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Monday, November 3, 2008

Art in Hard Times

OK, so I've been struggling with this, and now I'm turning it over to you. When times seem hard or uncertain, what kind of art do you turn to? Or do you turn to art at all? Do you find comfort in the idea of art, or does it leave your consciousness because you are focused on other things? In other words, in hard times, what role does art play in your life?

I'm not interested in ideas about art, I'm interested in experience. While I know art should lift us up, remind us of beauty and our better selves, what I want to know is, when the chips are down and money is tight and you're not sure if you're safe in your own home, do you find a place for art, or does it fall away as irrelevant?

I need some comments on this one, so I'm gonna beg. Please, dear reader, share your experience with art (and by this I mean literature, film, music, visual art, theater, dance) when the going gets tough.

Thank you in advance. It means a lot to me.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Keep Your Commitments

No matter how small. Don't make any you can't keep. Be honest, forthright, straightforward. Don't mislead or tease or hint that you will do something when you know you will likely do the opposite.

I am so sick and tired of people flaking out, forgetting what they said, making promises or appointments they knew they couldn't or didn't want to keep and elevating others' hopes in bad faith. Stop with the bait-and-switch, the disappearing act, the just-couldn't-handle-it mentality.

If you do this, you will slowly make people hate you. You will also slowly succumb to a lifetime of bad faith actions, which puts you on a path to ill-will, bad karma and endless victimhood.

Don't do it. No excuses. Just don't.

Be responsible, keep your commitments, and don't make any you can't keep. Whatever it is, act in good faith.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Just Say No to Bread and Circus

Today I'm just gonna talk about what's on my mind. I apologize in advance, but I think I've been avoiding the blog because I have felt, of late, like the world and what is going on renders things I say here insignificant. Maybe that's not true, but in any case, I may be able to get back to thinking blissful thoughts once I ramble on a little bit. Feel free to join my rambling in the comments. I'm curious what you all are thinking about lately.

As for me, I feel a bit traumatized. I feel like what we've been going through is kind of a financial 9-11, only in slow motion and with no end in sight. I don't know what's going to happen. I just know that I'm worried. Am I overreacting? Am I not reacting enough? What the hell are we supposed to do?

The emotions I'm feeling are varied. Anger. Confusion. Sadness. Fear. Despair. Frustration. Helplessness. Hopelessness. Vulnerability.

I talked a little about this back in my post on July 23:
Humans are not capable of going it alone, so I guess what I am suggesting is that we take this relative calm before the storm and we begin to reach out to each other, mend the social fabric, and work together.
Well, the storm is here, and I've been doing this, trying to invest in the people that matter, trying to build my social network of people I trust, and yet, these feelings are with me. The people I talk to--friends, family, neighbors--all feel the same way. There's something in the air--a charge in the atmosphere--that feels oppressive and burdensome and, to my mind, claustrophobic.

Sometimes, I truly feel a little crazy. And yet, the world seems crazy to me.

I was reading Campbell's "Myths to Live By," and there's a chapter where he talks about the "present moment." (Which was 1970, when he wrote. However, I still consider this the present moment. Humans are so bad about thinking of time in terms of their own lives, but one generation is less than a blink of an eye, so 40 years is nothin'. Indeed, 100 years is nothin'.)

Here's what he writes:
"But then, in the midst of all that optimism [post WWI] about reason, democracy, socialism, and the like, there appeared a work that was disturbing: Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. Other writings [appeared]: Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, James Joyce's Ulysses, Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and Eliot's 'The Waste Land.' In a literary sense, those were very great years indeed. But what certain of its authors seemed to be telling us was that with all our rational triumphs and progressive political achievements, illuminating the dark quarters of the earth and so on, there was nevertheless something beginning to disintegrate at the heart of our Occidental civilization itself.

And of all these warnings and pronouncements, that of Spengler was the most disquieting. For it was based on the concept of an organic pattern in the life course of a civilization, a morphology of history: the idea that every culture has its period of youth, its period of culmination, its years then of beginning to totter with age and of striving to hold itself together by means of rational planning, projects, and organization, only finally to terminate in decrepitude, petrification, what Spengler called "fellaheenism," and no more life.

Moreover, in this view of Spengler's, we were at present on the point of passing from what he called the period of Culture to Civilization, which is to say, from our periods of youthful, spontaneous, and wonderful creativity to those of uncertainty and anxiety, contrived programs, and the beginning of the end.

When he sought for analogies in the classical world, our moment today corresponded, he found, to that of the late second century B.C., the time of the Carthaginian Wars, the decline of the culture-world of Greece into Hellenism, and the rise of the military state of Rome, Caesarism, and what he termed the Second Religiousness, politics based on providing bread and circuses to the megalopolitan masses, and a general trend to violence and brutality in the arts and pastimes of the people."
Whew. That's depressing. But there's more.

Campbell then presents a poem by William Butler Yeats, written in 1921, and titled "The Second Coming":

The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I find this poem as "awesome" as Campbell does. It electrifies, terrifies, connects you with the long, slow gyration of history in its fullest sense.

OK, so we've drawn this fate. What now? The thing that comes to me are the words of Gandalf (yeah, I know, but Tolkien was a genius) from the Lord of the Rings. (I'm quoting from the film.)
Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.
And so, I guess the answer is that we, each of us, is meant to be here, meant to face what we've been given, and decide whether to align ourselves with the light or hide our heads and therefore encourage darkness.

Some of us will be Frodos. Some of us will be Gandalfs. Some will be Samwises. Some Aragorns. And, unfortunately, some will be Gollums. And Orcs. And Saurons. You get the drift.

Joseph Campbell didn't write about heroes and cycles and quests and The Call for his own amusement. He wrote, I believe, to create a document that proved these archetypes were ancient, profound and very, very real.

I am searching for who I am in this time. I don't want to be a Gollum. I want to be a hero. And I'm asking you to be one, and I believe the way you start is by opening your eyes, thinking, reading, analyzing, feeling and listening.

I asked earlier "What the hell are we supposed to do?" My best guess is to do two things primarily: be a friend to others and educate yourselves.

Don't believe anything you have not analyzed. Read history, economics, philosophy, the great books. This is not the time to pretend things are normal and fine. I'll keep watching a little TV and movies (to lighten the mood), but most of my time will be spent educating myself and caring for myself, my family and my friends.

What about you?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Who Can You Thank Today?

And perhaps more importantly, who can you ask to thank you? A 3-minute video worth watching:

Monday, September 15, 2008

Time Management Quiz

When I first started my quest to create a more blissful life for myself, I started with the basics. One of the most basic elements to life is time, since time is pretty much the only given we have.

While we don't know how many days we will each ultimately have, we do know that for the days we do have, there are only 24 hours in each of them. Nothing about that will ever change.

So, the paths we take largely depend on how we choose to spend those hours. I knew early on that I was not spending them in a very constructive, efficient way. I tend to be a daydreamer, someone who is easily distracted and can be in fact quite undisciplined at times.

So I started this journey by looking at time. I did a search on the Internet (while at work, of course) for something that would help me get the most use and good out of my hours.

This is what I found.

It's a time management quiz that provides you with the questions you need to analyze what you're doing right and how you might be wasting time.

I heartily recommend taking the 5 minutes it costs you to perform an analysis that I think will end up not only saving you countless future hours, but also will teach you how to maximize them, getting you closer to your goals, to adventure, to bliss.

Good luck, and please feel free to share any insights or surprises that the quiz brings up for you.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Mantra of the Day: Be of Service

As I've mentioned before, I get an awful lot out of going to yoga, even once a week. If you've never tried it, I heartily recommend it.

Each class begins by setting an intention. We either find some quality we want to cultivate--patience or playfulness or ease or whatever--or we dedicate the practice to someone. Sometimes we do both.

Then my teacher ends this portion by reminding us that "While it takes strength to make a vow, it invariably gives strength." So, when the going gets rough and my quads are burning or my backbend is kinda puny, I am reminded to rededicate my efforts to the person I'm offering my practice to.

What's amazing is that even though they are not there in the class with me, when I remember that I'm doing something for someone else, I do better, I try harder, I care more.

Once I recognized this, I decided to apply it in other areas of life. I try to remember that it is as important to serve others as it is to serve oneself. Indeed, it may be more important.

This isn't to say you should cast off everything and go work in a soup-kitchen for the rest of your life. Instead, I encourage you to repeat these words when your friend is down and you really need to be a good listener. Or when your spouse is sick and relying on you for simple tasks. (Hi honey!) When I find myself getting distracted or frustrated or self-absorbed, I say to myself: "Be of service."

