Letting go of goals

It’s that time of year when goals set on New Year’s Eve go bye-bye.

I asked a few people about their New Year’s Resolutions this year. All of them said they don’t make resolutions anymore; that New Year’s Resolutions don’t work so why bother. I interpret that to mean that New Year’s Resolutions do little more than evoke a sense of guilt and feelings of failure for giving up again by mid-January.

Some people continue with the tradition, either with a sense of humor or with the heavy presence of disappointment looming in the not-too-distant future. Who needs that?

Skip the resolutions; skip the goals. Set an intention.

I spent New Year’s Eve with about 200 other people at Against the Stream Meditation Center in Santa Monica. We each lit a candle, set an intention, and stated it out loud (optional) for the new year. It was the first time I did anything like that.

Here’s what I learned: Setting an intention differs from making a resolution or setting a goal in three important ways.

The tone of setting an intention

Listen to the words. My intention is to… Ahhhh….my intention has wiggle room…space. The words sound soft, pliable, forgiving. There’s a subtle difference in tone, cadence, and, well, intention from this and I want to… or I will

Bam. Bam. Bam. Like keys on a manual typewriter, an Excel spreadsheet, or track and field hurdles, goal statements tend to sound harsh, limited and limiting, driven, cold, superficial, heavy-handed. Makes me feel like I want to shake the words off my skin and out of my head. Which is what most people do.

  • I will lose ten pounds by Valentine’s Day.
  • I will find a job I like within the next six months.
  • I will put a profile on a dating web site .
  • I will find someone to spend the rest of my life with…or marry…or have children with.
  • I will stop [an unhealthy habit].

Not to say that goals are useless or unachievable. They have their place and some people do very well with them. Presidential candidates have to set goals to get where they want to go. So do professional athletes, corporate leaders, artists of all flavors, and anyone who wants to do anything measurable in the outside world. Goals are great for graduating high school with a 4.6 GPA, finishing college or grad school, or selling ten thousand widgets.

Uncertain future

Setting goals disregards the possibility that the real future may not be the future you imagine. Setting goals disregards the very real human limitation of control, or lack of control, over uncertainty. The future could unfold in a more spectacular and happier way than you imagined. Or the results could turn out completely different from anything that you could have imagined for yourself.

As an example, you may know people who say they want to get married. Internet dating sites attract people with such goals. The people on these sites tend to feel that their biological clock is ticking (grasping) or they have to act now to avoid permanent singlehood (aversion). They usually have a long list of what the person they want to marry looks like, acts like, thinks like, and does for a living. From the Deepak Chopra article 5 Steps to Setting Powerful Intentions:

Intention is much more powerful when it comes from a place of contentment than if it arises from a sense of lack or need.

The people I know of who have set a similar goal, usually don’t have long or intimate relationships. Instead of setting a goal, these people might consider setting an intention.

What would an intention sound like? I intend to live more fully, to open myself to emotional intimacy, to love with abandon while holding space for a LTR (long-term relationship). It’s a subtle difference and may be imperceptible to anyone who is goal-driven or clinging to an idea.

Goals are future directed in an insistent way; intentions happen in the here and now and become integrated over time. Intentions allow space for anything to happen. With an intention instead of a goal, you open yourself to living a more meaningful life now.

Deepak Chopra recommends that you:

Relinquish your rigid attachment to a specific result and live in the wisdom of uncertainty.

Heart, passion, insight, kindness

You might recall from Change and the Elephant or if you went on to read The Happiness Hypothesis (Haidt, J., 2006) that the part of us that sets goals and makes New Year’s Resolutions, the rider, has little chance of affecting change if the emotional self, the elephant, is not considered.

So I ask: Where’s the heart, the passion, and the emotions in goal statements? Where’s the space and flexibility for being human, the forgiveness if things don’t happen exactly the way you stated the goal? Where’s the consideration of other people’s wants, needs, intentions? Where’s the space for fear, anger, risk aversion, love, attachment style, and just plain old laziness?

Unlike goal statements, setting an intention considers your emotions, your strengths, and your limitations.

Take one of these for a test drive. My intention is to…

  • let go of my fear of dating
  • let go [period]
  • pay attention to myself when I feel sad, or lonely, or anxious, afraid
  • be kind and gentle with myself
  • savor each pleasant life experience; marinate in the goodness in life
  • notice the goodness in others
  • express gratitude
  • let go of expectations and control
  • celebrate being me
  • show up in a more authentic way in my work and personal life

Intentions can be used for practical matters too. My intention is to:

  • earn more money
  • socialize more
  • take better care of my body
  • remember to smile
  • forgive more quickly
  • practice [whatever you’re practicing] every day

Take some time to think about what you really want. Consider your feelings, your place in life, your circumstances, what you want now, not five years from now. Then set an intention that feels authentic.

When you have one you like, repeat it to yourself whenever you think of it. Then, let it go.

Deepak Chopra suggests that during daily meditation, assuming you do meditate every day, you “…plant the seeds of your intention.” Then

…let it go—simply stop thinking about it.

Let the marvelous alchemy of life take over. Your subconscious will remember; your elephant will feel seen and heard; and you’ll give your seed of intention the space to grow.

The outcome? Smile as you watch it unfold. 🙂

The downside of mindfulness

Mindfulness practice at Deer Park
Deer Park Monastery Escondido CA

Scientists all over the world are studying the benefits of mindfulness. So, when an article comes along that challenges mindfulness as a “cure-all,” I want to read it. 

People who know me know I am “into” mindfulness big time. I study it, practice it, and write about it. I give talks about it. I have integrated mindfulness into the psychotherapy work I do, my personal relationships, into hiking, writing, and every breath I take.

Not true about every breath. That was a pun I couldn’t resist. Sometimes I am so thoroughly oblivious to my surroundings, my body, my breath, I wonder if all the meditation I do has any effect (it does). Take that six-part sonic boom two of my hiking buddies heard when we were headed up to Eagle Rock. “Did you hear that?” one of them asked. “Hear what?” I said. Right? Oblivious. But I am also kind to myself about being oblivious.

Mindfulness–the mainstreaming of

Because people who know me know I am interested in mindfulness, they send me articles they think I might like to read. I appreciate that because my Google alert for mindfulness misses a lot of articles and doesn’t retrieve articles posted to the internet in the past.

This latest article someone sent my way, If Mindfulness Makes You Uncomfortable, It’s Working (Su, A.J., The Harvard Business Review, December 29, 2015) begins with the story about a woman named Claire. Claire learned about mindfulness from her company and was trying a mindfulness app. Rather than feeling more calm and relaxed, though, Claire was feeling more agitated.

“…mindfulness has hit the mainstream,” the article continues. Indeed it has. You will find mindfulness in schools, in government, in police departments, in prisons, in community centers, in graduate programs for organizational development. Which is probably why Claire learned about mindfulness from the company she works for, of all places.

