Loving What Is

I’m sitting in the park on a gorgeous day, and I see a young mother trying to restrain her 1-year old son from making his way toward the grass.

He’s happy and excited, and the mother is getting increasingly upset.

“Wait. Wait. WAIT. Wait. You’re not following directions!! Sit! Wait. Wait.”

The boy simply saw the grass and wanted to go there. But the mother couldn’t accept that.

It was a laughable scene, until I realized I was doing the same thing every day throughout the day.

“Make a right on Warren.”

We’re coming down West Street and we’re almost home. My wife makes a simple suggestion: “Make a right on Warren.” It’s a block ahead of where I normally turn.

I’m instantly annoyed, and I show it. We’ve had this conversation before. She thinks she can optimize the route based on the lights and save us a few seconds. Why does she care where I turn? Why is she always optimizing everything? She should think about something else!

It’s such a small thing, and yet I can feel my body tense up as I express my irritation. I immediately regret my reaction, but it’s too late. It seems like I’m wired to respond that way.

Loving What Is

Well, after 51 years, I may have discovered a remedy. I found it in a book recommended by my good friend Eve (note to self: always read what Eve recommends).

Loving What Is, by Byron Katie, “enables you to see what’s troubling you in an entirely different light” by having you ask yourself “four questions that can change your life.”

Loving What Is

It sounds ambitious, but it’s quite simple, and the many dialogs between the author and a wide range of individuals helps you see how to apply it.

The main premise is that suffering tends to come not from what happens but from what we think about what happens and what we think should happen. My wife’s suggestion about where to turn was simple and harmless, but it triggered a set of thoughts that made me upset.

What if I could train myself to think differently?

Doing The Work

Byron Katie refers to applying the ideas in her book as “The Work.” The first step is to complete a worksheet with judgments you’re making about someone. Here’s a common example.

My boss should appreciate me more.

I want him to give me more recognition and praise for my work.

He should be more caring.

I need him to see the big picture and not focus on small things.

I don’t want to get any more urgent emails from him about things that aren’t important.

Then, armed with four questions, you practice inquiry to dive into those judgments:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react when you think that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

Then you turn the statements around in various ways to examine them more deeply. For example:

I should appreciate me more.

I should appreciate my boss more.

The triggers for me tend to be when I apply “should” and “need” to other people. They tend to pit me against reality and, as Byron Katie says, “you lose, but only 100% of the time.”

I’ve been practicing doing The Work for a few weeks now, and I’m noticeably calmer. My wife’s suggestion is just a suggestion. An email from the boss is just an email. I can’t know their thinking or their story. It’s my thinking and judgements that are the problem. If I embrace what is, then I change my thinking and I feel happier.

Next time, I’ll make the right turn on Warren. And I’ll smile.

Two years after “A year without meat”

When I wrote “A year without meat,” I was unsure what would happen afterwards.

Was it just another one of my experiments, and I would revert to normal behavior? Or was it something more than that?

Two years later, I know something fundamental changed, and it wasn’t just my diet. 

Meat

The dietary differences

The first thing that happened was that six months after the post, I stopped eating fish, too. The pattern was similar. I saw a documentary and became more aware of the extraordinary overfishing and waste as well as health issues related to eating certain fish.

I wondered, “Do I really need to be part of this?” and I decided to become a vegetarian.

Instead of my diet becoming boring and limited, just the opposite happened. I replaced the usual chicken sandwich and burger with a much wider range of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains. I gradually learned the joys of fresh, whole foods artfully combined. Avocado with a drizzle of olive oil, cracked pepper, and walnuts. Spinach salad with strawberries, asparagus, almonds, and a bit of västerbotten cheese. Watermelon with feta and arugula. Food so beautiful you want to take photos of it.

Watermelon feta salad

When people ask, “Do you ever crave meat?” the answer is “Yes, sometimes.” But it’s usually a smell or other cue that sparks a desire, and after thinking about it for a few seconds, that desire passes. My family still eats meat, but much less of it than we all used to.

