July 19, 2012

Is It Better to Be Good or Kind?

Image by Cary Bass

For years, in whatever community I was living, I had a gym membership and made regular use of it. I aimed for five workouts a week and if I met my goal , I'd say "I was good this week." I used the same phrase when I had meals that were low in whatever I was counting at the time--calories, fat, or carbohydrates. 

Unfortunately, this meant that when I didn't reach my exercise target or when I ate more than I thought I should, I was accustomed to thinking or saying that I'd been "bad."

Most of my female friends talked this way about themselves too, so I didn't give much thought to the terminology or to what it said about how we saw ourselves. I think now that, unconsciously, we were making statements about what we valued, what was important in our lives.

Today, when I say those phrases out loud, I cringe a little.  For starters, they seem like the words of a child, not a woman (that in itself is worth a separate post). But mostly, I find it sad that I judged myself so harshly based on how much I exercised or ate.

These days, I practice yoga. I don't visit the gym, but going to yoga classes isn't a substitute for a workout. It's more than a physical practice, although I'm glad that it's good for my body too.

After a yoga session, it's not unusual for me to notice how glad I am that I was kind to myself by coming to class. But it wasn't until recently that I noticed the actual words I'd been using.

I don't remember when I made the transition from being "good" or "bad" to the notion of being kind to myself. I do know that it feels very different from my old habit. When I thought of myself as being good or bad, my ego was in full force; I either felt proud proud about achieving or guilty about failing.

Being kind to myself, on the other hand, isn't ego-driven or boastful; it's a small, deep pleasure--an appreciation.

I'm being kind to myself when I take the time to meditate on days when I'm rushed and think I don't have a minute to spare; I'm kind to myself when I eat enough ice cream to feel satisfied but not so much that I feel full. 

And here's what resonates most strongly: treating myself kindly means accepting that I'm human, that my decisions will be better on some days than others. If I decide not to meditate today, I note it and move on. Tomorrow I'll have a new set of circumstances and a new opportunity to choose, and I suspect that treating myself with compassion helps me make wiser choices.

This was the main problem with my old way of thinking: there wasn't much room for compassion. The standard was perfection, so if I wasn't being "good," then surely I was being "bad." I was either a success or a failure. 

I've heard it said that our thoughts are who we are--or who we become--and that we reinforce these thoughts in the way we speak. What's important to remember is that we can use this to our advantage.

So consider: If your actions don't match your intentions, will berating yourself really help you behave differently? Or will it just strengthen your belief about how "bad" you are and reinforce a negative pattern? It's worth a thought.

Do you struggle with treating yourself kindly? What works for you?

Image by Cary Bass via Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons license.

July 12, 2012

When Talent Needs "A Little More Time To Bake"

I met Ana, a mixed-media artist, while I was managing a grants program for a municipal arts agency in Miami. The amount of money available from the agency for community arts projects was always—surprise!—much smaller than the total amount requested, so the application process was highly competitive.

Part of my job was to help artists make a persuasive case for their ideas in writing. My special talent was finding the angle that would seamlessly link an artist’s vision to whichever political scheme the city’s Commissioners were most enthused about at the time. With luck, this could up the the artist's chances for funding.

I’d helped Ana get a grant for a group show in an empty neighborhood storefront. Her intuitive arrangements of found objects on bright canvases were graceful, joyous and very beautiful. Ana experimented with everything: concepts, techniques, materials, and collaborations. “If you play it safe,” she’d say, “you’ll never know what you’re capable of.”

I learned that she had started painting only as an adult. Growing up as the child of a civil servant and a teacher in Chile, art was not in her sensible parents' vocabulary of career options. Ana was encouraged to study law or finance, professions that they believed offered a stable future. She graduated from a university in the United States with a degree in international finance. "I studied business to satisfy my parents," she said, "but I had zero interest in making a life of it."

She took the first job she was offered after graduation, as an assistant in an art gallery on Miami Beach, and soon found herself spending much of her free time painting. She started exploring mixed-media compositions soon after.