This can often be all I need to perform a task with a more giving heart and a better attitude. It can also often help me feel empathy and see things from another point of view, which is crucial to self-development and growth.

Look for moments that are difficult where you can say to yourself "be of service" and see what changes for you.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Go In With Eyes Wide Open

I like to read medical and health news on pretty much any topic. I'm just kind of a nerd that way. So I was reading this New York Times piece yesterday with this headline: Regrets After Prostate Surgery. It's basically about men who are told that post-surgery, they will have a great chance at normal, ahem, function, but then find that they don't. The article then goes on to say:
The Duke researchers said that the study shows urologists need to communicate more carefully the risks and benefits of the treatment prior to surgery so that men have more realistic expectations of what to expect.
In other words, the doctors weren't properly defining what "function" meant, and so the numbers for normal function were, excuse the pun, inflated, and therefore misleading.

What does this have to do with following your bliss? Well, first of all, that quality of life is clearly important and worth prioritizing! But perhaps more importantly, that it's so crucial to have truly realistic, unbiased information before making a decision.

I remember when I began my research into the freelance world that I paid special attention to the warnings and cautions provided by those who had experience. Many of them said the same things: not a good choice if you're bad at time management or being alone. Lots of feast-and-famine cycles. Disadvantages in taxes and other cost outlays.

Some people are good at blocking out what they don't want to hear, because they think it might dissuade them from making a choice that they really want to make. I see this all the time, and it inevitably leads to disappointment. While information is no substitute for actual experience, at least I knew I would have bouts of loneliness, or that I'd have to pay more out of pocket for Social Security and taxes than my non-self-employed friends. I didn't like it, but I expected it, and was willing to make these trade-offs for the benefits.

Expectations have so much influence over your happiness in life. This isn't to say that the pessimists have it right--"If I have low expectations, I'll always be surprised when things go well," as they say--but rather that if you have properly analyzed the whole picture, you will be more ready to deal with the negatives when they inevitably come your way. Every job, every person, every choice has a downside. Every single one. It's whether you understand that before you commit to a decision that makes the difference.

So whether it's a spouse or a new career or even that adorable little puppy who would never, ever eat your favorite sweater (RIP, favorite sweater), examine all angles and prepare yourself. When the bad stuff crops up, it won't crush you like a meteor falling from the sky. Instead, you'll see it coming from far away, and because your eyes are open, it'll end up looking more like a shooting star that gives you the opportunity to move out of the way. Aware and protected from unrealistic expectations, you can more fully appreciate the beauty of the big picture.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Use Your Emotions as Information

Chances are, one of the ways you know you're on the right or the wrong path is how you feel. Are you jittery, anxious? Or calm and serene? Do you snap when irritated, or are you able to brush off a bad day? Our behaviors say so much about our interior emotional landscape, and yet we ignore them so much of the time.

For example, when I was at my last job, I was clenching my teeth at night. I didn't really pay attention to it, however, and just dismissed the dull ache in my jaw each morning. Finally, when I could hardly open my mouth to chew, I realized something was off. And then I started paying attention. I was cranky. I snapped a lot. I cried more than was normal. I felt generally awful, in other words. And yet how long did it take me to do something about it? Longer than I would have liked, that's for sure.

A woman I know who works with horses tells me that they are experts at using emotion as information. They can pick up on the subtle gradations of feeling and energy that people and other animals give off, as well as their own emotions. They are prey animals, and, she says, this means that if they are afraid, they must act upon it.

For horses, it's self-preservation to use emotions as information. For humans, it could work that way too, though we often try to ignore our feelings. Let yourself become aware of what's happening on the feeling rather than the thinking level, and then use that as information upon which to build your next action. Chances are, if you're paying attention, you'll know exactly what you need to do.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What Do Your Questions Say About You?

The web is a bit like a Magic 8 Ball, isn't it? An empty little search box, ready for your question, for your quest. How will I find love? Why can't I be happy at work? When should I start a family? How do I install ceramic tile?

A lot of people come to this blog hoping to find the answers to many of the big questions: How to make a big decision. When to make a leap of faith. How to be happy. How to ask the universe for what you want most.

When we type these questions into search engines, we hope to find the answers, hope that there's something or someone that can help. We yearn, we seek, we inquire, we contemplate. And often something does turn up, and we seize it like a found coin glimmering on a dark and indeterminate path.

It's great that so many answers are out there. But there's one answer that these questions can conjure that you may not be aware of. And that's the answer of the questions.

In other words, what questions do you ask again and again? What pattern do you find in your questions? The things you type into the anonymous interface of a search engine are often the vessels for your most closely guarded dreams, wishes and secrets. Have you ever taken a moment to analyze what you're seeking?

Try writing them down somewhere private. Make a list that no one will find. What category do your questions fall into? (Maybe you're just trying to buy a power drill, but you know what I mean about the "big picture" questions, I think.) Love? Career? Spirit? Mental health? Physical health? What do you ask again and again? How do you phrase the questions? Which keywords come up again and again?

Do this for a week or two, and see what your wandering mind wants to know and when. When you're bored and sitting at your desk? When your kids are asleep? Early in the morning before you go to work?

While you may think you know what you want or what your questions are, write them down anyway. Like a food diary well-kept, what you find yourself asking may surprise you, or reveal patterns you weren't aware of. And by noting the time, you can discern when your mind is most eager, and what situations trigger your searching.

We all want answers. But first we need to know exactly what the questions are, and why we're asking them.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Admitting Two Heads Are Better Than One

As are two bodies, two spirits, two lives. Everyone knows by now that Randy Pausch, who I have mentioned many times on this blog, has died from pancreatic cancer. When I got the news, I was not surprised, but deeply saddened nonetheless. After my initial feelings of sadness, I sent out into the universe prayers for his widow, children and those close to him who will have to now live without him.

In his book about the last lecture, there's a part that talks about what his wife says at the end of the speech. He writes that she whispered into his ear "Don't die." On a TV special a few months ago, she added that she had also said "All the magic will be gone."

As someone who is very grateful for her husband, these words resonate deeply for me. I love my husband, and can only imagine that without him, my world would seem considerably paler, flatter, more pedestrian. I also would not have been able to achieve all I've been able to without him, from the most mundane things to the most profound.

This post is not meant to be all pro-marriage or pro-coupling necessarily, but I can only offer what I know, so take that for what it's worth. What I know is that I can do more, I can feel more, I can understand more, and I can love more because of a partner, and specifically because of the wonderful partner that I have. (A giving and supportive and accepting and affectionate and hard-working and thoughtful and patient man. I'm not trying to canonize him here, but he's really great, and I'm very lucky.)

If you are not part of a couple or you are part of one that's not working, consider what is possible, and consider making a strong relationship one of your priorities. While romance is not essential--after all, our friends can certainly give us a lot-- something about the bond of real, selfless, committed love makes so much more possible. Including bliss following.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that two heads, two hearts and four hands unified and working for a common goal are greater than the sum of their parts. What they can accomplish is far more than I ever would have thought possible. For me, there is certainly magic at work.

Monday, July 28, 2008

How to Live with a Big Decision

A while back, I wrote a post about the process of deciding. About how hard it can be simply to choose one path over another, and the paralysis we often suffer from in making that choice.

However, one of my readers posed an excellent follow-up question to that post. It follows:

It's one thing to actually MAKE a decision about something huge, but what about living WITH that decision? How do I live knowing i've broken my parents' hearts by telling them that they'll only get to see me once a year (they can't afford to travel over here)?

She describes the decision to stay in the U.S. even though she's from England, leading to the situation she describes above. How, then to live with the facts of your choice?

So, how do you live with a tough decision?

Whenever I face a difficult question like this one, I first ask myself what Joseph Campbell has said about it. Not because he was the smartest man to ever live or anything like that, but because he has looked at mythology as an instruction manual for living the most authentic, blissful and right-thinking/right-feeling life. He has taught me how desperately we need mythic structures in our lives, and how out of whack our lives are for the absence of a functioning mythology.

My first thoughts are these: Campbell talks about the danger of living in fear of the dragon whose scales are inscribed with the countless "thou shalts" that other people have for you. So, for instance: Thou shalt get a college degree. Thou shalt study this field. Thou shalt live in the suburbs. Thou shalt have 2.3 kids. But also, Thou shalt be easy to get along with. Thou shalt not cause controversy. Thou shalt obey the rules. Or, if you belong to a subculture, Thou shalt get a tattoo, because everyone else has, or whatever.

