Thursday, January 31, 2008

When Are You Most Happy?

It's time to talk happiness. This blog has spent a lot of time--hopefully most of it useful--on some of the darker, more difficult subjects of figuring out your life, but now it's time to get back into a happier space and think cheerier thoughts.

My husband the other day was like, "People are going to think I'm terrible, and that your life is terrible. You keep talking about such depressing stuff." Au contraire! My husband is wonderful, and my life keeps getting better. It's just that I feel a lot of empathy for people struggling, and I'm convinced that the journey to happiness often starts in a dark and scary and lonely place.

In any case, let's think good thoughts, and see where we can go with a smile on our faces, shall we?

After all, the idea of bliss is entwined (though not synonymous with) the idea of happiness.

Let's start by reading this ABC News report on the science of happiness, which was recently featured on an episode of 20/20.

One thing I remember that the reporter noted from his research was that people are happiest when they have good relationships and care for others. He noted that he felt the same way; spending time with his family gave him a happiness boost.

I know I'm happiest when I'm doing two things: 1) Either spending time having fun with my friends and family, or 2) deeply engaged in highly concentrated writing work.

What about you? What activities or moments make you feel the most happiness? Let's spread some happiness in the comments!

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Power of Forgiveness

A reader recently left a comment about looking back on past choices, and feeling great regret. Her obvious pain and anguish moved me, as I have sincerely regretted past choices, and I'm sure many of you have too.

The question that this comment brought up for me has to do with forgiveness. At what point do you forgive yourself for past actions or inactions, and learn to move forward, and more importantly, learn to trust yourself and your choices again?

I remember when I was in graduate school, there was this kind of self-flagellation for not doing this, for not reading that, for not writing on a day you should have been writing. And you could get in a really deep funk beating yourself up for all the things you weren't doing that you were supposed to be doing.

Finally, I remember talking to a friend where we both agreed we had to let some things go, cut ourselves some slack, "be kind" to ourselves.

And this helped. Rather than letting us off the hook or allowing us to give up, it gave us the chance for grace, for mercy, for forgiveness. And I truly believe that learning to forgive--yourself or others--is one of the most important kinds of growth you can undergo, spiritually and emotionally.

When you can forgive, you don't excuse what was done or not done. Rather, you acknowledge that you were weak, or did everything you could at the time, and that you just weren't capable of more. You didn't act not because you were a bad person, but because the person you were in that moment wasn't ready, wasn't strong enough yet. Even the meanest person can be forgiven if you realize that the person they are in that moment is just too stunted, too hurt or too stubborn to do any better.

Again, this is not to let anyone off the hook. You can forgive yourself and still feel guilt or sadness or anger. But after forgiveness, you have room to create a new path, and channel those feelings into growth, awareness, and a means to do better in the future.

Self-torture perpetuates pain. Pain is too insistent, too acute to allow room for larger ideas, for breath, for growing stronger. You must stop the pain. You must stop and heal. Then you can make room for progress, for acceptance, for the possibility of bliss.

Have you struggled with self-forgiveness? Or do you have a different definition or perspective on forgiveness? Tell us in the comments what it means to you.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

CAT-scan Your Life

I was toodling along the other day, walking my sweet dog, I think, when this question popped into my mind: What kind of foundation do you need for change?

I ask this because I'm interested in the fine line between real obstacles, and the ones that only become obstacles if you let them.

So, for example, a real obstacle is having an abusive partner. An obstacle you allow is having a partner who doesn't cook, placing the burden of dinner on your shoulders.

An abusive partner is all-encompassing; it is a cancer in your life, and one that you must cut out to be well enough to move forward. A partner who doesn't cook calls for negotiations; fine, I cook, but you give me time to myself in the morning, when no cooking is required, or we get takeout on Wednesdays, etc.

I feel very fortunate, because most of the obstacles I've faced have been ones I can negotiate and minimize till they're almost nonexistent. I'm healthy, I have a wonderful family, and a safe, secure home with a supportive husband (and an exemplary dog!). I have been in positions in the past with very real obstacles: an abusive boss, a truly bad relationship, friends who behaved more like vampires than like friends.