Over a cup of tea in Ana's studio one afternoon, we talked about her recent work. She'd spent the morning painstakingly weaving filaments of copper-colored silk thread into a small painted canvas. The delicate fibers and the size of the piece were a departure from her usual imposing work. "I don't know how I feel about it yet," she said. "It needs a little more time to bake. I'll keep working on it and see what happens."

The conversation turned to me and my writing. "I can't imagine not writing," I said. "There's something about it that's addictive--in a really good way. Still," I added tentatively, "I've also thought a lot about working with images."

"And...," Ana encouraged. "And nothing." I said, "I just don't have the talent for visual art. I tried, and I'm not good at it."

Ana set down her cup. "Talent, schmalent!," she said in an exasperated tone, adopting the vernacular of her elderly Jewish next-door neighbors. "How does anyone know whether they have talent--whatever that is--until they do something, and then do it again, and then do it again some more? You don't really think having talent means things are easy and perfect the first time out, do you?”

Her hands unconsciously mimed motions of gathering and placing as she described her frustrating early attempts to integrate three-dimensional objects into her paintings. 

I listened, but I didn't have the nerve to tell her that, yes, I did think that talent was innate and not learned. I didn't have to do and do again to know that it was something I lacked.

When she brought the subject up a few weeks later, I deflected it, telling her I was too busy to start anything new. "I really am busy," I repeated to myself. And I was, wasn't I?

How busy are you?


July 10, 2012

What Would You Do if You Had Nothing to Do?

I wrote recently here about my mania with to-do lists and getting carried away with how much we think we can accomplish. But what if there were no such thing as a to-do list? Yes, I know, the world as we know it would come to an abrupt halt because no one would remember to do anything. Yikes!

Well, maybe. That's probably what I'd think on my most hurry-hurry-ding-ding* days. And if your list is attached to you like one of those sad tethered children at the mall, you may be having similar thoughts right now.

But stay with me.

What if tomorrow the universe suffered a temporary bout of amnesia about to-dos in general?
What if as a side effect we also lost the ability to feel guilty, or anxious, or angry, or annoyed, about what we weren't "getting done"?

Even better, what if there were no repercussions for not crossing something off the list?

Your boss won't care that you don't turn in the weekly report; your mother won't mind that you don't call; your son's lunch will appear magically on the kitchen counter, nutritionally sound and artfully packed.

But wait. It gets better.

Your boss emails that she'd rather write the report herself and tells you to take the day off, your mother decides to take the initiative and call you, and your son asks to pack his own lunch. And so it goes for anything else that might have been on that pesky to-do list that no longer exists. 

So. You have an entire day to yourself. A whole day. To yourself.

There is nothing you have to do.

What do you do?

*from the 1968 film, Sweet November, in which free spirit Sandy Dennis vows to get Anthony Newley, a British businessman, to relax and to cure him of his unhealthy fixation with time. She refers to his problem as "hurry-hurry-ding-ding" because he's always looking at his watch and waiting for its alarm to ring.

July 5, 2012

Making Room for Yourself on the List

It's time I confessed. I have never, ever checked off all of the items on a to-do list. I am a midlife woman and I've been making these lists since I was a child (should I consider that last part pathetic?), yet I've never had the satisfaction of placing a crisp checkmark next to that final to-do. 

My husband, a wonderful man who hyperventilates just thinking of making a list, says that I'm too ambitious a list-maker. "It's not ambition, it's optimism!" I respond. Each evening when I make my to-do list for the next day I'm convinced that I can complete every single task in the next 24 hours. 

After all, if I didn't think I could get everything done, I'd be setting myself up for failure, no?

And why would I do that?

Set myself up for failure, that is.

I had a conversation with a friend about this a few years back. She said that she'd asked herself similar questions and had come up with a possible answer:

"If I make a list so full that it's impossible to complete," she said. "I must be incredibly busy, right?  And being incredibly busy is the reason I don't do have time to do the things I keep saying are important to me."  My puzzled look encouraged her to elaborate.