Do you see? The thou shalt is the command other people throw your way. We allow so many of these to control us and steer us off our right path that Campbell invokes the image of a conglomerated dragon ruling us with thou shalts.

His advice? We must slay the dragon and live according to what is right and proper for our own lives.

My feeling is that Campbell would say that if you have been true to yourself in your decision, if it the thing that is best for you or your children or the way you want to live--and by no one else's command--you will be able to accept, in time, the decision, even with all its sacrifices.

Of course, that doesn't mean others will, and that's where it gets tricky. Not everyone is capable of letting someone go, of allowing them to live their own lives. Sometimes they do this out of a misguided attachment, believing that they must have control over that person or else they will have nothing, and sometimes it's downright selfish.

Sometimes, it is because of deep grief for the end of something. Childhood. A full house. Fertility. Life. If the grief is based in normal feelings of loss, it will ease over time.

The bottom line is that you are the only one who can live your life. You can do your best to explain your decisions and soften their impact, but until another person can live your life for you, they cannot torture you for a decision you've made in good conscience. Which is precisely the reason you must not torture yourself.

From The Power of Myth:
Moyers: There is an old prayer that says, "Lord, teach us when to let go." All of us have to know that, don't we?

Campbell: That's the big problem of the parent. Being a parent is one of the most demanding careers I know. When I think what my father and mother gave up of themselves to launch their family--well, I really appreciate that.

My father was a businessman, and of course, he would have been very happy to have his son go into business with him and take it on. In fact, I did go into business with Dad for a couple of months, and then I thought, "Geez, I can't do this." And he let me go. There is that testing time in your life when you have got to test yourself out to your own flight.

Moyers: Myths used to help us know when to let go.

Campbell: Myths formulate things for you. They say, for example, that you have to become an adult at a particular age...You have to have a feeling for where you are. You've got only one life to live, and you don't have to live it for six people. Pay attention to it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

When Bliss Clashes With Harsh Reality

The economy sucks. By now, everyone (except our elected "leaders," of course) has noticed that the dollar just doesn't go as far as it used to. The price of everything is going up, and going up fast.

This has been on my mind a lot lately, partly since I work for myself and need to be extra cautious about saving and spending, but also because I see the evidence when I do go out: Bars and restaurants are much, much less crowded, and the grocery and gas bills just keep growing and eating away at what I am earning.

I'm struggling to maintain faith in the ability of our country to support people's bliss. I'm doing OK so far, but everyone is cutting back, and while prices are increasing, wages are not. How are you all doing?

I wonder if we're at a point of regression, where our standard of living has reached its peak and will begin to decline as overspending and debt and unsustainable promises either bankrupt our country or make it less free. It's something that keeps me up at night, I'll tell you that.

I worry that artists will not be able to pursue their art in this kind of climate, that business owners will struggle, that parents will toil extra hard to keep their family fed. While this has always been true for the working poor, prosperity is becoming a distant dream for more and more hard-working, honest (and here's the new twist) highly educated Americans.

I guess this post is an attempt at figuring out how to keep going and believing that bliss is attainable when the going gets really tough. Joseph Campbell wrote about his experience in the Depression that it was a time of coming together, of people helping each other, and of a kind of peace with what was. He couldn't change it, so he didn't worry about it. Then again, he had no family or obligations to worry about either.

My hope, I guess, rests in our ability as Americans to reach out to each other and begin to re-strengthen our relationships and reliance on others. In one sense, we've had it so good that we have fooled ourselves into the illusion that we are self-sufficient. Neighbors barely know neighbors, friendships fall away too easily, families have scattered.

Humans are not capable of going it alone, so I guess what I am suggesting is that we take this relative calm before the storm and we begin to reach out to each other, mend the social fabric, and work together. Pursue your bliss, but do not pursue it alone. Tell people what you need, let them know how they can help, but also be willing to assist when they need you, be willing to listen when they speak about their dreams.

It's my belief that strong relationships will be the salvation of life's great desires and hopes in this dark time, so if you need to get your relationships in order, I suggest not wasting a moment.

If, for some reason, my pessimism proves to be unwarranted, there is no harm and only benefit that can come from these bonds. If, however, my dismal premonitions come to pass, there is only harm and no benefit in going it all alone.

Thoughts? I'd love to hear how you plan to pursue bliss and joy in your life when the world isn't exactly cooperating...

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Sacred Place

I was flipping through my copy of Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth" today, when I came across this exchange:

Moyers: You write in "The Mythic Image" about the center of transformation, the idea of a sacred place where the temporal walls may dissolve to reveal a wonder. What does it mean to have a sacred place?

Campbell: This is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don't know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don't know who your friends are, you don't know what you owe anybody, you don't know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

Obviously, a sacred place could be an actual physical space--a room, a backyard cove, a nearby park. But I read this to include mental sacred spaces, such as those that are created through meditation, or time you carve out and defend ruthlessly. (As Randy Pausch advises.)

Wherever it is, find it. This place of "creative incubation" truly is necessary, and unfortunately is getting harder and harder to lay claim to, with technology, economic worries and endless news cycles. But see if you can find that place, because once you are there, no one can intrude. And that blissful solitude is something I think we can all benefit from.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Balance is a Dance


Spiral staircase at the Hotel Gerloczy in Budapest.

So many people are throwing out the term "work-life balance" these days, you may not even think much about what it means. Surely you know what balance is, and you know that it means that work and life should be split, and if you had to put a figure to the ratio, you would probably think of it as 50-50, right?


The trouble that most people have with this concept is that they see it in fixed terms, like a pie chart or an image of scales hanging in balance, motionless.

Why is this a problem? The moment you envision balance in your life as a fixed ideal is the moment you begin to get out of balance. Stand on one leg. Go ahead. Stand up right now and do it. If your balance is good, it shouldn't be much effort, though you'll probably feel your muscles making small adjustments to keep you upright. If a strong wind comes or someone brushes you on their way past, you will have to recalibrate to stay standing. You will waver a bit, maybe even sway, maybe even fall out of balance right before finding equilibrium again.

In this equilibrium, things appear motionless, fixed. But you know better--your muscles and body and brain are working in concert to keep you standing. Try to stand on one leg, but this time, close your eyes. Having trouble? It's very hard to stay balanced without the information from your eyes. Advanced yogis can do it, but it's not easy. In other words, real, intrinsic balance takes practice.

So, if things feel out of balance for you, don't despair if you're not living up to the pie chart of balance in your head that's 50% white and 50% black. Think of the symbol for yin and yang instead, and see the flowing lines and the bit of dark and white that dot the opposite halves. Observe the motion implicit in that symbol.

Realize that finding balance is not a fixed ideal, but a dance you practice. So you fall out of line a bit. That's OK. Dance back into balance, and don't worry too much about what you look like, or how perfectly your life is apportioned. Keep things moving. Feel the energy, gather information, keep dancing, and balance will follow.

And, for heaven's sake, don't mistake rigidity for balance.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Money, Bliss and Patriotism



While the three words above may not be obviously connected, I submit to you on this Wednesday before Independence Day that they are.

Joseph Campbell has asserted in many of his books that by saving yourself, you save the world. That by following your bliss, you become a force for life and vitality and positive change in the world, a light beating back the ever-encroaching darkness.

One of the things I've tried to highlight on this blog is the connection between money and bliss. Or, actually, that bliss is not dependent on money, and in fact, is squeezed out by its pursuit. Ironically, many of us spend our days worrying about making money because we are in debt, or because we want something material: a nicer car, a bigger house, a fancy handbag. Lest you think I sound self-righteous here, rest assured, I am not immune to the siren song of that fancy handbag. I want one, I really do.

But pursuing something if one cannot afford it is not wise. And so I stop. And I say, if I have money, I will buy the fancy handbag. But the handbag is not a goal. I do not want to make myself miserable for that handbag.

Unfortunately, many in our country--and in the world--have eyes only for the things they want. And so they either work jobs they hate to get those things, or they spend money they don't have (courtesy of our friends in the credit industry) to get those things.

And because no action comes without an associated reaction (thank you, elementary physics!), we can see here what the consequences are to making obtaining things our primary goal: misery or debt.

Thus starts the cycle. The cycle of servitude to a job you hate to pay the master (card) that owns you. Now, I'm not saying there aren't things we still need, and of course we'll always have bills to pay, and we'll always need to do work in exchange for some kind of wage.

