December 28, 2017

Forgiving Ourselves

Recently, I perused old journals. It was painful to read the vicious words I wrote about myself. Pages and pages of self-judgment (at times, self-hatred) followed by pages of halfhearted self-encouragement, all of this on a repetitive loop. I longed for something different yet wasn't sure how to proceed. In the 20 years since those journal entries, I became unstuck, moving from self-hatred to self-compassion. This process was (and is) complex, effortful, and individual. There's no magic potion that heals our wounds, but I've noticed patterns, essential ingredients in moving forward:

1. Start with self-kindness.
In my 20s, during the heavy self-hatred days, I felt far removed from self-love or self-compassion. They were ridiculous to consider. I read books about loving myself yet never believed it was possible. And this blocked my growth. For most of us, it's hard to make huge internal leaps, but we can take small, ordinary steps. Kindness is accessible. We offer kindness to strangers as well as friends. It's a place to begin with ourselves: How can I be kind to myself in moments of pain? How can I be kind to myself when life is difficult or when I make a mistake? Basic kindness is the starting place.

2. Make well-being a priority.
People ask me, "How did you become so wholehearted, brave, and intentional?" The short answer is this: I committed to myself and my well-being. I just kept showing up as-is (messy, crabby, peaceful, anxious, or happy) and practiced mindfulness in a variety of ways. Instead of looking outward, I began to look inward. Before I could prioritize well-being, I had to understand it: What activities (and people) nourish me and what activities (and people) deplete me? The things that nourish memeditation, nature, intimate gatherings, photography, gardening, and yogamay not nourish you. These are individual choices.

Consider the important elements of your own well-being. Make these a priority. There are copious distractions in this world and it takes effort to sustain well-beingPeople often respond "but there's not enough time!" Indeed, life is full, but if there's time to check a smartphone, "like" things on Facebook, or unnecessarily overwork, then there's time for well-being. Choose with intention.

3. Continue for life.
This is not a one-shot deal, it's a life-long practice. I still experience fear and self-judgment, often daily. I resist uncomfortable circumstances. I get crabby. But I notice these unhelpful habits and redirect my energy. I smile at myself more easily. I practice self-compassion. There's never a time where everything is wrapped up: all neuroses gone, bliss every day. A vital part of mindfulness (of life!) is remembering we can begin again in any moment. We can begin again with self-kindness and prioritize well-being. We can forgive ourselves and trust thatin this momentwe're okay. 

If we accept ourselves as-is, we can finally make the changes we seek. Here's a meditation to get you started:

Forgiving Ourselves

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A Month of Mindful Healing

My e-course, A Month of Mindful Healing, comes straight from my tender, brave, vulnerable heart. Throughout the course, I share personal stories of loss, hurt, shame, growth, happiness, and healing. I've lived and tested all the practices (meditations + writing + daily awareness exercises). If you choose to join me, here's a weekly outline of our journey:

WEEK 1: Healing What's on the Surface
~Small, doable mindfulness exercises 
~Guided meditation on opening to vulnerability
~Writing prompts on vulnerability, feelings, and unmet needs
~Awareness practices to create more nourishment in daily life
~Daily inspirations + meditations + writing prompts

WEEK 2: Healing What's Under the Surface
~Short, encouraging video
~Investigation (meditation + writing) of internal beliefs and letting go of limitations
~Description and guided application of self-compassion
~Awareness practices to create more freedom and choice in daily life
~Daily inspirations + meditations + writing prompts

WEEK 3: Healing What's Around Us
~Guided reflection + writing prompts to discover core values and what matters most
~Four-step process to get unstuck and move forward with intention (includes guided meditation)
~Guidance on healing and changing relationships
~Awareness practices to create more intention in daily life
~Daily inspirations + meditations + writing prompts

WEEK 4: Healing Our Hearts
~Guided meditation on opening the heart
~Writing prompts on joy, happiness, and creativity
~Description and guided application of loving-kindness
~Awareness practices to create more play and happiness in daily life
~Daily inspirations + meditations + writing prompts