In order to get to the place of health and well-being, I had to cut out the evils in my life that threatened to choke the breath, the will to live, out of me.

Evaluate where you are: Are you in a place with a cancer that needs removing? Even if this is a real obstacle, it is not insuperable. You can overcome it, but you might need to focus all your energies--like the concentrated beam of a laser--to rid yourself of it. Once you do, all the little stuff will seem like small beans, and you will find yourself much more capable of setting the goals for following your bliss.

So go ahead, do a CAT-scan of your life. Are you healthy, in a place that gives you the room for breath and growth? Or do you have an emotional cancer, something big and malignant that must be dealt with?

My guess is that you know where you fall; if you're healthy, then you have no excuses and everything to gain from moving forward. If you have a sickness in your life--abuse, addiction, vampires of the soul, crushing debt--you know what you have to do. You're not alone, and you have my support, and the support of others who have survived such situations. Feel free to ask questions here, in the comments, anonymously if you want. Good luck and god speed. Know that you will be healthy again.

And for those that check out clean, don't squander your good fortune--get to work on living; there's nothing holding you back.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

The Bliss of Stargazing

This image of Saturn's moon Titan is from NASA. Just for a moment, I want you to take in the beauty and the splendor of this amazing picture, taken from the Cassini spacecraft.

How often do you look up? I mean really look up? And not because of a plane passing overhead or a surprise drop of rain. Do you simply forget, like most of us do, that there's an up up there? That there's an out out there? That there's so much beyond right here?

I'm thinking about this today because I'm editing a science article about outer solar system exploration, and I was caught off-guard by how infrequently I remember the planets and moons and other space wonders, and yet how incredible they are when you think about them. No wonder the planets and their moons are named for gods; they command the same awe and respect.

Thinking about the natural world--the animals, the deserts, the woods, the moon, the outer reaches of space--this is my mental cathedral, the place I go when I most want to feel connected to the spiritual and divine. When I look at a picture like the one above, I lose myself in it, absorbed in contemplation of the larger riot of energy and phenomenon that is an utterly breathtaking mystery.

It's interesting, how cities have managed to squelch the light from the stars, giving us a night sky that's still dark, yes, but flat, close-in, and a kind of dull opaque gray. I've been lucky enough to have seen the heavens from a few truly dark places, and it is a deep, endless, crystalline darkness pierced through with the scintilla of stars and draped with opalescent wisps of distant galactic fog. When you see a sky like this, you want to fall to your knees and worship whatever benevolence has granted you the privilege to witness such a thing.

The advice to count your blessings or give thanks is not wrong-headed; however, I think it might be wise to start with the very first blessing, which is that which I describe above: the privilege--short and fleeting though it is--to participate in this world.

So on your path to bliss, I exhort you to look upward and outward--literally and figuratively--to take a step beyond what has your attention anchored here on earth, and remember what's up there, what's out there, and how lucky you are to be a part of it.

And while you're looking up there, go ahead and make a wish--after all, the universe is endless, and anything is possible.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

How to Slay the Dragon of Self-Doubt

Loyal reader and friend Erzsebet brought up an extremely important point in her comment on the "How to Be Humble" post:

However, one should always be careful to not confuse humble humility with self-doubt. Both start with, "I can't do this...". In the case of a positive, humble attitude, the formulation completes with, "I can't do this alone." Self-doubt begins and ends with "I can't do this." Pernicious little fabricator that self-doubt is, it will try and gussy itself up with, "I can't do this until ..." or "I can't do this without {some set of things far outside of my control}." It looks rather obvious to spot, but I've found it's not always the obvious trap one might expect.

Right on! In fact, self-doubt is one of the most debilitating of all the obstacles on your journey toward experiencing bliss.

Erzsebet has already done a great job explicating how you recognize self-doubt (and how you distinguish it from a healthy sense of humility), so I'd like to explore what to do once you realize that what you're saying is, "Oh, I can't do that."

Self-doubt, first of all, is usually based in fear. Often, it is fear of humiliation. Which, of course, is often linked with fear of failure. If you say, "Oh, I can't try out for the community theater because I'm just no good," but really, inside, you know that's what you want, that it's something that voice inside has been asking for for a long time, that maybe you even did okay in high school or college drama courses, then it's fear that's keeping you from trying to go further.