The question is, how much choice do you have in that work, and how much freedom do you have if you need to walk away?

My argument is that it's patriotic to get yourself out of debt, or to aim for work that fulfills your soul rather than filling your living room or your closet. You may not much care for the idea of patriotism or loyalty to a nation, and that's fine. But it will be patriotic whether you call it that or not, and that's what matters. Save yourself, and in doing so, you save the world. It's a powerful idea.

Reduce your debt, eliminate your crushing dependence on your paycheck by eliminating unnecessary spending, and begin--even if only in your off hours--to plan for something more. To start writing or drawing or sewing or dancing or doing whatever it is that gives your heart and your mind ease.

I've often said that disease is an interesting word, since it is literally the "lack of ease." While you may be physically healthy, are you at ease with your life? Do you feel serenity and concentration when doing your work? Or are you suffering from a profound dis-ease that gnaws at you, that keeps you up at night, that makes you dream of high-priced handbags as a balm for your ills?

Diagnose your dis-ease. My bet is that it begins with money and work. Once you have real freedom again, once your work feels (and is!) in a way voluntary, once you have the flexibility to pay attention to other areas of your life, your family, your community, you will find wealth (in the narrow and broader sense of the word), happiness and health.

And as we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence on Friday, I think you'll agree that the more people with those three things living next door, the better.

So go ahead, declare your own independence. And if you need some inspiration, the words below should help:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...

Monday, June 30, 2008

Bliss for Your Papers

Stackable letter tray from The Container Store.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I am really working to get organized. It's all part of a time-management, decluttering and streamlining streak I've been on.

The most obvious benefit to me seems to be this: The more space and time for opportunity in your life, the more likely you will be available to pursue opportunity when it knocks. Additionally, if opportunity isn't exactly banging down your door, having time and clear mental space will give you the energy you need to create it.

So for those of you looking to do the same, here's a little practical tip.

I'm one of those people who by dint of my profession must swim in a constant sea of paper. Once I realized everything had its place, I realized I could sort my incoming paper in four pretty broad categories.

So, I bought four stackable letter trays like the ones above, and labeled them thusly:
  1. In use
  2. Needs reply
  3. To shred/toss
  4. To file
It's amazing how much of my paper--probably 95 percent--fits into one of those four categories. Because it's vertical, things that need attention never get placed under another stack, rendering them invisible and therefore promptly forgotten.

It also prevents horizontal paper-sprawl, which gives my little Ikea desk nightmares.

Another advantage is that it lets me process things in batches. I don't have to shred something as soon as it comes in. Instead, when my shred tray is reasonably full, I take it to the shredder and deal with it in one chunk of time. Hooray for efficiency!

The final benefit is more intangible: It just makes me feel better. I know where my paper goes, and I deal with the steady influx like a sane person, rather than as I used to, by pretending the paper simply wasn't there. Stack? What stack? Needless to say, that "system" wasn't really working for me.

So there you have it. The humble letter tray has swooped in to improve my life. What organizational tools have you found to be most helpful?

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Making Time for Bliss

So a few weeks ago, I promised I would talk about how time management can help you on your journey to a better life.

Some things should be obvious about why this is: Planning your time means less wasted time, and that alone can multiply your opportunities to do the things you really care about.

There's also the idea that when you make a plan, you're also writing down your goals, though you may be doing it step by tiny step. So you want to write a book? You carve out 30 minutes each day to get some of that writing done. Your daily plan doesn't say "Write a Book," but it does say "Write."

There's something else I want to address while we're on the topic of time. There is a strong impulse for us to say, "Once I figure out what I want, then I'll move forward on writing that book." (Or getting married, or having a baby, or moving to Spain or starting your business or what have you.)

There's a strong temptation to want to break time up this way. IF I achieve X, THEN I can proceed with Y.

While it seems logical enough, there's something desperately wrong with this equation. Unfortunately, our lifespans just aren't long enough for us to operate this way. We will die long before we achieve all the things we want to do, and if we follow the formula above, we will have put life--the very act of living and participating in this world--on hold. There will always be something we could figure out or achieve or complete before we can do X, Y, Z.

If we operate in this way, we may achieve a few goals, sure. But we will live our lives out of balance. We will reach middle age and the end of our lives filled with regret.

What's the solution? Time management. Why? Because it teaches us to balance all our needs and wants and desires into each day. It forces us to prioritize, and make the hard choices that we need to make. It essentially makes each day a microcosm of the universe that is our life: very full, but in equilibrium.

So you want to start your business? Put 30 minutes somewhere in your day where you work on your business plan. So you want to read War and Peace? Make time to read for 15 minutes each day. If your spouse or your child or your exploding water heater screw up your plans, at least you had one. You can always reschedule something for tomorrow, but if you have no plan, you have no idea what you're supposed to be doing, especially with so many demands on our focus and attention.

A practical note: I like Google Calendar for planning. It is easy to use, I can share events w/ whomever I choose, and I can print out daily agendas. I can also import public calendars, like I did with the American Public Holidays calendar, so I'm never caught off guard about what day a holiday falls on. There are many good calendars out there, this is just the one I use and like best.

But if you're serious about getting your time under your control, set up a calendar today. I promise it'll be time well spent.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Where Does Success Come From?

Below is a small excerpt from something I wrote for a client. I think it fits in pretty well here. Hope you enjoy it.

Recognizing Your Potential

One of the most common mistakes people make when they decide to make a major change in their lives is confusing the tool they are using as the thing that will make them successful.

Where Success Comes From
To help you understand this bit of mistaken thinking, imagine a musician who has decided he wants to compose the next chart-topping song.

Do you think that the musician believes that the hit song will only exist if he has a certain guitar, or the right drum kit or an expensive piano?

Of course not. What the successful musician understands is that the potential for a #1 song is not held within his instruments, but within himself. He knows that even if his guitar disappeared, he would still be able to write the song.

He may need the guitar to finally play and record it, but whether the song is good or not depends on him and him alone. (With possibly the help of his bandmates, family, or other supporters.)

YOU make Success
So how does this relate to you? Ask yourself if you’ve confused the tools—or “instruments”—in your life with your potential for success.

Maybe you’ve read a book or heard a friend talking about how to create change and build a successful business or career, but then nothing seemed to happen for you, so you searched for the next book that would have better ideas, or talked to another person that could give you more advice.

If only you had the right information, the right tools, you too could be successful.

If you recognize yourself in this example, right now you should be asking one question: Why? Why haven’t I succeeded if I’ve been trying?

Invest the Power in Yourself
The answer may be that you’ve invested too much power in the tools you’re using, and not enough in yourself.

You are the only one who can succeed for you. No one else can do it for you, and nothing else—no tool, no advice—can make you succeed. They may help you succeed, but that’s a very important difference.

Take a moment to really think about this. It seems simple on the surface, but it is a distinction that makes a profound difference in the way you understand your role in creating and sustaining positive change:

· One way makes you think the power is external, coming from a source outside you.

· The other way makes you think the power is internal, meaning that the source is you.

Each is a mindset. Which one do you think enables more success?

Define What is In Your Power
When starting out, you have to be able to tell the difference between what you can change using your own mindset, and what you can change with the help of a tool.

Once you understand this, nothing can stop you from succeeding.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Back from Budapest








So my extended absence has come to an end, and I may now reveal where I've been. Here are a few photos for you to enjoy, and hopefully you'll see some of the beauty and feel the energy that
Budapest has to offer in copious amounts.

While I may be guilty of falling in love with my vacation destinations too easily, this one easily is at the top of my list.

Of course, everyone loves vacation, though it's not so easy to take. But well, well worth it to go somewhere, anywhere, even nearby, so long as you ditch the cellphone, TV and Internet and settle into yourself, your surroundings and the undivided attention of the company you're with.

In fact, though my husband and I hadn't been explicitly conscious of this fact, one of the things that we realized we traveled for was just this sense of timelessness. Losing track of one's mundane concerns, and elevating thoughts, conversations and awareness. Connecting with things, people, yourself in an uninterrupted way.

Not only is it restorative, it's essential for insight. For me, vacation isn't about forgetting everything--though I can do that--but it hasn't been successful unless something dormant has been reawakened.

For me, it's a need to get back in tune with my more creative endeavors. For you, it could be something entirely else. But unless you lay low for a while, you'll have a very difficult time recognizing what it is your life is missing.

So vacate for a while--when you come back, your life will only be more full.

