Saturday, February 27, 2010

Remember the 60's

In the last year I have read books entitled Radical Forgiveness, Radical Compassion, and Radical Acceptance. If we practice radical forgiveness, radical compassion, and radical acceptance, I believe we will experience radical joy.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Who Knows if it is Good or Bad?

There once was a poor, old farmer. One day his only horse ran away. His neighbor said, “How unfortunate that your horse ran away. Now you can’t plow your field.” The farmer replied, “Who knows if it is good or bad?” The next day the horse returned, leading twenty wild horses. The neighbor said, “How wonderful! Now you are a rich man.” The farmer replied, “Who knows if it is good or bad?” The next day, his only son broke his leg while trying to tame one of the horses. The neighbor said, “What a tragedy. Now your son is crippled.” The farmer replied, “Who know if it is good or bad?” The next day, the army came to the village and drafted all the young men to fight in a war far away. The farmer’s son was the only one spared.

All the years my son was growing up, I tried every possible treatment for his autism. And I prayed. Oh how I prayed. The Bible said that if my faith was as big as a mustard seed I could move mountains. What kind of lousy faith did I have if I could not make one little boy better?

Then one morning when James was a teenager, I passed the partially open bathroom door as he was brushing his teeth. He was looking in the mirror and making faces and laughing. As I walked by I heard him say with such exuberant enthusiasm, “It’s GREAT to be James!”

Wow. All those years I thought it must be terrible to be James. And all those years he thought being James was terrific.

I guess my faith was as big as a mustard seed after all. I did move a mountain. The mountain was me.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

God Bless That Ol' @#&!

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Those raised in the Christian faith know this as part of the Lord’s Prayer. But do you know the verses following the Lord’s Prayer? “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Just in case you need it spelled out because you weren’t paying attention when you were praying.

Personally, I don’t think God is that stingy with forgiveness. I believe that we live in a perpetual state of eternal grace. I don’t think we can do anything to earn it or lose it. I believe it is who we are. Everyone. Of any faith or no faith.

My failure to forgive does not change who I am. Nor does it affect whoever it is that I am not forgiving. What it does is block my awareness of grace. I don’t like my awareness of grace blocked. So I try to forgive everyone. Including myself. Sometimes that is hard. Especially if I am stuck in victim mode.

Awhile back I was having a really hard time forgiving someone. I’ll call him Fred. I blamed Fred for, well, everything that seemed wrong with my life at that time, which was a lot. I read books on forgiveness. I did workbooks on forgiveness. But I was stuck. I obsessively revisited all the wrongs I thought I had suffered at the hands of Fred, like watching news accounts of some crime over and over. It was an addiction–I couldn’t stop.

Finally I started saying a prayer every time I thought about him, as soon as I thought of him, before the emotions started churning. God bless Fred and please help me mean it. Let me be clear. I did not mean it. But I had to break the habit of blame. I had to forgive, for my sake. So I prayed this prayer over and over. And over time, very slowly, I began to soften. My feelings didn’t boil when a thought about him crossed my mind. And finally one day I said it and I realized that I really did mean it. It felt like a miracle. It was, I think.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Your Hair is on Fire!

The theme of this blog is changing habits that block our happiness so that we can reset our homepage to our happy place. One requirement of changing habits is motivation. We have to want to change our habits. Many of us are not motivated to change our habits until we are in crisis. For example, a health crisis might motivate us to change our lifestyle habits. But if things are just rolling along in a could-be-better-but-not-so-bad sort of way, the effort required to change our habits sometimes seems too great. It is easy to put it off for another day.

So how can we motivate ourselves? Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist nun who has written extensively on overcoming habitual patterns that block our happiness. She says, “If we really knew how unhappy it was making this whole planet that we all try to avoid pain and seek pleasure–how that is making us so miserable and cutting us off from our basic goodness–then we would practice as if our hair was on fire. There wouldn’t be any question of thinking we have a lot of time and we can do this later.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but the image of my hair being on fire has shaken me out of my complacency more than once. Ironically, this image comes from a chapter entitled Joyful Exertion. The idea is that if we start wherever we are and make whatever effort we are capable of at that moment, the effort will produce energy, and that in turn will encourage us to make more effort. The more we connect with this energy, the more joy we will experience.

So give it a try. Pick one of the practices we have discussed, or any other practice you find helpful, and look for an opportunity to use it today.

Have a joyful day!

