engaging in some sort of process like this, you will gain the insights necessary to deal more successfully with things that go wrong.

Most of all, be careful with who you share the deepest parts of yourself. If you have a therapist then save it for her or him. Friends and relatives especially have their own motives in giving advice even if they think they are being objective.

If you can’t pull yourself out of your doldrums after a few days, and this happens often to you, then by all means seek professional help. Nobody needs to suffer as just “life”. Most people can learn to cope and be happy most of the time. If you can’t the problem is too large for you to tackle. That doesn’t mean you are broken, it just means the problems are deeper than simple introspection can solve. Don’t blame, but do fix.

And most of all, never stop taking medication prescribed to you by a professional on the advice of a friend or relative. Any advice you receive should always be okayed by your therapist if you have one, especially if it against the professional advice you have already received.

 

Lessons in Aging

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embracingAt some point in time we each must face our aging selves. Oh I suppose there are some who manage to somehow ignore it, and there are those who work feverishly to avoid it, but most of us are rational beings and we must confront that we are time is now becoming limited. Our lives are measured in a couple of decades and perhaps some change.

One can cower in fear of course, and do what the Hollywood types do–everything under heaven and earth to mask one’s true age. That works I suppose at least for a while, obscuring our outsides to not reflect our insides. But it changes nothing. It works no better than refusing to divulge one’s age.

One can respond in the Scarlet O’Hara fashion: “I can’t think about that right now. If I do I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Except tomorrow never comes.

Or we come to terms with the truth. Time is running out.

That’s a very special lesson, and one that is essential to the good life I believe, since it should move us to a calm serene place wherein we resolve to make the best of every moment from there on. And that is a lesson that would serve us well if we had learned it decades earlier.

Life fully and live in the moment.

But there is another lesson I just learned.

A few days ago I had some oral surgery to remove some teeth and replace them with implants. I approached this with trepidation to be sure, all of which was silly since the procedure was only mildly uncomfortable and when the numbness wore off, I ended up with no pain and could have saved myself the cost of the pain meds I had gotten at the pharmacy.

But another thing happened.

I was also prescribed an antibiotic and a steroid that reduces inflammation. I took those of course as directed. And an amazing thing occurred.

Let me explain.

I have the usual aging form of arthritis. I call it that, since my joints don’t either swell or ache. It is not all over by any means, being located mostly in one hip and my lower back. Even with all the exercise that I am fairly religious about, getting up and walking the first twenty steps or so is painful as the stiffness makes me look like a little-old lady, something I am not quite entitled to age.

Anyway, a medicate with Aleve which dulls the stiffness a bit, but not nearly enough. I had reconciled myself to the condition–this is just what one deals with as one ages, I thought.

But the steroid I was taking, immediately ended all my stiffness. A day later, the surgeon called to check up on my progress and I asked him was it the steroid. He confirmed this, telling me that the steroid prescribed was an anti-inflammatory. Unfortunately he said that it had a nasty side effect of decreasing in effectiveness over time, making it necessary to take more and more to achieve the same result.

In other words, it becomes addictive. So enjoy the comfort while it lasts, and then go to Advil as the best over-the-counter remedy.

I am sad that I can’t maintain this level of suppleness for long, yet I have learned a couple of lessons.

One is that the last couple of days, I have woken up happy and exuberant. I was sleeping better. I was more comfortable in bed. The second was that because arthritis comes upon us slowly over years, we lose our good feeling so slowly, that we fail to realize just how hurting our body has become.

That is a very good thing. We don’t notice our aches and pains nearly as much when they creep up on us slowly over a few years. It also reminded me, that I was living very well before I felt so much better, so I know I’m resilient and positive about the future most of the time.

It also pointed me in the direction of finding the best answer to manage my stiffness. While it may be Advil (an ibuprofen medication), it might turn out to be something else. I have shared my situation with my Facebook friends and elicited their help for what works for them. You would be surprised what you learn. One friend for instance had parents, both writers who wrote of  pharmaceutical matters. Another knew of a possible over-the-counter drug from Canada. One must of course be careful about things such as this and make sure one seeks advice from a physician before entering upon a treatment involving unknown substances.

Aging presents new challenges, but ones that keep us actively seeking to learn new things and hopefully allow us to continue the journey with vigor and joy.

