Tonglen: To Let Go and To Accept

I’ve been listening to the book, When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. Pema is an American Tibetan Buddhist and has written and taught extensively.  She speaks of Tonglen which was a foreign concept to me as I listened to the book so I decided to investigate further.  As defined by Dhaval Patel for Zenful spirit, ”Tonglen is a Tibetan word that is contrived of two terms tong which means to let go and len which means to accept. So, Tonglen means To Let Go and To Accept.

milada-vigerova-45368-unsplash

As Pema writes in Lion’s Roar magazine, “Pema Chödrön teaches us sending and taking an ancient Buddhist practice to awaken compassion. With each in-breath, we take in others’ pain. With each out-breath, we send them relief.”  I practice meditation every day and have used the Loving Kindness meditation frequently but this awakening of compassion was a new concept to me and I found it very intriguing. It is one thing to wish others love and kindness, it is quite another to take on their suffering and send relief. It’s so easy to steer clear of pain and suffering to keep ourselves safe.

Here is what I learned about Tonglen:

Be imperfect

I was talking about meditation with my daughter a few weeks ago and she stated that she wasn’t any good at it because she kept thinking.  I’ve been meditating for over seven years and I still continue to have thoughts.  It’s easy to think, “Whelp…I had a thought so I guess this isn’t working.” My current mediation from the Art of Living is about of series of breathing techniques and while I think about my breath, I still have thoughts.  I am not perfect.  You won’t be perfect.  Being perfect is not the point.  My first attempts at Tonglen were imperfect.  That’s OK.  Embrace imperfection.

Be open and still

The first step to Tonglen is to be still and open.  I envision coming out of my head and the whirlwind of thoughts going out and back into my body.  Take a few deep breaths. Relax your shoulders and focus on your big toe or on opening your heart.

Close your eyes

Bring someone into mind who is suffering.  Many suggest focusing on someone close who you know is suffering. If your dog is lame, or your daughter is being bullied, or your parent is hospitalized, these are assessible.  I think of this as low hanging fruit and easier to identify and to identify with.  In other words, don’t bring to mind a large event like an earthquake, war or refugees on your first few attempts.  In addition, don’t focus on your arch enemy or ex-girlfriend on your first few attempts as well.  Bring to mind someone you can identify with and want the best for.  As Dhaval wrote, “Imagine someone that you want to help. Perhaps it is a friend or a loved one. Focus intently on this person and on their struggle.”

Breathe in

As Pema writes, “Work with texture. Breathe in feelings of heat, darkness, and heaviness—a sense of claustrophobia.” I imagine colors of red and black.  Pema says, “Breathe in completely, taking in negative energy through all the pores of your body.”  This visually is very powerful for me. Taking the energy through the pores of your entire body illustrates compete openness and compassion for me. As Dhaval writes, “As you do focus on the heaviness of their negative energy and of the things that ail them. Imagine yourself breathing in their condition or suffering. As you do this picture that you are breathing in their pain so you remove it from their bodies, giving them room for comfort, healing and positivity.” I imagine it as taking someone’s burden so that they can be free.  I visualized a friend who recently gave up alcohol.  I imagined taking in the anxiety and burden of finding that next drink.  I swallowed the poison so that she could be free. It’s a powerful experience to embrace the suffering instead of ignoring it or hoping it will go away.

Breathe out

As Dhaval writes, “As you breathe out, breathe happiness and peace out into the world. Think about what you believe would bring them comfort or joy. Focus on that and breathe it out into the world. Imagine that breath traveling to those you want to help and having it fill that empty space with what they need.” I find that the colors of blue and purple work best for me.  I imagine filling up the hearts and minds of those suffering with a fog of blue and purple.  I also imagine them being lifted up. Perhaps even held up with renewed strength and love. Pema espouses, “breathe out feelings of coolness, brightness, and light—a sense of freshness.”  Breathe out sunshine and unicorns.  Breathe out hope and happiness. With my newly sober friend, I imagine freedom, lightness and courage. This is the letting go.

Repeat and expand

I meditate for 20 minutes.  That is lot of suffering and happiness.  Dhaval wrote, “Continue this practice of breathing in pain and breathing out peace over and over again until your session is over. Remember, this doesn’t just apply to others either. If you are in pain, you can breathe in and out your own suffering.” When I focus on my own pain or suffering, I can incorporate others in similar pain.  I have had some knee pain recently and I breathe in for others suffering physical pain.  As Pema says, “Make it bigger than just that one person. You can do Tonglen for people you consider to be your enemies—those who hurt you or hurt others.” Start small and close and then expand out as you practice.

Pema wrote, “Tonglen can extend infinitely. As you do the practice, your compassion naturally expands over time, and so does your realization that things are not as solid as you thought, which is a glimpse of emptiness.” In practicing this over the last week, I feel a sense of oneness and belonging.  I don’t have to tell someone that I took on their suffering last Friday morning.  I just know that I feel like I relieved someone else’s suffering and gifted them happiness back.  It’s feels powerfully unselfish and loving. Whose suffering could you let go and accept?

Hike Your Own Hike

Hike your own hike (HYOH) is a term used frequently in thru-hiker and section-hiker circles. It was a new term for me, up until I actually got out on the trail in late October. Until about six months ago, I had no idea what thru-hiking, white blazing, or yellow blazing was. It was all foreign to me. By the time I was on the trail, I understood it all much better. To actually meet some thru-hikers and section-hikers on the trail gave more clarity to the whole experience. It also brought into focus that I needed to HYOH.