EPILOGUE: Meet Yourself Where You Are
~Guided reflection + writing prompts on change, growth, and healing
~Suggestions for moving forward
~Short, encouraging video (includes a loving-kindness chant)
~Additional daily awareness practices
~Short meditation on beginning again

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December 13, 2017

Chant of Good Will

I first heard the "Chant of Good Will" at a meditation retreat. Each night, a hundred of us chanted the loving-kindness phrases. The simplicity and repetition of these words allowed me to quickly take them into my heart. The practice came home with me. I sing the chant while driving, doing household chores, or setting up chairs for meditation class. And if I'm feeling frustrated or judgmental, I chant. It brings me back to love and intention.

There's a lot of noise in our world: righteousness and self-promotion; angry chants at peace rallies; loud music filled with empty words. The good-will chant provides a different avenue. It expresses wishes of loving-kindness, peace, and happiness for ourselves and others. Not as a way to ignore what's difficult, but as a way to wholeheartedly live in this complex world.

One of my meditation students asked me to record this chant, so she could know it in her bones. My initial reaction was fear: I don't have a nice singing voice; I can't stay on pitch. But my final response was "yes, I'll record it." The process itself a practice in humility and loving-kindness. Imagine if this chantimperfect and wholeheartedwere sung by 1000s of people. It begins with just one of us. Play my recording and sing along. Let it be messy, real, and from your heart.

May I be filled with loving-kindness, 
May I be well. 
May I be peaceful and at ease, 
May I be happy.

May you be filled with loving-kindness, 
May you be well. 
May you be peaceful and at ease, 
May you be happy.

May we be filled with loving-kindness, 
May we be well. 
May we be peaceful and at ease, 
May we be happy.

The Chant of Good Will:

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December 7, 2017

The 3-Breath Pause

It's an interesting human habit: when we most need a pause—a little room to breathe—we're hesitant to take it; we keep pushing forward in a haze of busyness and distraction. A cycle that's magnified during the holidays, as we're encouraged to celebrate, spend, and consume. Yet what we really crave is space, ease, and connection.

If you're reading this post, some part of you already knows what you need. This is our deeper awareness calling us back. When I'm lost in busyness, moving too quickly, there's a voice inside me (kinder and gentler than my pushy inner-critic) that says, "Slow down. Take a few breaths. Open to possibility." 

I've learned two things about the pause:
1. "Not enough time" is the voice of fear. There's time for a 3-breath pause. 
2. Even if it feels edgy and uncomfortable, a pause resets our system. The pause works.

One of my mindfulness students confessed, "Joy, when you first talked about a 3-breath pause, I thought the '3' was arbitrary and the idea too simple. But then I started taking these 3-breath pauses and they work. I feel better." In awareness practice, it's not the amount of time that matters most, it's the regularity. Taking breaks throughout the day. Pausing to notice all aspects of our life, in small, ordinary ways. These make a difference. Little bit by little bit we cultivate more mindfulness, compassion, and ease. And we live life more true to ourselves.

There's time for a short pause: Take three intentional, embodied breaths. Or stay longer and listen to this short meditation:

Short Pause: Rest and Reset

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November 21, 2017

This Precious Life

[This is part of my Truth Tuesday series, which you can find each week on Facebook.]

An outline of my Mondays in prison: three 30-minute visits (“pastorals”) with individuals, lunch break, 90-minute meditation group, then drive from Oshkosh to Fond du lac for three pastorals at a different correctional facility. It’s a long, meaningful day.

Yesterday after group session, R looked me in the eyes and said, “Joy, you seemed sad today. Is everything okay?” I smiled with gratitude about his care and concern, but assured him I was fine. When I got in the car at day’s end, I cried and cried. R's intuition was correct: sadness. I’m sad for T, who expressed he has no safe space in prison to really feel what he feels—to feel the vulnerability of being abused and being an abuser; to feel helpless yet responsible for changing the horrible language heard among other inmates about women and sexual acts.

I’m sad B has been told his entire life that he’s worthless and never good enough, so that he still questions himself and his beautiful meditation practice. I’m sad that S hasn’t heard anything from her daughter, even though she sent stamped, self-addressed envelopes. And I’m sad that M now mistrusts her beloved brother because he hasn’t sent money (her money) while she’s locked up.