You think, "I'll get up there and audition and everyone will laugh at me." Well, maybe they will, and maybe they won't. If they do, what is the worst that can happen? You feel a bit embarrassed, or disappointed. Those feelings are tough, no doubt. But will you survive them? Of course you will. You will also learn something--about your abilities, your reactions, your motivations and determination. That challenge will strengthen you. You will decide, based on feedback, whether you have it in you to keep trying, and how badly you want it. If you want it bad enough, you will find a way to learn more, get better, practice, or do whatever it is you need to do to make progress toward your goal.

If they don't laugh at you, but instead ask you to keep going, imagine: you are actively pursuing a goal, and you are steering your destiny, no longer allowing life to pass you by. Your confidence will grow, and you will begin to bloom with that nurturing. Your heart's desire will begin to be answered, and your life will grow more full.

Seriously, is the threat of a little disappointment enough to keep you away from what might be possible?

I do not mean to undermine the fears involved; I know from personal experience how crippling they can be. But there are ways to get a handle on them before they get too outsized and take control.

  1. Speak your fears aloud. Sometimes what runs through your brain silently can grow and get a chokehold on your thoughts and emotions, but when you say out loud, "I'm afraid if I audition, everyone will laugh at me and think I'm wretched," it sounds less terrifying. Maybe not pleasant, but a lot less terrifying.
  2. Exaggerate your fears. You might be doing this anyway in your head, but go ahead and really take it to the extreme. Make it as ridiculous as possible. So, "If I audition, people will laugh at me, and write down my name on a secret list of people who should be forevermore banned from theater auditions, and I will never be happy again. Life as I know it will be over, and I will have to hide my face in shame wherever I go." Do you see what I mean? Of course it would never get this bad, but by exaggerating it, you get to laugh a bit at your fears and diminish their power.
  3. Do something you're not afraid of to start. So maybe you can't just jump up for a full-fledged audition. Can you get involved in some small element of theater that you're not afraid of? Can you volunteer to send out postcards for the local community theater's annual fundraiser? Or can you perform a small monologue in front of someone who doesn't scare you, like a trusted friend or family member? (Even if it's your 6-month old?) Getting closer to what you want in increments is just fine, and takes the paralysis of fear out of the equation.
Self-doubt, is, as Erzsebet said, pernicious. It rarely serves any good purpose, and usually is a way to make excuses to not do what scares you. You're not scared because you're no good, likely. You're likely scared because you know you might be good at it, and you might have to grow and acknowledge some dormant aspect of yourself. Your comfortable life might have to change. It might be more exciting and fulfilling, but yes, things might change. If you can remember that life changes around you whether you want it to or not, you might be able to slay that dragon of self-doubt and grow into the role you've been meant to play all along.

I hope this post has given you a sword with which to slay that dragon. (Apparently I'm obsessed with killing all kinds of fairy-tale creatures this week. Excuse my uncharacteristic violence. But hey, sometimes you gotta get your hands--or sword--dirty.)

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Monday, January 14, 2008

"On Discipline and Bliss"

Glimmer Train is a literary quarterly that often publishes excerpts of writings by or interviews with authors on its website. This one, titled "On Discipline and Bliss" by Peter Selgin, seemed like a perfect fit.

Here's a teaser excerpt:
There's another side to discipline that's not quite so grim, it's not grim at all; in fact it's blissful. I'm talking about concentration, about that very special place where the disciplined mind goes if only it is disciplined enough, meaning if only it is patient and willing to put up with enough discomfort and pain to reach its ultimate destination, that pinpoint in time where nothing else matters but the very little thing that one is trying to accomplish right now: the thought, the sentence, the word, the nuance, the rhythm, the shade, the color—whatever it is that the we're as intent on as the seamstress is intent, when passing the thread through the eye of the needle, on the tip of that thread and the needle's eye.
Click here to read the whole thing.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Kill (Or Seriously Maim) Your Hobgoblin

Today in yoga class, my teacher quoted Emerson: "Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Then my instructor asked us to analyze the small patterns of behavior, the seemingly harmless habits that we engage in mindlessly on a daily basis, and asked us to think about changing them. He was talking about that weird habit that most of us engage in; sitting in the same spot in a classroom over time, so that a randomly selected spot becomes "our" spot. Or walking into the house and turning on the TV, just because it's habit. Or checking your e-mail first thing in the morning.

