Thursday, March 31, 2011

Finding Our Inspiration

When you're desperate, things are difficult. You don't know what to do. You struggle. You're afraid.

When you're inspired, things are easy. Life flows. You may not even know why you're doing something, but it comes with a sense of purpose and with almost no effort. Task seem to perform themselves and you just go for the ride.

Of course, most of our lives fall somewhere between desperation and inspiration. Most of the time we do things because we think we should. Because something is on our list or someone else's. Because our left brain tells us to. But we all know that's not a recipe for happiness.

The key question is how do we spend more time in a state of inspiration, where we're creating what we want to for the sheer joy it brings?

Here's a few things that I've found can be helpful:

1. Be present. You don't have to join an ashram. But you should spend a little bit of time activating the right hemisphere of the brain (the part of you that's already happy), and there are lots of good ways to do that, including meditation, yoga, martial arts, aerobic exercise (even walking), art, music, time in nature, or time with animals or children. Regular time here helps to destress and add some space to your life.

2. Cut caffeine and sugar. Caffeine triggers our adrenaline and cortisol, which means artificially induced fear and stress.  Sugar does the same thing, though to a lesser extent. It's difficult to feel inspired when we're stressed out.

3. Notice when you're afraid. When we're afraid, it generally means our amygdala has kicked in. We go on autopilot, and we try to escape or protect ourselves. Our view of the world gets much narrower, basically coming down to that which is threatening us and that which we see as the quickest escape route. Again, not very inspiring. Just taking one or two breaths, and focusing on the sensations of our bodies (rather than the panicked messages our brains are sending us) can make a huge difference.

4. Covet the quiet. We all have that still small voice. Give it as many opportunities to talk to you as possible.

Most of us spend way to much time running around trying to get all the things done that others have told us will make us happy. We rarely pay attention to the things that we want to do, and when we do, sometimes they only make us more afraid. Starting to engage in these practices won't change your world overnight. But over time, you'll find that you're more in touch with what inspires you, that it will spontaneously begin to emerge from you. You'll find more ways, and more time, to share your inspiration with the world. And that, I believe, is what we're here to do.


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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Losing Control

It can be overwhelming, sometimes, when we feel like we don't have control.

I think we've all had that feeling, when we did everything we could and still lost. We didn't get the girl or guy, we didn't get the promotion or the job or the business. And we beat ourselves up, looking for things that we could have done differently, or blaming ourselves for taking on the challenge in the first place.

It can be useful to take a few moments to see if those thoughts are true.

If it truly was outside our control, we're suffering unnecessarily when we think things should have been different. (Truth is, even if it was in our control, it's done now, right?)

Sadness happens. Regret happens. Anger happens. And rather than think that things should have happened differently, or that we should be feeling different now, it's generally best just to let ourselves feel whatever we're feeling.

Let those feelings come. Grieve if that's what is called for. If you're honest with yourself, if you just allow those feelings to come, you'll also allow those feelings to pass. Without clinging, without resistance.

And just like a thunderstorm. it's over, and the sun comes out again.


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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Happy Perfectionist

Most of us think of perfectionism as a bad thing. But research shows that there are actually at least two distinct kinds of perfectionism--adaptive (good) and maladaptive (bad).

The bad kind is when we strive for external approval. When we do that, we get caught up in being good. We get paralyzed by fearing the judgment of others. And we stress out about it, big time.

The good kind, though, is internally driven. It's about the creative process itself, about organization, about motivating ourselves and others. We set high standards because it brings us joy to write or speak or manage as well as we can. We see the process of mastery never ends and enjoy learning for it's own sake.

Bad perfectionists tend to be difficult and miserable. Good perfectionists get themselves and their teams caught up in the flow of their own efforts. They work to as high a standard as possible, and then let go.

And they're actually happier as a result.


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Monday, March 28, 2011

Three Things You Can Stop Doing Now

If you want to free up some time (and don't we all?), you need to do less. Here are three things that you can do less of this week. Try it and see how much more time you have if you do even a little bit less of the following--

1. Beating yourself up. Stop being so hard on yourself. Accept where you are, what you get done, and what you don't. If you're not ready to do something, it may be for a good reason. See where that goes. And yes, not beating yourself up includes not beating yourself up for not being able to stop beating yourself up!

2. Trying to change things. There are a lot of things that are outside of your control. So it is a complete waste of physical and mental energy to try to change them or even to think they should be different. These things are the way the are. There. Isn't that a lot easier?

