2.18.2009

Don’t Put Happiness on Layaway: Let Go of the Outcome.

For too many of us, life revolves around the achievement of some defined “outcome.” We hold tight to the belief that we can’t be happy until we obtain/complete/accomplish some particular object or objective. We put our well-being on layaway, as though we must make a series of payments before we can have what we want!

I can’t blame anyone for buying in to the conviction that happiness always lies just out of reach. After all, our society’s values promote ambition, consumption, and measurable results. We’re expected to have the right car, clothes, job, degree, and friends. And if you don’t have these things, you’d better get them; otherwise, you’re nothing. By these standards, worrying and caring less about outcomes might seem counterintuitive. Irresponsible. Or just na├»ve.

I’m not suggesting that we relinquish all worldly possessions or act without any concern for the future. It’s just that while goals and direction are valuable, too much emphasis on the outcome diminishes mindfulness and creates unnecessary stress. In particular, excessive focus on outcomes breeds two unwanted conditions: (1) fixation on the future and (2) energy wasted on trying to control things that are beyond our control.

First, obsession with outcome (or what will happen) keeps us locked in the future, blind to the wonders of the present moment. You may have noticed that this blog is called “Life Is Now,” not “Life is Then” or “Life Will Begin Sometime Next Week.” If we place happiness on hold while we endeavor to improve ourselves or our situations, it might just stay on hold forever. It’s great to have goals, dreams, and a vision of your ideal life. But it’s equally important to appreciate who we already are, what we already have, and the process of change and personal evolution.

Second, obsession with an intended outcome supports the illusion that we can control how things turn out. That unrealistic expectation results in massive disappointment, frustration, anxiety, and anger when things vary from our plans and expectations.

Sometimes this is evident in situations, such as when people grumble, pout, and rage at things that don’t go their way. Examples you might recognize include being irritated by a long grocery checkout line or feeling resentful when someone slips into the parking space you had your eye on. Other times, the illusion of control contaminates relationships in the form of conditional love, so that we reward someone with love and affection only when they behave according to our ideals and preferences. This includes all the “shoulds” we impose on ourselves and people in our lives (more on this in a future post).

Letting go of the outcome remains a challenge for me. In fact, I’d say most of my stress arises from reluctance to let go of control and resistance to “what is.” As I work on this, I’m starting to understand how arrogant my attempts to control life are; my belief that things must be a certain way presupposes that I know what’s best! Alternatively, when I relinquish my need to control circumstances and outcomes, I am free to let the universe (or God, Tao, or some other higher power) figure it out.

I rely on a couple of simple techniques to help me let go of outcomes. One is to breathe deeply for three or four breaths. This is often enough to return my focus to the moment—and it calms me down when I’m uptight. The other strategy is to redirect my thinking from what I don’t like about the situation to something positive. For example, I think of five things I’m grateful for; or, I mentally repeat a phrase like “I am peaceful and serene.”

I get the best results when I combine these strategies so they function as a mini-meditation break. If you want to try an actual guided meditation about letting go, one of my favorites is this podcast at Meditation Oasis (which you can also download for free on iTunes).

This discussion of letting go of the outcome concludes my series of blogs about the “rules” that guide my journey toward mindfulness and authenticity:

1. Show Up
2. Pay Attention (part 1 and part 2)
3. Speak Your Truth
4. Let Go of the Outcome

Clearly, there aren’t any rules, only options. I can attest that I like myself better when I show up and speak my truth; I feel more connected when I pay attention to my body and my environment; and I grow increasingly peaceful when I let go of the outcome and appreciate life as it unfolds. These four principles add richness and meaning to my life; perhaps they can add to yours, too.

I appreciate your feedback. Please continue to share your thoughts and opinions via email and/or by commenting below so others may benefit from your perspective. And as always, thanks to Pat Korb and the Gestalt Center of Gainesville for inspiring this blog series.

2.14.2009

Tune In to Turn On! Speak Your Truth.

When it comes to authenticity, speaking your truth seems like a no-brainer. But it’s not as simple as being honest. My version of speaking your truth encompasses two primary intentions: to (1) find and (2) liberate your inner voice.

