July 11, 2011

3 Steps to Learning to Trust Yourself -- or, Flexing the Trust-Your-Instincts Muscle

Last Christmas, my husband gave me a GPS device for my car, at my request. For as long as I can remember, I've had an awful sense of direction. If I combined all the minutes and hours I've spent being lost while driving or walking, I could have earned an advanced degree in geography in that time. Which, come to think of it, might not be a bad idea.

Last Saturday I switched on the GPS and headed to a lecture at a local college. The facility is one I hadn't visited before, so I also printed out a campus map and wrote down an on-site phone number, just in case. (Sometimes, in spite of having the GPS, I also print out directions from MapQuest or Google Maps, but I'm trying to stop this, since it seems to negate the point of having a GPS. Not to mention that it seems a tad obsessive.)

I had a vague idea of how to get to the college -- then again, I always have a "vague idea," usually wrong, about locations, so I tend not to trust them. This time, 'though, Ada (my name for the disembodied female voice on the GPS) agreed with my recollection. About half-way to my destination, Ada got the hiccups. She told me make a U-turn, which seemed odd, but which I dutifully made. Then, almost immediately, she asked me to make another one.  I repeated her directions not once, but twice, just in case I'd missed something crucial along the way.

But, no, Ada was stuck. Either she was malfunctioning or she'd decided the lecture wasn't worth going to. So, with apprehension --and because I'd forgotten my cell phone, unable to call that contact number I'd written down-- I disregarded Ada and kept heading in the direction I thought the college stood.

I made it to the lecture in time. It certainly helped that the route wasn't complicated and that there were directional signs as I neared the college.

Ever on Metaphor Alert, I thought about my experience while I waited for the lecture to begin. Yes, I'd panicked a little when Ada started repeating herself, and I was THAT close to flogging myself with a litany of self-reproach, including: "I should have printed out directions from MapQuest!" "I should have left earlier to allow for this!" and "I can't believe I forgot my phone again!" Maybe you've used one or more of these yourself. I sure have.

But --consciously-- I didn't. Mind you, I was going to a lecture for pleasure, so the pressure was less than if I'd been on my way to a business meeting or if I'd been picking someone up at the airport. Still, even if those had been the circumstances, I had little to fault myself for: I had prepared (GPS and campus map) and I had allotted enough time to get there, and forgetting my phone hardly merited self-flagellation.  The situation simply was, and getting wrought up about my situation would not have made it any easier.

Although it wasn't by choice, I decided to trust my instincts. And luckily, things turned out OK.  Of course, the result might have been different: I might not have made it to the school at all, or arrived too late to hear the lecture. Then what?

Even with different outcomes, I believe the learnings would have been very similar. That's because it's less about the situation itself, and more about how we handle the situation --how we respond to the circumstances we're given. Here are three things I'm taking away from that morning about learning to trust my instincts (and, ultimately, myself):
  1. Do what you can and then let go. Prepare appropriately. Beyond that, things are usually beyond your control.
  2. Stay in the moment. There's little point in anticipating disaster or berating yourself when things don't go as expected. In fact, either of these can cloud your ability to respond effectively if a plan does go off-course.
  3. Use it as an opportunity to hone your instincts. Sometimes we're so used to looking outside ourselves for "direction" that we neglect to develop our own capacity to listen to and guide ourselves. If I'd had my cell phone with me, I'd likely have used it to get directions by dialing the campus phone number I'd written down. But I didn't have it. I'd given myself enough travel time to know that I had a few minutes to test my instincts before I tried another tack, such as pulling over and asking for directions.
While I doubt that any of us actively want our plans to derail, it's bound to happen from time to time. The Trust-Your-Instincts muscle is one I want to develop and use more often. I'm aiming to be grateful for circumstances that give me that opportunity, as uncomfortable --oy!-- as they might be.

Image by I am marlon, on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

July 6, 2011

Women Reading

The New Novel - 1877 - Winslow Homer

I have a soft spot for paintings of women reading. It's hardly surprising. Reading is an obsession that I picked up very early. Like many other bookish kids, I loved everything about the experience. I eagerly anticipated my trips to the library and made a beeline for the "new arrivals" shelf when I walked in; I read the first paragraph of each book I thought I might borrow to see which would best suit my mood (I still do this); and I loved walking home with my week's stash, wondering which book I'd read first. I've been a bookworm ever since.

So you can see why I define myself as a reader. It's the first thing i say if I'm asked about my interests. It's followed closely by 'learning,' and the two are inseparable for me. Much of what I learned about the world as a child came from books, and as as I matured, I realized that books could also help me learn about myself. 

