Sunday, September 30, 2007

How to Avoid Being Crushed by the Wheel of Fortune

No, I do not speak of Pat Sajak and Vanna White's game show. Though anyone who's seen the face of someone who spins the wheel when they know the puzzle just to earn a little more cash and lands on the "Bankrupt" space has seen the dark side of betting on the wheel of fortune.

I'd like to explore another of Joseph Campbell's teachings on bliss, further refining what it means to him and to this blogger.

From the interview between Bill Moyers and Campbell:
Moyers: What happens when you follow your bliss?

Campbell: You come to bliss. In the Middle Ages, a favorite image that occurs in many, many contexts is the wheel of fortune. There's the hub of the wheel, and there is the revolving rim of the wheel. For example, if you are attached to the rim of the wheel of fortune, you will be either above going down or at the bottom coming up. But if you are at the hub, you are in the same place all the time. That is the sense of the marriage vow--I take you in health or sickness, in wealth or poverty: going up or going down. But I take you as my center, and you are my bliss, not the wealth you might bring me, not the social prestige, but you. That is following your bliss.
If you've ever heard Carl Orff's oratorio Carmina Burana (and you have), you can feel the crushing power and chaotic force of the rushing wheel. The Wikipedia entry describes it:
The selection covers a wide range of secular topics, as familiar in the 13th century as they are in the 21st century: the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the ephemeral nature of life, the joy of the return of Spring, and the pleasures and perils of drinking, gluttony, gambling and lust.

So how do you avoid being on the rim of the wheel? How do you find the place of balance, center and spiritual reward?
  1. Don't follow the money. I remember when I entered college, everyone told me to go into computer science, because that's where the money was. While it's true there's money there, I have no aptitude or interest for the subject--and would have been a miserable failure as a computer science major. Definitely no money in being a D (or worse!) computer science student. I've always been employed as a writer, because I have the aptitude and interest and passion for the subject. Do the same and you'll always be able to take care of yourself.
  2. Don't give up because it's hard. If you find what you are meant to do, you will still find that it's hard. So many brick walls exist, but as I wrote last week, they are there to remind you how badly you want something. Remaining in the center of a rolling wheel is not going to be easy, but it will keep you from the chaos of chasing a fickle, fickle fortune.
  3. Don't listen to bad advice. Learn to trust yourself, and then you can begin to figure out which advice will help you, and which is given in bad faith. People riding the rim of the wheel of fortune are often looking for companions, hoping that sheer numbers will prove they are on the right course. When they are on top of the rim, it may appear to be so. However, their moment on top is likely to be fleeting, and being able to recognize a centered person from a fortune seeker is one of the most important skills you can develop.
  4. Don't forget why you want to find and follow your bliss in the first place. Chances are, you feel like something important is missing or lacking in your life. Is that a person, a career, a spiritual need? Whatever it is that you need to take as your center, you have set out on a journey that will help you find greater peace and fulfillment. This journey will be confusing, difficult and at times you may forget why you're torturing yourself. Why can't you just be happy on the couch watching TV like normal people, dammit? Stupid brain. Stupid soul. Stupid need for purpose. It'll be worth it. I promise.
I suppose yelling "C'mon bliss!" doesn't quite have the ring of "Big money!" but once you realize that you'll never again find yourself on the black "bankrupt" space, you probably won't miss the sweaty palms and racing mind as you wait to find out what hand fate will deal you.

Sure, there will still be ups and downs, but you can weather them without getting crushed, without getting dizzy. When the wheel rolls on, you will still know who you are, where you are, and what you want.

C'mon bliss!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Want Bliss? Don't Be a Jerk.

OK, this one is personal. I am writing this with scraped hands, a leg propped up, and an ice pack on my knee. No, no one pushed me over. That's not exactly where the jerk part comes in.

Actually, what happened may have been even worse. I'll let you decide that. But as I was walking to my parking garage after work, I slipped on an acorn (those damn things are everywhere now) and took a pretty bad tumble. I banged up my knee nice and good, and my hands began bleeding almost instantly. The contents of my purse, according to Murphy's law, emptied themselves in their entirety onto the pavement. (And why is it that the tampons always end up the furthest away?)

Here's the jerk part. Four people were nearby, the furthest at no more than 50 feet, the closest about 20 feet behind me. And guess what? They all looked at me, but no one said a good goddamn thing. Not even a tentative I-don't-really-know-how-I-can-help-but-I'll-ask-anyway "Are you okay?"

Not even from the father LEADING HIS SON IN HIS BOY SCOUT UNIFORM. People talk about setting an example, but I don't think that's generally what they mean.

Do I sound a little angry? Maybe even a little overly angry? Maybe. But here's why this bothers me. I'll be fine, yes, but that's not the point. The point is that we must never become so self-involved that we fail to help someone when we can. That is when we fail to be human. Once or twice won't turn you into the grinch, but a lifetime of looking the other way will, and then, I'm sorry to report, you won't ever find your bliss, because you will no longer have the soul that is required to find bliss. That's why getting pushed is actually less terrible: at least someone pushing you is doing so out of motivation, anger, some reason. Someone ignoring what they plainly see is someone too small and mean to care. I submit to you that that is worse.

If you want to live a good life, the one that you are meant for, you must never forget how to be generous. How to serve. How to inconvenience yourself occasionally for others because it is the right thing to do. How to care for someone less fortunate. How to feel empathy. In other words, I am saying that yes, on the path to bliss, it is important to be a good person.

One day after class at the University of Arizona, I was on my bike, getting ready to leave for home, when I saw a suspicious guy hanging around the bike racks. Now, the UofA is a notorious bike thief's paradise, so I kinda figured I'd watch him. And sure enough, he kept going back and forth between crouching near a bike and then standing around like everything was completely normal. A few people passed me, and I said, "I think that guy is trying to steal a bike," and they all looked me like, "Oh. Fascinating," and moved along. I realized no one was going to call campus police, so I started circling him on my bike, staring him down.

It was really a battle of wills--who was going to get scared and give up first--one that I won, though after about 5 minutes. As soon as he left, I rode to the nearest campus police phone box, and called them in.

As I waited for the cops, I felt really good about looking out for someone, hoping that someone else might do the same for me. The cops showed up, and I started to give them my report when the bike's owner showed up. She lifted the bike's cable lock, and sure enough, it had been nearly clipped through. She came up to me, thanked me for protecting her bike, and then she said this: "Yeah, this is really great, because right now my bike is the only transportation I've got. My car was stolen last week."

And in that moment, I felt a surge of happiness. My small sacrifice of time and energy had really made a difference in this girl's life. It's the kind of thing I try to do as often as I can, and I know it has the effect of preparing your soul, your heart, your life for more happiness and bigger responsibility. Because if you think living your bliss doesn't come with responsibility, then you're not conceiving of your bliss properly. For, if nothing else, your bliss requires that you do the best you can, all while remaining a good, generous and honest person.

So the next time you see someone down, it's not enough just to not kick them. You must also not ignore them (though you can pretend not to see the scattered tampons). Just do what's right. Because jerks don't get to experience bliss.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

What's Experience Good For, Anyway?

So my mom, sage that she is, always has this handy little saying she trots out when one of her dear children calls her with disappointment, or heartache or a strong desire to win the lottery so she (or he! it could be my brother we're talking about here) can call up the boss and say, Shove it!

What she says is this: Everything happens for a reason.

Her father taught her something similar. He told her this: No hay mal que por bien no venga. Which, loosely translated, means: There is no misfortune that does not also bring some good.

These admittedly fatalistic nuggets are not always the easiest thing to hear. After all, when you want something, you want it! But of course, it's never that simple. I've been writing about Randy Pausch's "Lecture of a Lifetime" the past couple days, and there's something he quoted that also seems to go along with this theme. These were the words he shared: "Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted."

OK, so there must be something to all of this. What is it, then? What does all this so-called "experience" get us, anyway?