If any of you have had any particularly good travels or insights this vacation season, I'd love to hear about them in the comments... Good to have gone, but good to be back. :-)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Watch This, Get Bliss: Time Management Lecture

OK, so the reason I haven't been around lately isn't because of a funk this time. Now it's because I've been so insanely busy with clients and magazine work and online classes that I just haven't had a moment.

Hopefully, I'll figure out how to add blogging back into the mix. I actually think I can, now that I've watched this video. It's a lecture on Time Management by Randy Pausch--yes, that guy--and it has a lot of helpful tips about how to get more out of each day and have fun while doing it.

Some of it is obvious, some of it not so. It's an hour and a half, but as Randy says, don't "find" the time to watch it, "make" the time to watch it. Seriously. It's an investment in all the days and hours you have left in your life.

The next time I blog, I'll talk about how important time management is for getting what you want out of life, for getting bliss. (And maybe you don't "find" bliss, maybe you "make" it. I'll ponder that, and get back to you, dear reader.)



Enjoy, and take notes!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Everything In Its Place

For the past week or so, I've been on a massive spring cleaning tear. I'm not the tidiest person, and while I know how to keep the places that matter clean--food out of the kitchen, grime out of the bathroom--I am notoriously bad when it comes to paper, books, magazines and really, most everything else.

I have several really big unmet goals for my life. Some are silly, and some may be noble, but among goals such as getting a book published, having kids, learning to speak Spanish, making a difference in the fight for our liberties, one kind of mundane one stands out: To be organized.

I've always envied people who are capable of carrying their slim little day planners or always remember to update their calendars, those people whose homes look like the Pottery Barn catalog (which I have a love/hate relationship with, if you must know), those people who seem to know what they're supposed to be doing next.

I don't know what finally lit the fire--maybe that fact that I'm running my own business now and I need to be on top of things or fail miserably, disappoint clients and generally make a mess of things--but I'm finally making a move on that organization goal.

But before I started in earnest, I seemed to be waiting for the advice that would make the difference for me. After all, it wasn't like I hadn't tried before. I'd bought day planners, only to have two weeks of the calendar filled with appointments and reminders (Buy birthday card, Dentist appt., Moving day!!!), or clear storage bins that I ended up using like portable junk drawers. No matter what scheme I investigated or tried, it all seemed overwhelming, complicated, too left-brained for my associative right-brained world.

And then I read this somewhere, though I'm not so organized yet that I can remember where, but this was what made the difference: Everything has its place.

Does this seem completely elementary to you? Because it made all the difference for me. It was not a file folder system or a cabinet of labeled bins. What it was, and what I needed, was a philosophy. Everything has its place. Eureka!

It was about recognizing the intrinsic function and use of an item, and deciding how to put that item in a place that maximized its functionality and use. And if that place didn't exist, it gave me the opportunity to evaluate: Do I need to create a place, or do I need this item at all?

I had a philosophical system that allowed me to make sense of the constellation of objects that seemed to continually and haphazardly orbit my household, floating through time and space with no grounding, no apparent home.

Now I know: books go on a bookshelf, magazines I keep in a magazine case or throw away. Office supplies are sorted and stored separately, on an office shelf or desk. Every single thing in my house has a place, and if not, its place is in the recycling bin, the donation pile or the trash.

Without investing in any kind of arbitrary system of organization and storage, I am actually kind of organized now. Kind of. And when I see something that belongs in the bathroom--sunscreen, or lip balm--on the kitchen counter, I think: That's not in its place. And instead of leaving it there, I return it to its proper home. So I'm neater now, and more consistently neat, than I used to be thanks to that simple little phrase.

I think "Everything in its place" is kind of a good philosophy for a lot of things, but will this increased organization help me be happier, experience more bliss, make me a better person? Has the moral superiority of the organized been justified all the while?

Honestly, maybe. Maybe that whole cleanliness is next to godliness group was on to something. I certainly feel less stress when I walk into an uncluttered room than a cluttered one. It's true what they say about the potential for our stuff to control us.

Objects don't just have physical weight, they also have psychic weight. The floor presses up on your foot when you press down, and when your gaze alights on a mess, that mess presses back. Cumulatively, it can begin to wear you down, keep you from all the other things you want to do in your life. Write a book. Have kids. Make a difference in your community.

When my office is finally done, I'll let you know if I have any transcendent insights about the connection between bliss and clutter. For now, I'm off to my version of the XXX News: I'm off to The Container Store.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

It's Not You, It's Me

Do you believe in the intrinsic differences of human beings? Or do you think we're all pretty much alike, though maybe I like spinach and indie rock and you hate spinach and indie rock but love peas and classic country?

You can probably guess where I fall in this debate. I think that even though we're the same species, we have real, intrinsic differences of psychology and personality. We are not all suited to the same environments, the same expectations, the same cultures, the same societies. And when we don't quite fit, we suffer greatly in trying to do so.

For many years, this was my pattern: I'd get a job, enjoy it for a while, then something would happen and I'd slowly become miserable, and have to make a change. So I'd get another job, and then it would happen again. I'd grow bored or antsy, and my bosses would always turn on me because I was no longer content to keep doing what I was doing. For years, I thought it was my bosses' fault, and while I truly had some terrible ones, what I finally realized was this: Rabbits can breed in captivity, but dolphins can't (or rarely can).

That doesn't mean what you think it means, so get your mind out of the gutter. What I'm saying is that some animals' life force is so severely stressed and hampered by captivity that they stop functioning, even to their own detriment. I mean, if they get so bad off that their instinct for survival is shunted, that must mean that they--dolphins, pandas, certain birds, etc.--are wired very differently from rabbits and pigs and cows and other easily domesticated animals.

Languishing in the series of cubicles (cages) I inhabited, I felt suffocated, frustrated, hopeless.

I was a dolphin trying to breed (symbolically speaking, trying to create and propagate ideas) in captivity, and failing miserably. Free Tiffany! But no movie crew would be interested, since there are millions of us like this. Who cares, they might ask--why can't you just suck it up and be like the rest of society?

And I tried. I really did. I didn't want to be different, and I wanted things to be easy, which is probably why I was in denial so long about it being the job or the boss, and not me.

But it was me. It was my fault, my problem, my responsibility. And no one could fix it but me. No one was going to break me out of my confines, no activists were lobbying for my release. I had to free myself, and to do so meant that I had to honor who I really was.

I know I am Homo sapiens, but I may--like so many of you--be a subspecies: Homo sapiens independensis. We chafe under captivity, we wither under watchful eyes, we choke ourselves on chains trying to break free.

So here we are: admitting we need something different. So if that doesn't work--if the cubicle existence slowly kills us--what conditions allow us to thrive?

Here's my list, but feel free to add to it:

  • Freedom to create
  • Autonomy over our work
  • Freedom from surveillance
  • An environment of trust and honor
  • An ethical environment
  • Flexibility to design our schedules and our projects
  • Respect for our fundamental humanity
  • Respect for our differences
  • An environment of fairness and justice
  • Time to explore, investigate and satisfy our curiosity
  • Ability to express emotion and feeling without fear of repercussion
  • An environment that values and appreciates our contributions


As you may notice, this doesn't just apply to work. It applies to relationships, to governments, to friendships. How so many people manage to survive under conditions so unlike these is beyond me.

So honor who you are. If you don't fit in the environment you're in, don't blame your boss, even if she really is an A-Number One Bitch. Sure, she may be a tyrant, but she could be all sweetness and light, and unless the conditions above are satisfied, you won't do well. If you are the dolphin and not the rabbit, find your way out of the cage and out into the open ocean. Sure, there are predators out there, but what kind of a life is the caged one?

I'll leave you with this excerpt--a passage that changed my life--from a conversation Joseph Campbell had with Michael Toms in the book "An Open Life":


"There are two ways of living a mythologically grounded life. One way is just to live what I call 'the way of the village compound,' where you remain within the sphere of your people...There are, however, people who feel this isn't the whole story...It's inevitable that a person with any sense of openness to new experience will say to himself, 'Now, this won't do, the way we're living.'

On the other hand, there's plenty of reason for those who don't have this feeling to remain within the field because our societies today are so rich in the gifts they can render. But if a person has had the sense of the Call--the feeling that there's an adventure for him--and if he doesn't follow that, but remains in the society because it's safe and secure, then life dries up. And then he comes to that condition in late middle age: he's gotten to the top of the ladder, and found that it's against the wrong wall.