She explained that she crammed all manner of things on her to-do lists, from minor tasks that she could complete in under five minutes ("email my accountant to confirm our meeting this Tuesday") to major undertakings that would take much longer ("update my financial records for the quarter"). She also included activities that she loved and wanted to do more of, such as playing the piano and taking lessons to improve her skills.

"Because my list is long, I always have unfinished tasks that roll over to the next day," she went on. "It's a given that I'll prioritize the things that I consider most pressing, the ones that have deadlines or that involve commitments to others. So It seems I never get around to spending time at the piano or scheduling lessons."

She paused.

"I suspect there's something else, too. If I'm too busy to play or study, then I don't have to face my fears that I'm really not very good or that I won't get any better."

Does any of this sound familiar to you? It did to me. I'd occasionally had thoughts along those lines. Why was time for the things I was passionate about, like writing, for example, always so hard to come by?

That afternoon, as my friend generously shared that she might be sabotaging herself because she was afraid of not living up to her own expectations, I promised myself that I'd take a closer look at how I was choosing to spend my time each day.

What did I do? Well, one thing didn't change.

I still make to-do lists that have way too many items on them. I still don't know why. I've stopped worrying about this.

But I did modify how I handle my lists:

1. As I prioritize the "must-dos" on my list, I make sure I've included one thing that's there purely to bring me pleasure. Some days it's a small thing, like making sure I schedule an extra half-hour for reading a book I'm really enjoying. Other days, it's getting time in for catching up with a friend over coffee, or for starting an essay for my writing class.

Planning ahead and scheduling these on my calendar makes it easier to keep the commitments.

2. I pay attention to that which, like my friend, I have strong positive feelings for but have conflicting feelings about. For instance, I try to figure out why I'm hesitant to begin or to return to a specific writing project.

Whether or not I uncover the reason, I start anyway.  I let myself off the hook by committing to work for only 15 minutes. Usually I get so engaged in what I'm doing that I keep going after the 15 minutes are up.

The fact is, it's not about how long or short our task lists are. It doesn't matter whether we keep them on sticky notes, on our computers, or in our heads. What's crucial is that we hold a choice spot for ourselves in them. 

Each day merits a gift that we give to ourselves. If not now, when? 

Where and how do you put yourself on your list?

Image by Liz Henry, on Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

June 28, 2012

To Boldly (and Cautiously) Go Where No One Has Gone Before

I'm sometimes a little irked by articles about personal development in which the sentences all seem to end in exclamation points. Maybe I'm more sensitive to it because I write a lot about this topic. In fact, I started this blog in order to share my perspective as a midlife woman on the subject.

I welcome conversation about growth and transformation. I'm a convert to the benefits of gratitude over complaining, to living in the present instead of staying mired in the past, and to substituting compassion for self-recrimination.

I'm wildly supportive of dialogue that promotes taking personal responsibility, engaging in positive action, setting ambitious goals, and other such wholesome pursuits.

So it's not the concept of personal development that bugs me. And the profusion of exclamation points? Well, that's just a symptom of a deeper concern. What is it, then, that I find troubling?

It's a specific type of pronouncement about how to proceed on the path to self-fulfillment--specifically, the claim that there's only one way to get there. This singular way, we're told, is by jumping off a (metaphorical) cliff, preferably without looking over the edge. 

Overcoming fear and risk is a key theme in these articles; the word "fierce"--as in "facing fear fiercely!"--shows up often.  But whatever the actual words or the number of exclamation marks, the message is urgently clear: "Get over it and kick butt! Don't let anything stand in your way! Just do it! Jump!" 

There's nothing inherently wrong with this message (with the exception of the exasperating punctuation, mind you). There are times when direct, uncomplicated action is the best option. Eventually we need to stop ruminating, face our fears--maybe even "fiercely!"--and forge ahead.

Unfortunately, though, zealous declarations like this one tend to ignore context. The result is a one-size-fits-all prescription for whatever it is that ails you.

