December 31, 2013

Declare Your Life

On Saturday, I shared Kwanzaa dinner with wonderful people. It was my first encounter with the seven principles of Kwanzaa. All are thought-provoking, but one (self-determination) struck me: define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves . The focus is internal. Speak, live, and create for yourself, not for external approval.

My friend Cyndi recently posed this question: How do you declare your life? How do you show up and announce your presence here, now? While enjoying the Kwanzaa meal, I understood one way in which I don't declare my life--when I focus on the expectations or approval of others. In those moments, no announcement (nor creativity nor realness) occurs. 

The declaration of life seems bold. Initially I thought of brave decisions (leaving academia) or public vulnerability (raw blog posts). But that's not how I announce myself. In fact, my claim on life is not bold or attention-grabbing. Yet it's absolutely real. (I answer Cyndi's question in the present moment. Forty-four years of life precedes this answer. And much of my growth came from self-determination.) 

How do I declare my life? By staying compassionately present with myself and others. By giving my full attention to people. By allowing for joys, sorrows, surprises, and truths. By listening to my own story and the stories of others. Open-hearted presence is how I announce myself. It's not sexy or popular, but it's me. It's how I declare my life.

The simplicity is striking: I announce my presence by staying present. When I'm mindful, I don't leave my body and emotions behind. I allow for my feelings, while listening to another. I stay with that person, whether their story is happy or terribly sad. Depending on the situation, I share tears, hugs, laughter, words, or silence. In doing so, I announce that I am worthy and you are worthy (all of me and all of you--even the dark places).

Some days I actively declare my life; other days I passively (and inattentively) watch life--or I search for the approval of others. But I notice the latter more quickly. And I spend many more days announcing my presence. It's the natural push and pull of life. It's how we learn, grow, and form new habits. On the cusp of a new year, I wish us all a deliberately and genuinely declared life.

(This is a collaborative effort with my friend Cyndi. You can read her wise words here. She is a gift to this world.)

December 17, 2013

The Gift of Listening

Think of a time when someone actively, openly listened to you. A time when you told your story unedited and felt heard. That's a powerful experience. Yet how often do we really listen to each other? The barriers to true listening are many: racing thoughts in our minds, our desire to help (read: control) another, and our self-judgment (how do I appear? what does this person think of me?). These barriers can be minor or all-consuming. Regardless, they separate us from the conversation. They separate us from each other.

In this gift-giving season, I challenge us all: give the gift of true listening. Listen to someone without offering unsolicited advice; listen to someone without judgment; listen to someone and really try to understand. Ask questions. Stay connected. Be present. 

Shiny objects steal our attention, especially at lively gatherings. But there's always space. Let's find an opening and listen to one person. Maybe someone with whom we have a difficult relationship. Or someone we've long put in a particular box. Or someone we know really well, yet want to understand in a deeper way. Or someone we know not at all. Maybe it's important to listen to ourselves--turn off the inner-critic and listen to our hearts. 

My intention is to listen more each day. To people. To nature. To myself. I know I'll forget. I know I'll be distracted. Yet active listening is a place I can return over and over again. It's a gift to another and it's a gift to myself.

December 16, 2013

Your Happiness Brings Me Joy

Mark once traveled to Key West for a sailboat regatta. He escaped during January--the coldest, grayest month. People asked me: "Isn't it frustrating he takes a trip to Florida, but you must stay here?" Just the opposite. When we talked on the phone, I asked for every detail--the weather, sunshine, racing, rum drinks, and fun. I felt vicarious joy from those conversations. His happiness filled my heart.

Sympathetic joy is open and expansive. Envy (or resentment) is closed and dark. I'm sometimes still drawn to the dark. Yet now I use envy as a wake-up call. If someone's good news triggers resentment in me, I examine that space: Am I pushing myself too hard? Am I working from the intention of my own heart? Or am I losing energy in comparing mind? What's the seed of my resentment? What needs attention in me right now?  