When you speak your truth, dormant parts of yourself are activated and you come alive! Like the rainbow revealed by the fusion of light and water, our lives are more vibrant and beautiful when we express the full spectrum of our selves and our potentials.

This process is rooted in wholeness and integrity. Integrity requires acknowledgment, acceptance, and activation of ALL parts of our selves—not just the “good” and “acceptable” parts. Too often, comfort zones and external expectations steer us toward certain comfortable ways of being.

I’m referring to those times we take the path of least resistance, when we smile through a gloomy mood or answer the obligatory “How’s it going?” with an obligatory “Fine!” Sadly, by falling into routine we miss many opportunities to be authentic and genuine. Our quirky, spontaneous, vulnerable parts fall quietly into disuse. But these dormant parts deserve to live! They’re also crucial to a sense of balance.

How do we get in touch with this neglected inner world? The key is to “tune in” to our bodies and emotional responses. It’s easy to ignore thoughts (and even feelings), but the body cannot be ignored. Our bodies sometimes use physical symptoms to get our attention when we neglect a part of ourselves that is aching to be expressed.

Sometimes the signals are obvious, like a terrible flu or depression; other times they are more subtle, like persistent hunger. Fatigue, muscle pain, and digestive upset were my clues that something was off kilter; craving for sweets, fidgeting, nail-biting, or back pain might be yours.

For example, my default setting is extraversion—plenty to say, always ready with an opinion or a joke. This served me well in the academic and professional worlds, because I appeared competent and confident, maybe even charming (on my better days). But on a spiritual level, my softer, sensitive side got trampled underneath all that intellectual swagger.

It wasn’t a healthy trade-off. I saw doctors and tried medications to rid myself of my symptoms, but outward solutions didn’t work. So I took a different approach. I sought and applied whatever tools I could to tune in(-ward) and embrace the symptoms instead!

I used a variety of means to be present with my body’s messages: exercise, journaling, reflective talks with friends, mindfulness practice, and meditation. Most of these practices engendered a sense of quiet and release. As I let go of resistance in favor of being present and aware, a chorus of inner voices broke the silence to speak their truths.

Because I had promised myself not to judge or resist them, it was safe for the more vulnerable, timid parts of my self to emerge. And incredibly, as this happened my symptoms started to dissipate. Setting out the welcome mat for my symptoms eliminated my internal struggle. I wasn’t fighting myself any more.

My “tuning in” tools operated as both process and outcome, an end in themselves. Because the practices contributed to an overall state of self-acceptance, peace, and flexibility, I started to recognize and respond to my needs with less effort. I didn’t have to power through the day.

My newfound balance let me trust myself to exist in novel ways. Formerly dichotomized blends of traits (like competence/warmth, drive/suppleness) harmonized. People still saw me as competent and witty—but also trustworthy, kind, and caring. I felt more open to giving and receiving love. After all, who wants to hug a rock when they can hug a teddy bear?

It’s risky to listen to and speak your truth because by doing so you enter the realm of the unknown. But it gets easier with practice and the rewards are astounding. When I allow expression of my softer (yet POWERFUL) voices of truth, I forge connections with others and between exiled pieces of my self.

Now, this is only relevant for my color spectrum and how I speak MY truth. Yours may be different, and it may change over time. My truth brought out my inner teddy bear; the best thing for you may be to voice your inner rock! It’s a process of discovery, and the joy is in the process of seeking and speaking your truth.

To jump-start your process of tuning in, I’ve posted an assessment that can guide you to discover which parts of your self are more or less active and to consider how you do or can nurture these parts of yourself. The chart also leaves space to make notes about the truths each dimension holds for you. I’d love to hear your comments about what you discover!

Next time in Life Is Now, “Let Go of the Outcome,” the final post in the mindfulness and authenticity series inspired by Pat Korb and the Gestalt Center of Gainesville.