Here are some thoughts:
  1. We learn about the brick wall. If we didn't have obstacles, we might not discover what we really, truly want, or even why we want that thing.
  2. We learn that our lives are not completely under our control. This is an important lesson. I believe this is one path toward a greater humility and reflectiveness--if we can't control everything in our lives, we discover the limits of our powers, which also teaches us a great deal about compassion and patience.
  3. We learn how to get creative. If everything happened as planned, we wouldn't be forced to test the limits of our powers, by trying new ideas, new methods, by digging into new resources. Necessity truly is invention's mama.
  4. We learn where happiness comes from. So you want the high-powered job? Think your life won't be complete without the Prada handbag? If only you had one more bathroom in your house, then things would be set? The problem with getting exactly what you want, easily, is that you never learn what it is you really want, and what is truly important. You just keep feeding the consumer, because it makes you feel better for a brief while. Paris Hilton has a lot of material crap, but does she have a rich inner life? My guess is no.
  5. We learn to construct a narrative of our lives. When we go through the gamut of feelings--from elation to disappointment to love to grief--our lives take on the meaning and richness of story. Why do we like stories? Because they get us in touch with something larger than the self. No story is any good without conflict, so why should yours be any different. Experience gives you a story to tell.
Look at Randy Pausch's story. He's basically selected the highs and lows of his life to tell us what his life has meant. Judging from the public's reaction, his life's story means a great deal to all of us. Obviously he would have worth as a human being even if he had had everything handed to him, but we wouldn't be captivated by it: waiting to find out how his work with the Imagineers worked out, on edge to see if he would achieve his goal of being in zero gravity.

Experience, in short, is another word for adventure. While it might seem nice to do without the disappointment, the pain, the struggle--a life lived without adventure doesn't seem like much of a life at all. In fact, though Randy Pausch is young at 46, and only has a few months to live, his life is, without a doubt, one to be envied.

He has lived the adventure of his dreams. I wish you all--and myself--to have the courage to live what Joseph Campbell called the "soul's high adventure."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Your Critic, Your Best Friend

Today's post will actually continue to explore Randy Pausch's lecture, which I wrote about yesterday. He is the professor dying of pancreatic cancer who gave an inspiring final lecture about achieving your childhood dreams.

I am exploring his statements, mining them for the riches they contain. Today I'd like to discuss the relation of the critic and of criticism to your path toward bliss.

This is obviously where a lot of folks get very uncomfortable. You announce to your spouse you'd like to open a yoga studio. He says, in a calm voice: "Honey, you've never taught a yoga class." Your heart may think, An immaterial detail! But your brain hears his words as criticism saying, You will certainly fail!

Our relationship to criticism is a complex one, and is dependent as much on timing as on anything else. Reveal your dreams of opening a yoga studio too soon, and the gossamer fabric of the dream is too flimsy to stand up to the real world of struggle and heartbreak. But keep your dream secret for too long, and you miss out on the encouragement, advice and community of people who believe you are capable of succeeding.

Now, back to Randy Pausch's thoughts on criticism. One of his childhood dreams was to play NFL football. He described himself as kind of a small, scrawny kid--not your typical thick-necked football player. Nevertheless, as a nine year old, he started playing football in a league under a Coach Jim Graham. Here's what he has to say about that experience:
There was one practice where he was riding me hard. All practice was, you're doing it all wrong, you owe me laps, you're doing pushups after practice. After it was all over, an assistant coach came up to me and said, "Coach Graham rode you pretty hard, didn't he?" I said, yeah, he did. And then he said, "That's a good thing. When you're screwing up and no one's telling you anymore, that means they gave up." That's a lesson that stuck with me my whole life. When you see yourself screwing up and no one's bothering to say anything, that's a very bad place to be. Your critics are the ones telling you they love you and still care.
No one likes to be criticized. It hurts, mainly because you suspect it might be true. Or, even if you know it's not true, it forces you to summon belief in yourself, which is sometimes so hard and scary to do it's easier to believe that the critic is right and you're doomed to fail.

No matter whether the criticism is constructive or destructive, I say that any reaction is better than indifference and dismissal. Any reaction means there is a real response, that you're on to something. And most of the time, when criticism comes from your loved ones, they really just want to help you. It's well-intentioned, and might bear listening to. Maybe in the yoga studio example above, the husband isn't saying: 'You'll fail,' but rather, 'I love you, I don't want to see you hurt, and I think you need to develop your plans a little more.'

So the next time someone gives you hell, don't look at it as an excuse to give up. Decide to listen to constructive criticism, assess it for validity, and then trust yourself to do with it what you need to. Decide to be grateful for the criticism, grateful that someone cares enough to expend their limited energy to help you reach the potential they see in you.

Now, isn't that a better way of looking at it? So the next time someone gives you a kick in the ass, turn to them, smile, and say, "Thanks, I needed that."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

How Badly Do You Want Your Bliss?

As I was sorting through the e-mails that stacked up while I was away on vacation, one stood out: a link to a final lecture from Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch, who is dying of pancreatic cancer.

I first read the story on the ABC site, but then clicked to watch the lecture, titled "How to Live Your Childhood Dreams." I actually haven't finished it--there are four parts, and I've only finished part one, but already I know that this man's wisdom--and humor, because he's very funny--speaks exactly to what I'm trying to do here on Gimme Bliss.

I'd like to break out pieces of his lecture and expand on them, because each sentence of this lecture is richer than the last. I suppose this comes from the intimacy he now has with his own mortality, which most of us really can't or don't want to face most of the time. Did you ever see that great HBO series Six Feet Under? Someone asks undertaker Nate Fisher why we die. His answer: "Because death gives life meaning."

So back to Randy Pausch's lecture. In the first part, he mentions several times the idea of the "brick wall." As in, he wanted to be a Disney Imagineer, but after earning his Ph.D. and sending off an application, they sent him, to paraphrase, the most nicely worded go-to-hell letter ever.

What he said next was very wise. I'm paraphrasing, but he said:
Brick walls are not there to keep you out, but to remind you how badly you want something. Brick walls aren't there to keep you out, they're there to keep all those other people out.
The audience laughed, because he obviously did not once consider himself one of those other people.

I absolutely love this. If everything were easy, what would be the value of achieving your dreams? What would separate the most devoted, most persistent from the merely lucky, or the just plain lazy? Just as your birthdays are there to remind you of time passing, brick walls show up when you most need to reevaluate your commitments and reenergize your focus.

After all, if you don't really want to become a musician, or brew your craft beer or write that book, that's a place where it's okay for you to give up. That's where the universe is asking you if you're really sure about all this. And maybe you're not. I know some people decide that the sacrifices and the work aren't going to be justified by attaining that goal. Maybe it's where you find something else you were supposed to be doing, but weren't aware of it.

But, if you're certain that you're on the right path, that this goal of yours is in line with your gift, with what you have to offer the world, and if it's something that you can't do without--then this is the point where the universe separates the merely talented from the truly passionate.

In other words, this is where you discover that that brick wall doesn't apply to you. That wall is for other people. Sure you may not walk right through it as though it were a mere illusion, but as you press up against it, searching its surface for a hold, you will get close enough to see what others can't: the irregularities in the surface, the places your fingers and toes will fit, that it's not as high as it seemed when you first saw it.

And then you will climb over the wall, and end up on the other side. But before you do, you will stand for a moment on top of the wall, looking out over the view, at what you've achieved, and you will look back and you will look forward, and you will be so very thankful that the wall was there to climb.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Gone Sailing...

Okay, not really. I don't know how to (literally) sail, but a vacation--the reason the blog will be quiet for a few days--is definitely a voyage of adventure, surprise, and always at least a little risk.

The house above is in the place I'm headed--Salem, MA. The house above also happens to have been owned by one of my childhood heroes--Nathaniel Bowditch. (There he is, bottom left, in the top hat!) He was the subject of Jean Lee Latham's book Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, which was one of those childhood books that had a profound effect on my young mind.