There's a phrase my wonderful yoga teacher, Cindy Dollar, sometimes uses as she leads us through a complex pose:

be bold; be cautious.*
The "be bold" part of the phrase is shorthand for moving into the pose with curiosity and interest rather than with pre-conceived assumptions about what our bodies can't or won't do. "Be cautious" suggests taking the pose thoughtfully, listening attentively to our bodies to learn what's available to us in that moment. We move both with resolve and with respect for what is possible right now.

Not everyone is ready to jump (or even "jump!") at this instant. Readiness depends on interrelated conditions that include our physical circumstances and our emotional and mental states. The same step that's easy for some can appear incredibly difficult to others, and the type and amount of preparation that we need is different for each person.

I'm convinced that we need both parts of the equation: boldness and caution. Yes, we need to be bold. Some of us, in fact, need to be pushed, gently, from "what is" to "what could be." Me, for one. I've been guilty of spending way too much time building a barricade made from every possible misfortune that might befall me if I dared to venture outside my comfort zone.

If this sounds like you, consider how you might test-drive the new environment--whether it's a different career, a location, or a behavior--in small, incremental ways. These "sneak peeks" can help you build the confidence to tackle the bigger moves. 

So be bold. Do more than you think you can; act as confidently as you'd like to feel; stretch the muscles you'll need for jumping. 
But don't fall into the trap of believing that there's something wrong with you because  you temper boldness with caution. Instead, congratulate yourself.  Boldness and caution complement each other; each brings out the other's best qualities.
Ultimately, you are the only one who knows when the time is right for you to take action. 

Throughout, pay close attention to what your body tells you and listen with compassion. Find a pace that feels right to you and stay the course. And remind yourself that every day is new; what may not have been available to you yesterday may be possible tomorrow. And watch out for those exclamation points!

* attributed to B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of the style of yoga that I practice.
Image by R. Jay GaBany, on Wikimedia, under a Creative Commons License.

June 26, 2012

Is Living Well the Best Revenge? Not So Much.

"Living well is the best revenge*" is one of those sayings that surfaces regularly. When I was struggling with the fallout of a divorce 16 years ago, I repeated it to myself like a mantra. It was a goal for a future I couldn't yet fathom.

Recently, I heard a modified version: "Moving on is the best revenge." At first it struck me as a more helpful variation of the original, which always sounded a little desperate: "I'm going to live well, dammit! I'll show him/her!" 

"Moving on" was more empowering, I thought. It connoted a willingness to let go of the past--in my case, a past connected to someone who was no longer a vital part of my life--and create a more autonomous future.

Yet as I weighed the two phrases, I understood that my issue was with the word "revenge." When I was parting from my soon-to-be ex-husband, there was a part of me, the angry part, that wanted revenge. It wasn't the juvenile notion of slashing tires or transforming into Nicole Kidman overnight, but one that I hoped would be more emotionally gratifying.

I figured that arranging my life into a semblance of happiness would do the trick. I started taking classes in yoga and volunteered with the area's literacy council; I repressed my introvert tendencies and spent most weekends exploring the local attractions with friends and acquaintances. 

Other than fighting my introversion a little too hard, most of what I did was smart and healthy. Less healthy was my wish that I'd run into my ex so that he could see what a "good" time I was having and recognize that I was doing "just fine" without him.

Is it natural to have revenge fantasies? It strikes me as pretty darn human to have such thoughts occasionally, though acting on them is clearly a different story. I doubt I could have traveled the path of my separation and divorce without encountering them, and I don't berate myself for having had them.

Still, what troubles me now about the "revenge" part of the equation is that it keeps us connected to the targets of revenge. Revenge is about settling the score, about punishing, about retaliating. It's not about the joy of living well or the peace of moving on, not really.
When we 'live well' purely for our own well-being instead of to impress others or to try to teach them a lesson we increase our capacity for spiritual and emotional growth. 
We experience our emotions--negative as well as positive ones----without the overlay of what we want from or for someone else. As a result, we start seeing things more clearly. Clarity helps us reinforce the healthy behavior, which helps us gain clarity, which…Well, you get the picture.

Living well, then, isn't anything other the best way to try to live. Why not leave it at that?