As I sobbed in the parking lot, I realized how much easier it would be to ignore these stories. If I stopped volunteering in prison, I wouldn’t have to face this much suffering and sadness. But those initial thoughts quickly passed, because these aren’t only prison stories—they’re human stories. Life is filled with sadness and pain, just as it’s filled with love and ease. I don’t want to separate myself from life or from others. Instead of “us” and “them,” I believe in “we”: our shared humanity.

I’m inspired that D sees his time in prison as a chance to become more awake, compassionate, and calm. He hopes to counsel recovering addicts when he’s released. I’m touched by heartfelt support I received in my prison meditation group while grieving the loss of a close friend. I’m stunned by the beauty and wisdom L conveys through his poetry.

Life isn’t just one way. It’s many things all at once. Yesterday, I was both sad and grateful, honored to bear witness to inmates. Tomorrow, I travel to Iowa, celebrating Thanksgiving with family and friends. These are not separate events. They’re each part of our diverse, complicated, and beautiful soup of humanity.

May we all bring presence and compassion to more moments.  
May we actively practice peace, patience, and love.
May we all be grateful for small, ordinary things.
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November 15, 2017

Investigating our Beliefs

As young children, we inhabit our bodies and breathe naturally. We’re open, present, curious, and real. Slowly and steadily, we receive messages that we should be better or different, conditions on our acceptance, so we stop being real and begin to protect our hearts. Most of us experience hurt, loss, or trauma, and to cope with these unpredictable circumstances, we unconsciously build more layers of armor. We find strategies that help us survive. These strategies work for a while, but they’re not true medicine. To heal, we must—in small, safe ways—remove the layers and investigate what’s underneath. With awareness, we investigate thoughts, beliefs, and judgments that protect our hearts and limit our choices. With compassion, we heal our soft, tender places—the places underneath—and we become more alive, real, and whole. Eventually, we return to the presence, wonder, and curiosity of childhood. We trust, again, in our innate goodness: we are lovable because we exist—no extra conditions.

Some of our most-believed thoughts aren't actually true. They're old tapes playing in our heads. We get used to these tapes. The message might even go unnoticed, but it stays in our psyche. We can't heal if we continue to harm ourselves with untrue, unkind words.

I have many ongoing open wounds. One is an old (untrue) shame story: I’m unlovable and not enough. Another is an old (untrue) control story: I’m responsible for the world. My relationship to these stories has changed. For years, I unconsciously lived through these tainted filters. Then I spent years healing with writing, therapy, meditation, awareness, and self-compassion. I allowed (and still allow) myself to feel what I feel. Now I see limiting beliefs sooner. If I recognize them soon enough, I don’t listen to the voices. If they slip past me, I correct my course more quickly. This takes presence, compassion, and patience.

Interestingly, we can witness our self-judgment and then judge ourselves for judging, which causes more suffering. We heal by investigating beliefs from a larger, kinder awareness. Noticing our inner speech, asking if it's true, and letting go—little bit by little bit—of limiting beliefs while opening to possibility.

It's helpful to have gentle guidance in this process. Here's a short meditation:

Investigating our Beliefs
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November 3, 2017

Embodied Awareness

We spend most of the day in our minds: thinking, analyzing, judging, remembering, planning. Thinking is helpful. Our human brains can solve complicated problems in creative ways. Thinking holds an important place in our lives. Yet most of our lost-in-thought time is not spent with creative problem solving. It's spent in the past or the future, ruminating or worrying, daydreaming or over-planning. This kind of thinking exhausts us. And it removes us from our bodies—bodies that are rich in wisdom and insight. As John O'Donohue wrote, "Our bodies know they belong; it is our minds that make our lives so homeless."

As you read this post, notice your body. We often hold tension in our shoulders, jaw, neck, and belly. Be aware of your body and send internal messages of release, melt, and soften. Allow yourself a long exhalation. 