I'm an introvert who found herself working in a field usually reserved for extroverts. Over time, I learned to use the extrovert's tools so proficiently that most people are surprised when I tell them that the role doesn't come naturally --or easily-- to me. Channeling an extrovert can leave me depleted, sometimes exhausted, and I often turn to books to renew my energy.

Over the years, I've collected print and digital images of readers, almost always women. It's been a popular motif for painters over the years --it's hard to think that women holding their electronic reading devices will strike the same chord for artists, but, hey, who knows? From time to time, I'll share some of my favorites with you in this blog. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. The New Novel, above, is the first of these.

Note: The following appeared in Popular Amusements, a book by Rev. J.T. Crane. The book was published in 1869, only 8 years before Winslow Homer completed The New Novel. Here's the table of contents for the chapter "Novels and Novel-Reading." (Be warned, the "Seven Reasons Against Common Novel-Reading" make it pretty clear that reading a novel can ruin you for life.)

Novels and Novel-Reading
Definition of a Novel – A Vice of the Age – FOUR MAXIMS:
1. No Fiction if Little Leisure
2. Only the Best
3. Fiction to be but Small Part
4. If any Harm results, Stop at Once!
1. Wastes Time
2. Injures the Intellect
3. Unfits for Real Life
4. Creates Overgrowth of the Passions
5. Produces Mental Intoxication
6. Lessens the Horror of Crime and Wrong
7. Wars with all Piety, Disciplinary Rule.

July 1, 2011

Learning to 'Stay On My Mat,' or, Listening with Intention

At some point during every yoga class, our teacher reminds us to 'stay on your mat; stay in the room.'  More often than not, it's just what I need to hear at that moment.  My body may be on the mat, but my mind is moving ahead to the assignment that's due the next day, or back to yesterday's dinner.

I'm finding that the longer I commit to living mindfully, the more often I have to prompt myself to 'stay on the mat.' I think it's because I'm more aware now of when I'm not in the moment --and for someone like me who likes bright, shiny objects, Not Being In The Moment is a regular event.

At first, I recognized this tendency to 'drift away' during times when I was alone. I'd be meditating, or working on a project in my studio, or like now, writing a blog post. One minute I was fully engaged; the next I was making a virtual grocery list. So I'd tug myself back to the cushion or the table or computer.

Then I started noticing the same behavior when I was with someone else. I like to think that this doesn't occur often, but it happens often enough that red flags are now going up automatically. I'm trying to see these flags as a good thing: an opportunity for positive change, even while I mourn in advance the decline of all the multi-tasking-in-my-head that I'm so fond of.

Maybe this happens to you, too. You might be having coffee with a friend, someone you care for and whose company you enjoy. She's telling you what seems to be an interminable story about taking her car in for repairs. If she were an on-air reporter covering a ballgame, she'd be doing both the play-by-play and the color. She's skipping no detail about her car's ailment. You're looking right at her, with what you hope is an interested gaze, but you stopped following the game long ago.

It's just as easy to leave the mat when the speaker isn't a friend. It can be the barista at the local coffee shop whom you don't know all that well, or a stranger with whom you struck up a conversation. You find yourself drifting, only half listening. Do we have any more or less of a responsibility to be on the mat with someone we're not close to?

[Before we go any further, let's acknowledge that we're only human, so this kind of thing --drifting off the mat, that is-- will happen. Often. Then some more. So no repeated banging of heads against walls when it does, please.]

As I was saying...Surely we're allowed a little 'drift,' right? It's not as if if the people we're talking to are saying something really important.  If they were, then of course we'd listen more attentively.

But here's the problem with this thinking. Who are we to decide what is or isn't important to someone telling us his story? And more to the point, it's not whether a story is 'important' or not that matters. What matters is the potential for grace that resides in every interaction we have with another person.

If you're lucky, you've basked in this grace firsthand. You meet someone for the first time, perhaps only briefly, and walk away feeling a little more special than you did beforehand. What you experienced, most likely, was the effect of being with someone who was wholly present in the relationship while you were together. It's what people mention most often when they describe meeting charismatic individuals: the feeling that the other person's attention was focused completely on them, as if they were the only two people in the room.

Each of us has a fundamental desire to be truly seen and heard, to feel that who we are and what we say is valued. We may not always know exactly why we feel better when this happens, but we know we want to feel that way again.

Amazingly, we have the ability to give that same gift to others. And when we're truly available in a conversation, when we're fully present in the moment, we reap the rewards too. It's no longer just a car-repair story; it transforms into a story about connecting at a profound level with another human being, someone who wants to be acknowledged and valued, just as we do.

It takes great effort to approach our relationships this way, not to mention time and sensitivity to see the results. I know it'll take giant heaping doses of all three for me. Still, my investment in 'staying on the mat' in yoga keeps paying dividends, so it seems reasonable to trust this process too. As always, news at 11.

Image by OliYoung, from Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.