*The phrase is attributed to George Herbert, an English clergyman and metaphysical poet, 1593-1633.
Image by JaneArt, at Wikimedia Commons, under a creative commons license.

June 21, 2012

Where's Your Sanctuary?

Growing up, my definition of sanctuary came from the movies. Sanctuary was something you sought when you needed protection and refuge. If the movie was a Western, the seeker was usually an outlaw, and the local church the place he found it. Usually, the outlaw was redeemed by his experience, though shot dead anyway by the sheriff as he made a run for it at the end of the film.

Eventually I learned that sanctuary isn't available only to villains, and that it can be found in places other than a church.
Sanctuary is an interval -- sometimes a place, sometimes a state of mind or spirit -- that offers relief when the world presses in too tightly. 
Sanctuary is freedom from "monkey mind," those thoughts and feelings that loop endlessly in the recesses of our consciousness: anxiety about something we haven't done or should be doing, discomfort at not measuring up to some impossible standard of performance, or fear that we've missed something crucial that we're not even aware of(!).
We find sanctuary by discovering -- some say recovering -- that place where we feel most natural, most ourselves.  
Sanctuary is a highly personal concept.  My friends' places of refuge run the gamut: Heather finds sanctuary in her garden; Norm in the kitchen where he creates delicious meals for friends; Donna in her yoga practice.  

I didn't know the full meaning of the expression when I was a child, but I understand now that books were my sanctuary. They still are. Often, reading good writing feels like a kind of meditation: the past and future dissolve, and I'm immersed fully and gratefully in the present. It's a sanctuary of mind and spirit.

My physical sanctuary is my bedroom.  Introvert that I am, it's a haven of calm for times when things are moving a little too quickly and I need to catch my breath. I head straight for my favorite reading-and-relaxing chair, the worn, plump one that traveled with me from Washington, D.C. and from Florida before that.  When I lift my eyes, I see through the window the lavender we planted in the yard when we moved here. Heaven.

Where is your sanctuary? If you don't have one, where might you look?

Image: Woman Reading by Childe Hassam, 1885

June 18, 2012

Contemplative Photography Without a Camera

My husband and I live a ten-minute drive from our town's botanical gardens. I've wanted to visit the gardens since we moved into our house two years ago. Sometimes I'm slow to act unless the universe puts something is put right in front of me.

Which is what happened yesterday. A few classmates from a photography class I took this spring suggested we spend an hour at the gardens with our cameras. The universe was putting something in front of me, and I said 'yes.'

When the six of us arrived we spent a few minutes talking about what we hoped to get from the outing. Two of the women had just read a book about the practice of contemplative photography.* They talked a little about the concepts outlined in the book, many of them based on mindfulness practices. These included stepping back from the urge to frame a photo until you've taken the subject in fully through your own unfiltered senses.

The guidelines don't apply in all circumstances, of course. Contemplative photography, as the phrase suggests, is meant for places that offer opportunities for reflection. We'd picked the perfect spot for experimenting. Each of us set off in a different direction and agreed to meet back in an hour.

The gardens are a lush sheltered oasis at the center of one of the town's liveliest areas. After only a few minutes, I noticed that what I'd heard at first as traffic noise was no longer noise, just sound. I'd settled quickly into my surroundings.

After ten minutes of looking and ambling, I raised my camera to focus on a greying wooden bridge spanning a small stream. I pressed the shutter once, paused, then pressed again for a backup shot. The "low battery" light next to the viewfinder started to blink, and my "smart" camera shut itself down.

"Damn!," I thought. "Why didn't I remember to charge the battery last night? Or the day before? I've known about this visit for a week!"  "Everybody will think I'm an idiot," I went on. "My first time in the gardens and THIS happens!" I continued like this for another minute or two. At least.

If this approach is foreign to you because your mind doesn't construct such unhelpful, self-scolding chatter, I bow to your wisdom and maturity. For me, unfortunately, these monologues are all too familiar.

Thankfully, the earlier conversation about mindfulness came to my rescue. After some more (virtual) foot stomping, my next thought surprised me: not being able to use my camera was o.k.--not only o.k., it was a good thing.