2.05.2009

Pay Attention 2 (a.k.a. Observation vs. Imagination)

[Note: In this series of blog posts, I examine the four basic "rules" that guide my practice of mindfulness and authenticity: show up, pay attention, speak your truth, and let go of the outcome. Thanks to the Gestalt Center of Gainesville for inspiring this blog series.]

I want the person I'm with to feel validated, understood, and accepted. In order to make that happen, I need to receive communication with an open heart and mind. At times, my biases and judgments interfere with that.

Last week’s post explored how distractions diminish mindfulness and enjoyment of the moment. This entry extends the concept of attention to communication.

When I pay attention to someone, I absorb information. I gather data in the form of language, tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. Somewhere along the line, though, something goes off track and my attention to these tangible aspects of communication gets scrambled. Instead of attentive presence, my mind goes into processing mode; it automatically sums up all this raw information and spits out a total.

But the total is not “what is.” My mind overrides “what is” in favor of “what it means” so instantaneously that I barely realize it! Rather than tuning in to raw information, I leap straight to my interpretation of someone’s words, actions, and appearance.

An example: I’m talking with my neighbor, Joan. She sighs deeply. I notice the sigh and ask, “What’s wrong?” In this case, I initially paid attention and observed that Joan sighed. So far, so good. My response, however (asking her what’s wrong), was to the meaning I attached to the sigh. In reality, there may be nothing wrong with Joan (other than needing some extra oxygen). But in my mind, I already decided (imagined) that her sigh represented feelings of distress, boredom, or irritation. In a split second, I retreated into my thoughts and projections. Pretty narcissistic.

An exercise called “I observe; I imagine” helped me discover how stubborn this tendency is in me. The objective of the exercise is to understand the difference between raw observation and our subsequent interpretations. To do it, first tune into your senses to observe one thing about someone in your presence. Then, identify whatever meaning you attach to what you observed. You state your observation and its meaning in the form of, “I observe ______; I imagine ______.”

In its ideal form, the exercise will look like this: I see my husband and say, “I observe Karl make eye contact with me, drop his shoulders slightly, and smile when he enters the room; I imagine that he is happy to see me.” In reality, I cannot know what Karl is thinking or feeling. But it’s easy to assume or imagine that I know.

The tricky part is to separate out ONLY what you observe. Often, what we say we “observe” is actually our interpretation of the data— imagination, not observation. To illustrate how easy it is to make this mistake, I had to correct this error in the example I just wrote! At first, I wrote: “I observe Karl make eye contact with me, relax his shoulders, and smile.” Nothing wrong with that, right? But when I reviewed that phrase, it hit me: I can’t observe his shoulders “relaxing” without touching the muscles! The fact is that I merely saw his shoulders shift position and then imagined that they relaxed. It’s a subtle but important difference.

What are my alternatives? And what would be the point of observing Joan’s sigh or Karl’s smile without imagining its meaning? The value of making this distinction is to practice mindful presence in its purest form. It’s letting people be who and what they are instead of jumping to conclusions. In my first example, Joan’s sigh could mean anything or nothing. If I want to find out, I don’t have to imagine. I can ask Joan what it meant to her. I see that as a more respectful way to experience Joan, because it gives her power over what she communicates. It also takes pressure off me-- I am no longer responsible for trying to read her mind.

We benefit in many ways when we pay attention to people in our lives. For a start, checking the validity of our interpretations takes the guesswork out of communication. At the same time, it lets others know that we care enough to get it right. True attention also leaves our minds open to further information and surprises. Perhaps most importantly, if we learn to identify and stay with “what is,” we can learn to accept it. And acceptance is the starting point for peace and unconditional love.

If you wonder how this applies to you, try the “I observe; I imagine” exercise with a friend or group of friends. Let your friend offer feedback on how well you separate observation and imagination. I invite you to leave a comment to let me know how it goes.

Next time: The same process of attention that helps us perceive others in a more conscious way can apply to ourselves. When we turn attention inward, the body alerts us to unfinished business and personal truths. Next week’s Life Is Now blog post will examine why it’s important to listen to and liberate your inner voice to “Speak Your Truth.”