What's real?

In working with challenging beliefs or patterns, I’ve found it very helpful to separate two parts of my experience.
One part is things that are uncontroversially true. This means the things that everyone can agree on: she closed the door. He said “thank you for the cake.” Because I have no sense of humor when I’m in my stuff, I sometimes use overblown descriptions to remind me to take myself a little less seriously. When I’m in that mood, I call this things aliens watching a videotape could agree on.

The other part is the interpretations we add to the things that have uncontroversially happened. The clearest way we do this is when we attribute motivations to words or actions: she closed the door because my music was too loud. Sometimes we take it several steps further and make up a whole tale about what is happening: she closed the door because my music was too loud and she hates it when I do that so she is definitely completely pissed at me and will probably move out and never speak to me again.
Another especially sneaky way of interpreting is using emotionally laden or judgmental language: she slammed the door says something about my perception of her intention that she closed the door doesn’t. We all have our own vocabularies of emotionally laden words — mine include yelled and ignored — and these words often feel so obviously true that they’re hard to pick out.

I call all of these interpretations stories, and we all have them. Some of the stories are beautiful, helpful, interesting, or useful, and there is nothing wrong with keeping these so long as they are helping us. But some of them are painful or cause conflict, and these ones are worth another look.

The tricky part about stories is that we come up with them because they feel true. But they are grounded not in what is uncontroversially true but rather in assumptions, and so we have the power to overturn them when they no longer serve us. To do that, we have to notice them, get curious, and then be willing to try believing something else if it turns out that our stories might not be true.

Noticing is the hard part. I’ve found the habitual use of the question is that true? to be particularly useful in this regard, but another way is to look for times that you feel bad and then work back to the thoughts behind that feeling.
Curiosity means focusing on whether you can absolutely, positively be sure that your interpretations are true. (Hint: no.) Once you’ve gotten to this point of doubt, you have done a surprising amount of the heavy lifting.
After this, I find it helpful to make up an alternate story that is more helpful. If my story is about another person and we are close, sometimes asking them can be fruitful. Byron Katie recommends thinking of times when the opposite of your interpretation is true: if you have decided it is distantly possible your partner might not hate you, think of loving things they have done recently.

You can also engage in all sorts of clever workarounds, some of which we’ll talk about in the weeks to come. For now, I invite you just to see if you can find stories in action in your life, ones that help you and ones that maybe aren’t as helpful. If this practice changes anything for you, I would love to know about it.

Hurrying

One of my 2013 intentions is to stop hurrying.

I am a high-spirited, energetic person a lot of the time, and I’m not looking to change that, but when I hurry, I feel anxious and worry that I’m behind. I fret about forgetting things and flit between tasks. I get caught up in the urgent and forget what is important.

When I hurry, I think that somehow, thirty seconds or two minutes is going to make a difference, which, since I am not a surgeon or a scientist, it probably will not. To me, this seems like a symptom: I am losing perspective, holding one minute to be essential, holding myself to be the critical element. Often enough, I’m being perfectionist, pushing for a standard that isn’t realistically attainable, or isn’t attainable without sacrificing something I value in the process. And, predictably, I miss out on the truly important when I hurry: on connection, on delight, on gratitude.

So I’m trying not to hurry. I’m taking tasks one at a time, and when I think of another thing I should be doing, I have a little notebook where I can write them down. (“You’re going to forget!” is one of the Hurry Tribble’s most-used lines.) I’m reminding myself that things only get done as fast as they get done, and that trying to do three of them at once generally slows things down rather than speeds them up. I’m doing less rushing to try to be on time and more sending of apologetic texts letting people know I’m five minutes late. I’m walking slowly, eating slowly, pausing to take deep breaths.

Less hurry. More space. I’ll let you know how I’m doing in a few months!

Auto Draft

If you have been reading here for a while, you have probably noticed that I have some semi-heretical ideas about gratitude. (I’m guessing it was 77 Things That Don’t Completely Suck that tipped you off.) The difficulty with gratitude is that everyone knows it is good for you, and so it’s super-duper easy to slip from “I’m grateful” to “I should be grateful,” which amounts to thinly disguised self-flagellation. This is not what we are into around here.

