The ambulance at the old age home

When the ambulance comesThe home is just up the street from me. I can see it from my apartment window. Every other week or so, I notice the flashing lights of an ambulance as it pulls up and double-parks outside. The sirens are almost never turned on. It’s as if there’s no reason to hurry.

I think about the person being attended to. The phone calls to family, producing ripples of grief. Or, much worse, a silent dispatch replete with processes and paperwork.

I wonder what the people inside are thinking, as they’re gathered in the dining hall, slowly eating the food prepared for them. Are they reflecting on their own life, committing to make more of the little time they have left? Or is the incident another bitter reminder of a life largely un-lived? Perhaps they’re silently relieved it’s not their turn, and after a respectable silence they continue where they left off.

Each time it happens, I think about my own end. I know it sounds macabre, but for all of us it’s a matter of when, not if.

Will I “go gentle into that good night” or “rage, rage against the dying of the light?”

What will you do, when the ambulance comes for you?

Why “Half-full or half-empty?” is the wrong question

It’s such a common metaphor for our outlook on things. “Are you a glass half-full person?”

But that’s too simple and too static, because work and life are fluid and ever-changing. So here’s a better question to ask the next time you examine your glass:

“Is it evaporating or are you filling it up?”

half full glass of water or half empty PSC0512_FYI

More than just your outlook

Of course, there is a genetic predisposition to how we view the world. In The How of Happiness, Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky says our biology accounts for about half of our happiness. Our environment, surprisingly, accounts for only a tenth.

The other 40% is up for grabs.

That means that even those who win the Genetic Happiness Lottery and the Life Circumstances Lottery can still be quite miserable if they don’t do anything with the 40% that’s within their control.

Said another way, if you passively observe the slings and arrows hurled at you and those around you, you can find plenty to be unhappy about, and the water in your glass will slowly evaporate.

The power of a drop

The way to overcome this passive process is by actively adding to your glass, perhaps with just a drop each day. It might be as simple as pausing to appreciate a moment. Practicing a small act of generosity. Making a connection with someone new, or deepening your connection with a friend.

“Life is a verb,” as Patti Digh wrote, and so is happiness. That might seem obvious, but it took me almost fifty years to realize it.

A few years ago, as part of my own happiness project, I started using a simple guide that has made me more mindful of small things. A bit more of this, a bit less of that.

I’ve maintained such a guide since then, and over the years I’ve discovered the power of the progress principle. Small steps unlock other small steps that, over time, can lead to a remarkable shift in how you think and act.

Each drop changes you in some small positive way. Over time, you can make it rain.

Make it rain

Freedom’s just another word for …

How would you finish that sentence? Perhaps, like the late Janis Joplin, you’d say it’s “just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Or if you were me, about a year ago, you’d quote Nina Simone and say freedom is “No fear!”

But now I think freedom is something else entirely.

© Robert Gober

Prison Window – © Robert Gober

What freedom isn’t

The source of much of my personal development lately is Pema Chödrön. This time, it’s from Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change.

“The cause of our suffering is…our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for this is freedom.”

In short, freedom isn’t denying that we have fears and desires and hopes. That would be denying our very humanity. Freedom is allowing yourself to feel all those things and then let them go.

The only way out is through

I spent a long time trying to shut out fear or distracting myself from it. After 51 years of that not working, I’m ready for a new strategy.

Pema Chödrön provides one. She cites the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor when she says that the emotion itself isn’t the problem. It’s our reaction to it; the story line in our heads.

“An emotion like anger [or fear] that’s an automatic response lasts just ninety seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all. When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it.”

Instead of fighting it, work with it. “The only way out is through,” she said, and she suggests this simple exercise:

“Acknowledge the feeling, give it your full, compassionate, even welcoming attention, and even if it’s only for a few seconds, drop the story line about the feeling. This allows you to have direct experience  of it, free of interpretation. Don’t fuel it with concepts or opinions about whether it’s good or bad. Just be present with the situation. Where is it located in your body? Does it remain the same for very long? Does it shift and change?”

By the time you’ve worked with the emotion in this way, the ninety seconds have passed and you feel and think differently. No drama or rekindling. You acknowledge what is and move on. No big deal.

A personal example

She advises starting with something not too terrifying, so I started with an email.

I’ve been working on something important to me and was waiting on feedback. When I woke up, I was already anticipating a message related to the project and could feel a low-level anxiety. When I saw the email, I quickly scanned it, fixated on some less-than-glowing comments, and experienced a mild panic.

Instead of denial or distraction – telling myself  “it doesn’t matter” or distracting myself with another task – I remembered the exercise.

I acknowledged the fear I was feeling. I noticed my heart pounding and the knot in my stomach. I let myself feel it without thinking. I took a few deep, slow breaths. After a minute or two, I calmed down, reread the note, and got to work.

No big deal.

What’s on the other side

That may seem like a trivial example, but I found it striking that my body and brain couldn’t tell the difference between an email and being attacked by a bear. The  immediate reaction is the same heart-pounding desire to flee.

In the book, she quotes a poem that describes what you’ll discover when you can stop struggling against uncertainty.

This world – absolutely pure.

As is. Behind the fear,

Vulnerability. Behind that,

Sadness, then compassion

And behind that the vast sky.

What does freedom mean to you? If you don’t feel free already, try the 90-second exercise. Freedom might be closer than you think.

Your life: Is it true?

I have the good fortune of having two friends who are certified coaches, and I spoke to both of them recently.

