March 30, 2014

What Makes You Happy?

When we're really good at something--when our particular skill adds value--what happens? Often, we're asked to do more. We're identified with this talent. People speak highly of us and we're encouraged. Expectations emerge. Yet here's a question that's rarely posed: does this activity make you happy? Even when asked and answered, we often conflate external strokes with our actual enjoyment. The question is not, does it make you happy to make others happy? Or, do you want people to like you? We're humans and our nature is to seek outside approval. The real question is, does this area--in which you're greatly skilled--bring you contentment, on its own? Does it make your heart sing? Does it fill, not deplete?

I've always been good in math and statistics. But in hindsight, these areas did not bring me enjoyment. Skill does not equal happiness. I'm also a natural communicator and a gifted teacher. These areas do bring me joy. Stepping away from academia, I better saw my path: I was really good at all parts of my job, yet it didn't make me happy; it depleted me. Still, there was one piece that consistently fed my soul: connection with students. This I will carry to my next career.

Last night we attended a dance with both Irish and old-time callers. I flashed a genuine smile the entire time. I was happy--giddy, really. Yet I'm not particularly skilled. I understand rhythm and I move to the music, but I'm not technically talented. In this case, happiness does not equal skill. But I'll go to as many dances as I can. 

In our own lives and as friends to others, it's important to ask the question: what makes you happy, on its own? These are the areas to protect and cultivate. That's where we connect to our own unique and beautiful truth.

March 26, 2014

Slow Yet Lasting Change

As I walk around town, I see snowbanks gradually decrease. A slow melt is good for the earth. The moisture sinks in and nourishes. My new view of March: ample space for the earth to re-awaken. As much as I want the snow gone--now--I realize its slow disappearance is better.

This makes me think of change in general. We often want immediate results. We want our injuries to heal, our projects to finish, our relationships to grow, our joy to increase. And we want it now. In this way, we sabotage ourselves. If a new habit doesn't generate quick change, we often discard it. Or sometimes we don't even begin.

Think of a healthful change you've made in your life--change that's had lasting, positive impact. What was the timeline? And how did you treat yourself during the process?

When we seek change, we must be intentional and committed, yet also patient and kind. There are very few quick fixes, especially to life's difficult questions. All we can do is take the next skillful action (or non-action) in this moment. And when we forget--which we will--we focus on the next moment. Gradually, these moments collect. 

Where in your life do you need nourishment? What pieces of you want to re-awaken? Look inward, be intentional, do the practice, and be patient. Slow change is lasting change. And if you pay attention, it's a surprising and interesting ride. 

March 21, 2014

Greet Yourself With Elation

Recently, I read through my old journals. I saw the places where I felt stuck and where I gained insight. Life feels like a slow spiral. I revisit certain issues, yet with fresh eyes. A few years ago my inner-nurturer gained important ground. I found self-compassion, at first fleeting but then enduring. And this practice of self-compassion changed my life. I still spiral in and out, but I have a center that holds. I've returned to myself.

This journey is described beautifully by Derek Walcott in his poem "Love After Love" (from Sea Grapes, 1976):

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

How often do you look at yourself in the mirror and smile? How often do you feast on your life? It is possible to give back your heart to itself--to come home. I wish this for us all.

March 18, 2014

The Inner Nurturer

Last week, I read Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. He describes how to enrich and absorb positive experiences; how to take in the good. We humans are interesting. Our brains are wired with a negativity bias. For example, when you look back on your day, what do you remember? Typically the negative events stand out in our minds. We recall in great detail our mistakes, frustrations, and undone work. Yet we forget our successes, connections, and joys. We focus on the remaining to-do list rather than all the things we did. We worry about an awkward interaction with a coworker rather than savoring time with loved ones. 

The good news is that we can change our wiring. We can take in the good, regularly and in varied ways. I've been practicing for two weeks and I already see a difference. I'm more open and less resistant to life. I'm happier. When I feel fear, I notice--in an embodied way--that in this moment, I'm not in danger; I'm safe. When I make a meaningful connection, I savor the feeling. When I complete a task I've long put off, I do a happy dance. I celebrate the yays, however small. 

My inner-critic, though, doesn't want to be happy. That voice calls this new practice silly, soft, and naive. As explained by Hanson: "In some senses, the psyche can be divided into three parts: a core self, an inner nurturer, and an inner critic. The inner nurturer is caring, protective, guiding, and encouraging, while the inner critic is judging, belittling, doubting, fault-finding, and shaming. A little bit of the the inner critic is helpful, but during childhood and adulthood, many of us acquire a loud and scathing inner critic and a relatively quiet and feeble inner nurturer. The core self can feel beleaguered, getting yelled at by a big inner critic while the inner nurturer murmurs kindly but helplessly in the corner. We all need a strong inner nurturer both to keep the inner critic in check and to give us the support life demands." 

I say YES to the inner-nurturer. An inner-nurturer who stands strong against the critic; who doesn't murmur but sings. The inner-nurturer pushes us forward yet provides a soft space to land. The inner-critic is never happy. I want my inner-nurturer to hold more space in my psyche. I want this for everyone. We can take in the good--let it sink into our bones; let it nourish us. We can allow ourselves to be happy.