Let’s start with some basics:

It is true that we can all change a lot of pieces of our experience by changing our approach to the them.
It is also true that not everything is okay. There is suffering in the world that is wrong: people starving or dying of preventable diseases, living in grinding poverty or suffering abusive industrial practices. We don’t have to be grateful for that or even okay with that. The sadness and anger these things stir up in us are the heralds of our sense of justice.
And it’s true that even when suffering is not the result of human injustice, pain is legitimate. Everyone experiences it, and sometimes, we are all stuck in it. Pain itself is not our stuff, but stuckness is, and wanting other people to hurry up and get unstuck already also is.
We are the sovereign bosses of what we feel grateful for and wherever we are on that is okay. It’s okay to feel grateful for little things — delicious coffee! — as well as big things. It’s okay not to feel grateful for big things.

All of that said, I have found that noticing when things go well is a profound practice for overcoming the stickiness of negative beliefs. For most of us, even on a terrible day, plenty of things go right. The ones that are easiest to notice are the surprising ones: this morning, when I went to grind more coffee, I found that I already had ground beans ready! Sweet. Thank you. But many routine things also go right. My favorite winter hat is so soft and warm, and I appreciated it walking to the mailbox. Gratitude. It turns out that I saved the tag from my new favorite candle so I can order more. Excellent. My electric tea kettle gave me hot water at the touch of a button. Thank you. When I am stuck in the Nothing Is Going Right doldrums, these things help me to notice that what I am doing is listening to Nothing Ever Goes Right tribble, rather than reflecting on something that is uncontroversially true.

If you are practicing curiosity about a particular negative belief, you can also use the same trick to help. I am investigating the ideas of You Are Not Dependable Tribble! Let’s look for cases where I am dependable. Tribbles love the words always and never to describe patterns, so if you can hang on to your curiosity and sense of humor for long enough to find even one counterexample, you will be able to get more and more specific about what is going on. (When your sense of humor gives out, take a break. Rest is an important part of working on stuff.)

In this spirit, here are some things that have gone well for me this week. I’d love to hear yours in comments!

When we had surprise ice, there was still ice melt left from last year.
I got the most perfect pajama pants of all time. With skulls on them. I know.
I spent a whole afternoon knitting by the fire with a friend.
My first-ever handknit holidays presents were successes.

Tar babies

You know that Anansi story with the tar baby? In revenge for some prank, one of Anansi’s enemies — I think it’s a farmer here — makes a tar baby. Anansi speaks to it, and when it won’t answer, he slaps it, getting one hand stuck. He slaps it with the other hand, and then tries to kick it, ending up with both hands and both feet stuck fast. In some versions, he even gets his head stuck trying to smash it!

This story is exactly like what happens to us with negative beliefs we hold about ourselves or the world. Our brains are these brilliant, beautiful, pattern-matching machines, but they are especially good at matching patterns we already know. And in their attempts to keep your ancestors from being tiger-nosh, they’re extra especially good at being affected by negative things, so when have a negative belief about ourselves or the world, we see proof of it in everything. We stick one thing on to it, and then another and and another until we are paralyzed.

This is why it is important to know about this trick: the reason that all kinds of events stick to our negative perceptions of ourselves is not that they are true! It is just that they are really, really sticky.

In the next week or two, I’ll be talking about different approaches to our tar babies, but for now, I invite you to be curious about this kind of pattern: what is it that’s sticky for you? What can’t you resist trying to headbutt, even with both hands and both feet stuck fast?

My word

I don’t especially love the idea of goals, but as during a solstice ritual this year, an intention for the coming year came to me. It’s not necessarily the kind of word I would have picked, and I can already see how it will challenge me, but it’s also feeling exciting and possibility-full, and I am luxuriating in that.

My word is dare.

What’s yours?

Hunger

Hunger is a funny thing. I’ve had the chance this winter to experience this in a lot of ways.

In a literal sense, I tried cutting out some foods that I was eating a lot of but didn’t think were really nourishing me. This is always challenging: food is central to our well-being in a very literal way, and so changing it is an easy way to get to hear a tribble chorus of but we’re going to diiiiiiieeeeee! One of the things I noticed was the inconsistency of my cravings: there were times when I really wanted this or that, but since I had committed to not eating them for the time being, eventually they passed, usually within just a few hours. There were a few things that came up cyclically, but I never spent a whole week wanting something — not even a whole day!