Mindfulness is based on the Buddhist philosophy that suffering is caused by getting tangled up in thoughts and feelings about the past and the future–two time zones we have no control over. Suffering is caused by clinging and avoiding. In Buddhist terms, suffering is optional. But suffer we do.  We all have a tendency to cling, grasp, and chase pleasant experiences and avoid or push away unpleasant experiences. Eating too many sweets and avoiding honest but difficult conversations are examples.

Mindfulness is also based on the idea that if you are more aware of what’s going on NOW in your body, in your mind, and around you, you can feel more alive by  a) being aware of your present moment experiences and b) learning from them. You might even do something about them. Maybe.

Mindfulness–the mis-reputation

On the way to fame, recognition, and integration into our culture, though, mindfulness picked up the mis-reputation as a pathway to happiness, peace, calm, maybe even enlightenment and perfection. For good reason.

Scientists in every major university in the Western world conduct rigorous studies on the effects of mindfulness. I just did a Google search for “mindfulness” and got “About 29,600,000 results (0.49 seconds)”. On EBSCO Host, a database of journal articles, there were more than seven thousand.

Some of the more interesting research reports that a regular mindfulness/meditation practice can:

  • reduce anxiety, stress, reactivity, depression
  • change the wiring in your brain
  • prevent relapse in addiction recovery
  • improve memory, concentration, sleep
  • strengthen the immune system
  • improve quality of life

and more of course. We don’t yet know all the benefits, or how much (or little) mindfulness it takes to feel the benefits.

Mindfulness–the awareness, the attention, the equanimity

Where were we with the article? (awareness) Let’s get back to what the author was saying (attention). We do this without criticism of mind and writing wandering (equanimity, compassion, acceptance, kindness).  Su continues:

Therefore, we have to redefine mindfulness as more than feeling good, and instead see it as having an increased capacity to sit with the full spectrum of being human, experiencing it all — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and learning to be less reactive so that we can make better choices each day.

But, but, but…what about all of that research?

Mindfulness–the Shinzen view

Mindfulness looks and sounds simple. But it’s far from that. In What is Mindfulness? Shinzen Young breaks down mindfulness into eight areas for us to consider (p. 4):

  1. Mindfulness – The Word
  2. Mindfulness – The Awareness
  3. Mindfulness – The Practices
  4. Mindfulness – The Path
  5. Mindfulness – The Translation
  6. Mindfulness – The Fad
  7. Mindfulness – The Shadow
  8. Mindfulness – The Possible Revolution

I encourage you to read his paper.

“Mindfulness–The Practices” includes Noting, Body Scanning, Lovingkindness, and Open Presence. To keep this as simple as possible, I only want to mention Noting in this article. You’ll see why later. Noting is the practice of labeling whatever you experience in an objective way. “Thinking.” “Planning.” “Worrying.” “Happy.”

“Mindfulness – The Path” includes the application of mindfulness as a way to increase the human experience of happiness. In other words, what is the effect of mindfulness on physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual distress or dis-ease? That’s what all the research is about. So far, mindfulness has an A+ and is proving to be quite effective. Hence, the not-so mis-reputation. The idea that mindfulness leads to happiness is not entirely based on our desire to be happier. It is based on the body of research that drives our thinking and transforms our culture.

No one says that sitting in NOW is pleasant all the time. NOW is not pleasant when we get hijacked by thoughts, feelings, and stories. NOW is not pleasant when we review conversations, the latest to-do list, and worries about what could happen in the future for the 99th time. NOW is not pleasant when we feel sad or anxious or angry.

NOW is not pleasant when you don’t get the promotion you expected, when the person you love leaves you, or when illness visits you or someone you care about.

The idea is to learn to sit through whatever comes up.

Remember Claire? When people begin practicing mindfulness, that is the formal practice of sitting quietly or meditating, all kinds of stuff comes up that’s always been there, stuff you’ve avoided or ignored. With mindfulness practice, you are alone with you, your thoughts, your feelings, your body sensations. These parts of you may seem like strangers at first. Unfamiliar, even scary. As with strangers, the more time you spend with them, the more approachable they become.

Mindfulness–the corporate application

NOW in the corporate world is based on experiences like Claire’s and the other two people in A. J. Su’s article. Because she writes for a business audience–remember the article was published in the Harvard Business Review–Su’s advice focuses on organizational behavior from a mindfulness perspective and more-or-less how to be more productive. She suggests (my comments in italics):

1. “Witness” and track the pattern

of behavior, thoughts, feelings. This is AWARENESS

 2. Notice, name, and pause.

This is NOTING. Mindfulness–The Practices…That’s why I mentioned it earlier.

3. See more clearly, choose more clearly.

This is EQUANIMITY, maybe. Equanimity is inner peace or a calmER nervous system. Calm nervous system = less fight/flight/freeze and more cerebral cortex engagement.

Mindfulness–The Future

As I mentioned earlier, we do and we don’t know a lot about mindfulness, the effects of mindfulness, the benefits, or the limitations if there are any. Not knowing is exciting.

A few decades ago, the 2,000-year-old practice of meditation met with Western technology and psychology. POW! Like the Big Bang, something big happened. We don’t yet know where that will lead. We don’t know the effect mindfulness will have on human evolution, on the future of the planet, or even on your next breath.

What we do know is that the practice of being still even for five minutes a day is more complicated and more interesting than it sounds.

Oh. The downside of mindfulness? So far there are none.


The promise of an interesting conversation

I don’t know where this will lead, but let’s see what happens.

I had a brief conversation with a hiking buddy last week  that went something like this:

“Psychology is crap.”

Hmmmm…”What do you mean?”

“All that stuff about Oedipus complex just makes everyone think they have it.”

Interesting…”Yes, that was Freud,” I said. In school, we learn all about theories, and pathology. We learn about the power of suggestion too. Every one of us can recognize ourselves in every disorder.

“In my experience with therapy, though, theory is not that important.” Then I tried to explain what therapy means to me. I fumbled around awhile trying to understand it myself. I wish I had asked more questions.

“Therapy is magical,” she said.

Before she answered, and maybe she was fumbling around with some ideas too, the conversation shifted off to another topic. In hindsight, I was caught off guard by the promise of a more meaningful conversation than I’ve had in a while. Gratefully so, because it’s given my holiday stupor a kick in the pants.

You know how social conversations go. People talk about TV shows and Netflix movies, sports, weather, the stock market, housing prices (here in LA anyway), maybe a little gossip, current events after testing the political wind around the people in earshot, food, niceties. Social conversations steer clear of anything too intellectual or deep or controversial and certainly nothing emotional. Yet this conversation had that other element, a hint of a deeper, richer ribbon of discourse woven between the lighter fare.

Wanted: Guidance

Later she said she wanted guidance. Again, I wish I would have asked more questions, but I said, “No one can tell you what to do. And why would you want anyone telling you how to live your life anyway?” Not very compassionate of me. Not very honest either.

The truth is, now that I’ve gnawed on that idea awhile, I realize that most of us (me included) long for someone to tell us what to do. Not all the time, of course; just when the going gets tough, when we feel lost or bewildered or overwhelmed. We want someone to say go this way, or take this risk, or stay away from that person, or jump into that relationship with both feet.