Here's how the Wikipedia entry summarizes the plot of the novel:
The novel introduces readers to young Nat Bowditch, a boy who loves school, and especially mathematics. He dreams of someday attending Boston's Harvard University, but is forced by economic circumstances to quit school and begin working. Eventually, he ends up as an indentured servant to a ship's chandler. Still determined to continue his education, he begins to study (and master) advanced mathematics in the evenings after work.

When his indenture is complete, he gets the chance to go to sea. There, he discovers that many of the navigational sources used at the time contain extensive and dangerous errors. He is prompted to compile a new book of navigational information. This book, The American Practical Navigator, is still in use today. Under several captains, Nat learns how things work at sea. He invents new ways of calculating latitude and longitude, increasing the accuracy of calculations used to find ships' locations. Eventually Nat becomes a captain himself.. At the book's end, Nat receives an honorary degree from the school he always wanted to attend, Harvard.

His story was such an inspiration to me as a young girl--the amazing way he triumphed over the odds, the challenges he faced, the talent he had that he refused to give up on--he was certainly a hero.

Joseph Campbell talks a lot about the hero's journey, viewing it as mythic instruction for how we should strive to live our own lives.

I read a post today at the Shane & Peter, Inc. blog about getting a mentor, and I think it's priceless advice that I will definitely heed. But I think it's so important to have heroes, too, be they living or dead. Sometimes I actually prefer the dead ones, just because they have stood the test of time and have gained a lustre that shines as a beacon for us when times seem dark. They reach out across the ages and give encouragement through the legend and example of their own lives. That their stories resonate even today is immensely heartening, because they too were human. It's like that line in the latest Harry Potter film:
Every great wizard in history started out as nothing more than what we are now. If they could do it, why not us? Well… why not us?
Indeed. Why not me? Why not you? Carry on, dear reader. Become the hero you loved as a child.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Language Day: Find the Meaning of Life in a Novel

I read this truly excellent essay today in the Boston Globe, and it has me all atwitter with thoughts. It's somewhat lengthy, and I'll pull out my favorite paragraphs here, but if you have time, by all means read it. (And feel free to get a discussion going in the comments!)

Essentially, it talks about the failure of universities to provide a true humanistic education to the students passing through its gates, and what that means for society's spiritual (but not necessarily religious) investigations. The article acknowledges that those studying the sciences fare better, though I believe that anyone in any discipline could benefit from humanities courses taught well. The difficulty, the writer posits, is that when the humanities left a secular but still spiritual pursuit of the questions Why are we here? and What is the meaning of life? to pursue narrow, specialized research fields, they lost their power, prestige and the interest of their students.

What I'm interested in is the obviously deep curiosity people have for the big questions, and how they go about trying to find their way toward insight, even without guidance or organization. After all, this curiosity is what led me to stumble upon Joseph Campbell, and then embrace him as a teacher. As Kronman, the writer of this essay, says:
Most importantly, perhaps, the great upsurge of religious fundamentalism outside our colleges and universities is a sign of the growing appetite for spiritual direction. These movements can be a source of danger and division, and intellectuals may mock and despise them, but teachers also ought to see in them the energy that will drive the restoration of the question of life's meaning - and, with that, of the humanities themselves - to a central place in our colleges and universities. The fundamentalists have the wrong answers, but they've got the right questions. We need to learn to ask them again in school.

So maybe we got screwed in college. So maybe we should have been studying Plato, but we were (somehow, in my case) studying Madonna. What do we do now?

For me, I couldn't agree more with Kronman--the answer isn't in the unique inflection of a religious tradition, but in the larger, more universal explorations of human mythos, consciousness, philosophy. So, we go and we find like-minded people, and we teach ourselves. I know that this is suited for avid readers--and while I am one, I recognize not everyone is--but again, starting out with Joseph Campbell's accessible The Power of Myth book or DVD could be the beginning of a direction.

Then, as we progress, we can follow Kronman's suggestion, which begins by discussing the similarities of programs devoted to these larger questions. He writes: (emphasis mine)

These programs differ in many ways, and inevitably reflect the culture of their schools; some are mandatory and others, like Yale's Directed Studies, are elective. But despite their differences, all rest on a set of common assumptions, which together define a shared conception of humane education.

The first is that there is more than one good answer to the question of what living is for. A second is that the number of such answers is limited, making it possible to study them in an organized way. A third is that the answers are irreconcilably different, necessitating a choice among them. A fourth is that the best way to explore these answers is to study the great works of philosophy, literature, and art in which they are presented with lasting beauty and strength. And a fifth is that their study should introduce students to the great conversation in which these works are engaged - Augustine warily admiring Plato, Hobbes reworking Aristotle, Paine condemning Burke, Eliot recalling Dante, recalling Virgil, recalling Homer - and help students find their own authentic voice as participants in the conversation.

That notion above--"that the best way to explore these answers is to study the great works of philosophy, literature, and art in which they are presented with lasting beauty and strength"--obviously speaks to me as a writer of fiction. But I see it as an exhortation to those of you who may not always see the potential art has to be more than be an elegant and decadent luxury.

This is pretty heady stuff, but here's my main message on this Language Day: Read fiction. Study a painting. Read philosophy. Watch a really great film. Get to know Art. Get right up next to these big, huge, ginormous ideas--yes, it may make you uncomfortable, yes, it might be difficult at first. But if you're serious about finding your bliss, you first have to find out what your life means to you, what you have to contribute, what the purpose of your life is.

To me, there's no better, more fun way to do that than to cozy up to some art.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Free Your Breath to Unclutter Your Mind

Recently I wrote a post about 87 year old yoga master Tao Porchon-Lynch. In the interview part of the article, she said something that has stayed with me, and that I am finding to be exceptionally helpful in clearing my mind and relaxing my body when I begin to feel overwhelmed.

The interviewer says: You seem so peaceful and serene. Is it the yoga? To which she replies: (emphasis mine)

I do believe that you can if you work with the breath, you can relax and feel that power within you. I work with my breath. People have problems when they keep their noisy thoughts in their throats. When you learn to breathe properly, you can get rid of those noisy thoughts and relax. If I can bring people into a quiet place and get rid of their noisy thoughts, you'd be surprised how they calm down.
The first time I read this, I did find it strange that she made reference to noisy thoughts being in the throat. I had always thought that a racing mind originated in the head, in the space behind the eyes. I didn't think much of it until the next time I felt myself under stress, and I recognized that my throat was tight and constricted, and breath was barely squeaking through that airway.

That's when Porchon-Lynch's words came back to me, and I tried opening my throat to breath. Like rinsing a clogged screen with water, I felt my head clear. Focus and clarity returned to my mind, and I felt better physically. I didn't feel as sick to my stomach, as confused by the shrapnel of thoughts bombarding my brain in damaging and broken shards.

While I now know that Porchon-Lynch is right in the quote above, I'm still not quite sure why. My theory is that our thoughts are usually formulated into words, which our minds/bodies recognize as potential speech. Maybe our throats get full of potential words, and we experience the sensation of tightness and constriction as a kind of blockage of all the potential things we could say aloud. I don't really know.

What I do know is that this seemingly small statement is having a profound effect on the way I maintain calm and focus. And it's such a small thing. Which got me to thinking about the tiny, cumulative things you can do to get somewhere big.

If you're like me, sometimes the prospect of making big changes seems burdensome and sometimes downright impossible. I don't like people who advise you to change your life in one day. That's why I like this one: open your throat to breath. I like it because I know I can do it!

I also like that it's tied to a fundamental physical process. I don't like advice that tells you you need to buy something in order to change. I guess sometimes you might, but this one is free, and more importantly, it seems logical to me that if you can get your breath in order, you might have a better foundation for more ambitious tasks.

Since you can't live without breathing, what if each breath were more free, more cleansing, more calming? What if you could train yourself to breathe calmly and use your breath to bring calm when you weren't feeling it? This is ancient wisdom, I know, but sometimes it feels like such a revelation in our world--so much of this kind of wisdom has been lost to us or outside our culture.

You breathe thousands of breaths every day--doesn't it follow that making a small change in this foundational behavior could have a profound effect when practiced over and over again each day? I certainly think it can, and like I said, I'm already more aware when 'noisy thoughts' threaten to hinder my progress, and am more able to fend them off, too.