45010840_10156710017908688_3620860797229465600_n

There are three main thru-hikes in the United States. The Pacific Crest Trail (from Mexico to Canada on the west coast), the Continental Divide Trail (along the Continental Divide from New Mexico to Montana) and the Appalachian Trail (from Georgia to Maine). To complete all three hikes is called the Triple Crown. You can head northbound or southbound on the trail (most people head northbound) and there is something called a flip-flop, when you get off the AT in Harper’s Ferry and head the opposite direction, so maybe Georgia to Harper’s Ferry and then Maine back to Harper’s Ferry. There are all sorts of variations on the flip-flop as well. White blazes are the markings found on the AT and blue blazes mark either scenic bypasses to denote a waterfall or occasional detours around bear-infested areas, fires, or other torrential weather. To yellow blaze is to “cheat” and take a ride via a vehicle to bypass part of the trail. These are examples of basic terminology used by the community of thru-hikers and section-hikers out there on the trail.

This is what I learned about HYOH:

Do not compare

This is the essence of HYOH and it is SO hard to get your arms (er…) head around. On the day my boyfriend Roy and I headed out on the AT to Wesser Bald Shelter, I was constantly comparing myself to those we met on the trail. At about 3 miles in, we met a group of guys, with maybe nine of them coming down the trail in the opposite direction. They were affable, stopping to chat, everyone seemed in lock step; as if they were on a Sunday stroll. I was panting. Out of breath. And hoping I wouldn’t fall off the trail and that they could squeeze by me on the switch back. Later, there were what looked like twin eight-year-old girls bopping down the trail in matching fuzzy jackets with two women in their mid-thirties, presumably one being their mother. I was thinking, what Hampton Inn did they roll out of this morning and how the heck are they going to navigate that slide down the trail that I lost my water bottle on. As you can imagine, this was completely unproductive. Comparison is soul crushing. It just doesn’t matter where you are on the trail compared to others. Let them hike their own hike and you can hike your own hike.

Do not envy

I’m guessing that we met about five groups of people hiking the opposite direction on a Sunday. Odds are that their end destination was the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). Our endpoint was a shelter no where close to civilization. No running water, no king size mattress, no heater. They were most likely headed to a car or to a room at the NOC. I was headed into the great unknown of sleeping outside in a tent and in a sleeping bag; this coming from someone who had never been out in the elements. I was starting to envy these folks headed back to a known reality. They were all headed downhill. We were headed uphill. In reality, I had absolutely no idea what those folks were up to or where they were headed. Envying them of a warm bed had nothing to do with my hike. It was just a buzz kill. It was deflating. Don’t envy others. You don’t know what their destination really is, let alone their journey.

Lift up your head

Initially, I was surprised that I had to be completely present for the entire hike. Every step mattered. In fact, you have to be hypervigilant. All I would focus on, outside of the random passerby and Roy, was the trail beneath my feet. Every root, rock, leaf, and branch. Every white blaze. Walking through what is referred to as the Green Tunnel, I had to actually stop and lift my head to take a look around. To look at the autumnal foliage, to take a picture of flowers alongside the trail, to look out at the view from the knife’s edge of a ridge. This gave me renewed gratitude for walking in my neighborhood. I don’t need to be vigilant for a random root or slippery rock. There were countless times when my hiking shoe got hooked on a random root. The struggle to stay upright was life-affirming; it shines a light on stopping to lift up your head and look around. Observe the beauty that is the trail.

You are where you are

Roy told me, during what felt like a two-mile plus journey during the last mile of our first day, the last mile is always the longest. There were no mileposts. On places where I had day hiked, like Fort Macon, there were mileposts every .2 miles. I was used to knowing where I was and the progress I have made. It is reassuring. On the A.T.? No such luck. We may have scrambled on rocks for 20 minutes and I would feel like we had made a half mile of progress. However, scrambling over rocks only moves you a few feet forward. Not all portions of the trail are created equal! Some are smooth, wide and straight forward (which is rare); some are narrow, winding and covered in boulders, meant to be scrambled over with your hands and knees. At one point, on the second day, I had been going downhill and I was exasperated. I knew that there was a landmark shelter somewhere on the trail. I asked Roy, “Where is the f$%#ing shelter?” I am not proud of my exasperation. My knees were aching from all the downhill, I was past all the challenging parts we had dealt with on the way up, and I had camped outside and peed in the woods. I was sweaty and tired and all I wanted was to have a sign we were close to our destination, the NOC. I wanted a chair and a hot cup of coffee. The thing is, there was no escalator, moving sidewalk or Uber to pick me up. Regardless of where you are, you are where you are. Relax and take one step at a time. One stiff foot in front of the other. Anticipating where you want to be isn’t helpful. Be OK with where you are right now.

Backpacking on the A.T. is life-affirming. To complete a section is an accomplishment, regardless of whether or not one thru-hikes the whole thing. Experiencing hoisting everything I need on my back, and looking only three feet in front of me brought me back to myself. It didn’t matter what was going on in the world. What mattered was right in front of me and I had renewed self-assurance that I could accomplish whatever I wanted to take on. The key to it all? Hike your own hike.

Discoveries from My Walk in the Woods

Taking a casual walk in the woods can seem mundane enough. There shouldn’t be much to it, one would think. Simply put: one foot in front of the other. When it comes to walking in the woods on the Appalachian Trail, you might think it’s pretty easy. The trail extends from Georgia to Maine and crosses 14 states. More than 2 million folks hike a portion of the trail each year; a much smaller percentage complete the approximately 5,000,000 steps required to complete the entire trek. Well, if 2 million folks can survive a piece of the A.T., so can I.

44991981_10156710018068688_274218973061447680_n

I haven’t backpacked since I was at Camp Merrowvista in Ossipee, New Hampshire. Deciding to leave the comforts of a Hampton Inn and venture out overnight into the woods was nausea inspiring. I was nervous. Thoughts rushed through my head. Maybe I was too old. Maybe I was just too klutzy. Maybe I didn’t have the staying power to make it back to the starting point. Maybe we needed someone to meet us at the end with the car and refreshments. I am obviously writing this, so we all know I survived. But the venture educated me as to my abilities. And it truly was a life affirming challenge.