Be well.

 

The Invitation

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wildwoman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Invitation

It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon…
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.

It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
“Yes.”

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.

By Oriah © Mountain Dreaming
from the book The Invitation

This is who I am becoming, bit by bit. This is living human.

Mornings With God

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selftalkEveryone I suspect knows someone who is clueless. I mean in the sense that they continually blame everyone else for their troubles. It’s never their fault. It’s never their tone of voice, choice of words, time of confrontation, lack of preparation, and so on that is the cause. Somebody else “pushed their buttons”, disrespected them, forgot how many times “I saved them from disaster”.

They never see themselves as causative of their own pain and misery. The classic example is the wife beater who after the rage has been spent and the hitting has ceased, comforts his beaten wife with the words, “if only you didn’t set me off with your __________.”

What is at work here is classic narcissism or an inability or failure to look within.

I am not saying that one is always at fault for what befalls them. Far from it. But I am saying that we are at fault for repeated scenarios with the same result–we are responsible for failing to figure it out and change the dynamic.

What is lacking is of course what we call introspection–the examination of one’s own mental and emotional processes.

As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” While that may be a bit extreme, it isn’t by far. The unexamined life leads to a life of heartache, a constant wailing of “why me”, and “why is everyone against me, when I’m such a good person and work so hard to help others?” The answer, brutal as it may be is, everyone is not against you, you aren’t such a good person, and you don’t really help others much at all.

Look introspection shouldn’t be hard. We are having a running dialogue in our heads from the moment we awaken until our subconscious takes over during our sleep. Most of it is wasted on trivial nonsense unfortunately. We rail about what has happened and what we fear may. We seldom deal in the here and now.

Yet, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes (i.e., marry the “same” lousy man again and again) until we delve deep enough into our motives to see what is pressing us to pursue that which will inevitably disappoint us.

Why did we do this? Why did we choose that?

Those are the questions that we have to answer when we are feeling up against it. And superficial answers won’t help. A simple example:

I wake up in a bad mood every day. Answer: I don’t enjoy my first task which is walking for an hour. Fine, but tons of people don’t wake up happy and they all have reasons too. Better answer: I have a pessimistic outlook generally and want to avoid all “chores” because the day will probably turn out lousy for some other reason and then I have had a completely crummy day.

Now that answer may be crazy, but it starts to get at the heart of the problem–you and your pessimism about life in general. From there you can dig with some hope of really finding a nugget of wisdom in that hole. What makes you pessimistic? Who in your life was like that? What was your relationship? Who in your life was always happy? How did you relate to them?

You see? A whole series of questions are generated by an honest deeply thought of response. The answers to those problems will lead to more doors and more avenues to check out. You’re answer many not come in one hour or in one week, but if you challenge yourself to discover the shadow hiding within, answers will come.

They say that we are two people, maybe more. We are the person we portray to the public and the person we really are, hidden away, even from ourselves. Life is a process of uncovering the shadow person within and slowly but surely melding the two until we are whole.

Introspection is an essential part of that process. It’s how we grow to be comfortable in our own skin. It’s how we actually make choices about changing behaviors that will lead to improvements in our mental and emotional health. It’s how we become better persons. It’s how we become human.

This is not easy work, and it can be really hard to begin. Here is my way of cutting through the crap.

I believe in God, so I choose God as my companion. I just start explaining to God what is wrong. God asks very pointed questions. She is gentle, but allows for no nonsense. I can’t get away with the easy answer. I cannot lie, since God knows a lie, so I’m forced to abandon my defenses and let all my ugly little secrets come forth.

God is awfully good at treating me tenderly in these sessions. The reason for that is that I know that God’s love is unconditional. God knows me already, better than I know me, and loves me still. So I can be honest to a fault.

Okay, so you don’t believe in a Creator God who is involved in His creation. What do you do?

Imagine any person who you have this type of closeness too, the one person who loves you no matter what, who probably already knows of your failings and shortcomings. Imagine the person you most respect for their well-lived life (from your prospective). Imagine the person who is always happy to sit and talk, offer a piece of advice, not judge.

It might be a parent, a spouse, a sibling. It might be a friend. It might be a character in a book that you attribute all those qualities to. I recall that the psychiatrist on M.A.S.H. used to write letters to Sigmund Freud to work out his emotional response to the work he did. You might choose any person you think of as fair, smart, insightful, etc.