(I highly recommend anything Pema Chodron has written, but if you can read only one thing, I recommend Comfortable with Uncertainty.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

From the Ashes

How many Bible verses or stories can you think of that teach us to forgive? What other stories of forgiveness can you call to mind from any source–other faiths, the news, movies, books, poetry, fables? Take a few moments and see how many you can list.

Here is one that made a big impression on me. On October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV held ten Amish girls, ranging in age from 6 to 13, hostage in their one room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He tied them up and made them line up against the wall. There was evidence that he planned to sexually assault them. However, whatever he planned to do to them was thwarted by the quick arrival of state troopers. But the troopers were unable to stop him before he started shooting. The oldest girl, only 13, asked to be shot first, hoping that some extra time might save her friends. He shot her first. Then shot them all, killing five, and finally shot himself.

Imagine. I can’t. But if the crime itself was unfathomable, then even more so was the response of the Amish community. Within hours of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the slain girls was heard admonishing others not to hate the shooter or to think evil of him. They quickly reached out to his family and offered forgiveness and condolences. They attended his funeral and invited his widow to attend the funeral of one of the girls. They invited her and her children to become members of their community.

The accounts of forgiveness flashed around the world. I read everything I could read about it and found sites in many countries marveling at a faith that most of us would believe beyond human capacity. Certainly beyond our own. Beyond my own. I knew I was witnessing a gift. A vision of what is possible.

What would our lives look like if we could forgive like that? What would our communities look like? Our world? What would the Amish response have been to 9/11?

The following year I read a book titled Amish Grace, in which the authors put the community’s response in the context of their faith culture. Many Amish, when questioned, replied with puzzlement, “Amish forgiveness is just Christian forgiveness.” One person, after hesitating a moment, wondered, “Is it different from Christian forgiveness?”

Is it?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Choose Happiness

I read a book last fall called The Passion Test (by Janet and Chris Atwood). I wasn’t keen on reading it because, in some ways, it is like so many other follow-your-bliss-live-your-best-life-the-power-is-within-you books that tell you how to discover your personal mission and live happily ever after. Since I pretty much live my where-I-want-to-be-in-1/3/5/10-years life, I thought the book would have little to offer me. But I read it anyway on the advice of a friend, and I was glad I did.

The book leads you through a series of steps to identify your current top five passions. “Current” because you are encouraged to retake the test from time to time as your life and interests change.

The key is, in making decisions, to choose the option most in alignment with your identified passions. And to trust the process.

Here is what I came up with for myself. When my life is ideal, I am:
1. living a fully awakened life
2. spending lots of time with people who love me
3. speaking many languages
4. enjoying robust health
5. helping other people have better lives.

I put this list in a couple of places where I would see it often. And I began to make choices based not so much on what I thought I should do, but on what was in alignment with my passions. For example, I signed up for Thai language lessons. Why not? I agreed to take a leadership role in an organization that serves adults with developmental disabilities. More meetings. (Shoot me in the face, as my daughter would say.) But I agreed because it would help people have better lives. It would help my two autistic sons have better lives. I got some friends together to learn to play mahjong. I started this blog. From the first day, I felt a shift. I said yes to the what and trusted that the how would follow. And I was happier.

The Dalai Lama says that happiness is a valid goal, and the "conscious decision to seek happiness in a systematic manner can profoundly change the rest of our lives." If you think that the pursuit of happiness is selfish, then consider the phenomenon of emotional contagion that Gretchen Rubin describes in her book The Happiness Project. Have you ever been unable to refrain from laughing when watching a baby laugh hysterically over something that you would never think of as funny? Is that not infectious laughter? Conversely, have you ever been feeling pretty good when someone walked in scowling and your mood immediately darkened? And I'm sure you've all heard, "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." So remember that making choices in alignment with your passions will spread germs of happiness wherever you go.

Inviting the Demons to Tea

I’ve been out of sorts all week. Emo, as my daughter would say. (Or at least I think that is what she would say. I’m still not sure exactly what that means.) Quick to be irritated, quick to get teary. Restless, not sleeping. Even when I could shift to a better mood, I quickly sank back into my funk.

This morning I realized that I have fighting my feelings instead of feeling my feelings. I relaxed my resistance and surrendered to my feelings, whispering, “This, too. This, too.” No judgment. Just a soft opening. Unacknowledged grief blossomed. My foster daughter’s beloved grandmother died Valentine’s Day morning. Valentine’s Day is also the day my dad died years ago. My cowboy cousin died yesterday. And my dog is getting old. Loss, memory of loss, anticipated loss. This, too. Grief wrapped me up like a soft down comforter. I snuggled in and rested.