The changes I didn’t expect

I haven’t seen any dramatic changes in my health. My cholesterol is still too high, for example. (I have high HDL (good) and high LDL (bad) which may just be hereditary.) But rather than go back to medication, I’ll first try exercising more and modifying my diet in other ways.

Those are changes I now know I can make, because even after the first year of not eating meat, I felt that things I once considered impossible were within reach.

“When I stopped eating meat I did more than just change my diet, I gained confidence that I could change anything I wanted.”

This confidence helped me write and self-publish a book, and it made me open to creating all sorts of other possibilities.

My wife noticed the difference. When I was talking with her about a new habit I was thinking of developing, she said “You became a vegetarian, darling. If you can do that, this will be easy.”

The next big thing

It has all been a bit unsettling. I’m so used to ticking certain boxes that define me that even ordering the vegetarian meals when buying a plane ticket feels like I’m changing my identity.

When someone asks if I have food restrictions and I say “vegetarian,” it feels like I’m wearing new clothes that I’m not quite used to. I like it, but I just never thought I would be wearing that label.

So now I wonder what other labels I might change – where I live, the work I do, the adventures I go on. What other limits might I examine and redefine?

I’m not sure what the next big thing will be or if there even needs to be one. But whatever it is, I feel ready for it.

The Independence Day I’m still waiting for

Just a few minutes into the excellent documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” an interviewer asks Nina Simone “What’s free to you?”

She’s uncertain at first.

“It’s just a feeling. It’s just a feeling…”

Then she smiles her big, beautiful smile.

“I’ve had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free. And that’s something else. That’s REALLY something else!”

After thinking about it, she looks directly into his eyes, becomes more animated and intense, and loudly proclaims,

“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear! I mean, really, NO FEAR!“

Finally she looks away, puts her head in her hand, and quietly muses, as if to herself,

“If I could have that half of my life. No fear…”

The prisons we build ourselves

Those of us who are fortunate enough not to fear physical violence or illness can still find ways not to be free. We worry about the past and about the future. It’s sounds almost trivial until you realize how your own thoughts can rob you of that feeling of freedom and joy.

Just the other day, someone at work asked to meet me and I was sure I was in trouble of some kind. There was no evidence. It was a simple email. Yet I created a story that maid me anxious. A few hours later, it turned out she was simply asking my advice.

The same day I was meeting with two friends who I think highly of. We had agreed to form a group to apply the ideas in my book. Rather than being excited, I was worried my friends – smart and accomplished – would be disappointed in me or my ideas. But there was no judgment. We simply met and talked and helped each other. I enjoyed their company and conversation.

These small fears prevent can prevent you from enjoying each day. The bigger ones can paralyze you.

Be free where you are

The heading “be free where you are” comes from a lecture given by a Buddhist monk inside a prison. It helped me understand that, for the prisons we build ourselves, we all have the keys.

The keys generally include being aware of the cognitive distortions we create. Being compassionate towards ourself and others. Being mindful and enjoying the present moment. For me, reading books like these and putting the ideas into practice is gradually making a difference.

It’s July 4th today and we’re celebrating Independence Day in the US. I’m not free yet, but I’m working toward making every day my own Independence Day.

be free where you are

A different kind of challenge

A few months ago, I started doing experiments in self-control. 30 days without alcohol. 30 days without dessert.

They were inspired by a book on Stoic philosophy titled A Guide to the Good Life as well as The Marshmallow Test by psychologist Walter Mischel. The experiments taught me to appreciate things I enjoy and the conditions under which I indulge (or overindulge) unthinkingly. They were lessons in gratitude and self-awareness.

My friend Marie-Louise was skeptical and, as usual, had a few questions.

“Is self-control and self-discipline the same as “self-denial”?

Does denying one’s self something (pleasure or otherwise) really increase the “chances of living a good life”?

Can it not instead be a disguise for, or deflect , what’s really inner most in our thoughts?

Is it a way instead of avoiding something else one may not want to confront?”

The challenge

Marie-Louise is a smart and intellectually curious woman whose questions always make me think. This time, she followed up her questions by suggesting a different kind of challenge.

“There is too much “learning through punishment” with the Stoics – which is why I hold my reservations about their philosophy.