3. Worrying about the future. Here's a handy rule--ask if you can do something about this right now. If the answer is yes, then do that. If the answer is no, put it aside (you can write it down, put it in a file, put a reminder on your calendar). Come back to it when you can actually address it. No need to worry about it before then.

See how that feels. Let me know how it goes. And have fun!


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Friday, March 25, 2011

Happiness is Contagious

We all instinctively know that when we're around happy people, we feel better. When we're around nervous people, or angry people, some of that energy rubs off on us, too.

Turns out there's a scientific basis for this. Mirror neurons enable us to feel what another is doing, or feeling, as if we were doing it ourselves. These brain cells fire when we're doing or feeling something, and, apparently, they also fire when another person is doing or feeling something, like a tuning fork. Mirror neurons enable us to experience the internal state of another human being, as imitation or even as empathy.

We are literally connected to each other at the cellular level. Because of that, being happy, and sharing that happiness, is one of the most important things that you can do for your neighbor and the world.

Remember that right now, you're already complete. And share some of that happiness today, and this weekend, too.


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Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Problem of Anger

I read a lot of Buddhist teachings. And I must admit I'm confused about the Buddhist position on anger. I think anger gets a bad rap. Along with a few other things.

Don't get me wrong. A lot of bad comes from anger. Anger is often unconscious, a reaction based on our triggers. Anger can result in sarcasm, condescension, cruelty, abuse, even murder. But anger can also motivate change. It can provide focus. Anger can help us protect ourselves. Anger can give us far more energy and strength than we would otherwise have.

So when I see a piece talking about "three steps to eliminate anger," I worry some.

There are clearly emotions we view as negative. Fear, anger, guilt, greed, lust, and probably some others. But this doesn't mean they should be eliminated. Each of them is part of the human experience. Trying to eliminate them could easily turn into denial or repression.

Instead, let's embrace them as teachers, and pay close attention to what they say to us. Even if we don't always like the message.


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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Follow Your Fear

Joseph Campbell used to tell people to follow their bliss.

I think that's great advice. There are things that emerge, deep from within us, that simply must be done. Paths that must be taken. Our inspiration, at least most of the time, doesn't care if we're afraid, or worry about what others might think.

But sometimes there's something really, really big that cries out to be done. Something that's over the line of what you have done before. Where you really don't know if you can do it.

You may not even recognize your inspiration, because every time you get close to thinking about the really big thing, the fear kicks in and you shut down. This is your amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight impulse. Any time you don't feel safe, your amygdala floods your system with chemicals that tell you to get the hell out of there.

This fear is your friend. It's a roadmap that shows you the boundary between what you're comfortable doing and where you really begin to stretch. Work with this fear. Flirt with it. Go right to the edge of it. Push through it, and you'll see there are no limits.


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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What's Measured Isn't What Matters

Have you ever noticed that those reports that you get at work never have the stuff you really want?

Maybe you know how many hours you billed, or how much revenue your client paid you last year, or whether you hit your sales target. But how happy are your clients? What kind of value do you deliver? What's going to happen when you face challenges together? What kind of bonds will you forge then?

Sure, you can put a number on loyalty or satisfaction. But connection isn't a number from a survey filled out six months ago while your client was multitasking. Connection is what's happening right now. It's what happens when the boundaries between us fall away and we act as one, regardless of our narrow self interests.

Numbers, on the other hand, are dead as soon as they are uttered. Numbers are the domain of the left hemisphere of the brain, the one that's working on its to do list and never gets to be happy.

Don't get too caught up in the numbers. And don't get too caught up in people or organizations who get caught up in them, either. Business is way too important for that.


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Monday, March 21, 2011

Comfort with Discomfort

Sometimes we think that to be happy, we have to be up all the time. That if we grin and bear it or fake it till we make it, we can overcome adversity.

I don't think that's right. In fact, I think that's the last thing you want to do.

Happiness is a full contact sport. It includes and even embraces all the ups and downs of life. And in fact, those moments when we're not comfortable can be our greatest teachers.

Is there someone at work who makes your skin crawl? Try spending some more time with that person.

Is there a political or religious belief you react to? Try reading more about it.

Is there a thought that makes you really uncomfortable, or ashamed, or afraid? Come back to it. Relive it. Welcome it as a close friend.

Discomfort is a part of life, and if we try to avoid it, we only find our world getting smaller. But when we approach even the things that scare us with curiosity and love, our world expands, and we expand along with it.

And most of the time, we find the thing that was so distasteful or hurtful or scary really wasn't nearly as bad as we thought.