I also noticed that there were some things I enjoyed more because they were harder to get. Coffee is something I’ve enjoyed for years, but because of the choices I was making about food, it turned out to be plausible to have it only at home, for the most part. That meant that I was drinking coffee only occasionally, and also that each cup made me ecstatically happy. My morning can’t-think-until-cup-number-2 routine was broken and I started to experience each cup again.

I’ve observed a similar pattern in my emotional cravings. They tend to last longer — days or weeks instead of minutes or hours — but they also often wax and wane. I go through a phase of thinking that what I really want is a particular kind of work, or a particular kind of relationship, and then, without me really noticing, my focus on that particular thing wanes. My eating experiment brought this similarity into sharp focus.

I have been tremendously lucky these last few weeks to also be participating in a course on hunger led by the wonderful Rachel Cole. Rachel sends us these gorgeous notes several times a week, reminding us to think about what we’re really hungry for. For me, this answer lies beneath the hungers of body and heart that I’m finding turn out to ephemeral, for all their immediate power. In the last few weeks, the answer has been peace of mind: I’ve been trying to keep too many balls (and oranges, and chainsaws!) in the air and have been living in fear of dropping one of them.

Rachel’s Wisdom Notes have also invoked deep gratitude for me, because they’re helping me remember times when deep hungers dominated my life. I spent years reaching for connection, love, and rest before finding the deep wells of those qualities that feed me today. They’re also reminding me that having my basic needs — food, warmth, shelter, love — met is a tremendous privilege, and so connecting me to my desire to serve.

What is it that you’re truly hungry for this season? How full can you give yourself permission to feel?

{The signup deadline for Rachel’s Wisdom Notes is past, but you can see what else she’s up to!}

Winter

Between the end of the calendar year (with the upcoming resolutions/intentions/theme words) and the cold curtailing outdoor activities in this part of the world, winter is a time when reflection is on the radar more than usual for many of us.

Yet at the same time, it’s a time that’s filled to the brim with obligations and expectations: ideas about what holidays should be like and worries about living up to them; wishes, fulfilled and unfulfilled, about belonging and acceptance; packed social calendars.

I’ve been noticing lately how easy it is for me to default to what’s normal in my social circle. This has some lovely parts: I get to see lots of people I don’t often run into at seasonal gatherings, and many people I know handmake gifts or cards, which I love and do more readily because it’s common among and valued by my friends.

But at the same time, I find every winter that I am craving things that don’t fit into the bustle and rush of parties and gifts. Rest. Stillness. Space.

Of course, I’m not the only one with this problem: everything from the Christian practice of Advent to a million self-help books and retreats is designed to introduce the qualities of spaciousness, deep connection, and reflection into our winters. The tricky part, for me, is doing so in a way that doesn’t feel like one more thing I should be doing!

Over the years, I’ve found a few things that help me: quiet crafting times or writing dates. Going out my camera, which somehow shifts my brain into focusing on what’s around me. Taking walks whenever the weather seems manageable. I also strive to follow one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten: to do one tiny, lovely thing for myself every day.

The whole question of setting intentions or themes or doing annual review is another piece of this that I’ll write about soon. For now, what nurtures you in the winter? How do you hold on to what feeds you in the press of all of the bustle and expectation?

Tribbles, promises, and emergency escapes!

Here is a top-secret tribble fact: they want you to keep your promises. It seems like an odd mission for fears and insecurities, but it’s true.

Tribbles are kind of like toddlers: they are little fuzzy balls of feelings and worries and desires! There are things they believe about reasons, but between you and me, they’re sometimes a little wonky. So when you talk with tribbles — naming, acknolwedging, reassuring, negotiating — you are the world’s greatest preschool teacher. They will do a lot for a gold star, as long as they are sure you’re going to hand out the star.

Because they really want this for themselves, often they want it in every arena of your life. My tribbles pretty much universally believe that it’s better not to make any promise than to make too big a promise, and they’re suspicious of promises that seem long-term or complicated.

Figuring this out was tremendously helpful because it gave me ways to describe my will and intentions that don’t suddenly trigger a Greek chorus of tribble worries. If I want to set an open-ended intention, I bound it with a feeling — I’m going to do this for as long as it feels helpful — instead of saying forever. (My tribbles are against forever, because they have this adorable — albeit sometimes incongruous! — faith that I can change, and might, and then I might hate whatever I promised to do forever!) I use time limits a lot, to help out What-If-You-Hate-It Tribble, and I often say things like “I’m going to try this, just this time,” even if I am secretly hoping I will love it enough to do it forever.