Life is so complicated, so difficult at times, how can you, or anyone, possibly figure out how to navigate the uncertainties AND make a plan that leads to happiness while feeling good about the choices you’ve made?

Guidance is available

There’s plenty of advice and guidance out there; just look at some recent Facebook posts:

Well, maybe not Facebook. But you can find advice on web sites all over the internet by doing a Google search, or ten:

How to be happy: the Coca-Cola Happiness Machine

How to find the job of your dreams: Forbes

How to date: wikiHow

How to unplug a toilet in seven ways: Digital Trends

How to build a house out of old tires, straw bales, and mud: Mother Earth News

How to live on $5.00 a day: Forks over Knives

How to get divorced: Nolo.com

How to have the most amazing sex on the planet: Cosmo, who else?

How to raise your child’s self-esteem: WebMD (I actually like this article)

How to care for an ill and aging parent and stay sane doing it: HuffPost

Then there are the people, you’ve heard of them, who sell promises of certainty and happiness if you buy their book or attend their workshop or seminar or life-changing event. I almost forgot about podcasts and apps!

It’s all there, right? and more…so much more you could drive yourself crazy listening to everyone else’s suggestions and advice about what’s right for you.

Isn’t that what my hiking buddy meant by guidance?


Maybe not.

Broadband vs. Personal

Internet, books, workshops, and life-changing events are designed for broadband distribution. That means that their content is designed for you and everyone else in the Western world. You read or listen to the advice. You might even try it on for size. Maybe you spend a thousand dollars on a life-changing event that promises you’ll be happier after attending. Then, after your dopamine and other pleasure chemistry levels return to homeostasis, you’ve forgotten what you read or stopped doing whatever was suggested and you’re back to feeling lost or bewildered or overwhelmed. Am I wrong? You can tell me. I am just fumbling around here with some ideas.

I think what my hiking buddy meant by guidance is something more personal. She might have in mind a person, a more experienced, wiser person–something like a parent but not the parents of birth because most of us who long for guidance didn’t get it from our biological parents otherwise we’d go to them–who will listen to what’s on her mind. I think she was saying she wants a go-to person she trusts.

Don’t we all want someone in our corner who has no agenda other than our well-being and growth. I think what she was saying is that she wants the advice, suggestions, or guidance to be for her ears only or at least for her life only.

This is what I believe therapy is today, not therapy in Freud’s time. At least, this is what therapy is for me at this moment in time. You bring in all of your stuff. Then the non-verbal space between therapist and client “in the room” contains, absorbs, digests, marinates, savors, and explores whatever presents itself.

For therapy to happen, the client has to trust that the space, and the experience, is safe, that every topic, thought, feeling, emotion, fear, shame, desire, and fantasy will be honored, respected, validated, and welcomed. Then there’s the space between sessions where most of the real work happens.

In that sense, therapy is magical. Not hokus-pokus magical, but can’t see it and can’t always describe it magical.

In therapy you can experience the kind of guiding relationship you did not get growing up. When therapy is good, that relationship includes kindness, acceptance, compassion, unconditional emotional holding, and the freedom to bring into the open everything that’s on your mind and in your heart in the presence of someone whose witnessing of you and your story makes you feel heard, seen, and understood.

We therapists talk about the therapy process as relaunching, a do-over of learning to become a somewhat independent adult. (We all need people we can lean on, Mick.)

Social vs. intimate

In social conversations, we steer clear of risky topics. In therapy, we dive into them.

Fantasizing about marrying your father and killing your mother? Or is it marrying your mother and killing your father? Maybe not. Maybe Freud never meant to broadband his opinions. He certainly made significant contributions to our understanding of human behavior. Remember learning about defenses in Psych 101? That was another of Freud’s observations and theories.

My responses to my hiking buddy’s thinking out loud and this article arose from a curious defensive position. After all, psychology is my work. Hearing it called crap tapped into that tiny voice in my head that thinks it is too. By thinking about this conversation that almost happened and writing as honestly as I can with as much compassion and kindness as I can, I think I have more clarity about what this thing we call therapy means to me. I hope too, that her opinions and my thinking out loud has given you something to gnaw on for a while as well.

This is the space I was talking about earlier. Magical. Interpersonal. Personal. Can’t see it; can’t describe it. Can’t plan it. It just happens. When therapy, or a conversation, is good, it can feel magical.

My broadband message

Bad guides have their own agenda, be it fame, or money, or sex, or power. Good guides offer suggestions and advice from a place of wanting to help. Great guides ask questions that lead you to your own conclusions.

I would like to wrap this up with a positive broadband message. I would like to say that therapy is good for everyone. But it’s not. Therapy is not always the only solution or the best solution. You have to decide for yourself what is right for you. As scary as that can be at times, it’s the best guidance I can offer.

Life is an experiment and you are your own scientist. Chew on someone else’s guidance. If you think you will benefit from it, try it on and evaluate along the way. Is this still working?

Sometimes LOL Facebook posts are all you need.

So, hiking buddy, what did you mean by guidance?

Mindfulness and love

Before you read this article, I want you to know that all of us struggle with breakups. No one separates from another without feeling loss and pain. I write to remind myself what love is and is not because it’s so easy to get caught up in the me-me-me of relating and the pain of losing someone.

I also want you to know that although the article begins with breaking up, the topic really is about love. Ready?

When you tell a friend that the relationship you’ve had with your partner of three months or three decades just ended, and your friend is a friend in the truest sense of the word, she or he listens…she empathizes…she offers perspective. You hope that by telling your friend that your relationship has ended, by sharing your story with her, in some way, her listening will clear away the pain you feel. By talking, you feel less alone. You believe that everything is going to be alright. Not.

Talking doesn’t always help.

I like to use the metaphor of being in ICU after being run over by a truck. You can’t think clearly. Sometimes, you can’t even move. A friend or therapist or other guide can remind you that this is not your normal state of being and that with time you will heal. But ultimately, you are alone with your loss and pain.

In the past, it seemed to me that there was no way around the pain, that the grieving process had to run its course. That there were no shortcuts; no magic wand to make the pain go away any sooner than it wants to. Now, I’m not so sure.

“Love is not effortless. To the contrary, love is effortful.” — M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, p. 83.

Love is the shortcut.

Sounds implausible, doesn’t it? Especially in the throes of sadness and anger. But this is the way out.

What is love, really?

When you truly love another person, according to many wise authors and speakers and thinkers and teachers, you let go of your wants and needs and wish the other person well. You wish the other person the freedom to grow. You wish the other person whatever he or she wants. You wish her or him joy and happiness in abundance.

I can hear the objections from myself and maybe you too. This flies in the face of the desire to have that person in your life. Right? A future with that  person equals happiness. A future without her or him…well…not so happy.

According to the wise authors and teachers, when you truly love another person, if you are honest with yourself and you know that the relationship had to end, you know that by ending, both you and he or she have an opportunity to learn and grow. Of course, the argument could be made that if both of you really love each other, you wouldn’t break up, but let’s assume that you thought you loved him or her, but really, you were more interested in satisfying your needs and wants than tapping in to reality. Of course, that’s human nature.