Here are my discoveries from my walk in the woods:

Roots

I have hiked in Utah, New Hampshire, California, New Mexico, and Oregon. I have never seen so many roots in my life while on the A.T. In lower elevations between 2,000 and 4,000 feet, the entire trial felt like a web of roots. When we started off on our 6-mile trek up to Wesser Bald Shelter from the Nantahala Outdoor Center, I was immediately struck how lumpy and bumpy the entire trail seemed. This was in stark contrast to my training ventures on the sandy trail Roy & I hiked out at Fort Macon, North Carolina. The problem you ask? Roots get wet. Roots are slippery.  Roots catch the toe of your shoe. Roots blend in under a coating of fallen leaves.  Roots are uncomfortable to sleep on. And roots can be handy when the trail evaporates to rocks for places to grab onto. There are roots on the A.T. Roots can be obstacles but sometimes they are the way only through. Grab hold.

Rocks

I have seen rocks before on a trail.  In Arizona and New Mexico, there is a lot of scrambling on rocks when you hike. I did not expect to be scrambling on rocks on the southern A.T.  I had seen enough Youtube’s on the White Mountains and the 100-mile wilderness in Maine to know that the Northeast had plenty of rocks to scramble.  I did not expect them on my hike to Wesser Bald Shelter. When you see a white blaze on a rock (there are approximately 165,000 over the entire A.T.), you know you will be scrambling. I managed to scramble down on my hands and knees. I drug my butt down steep slabs. I adapted body movements to what I believed would help me survive. Rocks on the A.T. are not just in New England. It’s best to embrace them as a challenge. It doesn’t have to be pretty.

Dirty

You are likely thinking I am naïve….or nuts when I say my next statement. I did not expect to get dirty while on my walk in the woods. I planned on staying upright and strolling through the autumnal trees. You know, an afternoon stroll. When we came upon a section of the trail that seemed to disappear under a slide of fallen trees, leaving only roots and a slab of rock visible, Roy made his way across by holding onto the roots of the trees above. There was a sliver of footing for Roy. I had no idea how I planned on getting across. I remember thinking, “I’m not grabbing onto a root; it’s covered in dirt.” I remember Roy telling me to grab the root. I reached out grabbed ahold. There will be dirt. In retrospect, this was completely irrational to think I would not get dirty on the A.T. or that I wouldn’t have to grab onto a dusty, muddy, dirty surface. Or even that the rain pants I wore on the first day wouldn’t have mud splashed on them. I’m sure you won’t make this mistake, but I did. You will get dirty on the A.T. It’s like stomping in mud puddles as a kid. It’s freeing to let go and get dirty. There will be a faucet, eventually.

Leaves

We were on the trail the last week of October. The leaves were about to peak in color. There was a ton of leaves on the ground. There’s a lot to be said about observing the Fall beauty from a distance as opposed to being an active participant. The first day of the hike, they were soggy and wet. This is an optimum surface for sliding regardless of your shoes. I slipped. I would catch my breath and slow my pace. The leaves are a mask for what lies beneath. It’s a handy cover for the roots and rocks that lurk beneath. You never know what is lurking below the surface. Day two of the hike, brought wind and sunshine and the leaves mounded up higher. They were beautiful but still camouflage for what lies beneath. If you hike in the Fall, there will be leaves and hidden scary things.

Animals

I could not believe that as we were four miles into our hike, I saw a tiny orange snake skitter into the leaves as I was scrambling up rocks. That I didn’t panic, and backtrack ten yards is beyond me. I don’t like snakes. I’ve had an irrational (OK, maybe it is rational) fear of snakes my entire life. Somehow, I just kept going on. I was amazingly calm. “Roy, there is an orange snake.” He wanted to see but it had slithered beneath some leaves. I guess it could be a copperhead, but I kept on my walk in the woods. Later at the shelter, there was a warning about black bears. Roy suggested I not read the warning. I didn’t. He later told me that the warning was about bears foraging in the area. Roy put all our food in a bag and put it up on the cables provided. I kept imagining those bears grabbing our bear bag and taking all our food as I recalled Roy recounting a story about a couple who lost all their food to a bear. I started “catastrophizing” about losing all our food and praying I didn’t smell delicious as I tried to sleep in our tent. It’s amazing what you can hike and sleep through, if need be.

Wind

The wind was howling through the night as we camped. The moon was glowing and all I could see were the leaves’ shadows from the tree branches swaying in the wind. I imagined a branch breaking and landing on top of us in our tent. The trail the next day was covered in small branches and leaves that took flight. I was just thankful it wasn’t rain. I’d rather be hiking in wind and sunshine than rain and lightning. It’s amazing what you are thankful for when walking in the woods.

The elements dictate the outcome. You have no control over the elements. Surrendering to control over what surrounds you is the way. I discovered that on this journey. It may have only been twelve miles but learning to let go is transformational. It sure was for me!

Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail

This is actually the over fifty’s guide to backpacking on the AT. For me it’s actually a guide to returning to the woods after forty plus years. I have hiked a multitude of places, from Mount Saint Helena in Napa, California, Tent Rocks in New Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru. None of those hikes were with a twenty-pound backpack. They were all day hikes; rather like a scenery stroll. And they all ended where I was sleeping comfortably in a cushy bed with running water, a flush toilet, and a solid roof over my head. The last time I had a backpack on was when I was at Camp Merrowvista in Ossipee, New Hampshire and I was sixteen years old. Things have changed. More importantly, I have changed.

45415072_277551429561820_681331862123053056_n

My boyfriend Roy attempted hiking the entire Appalachian trail in 2015. If you are unfamiliar, this is no small task. It can take upwards of five to seven months to complete the 2,190 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine. Roy made it 531 miles before a medical issue derailed his attempt. This brought me to wanting to experience the allure of the trail.