So hey, free that breath already! This one I know you can do!

Possibly related posts:
Gimme Bliss: Birthday Edition
Look Up.
What is Beyond Your Perception, but Exists Nonetheless?
Find Your Self. Then Trust It.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

What Can You Add Through Subtraction?

Sometimes, when we think about making change, we think about doing more, making lists, adding things, habits, routines.

And while that can be useful--I know that writing down my appointments and tasks on my Google Calendar is a new habit I'm really benefiting from--I'm here to ask: What changes can you make through subtraction?

What can you cut out of your life that is not truly essential? Let's move from the conceptual to the practical, shall we?

The Forest:
  • Negative energy. Everyone has someone they know who is truly a vampire of the soul. They are negative more than they are positive, they enjoy incessant whining, and they want to make you as miserable as they are. Begin to move away from people who are like this, eventually removing this kind of influence from your life. And, if for some reason you cannot get away from the person, try to create a mental force field--tune them out, chant a silent mantra, think happy thoughts--that repels their negativity.
  • Hunger. I'm not really talking about a craving for pizza here, though perhaps if that craving comes through boredom or loneliness, maybe it applies, too. But what I'm really referencing is that insatiable, roving hunger for things and feelings that you get through external means. A little retail therapy now and again won't kill you, but if you're constantly shopping online or dulling your senses with too much TV or using a friend as an emotional crutch, you need to take a look at what it is you're really after and cut the craving.
  • Distractions. This kind of goes along with procrastination, since they're related. But quit using distraction as a method to forget what it is you really want or what you really hate--turn off the TV, jump off the Internet (but wait till you're done reading this), stop reading People magazine, and confront your life as it is. Reading about Lindsay Lohan's terrible life doesn't make yours any better.
  • Excuses. Seriously, drop excuses from your speech and thinking. Some people have it easier, yes, but there are plenty of examples of people who have done amazing things through sheer force of will, faith, spirit and inner resources. So you're not rich, or good looking or maybe even able bodied. That's OK. Find what you have to offer, and make full use of what potential you do have. Every single person is capable of something extraordinary, even if it's something only you and a few people notice. Make a difference in your sphere of influence, whatever it is. If you want something badly enough and it is something you are capable of, you can do it.
Okay, so the preceding were the big picture items of subtraction. Anything falling under those categories are eligible for the big red pen. So, on a smaller scale, what else can you cut out of your life that will make things clearer for you on the path to your bliss?

The Trees:
  • Garage sale. Other blogs have more to say on this subject, but suffice it to say, get rid of as much stuff as you can that you aren't using or you don't need. The more you can do this, the more time and space you will have for the things you do want and do want to spend time on. How can you create your animated film if you're surrounded by books you don't read, CDs you never listen to, or your closet is full of clothes you never wear?
  • Unsubscribe from credit card offers and catalogs. Reduce the mail coming into your house and spend less time sorting through it.
  • Internet and e-mail. I'm not advocating cutting this out entirely, but limit it to specified times, and don't cheat!
  • Put TV and movies on your terms. My husband and I don't have a Tivo, but what we do instead of being enslaved to the TV is to rent the series and movies we want to watch on Netflix, and watch them when we want to. Yes, that means not being able to participate in water cooler conversation with your co-workers, but you probably don't like most of them anyway, so it's a good excuse to walk away. Two time-savers in one!
  • Refuse to talk to people who aren't worth your time. This goes back to the negative energy issue. Save your precious social time for people you really like, and who are really your friends. If you say yes to invitations you don't want, or talk to people who sap your energy, you aren't being nice. You're being dishonest, insincere and helping no one. Not everyone you meet will be worth it--so long as you are polite when you decline, it doesn't make you mean, it makes you a self-respecting human.
This is just to get you started. Each person will have different things to subtract. But make a list of all the things--behaviors, things, habits--that you could live a better life without, and resolve to start cutting.

What I realize is that most of these suggestions deal with saving time. That's probably because the most common excuse uttered for not achieving what you want is this gem: "I'd like to do X, but I just don't have time."

All I'm asking is this: Is that really true? Or do you have the time, but it's currently filled with things that just need to go?

This one is hard for all of us, but I'm giving it my best effort, and I wish you luck. Feel free to share your ideas for "subtraction" in the comments.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Music is Bliss

I didn't post last night because I was out at a Spoon show until verrrry late. Needless to say, it freakin' rocked.

What I love about music, and especially live music, is the way you lose yourself in the sound, the performance, the atmosphere. This is an experience of bliss, no doubt about it.

What I love about Spoon, specifically, is the craft of the songs, and especially of the lyrics. They go beyond the rational and dip into the subconscious, symbolic, the mythic. They don't always make "sense," but they are by no means nonsense. Like the very best poetry, they are authentic and true.

I don't know if you have music in your life like this, but I know that listening to a band like Spoon or Modest Mouse or Elvis Costello helps me to bypass my mundane, conscious brain, and bring me into heightened awareness. Usually after listening, I want to create art. Literally, this music is my muse.

I truly believe there is no other art form that so directly hooks into the energetic, creative center of a person as music, so if you're looking to find help toward your bliss, make sure you have a musical companion or three to turn to.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Find Your Place of Transformation

This photo was taken in Saguaro National Park West, just outside of Tucson, Arizona.

One of the reasons I decided to go to graduate school there was because I had never lived in the desert, and I thought, "I want to know what that's like."

In some ways, inside the city, it's much like any other place: strip malls, movie theaters, even neighbors who stubbornly refused to acknowledge their local environment and so had heavily irrigated, golf-course style lawns.

Though you had hints of the desert in town, it was only when you left the developed areas and went into protected, real desert that you understood how fundamentally harsh and unwelcoming the desert is to humans. (Though of course the Pima Indians and other tribes developed the knowledge to live there--I'm just saying you need that kind of culturally transmitted, specialized knowledge to survive.)

Never had my skin been so dry, never had I had nosebleeds. Never did I have to squint my eyes shut when the dust storms would blow through and I'd be caught outside. Never did I encounter so many poisonous, prickly and otherwise unfriendly life forms.

And yet the desert is unspeakably breathtaking and awe-inspiring and, maybe most importantly, thriving. This is no dead place. The forms of life I saw may have reminded me of aliens, but there was life everywhere. Any niche that could be filled, was. Any evolutionary trick that could be tried, had been.

The perseverance of life. Its unwillingness to give up, its ability to change as needed to survive and then proliferate. This is one of the lessons the desert has to teach.

One day, very early on in the program, I was feeling lonely, frustrated, confused, uncertain that moving to Tucson to do this graduate program had been the right decision. I wandered into a store selling Southwestern furniture and crafts, looking for a gift. I was alone in the store, and somehow, the friendly owner and I struck up a conversation. I suddenly began pouring out my fears and concerns--practically telling this guy my life story. It just came rolling out of me, and I was lucky he was so willing to listen. When I finally stopped, he paused, and looked at me.

"You know why you're here, don't you?" he asked.
I had no idea. I shook my head.
"You've come here for transformation. Everyone who comes to Tucson comes for transformation."
And while I didn't know it at the time, he was right. Being in the stripped down harshness of a climate that felt like a constant assault began to effect a change in me, as did my studies. But as I found myself staring up at majestic, towering saguaros, and listening to the scour of wind against canyon walls, I couldn't help but be changed. Evolution and adaptation was all around me.

I'm not saying you have to move to the desert or the tundra to find your place of transformation. Tucson was it for me. But think about where--geographically, occupationally, personally--you will find the challenges that will force you to grow stronger, to thrive in any conditions.

Go there, and prepare for transformation.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Language Day: What People Say When They Talk

So, as I've mentioned before, I teach a fiction writing class at the University of Texas Informal Classes program. One of the things you look at when critiquing a story is the dialogue.