After a breakup, regardless of who’s decision it was to move on, most of us get caught up in or entangled by the details. Who left who, who did what to cause the breakup, who said this or that…the events that led to the end. In divorce, money and legal negotiations monopolize conversations. There are inconveniences, too. You or your partner may have to move. You might have to find a new job and another way to socialize. When children are involved, the process becomes all the more complicated.

The breakup, this tiny snippet of time, a conversation, a word, a look, and the intense emotions that come from not having the other person in your life, blinds you to the real question.

Mindfulness and love

Wisdom comes from many sources. This bit comes through Nikki Mirghafori‘s talk The Way to Love in which she interprets Anthony de Mello’s last book,  The Way to Love from a Buddhist / mindfulness perspective. Anthony de Mello was an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist. He writes and she begins with saying what love is not.

Love is not good feelings about others, benevolence toward others, or even service that benefits others.

M. Scott Peck writes that being in love is not love and that being in love is tied to sexual attraction. Hmmmm. If that is what love is not, then what is love?

As you continue reading, keep in mind kindness, patience, and gentleness with yourself. This is difficult work.

Awareness and love

According to these wise people, loving another means first seeing the person as he or she truly is. That means separating your wants and needs, your projections and expectations, your hopes and dreams from his or hers. This can prove difficult even to the most skilled among us. If you can, after talking with your friend(s), you will probably do best spending time alone doing what another teacher calls marinating. Marinate in the experience, he says.

Ask yourself who is this person you want in your life? What does he or she want? What does he or she feel, think? How does he or she experience reality? What are his/her strengths and more important, his or her limitations? See if you can allow yourself to be open to whatever comes up.

You may have heard people refer to red flags early in a relationship. I believe that pondering red flags will keep you bound to the pain and suffering and distract you from the real issue: how did you overlook that person’s reality? What did you want from that person and how did that interfere with your seeing them and their place in their life?

[Pause], I remind myself and you to do this in a kind and gentle way. Of course you want something from that person. Of course you projected your dreams and imagination onto her or him. Of course. It’s human to do that.

Awareness means you are not clinging to memories or ideas and you are not forecasting the future that you want or hope for onto someone else. You are present with the realness of who the other person is, who you are, and what you want from her or him. What you discover about your motives may not be pleasant or easy to look at. Just remember, we all do this. This thing we call love is complicated.

Attention and love

Not to be underestimated, the emotions and stories your mind conjures up will prove to be formidable competition for the equanimity, clarity, and expansiveness that’s needed to get to awareness and to love. The mind will gravitate toward anger, resentment, loss, grieving, sadness. Of course you feel all of that. Of course. When mind tosses you around like socks in a dryer, or entangles you with its exhilarating ideas, see if you can gently turn your attention to a breath. One neutral breath. Or playing one chord on your guitar. Or planting one seed in your garden. Or taking a hike.

It’s best that I take a small break here. Writing the words that describe this process is so very easy. Awareness in any shape or form for any amount of time is a challenge and an ongoing practice. I don’t know about you, but I practice every day in formal sitting meditation and in relationship with others. And breakups still hurt.

Equanimity and love

Equanimity is the last of the three mindfulness basics. It is by no means the least important. In some ways, the other two, awareness and attention are not possible without equanimity. Imagine yourself in a state of inner peace, calm, equanimity. Imagine stillness in your body and your mind. Imagine that you can see yourself and the world exactly as it is.

If I had one wish, I would wish equanimity for you. I wish it even more than I wish happiness in the lovingkindness meditation. May you be calm. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you love [really love] and feel loved.

If the word awareness replaces the word love in that last statement, it might sound something like this: May you feel seen. May you feel heard. May you feel understood. May you feel held in another’s presence. With equanimity, we can attend to the other in ways that puts our wants and needs in the background. Supposedly, that is Real Love. Difficult, I know.

Don’t believe me though. Try it for yourself. If you can just for a moment let go of you and take a look at what the relationship really is and isn’t. Because I don’t always know what’s right for me and I certainly don’t know what’s right for you. And, all of the much wiser authors, speakers, and teachers who write about this could be wrong as well.

Revisiting mindfulness…

Mindfulness practice instructions go like this: “focus on breath, mind wanders, you become aware mind wanders, you bring our attention back to breath.”

Like jumping into the middle of a moving stream, in the beginning you tread water just to survive a half hour (or five minutes) of stillness and silence. You learn how to move your arms and legs (focus on breath), but don’t always stop to think about what this practice means or why you do it.

When you swim in the ocean, you keep your head above water so you can continue breathing. You swim to get from point A to point B, and you swim because it’s fun. With mindfulness, you do the same thing. You breathe to keep your head above the murky water of entangled thoughts, emotions, and sensations…you learn to become aware of what’s happening in the moment. But you also learn how to focus your attention so you can live fully, not just survive. You learn to cultivate a particular kind of life. A meaningful life. A calm life. A happy life.

Talking about abstract concepts like mind and feelings and mindfulness can get complicated, so let’s pause here for a moment and talk vocabulary.

Mindful happiness

You might think of happiness as situational pleasure or an enjoyable experience, like eating a double scoop of chocolate chip ice cream on a cake cone. Or you might think of happiness as a chain of pleasant experiences, like an afternoon of hiking in the mountains followed by cheese pizza and then ice cream with someone you like. You might think of happiness as a big house in a safe neighborhood, winning the lottery, or retiring from a job you’ve tolerated for twenty years.

If you close your eyes, and intentionally think about happiness, what do you imagine? A relationship without all the messiness of life? World travel? A new wardrobe? A bigger car? More time off from work? 500 friends on FaceBook? Certainly, these situations and experiences can evoke a sense of momentary happiness, or pleasure, or even joy. But happiness in the mindfulness world is deeper than momentary or situational pleasure.

For the purposes of this article, you can think of happiness as attitude or disposition, a base level or foundation of functioning from which you experience all of what life offers…the pleasant and the unpleasant.

Mindfulness and suffering

Mindful happiness is not an addition of an experience, but an absence of suffering.

Just as happiness is different from pleasure, suffering is different from pain. Life includes pain. The physical pain of a fractured femur, the emotional pain of a broken heart, the spiritual pain of feeling disconnected from others, and the cognitive pain of your inner critic (we all have one).

Suffering comes from efforts to avoid pain (aversion). And suffering comes from reaching, with too much expectation and illusion of control, for pleasure, even happiness (clinging).

You can see this clearly from the use of intoxicants or setting a goal of enlightenment. Some of us, not you I know, use drugs or alcohol to avoid pain; or we meditate in the hope of attaining enlightenment, the high. This can work in the moment, but eventually, and maybe even just a few hours later, reality crashes the party and we get caught in the cycle of avoiding pain by chasing pleasure again. It’s not a sustainable way to live.

Awareness, attention, equanimity

The three big words in mindfulness practice are awareness, attention, and equanimity. Through the formal practice of sitting in silence and stillness, you develop awareness about who you are, how you think, how you feel, how you respond and react to internal and external stimuli.