Here are my findings:

Water

This is a whole different ball game when it comes to backpacking versus day hiking. Though towns are close to the trail, it isn’t the point to hike and drop back into civilization. There aren’t handy convenience stores, faucets, or water fountains out on the trail. Carrying five to ten days of water is not feasible. Roy bought me a Sawyer Mini Water filter about a month before we went backpacking. I threw it in my closet and figured I’d be carrying my water with me. Nope. Water is the heaviest item you are carrying, so you should try and keep enough for one day. Make sure you know where the springs or water sources are along the trail. It’s not like a road trip, where you can stop off at the next exit to refill on water and use the restrooms! We had several empty water bottles to help filter from our bladder bags when we refilled at a water source on the trail. We were fortunate that the water source was a cistern on the trail versus a spring along the trail. It would have been a process and a lot more time consuming to retrieve water from a natural source. Sawyer filtration systems are very easy to use and are highly recommended by practically every A.T. thru-hiker. Don’t leave home without a water system at the ready and located water sources.

Guide

I was fortunate to be guided by a seasoned hiker like Roy. He knew that we needed the most recent A.T. Guide Northbound 2018. Roy had ripped out the page we needed for our hike. It showed the elevation, the location of the shelters, and water sources along the route we were taking. If we didn’t have the guide, it would have been impossible to know where the next water source or shelter might have been. You wouldn’t go on a road trip without a GPS or paper map. Make sure you have one that is most up-to-date before you head out. On the A.T., the white blazes on the trees and rocks are your guide. However, there are blue blazes (indicating a trail to a water source or shelter) and double white blazes (indicating some type of change coming up, such as a fire road crossing) as well. These indicate when you are off the main trail or if there is a change coming up. You might wonder why you need the most updated guide for the trail, but there are changes each year as trails become rerouted due to damage or are remeasured by volunteers. In contrast, my previous day hikes were trails that were heavily marked with frequent mileage indicators. The A.T. has very few signs, so the guide is invaluable when heading out. I found it frustrating, in retrospect, that I didn’t know whether I had walked a half mile or not. Most day hikes have a lot more signage with progress indicated along the way. It would be very easy to get lost rather quickly if we didn’t stick to the white blazes.

Clothing

My daughter Natalie is an experienced backpacker, as is Roy. Both kept warning me about not having ANY cotton clothing on the trip. Cotton will absorb sweat like a sponge and will not properly insulate. Boy, am I glad I listened. I opted for everything to be nylon or polyester, except for my wool socks. I tried a few shirts on that were merino wool but that particular material irritated my skin. In my practice hikes, I tested out several sets of shirts and pants to make sure nothing rubbed against my backpack. I cut every tag off every piece of clothing that I took with me. I get aggravated by anything rubbing against my skin. I didn’t want to be looking for a pair of scissors two miles in. I had a total of three (yes, three) jackets. One rain jacket for rain and wind. I started off the hike wearing a jacket since it was 40 degrees and windy at the start. I also brought a fleece jacket, which I changed into once the wind died down, as it was still cold. Finally, I wrapped myself in a puffy down jacket at the actual campsite since I was no longer exerting myself as much and needed to retain my body heat. I had a base layer under my hiking pants, which I kept on the entire trip to stay warm. The only thing I didn’t wear that was stored in my pack was my extra underwear. So my entire list was three pairs of wool socks (one for each day hiking and one pair to sleep in), two pairs of underwear, one short sleeve shirt, one long sleeve shirt, rain paints, convertible hiking pants, base layer pants (long johns), sports bra, bandana, buff, wool hat, cap, fleece jacket, rain jacket and down jacket. My advice is to try them all out with your backpack in different temperatures and weather conditions. Being as comfortable as possible is key.

Food

I figured that I would be starving the whole time we were backpacking. I’m not sure if it was nerves or exhaustion, but I ended up not eating that much. We had some peanut butter crackers, trail mix, and oatmeal bars. I think it’s easy to overthink and over-carry on food. We probably brought back about half as much as we started with. But gratefully, nothing went wrong on the trip. If we had been stranded for some reason due to injury, we would have needed all the food. We cooked a rice package for our only dinner on the trail and didn’t even bother cooking the ramen we brought. Having a hot cup of tea at the end of a daylong hike in our campsite was restorative. Coffee, the next morning, when it was 38 degrees was important as well. There is something about a warm beverage that makes everything feel better. Before you head out, make sure you’ve tested your burner and cookware. I’m not sure I would have been able to figure it out on my own in the waning light of day. Warm food makes a huge difference out on the trail.

Light

I had a light attached to the end of a cap for my entire trip. I knew where that hat was whether it was in the tent, in my pack or on my head. We hiked at the end of October and the sun was setting around 6:30 PM. I did not want to be stuck hiking, eating, finding water, or unpacking my sleeping bag without a light. It was critical to be able to see at night, especially when trying to go to relieve yourself. There were warnings about black bears in the area and being aware of my surroundings was critical. Have a light and know where it is always.

There are more must-haves like a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and air mattress. Trekking polls were invaluable as well. If you take anything away from this at all, test out everything you are planning to take with you in as many ways possible. You don’t want to find out five miles into your trip that your hiking shoes are uncomfortable, your backpack is too small, or that the tags on your clothes won’t stop rubbing your skin. When you head out backpacking, you have your entire life on your back. Thankfully, we only went out for a two-day hike, but getting the right combination of necessities can make the difference between a miserable and wonderful hike. Make sure you have the right basics for you.

Decide on Happiness

I have struggled over the last two years with finding happiness. I have strained, pushed, and worked on finally arriving at the railroad station, boarding the rail car called Happiness. Having taken this very circuitous route, I’ve come to realize: it’s not a destination; it’s not arriving or departing. It’s not being on standby. The thing is that it’s always been in me. It can be in me right now. It’s funny because as I write this, my dog Baci just relaxed into my lap as I wrote that sentence. She isn’t struggling any more; she is just deciding that laying next to me is perfect. And that is just perfect with me.

ryan-tang-273377-unsplash

I recently read Michael Neill’s The Space Within. It’s a thought-provoking book about just letting things be. About giving up control and focusing on what is. To letting go of your thinking and worrying and just letting things be. I think this is about just deciding to be happy right now. Just let life work itself out and yet embrace happiness now. It doesn’t take a milestone like buying a house or the divorce to be final or for you to complete the marathon; be happy right now. The key is to decide. So go ahead and decide on happiness right now.