But I am full of admiration for what you are trying to achieve here.
I would certainly challenge you to “do”/”add” something every day for 31 days that you find “challenging” and then I will additionally challenge you to describe the difference between the two approaches and their respective affect on you?”

Challenge accepted. Instead of denying myself something, I decided to try something I had been wanting to do for some time: meditation. Every day, for 30 days, I would meditate for 10 minutes.

Meditation for 30 days

The results

Marie-Louise asked “Would it not be just as good to ‘add’ to one’s experiences and show self-discipline in that process?”

Yes, it was just as good and in some ways better. Both approaches are empowering. The feeling of autonomy is one of our basic human motivators. Knowing I could control how I eat, drink, or think (or not eat, not drink, and not think) made me feel I could do or not do anything I truly intend.

The meditation experiment was enriching as well as empowering. I now see how in addition to being able to impose limits on myself I can open myself up to new possibilities.

That’s no small thing for me. For example, I’ve wanted to learn how to play piano for decades but I had no signs of talent and never thought I had the discipline. Now I know much of what we call talent is related to effort and that I have developed the required self-control.

I approached a teacher who’s also a family friend and she was surprised. “Are you serious? Will you really practice?” I smiled, armed with a new-found confidence in my ability to take on new challenges.

My lessons start in September. And they won’t just be for 30 days.

Piano with Pride

Asking for help

If the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting that you have one, then consider this a first step for me.

This week, I’m asking for advice instead of giving it.

unnamed

 

Good news, bad news

Most of the work I’ve done on Working Out Loud has been solitary. Writing, Giving talks. Sending out books and peer support guides via email. Many people have contributed ideas and shaped this work – the acknowledgments are several pages long – yet looking back I see I’ve been doing things largely alone.

That worked well up until now. The book is finally ready (just need to approve the physical cover before it’s available on Amazon) and peer support groups are gradually spreading across 7 countries. There may be 1,000 of them by the end of the year.

But to help the millions of people I want to help, the movement needs things I can’t give it, or at least that I’m not good at. It needs better logistics, beautifully-designed materials, engaging short videos, and a long list of other things. Doing everything myself is limiting how quickly we can spread the practice and help more people. I have to make some changes.

When I ask & when I don’t

It’s not that I don’t like working with other people. I ask for help all the time – Would you mind looking at this draft? I’ve even written about ways to ask for help.

But usually I limit my requests to things that are reasonably small, like asking for ideas and opinions. When it comes to asking someone to do work, I freeze. I can pay someone to produce videos, for example, but even then I’m afraid of…something. Maybe it won’t be worth it. Maybe it won’t come out well. So I’m more comfortable doing it myself – “I’ll go to YouTube bootcamp!”

That approach will take too long as there’s too much I don’t know. Although I’ll benefit from the learning involved in doing things myself, if I’m going to help more people I’ll need to let go, take more risks, and start forming a team.

What would you do?

Amanda Palmer, singer, songwriter, deliverer of an excellent TED talk, wrote a helpful, intensely personal book called The Art of Asking based in part on her years as a performance artist on the street asking for contributions. This quote may hold some of the answers to why I’m reluctant to ask for help:

“Asking for help with shame says: You have the power over me.

Asking with condescension says: I have the power over you.

But asking for help with gratitude says: We have the power to help each other.”

And this one:

 

“What was the difference between asking and begging?

A lot of people related their experience with their own local buskers: they saw their tips into the hat not as charity but as payment for a service.

If asking is a collaboration, begging is a less-conected demand. Begging can’t provide value to the giver; by definition, it offers no exchange….Asking is an act of intimacy and trust.”

Whether the issues are shame or trust or fear, it’s time for me to get over them. So here’s a commitment I’m going to make to myself:

  1. Pick the top 3 things I need to get done to improve and scale the Working Out Loud movement.
  2. Actively look for people who can help me.
  3. Trust enough to ask them to contribute or collaborate with me (paid or free).

What would you do? How do reach out to people to ask them to contribute or collaborate, to build something together that’s bigger than anything you could do alone?