One of the mistakes new or inexperienced writers make is to create dialogue that is essentially a Q&A format. So, for example:
"Did you have a good day at work?" she asked.
"It was okay. Nothing much happened," he said. "How about yours?"
"The same. A few meetings, pointless chit chat--the usual."
While this may be an accurate rendition of the brain dead conversation that takes place after a day of slogging it out with your fellow cube monkeys, this isn't the dialogue most people want to read, and it certainly isn't the speech to pay attention to.

A better way to write dialogue is to have the characters talk past each other--essentially having their words slide right over each other, creating friction and heat. To illustrate:

"Did you have a good day at work?" she asked.
"Who cares. I'm here now. What are we having for dinner?"
"Tacos. Did you know Lucas's art teacher called me today?"
"Why? Did he get caught drawing boobs or something?"
When you look at dialogue like this, so much more is revealed. She asks a simple question, but we do not get a simple conversation. Suddenly we see that he would rather stick hot pokers in his eyes than discuss work, and that he's hungry. She isn't concerned with the menu, but brings up their son. He presupposes his kid is in trouble for something, not really paying attention to what she might have to say.

What's the point of all this? Agendas. Every person, at every moment, wants something. Even if he/she doesn't know it. You're desperately hungry, but your spouse wants you to look at the stack of mail. Conflict. You want to ask someone out, but they want someone else. Conflict. Oftentimes, we become so immersed in our own wants and agendas that we are unaware of what other people are saying or doing.

To which I suggest: Listen to the words people use when they talk to you. Not only will you learn a lot about the other person, but you may learn a lot about the way they view you.

I once had someone apologize to me thusly: "I'm sorry you got upset." Look at that carefully. Not, "I'm sorry I upset you," but that you were upset. Almost no responsibility taken there, and not much of an apology, is it? And it's all in how the words are arranged.

When you ask someone how they're doing and they say, "Fine," you know right away whether that's the truth or not. If they're the kind of person who always does this, there's no intimacy there, and they may not ever be willing to tell you much.

Listen also to the conversations around you. Analyze the way people choose their words and try to figure out what each person wants from the conversation. I find that going to coffee shops and listening to people on cell phones is great for this.

By paying attention to what people are really saying to you when they talk, you can get a much better sense of where you stand with people and the sort of folks they are. You may find that people you talk to on a regular basis aren't saying much, or aren't giving you the respect you deserve. If you find this is the case, ask yourself why, and then look at the way you speak to others.

Think of this as an exercise in tuning up your bullshit detector. Once you can recognize it, you can avoid stepping in it and/or generating your own. Conversely, once you recognize (and practice!) genuine, honest speech, and especially the kind that's supportive and generous, you will find your true allies in your quest to find your life's purpose.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Find Your Self. Then Trust It.

There is a woman I know who fascinates me, though not for admirable reasons. Instead, I am fascinated by the smallness and sadness of her life--how anyone can be in such a sorry place as she!

Well into middle age, this person is completely, utterly incapable of making a decision. And when a choice seems to be made, it is later revealed to have been an arbitrary one, as random as throwing a dart. When someone asks her opinion, she usually turns to the questioner and says: "I don't know--what do you think?"

I thought perhaps this inability to make a decision or express a strong opinion came out of fear. And while that certainly is part of it, I've recently come to the theory that perhaps the primary reason she can't make a decision is that there is no self there. After all, when someone asks you what you think or what you want to do, you must first go inside yourself for a split-second, and ask yourself. In other words, you consult your self. If you have no self--and by that I mean a vital spirit with a will and a mind and the lessons of experience--there is no one to answer those questions.

As I've grown older, I've noticed this self of mine growing stronger and more potent, more confident that I know who I am and where I've been, and where I'm going. This takes time, and is one of the reasons younger people--especially teenagers--can be so easily led. They simply haven't had as much time to develop themselves.

Of course, one expects that by a certain point, you will begin to form and take shape, and that you will soon be making contributions of voice and opinion and action, and will no longer be a suggestible vessel. Which is why it's so sad when you see older people who still seem so vacant.

This post does not pose any easy solutions. In fact, I believe that finding your self is in some ways the holy grail of personal development. So what can I tell you? Well, I can share some observations based on my own life experience and extrapolate from there.

What keeps you from having a strong sense of self?
  1. Fear. Generally a fear of what other people think. Paralyzed into inaction or indecision for fear of going against what is socially accepted.
  2. Denial. In that you refuse to acknowledge your truths, because it is too hard or too painful. You really want to be a musician, but that path seems so difficult. It is easier to opt for the stable job with the stable salary. By denying who you are, your self begins to wither.
  3. Insecurity / Lack of confidence. What do you know? Why would anyone trust your opinion or your course of action? Despite the fact that you have life experiences and a unique mind and personality, you devalue your voice to the point that not only do you feel that others shouldn't listen to you, but you begin to lose all faith in yourself.
These are the biggies, though of course I'm sure there are subsidiary reasons. But all of these erode your sense of self to such a point that you become lost, your spirit a dim light among the shadows. The good news is you're still there, but only you can go within to fan the flame and help it to burn brighter. Again, it all goes back to your own willingness to change.

Now, developing your self and trusting in it are two different things. You can have a sense of who you are and what you think, and yet still be unable to trust in it. Of course it helps when you have someone--a loved one, friend or family member--who believes in you. But no one can teach you to believe in yourself. Again, it must come from within.

So how do you learn to trust yourself?
This has no easy answer, but here are some ideas for where to start.
  1. Stop worrying what others will think. What is the worst that can happen, honestly? What, someone will laugh at you? Hate you? Think you are stupid? Well, let me ask you this: Have you ever laughed at someone? Thought they were stupid? Hated them? Guess what--you have no control over what other people think of you, and thinking you do is nothing but a delusion. No matter how hard you try, there will always be people who you will not get along with or who won't care for you--but it's nothing personal, and in fact, the harder you try to get everyone to like you, the more likely you'll lose respect--theirs and your own.
  2. Find out who you are. Of course, that's kind of the point of every article on this blog, so it's not likely this is an overnight solution. This could be your life's journey, but so long as you're taking it, you're doing all you can to get into harmony with your truest self. Begin by asking for help. When you do this, you reawaken parts of your self that have been dormant, but that when revived, will strengthen you in so many ways.
  3. Learn to listen to yourself. I don't care how long you've been ignoring that voice inside you, so long as you're alive, it's still there. It may be tiny--only a croak--but if you get very quiet, you can hear it. Begin first by simply acknowledging its existence, and then, when you're aware it's there, begin by listening to it. Hear your thoughts and desires and ideas and opinions, and just let them be. Don't dismiss them. Just listen. At some point, you'll realize that you have something unique to contribute, and you will begin to allow that voice to actually reach your throat and be spoken. It may take awhile. Be patient.
Now, what do I know about all this? Well, when I started my MFA program, I was suddenly confronted by a large, critical audience for stories that previously I'd pretty much just kept to myself. I found that I was suddenly paralyzed by writer's block, and that I had lost all ability to trust myself as a writer.

After a year or so, I realized that I was worrying too much what others thought, and not trusting my own voice. Now, was it valuable for me to go through this crisis? Probably. Why? Because when I came out of it (and I eventually did) not only had I learned to listen to other people, but I also learned how to ignore them. In other words, I was able to discern for myself which criticism was valuable and which was not in line with my vision as a writer. I was so much more confident in my voice, my sense of self, and my convictions. It took a long time, but I finally knew who I was as a writer. This isn't to say that I'm not still growing and learning--I am. But I now have an unshakeable foundation on which to build.

So if you haven't already, find your self. Say hi. Take it out for a drive or a walk. Get to know it. And then, when you know each other for a while, make a commitment. Bring it home. Sleep next to it. Eat breakfast with it. Soon, you and your self will be joined at the hip, and you'll be ready for anything.

Trust me. Or better yet, trust you. Trusting your self is one of the most important steps on your journey toward bliss.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Gimme Bliss: Birthday Edition

This picture, from a Washington Post article, shows 87-year-old yoga master Tao Porchon-Lynch doing the peacock pose. If it looks difficult, that's because it is. Right now, I couldn't do it.