I also have learned to love the emergency escape hatch. This is a way out of a commitment if you really can’t stand it, and if you have as many But-You-Owe-It-To-Them tribbles as I do, you might also find it useful. Mine is if it makes me cry. If something makes me cry, that’s a hard limit: no matter how much I think I ought to do it or owe it to someone or hope that it will get me, I can quit. (“Can” is an important word here: learning to build in an emergency escape hatch was important, and so was learning that it was a permission slip, not a command.)

Of course, everyone’s tribbles are different, but so far, the love of keeing promises seems pretty common to me. What do you think? Is it true for you?

Baby steps

I’m pretty sure that most of the things we think would be great for us — you know, more rest, good food, exercise, beauty, stillness and less anxiety, rushing, sadness — would actually be pretty great! And the advice on what would help us get these things is also good: cut out things that you do to please others or that drain your vitality, and fill the resulting space with things that make you wriggle in delight.

Good advice, isn’t it? So what’s standing between us and…well, taking it? I can think of a lot of things, but many of them come down to avoidance.

What are we avoiding? I’m not going to venture to guess what’s true for you, but for me, there are two main flavors.
Flavor #1 boils down to being afraid that I’m basically bad, and that some pattern or feeling or behavior that I don’t want to look at is definitely going to provide the final damning evidence on this point.
Flavor #2 is about being afraid that even if I’m not bad, other people will think I am, especially if I am too happy or my life is too good.

Oh, tribbles. You are so fuzzy and troublesome! But also: so legitimate. Fears are legitimate. And we get through them not by hunching our shoulders and body-checking them, but by recognizing and naming and reassuring.

The only tricky bit is that we can’t really do that if we’re covering our eyes and singing la-la-la at the top of our lungs! The only way out of this, I’m afraid, is through, however slowly and gently and lovingly we need to go.

My way of moving slowly is baby steps. Tiny little experiments! Rules for baby steps:
1. You can quit any time. If you aren’t sure this is true, I highly recommend quitting on your first couple of experiments just to prove you can.
2. The goal is not solving anything. The goal is to learn.
3. It only counts if you stay curious. What is this like? How do I feel? What is really happening here? When I get into judging, I take a breath. If I can’t get out, I refer to rule #1.

My baby steps this week include scheduling writing dates and taking 20 deep breaths at bed time. What are yours?

Happy-when

You know the feeling: I’ll be happy when I finish this project. When I solve this financial challenge. When I have the job/house/partner/child I’ve always wanted. My mother calls this “happy-when,” but it actually has a fancy name: the arrival fallacy.

Whatever we call it, it’s a favorite tool for many of us in our battle to avoid being happy. Agreeable external circumstances can certainly make it easier to be happy: some things, like money or health, are well documented to effect us mostly by causing bad feelings when we don’t have them. But we all know that they aren’t sufficient — who can’t think of someone who is unhappy with an outwardly delightful life? — and what’s more, exactly zero studies show that beating ourselves up because our lives are great and why aren’t we happy yet is a helpful strategy.

Sometimes, happy0-when is actually a heads-up that we’re having negative feelings around something: if I’m feeling disheartened by something at work, I might say “I’ll be happy when I get a new job.” Getting a new job might be a perfectly good plan, but it will help me find the right one if I can figure out what’s disheartening me and not pin the blame on, say, my commute or salary.

Other times, happy-when is a clue to our real desires. When I find myself pinning my happiness on a particular thing I try to imagine what it will be like when I have it. How will I feel? And is there anything I can do to get more of that feeling now? Sometimes I think things like “if I had a partner, I would feel loved.” Certain kinds of indulgences make me feel loved, too (bubble baths, anyone?), and some of them are things I can provide for myself. People cheering when I do well also makes me feel loved, and I can make more of an effort to share my accomplishments with friends, or with my parents, who are uber-reliable cheerleaders for anything I am delighted about.

When I think of happy-when as a literal prescription, I feel stuck. Treating it as a clue or a treasure map pointing to the qualities I want to embody, though, feels helpful. How about you? What are you waiting on to be happy?