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Friday, March 18, 2011

The Wisdom of Children

My two year old, Lucas, was playing with his cars as I was typing on my laptop. He looked at me, looked at the laptop, and hit a key.

I gently explained that Daddy was trying to work and he should not do that.

He hit another key. I told him no, this time more firmly. Daddy is writing about important stuff, about being present in the moment!

Then he smiled and shut the laptop. Daddy, uh...


Yes, Lucas, you have Daddy's attention now. All of it.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

No Boundaries

When we return to the present moment, when we really see the world exactly as it is, right here right now, all distinctions fall away.

The thought that I am separate from you vanishes. As does the thought that anything needs to be different.

When we're in the present moment, the world is complete, perfect as it is, because there is no other way that it can be.

Utterly ordinary, and yet nothing is missing.

Here is happiness. Always available. Hiding in plain sight.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pushing Through and Seeing Through

When we push through, life is hard. We take on the weight of the world. Our life becomes our to-do list, and we seemingly never get to the end of it. We get through just enough of it that we don't feel like an abject failure.

When we see through, life is easy.

What is seeing through? Seeing through is noticing that it is our thoughts that create our world, and that we don't have to believe them. That all pressure is self-inflicted. That the only thing that keeps us from being happy is the thought that we are not. That suffering is only the difference between the world as it is, and the world as we think it should be.

Seeing through is seeing that the only divisions, the only struggles, are the ones that we create in our minds. That the only place we can ever be is right here, right now. That we are already complete, exactly as we are. Even when we don't feel like it.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

When Bad Things Happen

I want to talk about a couple of recent events. The first is the Japan earthquake and tsunami. The second is the murder of a 30 year old woman in downtown Bethesda, my hometown.

It can be easy to misinterpret words like "we should accept each moment as it is" as meaning that we should not react to tragedies, that these things are somehow OK. But both of these events, one global, one in my backyard, are no doubt tragedies. Both have changed lives. Both have created grief and suffering and will continue to do so.

Accepting that is very different than denying it. Accepting it means to fully feel the grief and sorrow, to fully express both our impulse to help, and our fear that something like this could happen to us. We're all afraid to die and yet we will all die. And one of the reasons these tragedies affect us so deeply is because they shake us out of our wanting to believe we're safe.

We are not safe. Any one of us, or any one of our loved ones, could go at any time, under any circumstances. This is our human experience.

If there is a gift in these tragedies, and I believe there is, it is in helping us to see that connection to our human family. We see heroism, we witness our own innate desire to help,  and we see our better natures shine even through our fear and sorrow.

When times are good, it seems like all we want is more, and all we do is fight over who's going to get it.  But when tragedy strikes, we are somehow called to a higher purpose, and we all connect in that.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Stress and the Reset Button

Mondays can be stressful. Stress produces adrenaline in the short run and then cortisol. And too much cortisol, over too long a time, is associated with lots of health issues. Science is just beginning to confirm the longer term effects of cortisol on the body and brain.

The hippocampus (also known as the seat of memory) shrinks and you have memory problems. You don't digest your food as efficiently, so you eat more and gain weight. You're more likely to get a bunch of illnesses, including flu, colds, asthma, backaches, diabetes, stomach and colon issues, kidney disease, arthritis, mental illness, depression, skin problems, stroke, cancer, ulcers, heart disease. Oh, and did I mention you feel stressed all the time?

Some of us are so used to feeling stress that we crash when we don't feel it (see Jeff's law firm career). We need stress to get our work done, so we induce the feeling with caffeine and other chemicals when we don't feel it naturally. This of course, makes the problem even worse.

Our bodies are designed to be under stress sometimes, and short term stress can actually enhance our performance. But our bodies need a break. They need to reset, and when they are able to, much of the longer term damage never gets a chance to happen.

What is this reset button? Often called the "relaxation response," it's just a return to the present moment, to the timeless. Breathe, take a walk, meditate, sing, paint, dance, spend time with your dog. Do yoga. Go for a run or a swim. You body needs it and your mind does, too.

Today, try to push the reset button a couple of times. Can you find two minutes to breathe before your next conference call? Can you go for a walk instead of buying something off the lunch cart?

When we get in the habit of coming back to this moment, we begin to see through the prison of our thoughts, of the impossible list of "shoulds" that we bring with us wherever we go. Even if it's only for a moment, we let go.

Sometimes, just to breathe is all that's necessary.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Happiness Is Not a Project

Too often, our lives are governed by our to do lists.

