Ode to My Furry Friend (On the Merits of Dog Walking)

A friend and fellow dog owner passed on this poem to me this morning. Reminded me why hanging out with our furry friends is so good for our mental wellbeing.

Golden Retrievals by Mark Doty

Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don’t think so.
Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who’s—oh
joy—actually scared. Sniff the wind, then

I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing. And you?
Either you’re sunk in the past, half our walk,
thinking of what you never can bring back,

or else you’re off in some fog concerning
—tomorrow, is that what you call it? My work:
to unsnare time’s warp (and woof!), retrieving,
my haze-headed friend, you. This shining bark,

a Zen master’s bronzy gong, calls you here,
entirely, now: bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow.

The dog is bounding about excitedly, taking in all around him. The ‘haze-headed’ owner either ‘sunk in the past’ or ‘off in some fog concerning tomorrow.’ What an apt description of us humans. Too caught up ruminating about things gone wrong or anxious about what else might to be present in the moment. We miss so much. Lucky for me, my pup likes me to be intimately involved in his walk; he is continually pulling me out of my head and into his discoveries. He takes his job of ‘unsnaring time’s warp’ very seriously. Mornings with him are ‘entirely now, bow-wow.’ Thanks, Teddy.

How are you managing time’s warp?

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Resolution Reboot

It’s time to re-think New Year’s resolutions.  Restricting contemplation of our lives and aspirations to one day a year is like only telling our spouses we love them on Valentine’s Day; celebrating life exclusively on our birthday; being grateful merely for the 24 hours that constitute Thanksgiving.  These calendar dates invite us to pause and reflect, but equally can feel a heavy reminder of how little pausing and reflecting we do the other 364 days of the year.  So we try to cram it all in, furiously hoarding all of our good intentions then getting overwhelmed rather than inspired by them.  

Instead, something I’ve been doing regularly for a couple years now is getting really clear on daily intentions.  Asking myself the simple question ‘What matters most today?’  In practice, this starts with reviewing my (paper) diary in the morning.  Seeing what the day has in store.  And then formulating a kind of theme or aspiration for how I want to travel through it. Yesterday (Wednesday) is always my busiest client day of the week.  I stared at the page of eight client appointments pretty much back-to-back and asked ‘What matters here?’ It was, and always is, important for me to feel I am present and connected with clients.  That I bring the same energy and attention to the last client of the day I do to the first.  This connection is what both supports clients and makes my work enjoyable. So that matters most.  But in order to do this on a long day like yesterday, I also made a note (not just a mental one, again, written in diary) to take periodic mini-breaks to re-energise myself.  A walk around the block.  A few moments of quiet with a favourite tea.  A quick phone call to check in and say hello to a loved one.  Re-opening my diary and glancing down at the page, reminding myself of my intention.  Of what matters right now.

That was yesterday.  Today is a very different one.  Without going into detail (collective sigh of relief among readers), I have more open space so the question this morning is  how I want to use it.  What matters most?  Today.  Not by the end of the month…quarter…year…but today.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing,”  said Annie Dillard in The Writing Life.  Sometimes we forget this.  We become so fixated on the big, transformational goals that promise (falsely)  a ‘New Year, New You,’ we overlook the meaningful change a couple simple daily intentions can usher in over time.

From both personal experience and that of working with clients, I know this type of attention to intentions takes time and practice. There are so many external influences vying for our precious resource of time.  It takes discipline to shut these out for a bit, not to be seduced.  But it need not be hard labour.  A few minutes in the morning (or evening before) merely asking the question ‘what matters most today?’ is a manageable start.  As is probably obvious by now, I’m a firm believer in old-school paper diaries.  Mapping things out on a page that can be easily revisited.  (And, let’s face it, we could all use as many opportunities as possible to get our noses out of our not-so-smart phones).  The beauty of daily intentions is if things don’t go to plan, you get another chance tomorrow.  No need to concede failure and wait until December 31s to start anew.  Give it a try?

 

A Winter Solstice Gift

This poem by Emily Pearce pretty perfectly captures how I’m feeling this winter solstice. Naturally, the poet puts it in words far better than I ever could:

She speaks slowly

with a voice like moss,

soft, deep and damp.

If you’re not listening carefully

you might just miss it,

rising out from the earth 

like vapour,

gently tugging at your ankles.

“Rest” she says,

“Deeper. Rest as deep as I am.

You are moving too fast.

Become soil,

become the slow-growing tree.

Send your roots deep

into the rich darkness

where they can truly be nourished.

Winter is sanctuary

and you are weary.

Come drink of my stillness

and dream in the dark earth.” 