Whatever they are--and I'm sure we all have many, many habits like this--it seems wise to me to examine them more closely. Do you turn on the TV so you don't have to confront the nagging thoughts in your head, the ones telling you to live a bigger life?

Do you choose the same seat in a classroom because everyone else has done the same thing, and you don't want to upset the order?

Do you check your e-mail first thing in the morning to cultivate a sense of "busyness" that makes you feel important and needed?

Obviously some habits are useful; if you had to reinvent the patterns of your day with each dawn, life would get quite exhausting quite quickly. Like whether you brush your teeth before or after you shower, for example.

But some patterns--like the ones detailed above--are not so harmless and may in fact allow us to avoid changes that we may need but are afraid to make.

So resolve to change at least one of these potentially limiting patterns this week; even if it's as small as sitting in a new seat in a classroom, or spending five minutes in meditation before the workday. Just change one of your habits, no matter how infinitesimally small it may seem, and see what unfolds from that tiny shift.

Indeed, just going to yoga once a week for me has been a change I've made in the last few months that has, at least indirectly, drastically altered the course of my life. It sounds crazy, I know, but it's true.

So kill a hobgoblin today, and if something does unfold from this change, please tell me in the comments; I'd love to hear what changes we can make starting from a very limited effort. Why? Because me? I'm all about the baby steps.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

"How Do We Transform Our Consciousness?"

The title above is a question Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell in their famous conversation, and I'll post his answer below. But first, I want to take a moment to ask you to think about what the word "consciousness" really means, or what it means to you.

Certainly you've heard it before, and maybe you've given it some thought. Perhaps you think it is thought, the ideas and notions that occupy your mind. Ah, but then, what is mind if it is not thought?

Or maybe you think it is awareness, or an awareness of self. But from what does this awareness spring? Is it purely the brain? The neurons wrapped up tightly into folds of gray matter? But then what is the gut instinct? Why do you physically feel it in your stomach--and not necessarily the organ of your stomach either, but almost in the cavity of your lower torso as a whole? Or heartbreak? The feeling in your chest of pressing sadness that seems to originate there. You are aware of these sensations, yet they seem independent of the head's direction.

There are no easy answers. There are whole lives devoted to the study of consciousness, conferences held, scientists and mystics and theologians devoted to this great mystery.

So, I hear you asking, if we can't really define what consciousness is in any absolute terms, why are we at all interested in working to change it?

Because if consciousness is the great mystery upon which our lives are founded, if our lives are going in the wrong direction, it may do us some good to start effecting change on that ground floor. If you are unhappy, or feel unlucky, or are troubled or otherwise unsettled, working to transform your foundation--your consciousness--in a positive direction may help.

If you're truly lost, as I was, it may be the only thing you have. If you're truly lost, trying to get things going in the right direction this way certainly can't hurt.

Here's what Joseph Campbell had to say on the matter in The Power of Myth:

Campbell: I have a feeling that consciousness and energy are the same thing somehow. Where you really see life energy, there's consciousness...There is a plant consciousness and there is an animal consciousness...

Moyers: How do we transform our consciousness?

Campbell: That's a matter of what you are disposed to think about. And that's what meditation is for. All of life is a meditation, most of it unintentional. A lot of people spend most of life in meditating on where their money is coming from and where it's going to go. If you have a family to bring up, you're concerned for the family. These are all very important concerns, but they have to do with physical conditions mostly. But how are you going to communicate spiritual consciousness to the children if you don't have it yourself? How do you get that? What the myths are for is to bring us into a level of consciousness that is spiritual.

Just for example: I walk off Fifty-first Street and Fifth Avenue into St. Patrick's Cathedral. I've left a very busy city and one of the most economically inspired cities on the planet. I walk into that cathedral, and everything around me speaks of spiritual mysteries. The mystery of the cross, what's that all about there? The stained glass windows, which bring another atmosphere in. My consciousness has been brought up onto another level altogether, and I am on a different platform. And then I walk out, and I'm back on the level of the street again. Now, can I hold something from the cathedral consciousness?