Take a walk, close a door, relax, and start talking.

If you are like me, you will find that this becomes a favorite time to explore within. And you will, I promise, take a deep cleansing breath at the end, feel ever so much better, and at the same time enjoy knowing that you have moved forward toward being happier and healthier.

Here is a chart with some discussion tips:

empowerment-wordsWe are always given the opportunity to be better today than we were yesterday. Deep within lies a very special person–you. Find it and rejoice!

Good-self-talk

Intuiting the Good Life

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einsteinThere are really two ways to look at intuition. Some see it as a spiritual gift, the small still voice of God, helping us to make the correct decision.

Others see it from a scientific position, seeing it as perhaps part of the subconscious mind, that tries, when given the chance, to help us make the correct decision.

Regardless of which side you take, the point is “making the correct decision.” My point, is that don’t dismiss what I have to say because you don’t believe in God, if that be the case. Listen anyway, because the same applies in the secular sphere, it just is reasoned to in a different way.

One of the truly interesting propositions in Eastern spirituality is the concept of reincarnation. It is premised on the idea that until we have achieved true enlightenment, we return again and again in new lives, placing us in circumstances which give us the opportunity to learn the lessons necessary to reach a perfect state of enlightenment.

Some people take a lot more lifetimes to achieve success, and all do eventually, but it only goes to show, that we have a lot of choice in how we will respond to the stimuli placed before us. If I am in need of serious growth in humility, placing me in a life that will naturally give me that opportunity, is no assurance that I will take advantage of the life given and actually grow. I can choose to, unknowingly for the most part, be stubborn and refuse to learn.

If we assume that we should want to process through this rebirth thing as few times as possible because enlightenment is desirable, then it makes sense to try to learn as much as we can about being “human” as we can during our stay in this lifetime.

Thus, much as this might dismay the average teenager, life is nothing more than a classroom that runs 24/7 from birth to death. We can learn what we wish, and we can ignore and avoid as much as we wish.

Avoidance can of course take many forms. Drugs or other mind-altering substances, multitasking, being an A-type personality, being driven, being overwhelmed with responsibilities, all and more can limit our ability to learn. Sometimes of course, we actually want to tune out. We engage in plenty of fairly useless “entertainment” to avoid our minds and our own human condition.

Some Eastern systems, like Zen Buddhism teach mindfulness. Mindfulness is a direct assault against the idea that you can have it all. Having it all necessitates multi-tasking and that means split attention. Split attention means really no attention at all, and plenty of studies have now proven that multi-taskers are not nearly as efficient as they think, and most of what they do is substandard.

Mindfulness, on the other hand teaches total attention to the task at hand. If you wash dishes, then experience dish washing, don’t look out the window and muse about where to eat out tomorrow night. Move to the task, engage it fully, and move on to the next task. You will find you do it better and faster.

Why does this matter?

If your life is a classroom that is always going, then there is something to learn at every moment. In fact, there are many somethings to learn at every moment. Most of it goes unnoticed by our conscious minds because we are busy listening to the radio and singing along, making a list of things to do in our head, rehashing the argument we had last week with Mother, and well, you get the idea. If you have ever been driving and suddenly realized you had no conscious recollection of traveling several miles, then you know exactly what I mean. Plenty went on during that drive, but we can’t recall a single thing.

Yet, our subconscious does “see, hear, feel, smell, taste it all. But it’s fighting a losing battle (or nearly so) when we are not attentive at all. People with weight issues will admit that much of the eating they do is mindless–sitting in front of the TV barely aware of what they are consuming, let alone enjoying it.

Still, our subconscious attempts to convey to us the results of its attention. It’s called the nagging feeling that we’ve done this before, shouldn’t walk that way, saw that person somewhere before, and so on. Some of us are fairly good at paying attention and some of us demand actual facts, find none, shrug our shoulders and ignore it.

This intuition, this thing we don’t quite trust, but wish we could, works so much better when we pay attention to the world around us. When we can point to a clue or two of actual recollection, we feel much more confident in responding to its summons to follow.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a technical synaptic event that triggers our “gut” or whether it is God whispering that is making that sense of “gut” go off. The point is, learning is at hand and we would do better should we listen.