The body-scan technique is used to reconnect with our bodies—to see where we readily feel sensation and where we feel numbness or judgment. It's a chance to relax—the practice is done lying down—while also being awake. Our bodies are wise. They can provide insight and deeper awareness. We only need to look inward, let the thinking-mind rest, and re-engage our alive, beautiful, wise bodies.

Perhaps not in this moment, but sometime soon come back here, create comfortable lying-down conditions, and listen to this guided meditation:

Body Scan --
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October 24, 2017

Look for the Good

A quick glance at the news tells us what’s wrong with the world: political wars, violent acts, and natural disasters. These are not to be ignored. We live in a complicated world and to make a difference we must face hard truths. But if we focus solely on what's wrong, we become scared, frustrated, and hopeless.

There’s a negativity bias in our brains. We come by this honestly, through evolution. Negative news, which seems to “sell”, feeds directly into fearful, primal parts of our brain. Yet our more evolved brain allows for awareness, discernment, focus, and compassion. And it's important to recognize: where we regularly rest our attention becomes the habit of our mind. Our thoughts reinforce fear or love, greed or generosity, anger or peace.

We can choose to rest in love, generosity, and peace. Not as a way to ignore injustice in the world, but as a way to more skillfully act and contently live. When we look for the good and stay for 3 breaths, embodied, we build new awareness, and we begin to see more good. This brings more ease to daily life and provides renewed hope in the world.

Looking for the good can occur in small, ordinary ways: notice when someone smiles, pause after completing an important task, watch a sunset, accept a compliment, look for kind acts, or feel the sun's warmth on your face. It's okay to pause and take in the good. It's okay to slow down and enjoy life. You can begin right now with this short meditation:

Short Gratitude Pause

October 13, 2017

How Are You?

Within my mindfulness courses, I repeat many mantras. One of these: "It's okay to not be okay." We practice staying with what's difficult, becoming intimate with not-okayness, and applying self-compassion. It's okay to not be okay and it's okay to be happy. Most important for us is to feel what we feel. Open to our inner-experience with kindness and grace.

Many people have inquired, "Joy, I understand it's okay to not be okay, but what should I do when someone asks 'how are you?' I don't want to pretend I'm okay if I'm not, but I also know this person doesn't want a complicated answer. How do I respond in a genuine way?"

I think we can all relate to this question. As we live life more true, it no longer feels comfortable to say "I'm great!" when our internal weather is much more complicated. The day after my mom's funeral, I participated in a CROP walk that ended in the very church basement where we ate lunch after mom's service. I felt raw and vulnerable, like my insides were on my outside. Someone I knowwho attended mom's funeral—asked in an everyday way, "Hi, Joy. How are you?" Wide-eyed and stunned, I had no response. Yet in that moment I realized "How are you?" really meant "Hiya!" or "It's good to see you" or "I care about you." It's not really a question. It's become a generic greeting; an unconscious reaction.

Once I recognized this cultural habit, I began a new practice. When someone greets me with, "Hi. How are you?" I rarely answer the question (unless it comes from a friend who genuinely wants to know). Instead, I reply, "It's good to see you." On a quick pass-by, that's enough. If we linger, I might ask a question or wish the person well. No one notices when I don't answer the "how are you?" query, which gives me further evidence it's not really a question but a statement, a greeting.

I'm not sure this is the best way to handle "how are you?" but it feels true to me. I genuinely do wish people well, even if I feel crappy. So, "I hope you enjoy the day" or "It's good to see you" are truthful. And if someone doggedly asked again, "How are you?" I'd answer in a real way (though this has never happened).

I'm also more aware of my own greeting style, trying to be honest, open, and kind. If I find myself blindly asking "how are you?" or responding "fine" on autopilot, it's a chance to pause and begin again. To look someone in the eyes and say a genuine "hello" or "I wish you well." I see you and I care. At a basic level, this is enough.