Here is how to decide on happiness:

Happiness is not the goal

This seems counterintuitive. If you view happiness as the goal, you never find it.  There is always one more hurdle to jump over. One more thing to check off the list.  You never seem to arrive. I have the new car but I won’t be happy until it’s paid off.  Once the car is paid off, then I’ll need to get new tires. Once I get new tires, then the brakes will need replacing. There is always one more thing before happiness is ours, right? The finish line keeps getting extended. We never achieve satisfaction. We never ever arrive. Quit focusing on happiness being the goal.

Happiness is not dependent on others

I can remember thinking as a kid that I would be happy when I found the love of my life or when I had children. Basing your happiness on someone outside of yourself will lead to disappointment. It all starts with you. When it’s dependent upon others, others disappoint. They let you down and then your happiness evaporates. When you can find it in yourself, there is no disappointment. There is only your mindset. If my dog wants to snuggle next to me or not. If my lover tells me they love me or not. If my child gets the job, or graduates from college or not. Happiness is within me and is self-created.

Happiness is not about getting what you want

As Neill writes, “The secret to happiness is simply this…your happiness does NOT depend on getting what you want.” This means that similar to The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy always had home in her heart. She just needed to tap into it. Happiness is within you right now. You don’t need to get the next thing: The new car, house, jacket or coffee maker. Happiness does not exist in the striving for what you want but rather in you right now. Let go of the wishlist and be happy right now.

Happiness is not in the doing

Neill writes, “If you are doing things in order to be happy…you’re doing them in the wrong order.” For me this means to be happy while doing. It starts with the mindset of being happy right now. Start with being happy. Start between the ears. Doing will follow. Just start with a smile on your face and bliss between the ears. Neill suggests looking for the space between words. It’s difficult to look for the space between words when you start looking for it. It’s in the space. That pause. That moment where the infinite is. For me that is being present. Not multitasking. Not looking at your phone. Just be.

Happiness is not a short cut

Neill espouses, “By taking the time to live life in the slow lane, we quickly experience a deeper, more profound experience of contentment.” I opted for a walking meeting with a coworker of mine. The meeting took at least 30 minutes longer than I had expected. The thing is, I connected with the coworker and found out about some recent health issues she was having. I only had thirty minutes on my schedule but the walk and the conversation led to places I didn’t expect or anticipate. It’s letting go of control and letting the path unfold as it needs to. No need to rush, take short cuts or push through. Take the long way, the slow lane and don’t miss a thing.

I wrote myself a note in the Silence Course I took over a year ago. The first item on the note was to smile more. Several people at the course had told me what a beautiful smile I had and how it lit up my face. We all have beautiful smiles. We all need to smile more often. Don’t wait to smile or be happy. Be happy right now. Smile right now. It’s infectious. Are you happy right now?

It’s not my only line in the play

I heard this quote at a conference in October. It really put things into perspective. We have a lot more shots at a goal than we imagine. I think back to grade school theatrical productions and not wanting to flub the one line I was given. But in reality, we have a ton of lines. For that matter, a ton of plays in life. I can get wrapped up in perfection in the job interview, or the presentation to the board, or the first date. It’s freeing to realize there are a lot of opportunities in life and it’s grand to not get wrapped up in the perfection of your next line in the play.

wei-cheng-wu-484559-unsplash

I can relive conflicts in my life where I have an epiphany about what I should have said. The perfect comeback. The perfect redress. The perfect reparation. Finally putting someone in their place, and yet, the opportunity is long past. I can live in a loop in my head about how I should have played the situation differently. It takes energy. It zaps me. It’s completely unproductive. It was only one line.

So here are some ideas on how to move on to the next line in the play:

Piece it out

I facilitate a bunch of different trainings. They can range from Ethics, Sexual Harassment, or Human Resource Certification. Sometimes I present about CRR Global’ s “Lands Work”, Gallup’s Strengthsfinder, or Leadership Retreats. The thing is, when I first started facilitating, I would get completely caught up in the three upcoming events I had scheduled. I’d be worried about the one in three weeks when I was prepping for the one tomorrow. I would be overwhelmed and not sleep well. The secret is to focus on the next project. The next training. The next coaching client. By piecing it out to one project or event or client at a time, I can focus, be calm and better prepared. Focus on the next line in the play.

It’s about them

Delivering a line or a song or a presentation is all about the audience. Moving off of my own ego and onto the group in front of me is lifting an enormous burden off my shoulders. It’s not worrying about if I look fat in this outfit or if I can get a laugh out of the room. It’s delivering one piece that helps someone in their day. When you focus on them, it becomes a service. It makes it easier. I know that can seem like a lot of pressure but if I go into a room of two hundred people wanting to impress them all, it’s overwhelming and sure to fail. If I go into that same room with the intention to impact just one person’s life, it’s much easier. If it helps more than one person, terrific. If everyone gets it and loves the presentation? Even better. But the goal remains all about them.

$hitty first draft

Practically everything I facilitate, coach, or write is a first draft. I try not to overthink things. Granted, I have an editor for my blog, but the rest of what I deliver is on the fly. It’s in the moment. I’ve said some dumb things; I’ve said some witty things; I’ve said things I want to completely forget about (and usually don’t). Aren’t most conversations in life just $hitty first drafts anyway? Let go of perfection and be in the moment. If you mess up this line, there is another line coming up.

Be present in the moment

I’ve spent a lot of time rushing ahead. Planning. Mapping things out. I can be exhausting to be around. I can also spend a lot of time dwelling on the past. The Monday morning quarterbacking type stuff that is just as debilitating. The important thing is this moment right now. I facilitated a new group a few weeks back. I had never worked for this organization before. There were a bunch of unknowns: the audio visual; wall space for flip-charts; seating arrangements for the table. That’s all just flotsam. The real object is being present for the people in that room. It’s being present to tease out the wisdom in the room. It’s letting other folks shine their light for everyone else to benefit. If I’m more worried about the perfect room set up and refreshments, I’m not present for those in the room. So maybe you have to adjust the line in the play to fit the group in the room. Be present so you know it.