My yoga teacher handed this photo out in a recent class, along with this question: "How old would you feel if you did not know your age?"

Now, it felt as though this class were made just for me, because I am turning thirty this week, and as anyone who has approached a milestone birthday knows, there is a lot of reflection and self-evaluation going on as you approach the day.

My teacher went on: "What would you do if you didn't know your age? Would you be saying, 'I should do this,' 'I can't do that?' If you didn't know your age, would you just simply live, doing what your heart guided you to do?"

I know that I've felt this sense of "should" and "must" and "can't" in my own life, and often it does have to do with a number. "Oh, by 27, I should be at this stage in my career," and "After 30, I can't wear this or that." The woman above is evidence that this kind of thinking is usually bollocks.

I think people use age as a rationalization for not taking responsibility over their own lives, making it an excuse for not acting, when really the reason is fear. About the only thing I can think of that is truly age-determined is a woman's fertility. (Which does make a woman's decision making process that much more complicated. But it still isn't an excuse for not living your fullest life.)

Instead of using your age as an excuse, use it as a reminder.
  • Remind yourself that time is passing. This is not a bad thing to remember! Sometimes, our lives can become so routine and similar that it may feel like Groundhog Day--each day is the same one, lived over again. Confront time, and resolve to acknowledge the finitude of your life. A little birthday jolt may not feel great initially, but if you don't turn away, it can be exactly what you need to sort out your life.

  • Acknowledge your responsibility over your life. You're an adult, and no one--not your mom, not your spouse, not your boss or kids or dog--can make a change for you. You are the only one with the power to change your life for the better. So another year has passed? Big deal. You can get cracking on change today, and have a much better life by next year.

  • Remember that you are not just the age you currently are, but all the ages that have come before. Think of your past years as the chambers of a nautilus. You have moved into a new year, but it is in addition to what has come before, not a replacement. What good does this do you? Think of the time you did something very brave because you weren't old enough to know better. You still have that person within you. Think of the kid who used to laugh uncontrollably when someone told a silly joke. You are still capable of that, too. Summon your experiences to aid you. You'd be amazed at all the things you can do and that you've accomplished if you only took the time to remember them.

  • Remember that life is a gift. Even in the darkest moments, that we have the chance to mess up and try again is an enormously heartening thing to remember. Of course things will go badly sometimes, but hey, you're still here. These conditions are temporary, and even better, you can change them. And, even if you can't change your conditions, you can change your perspective on them.

  • Remember that life is fun. No matter how old we grow, we have a child inside us. We have the ability to see life as play, which many child-development specialists have said is the most important kind of learning kids can do. This is why I intend to go mini-golfing on my 30th birthday. Treat the kid inside you every once in a while to some fun or goofiness, and youth will always be yours.
Happy 30th birthday to me, and happy birthday to you. Hooray for birthdays! Let's eat some cake!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Follow Your Bliss and Save the World

As you consider making a change in your life, you may have the thought that doing so is selfish, or useless, or unimportant. After all, if becoming a craft brewer is what you have dreamed of doing for years, it hardly seems like curing cancer.

And yet. And yet, the positive force of doing what you love, what you are uniquely suited to do, is important in and of itself. The presence of a completely alive person in the world, no matter the occupation, does so much more for the world than sleepwalking through your life, miserable, barely present, unengaged with the people and places around you.

By following your passion, you become a vitalizing force in the world, which the world always needs more of.

Mythology scholar Joseph Campbell had this to say in The Power of Myth:
Campbell: My general formula for my students is "Follow your bliss." Find where it is, and don't be afraid to follow it.

Moyers: Is it my work or my life?

Campbell: If the work that you're doing is the work that you chose to do because you are enjoying it, that's it. Buf if you think, "Oh, no! I couldn't do that!" that's the dragon locking you in.

Moyers: In this sense, unlike heroes such as Prometheus or Jesus, we're not going on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves.

Campbell: But in doing that, you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there's no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who's on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it's alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself.
So many people worry that what they want to do might seem stupid or insignificant to someone else. First off, I say, so what? Who cares what some jackass thinks? And second, I say, well, it depends on context. I spent two years earning an MFA in Fiction, which to most of the people I work with now seems totally stupid and like a waste of time, but to the people I studied with, and to me, even today, writing fiction is one of the best uses of my time. Do I care what my coworkers think about fiction? Nope. It's frustrating sometimes, but writing fiction is true and real for me, and so I try to seek out like-minded people who share my passion.

Don't worry about being a lawyer or a doctor or a Ph.D. Find what can revive your spirit, and throw yourself into that. Even if it's brewing your own beer. I think we can all agree that there are times when a really great beer seems to be the only redeeming thing about the world. And what would we do if no one cared to do it?

I shudder to think. So find your thing and do it well. The world you save may be your own.

Related posts:
Bliss is in Your Nature
What Is Bliss?

Friday, September 7, 2007

Focus on Your Goal with Google Reader

So today we're taking a little rest from the real dreamy, conceptual stuff to focus on a practical tool that I am finding to be extremely helpful in keeping my eye on the prize.

Just by virtue of the fact that you're reading a blog, you are likely light-years ahead of me when it comes to the miracle that is the feed reader. But on the off chance that you're more like me, and not entirely sure about all this newfangled technology, or perhaps you just haven't considered all the uses of a feed reader, then this post is for you.

Here's what I've recently discovered. You have a goal. You want to become an entrepreneur, or freelance, or learn how to repurpose Ikea. Whatever it is, there's a blog about it. With a feed reader--I use Google Reader--you can syndicate this content to your desktop or browser--or in several locations. (Probably. I'm getting into waters a little too deep for me here. All I know is that I can add Google Reader to my iGoogle page, and voila, I'm set.)

Right now, my Google Reader is chock full of blogs posting about a few things:
Do you remember those battery-operated refrigerator pigs they used to sell? Every time you opened the door and the light went on, the pig would oink at you. Now, if you still felt like reaching for a slice of chocolate cake, OK, but hey, guess what? Oink, oink! The idea there, obviously, was to keep you focused on your diet. I'm not sure I like the idea of a tiny, judgmental pig, but it must have worked for some people, because those things were everywhere.

Anyway, the point is, frequent reminders of your goal is one method of staying focused. If you are trying to find your bliss, I am suggesting that it may be very helpful to use a feed reader in a couple of ways:

  1. Explore subjects that interest you. If you are thinking of doing landscape architecture, find all the blogs you can on the subject. Because they are so niche specific, you will find they get into the nitty gritty minutiae that only true enthusiasts can tolerate. If you find that you aren't interested in the minutiae, you may want to give that leap a second thought. If, on the other hand, discussing soil density and hardiness zones gets your pulse going, then Bingo! You may have found a viable career path to your bliss.
  2. Get encouragement, advice, ideas in your subject area. If you want to go after that landscape architecture path, before you take the leap, you may want to examine the ins and outs of getting there and discover where you fit in within the field.
  3. Make contacts. Unless you're dealing with megastar bloggers, most bloggers are very approachable and excited to discuss their passions. You may solicit advice from a few, or see if they have contacts in your part of the country who might be willing to help you pursue your interest.
  4. Remind yourself of what you're after. I find that after a long day at work, or even 30 minutes in, but after a 15 minute hell meeting, I can get disoriented, discouraged, frustrated that I'm where I am. I can find myself doubting that I'll ever escape cubicle hell, worried that I will turn into the Vogons that I run into on the elevator, their bodies soft, their posture a defeated slump, their eyes rolling loosely in their sockets, with no real focus. Ack! I think, What ever will I do? And then I get a beautiful missive from the Universe (via my feed reader) reminding me that there is hope, there is practical advice, there are people who have succeeded! This keeps me from falling into a useless morass of despair, and sometimes that kind of reminder is all you need to keep going.
So try a feed reader. You just might find it's the refrigerator pig you never knew you always needed.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Look Up.

This photo was taken at St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, Czech Republic. One of the things I like about this photo is what it illustrates about what you can see and how things seem when you approach them from a different angle. In this case, very close to the wall, and looking straight up.