The universe was speaking, and I listened.

It told me that on this, my first visit to this wondrous place, I didn't have to do anything but enjoy its treasures. I put away my camera, stopped berating myself for what I hadn't done (charged the battery) and what I couldn't do (shoot pictures), and wandered the trails for the next 45 minutes without an agenda. I was being contemplative without a camera.

There was much to learn and see.  I savored the names of the plants I came across: Turk's Cap Lily, Eastern Shooting Star, Sweet Cecily, even Paw Paw. I liked the images the plants evoked: the thick mop of thin, curving leaves of the Hairgrass reminded me of a vigorous orchestra conductor's bobbing head. And who knew that the Paw Paw tree is a member of the custard-apple family?

Back at our meeting spot, the experience I shared wasn't about my initial irritation at having to give up my plan, but about my delight in what I'd encountered. "This was a wonderful introduction to the gardens," I said, and meant it.

Sometimes life takes things out of our hands. If you're anything like me, the thought of this gives you the emotional equivalent of hives. 

And yet, when it happens, when we're faced with a situation that frustrates us or something that interferes with our plans, we can choose how we respond and what happens next. We can decide to stay with the our negative feelings or move beyond them.

I don't always make the wise choice, but I feel better and lighter when I consciously shift gears than when I revert to auto-pilot and stay stuck in my anger or annoyance. How about you? What do you do to get un-stuck when things don't go your way?

*The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes
Image by Clara Boza, for use under a Creative Commons License.

June 11, 2012

Cataracts: Why I Can See Clearly Now

I had cataract surgery recently. My ophthalmologist recommended it, while saying that I was "certainly younger than my typical surgery patient." I suspect it was the word "younger" that endeared me to him and sealed my decision to have the operation.

The vision in my right eye had become cloudier over time, and the last major upgrade in my eyeglass prescription hadn't helped.  And since I had cataracts in my left eye too--although slower-growing ones--it made sense to operate on that eye as well.

My experience of the surgeries, two weeks apart, was hugely positive. Just as my doctor had promised, there was no pain during the procedure and little post-surgery discomfort. And the improvement in my vision was virtually instantaneous: I no longer have to wear glasses to read or drive. In fact, according to my doc, I'm a model for successful cataract surgery.

And yet…

My "new" eyes require me to hold what I'm reading closer than I'm used to: I can no longer read regular text at arm's length. Same with my computer vision: I either have to bring my laptop screen too close to be able to type comfortably or I have to wear glasses specifically for this activity.

I didn't like these adjustments. I didn't like that I had to hold the newspaper closer to my eyes. I didn't like that I had to stand very near the bookshelves at the local library to read the titles clearly, or that a close-up was necessary to see the nutritional content of cereal at the grocery store. And I definitely didn't like that I'll need glasses to work at my computer (even though my ophthalmologist assures me that it's a one-time investment).

I was cranky. For days.

The Buddha said that one of the major causes of human suffering (a/k/a "dissatisfaction") is an aversion to impermanence--to the reality that things change. Some of us resist change more than others, of course, but as a rule most of us want to hold on to what we're comfortable with, what we know, what we think "should" be.

This resistance gets smack in the way of our ability to see what's going on without the emotional baggage of shoulds and shouldn'ts. "I should be able to read exactly the way I used to!" and "I shouldn't need to wear glasses for computer work!" was blurring--like my cataracts, come to think of it--the appreciation of my great good fortune in having this terrific medical technology available to me when I needed it.

Lucky for me, it took only a few days of being cranky and annoyed with my perceived state of things before I finally reached the obvious conclusion: "You're kidding, right?"

That I can see the world around me in gorgeous detail and bright color sans glasses is amazing. That a routine 10-minute procedure made this possible seems miraculous. That I resisted letting go of old habits when new ones would serve me so much better is, well, puzzling. Still, it's not surprising. Changes don't automatically get easier with age.

Why is it so hard to embrace change, even when it's obviously for the better?

Image by Pascal B. on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.