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October 9, 2017

Navigating Life and Web

I started this blog years ago, while I was a statistics professor. Something deep inside me longed to share in a different way. My posts began as explorations of teaching. Gradually, they morphed into discussions of authenticity, vulnerability, and wholeness: bringing heartfulness into the heady world of academia. Perhaps some of you followed me back then as "Joy of Statistics." When I switched careers, my focus changed to mindfulness, compassion, and being with everythingthe joyous and the difficult. "Born Joy: Mindfulness" was launched. Yet at its core, this blog stays the same: writing from my heart, sharing insights and struggles, hoping to connect with anyone interested.

For you long-time blog readers, I want to provide an update. I've added pages to this blog. Everyone in marketing tells me: "You MUST have a website." Because I feel comfortable here, with the style and feeling of my blog, I decided to create a website(ish) within this space. 

My business URL,, now points to my Welcome Page. Please visit if you're curious about all my offerings. In particular, you might be interested in bonus pages I created (freebies with heart): Self-Care Page, Gentle Reminders, and Guided Meditations.

I'd love to hear from you. What do you think of this space? Does it feel inviting? Is information easily accessible? Is there something additional you seek? I welcome all feedback, as well as ideas for new posts and meditations. You, my dear blog readers, are the heart of my business and my practice. Thanks for being here and thanks for being you.

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September 28, 2017

Look Inside: A Month of Mindful Healing

In the last two years, I've grieved and healed. Not just for the losses of people I love, but from long-ago wounds and limiting beliefs. In the process of sharing my stories, I realize that everyone is healing. And we all seek refuge in presence and realnessour vulnerability connects us. 

I created a new e-course, A Month of Mindful Healing, based on the awareness practices that help me grow, heal, and change. The complete course is contained within a 70-page multimedia document: written teachings, guided meditations, writing prompts, videos, reflections, mini-assignments, and photographs. Here are two sample pages from the class:

Open your heart to who you are.

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September 22, 2017

Noticing What's Underneath

This afternoon, I had a routine conversation with a potential client. I prepared my notes and readied to call, knowing I'd done this many times before. Still, I felt fear and doubt. My relationship with fear and doubt is long-term and sometimes unpredictable. I took a few deep breaths and made the call, recognizing fear but not letting it control my listening or speaking, nor my ability to stay present. The call went well: kindred spirits talking and details decided. A new opportunity to practice and teach mindfulness.

Just now, as I sliced tomatoes and peppers, I had an insight: my fear was not about the phone call; it reflected my circumstances two years ago on this day. September 23 is when my dad, sisters, and I made decisions about mom's end-of-life care. We had to decide, without consulting her, whether to extend her life via medical machines or to allow her to die. The news stunned us in its suddenness yet we all agreed, through tender, broken hearts, to let her go. We held a compassionate vigil, working closely with hospice nurses to ensure she didn't suffer. It was both deeply painful and vitally important.

This—much bigger and heartbreaking—decision is where my fear and doubt arose. The phone call was just a phone call. When I'm open and aware, I notice my internal weather. If a storm brews over a routine action, I need to look closer. On this particular day, I needed to cry and grieve. To put my hand on my heart, and bear witness to my pain. To remind myself that we made the best decision we could under terrible circumstances. I have no regrets about those last hours with mom, yet fear and doubt arose because that's what emotions do. Underneath is sadness. And deeper underneath is trust in my capacity to stay with everything.

I don't know why this anniversary resonated so deeply with me. Grief is unpredictable, just as life is unpredictable. I wonder: who else is walking around today—or any day—with a tender, vulnerable heart? This helps widen my circle of compassion, for myself and others. Life is difficult, wondrous, heartbreaking, and beautiful. How do we stay wholehearted and awake? I think we do it together, as community. Sharing what's real and true, and listening with kindness; hitting the pause button and connecting with each other; bearing collective witness to joy and sorrow and everything in between.
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September 11, 2017

Open to Possibility

The past few weeks, I've been focused and productive: revamping my website, finishing a new e-course, and teaching mindfulness workshops. Amid abundant yet busy days, I recognize my need to pause; to take a break; to gain a fresh perspective. When I don't pause—when I try to push through and work harder—my creativity wilts, my writing weakens, and my ideas stall. 