Feelings are like water. We can try to dam them up, but they are purest when allowed to flow freely. Dammed up feelings continue to exert pressure, to seek release. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to maintain that dam.

The story is told of Milarepa, an 8th century Tibetan Buddhist, who came back to his cave one day to find it filled with demons. He didn’t know how to get rid of them. He tried to teach them Buddhism. They ignored him. He got angry and attacked them. They just laughed. Finally, he gave up and said, “I’m not going anywhere and it seems that you are not either. I guess we will have to live here together,” at which point the demons promptly left.

Living in your happy place doesn’t mean always feeling happy. But it does mean honoring your feelings with gentle acceptance. This, too.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I'm Grateful for That!

When I got in my car this morning, I was feeling a little grumpy. No real reason. But soon I had a reason. I was mired in traffic backed up because of road construction. I realized I was getting grumpier and decided to distract myself by trying a technique I read about recently. I’m going to call it the Gratitude Challenge.

Whenever you find yourself irritated, stymied, frustrated, etc., say to yourself, “I’m grateful for [whatever is causing you consternation].” It’s okay if you don’t mean it. Just say it. I have discovered that AA is really onto something with their “fake it till you make it” approach. If it is true that we feel the way we act, then act the way you want to feel.

So I thought to myself, I’m grateful for the traffic. But I was still stuck in it...and I was still grumpy. I wasn’t getting anywhere, literally or figuratively, so I kept playing. I’m grateful for the traffic. I’m grateful for the road construction. I’m grateful for the people working out there. I’m grateful they have jobs. I’m grateful I have a job. I’m grateful I have a job that doesn’t require me to work with hot tar in the middle of traffic. I’m grateful I have a car. I’m grateful my car has a seat warmer. I’m grateful I can drive. I’m grateful for....

The crazy thing is that somewhere between I’m grateful for the traffic and I’m grateful I have a job, I started to feel truly grateful. By the time I got past the traffic and was zipping along the highway to work, I was glowing with gratitude, feeling blessed beyond belief. And I was grateful for that.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Habits 1

Every now and then, we will review some easy techniques, based on earlier posts, that you can use to help reset your homepage. Here are a few we have already identified. The references to steps come from the list of 10 Steps to Finding Your Happy Place posted Feb. 3.

The reminder phrases are just that–reminders. If you find other words more helpful, then use them. The idea is to catch ourselves in habits we want to change and have some reminder phrases that we can recall quickly to get us back to our happy place homepage.

Step 1. Give yourself permission to be happy.

When you become aware that you are resisting happiness, remind yourself, “Fun is good.”

Step 3. Give up the delusion of control.

When you sense your anxiety rising because things are not turning out the way you planned, take a deep breath and say to yourself, “The life-span of the butterfly is precisely the right length.”

Step 7. Practice compassion.

As you go through your day, notice people. Remind yourself that the person you are noticing might be Jesus. Send a silent greeting to each person you notice, Namaste.

Man Plans God Laughs (Yiddish proverb)

If you don’t have children, you might still be under the delusion that you can control things. Children are God’s cure for this. When I adopted my daughter, I consulted a friend who is a renowned astrologer. She contemplated Mia’s chart and frowned. “Are you sure this is the correct birth date?” she asked. It was, as far as I knew. She started fidgeting, her eyes darting around the room as if looking for a quick escape. She stared at the chart as if willing it to change. She cleared her throat several times. “What?!” I finally erupted, making her jump. “What is it?” “Well,” she said, desperate for some way to soften what she saw, “let’s just say she is...well, beyond programming.”

That doesn’t mean I didn’t try. I had controlled things all my life. I thought I had to control things or things would not happen the way they were supposed to happen. But being in control required a lot of energy and vigilance. Eventually I wore myself out. Like a rock chip on a windshield, cracks lengthened and branched out over my delusion of control. Finally I asked myself, “What makes me think I know how things should happen?”

Here is a passage from “Another Roadside Attraction” by Tom Robbins:

"Down by the waterfall, Amanda pitched her tent–it was made of willow sticks and the wool of black goats. Having filled the tent with her largest and softest paisley cushions, Amanda stripped down to her beads and panties and fell into a trance. 'I shall determine how to prolong the lives of butterflies,' she had previously announced.

"However, an hour later when she awoke, she smiled mysteriously. 'The life-span of the butterfly is precisely the right length,' she said."

Over time I surrendered. I became wise in the ways of control. I had none. And it was good.

If you don’t have children yet or don’t plan to have children, but you still seek enlightenment, get a cat.

Friday, February 12, 2010

That Man Might Be Jesus!