I love the shape of the buttresses against the sky, and the amazing, leaping silhouettes of the the gargoyle rain spouts. This perspective changes the angles, the shape, the movement of the church, and presents to view an abstraction of a fairly typical medieval church. It is suddenly not typical, but nothing material has changed--it is abstracted and changed only through the chosen perspective.

What typical, mundane element can you take from your life and view through a new angle? Maybe you hate your job, but if you choose to see it as funding for the next step--really, as the salary for research--then it takes on a different role in your psyche, doesn't it?

Maybe you dislike cooking dinner--every night we have to eat! why haven't they invented a meal pill already?--but as you stir the ground beef for spaghetti, you count the number of stirs through the dish, performing a mind-clearing meditation you might otherwise not have time for.

For a semester in college, I lived in New York City for the first time. One of the many things I noticed while living there was how infrequently people looked up. In fact, you could often tell the tourists from the natives by who was looking up and who was looking down, averting their eyes and mostly staring impenetrably ahead into some indeterminate middle distance. I remember looking up from time to time, every time being awestruck by so many things: the almost total obliteration of the sky by tall buildings, by the monumental human effort of such a skyline, and, every once in a while, by the way the sun and clouds were framed by the crenellated sky. One of my favorite memories, in fact, is coming in from LaGuardia during sunset, the low, orange orb of the sun being perfectly suspended between the Twin Towers, as though it were gently wedged there. I remember thinking: Such a thing to be privileged to see! What an astonishing world, where the buildings seem higher than the sun.

My point is this: Look up. What do you notice? What is different than you thought it would be? And when you find something surprising, how does it make you feel?

Brazen Careerist blogger Penelope Trunk reports in a post about starting your own business:
Seventy-five percent of people report that negative thinking goes away if you look toward the sky.

Remember that so much of how we see the world is based on the perspectives we hold. Just remember that those perspectives are anything but fixed, and that you have the power to see things differently.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Buy Experience. Don't Buy Things.

OK, so that may be a bit of an oversimplification. I'll modify it thusly: whenever you can, use your money for experience over things. Obviously if you need shoes or a place to sit, you should buy shoes and a couch or chair.

But when you are at a point where you have some discretionary funds--amounts you will choose to spend on yourself in some kind of "fun" way, my advice is to pretty much always buy experience over things.

What does that mean? (And why am I denying you a new purse or the iPod of your dreams?) To me, it means using your "extra" money to gain:
  1. Experience
  2. Education
  3. Improved Health / Well-being
So, instead of the $400 purse, take a $400 plane trip to visit your best friend from college that you haven't seen in ages. Why? The purse is nice, yes, but what do you get from it? Does it love you? Comfort you? Listen to you? Make memories with you? No, of course not. Not in any meaningful way. (And if you're talking to a purse, perhaps my advice will not be so helpful to you. Ahem.) But when you visit a friend with that money, you gain a strengthened friendship, and, not to sound too corny, but you will have memories that may sustain you for years, even a lifetime.

Or let's say you are considering quitting your job to do freelance design work, but you really need to learn some new software. That money can go toward a class at a community college or the like, where you will come away with something of real value--namely an improved and better educated you--instead of a thing that will be unfashionable/obsolete in six months. (At some point in a future post, I will address the value of spending money for things that are well-made classics, that you can use for a very, very long time.)

Or perhaps you have $150 you can spend on shoes (can you tell I have a bit of a shoe weakness?) or on 10 weeks of yoga. Pick the yoga or gym membership or massage therapy! The kind of improved health and wellness that comes from those things will far outlast the material thing, and will ripple throughout other aspects of your life. You may have a better relationship with your spouse, be a better employee, or just have an improved sense of confidence, which is something no pair of shoes can promise. (OK, so maybe, sometimes, the shoes--if they're really shiny and beautiful--build up confidence, but I usually find this to be so temporary as to almost be a negligible effect.)

I've been thinking about this today because I found the website, which is like the blog version of Clean Sweep or Real Simple. Once there, I found the essay Against Stuff, by Paul Graham, some computer guy I have to admit I'd never heard of. So I can't evaluate his geek cred, but he has some seriously insightful things to say about the burden of things:
"What I didn't understand was that the value of some new acquisition wasn't the difference between its retail price and what I paid for it. It was the value I derived from it. Stuff is an extremely illiquid asset. Unless you have some plan for selling that valuable thing you got so cheaply, what difference does it make what it's "worth?" The only way you're ever going to extract any value from it is to use it.

I don't know about you, but for me, this time I have on Earth is so much about experiencing what I can, with the body and mind I have, in the time I have. Anything I can do to have amazing experiences, learn new things, and take care of myself so I can have amazing experiences and learn new things is what I want to spend my money on. Yes, I have a nice dining table. But I will never replace it, because I bought one that will last me forever and will never go out of style. This frees me up for trips to Prague, visits with friends in other states, and a house just big enough for me and my husband (and dog!), which means a very reasonable mortgage payment, and one that we can still afford if one of us lost our jobs or needed to quit.

Some people see experience as "consumable," in that once the experience is over, you have nothing really tangible (save photos) to show for it. But I would much rather have drunk Czech beer and stood on the Charles Bridge than have a fashionable outfit. Obviously this is a matter of priority, but if you're serious about pursuing a life you love, this is worth contemplating.

After all, which will teach you more about the kind of person you are: Reading train schedules in Czech (when you don't know Czech and are trying desperately not to miss a train) or carrying something a magazine told you was fashionable?

Experience and education and good health increases your wisdom, happiness, bliss. Stuff just increases your need for storage. To me, it's no contest.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Language Day: Word Origins and Bliss

Wednesday is language day at Gimme Bliss, and today I want to talk about word origins. Last week, I wrote about the need to be specific in language, which helps you articulate what it is you want to say to yourself and to others.

One way to achieve this is to examine the origins and evolution of words, a field known as etymology. (No, not bugs.) Basically, etymology examines the first known appearance of a word, its original meaning, and how it has changed over time.

If you're a word nerd like me, you'll love this stuff. Even if you think words are for email and talking and anything beyond that is for Scrabble freaks or bookworms, you can still get something out of delving a little deeper.

First, here are some etymology resources:
  1. The Online Etymology Dictionary
  2. Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto
  3. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology
(The first is a fine place to begin, though not extensive; the second is a very thorough, user-friendly guide of over 8,000 words; the last is a beautiful beast that covers over 25,000 words, and is probably only for the most zealous.)

So, how can knowing the history of a word bring you to your bliss? Well, sometimes we forget that words contain multitudes. We speak quickly, skim emails, don't stop to think that words are tiny, portable antiques with all the richness and patina of their travels through history. (Well, maybe not ginormous, but I digress. And besides, ginormous might be considered quite formal in 2752.)

For example, did you know that the word deer once was the Old English word for 'animal'? Or that villain once simply meant 'farmer'? Probably not. After all, why would you worry about what people who have been dead for 600 years thought a word meant? Well, you certainly wouldn't want to worry about it every day, but in times of contemplation, it might be instructive, helpful, even encouraging to know what the big idea words--bliss, courage, bravery, passion--hold within them.

Courage has the root for 'heart' within it. Bliss carries the Germanic meaning 'gentle, kind' as its source. Bravery has at its root the senses 'uncivilized, savage, wild.' The word passion originally meant 'suffering.'

So basically, if you follow your bliss, you are a gentle, yet uncivilized, suffering heart. Well, who wouldn't sign up for that job description?

Kidding aside, you realize, if you are on this journey, that following your bliss might make you less angry. When you no longer are behaving inauthentically, you might be less prone to snap at people, flip them off in traffic. If you pursue your dreams with courage, it makes sense that you are first and foremost leading with your heart. If you are bravely pursuing a conscious life, you are likely on the outer edge of societal acceptance, seeming a bit wild and uncivilized to the more conventional around you. And when you have found your passion, you probably recognize you must make sacrifices to obtain it, and that its attainment will not be without struggle and heartache.