There's more than enough happiness to go around. It's not a limited quantity. We can rejoice in the abundance of others; we can bathe in their contentment. And we can still appreciate the good in our own lives. I think true happiness begets happiness (or at least openings of the heart). The moments when I resist are exactly when I most need the boost. Indeed, your happiness brings me great joy.

December 13, 2013

The Holiday Blur

Ten years ago my focus was solely external: Am I achieving enough? Do people really like me? What will others think of [fill in the blank]? The I'm-not-enough feeling heightened with holiday expectations. I bought presents for everyone, decorated the whole house, wrote cards, hosted parties, and filled my social calendar. I hoped these externals would generate comfort, but I always felt depleted (and a little cranky).

Now I carry a different holiday intention: how do I spend quality time with people I love and also attend to myself? The answer varies from year to year, but always involves mindful choice. This year there are no decorations and few cards; there are some dinners and parties. There's lots of love and creativity; there's presence.

December brings the shortest days. It's a natural time for hibernation. And an important time for self-care--even in the festive bustle. If we let choice slip away, the holidays become a blur of must-dos. If we live in choice, the holidays provide heartfelt connection. We can't do it all and still enjoy the moments. Doing it all is exhausting (and actually impossible). 

In this holiday season--in this life--what's most important to you? Identifying what's most important is a gift to ourselves. Choosing what's most important is a gift to ourselves.  And with these gifts we become more alive, open-hearted, and available to those we love. Life is no longer a blur, but a series of moments--both happy and sad, yet fully and purposefully lived.

December 5, 2013

In This Moment, I'm Okay

Daily I work with fear. It's a background hum in my body and thoughts. When I pause and explore this fear, it dissipates. When I ignore the fear, it builds. The stresses of daily life can trigger deep-seated habits in our brains. Although we're not in danger of lion attack, our minds and bodies react as if we are. And this heightened state (if prolonged) damages our health.

There are many practices that dampen this fight-flight-freeze reaction. (Rick Hanson's book Just One Thing presents a lovely list.)  One simple practice I find helpful:  pause and notice that in this particular moment, I am okay. I'm not in danger. There's no imminent threat. I am safe. This sounds obvious, but the gentle reminder is often what I need to come down a notch; to ease the anxiety.

In the words of Mark Nepo (The Book of Awakening), "when feeling urgent, slow down." Slow down, breathe, and notice you're okay in this moment. In fact, little is truly urgent (according to Nepo only when "there is some true physical requirement to act swiftly"). Yet busy schedules, external demands, and continuous communication generate a sense of urgency. It's empowering to realize that's an illusion. (Tasks might be important or timely, but there's always breathing room.) And this aha allows space to rest. To sit down, take three deep breaths, and really notice: in this moment, I am okay.

December 4, 2013

Be Vulnerable (Be Brave)

What does it mean to be brave? The Oxford Dictionary claims it's the readiness to face and endure danger or pain. Certain kinds of bravery are revered in our culture; others are overlooked. I think it's brave to be emotionally vulnerable--to face fear, hurt, shame, disappointment, and grief. To not only face these emotions, but to honor and tend to them.

Yet there are few models of brave vulnerability. Our cultural discourse leans toward judgment and certainty. In response, we create emotional armor. Armor that disconnects us from others. It disconnects us from ourselves. This protection might allow us to face pain, but it's not sustainable for enduring pain. It's not wholly brave.

Before we can be brave, we must understand vulnerability. We must explore our tender places and gradually expose them--in small and safe ways. I think it's brave to declare a dream, share a difficult piece of our story, and lead from our hearts. It's brave to be uncertain and try anyway, to express gratitude and love, and to make purposeful choices (perhaps different from those around us). I think vulnerability is a gift. And as I accept this gift, I become stronger, braver, and more alive.

It's not easy. And it's never complete. We can spend a lifetime noticing and embracing our vulnerabilities. We can spend a lifetime understanding what it means to be brave. A lifetime fully lived and experienced. Sounds like a worthwhile journey.