If you have the guts to follow the risk, however, life opens, opens, opens up all along the line. I'm not superstitious, but I do believe in spiritual magic, you might say. I feel that if one follows what I call one's "bliss"--the thing that really gets you deep in the gut and that you feel is your life--doors will open up. They do! They have in my life and they have in many lives that I know of."


So it's not them, it's you. But contrary to what they'll try to convince you of, that's not a bad thing. In fact, it's a very, very good thing.

Your fellow dolphin,
Tiffany

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Thought Provocateur

You know the term "thought-provoking"? As in, "That was a thought-provoking movie about the East German Secret Police"? (That's a real movie, incidentally, one you should see. It's called "The Lives of Others" and it is thought-provoking, yes, and utterly excellent.)

Anyway, a good friend told me today that she thought my blog was thought-provoking, and that she needed that in her life, that thought provocation was something she was missing.

It got me thinking about what it means to have that person or thing in your life that gets you out of your usual thought-habits and generates something new and something worth spending time contemplating.

Every once in a while I'll feel like that provocation is missing, and when it is missing, I usually try to rectify it as soon as I notice. I read articles on Arts & Letters Daily, or talk to someone who gets me to think in new ways. I wonder how common this is--how many of you have someone or some source you turn to to get your brain jump-started?

And, perhaps more importantly, what benefit do you receive from being jolted in these sometimes pleasant, sometimes not-quite-so-pleasant ways?

As for me, I make metaphors and I weave connections. This is one of my ways of understanding the world. Recently, I was thinking about all the ways people try to change other people's minds and get them to fall into line. (Any HOA in America can provide an example of just this sort of East German police-state mentality.)

So I went from HOAs to the war in Vietnam and Iraq (forcing democracy on another country), to the Communism of the gulags and the Nazis' attempt to take over the world, to the media's attempt to control what you see and hear, to the politicians' legislative efforts to ban this or outlaw that. And all I see is failure, which brought me to this conclusion: The lesson of the 20th century is this: The attempt to force your will on others is always doomed.

Sure, you may get away with it for a while, but the human need for self-direction and liberty is like the quiet, slow scour of a river carving away at a dam. Though it may outlast me, at some point, the Hoover Dam will fail.

The lesson of modern history is this: Lead by example, show your logic, compel with reason and persuasion, but never force, and you will ultimately succeed.

Ah, but who has the patience for this when what the powerful want is to control you, and to control you now? So until we learn the 20th century's lesson, we (as a society) will continue to browbeat and subdue, imprison and record, spin and distort.

So, what's the point? I guess I'm trying to provoke in a post about provocation, but also to show you how important it is to find whatever source helps you break past the surface and do your own thinking and gets you in tune with what your humanity knows to be true.

I certainly do hope I can be a part of the thought provocateur network, and I hope you'll share some of your favorite sources for clarity in a muddled world.

Be free,
Tiffany

Friday, April 11, 2008

Mantra of the Day: "Not Helpful."

OK, so I hope you followed my recommendation and watched the Randy Pausch special on ABC two nights ago.

I am continuously amazed by the perspective Randy offers the world, which is a perspective that seems not borne from only this bad situation; instead, he seems to think differently than the rest of us, and trust me, it's a good kind of different. I feel blessed to have had the benefit of his thoughts and perspectives as they've been shared with the world via his lecture and now his book.

But what I learned from the special, and what I didn't know, was what a different, special kind of woman he has for his wife. I was also inspired by Jai Pausch, and by her ability to find peace and perspective in the midst of the unlucky reality of Randy's cancer.

She said something that I think we can all learn from, no matter how good or how bad our situations are. She said that when she first learned of the diagnosis that she would see her husband playing with the kids in the snow, and would think, "That's maybe the last time he'll play with his kids in the snow," and that would lead her to a whole new round of crying.

Eventually, after a lot of crying, she went to a therapist, who she says told her to not let tomorrow ruin today.

Brilliant insight number one! When I was living far away from my boyfriend (now my husband), he'd often come and visit me for long weekends. And the first day was always magical, a feeling like my missing half had been restored. But as time went on, thoughts crept in: only 2.5 days left, only one more day left, only half a day left. And I would begin to mourn for his departure, even though he was sitting right next to me.

I had let the future ruin the present. I don't know if this is a sin or anything, but it seems like it should be. Something like "Thou Shalt Not Squander Thine God-given Present" or what have you. Really. Wasting the moment you have is really an affront to the universe.

Brilliant insight number two from Jai Pausch's therapist was this: Whenever you hear your thoughts going down that path--the present-squandering path of worry or anxiety--repeat to yourself: Not helpful.

Not helpful! What power in those two little words! Whenever you're angry because your boss has wronged you, ditch the anger, and focus on improving your situation. Why? Because your anger is not helpful. Whenever you're mourning for a departure not yet come, recognize and embrace the time you do have. Why? Because your mourning is not helpful.

Anger and mourning and sadness may have their place of course, but very rarely do worry and anxiety. Usually they just make us feel bad and helpless.

So the next time you notice your mind consumed with worries, fears, anxieties and emotions that are burdening you and preventing you from working to enjoy what you have or change your situation through action, repeat it with me: Not helpful.

So what is helpful? Acceptance. Your boss is a jerk? Accept it. Your husband is dying? I don't know how it's possible (and I hope and pray I never have to find out), but somehow you must accept it.

It seems to me that accepting something is like being handed a special kind of eyeglasses. Before you had them, what you couldn't see simply wasn't there for you, but once on, you see a path, new to you, but one that had been there all along. A path that is only revealed through the transformation of acceptance, and a path that once seen, must be taken.

Incidentally, that path is there for you alone, meaning each of our journeys will be so separate as to make comparison worthless. So don't try. So what if someone else did this or that after they lost their job, and so what if when so and so had a baby they were depressed/joyous/neurotic. There may be some use in comparing yourself to someone else, but if there is, I haven't found it yet.

So, the take home message is, if you're worrying about a lot of stuff that hasn't happened, or you're trapped in a rut of unhelpful thinking, quit it, because you're pissing off the universe. And a pissed off universe is a universe unlikely to give you any bliss.

I hope you found this post helpful. If so, subscribe here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Your Bliss-Finding Assignment: Watch TV Tonight

I'm not normally a giant TV fan, but it has its uses!

Do you remember my post from a long time ago about Randy Pausch's "Last Lecture"?

Well, there's an ABC special on tonight at 9 p.m. Central that I think you should watch.

Diane Sawyer talks with Randy Pausch about the impact of his lecture, and while I don't know exactly what they'll discuss, my guess is that if Randy Pausch is involved, you'll come away feeling inspired, grateful and motivated.

So watch it, and let's discuss it back here tomorrow. Now, if only all assignments were so easy... :-)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Why Fiction Is My Bliss

This question came in to me from a writer named Sharon on one of the listservs I belong to:
Here's a question from one word nerd to another, Tiffany: when writing fiction, are you as convinced as often and as intensely as I now am that what I'm producing is utter crap?

And here is my answer:

Sharon--
interesting question, since I have a slightly different problem. When I am writing and everything is on and the neurons are really firing, I feel convinced that what I am writing is brilliant and lyrical and sure to bring me fame and fortune. The moment I am finished with a draft is the moment I lose all those good feelings and feel that I have just produced, as you put it, utter crap.

Chris Offutt, who is a great writer and who I saw lecture at a writers' workshop, reassured me in this sequence of feeling, since he said it was essential to be in love with something as you're writing it--or else how would you ever finish it?--and that it was similarly essential to fall out of love with it the moment you've stopped--because how else would you ever be able to cut and slash and revise to make it not suck so much?

It's kind of the same thing Anne Lamott says about letting the little kid write and dig for gold and making sure the thin-lipped editor lady is far, far away while that's happening. When I teach, I talk about this as the separation of the creator and the editor, which I think is essential. You can't write great fiction if you're critiquing yourself as you go along, and you can't create great fiction if you allow that dreamy, inspired poetic part of yourself handle the surgery that's required afterward to repair a good, but defective, heart.

The trouble is that I think anyone who tries to write fiction has the poet, but it requires education and patience and fearlessness to cultivate the surgeon. I actually think science writers and journalists have the opposite problem, and I see this in my classes: too much surgeon, not enough poet. (Not to say that it isn't there! Just that you can't have that nagging surgeon in the room saying, "Well, I wouldn't do it that way, not if you want the patient to live.")