It makes a little more sense now, doesn't it?

Pursue any words that keep recurring to you. If you are pondering why you are so afraid to take the leap, look up the word fear. (Originally meaning 'danger, peril'.) If you are at what feels like rock bottom, look up despair. (Etymologically, 'lack of hope.')

You get the picture. Once you have a handle on the words that describe your feelings, your situation, you gain an appreciation for the forces working with and against you, and suddenly, you have a better sense of how to harness and deflect these forces. In other words, know thine friends and thine enemies.

Yes, they're just words, but the proverb "The pen is mightier than the sword" would not carry the weight it still does if there was not force and power and history behind them.

Related posts:
Better Living Through Editing

Monday, September 3, 2007

Labor Day Meditation

I'm taking today off, but I wanted to leave you with a photo meditation. This was taken this May at Lost Maples State Park, about an hour and a half southwest of Austin. It is a beautiful place, which this picture barely hints at.

Take a look at this seemingly simple landscape. The rolling hills, the greenery covering the land. The haze of distance, the elegance of the live oak branch entering the frame.

Look at it. Think of how much time went in to the creation of this place. Think of the creatures unseen in this photo. Think of the insects flying through the air. The trillions upon trillions of living bacteria in the soil.

Think of what is beyond our perception at any given time, yet what exists nonetheless. Now, what is happening within you?

Best wishes for a restful holiday.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

How Having Faith Can Lead You to Bliss

Right now, the word "faith" has a political association that I'd like to immediately dispatch. Let's just say that the faith I reference in this post's headline has more to do with the ability to trust in something you cannot objectively prove or know, whether that is a deity, an idea or yourself.

I'm thinking about this today because I go to a wonderful yoga studio every Sunday, and I find the connection with a larger force that one is meant to get in a church, but that I, personally, have rarely found there. To me, going to Sunday morning yoga is like going to church and getting all the things church is supposed to do for me, plus even more.

It doesn't really matter that I find this feeling at yoga. If it happens for you in church or during a walk in the woods, that is what I'm talking about. If you know where you get this feeling of connecting with a sense of purpose or awe that is larger than what you know empirically, objectively, good--keep going back to it. That is a place where your consciousness gets a tune-up, where your thoughts are least distorted, and where what you are meant for has the best chance of coming through. I'll talk more about the relationship between being, consciousness and bliss in a moment, but let me address how to get to this place if you're like I was several years ago, and you couldn't find that feeling.

For a very long while--for me, beginning in junior high till a few years post college--I could not summon that feeling of connection with something larger than myself. I had studied science extensively, and in my search for meaning, I found that somewhere along the way, science's objectivity (or its appearance of objectivity) became my Rosetta Stone. I dismissed all things that could not be submitted to the rigors of the scientific method, especially faith.

Long story short, through some very trying experiences, where I found my world turned upside down, I discovered that not only did I have seemingly limitless inner resources to draw from, but that life and people contained a mystery and a beauty that I could not explain but that I found inspiring. While I did not abandon science, considering it to this day as one of humanity's highest achievements, I expanded my outlook to include that which transcended explanation, duality, time. (OK, this is kind of a heavy post, I realize. Stick with me here for just a little while longer.)

When I realized that not only did I not have all the answers but that it was possible that there were some things beyond direct understanding, but maybe accessible through symbol, metaphor, myth, I began to find myself capable of taking leaps that before had seemed impossible.

It's like that scene in the Dagobah swamp where Yoda is trying to get Luke to lift the X-wing fighter out of the swamp. Luke tries to use the force, and eventually declares: "I can't. It's too big."

Then Yoda counters, in one of the most inspiring scenes ever filmed:
“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.”
When I closed my eyes and believed, I succeeded. Nothing but faith could have gotten me to jump, but once I did, I succeeded, just as Yoda did in pulling the X-wing out of the swamp.

So back to cultivating faith. Joseph Campbell talks of how he came to the theory of following one's bliss, saying:
" Sanskrit, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: Sat, Chit, Ananda. The word 'Sat' means being. 'Chit' means consciousness. 'Ananda' means bliss or rapture. I thought, 'I don't know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don't know whether what I know of my eing is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to my rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being."
For those who are maybe less certain of what their bliss is, perhaps going though consciousness is a path toward bliss. I believe they are interrelated, and that finding something to believe in--whatever faith you can summon, in whatever form it comes--is a path to a consciousness that is open to finding bliss.

Whew. Again, kinda deep, but I hope something in here speaks to you, and gives you ideas for yet another path to finding your bliss.

Related posts:
Ask the Universe for Help in Finding Your Bliss

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Gimme Financial Freedom, Gimme Bliss

Finding what you're meant to do is one thing. Actually being able to afford it is another. Which is why I think focusing on the financial realities of pursuing your bliss is definitely worth thinking about. After all, this is meant to be a practical guide, no?

I've been mulling this over myself a great deal, especially as I begin to visualize the next steps of my life and decide whether to chuck the stable salary and jump full time into the world of freelancing and multiple income streams. A book I've found extremely useful in this endeavor is Michelle Goodman's funny, helpful, inspiring book, The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. She talks a lot about figuring out what your budget is, figuring out what you can make, how much your business/service will cost you to set up, etc.

The contribution I hope to add here isn't so much practical in terms of accounting, but in a larger attitude shift on how you relate to money. The question here isn't so much, What can I make? but rather, What do I want from money?

Here is where most people say, Well, I'd like to eat, Tiffany, how about you? Yes, eating is good! I'm for eating! And having good shelter, and shoes and enough money to fix the car. Absolutely. This is not where I advocate either living the life of an ascetic, or making terrible sacrifices to your health or welfare.

This is where I advocate taking a long, hard look at what you want from the money you do earn. Do you really want a number, i.e. $60,000, or an experience, i.e. enough money to pay your bills and take a nice vacation once a year? In other words, don't fixate on the dollar figure, but figure out what kind of life is important for you, personally, to live, and how much you really, honestly need to make that happen. Yes, money is nice, but I know too many people who have this idea that if they only made this much, then things would really take shape.

It is my belief that money should represent something to you. For me, having a certain amount represents the freedom to do what I want for a living. Basically, I want that from my money. And as I said earlier, I am in the process of figuring out how much money gets me that freedom. I may be strange, but I've never wanted money just for the sake of having it. Even though I'm incredibly frugal. In fact, I think my frugality comes from this sense that whenever I save something I see it as something I really want--a trip to see a friend, or a cushion for when I do start my freelance career and really need it.

So, here is a list of questions you might want to ask yourself:

1. What do I want from money?
2. What do I see when I see money? Do I see an abstract "wealth," or do I see an image of myself living a certain kind of life?
3. How badly do I want to make money beyond what will pay my bills and allow me to live comfortably? Why is it this amount and why might I want it so badly?
4. Have my feelings toward money ever made me do something I didn't want to do or something I wasn't proud of?
5. What is the minimum figure of income that I need to make to feel secure? What makes that number seem reasonable?
6. Is that minimum number possible in a career that feels more in line with who I am and what I'm meant to do?

In America, it is difficult to talk, and sometimes even think about, what money really means to us, and what we really want from it. There's sort of an assumption that more is better, and that the more you have, the better everything is. If you challenge that, or find that you don't particularly care to give over your life for more and more money, you can find yourself doubting your normalcy or even feeling guilty about your level of ambition. One thing that we should all do, regardless of our current income is to save. Even if we don't know what our relationship toward money is just yet, we can make sure we have a little extra when we do figure it out, and that our dreams don't have to be delayed (or at least delayed as long) because of money.

Something that's important to remember is that when you do something you love, you tend to do it with more enthusiasm. I don't know about you, but it seems like doing an awesome job at something you love instead of a half-hearted effort at something you hate might actually pay off--financially as well as spiritually. One of Joseph Campbell's corollaries to "follow your bliss" was this: "Follow your bliss, and the money will follow."

Good luck as you contemplate these questions; I'll update you on any changes in my own financial outlook as I take the next steps on my journey.