I was walking my dog one day in the neighborhood. As I strolled by one house, a woman working in her yard stopped me to admire Sadie. As she was bent over rubbing Sadie’s ears and talking doggie talk to her, a homeless man walked by pushing his grocery cart full of who knows what. The woman jerked up suddenly and bolted for her door, calling back over her shoulder to me, “That man might be Jesus! I have to go fix him a sandwich!”

I was dumbfounded. I waited a moment for the candid camera folks to leap out of the bushes. Then I moved off in the opposite direction, marveling at the bizarre kookiness of people. But before I turned the corner, I paused and looked back at the hunched shoulders of the man shuffling off down the street, oblivious to the commotion his passing had provoked.

I guess the joke was on me after all, because I have never looked at people the same way since. Or maybe I should say I have never overlooked people the same way since. Everybody became real to me that day, imbued with divine promise. I notice people–in the grocery store, in other cars, on the street, in the news. They all have lives. Just like me.

People in certain parts of the world greet each other with the word “Namaste,” which has been roughly translated as “I honor the place in you, where if you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.”

Maybe that woman was Jesus.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fun is Good!

Many families look forward to the summer. Family vacations. Trips to the beach. Sports. Picnics. Cooking out in the backyard. Enjoying time with the kids. I don’t remember it that way. Summers were a stressful time when my son was a boy. Without the structure of school, his autistic behavior deteriorated. He had frequent tantrums. He did not like to do what other kids enjoyed, so he did not have friends. He did not like to do what families like to do together, so family vacations were not something I looked forward to. I saw summers as opportunities to focus on the autism therapy de jour–auditory training, sensory integration, behavior modification, diet changes, homeopathic treatments, and on and on. With each summer, he grew older and my hope for a cure grew more desperate.

One spring I was talking to the child psychologist who worked with James. I was going over several options for the summer. One option I dismissed quickly by saying, “This one would just be fun.” The doctor leaned forward until he was sure I was paying attention and said slowly and deliberately, “”

I guess all those years of training paid off for him, because that was one of the smartest things I ever heard.

When I started thinking about finding your happy place, the first step I thought of was to give yourself permission to be happy. We all want to be happy, but many of us have some ambivalence about it. Why would anyone be reluctant to go for the gusto? Maybe some of us have the reluctance in our genes. My ancestors were Huguenots, driven out of France to escape slaughter for their religious beliefs. Have you seen any portraits of John Calvin? Did he look like a happy guy?

Maybe you think that happiness is not an appropriate goal when there is so much suffering in the world. Maybe you think that you shouldn't be happy when people around you are not happy. Maybe you don’t want to tempt fate. Maybe you are scared to be happy because you can’t make it last. Maybe it isn’t sophisticated in your circle to be happy. Maybe being happy means relaxing your guard, and then all those terrible things you keep at bay by the sheer force of your vigilance will come in the night to destroy you or someone you love. And if you are a high school student in my daughter’s high school, then for sure it is not cool to be happy.

So the first thing we need to do is examine our beliefs about being happy. What are your uncensored thoughts when you think about happiness? Do you feel some resistance? Some anxiety? Fear? Being happy requires releasing fear. To use the most famous split infinitive in history, it means to boldly go where at least some of us have not gone before.

Try this. When you are aware of resisting an opportunity for happiness, whisper to yourself the wise words of the doctor. Fun is good.

Monday, February 8, 2010

What Does Your Homepage Look Like?

Think about the homepage on your computer. It’s there whenever you are online. If you go to other sites, you can always click on the home icon and go back to your homepage.

We have an inner homepage. It is where our minds go when they are not consciously and actively engaged. What does your homepage look like? For many of us, our homepage is a place of incessant inner chatter. Listen. What is the chatter about? For most of my life, my chatter was primarily about fear. I worried about things. Little things and big things. I rehearsed anticipated events. I reviewed things that had already happened. I was hyper-vigilant and sought to be always in control. I felt responsible for everything and everyone. And I was never ever good enough. My homepage was not a happy place.

There may be many reasons why we initially set our inner homepage in a certain way, reasons lost in time and in our unconscious, but I think we keep it set there mostly out of habit. I believe that we can reset our homepage to a happy place. Like changing any habit, it takes some awareness and reinforcement.

Training our minds has been compared to training a puppy. First you have to get the puppy’s attention. Then you show the puppy the desired behavior and reward the puppy for complying. Repeat. Again. As many times as it takes. Once trained, the puppy becomes a well-behaved companion and just needs occasional reminders.