As always, the trick is to remember to remember. To prioritize short pauses: a walk around the block, a 5-minute meditation, or a heartfelt connection with another person. These ordinary actions widen my view. Instead of seeing deadlines and limits, I see possibility. I better understand when it's time to stop and when it's time to keep working. It's my own awareness calling me back: slow down and pay attention. What's the next most skillful step?

External sources rarely tell us to rest, pause, and slow down. We must do this for ourselves. It's beneficial to our health and well-being and, as importantly, it sparks creativity, compassion, and insight. We can practice together, in this very moment (our chance to remember to remember):

Open to Possibility
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September 10, 2017

Unique Expression

Some wise words from Martha Graham: "There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it."

There are many ways we block our unique expressions; ways we hide our own light. It's easy to list our faults, but difficult to see our beauty. Yet if we allow for our own goodness—if we see it, embrace it, love it—it touches everyone around us; it touches the world. When our unique expressions live and dance together, the world is bigger, brighter, and more beautiful.

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September 8, 2017

Pause and Look Inward

My friend Miriam just called. During our conversation, she asked about my day. I replied, "Lot of doings. But some days the doings just have to get done." She laughed at this, knowingly, then confessed she was grocery shopping with her one free hour of time. Though we try to cultivate our being-ness, we must finish work, run errands, and attend to others.

Much of our day is focused on externals, and it's easy to lose track of what's going on inside us. If we ignore emotions as they arise, they squeeze out in unskillful ways. At the end of a long day, I can be angry with Mark, though my frustration lies elsewherewith uncooperative technology, my own high standards, or lingering grief. If I attend inward, then I'm aware of my emotionsnot misplacing them on others. And I'm aware of my body, recognizing the need to shift positions, stretch, and move. 

Life is busy. Interruptions happen regularly. Still, it's possible to pausefor 3 breathsand check in with ourselves: notice the state of our thoughts, emotions, body, and breath. The more we practice, the more quickly we notice. Choices present themselves in the pauses. Even when life is busy, we can find a little more ease. And on those days when we think, "I can't possibly pause or attend inward," that's when we most need the practice. Give it a try now (if not now, when?):

Brief Check-In With Yourself
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August 30, 2017

Practicing Peace

I'm a pacifist with a big heart. I want peace for our communities, our country, and the world. Many of us seek more peace in life, yet peace doesn't arrive without effort. It's unrealistic to think peace will magically appear. As individuals and communities, we can actively practice peace.

This has been on my mind and in my heart. There's a note displayed in my office: "In this moment, how am I practicing peace?" It's perhaps easier to describe the ways I practice war: tightening muscles, trying to control life, judging myself and others, wanting things to be different from how they are, allowing frustration and anger to build, pushing myself too hard. All of this is resistancebeing at war not peace with life. If I let resistance run the show, then my interactions with others suffer. Peace begins within.

So, in this moment as I write, how am I practicing peace? I notice my body posture and soften my jaw and shoulders. I let go of my sense of urgency, taking pauses when needed. I feel my breath, listen to the wind, and watch the squirrels, even as they dig in my new flower bed. Letting go, opening my heart and mind. That 1-minute practice helped. These steps needn't be grand, but they do need to happen. Small, regular doses of awareness.

I cultivate peace when I sit in meditation, walk in nature, or hug a loved one. I practice peace when I pausemaking space for a considered response rather than a habituated reaction. I practice peace when I forgive myself (for all the ways I forget and distract) and then choose to begin again.

Resistance is exhausting. We might not love our current situation, but we can stop resisting, little bit by little bit. Soften our muscles, release expectations, and open our hearts. With honest and gentle effort, we can cultivate peace within ourselves. And it's from this place that we better serve the world. 

PS: We often think there's not enough time. "I don't have time to listen to a 9-minute meditation. I have important work to do!" These thoughts are forms of resistance. It can be a great relief to practice peace, even now amid the busyness:

Practicing Peace
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August 25, 2017

Connect, Listen, and Be Kind

In 2008, I was still (happily) a statistics professor at Lawrence University. During commencement weekend, I gave the baccalaureate address. Just recently, I found my speech, which was never shared on my blog. In general, these words still ring true. So, here's a blast from the past, a view from 10 years ago...