We find ourselves pushing ourselves to get more and more done, in the belief, I think, that when we get to the end of our lists we will be complete. That happiness is waiting to greet us with the last checked item.

But the lists keep coming. There are always things to do. And so we're faced with a choice.

Do our lists define us, or do we define our lists?


Thursday, March 10, 2011

No Delay

When I was growing up, if you wanted to buy something, you saved your money for it. If you needed help, there were two options.

The first was Christmas club, where your bank would agree to take a small amount of savings each month so, at the end of the year, you would have enough money for presents for your family.

The second was something available in a lot of stores like Sears, where we did most of our shopping. The concept, long since forgotten, was called "lay away." Let's say you really wanted a washing machine. You could put a small amount down on the washer and Sears would put the item in its storeroom for you. Over the next several months, you could pay off the washer and when you were done paying, they would deliver it.

We don't do that much anymore. Today, the mindset is "buy now, pay later." Instead of saving for something, we use credit cards. And if we don't have enough money to pay the bill at the end of the month, no worries--the credit card company turns it into a nice loan for us, which we can pay off whenever we like.

The only problem with this approach, of course, is that we can end up paying more in interest than the original item cost. We can end up never paying off the loan.

As long as we think happiness is about stuff, we are stuck with these choices. Save and wait, or spend, perhaps a lot more, to get something now.

But if happiness is something other than stuff, we don't have to wait. We don't have to spend any money. We can see that right now, we already have everything we need.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Defining Happiness

I think in some ways, we get to decide what happiness is.

The word can mean a lot of different things. It can mean pleasure. It can mean satisfaction. It can mean joy. It can mean contentment. And whatever it happens to mean for us, our brains will turn life into a project to find more of that.

If happiness means pleasure, then life will be able seeking pleasure. Happiness as hedonism. There is nothing wrong with pleasure and nothing wrong with seeking it, though we can all think of examples (Charlie Sheen comes to mind) of people who might have gone a bit overboard. The issue with hedonism is that pleasure is by its very nature fleeting. If this is our definition, then our life just becomes an endless pursuit of whatever happens to feel good. And sometimes this has consequences, both for ourselves and others.

Happiness might mean satisfaction. I know this is the definition that resonates with the hard-driving professional side of me. This definition of happiness is about goals, and about striving, and about hard work and winning. And there is no doubt that we can find a great deal of meaning in this version of happiness. To find something that stretches ourselves and to meet that challenge is indeed fulfilling.

But what happens when we don't meet our goal? Or what happens when the goal is too easy, and even meeting it is not satisfying? Again, this definition seems to fall short. Those moments may feel much more meaningful ("I got my degree!" "We won the business!") than in the hedonistic model, but anyone who has been on the goal path knows that the satisfaction does not last, because there is always another goal. The Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl just over a month ago, but you can be sure that by now they're only thinking about how to win another one.

Joy feels like it comes closer to the mark. We experience joy in laughter, in the smile of a child, in the smell of flowers or the peace of a sunset. Through mindfulness and other practices, we can cultivate our ability to experience joy more frequently. While joy has a timeless quality, it too comes and goes based on our circumstances.

That leaves contentment. Contentment can feel the least "happy" of the options. Contentment can feel like "settling." In our hard-driving society, the idea of being content can feel like a cop-out, like giving in and even giving up. But I think we can define contentment a bit differently.

To me, contentment is accepting each moment as it presents itself, no matter what is happening. Sometimes, the moment is joyful, and sometimes frustrating. Sometimes there is physical pain. Sometimes there is struggle. Sometimes there can be incredible energy and activity. Contentment accepts all of these with equanimity.

We can be content in any moment. Contentment is always available to us. It is the one form of happiness that does not depend on outside circumstances, and that can always be here, even when the other forms of happiness are not. Contentment can be cultivated, and yet it also has this wonderfully paradoxical quality. It often arises when you aren't looking for it.

It is this definition that I'll be writing about when I write about happiness. Happiness as the ever-present possibility of accepting things exactly as they are.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

9,000 Mistakes

No one knows what you should do.

We all think there is a map somewhere, that there is a clear purpose to our lives, that there are forks in the road that have a right way and a wrong way.

We think there are mistakes. We think there is failure. And we are deathly afraid of it.

We give up a lot of power this way. And a lot of freedom.

While there may be regrets, there aren't any mistakes. You can't find a "mistake" or "failure" in nature. You can only find it in your mind.

Because a "mistake" is just a thought. "Failure" is just a concept.

Michael Jordan said, "I've missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

So go ahead. Make mistakes. Make lots of them. And learn.