My homepage now is a happy place. It wasn’t as easy as clicking on the box that says “Do you want to reset this page as your homepage?” I had a lot of habits to change, deeply ingrained habits. But it was worth the effort.

So think about what your inner homepage looks like and consider whether you want to change it. If you do, then stay tuned to hear more about the 10 steps. I’ve tried to identify simple techniques that we can weave into our daily lives without adding one more thing to our overcrowded schedules. These techniques are not a substitute for therapy, if that is needed, or other types of deep work. But they can complement deep work or simply add joy to our lives. This program is a work in progress, so I hope you will feel free to share your ideas.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Mad/Sad/Glad Game

My son has autism. People with autism have difficulty with feelings. They don't pick up cues about what other people are feeling. They sometimes don't know what they are feeling themselves. When my son was a little boy, we would play the mad/sad/glad game. He would say mad or sad or glad. Then I would act out the feeling. If he said sad, I would make a very sad face and act like I was crying. I would say, "Oh, I feel so sad." Then he would name another feeling and I would act it out with all the exaggerated drama I could muster. We only used those three. It was simple and he liked words that rhymed. He loved the game and we would play it over and over. I hoped that he would learn about his own feelings. I hoped that he would develop empathy for other people.

I look back at those years and I realize that as I was trying so hard to help him understand feelings, I was denying mine. I felt so desperate. So alone. So terrified. Inadequate. Overwhelmed. Devastated. Ashamed. And angry. But I didn't acknowledge any of these feelings. They were so big and so dark and so scary. It was like having demons locked in your basement. I kept them at bay by trying to "fix" my son. How ironic. And futile. On both counts. My son is still autistic and the demons broke out long ago. I made my peace with them and they moved on, although they sometimes come for tea. And I think I still hear a few little ones scurrying around in the dark corners of the basement.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Word of the Year

Every year on New Year's Eve, I pick a word for the following year. It is always a verb. It is not a resolution. My word is a focus word, a gentle reminder, a guide. I write the word on little cards that I place where my gaze is sure to light--by my computer, the bathroom mirror, the car dash.

I have a New Year's Eve ritual. I build a fire in the fireplace. In the last hours of the year, I write a letter to the old year. I reflect on the year, on what I learned and experienced, on the themes of the year, on what I think I will remember. I thank the year.

Then I write a letter to the new year. I welcome the new year and share my hopes and intentions. I tell the new year what my word is.

How do I choose my word? Sometimes I am pretty sure I know before New Year's Eve, but more often I don't. As the year comes to a close, I open my mind and heart. The word comes to me, like a whisper in my soul.

This year my word is "Attend." It calls me to the present moment. It guides me to suspend my inner chatter and to look and listen. Sometimes when I'm caught up in distractions and reactions, I can hear it and I take a deep breath and pause. Attend.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

List of Steps

Here is an overview of the 10 steps.
1. Give yourself permission to be happy.
2. Decide that being happy is more important than being right.
3. Give up the delusion of control.
4. Feel your feelings.
5. Make haste to be kind.
6. Judge not.
7. Practice compassion.
8. Forgive everyone.
9. Develop an attitude of gratitude.
10. Be here now.

What's in a Title?

My daughter's boyfriend was visiting. He is a monster football player. Believe me, you do not want to be holding the football when this guy is running towards you (although if you see him with his helmet off, you notice the dimples and he looks more cuddly than intimidating). I walked through the livingroom where they were sitting on the couch. His shoulders were slumped and he had the most forlorn expression on his face. My daughter was sitting next to him patting his back. He looked so sad, I paused mid-stride, wondering whether I should say something. My daughter looked up at me, her brows furrowed with concern, and said softly, "Emanuel is looking for his happy place."

I walked on through the room, trying not to laugh at the thought of this tough guy looking for his happy place. I couldn't stop thinking about the phrase. We've all been there, looking for our happy place. Then the title just came to me--10 Steps to Finding Your Happy Place (and Staying There).

Since then, I have spent a lot of time thinking about those 10 steps, reflecting on things I've learned over the years, seeking to delve deeper into the core practices and habits that lead to happiness. That's what this blog is about.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What's in a Name?

Okay, let's start out by being honest. Galen Pearl is not my real name. It is a name I have loved for years. I wanted to name one of my children Galen Pearl, but the name didn't fit any of them. Much to their relief! It's so easy to torment them. "I think I'll just go down to the courthouse and change your name to Galen Pearl." "Noooooo," they wail. So, although I like my real name very much, I figured I could name myself Galen Pearl for this blog. It makes me happy. And this blog is all about ways to be happy.