In the simplest terms, you are sitting, focusing on your breath, the air passing in and out of your nostrils, your lungs expanding and contracting, the abdomen rising and falling. Before you can count five breaths, the mind takes off like a shot to here there and everywhere without the time or distance constraints of the physical world.

Sometimes mind remembers or rehearses conversations, the ones you’ve visited 500 times already; sometimes mind travels to worrying about what if; sometimes to problem-solving. Each mind has its favorite haunts.

With guidance or even on your own, you realize “Thinking.” You label what mind is doing. Or “Sadness.” The idea is to keep it simple. Simple prevents the mind from getting entangled in story. This is the awareness. You become aware that your mind has taken off again; you become aware that your body feels agitated, restless; or you become aware that a screaming fire engine is passing.  Awareness.

From there, you decide to be curious about the thoughts, feelings, memories, problems, body sensations or to turn your attention back to the breath or the body or whatever else you have defined as your anchor to the present moment. This is attention. Rather than mindless thinking monopolizing your attention, you learn to direct it, mindfully with awareness.

The intent is not to clear the mind of all thought, but to prevent yourself from getting pulled down and entangled in the elaborate stories you weave around the thoughts.

That’s where equanimity comes in. After practicing for some time…I don’t know how long that will be for you…and oh, by the way, this equanimity comes and goes…you develop what Shinzen Young refers to as a small distance or step back from the body’s responses (emotions, a.k.a. inner motions) to stimuli. Think of that fire engine siren. I don’t know about you, but my body usually flinches when I hear the sirens and then my mind wonders who’s hurt, what’s on fire, do I need to do something?

Equanimity or inner calm allows you to step back from that response and the stories about where the fire engine is headed. With equanimity, you still have those thoughts. But you don’t get caught up in the spin cycle of past events, elaborate webs of future worries or memories.

Awareness with equanimity gives you freedom from mindlessness, stories, and suffering.

Thinking or not thinking

The idea is not to clear the mind, but to be able to observe whatever happens without getting caught in what can become ever-growing  elaborate thinking. And then sometimes…with curiosity and an open mind…you can learn from those thoughts.

That’s one of the reasons this practice is called Insight Meditation. When you sit with yourself, you have the opportunity to learn about you, your thinking, your feeling, your sources of happiness, pain, and suffering. You can learn to do something different. As Pema Chodron explains, when we meditate, we learn that no matter what happens, we will be there with awareness, attention, and equanimity.

Please do not believe what I have written here even though all of it comes from people before me who know far more than I do. This is not a top-down practice. Your practice, your life, is your experiment. Try it for yourself. Sit in silence for five minutes. You may be surprised at how quickly and readily your mind gets caught up in stories. Then be curious. Do the stories cause you suffering?

Pain is real; suffering is a product of your imagination.

End of the Year Equanimity

Can you feel it? Beginning the day after Halloween, the frenetic pace and energy builds, rumbling like a volcano about to erupt. Events, trips, dinners. Shop, chop, drop. As November slides into December, the to-do list takes on a life of its own; the calendar explodes.

Or you have none of that. While everyone else is caught up in happy events and celebrations, you can’t wait for all the hoopla to end. Bah humbug and get me out of here.

At this time of year, expectations reach unrealistic highs and demoralizing lows. So…you might consider brushing up on equanimity.

Equanimity means inner calm no matter what happens. Equanimity means being able to take a step back from your emotions so you can respond instead of react. You can observe instead of getting pulled into fight or flight. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Planning ahead helps too.

Equanimity and people you see once a year

Aunt Marie, who you haven’t seen for a year, hugs you. Her perfume lingers on your skin and clothes for the rest of the day. She asks, just as she does every year, “So, when are you going to lose a little weight?” Or “When are you going to get married?” Or “When are you going to have a baby?” That’s the same Aunt Marie who gives you gifts you know she dug out of her closet: a reindeer sweater two sizes too big (you have lost weight), a wool scarf (you’re allergic), or kitchen utensils (you never cook). You smile and say thank you to the gift and “Not sure” to the questions.

Uncle Rob slaps you on the back. He starts, just as he always does, talking about sports or hunting or politics or any other topic you vehemently disagree with him about. You squirm and smile hoping he’ll stop.

Running into what can best be described as the difficult people in our lives can cause stress. These people (never us!) can be difficult in many ways. Asking intrusive questions is one of the more insidious.

The questions seem genuine, the person interested and concerned, but really, these people are either hoping to hit the mother lode of entertaining information they can later share with someone else, they feel uncomfortable socially, or they are genuinely interested. Whatever their motivation, just because they ask, doesn’t mean you have to answer!

Just say no

Narrative therapy gave us many gifts, one of which is a change in the paradigm of questions and answers. In Narrative Therapy, the choice to answer a question or say “No, I’d prefer not to answer that one” can make you step back for a moment to consider how automatic this response is for you.

Most of us will answer questions, any questions, if they are asked with the expectation of an answer. Questions can seem innocent enough. But is the answer something you want to share with this person, other people you don’t know who this person will tell, or even Facebook? FB is a stretch, but you cannot be certain that what you say to Aunt Marie will stay with Aunt Marie. Besides, we’re all entitled to a little privacy, even from well-meaning relatives.

How are you?

How do you respond when someone asks “What’s new?” “What’s up?” “Waddup dawg?” or “How are you?”  Those wide open question can leave you swirling inside wondering where to set the limits on your answer. Do you talk about your work? Your relationship? What if there is nothing new? What does this person want to know? “Not much,” is the usual response. “And you?”

If you are quick-witted, you might be able to respond by making the other person laugh or smile. “New Mexico.” Ha, ha, old joke, not funny, but the other person may laugh anyway.

Most of us just say, “Not much,” “Same-old, same-old,” or something similarly uninteresting and unrevealing.

Practice equanimity

Here I go again with the mindfulness suggestion. But honestly, it really works for many, many people. Practice being calm and you will be calm. Not quite a fake it till you make it approach, this is more of a practice to change one habit or state of mind to another.

That’s right. Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Do that for five minutes a day from now until you run into Uncle Rob at your mom’s for a family get-together. Then notice. Just notice how you feel when he starts his monologue. You might notice, even after only six weeks of continuous practice, that you don’t get the usual get-me-out-of-here feeling. You might notice that you can think more clearly and find a way to feel and show gratitude and appreciation. Or you might find a way to excuse yourself from the conversation before it gets too uncomfortable.

Plan ahead

You know these people. You know you’re going to see them. Plan a response to the usual questions they ask. If you are swimming through life and you have nothing but good news to share, let it rip. If you’ve run into a few snags, you might talk about your pet or a hobby. Plan for the tough questions. Plan a kind, but firm refusal answer. Most people will respect your desire to avoid certain topics. “You know, I just don’t want to talk about that now,” or “I’d prefer to keep that to myself.”

When you feel overwhelmed or cornered, excuse yourself. The bathroom is always a good reason to leave a conversation!