Be silent

It’s OK to be quiet. Not everything has to be filled with words. Time for folks to reflect is super important. Time for you to reflect is important as well. I think back to my first date with Roy. There was plenty of silence. I was OK with not filling every moment with language. I remember becoming certified to deliver a Myer’s Briggs facilitation. The instructor told us to wait 20 seconds after asking the group a question. Count out twenty seconds in your head.  Go ahead.                It’s an eternity, right? It’s an adjustment to be OK with silence. You don’t need to have language filling the air at all times. Give everyone time and space to reflect and digest. Some of the most profound moments in a play are when it is silent. Think back to all the pregnant pauses in a Hitchcock film. Rear Window would not be as griping without the silence. Silence can be powerful.

At the heart of all of this is just being authentic and present for as much as you can. Give up the need to know how it’s all going to end up. Every play is going to be different. Every line you deliver will have a different impact. What’s your next line in the play?

Finding Patience

I have been learning how to unearth my patience for a long time. I’ll admit that I figured since it was not naturally occurring within me, that there was no hope. I am always going to be staring at a clock, willing it to stop, while I am late for an appointment and stuck in traffic. How did patience skip me? How did I not learn this? My dad is the most patient man I know. I mean, he taught eighth grade History for over 30 years. He even watched my basement play productions and paid the 25-cent admission fee. He taught kids how to sail at camp; no easy feat. This is a man of infinite patience. How could this possibly skip a generation?

deniz-altindas-38128-unsplash

It turns out that patience is a skill. It’s possible to learn it. Whoa. No more blaming my impatience on my upbringing or DNA. It’s like finding out about the growth mindset as coined by Carol Dweck. It is possible to improve. I can learn this just like I can learn Spanish, crochet, or playing the guitar. I can learn how to employ patience. And so can you.

Here are some ways to find patience:

Acknowledge the need

Not all people move at your pace. Not everyone has the same schedule as you (I get up at 4:30 AM sometimes). Not everyone inhales a plate of food in 5 minutes. Realizing that everyone comes to situations from different places and mindsets is important to acknowledge. Maybe I need to just slow down. Maybe I need to go grab a book or magazine and relax. Everyone is on a different path and they are all engaging in life at a different pace. Realizing this can help you embrace the need for patience.

Gentle forbearance

I think this is my father’s secret. As Michele McDonald wrote for Bicycle, “We may be on the verge of making a brilliant retort to a coworker, but we hold our tongue rather than say something hurtful. Even though our impatience is triggered, we can tap into the deeper reservoir of our motivation not to do harm.” It’s all about getting back into the moment and realizing that we don’t want to prod someone else with our impatience. I can remember my restaurant days when a customer was obviously in a bad mood, I would be overly nice. Kill them with kindness nice. Sometimes doing the opposite of what I want to do is the best antidote. Embrace gentle forbearance.

Endurance of hardship

Again, from McDonald: “Patience isn’t passive; it’s motivated by an acceptance of and compassion for suffering rather a desire to eradicate it. When we feel impatient with our relationships, our work, or our spiritual practice, we need to realize that we are resisting how things are. A sense of humor and curiosity about our lives can also help us confront impatience.” Compare this to curiosity being the cure for fear. Curiosity can be the cure for impatience as well. So if I can add a little wonder to my impatience, I can change it up. Hmmm. I wonder why I am so impatient with the installation of my dishwasher. Is this really about the need for control rather than clean dishes? Do I really feel like Lowe’s has intentionally delayed the install or is it just happenstance? The important thing is that I have the choice to endure with bliss or with anger. Choose your response wisely.

Acceptance of truth

Accept what is the reality of the situation. You are late. Your son is late. The project is late. The flight is late. “Acceptance of the truth, means that we accept our experience as it is—with all its suffering—rather than how we want it to be. We recognize that because our experience is continually changing, we don’t need it to be different than it is.” As I sit here with the third delay of my new dishwasher to be installed, I am calm and accepting the reality of the situation. To some degree, it’s just fine. So I wash dishes for another week, or month, or year. Washing dishes is actually a Zen experience for me and it’s really not that bad. As my boyfriend Roy says, “This is a first world problem.” Acceptance helps end the suffering.

Bring it back to your body

So much of what helps you move forward when you are impatient is paying attention to your body. What are the signs that you are impatient? Is it the rapid heart rate? The tapping of the foot? The clenched fist or jaw? When you sense the warning signs, come back into your body and slow it down. Unless there is a Polar Bear chasing you, there is no need to elevate the stress in your body. Get out of your head and into you body. Relax. Feel into your toes. Get out of your head and slow down your adrenaline. Most of your perceived threat is in your head. Bring it back to your body.

Build your new skill one moment or situation at a time. Celebrate the small wins you can make over your response to stressful, impulsive situations. What do you need to have patience with?

Being Responsive to Change

I’ve been writing this blog for over seven years and I never know where I will find inspiration. It might be a trip to Paris with college friends, a statue of a dog in Wilmington, North Carolina, or a client mentioning a new idea like “wabi sabi”. This past week, I opened an Honest Tea bottle and inside the cap, there was this quote from Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.” Well isn’t that thought-provoking?

martino-pietropoli-691998-unsplash

I look back at the last two years since Hurricane Matthew, and I have been through radical change: from transforming my flooded home, surviving divorce, sobering up, and adopting a plant-based eating lifestyle. That is a lot of change. That is also a lot of responding to change. And I feel like the species of “Cathy” is on a completely different trajectory than I ever would have imagined three years ago.

Here are my takeaways on being responsive to change:

Appearances are deceiving.