Perhaps some of you have heard of the “six-word memoir” started by SMITH Magazine. SMITH is an online magazine that celebrates storytelling. In 2006, the editors challenged their readers to write six-word memoirs—a short six words to summarize a life. The response was overwhelmingly positive and sometimes deeply personal.  The magazine published a book that includes hundreds of these memoirs. 

Some of the memoirs are humorous, for example: “One tooth, one cavity, life’s cruel.” “The psychic said I’d be richer.” “Where the hell are my keys?” “College was fun. Damn student loans.”  

Others of the memoirs describe life’s difficulties: “Learning disability, MIT. Never give up.” “Hard to write poems from prison.” “Widowed. Forging reluctantly forward with faith.” “Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends.”

This second set of memoirs addresses topics we all encounter but often don’t discuss—difficulty, death, heartbreak, disease, struggle, depression. In not having the discussion, we isolate ourselves during a time when we might desperately need connection. Life is difficult for everyone. If we struggle, it doesn’t mean we personally did something wrong—it just means we’re living life. And it’s through these difficulties that we grow stronger as a people.

In his translated Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes about the transformative, not necessarily negative, effect of sadness: “You have had many sadnesses, large ones, which passed. And you say that even this passing was difficult and upsetting for you. But please, ask yourself whether these large sadnesses haven’t rather gone right through you. Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad.” 

I encourage each of you, within your own comfort zone, to talk about the difficulties and the struggles. To know you aren’t alone. To not compare your difficulties with others. Difficulty is difficulty, and pain is pain. Sylvia Boorstein, a Buddhist teacher and author, talks of an inscription she encountered while on retreat. The words are simple, yet meaningful: “Life is so difficult. How can we be anything but kind?” Let me repeat that: “Life is so difficult. How can we be anything but kind?” Kind to others and kind to ourselves. Just a slight softening during a difficult time. Softening of words, responses, and actions at a time when hardening is often the status quo. This is not to say we should naively ignore inappropriate or damaging behavior by people (ourselves included). But it does say that as a general rule, kindness is helpful. And connection is helpful. Let's have those difficult conversations—both as a sharers and as a listeners.

Some of the other six-word memoirs are about mistakes made and experience gained: “Afraid of everything. Did it anyway.” “Most costly mistakes, learned valuable lessons.” “Happy now that I know myself.” “Learned. Forgot. Better off relearning anyway.”

Another reality of life is that failure, although sobering, is vitally important. Without taking risks, without making mistakes, without occasionally failing, we don’t push our boundaries and gain valuable insight. I know graduation is a time when we celebrate and honor people’s accomplishments, and this is important. But as you think back over your college career, weren’t there failures and mistakes made, and didn’t these make the accomplishments possible and the appreciation of the accomplishments more rich?

As with other difficult things in life, we don’t often talk about failures—we tend to shove them away, perhaps only discussing them years afterward. Yet there's richness in mistakes that can be mined for helpful insights—insights into ourselves, others, and the world. There’s a fine line, though, between learning from our mistakes and wallowing in the negativity of failure. Kindness is again the key. Can we effectively analyze our mistakes through a lens of kindness? Instead of, “Well, I screwed up again,” can we pause and gently ask, “What can I learn from this process?” Additionally, this understanding and non-judgment can be extended to others. We can give others the space to fail and grow and change. What a wonderful gift to give and receive.

Woody Allen once said, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” Personally and at a societal level, we need innovation and we’re strengthened by creativity. This kind of creativity does not come from a perfect track record. Expect failures, know everyone fails, listen for the lesson or insight, be kind, and move on.

Happiness, passion, and creativity are the themes of others of the six-word memoirs: “I colored outside of the lines.” “Seventy years, few tears, hairy ears.” “Laughing until I pee my pants.” “Found great happiness in insignificant details.” “I live the perfect imperfect life.”