Preparing for the holidays includes taking care of yourself. Practicing equanimity is one way to do that.

Ah Sleep…Zzzzzzzzzzzz

It’s 10:30 PM. You climb into bed, pull the blankets up to your chin, and lay your head on your pillow. Before you know it, your body slips into a heavy, relaxed state. Your mind drifts into a place between consciousness and sleep. Pure bliss. By 11:00, you’re in a deep sleep. Seven to eight hours pass and you wake refreshed, ready to take on the day.

A good night’s rest restores body and mind. But for some of us, 10% of the U.S. population according to the UCLA Sleep Disorder web site, sleep is not that simple. Sleep apnea, insomnia, restless legs, and interrupted REM prevent the body and mind from getting this essential recharge.

Because many sleep problems are medical issues, it’s best to consult with your physician if you have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep. After your doctor rules out medical conditions, consider that you might be too keyed up, stressed out, worried, anxious, depressed, or have too much on your mind to drift into sleep.

In those cases, you climb into bed hoping that tonight will be different. You pull the blankets up to your chin and lay your head on your pillow. Then nothing. No heavy relaxed state, no mind drifting. Instead, mind races back and forth from your to-do list to future plans, rehearsing, reliving, remembering, regretting, problem solving, imagining. You replay conversations from the past or rehearse conversations that haven’t happened. Instead of pure bliss, you toss and turn, left side, right side, back; left side, right side, back. You repeat this restlessness until the blankets and sheets are wrapped around you like a twisted tortilla.

Sleep deprivation

Enough nights of tossing and turning leads to sleep deprivation. According to this WebMD article, sleep deprivation can cause grumpiness, heightened reactivity, interruptions to “…attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving,” health problems, lowered sex drive, and accidents. In other words, not getting enough sleep can turn your life into an unpleasant experience.

Depression and sleep deprivation have a back and forth snowball cause and effect on each other. If you are depressed, you probably have trouble sleeping; not getting enough sleep leads to symptoms of depression, a lower quality of life, or just a dullness that makes life less enjoyable. That in turn leads to more trouble sleeping.

How much sleep do you need?

A common question people ask is, “How much sleep do I need?” Studies indicate that the healthiest sleep range is 7-8 hours a night. According to Jerry Siegel, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and Chief of Neurobiology research at VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, whether you sleep 6 hours or 8 hours doesn’t matter as much as the quality of your sleep. [Huffington Post, March 29, 2010]. Keep in mind that all the articles that you read, and the study results the articles are based on, report findings from a bell curve. That is, the conclusions apply to MOST people in the study. You could be an outlier who feels rested after 4 hours of sleep and a nap in the middle of the day. Or you are physically active, or work at a physically demanding job, and you need 9 hours of sleep a night. Like everything else in life, remember to try on the scientific data for yourself. Then ask, “Does this work FOR ME?”

Sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene is one of the first suggestions professionals make to people who have trouble falling asleep. The same WebMD article lists some obvious and not-so-obvious sleep hygiene habits. Keep in mind, that these are suggestions and may or may not work for you. Try one for a week and see what happens.

  • Avoid all activities but sleep and sex in bed. No heavy emotional topics, no television, laptop, video games.
  • Make your bedroom sleep friendly. Reduce light, noise, and other distractions as much as possible. Make sure the temperature is comfortable for you. Temperature can be challenging when more than one person sleep together. One wants it cool; the other wants it warm. You might have to sleep in separate rooms, especially if one of you snores or tosses and turns in bed.
  • Avoid napping during the day.
  • Avoid alcohol, recreational drugs, caffeine, and other stimulants.
  • Avoid drinking and eating anything at least an hour before bed.
  • Have the same bedtime routine each night. This lets your mind and body know it’s time for sleep.

That’s a lot to consider, isn’t it? So try making one change at a time and see what happens.

Waking from sleep

Now that you’ve mastered falling asleep, how do you get back to sleep if you wake up in the middle of the night?

What you do during the time you’re awake matters. Watching television, reading email, checking FaceBook, watching YouTube videos, surfing the net, reading your favorite book on an e-Reader, and playing Smartphone apps or video games have a few things in common. 1) they’re fun and stimulating, 2) they all have lighted screens, and 3) they fool your brain into thinking it’s daytime and daytime means time to be awake. So avoid all that, as tempting as it seems.

Try meditation. I know, I know. I sound like a broken record sometimes. But it might work for you if your mind jumps around like a monkey when you try to fall asleep. In the mindfulness groups I lead, people fall asleep all the time. Why there and not in bed? Probably multiple reasons, but my guess is, they feel safe, relaxed, calm, and my voice lulls them to sleep.

Although playing apps and games when you want to fall asleep is not recommended, listening to CALM music or even a sleep app might help you drift away. You can find everything from rain and ocean sounds to gentle-sound alarm clocks that wake you from a light sleep rather than jolting you from a deep sleep (Sleep Cycle). Sleep Cycle also analyzes your sleep quality!





After you read the next sentence, close your eyes for a few seconds.

How would you feel if an important someone in your life said, “I wish you happiness?”

And how would you feel if that person said to you, “There are no strings attached, I expect nothing in return, not even a thank you.”

Wow, right?

Maybe you don’t have someone in your life who would wish you happiness without strings; maybe you do. While it is deliciously wonderful to have that kind of relationship with another person, it can be surprisingly rare. Most human beings are so caught up in their own lives, they can’t wish you happiness, or they want something in return. No worries. You don’t have to live without.  You can give yourself permission to wish yourself happiness.

I am very serious about that.

Managing the inner critic

For some of us, the judgmental inner critic will spring to life and say, “What do you mean wish happiness to yourself? You’re so selfish! What about your poor, sad, struggling [fill in the blank].” We’ll get to her in a second. For now, be aware that you might have an inner critic and that critic might not like your wishing happiness to you. We are conditioned to put others first lest we be labelled narcissist, self-centered, or self-absorbed.

So, you will have to tell your judgmental, inner critic in as kind a tone as you can manage, “No, I’m not being selfish at all. I’m taking very good care of myself.”

Many cultures and religions encourage compassion for others. But, when the focus of your attention is always on others, you can develop an inner longing that can feel like a garden that has no water or sunshine. Wishing yourself happiness can help reduce the longing and feed your spirit. Don’t believe me, though. Try it for yourself.

Kindness for you

Lovingkindness or simply kindness is a Buddhist meditation for developing compassion, first for yourself, then for others. Most people love this meditation. It goes like this:

Sit comfortably. Breathe naturally. You can close your eyes or not. Then just take a few breaths to settle into yourself.

You can say the words out loud, or you can think them. Whichever way you choose, bathe yourself in kindness as if you’re standing under a gentle shower of unconditional love. Pause between each sentence and embrace the wish.

May I be happy.

May I be safe.

May I be healthy.

May I live with peace and equanimity*.

May I love and feel loved.


Repeat as often as you like.

Kindness for others

Remember that poor, struggling person your inner critic wants you to focus your attention on? When you’re ready, and not a moment before, think of someone you care about and send kindness to that person.