So yes, I'm basically advocating schizophrenia as a means to writing fiction. Hey, schizophrenia worked for me! :-)

So, Sharon, to answer your question, what you're writing is wonderful, and what you're writing is crap. It's just a matter of getting the right person to work on it at the right time, so that when they're finished, what you're left with is just the right amount of both wonderful and crap: in other words, art.


Now, if only writing fiction was as easy for me as talking about it. Still, I love it, and I believe in it. What do you feel this way about?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Do You Have a Voice?

I've been reading an interesting book called The Cluetrain Manifesto. It's basically about the Internet and the Web, and how it's changing the way business is done.

The most interesting statement, which is repeated again and again, is that the Internet and the Web have recreated the ancient marketplace of the street, where buyers and sellers came together in one place to trade. While this is virtual, the authors argue that the ambiance is in many ways the same: a lively, chaotic, fundamentally human place that is essentially fueled by real, authentic voices engaging in conversation.

Aside from the business implications, I am intrigued in this idea of real, authentic voice. And the interaction of voices to create conversation that dispenses with BS and corporate/scholarly/professional persona-speak.

I'm attracted to this idea because I feel like the distortion of language is a real malady of our society, and one that goes far beyond offending the delicately honed sensibilities of English majors like myself.

As the amazing playwrightTom Stoppard wrote in a recent essay:
Communism’s “normality” relied on the distortion of language and my new hero, George Orwell, had long since diagnosed the disease in his own society, so I took this kind of thing very much to heart.

When you lose your voice because you're trained to speak in a certain way, because you're trained to believe that it is essential to be not-you as you engage in your professional and public life, you lose yourself, bit by bit.

I've seen students and co-workers and friends who, if they ever knew how, have totally forgotten how to sound like a soul, how to speak like a unique, spirited individual.

Does this describe you? Do you, probably subconsciously by now, leave your thoughts and emotions and opinions behind, sharing them only (and maybe not even then!) with your spouse or your best friend?

Ask yourself today if you have a voice. Ask yourself if you sound different in some discernible, meaningful way from all the other people you know.

If you don't, it's time for some voice lessons.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Bliss of Boredom

So we've turned the corner from impending doom to simple boredom. Below is an excerpt from another fascinating article I found this week, this one from the Boston Globe, and titled "The Joy of Boredom":
As Ralley studied boredom, it came to make a kind of sense: If people are slogging away at an activity with little reward, they get annoyed and find themselves feeling bored. If something more engaging comes along, they move on. If nothing does, they may be motivated enough to think of something new themselves. The most creative people, he said, are known to have the greatest toleration for long periods of uncertainty and boredom.
The article's basic premise is that as we become more connected with technology, we're less bored. While that may sound like a good thing, the writer wonders if it is in fact the opposite.

I've always been one of those people who has said that I'm never bored because I'm so good at entertaining myself. And not just with books or TV or the Internet, but even when I'm without anything, I can find a way to engage my brain in some kind of activity, even if it's only daydreaming.

So what does this have to do with bliss? I don't know about you, but I find the more quiet, reflective time I have, the more likely I am to have those a-ha! moments that have proven so valuable in my life. I recognized in a meditative moment without distraction that quitting my job was not so much a desire as a need, and that nothing else would do, so I would have to apply myself to figure out how I would make that happen. Plenty of other things have come to me in moments like this--everything from story ideas to interesting insights to memories that I replay and then reanalyze for new information.

I actually think I tend to cultivate a life that gives me moments like this: I'm not the kind of person to overplan my life, or architect an elaborate social calendar or even get involved in the kinds of drama that so engage so many people. Some people are drama seekers, and their lives seem exciting. However, all that excitement, I think, usually leads to neuroses. No time to think. No time to reflect. No time to learn or get creative.

So the next time you're bored, see if you can refrain from jumping on the computer, switching on the TV or picking up the phone. I just read about someone who does a tech-free day on Sunday. Maybe I'll try it too--I could certainly benefit from a little more boredom in my life, too.

I mean, is anyone immune from the endless siren song of all this connectivity? I know I'm not, and let me tell you: I'm bored with never being bored.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Bliss of Impending Doom

OK, I'm hoping that post title grabbed your attention. I promise, however, that it's no ploy. By the end of this post, you really will see how there can be bliss in the knowledge of impending doom, even in the knowledge of ultimate destruction.

What got me thinking about doom was the title of a New York Times article today: Kissing the Earth Goodbye in About 7.59 Billion Years."

The article begins:

In the end, there won’t even be fragments.

If nature is left to its own devices, about 7.59 billion years from now Earth will be dragged from its orbit by an engorged red Sun and spiral to a rapid vaporous death. That is the forecast according to new calculations by a pair of astronomers...
I know that 7.59 billion years is oh, you know, a looooong time from now, and I have always known that the universe is not static and that our sun will eventually die, but the article's specific description of our world being dragged into a fiery inferno really got to me. I imagined my favorite places--the Texas Hill Country where I live, the Rennaissance glories of Florence, the Sonoran desert of Arizona--utterly gone. I imagined the books I dream of writing turned to dust, but even the dust of my words gone. I imagined the bit of earth that will embrace my bones evaporated from the universe. Earth--all of it--will be gone, and all that will be left is a cold, vacant bit of space.

This is a reality that many of us not only don't think about, but we almost can't think about, either because it's too unsettling or too large to truly encompass with the mind. (7 billion years?) But it is reality nonetheless. This inescapable nonexistence is as true as the existence you and I know and live today.

Depressed yet? I hope not. What you should be feeling is lucky. That out of all the time the universe has existed (estimated at 13.7 billion years), out of the entire time Earth has existed (about 4.5 billion years), out of the entire time life has been on Earth (1 billion years later), and out of the time anatomically modern humans have existed (beginning about 200,000 years ago), and out of the amount of time we have left on Earth (about 1 billion years from now, when it starts getting too hot to support life), that you made it into existence to experience human life, human consciousness and the world around you. And I consider it a bonus, really, to have landed in a time of relative human freedom and in a world that has eradicated much of the disease that has caused so much widespread suffering and death in the past.

I've written about this before, but once you consider this timeline and where we fall on it, we can come to no other conclusion that we are blessed to have this opportunity to suffer and laugh and love and bear children and even to have the honor of leaving a human life. Indeed, I would argue that we are obligated to whatever divinity exists within us (and the above scientific facts do not dissuade me of the divine nature of our existence) to give thanks for and enjoy our life and our awareness.

Bear with me here, but do you have any wedding china you don't use? Or an outfit that is "too nice" to wear? Or a room that is off limits except on special occasions? Or a heart that is afraid of getting hurt?

Consider this wisdom from Achaan Chah Subato, a meditation master, who Steve Ross quoted in his book Happy Yoga:

One day, some people came to the master and asked: "How can you be so happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness, and death?" The master held up a glass and said: "Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly."
Your childhood is history. Your heart is already broken. Your home has already been bulldozed. Your life is already over. Your planet is already gone.

Accept these things, and you will finally begin to live. Doom is always just around the corner, but there's nothing you can do to stop it, and everything you can do to find your bliss in the short and finite time you do have.

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Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Bliss of Failure

In my last post, I wrote about recognizing, inhabiting and then wielding your own power. I got a wonderful comment from reader Matt C., who wrote:
"Many of us that grew up before the internet was a part of our daily life were taught that we had to become professionals before we could make a difference. The kids today are growing up in an amateur society and really participating in politics, culture, art, etc. earlier and at a much higher level."
This comment reminded me of an article I read two years ago in the New York times. Now before you assume I can remember every article I read, take a look and let me know if it strikes you as it did me.

It's this concept of amateurism that the article explores--in relation to an exhibition about drawing as an activity in the mid 19th century--and that Matt's comment hits upon, that I'm very interested in. Consider this part of the article, written by Michael Kimmelman (emphasis mine):

“Drawing in America is as much a basic human activity today as it has always been, even if it is not perceived to be as necessary to economic and cultural progress,” Albert A. Anderson Jr. writes in the slim pamphlet accompanying the show.

I don’t think so. Drawing and doodling are not the same. With the arts, American adults have acquiesced to playing the passive role of receivers.

In a new memoir, “Let Me Finish,” Roger Angell recalls trips to the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium in the 1930’s with his father, who also liked to join pickup games when middle-age American men still did that. Today baseball is like the arts, with grown-ups mostly preferring not to break a sweat. “We know everything about the game now, thanks to instant replay and computerized stats, and what we seem to have concluded is that almost none of us are good enough to play it,” Mr. Angell writes.