Monday, March 7, 2011

A New Direction

For the last year, I have spent a lot of time in this blog pointing at the space of unconditioned awareness. And it is true that this space, where we make no demands on ourselves, where we have trouble saying where we are or even who we are, is incredibly healing.

I get so much out of bringing myself back, again and again, to this space. It is my practice. And I don't want to say anything that would diminish the value of it.

But lately I feel like my writing is taking me in a different direction. I've felt drawn for some time in taking this kind of work into the corporate world (it's in the name of the blog, right?). But I also feel like the terminology of the nondual only gets in the way of what people really want. And I feel like I've written within this terminology about as much as I can. That the nondual well as dried up, at least for now.

We're all stressed. We have lots of reasons for working in the corporate world, but sometimes we can feel trapped. We can feel like we have too much to do, or we're too mean to each other, or we just don't feel any meaning in our day to day lives. And the reason that we engage in reading or meditation or other practices is to find peace in the midst of our stress.

Nondual thought--the idea that we are just here, that things are just happening, and that so much of our experience in the world is just our thoughts, just vapor, really--is incredibly powerful, but it can seem arcane and complex, too, even off-putting. So I find myself exploring different terminology, different ideas, different pointers to this place of healing. And I find myself more and more focusing on the simple idea of happiness. Of happiness as an ever-present possibility, regardless of whatever else is happening in our lives.

As my writing shifts, as it evolves and changes, I'd like your feedback. Because the whole point of this is to share the possibility of happiness right now. Whatever label you want to put on it.


Friday, March 4, 2011


I see books all around me that assume there is something to learn.

I see teachers all around me who assume there is something to teach.

We already have everything we need. We already are everything we need. And there is nothing that we can do, no sin we can commit, that will change that.

Even our impatience, even our frustration, is already perfect.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bigger and Smaller

When we're children, in many ways we are small. We are physically small, we are emotionally fragile, and we are dependent on parents and authority figures for so much. We need our parents to be perfect and of course, they're not.

Anything that's missing we assume must be our fault, our flaw. And these flaws can affect how we see the world well into adulthood.

When I was a child, my mom had a tendency to try to control me by making make me feel small and insignificant.

We all develop strategies to avoid pain, and one of mine was to become a pleaser. If I did what my mom and other adults wanted, then I could avoid this pain, this lack of independence and power. What I didn't see was how much power it gave to other people. I couldn't see at the time how my efforts to gain control were actually giving that control up.

My mom didn't intend to hurt me. She was only protecting herself. She had her own triggers. Her parents had made her feel small, and she made herself feel bigger by making others feel small, too.

I can see that sometimes in how I treat my children. I can see how the pattern gets passed on, how we can make the ones we love feel invalidated because they are innocently triggering those feelings of inadequacy in us.

How different would it be if we could see the enormity of what we are, the infinite nature of the consciousness that is breathing and living through us? And how different would it be if instead of making the people around us feel small and insignificant, we could help them begin to see the their own true nature?

For me, the challenge is to become more and more conscious of those patterns, and to realize that every time I feel the urge to make someone feel smaller, I can help them feel bigger instead.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Giving and Getting

There are a couple of ways of thinking about being in the world.

The first is to look at the world as a bunch of things that you do not have now, but that if you work really hard, you can get. This is the list approach to life and success. You are here and life is there and life has all the good stuff and you don't really have much of anything yet. In this view, you are empty and will not be happy until you are full.

The second is to see all the gifts that you already have--the talents that you have been blessed with, the love that you can share, the warmth of your presence, the essence of your very soul--and to see life as an opportunity to share those gifts. What is it that you really enjoy doing? What is it that you really enjoy sharing with other people?

The fact is that there are a lot of people who you already know who spend time with you not because they have to, but because they really want to. Have you ever asked your friends, or your best customers or clients, what they love about you? Do you even know what those gifts are that you are already giving, that you are already sharing?

Many people see life as a game in which the one who ends up with the most stuff wins. And there is nothing wrong with that. But try, just for today, to see how much you can give to other people, not as a way to get stuff, but just for the sheer joy of giving, just because at the deepest level, it feels good. And imagine how you would feel if you could live your life more and more from that place of already having all you need, and where all you do is give from that place.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What You Are Not

Your biography. Your relationships. Your job. Your family. Your clothes. Your car. Your body. Your thoughts.

You are not anything you can see or hear or touch or taste or feel or even think about. You can't be because there is someone, or something, that is experiencing all those things.

That experiencer is you. And it can't be found.