I was struck that they both asked me the same question and that, weeks later, I’m still working on the answer.

The story I tell

Both of my friends have that coaching gift of saying very little while letting me know they’re listening with various nods and grunts of affirmation.

When they asked me how I was doing, I went on a monologue about my plans and aspirations. They listened patiently as I rattled off a long list of activities and my thinking behind them. When I finally paused for breath, they each asked me a variant of the question:

“Is it true?”

Starting with why

The question caught me off guard, even the second time. I didn’t say anything at first. We talked about what “true” would mean.

Is this genuinely what I want to be doing, or a story for others?

Why am I doing it?

How does it feel?

The first time, as I tried to articulate what motivated me to do what I’m doing, I was uncertain. It’s tied up with making a living, so any noble aspirations quickly get mixed up with other goals, and can easily conflict with them.

The second time, having had more time to think about it, I was able to relate my goals to other events in my life. There seemed to be some consistency in terms of philosophy and values, a narrative thread. But is it just a good story to tell myself and others? Is it true?

Is it true?

Your life

My guess is my coaches weren’t expecting an answer as much as they wanted to help me to pause and reflect. The question wasn’t meant as a test, but as a guide, one that I could use throughout my life to help me be authentic amidst the frenetic busy-ness.

What about you? Perhaps you’re trying to pursue some goal or perhaps your everyday is  already overfull. Try pausing long enough to reflect on what you’re doing, what you’re planning and hoping for.

Is it true?


The pause button that could save your life

For most of my life, I wasn’t aware I even had one of these buttons. Then I read about it and tried it, but it didn’t seem to work.

Now, after a few years of practice, it works sometimes. It’s given me a glimpse into a calmer, happier life, and I want more.

The Pause Button That Could Save Your Life

When I knew I needed it

It’s over 10 years ago. I’m driving my young son to an appointment. I’m late. I don’t want to go, but we have to go. It’s expensive and we’ve already paid. I’m upset.

I double-park and lead him toward the door. “I’ll be right there!” I need to park the car. There’s traffic – and no place to park. I look at the clock. I’m angry. I see a space but someone else takes it. I can feel myself starting to boil inside. I make a wrong turn.

I punch the steering wheel in frustration. The horn blows. It keeps blowing, loudly. I frantically try to pull on it to make it stop. I’m driving around the upper east side of Manhattan with a blaring horn, furious, frustrated, and ashamed all at the same time.

Something had to change.

The pause button

What happened wasn’t new, and such outbursts weren’t limited to driving. It was a pattern. Something would trigger an emotional response, followed by negative thoughts that would feed the response and make it stronger, quickly spiraling out of control.

The pause button allows you to catch yourself right after that initial response.

“If we catch it when it first arises, when it’s just a tightening, a slight pulling back, a feeling of beginning to get hot under the collar, it’s very workable.”

That’s a quote from Pema Chödrön’s excellent book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. She describes what to do in three seemingly simple steps.

  1. Acknowledge that you’re hooked.
  2. Pause, take three conscious breaths, and examine what you’re feeling.
  3. Relax and move on.

When we’re hooked (Pema uses the Tibetan word shenpa), the older parts of our brain unleash a series of primitive biochemical reactions. The pause helps us engage our more recently evolved pre-frontal cortex so we interrupt that chain of reactions, so we slow down enough to think and plan.

“When we pause and breathe…, we can foresee quite clearly where biting the hook will lead.”

Eleven years later

I’m driving with my daughter. It’s snowing heavily and we’re in the middle of a five-hour drive. Though we’re using a navigation system, we miss a turn. I figure we’ll just take the next exit and make a U-turn, but Google Maps tells us the next exit is 28 miles away. It must be a mistake.

I’m tired, and irritated that I missed the exit. Surely there’s one coming up sooner, but it becomes clear that’s not the case. I can’t believe I’ve just made an error that will cost us an additional hour in this terrible weather! I want to speed up and make up for lost time. I consider making an illegal turn on the highway. I grip the wheel as tightly as I can, feeling anger and frustration welling up. I’m hooked.

And I pause.

It’s difficult to interrupt my roiling emotions, but I take a few deep, conscious breaths. I try to think. Is it really that bad? Will being angry at the distances between exits make it better? It’s difficult driving and your daughter’s in the car. Better to be careful and not make it worse.

Very slowly, I start to calm down. I stop berating myself and just focus on driving. Once we find the exit and are headed in the right direction, my daughter and I make a game of it, counting down the minutes. She resumes playing deejay and picks some music for us. We even laugh at our mistake.

The practice

In the decade since that first car story, I’ve read dozens of books about the pause button, and they all same pretty much the same thing.

I quote Pema Chödrön’s book in particular because she relates her own embarrassing stories and offers gentle encouragement. Her writing made me understand that the pause button isn’t a button as much as a practice. It takes effort over time. You make gradual progress and experience setbacks. You keep working at it.

Missing parking spaces and exits are trivial examples, I know. But for me, the progress I made in dealing with them gives me confidence I can do more.

“By ‘putting up with little cares,’ with minor annoyances, when the shenpa is lightweight, ‘we train ourselves to work with great adversity.’”

You don’t have to wait till you’re hooked. You can practice hitting the pause button throughout the day – walking to work, washing the dishes, eating. I’ve come to think of it as a way to train myself.

“Punctuate your life with these moments,” Pema writes. “If we keep a sense of humor and stay with it for the long haul, the ability to be present just naturally evolves. Gradually, we lose our appetite for biting the hook.”