It’s really quite simple. We make better decisions with more information rather than less. If you want to make the best decisions, that start paying attention, being more mindful as you proceed through the day, and your decisions will improve and your life will become happier? Yes, happier in the sense that you will waste less time, go down fewer dead ends, have more free time to spend creatively as you wish, hurt yourself and others less often, complete tasks faster and more completely.

That’s happy in my book.

intuition

Being Grateful Begets Great Things

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Feeling GoodIt seems almost trite, this idea that we should “practice gratitude”. Get yourself a journal and every day list ten things you are grateful for. After a few days, the lists start to look a lot alike. It becomes just another thing to do.

And yet, there is something very real about the practice if done right, something life affirming, magical almost. And it has nothing or everything to do with God. Truly, it works pretty much the same no matter your choice in the matter of faith.

Gratitude is stopping in the midst of unhappiness, tragedy, or just a lousy day, and reminding ourselves “things could be worse.” Now, of course sometimes, things couldn’t be much worse, but we are talking about norms, not catastrophes.

Gratitude is surprising in that it reminds us of things we do forget. Only a year ago, where were we? Aren’t we vastly happier to be here than there? Aren’t we thrilled to have navigated those waters and come through mostly unscathed? Did we learn valuable lessons that we can call upon again and again to ease the way?

I’m not one who believes that God is busy making it rain on my newly washed car because he has a “bigger plan”. I don’t see God that way, but I do see God as helping me to grow and I can’t grow much if I don’t appreciate what from whence I have come. Life is learning, and I can’t progress to the next step in my human experience without taking note of what I have learned from the experiences presented to me. So, I will be mired in the same problems until I stop, process, and find gratitude for the situations that have given me new tools with which to work.

Some believe in karma, or some version of it at least. They believe that you attract people and events that mirror your own feelings and emotions. Mean people attract other mean people into their lives who act meanly, reinforcing their mean response. Stop seeing everyone as mean and out to get you, and those people and things will stop peppering your world. So the theory goes.

Others believe in a more “scientific” idea that our auras or the “vibrations” we emit are in tune with similar auras or vibrations. Change your thinking, change these, and change your life experiences.

As I said, religious beliefs are not required. Most of us intuitively believe that if you are kind, kindness is returned. You smile at people, they smile back. That’s the simple version. If you want good service at the grocery story, a smile and a friendly, non aggressive attitude works better than the opposite.

Gratitude is a bit more. It’s a quieting of oneself and an assessment of one’s place in the world relative to possibilities, and often relative to other people. I am surely better off living in America than I am (all things being equal) in Calcutta. I am surely better off with my joint stiffness at 63 than I am being a paraplegic at any age.

That sounds awfully selfish of course, and I don’t recommend dwelling upon such superficialities as that, since paraplegics would tell you I’m sure that they have gratitude too, and it’s just as valid as mine.

To be of real value, gratitude must be explored in depth. When we do this, we start to uncover value as opposed to simplistic responses such as “I’m grateful it didn’t rain at the picnic yesterday.” Yes aren’t we all, yet farmers might desperately need rain, and their need to raise a crop is to them vastly more important than my little picnic could be.

We need to dig deep to find what is really valuable. A person in prison can have the deepest gratitude for her mind that no walls can contain. One can have great gratitude for the ability to think, puzzling, combining thoughts, turning pieces to search for the right fit, abandoning ideas in turn for new ones. Those who suffer from Alzheimer’s lose this simple ability that we take for granted.

We dig deep to realize that we have the ability in terms of money and time, to help others in our community. We can make a difference in somebody’s life. We can be grateful that through grace we have learned the value of helping others, and how much it adds to our own joy and fulfillment.

We can dig deeply to see the magnificence of the universe and our evolution to a place and time to realize the true depth and breadth of its existence. How marvelous it is that all this has evolved, and over such a range of time. How wonderful it has been created, so perfectly timed over the eons.

This is the type of gratitude I speak of. That we can taste the sweetness of a berry, and grasp the magnificence of Mozart. That we can read Hamlet a hundred times and still remain spell bound by language written as sweet honey dripping into a golden pool.

To be wildly human, to notice the sensation of touch upon a puppy, to see the eagle soar, the mist roll down the mountain. These are moments of grace, and moments of deep gratitude that go unmissed all too often.