I think of the fable of the frog being boiled alive because it didn’t detect the water temperature slowly changing. The water looked the same but the temperature was rising. It’s that way in relationships. The slow changes in a relationship can be imperceptible. The rules of the relationship have slowly morphed overtime and suddenly you don’t recognize yourself or your partner anymore. Right after the water receded from the flood, we stayed in the house for about three weeks. There was no HVAC, but because the weather was beautiful outside (low humidity and mid-70’s – beautiful for Eastern North Carolina), I had deceived myself into believing that we would not have to move out. The house looks fine, the relationship seems “normal”, and the water doesn’t seem that warm. Take a look below the surface and see what’s really going on. Things may have radically changed and you forgot to notice. Can you really live in a house without HVAC? Can you be in a relationship where you are no longer valued? Can you stay in the water when it’s starting to heat up? Don’t be deceived by appearances.

Patience is the key.

As Abigail Brenner wrote for Psychology Today, “Don’t be impulsive or try to rush the results. Patience will help you arrive at the best possible place you need to be.” There was the lost cabinet that was the linchpin to moving back into the house. It was at least a month to two months longer than expected. There were the slippery slopes of the mountains of bureaucracy associated with the insurance company, mortgage company, FEMA, and contractors. Patience, not my strong suit, was critical. It’s the same with the legal process of divorce. I wanted to just get it all wrapped up neatly in a package and move on. Nope. There is bureaucracy associated with that. I remember thinking over and over and over again, You can’t push a rope. This too shall pass. It’s difficult for someone as impulsive as myself, but the old Alcoholics Anonymous saying of “one day at a time” has incredible value. Relax when you are blindsided by change; lean into it.

Feel the feels.

Pain is difficult. It’s easy to take shortcuts to get around the pain. Eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, an Amazon Prime shopping binge or polishing off a bottle of Chardonnay. Numbing out of the experience. As the old Children’s song “Going on a Bear Hunt” says, “Can’t go over it, Can’t go under it, Can’t go around it, Got to go through it!” The way to go through is to feel the pain. Feel the feelings. Grief feels like this: tight stomach and clenched teeth. Anger feels like this: tight shoulders and fists. Then sit and feel the feels. Label it and feel it. Stuffing, numbing and ignoring aren’t helping you. It makes the change that much harder because you are trying to go around and not through. I know it can seem daunting. I remember thinking I would never get over the end of my marriage. I thought I would grieve every day. And I did for a while. But I think allowing grieving every day really helped me move on. Feel the pain of letting go of the past. Be with it.

One small step.

In my booklet 102 Itzy Bitzy Habits, I espouse the wisdom in making one or two small adjustments. I think we have all tried to take on the exercise regime, often over do it the first time out, and give up. Or we try the low carb diet and dump all the pasta, cookies and bread out of the pantry only to head to the drive thru the next day. Change is much more palatable with small steps. When I started to remove dairy from my diet, I started with breakfast. What could I eat for breakfast that didn’t have eggs or dairy? Oatmeal with blueberries. OK. One meal that is more plant based. Done. I still had cheese at lunch and dinner. I just removed it from breakfast. I avoid alcohol with one club soda and lime at a time. It’s just as easy to walk up to the bar at the reception and order a club soda with lime.

Give up on perfection with all this. Change isn’t easy. I facilitated a workshop this week and the food choices weren’t very plant based. I had some cheese. It’s OK. It’s good enough. It’s not all or nothing. There is 95%. It’s most important to focus on responding rather than reacting. Change will come. How will you respond?

Learning from Regret

My personal list of regrets seems endless. I regret not eating an apple, instead of three (or maybe it was six) Oreos yesterday. I regret not walking the extra mile I intended to walk. I regret not writing a blog post yesterday, instead of trying to fit it in today. Then there are the big regrets. The years of being overweight, numbing out with alcohol and the two marriages and subsequent divorces. It is so easy to wallow in regret. Whether it be the humdrum, everyday food selections, or the life-altering regret of not backpacking Europe right after graduation. I bet you and I could each write a thousand regrets over a cup of coffee.

neonbrand-395901-unsplash

Hindsight is 20/20 as they say. Wasn’t it obvious the Eagles would win the Super Bowl? Of course, your restaurant would fail after just 8 short months – don’t most of them? Wait until the car, jeans or coffee maker go on sale before you buy it, and then, they go out of stock forever. Duh. There is always clarity in looking back. You know you should have bought Apple or IBM or Google stock way back when it was cheap, so I could be sitting pretty for retirement. Regrets actually have lessons for us beside rumination and beating ourselves up.

Here are the learnings from regret:

Regret means that you took risks.

As Maura Hughes wrote for Elite Daily, “If you are confident in every decision you make, are you really living? Life is about pushing boundaries and trying new things, and in order to do that, you must take risks.” I think about my ill-fated restaurant ‘Coyotes’ some 20 years ago. It was an experience in being an entrepreneur and living out a lifelong dream. I took an enormous risk. It failed. But it means that I have shown up and rolled the dice. I will never own another restaurant. Ever. Don’t bother even asking. I have an everlasting appreciation for all those who have succeeded in the restaurant business. I still have a shirt with my logo on it. I have taken risks that have paid off as well like moving back to the East Coast and going for my Master’s degree after my restaurant failed. You win some and lose some, but you have to show up and engage in the game.

Regret means that you made a choice.

As Dr. Susan Perry wrote for Psychology Today, “Life demands that we put our stake in the ground, make our choice, and do our best to meet whatever actually happens. Of course, we would like a particular outcome, but we don’t need to chastise ourselves when things don’t go our way.” I have vacillated on a million choices in my life. Indecision is frustrating and makes you less decisive. For good or bad, make the decision. The choice. Often, waiting for more data is just putting off the inevitable. There is regret, regardless of the choice. Put a stake in the ground.

Regret ignites innovation.

Regrets help you think outside your comfort zone. I can remember when I closed my restaurant. I knew I had to figure out how to hold onto my house, mostly for my children; but also for the investment. Everyone told me to sell the house and get out from under it. The more folks advised me, the more I wanted to hold on. I rented out rooms. I cut my expenses. I took a second job. It ended up paying off in the long run when I sold the house to move to the East Coast. Necessity IS the mother of invention.