So it is with classical music, painting and drawing, professional renditions of which are now so widely available that most people probably can’t or don’t imagine there’s any point in bothering to do these things themselves. Communities of amateurs still thrive, but they are self-selecting groups. A vast majority of society seems to presume that culture is something specialists produce.

Rembrandt Peale published one of the drawing manuals in the Grolier Club show. Besides being an artist, Peale became Pennsylvania’s first high school art teacher in the 1830’s, hired by Alexander Dallas Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin. People, Franklin pointed out, can often “express ideas more clearly with a lead pencil or a bit of chalk” than with words. “Drawing is a kind of universal language, understood by all nations,” he reminded Americans.

We have given it up, at a cost that, as Franklin might have put it, is beyond words. Mr. Angell goes on in his book to say that television and sports journalism have taught us all about the skills and salaries and private lives of professional ballplayers, on whom we now focus, instead of playing the game ourselves.

As a consequence, he writes, “we don’t like them as much as we once did, and we don’t like ourselves much, either.”

There is so much to be gained by attempting something yourself, no matter how crude, no matter how childish the result. Trying to draw something gives you a sense of the difficulty of the artist, playing a game of baseball (especially if you are as unathletic as I am!) confers in you a new respect for anyone who can seamlessly coordinate the motions of her body, trying to write a story with a beginning, middle and end shows you how invisible good narrative really is. And we grow, and we understand and empathize and learn.

I have a fascination with where the Internet is taking us, and I hope that in regards to participation and amateurism, it is taking us back to the mid 19th century, when we all gave something a try and then conversed enthusiastically about it.

Not too long ago, I went to the Maker Faire in Austin, and was astounded by the projects ordinary people were taking upon themselves. A lot of the projects played around with circuit boards and other implements of geekery, but not all of them did, and what people did with humble materials and a determination to create astounded me.

I remember the thrill I got playing around with my chemistry set, my microscope and slides, and even a rudimentary circuit board wiring kit. (I made an infrared intruder alarm for my doorway to keep my pesky little brother out.) I also have always loved crayons, then colored pencils, then india ink and paint.

Even though I turned out to have more of a skill for literary and artistic pursuits and not electronics, the time I spent enthralled, challenging myself to do something new taught me a lot about who I was, what I liked, and what the world had to offer me.

I sincerely hope that the Internet facilitates the return to giddy, chaotic amateurism, where people lose themselves in something they'll never make any money in.

I also hope that people realize that bliss often consists of nothing more than failing gloriously again and again and again.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

All Your Power

OK, so I think I'm back. Thank you all for your support, and I am happy to report that the funk has mostly lifted, and there are just the faintest wisps of fog at the outskirts of my consciousness now. Nothing a little nice spring weather and sunshine can't clear away, methinks.

Mainly, I've just been very, very occupied. With work, but also with campaigning for the Texas primary, now thankfully, and unfortunately, over.

Here's something that I noticed during that process of calling and canvassing: Most people are completely unaware of their own power. Time and time again, I heard a helplessness, a powerlessness, a total abandonment of hope, a resignation to doormat-hood.

Aside from making me sad and frustrated, it also made me think: What causes this? Is this a fundamental human trait, or is it a way of being that is culturally ingrained? Is this specific to Americans, Westerners, or people all over the globe?

I don't have the answers to these questions, but I do know that people's potential for power--their intrinsic ability to direct their lives, make choices, achieve goals, find success, overthrow authority and create their own destiny--is far greater than most of us realize.

I know that in the last job I had, they were almost hell-bent on convincing me I'd be a failure without them. The message was always how dependent I was, how miserably I'd fail on my own, how the salary I was making was the most I could ever hope for, so I shouldn't ask for more. How long I believed them! And how totally false all of it was! I am finally independent, succeeding wildly, making more money and it turns out I needed them not at all.

I invite you to consider your own power. Think of the lies and manipulations being told to you on a daily basis by people you know, by corporations, by organizations, by governments. Recognize the potential for power within and stop believing the lies. Go deep within and try to get in touch with the unstoppable, infinite, unyielding power that lies within each of us.

Of course, you may find you're afraid of your own power. It places responsibility squarely on your shoulders. For some, that can be quite a burden.

However, I don't know about you, but I'd rather face the burden of responsibility than the far heavier, far more debilitating yoke of oppression that allows others to use you as their personal beast of burden, their domesticated ox.

Find your power, and be free.

Monday, February 25, 2008

"This being human..."

Keep your eyes open at all times for signs. Even in the midst of my recent funk, I kept to my routine, attending yoga each week. (I find that keeping to routine is a sure way to defend against a spiral of disorienting chaos, which usually makes everything seem worse than it is. Routine is a battlement against the barbarians at the gate.)

My yoga instructor handed out this poem by the ancient poet Rumi, titled The Guest House. I will post it here:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep you house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

I took this poem, serendipitously received, as a sign. Of what? That I should be patient. That I should be open. Receptive. Aware. Mindful that this too shall pass, and who knows? A seemingly dark and dormant period may yield a great bounty, just as it does in nature.

This poem is full of grace. To all the wonderful people who have supported me and this blog and been so understanding as I shake off these blues, I hope you also benefit from the poem's magnanimity.

Monday, February 18, 2008

I'm Sorry

I don't know really how many regular readers there are of this blog, but if you're one of them, I thank you, and I want to apologize for not posting much lately.

See, I'm in one of those crisis-of-faith slumps I so often write about. Somehow I've been avoiding the blog entirely rather than being honest about it. Maybe that wasn't the right choice, and maybe I should have just come out and talked about what's been on my mind. In any case, I just thought I'd break the silence to tell you that I've been having trouble thinking positive thoughts, and so I figured it might be hard to write positive posts.

Nothing's really wrong, either. It's just kind of a funk. I've been frustrated by my fellow human beings lately, and been frustrated with our society's general rejection of art. While I know I'll get out of it, I'm just a little down in the dumps for now.

Anyway, I appreciate your patience, and I'll start posting again soon.

Thank you,
The Management

;-)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Happiness Dependent on Self-Discipline?

In this post, blogger Penelope Trunk talks about the relationship between positive psychology and self-discipline. She writes (referencing a book called The How of Happiness):

The problem is that you need to find self-discipline in order to execute the strategies [to make you happy] in the first place. If all anyone needed in order to change was a scientific reason [on which happiness advice is based] then we’d all be muscular and thin.

To be sure, tucked deep inside Lyubomirsky’s book on page 274, is the admission that we need “motivation, drive and inspiration” to do the stuff that she has scientifically shown will get us to happy. But that’s the hardest part. That’s the part I need to read three hundred pages about. If we each had the self-discipline to accomplish whatever we set out to accomplish, the world would be a very different place. But what we have instead is a world divided into the people who have self-discipline (those with good careers, good bodies, and good mates) and people who don’t.

I’m not talking about the self-discipline just to get dinner on the table every night. I’m talking hard-core self-discipline, where you conduct routine investigations of how you feel and what you’re doing, and then make changes. What Lyubomirsky recommends requires a whole mind overhaul through amazing self-discipline, but I can’t even stop eating two bagels for breakfast. (Cut back just one a day! That’s like losing 1.5 pounds a week!)

I'm sure we can all identify with the struggle to maintain self-discipline, and I know that it's harder for some things than for others. (Like I can easily maintain the self-discipline to exercise, but sitting down to write fiction--for me, a writer!--is so much harder!)

I am very interested in what Trunk has to say in the bold sentence above. About self-discipline being related to "routine investigations of how you feel and what you're doing." I read that, and I thought, Yes! That's exactly right!

I sometimes think, though, that self-discipline is a psychological muscle that can be (and needs to be) exercised. So, small acts of self-discipline--like walking for 5 minutes as opposed to starting out with 30 minutes--create a mental strength that allow you to tackle increasingly daunting tasks. I wasn't always an exerciser: I used to be the ultimate bookworm and I loathed sweating. But an impromptu jog around the block one day convinced me I needed to get fit or bad things would happen.

So I started out with 5 minutes here, and over the next few years, eventually developed the self-discipline to run a marathon. Now, I will say, that since then, exercising is still part of my daily life, but I no longer have the self-discipline to run a marathon. I would have to build that back up to get there again. But the thing about having achieved something once is that I know I have it in me, which gives me the confidence to try again. (As for fiction writing... that's another post for another time.)

What about you? What role does self-discipline play in your happiness? What do you do to cultivate self-discipline?