I encourage us all to do what we love. Spend time doing things we’re passionate about—that get our creative juices flowing. A lovely effect of human variability is that happiness and passion come in very different forms for different people. I get really excited talking with students about statistics. [This was back in 2008. Now I find contentment teaching meditation.] Others of you love playing music or making art or being with children or programming computers or reading literature or gardening. These loves might translate into a paying job or they might simply stay as cherished ways to spend free time. 

In his book Earth in Mind, David Orr writes: “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.” 

The society in which we live typically defines success by traditional achievements and accomplishments—your grades in school, your advanced degrees, the amount of hours you work, the amount of money you make, your career advancement. Certainly, these are indications of hard and often good work, but they aren’t the only definitions of success. Advances in technology allow us to multitask and be in constant contact with others—checking things off our to-do lists and putting more items on the list. At a time when we're connected to the world through email, cell phones, text messaging, etc., we are often disconnected from ourselves—from our creative thoughts and deep emotions. 

It’s important for us all to reconnect with our hearts—how do we want to spend our precious time? Not because we have to or we should or we’re expected to, but because of a strong creative craving from inside us. Sometimes we’re so busy that we don’t even know what we truly want. So we must make some space, some quiet to reconnect and listen to ourselves. This can be difficult in our current society, but it's not impossible. And the more we pause and think and listen and be, the healthier we and our society become.

I challenge us all to redefine what is meant by success. Not to exclude traditional ideas of success, but to add to the definition. Let it also include pursuing our dreams, doing what we love, making and learning from mistakes, talking about difficult experiences, connecting with others, being kind, and really, truly listening. In the words of David Orr, be a storyteller or a healer or a peacemaker. Connect with and support your own inner longing, while also creating space for others to do the same.

So what do you think your six-word memoir is? And is it perhaps different from four years ago? Will it again be different in four more years? We all change—from year to year, and sometimes from moment to moment. I think we should embrace and celebrate these changes (what wonderful evidence of the life process). 

As I wrote this speech, I thought about and created my own six-word memoirs from various stages of my life. For example, “Love koala bears and Andy Gibb.” (In middle school, the number of koala bear stuffed animals I owned was outnumbered only by the number of Andy Gibb posters on my wall. You students probably don’t know of Andy Gibb, but I can tell you he was a dreamy teen idol who wrote wonderfully cheesy pop singles—“shadow dancing, baby you do it right.”)

A six-word memoir for me in college is “Deeply love volleyball, hate intense pressure.” (I went to Indiana on a full volleyball scholarship. My love of the game was challenged by the intense pressures of winning in the Big Ten. I learned a lot from this experience, and I treasure those memories, but it was difficult at times. Difficult, gratifying. and important.)

My early graduate school experience can be described with the memoir, “Very smart people, do I belong?” (Like most graduate students, I'd done very well in college. In graduate school, though, I felt merely average, surrounded by brilliant people. This was humbling for me, but gradually blossomed into an experience in which I learned about myself and my particular strengths. I found successes in applied coursework, creative solutions, and inspired teaching.)

There are many ways I can currently describe my life. One possible six-word memoir is “Most important thing in life? People.” (My relationships with my husband, my family, my friends, my students—these all easily trump the busyness of daily life. The people are why I love my job. You students are a pleasure to work with in so many ways. And my colleagues are equally engaged, generous, and committed. People, relationships, and connections are what I find most valuable—and this includes my relationship with myself.)

This celebratory weekend is a good time to talk with your friends and family about their six-word memoirs—about their experiences, failures, difficulties, and successes. It’s also a time for personal reflection—how have you changed and grown and what is your current six-word memoir? This is a time to share, listen, laugh, and cry. To be fully present for each of these precious moments. 

And, as you proceed with your next steps after Lawrence, I encourage you to 
Stay connected with yourself and others. 
Have difficult conversations. 
Have joyful conversations. 
Pause regularly. 
Listen intently—to yourself and others. 
Take risks. 
Do what you love. 
And be kind.

[Joy's note: Ten years later, relationships are still the most important thing in my life. Some new six-word memoirs for 2017: "Left academia. Found a different calling." "Be brave. Live wholeheartedly. Love well." "Feeling cranky? Get off the computer." "Tell people why you love them." "Sit on the cushion. Find peace."]
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