Regrets are the best teachers.

As Hughes writes, “When you’re challenged, feel like you failed and regret the choices you made, you are forced to return to the drawing board and figure out what went wrong. You are forced to work harder than you want and ultimately, the success is that much sweeter.” I reflect on surviving the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, I can see the lesson in rebuilding and fixing my house. I have a new appreciation of those who have suffered a loss whether it is from fire or flood or financial ruin. I also look out the window with renewed appreciation for the view outside my house. It’s taught me to take stock in what I have and to savor the moment. You never know how long you will have it.

Regrets point you in the right direction.

As Hughes writes, “If we were 100 percent sure of everything we wanted out of life, it would be much easier to live. But, it would not be nearly as much fun. Part of growing up means realizing what you want, whom you want and how you want to get things done. There are no set guidelines, so you must figure it out as you go. Every now and then, you might think you want something only to find out that you were wrong.” I have had countless regrets over consuming alcohol, whether it was saying something I regretted, spending way too much money on it, or feeling hungover. Realizing that I wanted a new direction has been priceless. I couldn’t have gotten here unless I had regrets. Regrets inform you. But it’s imperative to listen.

I think there is strength in knowing that we all have regrets. It’s a human experience that moves us forward, so long as we don’t get caught up in mulling over it. What is a regret that you have learned from?

Putting Gratitude into Practice

Most people have some point of feeling grateful; like when the rain finally stops; when they get the overdue raise; when the dog is finally house broken. Sometimes it’s like pounding our head into the wall and when it finally stops, we feel grateful. We can wait for the pain to stop to finally reap our reward. Finally, the house is done; the project went live; the promotion is announced. These can be once-in-a-lifetime, periodic, or once-a-year events. Being grateful for these events is important but it’s not a practice of gratitude.

massimo-sartirana-550958-unsplash

A practice of gratitude is finding the joys of life; the little things along with the big things. My dog lying on her back on the couch without a care in the world as Hurricane Florence rages outside. The first sip of coffee at 5:10 AM. The warm embrace. The smile. The knowing glance. The warm melody of the cello playing Bach. There are thousands of things each day that pass by either noticed or not. Gratitude is the butterfly net to catch them.

Here is how to put gratitude into practice:

Reframe the event or issue

I first learned this during my Results Based Coaching with the Neuroleadership Group some seven years ago. Reframing is changing the context in which you view something. Typically, it’s turning something less desirable into something desirable. Changing the glass from being half empty into half full or half empty to thank goodness we have water. Having survived Hurricane Florence this past month has really done a reframe around power, water, air conditioning and abundant grocery stores. It goes from: “I can’t believe Walmart is closed!” to “Thank goodness Food Lion is open and they have fresh produce.” “The bridge is impassable,” to “At least I have power and can work from home.” So, when you run out of gas and have to walk to the gas station, view it as at least I got some exercise today. Reframe the negative into a positive.

Find the opportunity

Figure out what is available. When Hurricane Florence was bearing down on Wilmington, NC, I was home taking advantage of power and hot water. I think I took at least two showers a day and  kept starting up the dishwasher and washing machine. I was thinking, “Well, who knows how long we will have power. Let me do another load.” My boyfriend Roy has never seen a multi-story building he didn’t like. We checked into a hotel that had nine floors. Roy immediately decided that we were going take those stairs twice. “Here is a great opportunity!” So there I was, hiking up and down nine flights of stairs. Why waste a good opportunity for exercise? Park in the farthest spot, walk in the rain, put on a loaded backpack while you mow the lawn. Find the opportunity.

Just two beats longer

I found this in Brendon Burchard’s book, The Motivational Manifesto. As Burchard writes: Let us forget for now where we are supposed to be and what we should be doing. Instead, let us hold this moment for just two beats longer.

Do not breathe so quickly. Take in air for two beats longer.

Do not scan the room. Sense the room by gazing into each shadow and corner for two beats longer.

Do not merely glance at her. Look into her eyes and hold them for two beats longer.

Do not gulp down the next meal but savor each bite for two beats longer, let the tastes melt and linger.

Do not send the heartless note. Read it once more and spend two beats longer sensing the pain it may cause another.

Do not give a perfunctory kiss good-bye while juggling everything on the way out the door. Make the kiss count, make it firm and solid and true, holding the moment passionately for two beats longer.

Life is lived in the extra beats we hold as time unfolds.

In my opinion, those two beats hold gratitude. Savor the moment.

Journaling or whatever

Figure out a way to catalogue your gratitude. I personally have been keeping a gratitude journal for over five years. People approach this task differently – you can figure out what works for you. I kept a gratitude jar on my desk three years ago and wrote each moment of gratitude on a slip of paper, stored it in a jar until year end, and read each one on New Year’s Day. There is the practice of carrying a gratitude rock in your pocket and then touching it whenever you are grateful. You can create a gratitude tree and hang a “leaf” with each thing you are grateful for. You can write a gratitude letter once a day or week or month to thank someone you are grateful for. What’s important is that you pick something you can practice on a regular basis. I currently write five things I am grateful for in the morning and one item I am grateful for in myself (like being able to climb those 9 flights of stairs – TWICE!).

Compliment others

Nothing feels better than paying a sincere compliment. It’s completely free and feels absolutely fantastic. So, whether it’s your co-worker showing up with a new hairstyle or your assistant having completed the report in a timely manner, find something to compliment. People love to be noticed. This can be with someone you know or not. If you like the earrings of the cashier at Whole Foods, tell them you like them. It’s an easy way to pay gratitude forward. If someone pays you a compliment, be sure to say “thank you.” No qualifiers to discount the compliment like: “This old thing? I have had it for years.” Or “I really don’t like the color.” Give and accept compliments gracefully.

The underlying theme of all of this is being present and paying attention. Once it is part of you, it becomes easier and things to be grateful for multiply. Try it yourself.  What are you grateful for?