May you be happy.

May you be safe.

May you be healthy.

May you live with peace and equanimity*.

May you love and feel loved.

Smile. Pause.

In meditation groups, the leader will sometimes suggest that each person wish to the others in the group:

May you be happy.

May you be safe.

May you be healthy.

May you live with peace and equanimity*.

May you love and feel loved.

In the Buddhist tradition, you would repeat this wish for someone neutral in your life, then for a difficult person in your life, and finally, to all sentient beings. This exercise can have a profound effect on your happiness.

Kindness for someone difficult

You might resist sending kindness to someone who has hurt you or someone who is hurting so much they have nothing to give. That’s a healthy response. Don’t force it, and don’t make it a goal, but leave yourself open to the possibility that as your inner garden grows and your heart opens, you might find yourself doing just that.

*inner calm

Steven Smith’s description of the lovingkindness meditation
Sharon Salzberg’s guided lovingkindness meditation on YouTube
Sharon Salzberg’s book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

Anxiety…it’s everywhere

Anxiety. You know it when you feel it. From mild discomfort to immobilizing panic, anxiety is a fear-based response to a person, place, thing, or experience. Sometimes, though, anxiety seems to come out of nowhere. One minute you’re fine, the next trembling or frozen or worse yet wondering if you need to get to an ER for medical treatment. Anxiety can be based your biological makeup–some of us are more responsive than others–caused by a medical condition, or felt as a side effect of some medications. Anxiety can be the symptom of another psychological issue, or simply another word for stress or overload.

Stress, Anxiety, or Fear

When you say, “I’m anxious” do you mean “I’m stressed out about getting all of these work projects done on time,” or “I’m afraid to tell my boyfriend I don’t want to see him any more,” or “I’m anxious because I am worried I will run out of money when I’m 75”? The effects and symptoms might be similar, but for the purposes of this article, let’s differentiate the three feeling states.

Stress is a response to over-stimulation, too much work, too much traffic, too long a to-do list, or too little down time. Ignoring stress and hoping it will go away on its own can lead to burnout and physical problems such as elevated blood pressure and other cardio-vascular health threats, unhealthy eating habits, sleep disturbance, relationship conflicts, and a profound dissatisfaction with your quality of life. You can reduce stress by changing lifestyle habits. Read more about stress at NIMH.

Fear is an emotional response to real or perceived danger. Fear elicits the fight-flight-freeze response. During this state, the body releases hormones, cortisol, adrenaline, and about 30 others as it gears up to protect itself or shuts down to protect itself. When you are hiking and see a rattle snake, you might feel fear and consider avoiding the snake or running away. You might freeze and not be able to move or think. Most people won’t fight with a snake. You’ll notice a heightened sense of awareness, a focus on the dangerous stimulus, and something like an electric current running through your nervous system. That’s a natural response to fear. When the threat is gone, so is the fear. The hormone levels and body returns to homeostasis.

Anxiety is worry or fearful anticipation of a future threat or what if thinking. Ask “Is the sky going to fall, Chicken Little?” and CL will anxiously run in circles saying the sky is falling. There is nothing real to fight or run away from, no object or situation to avoid because it’s “what if.” In other words, there is nothing you can do to protect yourself from the future threat. You are in an unsolvable state of fight-flight-freeze holding the bag of hormones, fear, and worry. You may be able to reduce worry by changing your thinking. “The sky going to stay where it is, CL.”

Anxiety might follow a recent loss or change in living conditions, health, or relationships. You might read about or see a story on the news. Or you might just wander into worry territory. Scientists don’t fully understand anxiety and continue to study its possible causes. Some forms of anxiety may be biological or genetic and require psychiatric evaluation and medication.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Therapists use the term “normalize” when we frame a person’s responses and symptoms within the context of a situation. If you feel anxious, and you want to normalize your feeling, remind yourself that we live in the Age of Anxiety. The environment we’ve created for our human existence can feel like it exceeds our capacity to adapt. The result is an unpleasant set of symptoms that are called stress or anxiety. You feel worried but may not know why. Or you feel afraid and know why but cannot stop feeling scared. Without some form of awareness and intervention, everyday anxiety can grow until it interferes with your ability to function. Why wait that long?

You might not recognize symptoms of anxiety or stress, so here is a list of the most common:

  • Feeling powerless
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • Mind racing.
  • Irritability
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
  • Jumbled, bizarre, rapid, slow, methodical, obsessive thoughts
  • Memory impairment
  • Disassociated from reality

Body sensations:

  • Feeling “nervous,” jittery, or on edge
  • Restlessness. Can’t sit still.
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Stomach discomfort, nausea, diarrhea
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Muscle tension
Morning anxiety

Many people feel a sense of panic or anxiety when they wake up in the morning. According to research, cortisol levels are highest at that time. We’re not sure why, but some thoughts are: your alarm jolts you out of a deep sleep instead of gently nudging you from light sleep state; your alarm would cause fear or stress whenever it goes off; you feel anxious during other times of the day but upon waking, the feeling is more obvious; you would rather stay in bed than get up and go to work; sleep is an escape from real worries you have while you are awake.

What can you do about stress, fear, anxiety?

You don’t need this article to learn what to do to reduce stress or anxiety. The internet, family, and friends will give you plenty of well-meaning advice:

  • Exercise more.
  • Eat healthy foods. Eliminate caffeine and carbonated beverages.
  • Smile.
  • Add self-care to your daily routine.
  • Practice gratitude.
  • Spend time with the activities, pets, friends, and family members you like.
  • Turn off the television, smartphone, tablet, and computer.
  • Spend time in nature.
  • Meditate.
  • Journal.
  • Sleep more restfully.
  • etc.

Ahhhhhh!!! That list can add stress rather than take it away, especially when you think “I should…” So, instead, let’s slow the process down.

  1. Take an objective look at your habits. Which ones cause you the most stress, worry, or fear?
  2. Pick one habit that you think you can change without a lot of effort. Change can mean eliminate, modify, or add.
  3. Practice your new habit for a week.
  4. Look back on the week. What was that like?

Let’s see what that looks like with Jake, a 35-year old software engineer.

  1. Jake says that the habits that cause him the most stress, worry, and fear are: eating fast, eating drive-through fast-food at most meals, working too many hours every day, commuting to and from work in rush hour traffic, fighting with his girlfriend, finances, and because he’s worried about getting laid off, he doesn’t get enough restful sleep.
  2. Jake wants to change all of these habits at once so he has no stress, but he’s willing to practice changing one habit for now. So he chooses to slow down his eating, which he usually does driving to or from work.
  3. Jake made a promise to himself that he would eat breakfast at home every day for a week and even though he’s not willing to cook for himself, he is willing to bring takeout food home and eat there while listening to calm, gentle music.
What could happen?

We can imagine three outcomes. 1) Jake would not be able to continue this new habit for the entire week. 2) He would continue the new habit for a week and learn that it made no difference in his stress level. 3) He would do this for a week and notice a  big enough change in his stress level to continue this experiment for another week.