Certain prayers or meditations are designed to hold your consciousness on that level instead of letting it drop down here all the way. And then what you can finally do is to recognize that this is simply a lower level of that higher consciousness. The mystery that is expressed there is operating in the field of your money, for example. All money is congealed energy. I think that that's the clue to how to transform your consciousness.
If you look at the consciousness of your spirit and your money and your family as something along the same continuum, like a long thread, you can begin to effect change in all those areas by working to align the higher consciousness, which the others must necessarily follow. Maybe not immediately, but assuredly.

While I am not a religious person dogmatically speaking, I do think that human beings have a spiritual element within them. Every single person, no matter how lost, or how disturbed. I also believe everyone can, by tending to their spiritual selves, find improvement and more peace in life. Some people are very good at helping themselves, others need the assistance of friends, family or clergy. Either way, I guess I am saying that in order to follow and find and experience bliss, you do need spiritual health.

I am not prescribing what method will work best--for me, it's time alone in nature and in meditation--but find a method to transform your consciousness, and do the work. The work may be hard, yes, but bliss awaits.

Monday, January 7, 2008

How to Be Humble (And Why That Matters)

Admit you don't know everything. Hell, admit you don't know most things. Admit that you have a lot to learn. Admit that you can learn a lot from listening (really, truly listening) to what others (and others who may be very unlike you) are saying.

Say it again: You don't know everything. You couldn't possibly. The whole of the world and the universe is too large for you to know it. Admit that you need other people. Admit that you need their help.

It's fine to have confidence. It's fine to believe in things, and firmly. It's fine to argue for your beliefs or opinions or for your way of life.

But just when you think you've got everything figured out, realize that you're probably missing something, and it's OK to keep learning.

What does this matter as you try to find your bliss? Well, have you ever met the person who never, ever changes his mind? Or the person who won't listen to what you have to say? Or the person who believes that she knows better than everyone else?

I once had a friend of mine say this: "If I ran the world, everything would be better." To which I replied: "Absolute power corrupts, absolutely, you know." To which she said, "Yes, but I would use my power for good, obviously."

As they say, the road to hell... (is paved with good intentions, in case you don't know what "they" have to say about it.)

Anyway, my point is this: Along your journey, you will find yourself facing great unknowns. In fact, if you don't, you are not going about it the right way. If you feel 100 percent confident that you know what to do, when to do it, and why you're doing it at all times, chances are pretty good that you are not on the path to experiencing bliss.

You must admit some humility into your life. And I use the word "admit" quite intentionally. Its root words had the meaning "allow to enter." Humility is not something unnatural; it is there, ready to enter your life. It is there, pre-existent, waiting for you to acknowledge it, because the very nature of the world we live in is one of great mystery and adventure.

It is ego that tells us we know enough to rule the world, that we know how everything will turn out. That we know all the rational reasons for our behaviors and choices. Ego is important and useful, but it is only healthy when it is checked, balanced with that sense of I-don't-know.

You can't rule the world alone, just as I can't. You can't survive alone, just as I can't. You don't have the entire knowledge of our world, just as I don't.

But think of what you might learn, what you might experience, what mystery can awe you, if only you admit it.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Greatest Gift

This will be a quick, getting-back-into-the-swing-of-things post. I got a little out of the habit of blogging with all the traveling and holidays and catching up with work once I got back, but I've missed you all, and I'm ready to start blogging again.

I hope you all had a lovely New Year, though I don't mean the party or the champagne or the rockin' eve. I hope that as the morning broke on the new year that you felt excited, happy, blessed, thankful for the adventure that lies ahead. I hope that you took a moment to get quiet and note the passage of time.

Over the holiday break, a man I greatly respected at my former workplace passed away suddenly, and too young. He had said in a speech he gave a few years ago that he believed that the greatest gift God gives to us is time. His sudden death reminded me of his belief, and it reinforced the notion that it is our responsibility to God (and to the divine, enlightened part of ourselves) to not waste that time in work and in lives that are not authentic and honest and good.

So Happy New Year to you all--may we all spend it wisely and in the company of good friends and family.