And in the missing, we are less than we can be. Less than we want to be. For being more, feeling more, striving harder, brings us joy, unbounded. We reach out and touch the face of the transcendent moment, caught in a moment of reverence so holy that tears spring unbidden to our eyes.

We become suddenly aware of possibilities unthought of. We love the world and all things are made new.

So get the journal and start. And don’t get hung up on making lists. Just start with one, and then dive deeply into the center of your being, and let that gratitude expand until you see each and every thing as a gift to you.

And all the things that they say about gratitude? Well they will all be true, but that will be hardly the point. It is what you will feel that matters.

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Filthy Lucre

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MoneyTreeI don’t know anyone who doesn’t muse a while after the announcement of yet another mega power ball winner. How nice would that be?

Yet, we learn that when those folks are followed over time, the smaller time winners return to their previous lives all too soon, and the others find themselves bereft of friends and family.

It’s that old adage: money can’t buy happiness. And whoever said it, knew what they were talking about surely. It’s one of those old sayings that turns out to be mostly true.

Mostly.

A new book out called Happy Money has some important points to make on the subject. I haven’t read it, but I did see the authors interviewed and picked up a few points that bear thinking about.

For those of you who are still in the working world, money matters. It matters a great deal how much you are saving toward retirement, especially if you expect and want retirement to be a complete break with your past life. Which probably relates to whether or not you chose a profession that you love versus one that pays the bills.

I chose the latter, and must confess that I didn’t prepare very well for retirement. But I got lucky. I married a man who was land rich. So our retirement took care of itself. So either prepare or be lucky, your choice.

It seems that more money is not necessarily better however. Studies apparently show that the break-off point occurs around $75,000. That’s not at all bad of course, and certainly no where near the median income for most retirees I suspect. But the interesting point is that while happiness does increase to that point, it stops growing at that point as well.

What then becomes most important to happiness?

The book suggests a number of things but a couple really seemed important to me.

One is to buy experiences not things.

I take this to mean that memories are more important than a Porsche in the garage. Of course if you love cars, love to drive, live in the climate for carefree scenic driving, hey go for it. You may build plenty of memories on weekend jaunts up the coast to say, wine country.

But you get the point. Just buying things doesn’t work. Stuffing a house with  pretty things works for a bit, but eventually you walk through rooms with nary a look around. Aesthetics are a good thing, and there is such a thing as living in an environment that is visual enjoyable, but a house needs be functional to be a joy in the long run.

What I mean is that my craft/office room is quite attractive, but the fact that I can be sewing in less than five minutes, or laying out material for a quilt in the same amount of time is, in the long run, the reason why it works for me. The experience of being able to use the room matters much more than how lovely it does or doesn’t look.

Money spent to enhance doing what you love is money well spent. If you love to travel and you enjoy doing it on the ground by car, then an investment in a grand motor home makes some sense. Purchasing one because “everybody has one” in your neighborhood, is quite another.

Keeping up with the Joneses, is not a path to happiness.

Another important point I got from the authors of the book was to “spend to make time”. In other words, spending money to move more free time to your column is really worth it.

We believe and work for retirement because we see it as the time to do as we wish to. We want those eight hours plus going to things that we enjoy. It makes sense then to spend money to enlarge that time off the clock.

I have wondered what retirement might be like for a man or woman who “worked in the home”. It seemed that not much would change. And that would be correct if you don’t spend to save.

So you spend money to let somebody else clean the house and do the yard work. Unless of course you simply adore these activities. Few do. So hire them out. No, they won’t do the job you would do most times. It’s a job to them. But you are freed up for several hours a week.

Use it wisely, conscious of the fact that this is the time you have “bought and paid for.” You will truly enjoy it, I promise you.

It may seem like an expense you shouldn’t indulge in, but the payoff is so worth it if you see it as a gift to yourself to be used to enhance your joy.

So be creative. Not only do I have a housekeeper and we have a kid who does lots of odd jobs around the yard every few weeks, but we also eat out once a week. I don’t feel that I’m captive of a kitchen every day, much as I enjoy cooking, I enjoy being served too.

Discover what you love and enhance that experience with your spending. You will find that you can live really well on a lot less than others think they need, and you are happier than they are.

Spend wisely and you will spend less. And that’s something to make anyone happy.

 

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