If he didn’t continue for the week, he could try again the following week, or pick up mid week and continue trying until he made it through a week without a break. If he learned that changing this habit did not change his stress level, he could move on to another experiment, such as using sleep hygiene to improve his sleep. If he noticed a big enough change in his level of stress, he could continue until this practice became a solid new habit and then add another stress reduction experiment to his week.


The point is this: life is an experiment for each of us. If you approach your life and your challenges with the curiosity of a scientist doing experiments you can learn what will work for you, not what works for most people or what authors of articles, your mom, or your best friend think will work for you. When the process of change is slowed down, you give yourself an opportunity to truly experience the results of your experiments.



Want chogshay? Try happiness practice.

Like lobbing a tennis ball and bowing the cello; like running marathons and understanding calculus; like writing haiku and winning video games, daily practice moves us toward mastery, or in Malcom Gladwell’s words, expertise.

“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

infinitejestLet’s face it. Some of us will never master calculus or video games no matter how many hours we put in. Each of us has inherent strengths and limitations. Your zooming will be another person’s challenge and her zoom your challenge. Except for those exceptionally gifted outliers who have multiple or extreme talents and strengths, each of us will develop mastery or expertise to a level on a continuum. There’s only so much room at the high end for a great singing voice, Amy Winehouse. Or an ability to move words around into brilliant prose, David Foster Wallace. Or…right time right place right business acumen, right combination of many strengths, Mark Zuckerberg. You get the picture. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. Just as practice alone does not guarantee expertise; inherent abilities don’t guarantee mastery. If you have developed expertise in any area, you know it wasn’t just nature or practice. You have to have both.

The math experts have already calculated that 10,000 hours is 4 hours of practice a day, 365 days a year for 6.85 years.

Mastering happiness with practice

What about happiness? Can happiness be mastered with practice? Or is happiness limited to those who are genetically predisposed to being happy? A guarded yes and no. You may recall from the article More Happiness…Please? that researchers have determined that we can change 40% of our experience of happiness through intentional activities. The other 60% is divided into what’s referred to as base level happiness (50%) and external stuff like cars, houses, vacations, income (10%). Researchers also believe that money buys happiness but only up to $50-$80k a year, depending on the study you read. I’m not sure if those numbers apply to living in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Manhattan, and other expensive places in the US, or what living on $50k a year is like in more affordable communities. I haven’t seen any research that includes cost of living or population density when determining the income to happiness ratio. Cost of living and income aside for a moment, we’re only talking about 10% of our experience of happiness.

Happiness practice: Intentional activities

We can’t do too much about our base level of happiness or positive affect. Are you an Eyore or a Tigger? Do you wear rose-colored glasses or dark shades? Are you more of an optimist or doubter? There is no right or wrong. Like the strengths continuum, each of us falls somewhere on the happiness base level / positive affect continuum. Genetics, chronic mental and physical health challenges, effects of environment and early childhood experiences–nature and nurture–all contribute. Therapy may help, but it’s important to normalize your expectations about happiness. Martin Seligman, PhD. (Authentic Happiness, 2004, p. 35) wrote about his friend Len who he described as reserved. Successful in business and leisure activities, but not so in relationships, Len’s ability to think logically and inability to emote warm, fuzzy feelings contributed to his becoming a champion bridge player and multi-millionaire. After hearing from women that there was something wrong with him, and years of psychoanalysis, Len took Seligman’s advice and moved to Europe. Sure enough, in a new culture that moves at a different pace than the US and values introversion more than extroversion…he met a woman he married and found acceptance.

Trait or state?

Happiness is a trait and a state. “A trait is a relatively permanent individual characteristic” while a state is “…a temporary change in one’s personality” (allpsych.com). Joy, pleasure, and all of their synonyms–delight, jubilation, triumph, exultation,rejoicing, gladness, glee, exhilaration, exuberance, elation,euphoria, bliss, ecstasy, rapture, and happiness–are states. You might experience pleasure, a state, when you eat Three Twins organic mint confetti ice cream on a cake cone, or take a hot bubble bath on a cold day, or play with FOO your Frenchie or Ziggy your cat.

Trait happiness is how you feel overall most days regardless of the activity, environment, or even state of mind (for the most part).

Happiness here in Southern California, in the shadow of Hollywood, is an extroverted, gregarious, flashy, almost superficial series of activities strung together in an endless stream of pleasurable states that look like trait happiness. When the activities end, though, so might the “happy” feeling. And so there is a sense of frenzied reaching for that next hit of pleasure. That’s not to say that happiness cannot be achieved through activity.

Trait happiness is an inner sense of peace, calm, contentment, acceptance of self, others, and the life experience. This is the Buddhist definition of happiness or in Bhutanese, chogshay.

Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom on the eastern edge of the Himalayas best known for its measurement of GNH…Gross National Happiness.  The Bhutanese word “chogshay” loosely translates to a fundamental contentment that is independent of a person’s current emotional state.*

For instance, someone could be in the throws of rage or feel horrendously ill, but their underlying sense of well-being could still be intact. At first, the notion of chogshay was completely alien to Cordaro [Daniel Cordaro, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley and Yale University], who was used to defining well-being in terms of what he had, how he was feeling and what he was striving for. But through a process of recognizing the universality of many human emotions, and after completing a round of Buddhist meditation in Thailand, Cordaro experienced the chogshay state.(livescience.com)

Chogshay practice

Everyone’s jumped on the happiness bandwagon. If you search “how to be happier” on Google (26.8 million results), on the first page alone, you will find articles from some reputable and lesser known sources.

How to be happy: 7 steps to becoming a happier person on WebMD.

10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy on Inc.com

3 Ways to be Happy on WikiHow.

How to be happy: Tips for cultivating contentment on Mayoclinic.org

All of the how-to lists reference Positive Psychology articles and books and the studies scientists have been doing for the past two and a half decades. Reading these articles can feel overwhelming. Or, like New Year’s resolutions, exciting and promising for a few days or a week.

Cultivating happiness takes time, dedication, and determination. In other words, practice, practice, practice. Do what Jonathan Haidt (The Happiness Hypothesis) has his students do. Choose one step, way, suggestion or tip for increasing happiness. Practice that for a day. At the end of the day, agree (with yourself or a partner) to do it for another day. And so on until you’ve practiced for a month. Journal your experience of happiness. Many people begin with gratitude. What are you grateful for? Make a list of three things before going to bed each night.

  1. I’m grateful for my physical and mental health.
  2. I’m grateful for FOO my Frenchie.
  3. I’m grateful for clean, running water.

You get the idea.

Or, if you’re not feeling particularly grateful, try this more basic practice. Smile when you think of it. Smile and take a breath. The act of turning up the corners of your mouth changes your sense of well-being. Try it. 🙂

Give and receive 8 hugs a day.

Or do as the Bhutanese do and think of death five times a day (bbc.com).

After 10,000 hours of practice, you should, according to Gladwell, achieve mastery, but if all the science is accurate, you won’t have to wait that long. You may even feel happier right away!