***

“Rest,” she says, “Deeper….You are moving too fast.” Who among us doesn’t relate to these words, particularly this time of year? To heed this call, the winter solstice is perfectly timed. Some may bemoan the shortest day of the year but today it feels a gift; a reminder to drink in some much-needed stillness. In the sprint to the 2018 finish line, many of us (hand held high over here!) have felt fuelled by nothing more than fumes. I had my final client session of the year yesterday, wrapped the last Christmas present last night. Predictably, I woke up this morning with a flu to accompany my son’s that arrived yesterday. No matter, yet another excuse to laze on the sofa reading, dozing and enjoying the Christmas lights. Winter is sanctuary and you are weary. Come drink of my stillness and dream in the dark earth. Pretty perfect, right?

The Paradox of Affluence

I’ve always found it a curious juxtaposition that Americans follow up a day of being grateful for all they have (Thanksgiving) by engaging in a frenzied rush to accumulate ever more the very next day (Black Friday). It’s hard to fully appreciate the chaos and competitiveness of the latter ‘holiday’ without seeing it first-hand. A Swedish friend used to spend Thanksgiving with her American boyfriend in the US and told me her favourite part of the trip was hitting Wal-Mart at 5:00 AM on Black Friday.  She likened it to being on safari, observing wild animals in their (un)natural habitat.  Now the craziness has gone global:  Videos on social media show aggressive bargain hunters battling it out in Brazil, Namibia…and of course here in the UK.  This may be good news for the economy (it wouldn’t be helpful to GDP if we were satisfied with what we had), but I worry what all this manic spending says about the state of our psyches.  

‘Consumption holds out a false promise that an internal lack can be fixed by an external means,’ says Psychologist Oliver James.   In his wonderful book, Affluenzahe goes on to highlight how the western world is trapped in cycles of striving and dissatisfaction. This drive to accumulate material goods and services appears to have addictive qualities. 

I’ve certainly seen this to be true in my personal and professional life, most recently working with a client who indulges her frequent Net-a-Porter habit in an effort to ‘buy myself happy.’   ‘Are you (happy)?  I asked. Her silence was telling.  This client is not an anomaly.  As the LSE Economist Richard Layard and many others have noted, depression has increased as our incomes have risen.  Enter the ‘Paradox of Affluence,’ a new-ish name given to the age-old truism that ‘money can’t buy you happiness.’ 

Thanksgiving day aside, a ‘never enough’ mindset seems to permeate even the highest income brackets.  See recent research conducted by Professor Michael Norton of Harvard Business School (and reported in The Atlantic).  Professor Norton surveyed 2,000 American millionaires asking how much money they would need to be happy.  The answer?  Everyone says 2-3x more, according to Norton.  Keep in mind the subjects were starting with a seven-figure net worth.  What gives?

Norton highlights two questions influencing our overall happiness:  Am I doing better than before?  And, Am I doing better than other people?  Pausing with these considerations for a few moments highlights the flaw in any ‘more is more’ attitude toward money and material goodies.  

Am I doing better than before?  The challenge here is how to measure ‘better’?  Do we keep updated accounting of laughs, kisses, smiles…?  Unlikely.  Were there more moments of joy, of connection this year than last?  Again, often hard to say.  Here is where money steps in to fill a ‘quantification void.’  Is my bank balance higher than last year? (Easily measured).  Is my car, my house, my favourite xyz ‘toy’ bigger or better than last year?  Objectively yes/no.  Money may be easy to quantify, but it’s a wonky scale for measuring happiness.  I love what the always eloquent Krista Tippett said recently on her podcast: ‘Part of the problem – and part of the difference between now and the mid 20th century – is we don’t have a vocabulary of morality or worth or value except for the creation of wealth…(and for this) we are really impoverished.’ 

Am I doing better than other people?  On this measure, if we focus on the material exclusively, we will always come up wanting.  Comparison, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, really is the thief of joy.  Several psychological studies have shown it isn’t absolute but relative wealth linked to happiness.  This was challenging enough when it meant ‘Keeping up with the Joneses,’ but has become a supersized problem in an Instagram world of ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians.’  It also sets us up for false hope because the goal posts are forever moving.  One client who was thrilled with his year-end bonus last cycle (‘The highest on the team! A promotion!’) finds himself sitting relatively ‘worse off’ this year among his new, elevated peer group.  He may be moving forward in absolute terms, but his enthusiasm is absolutely muted. 

Just because there isn’t a common vocabulary for assessing value or worth shouldn’t stop us from trying to create our own personal one. We can dig for goals and aspirations that fit our individual values rather than merely judging ourselves by external standards.  A congruence between our life and personal values has indeed been a proven predictor of happiness and wellbeing (See:  Self-concordance Model, Sheldon & Elliott, 1999).  Tapping into what is of intrinsic value to us, personally, we can start to audit our motives and goals around our accumulation and spending of money.  In practice, this means chasing work or other activities we find meaningful.  Equally important, we can audit what we spend the ‘fruits of our labour’ on.  My client with the Net-a-Porter habit most certainly isn’t getting value out of yet another pair of designer heels in the same way she, we discovered, treasures the bouquet of freshly cut flowers she buys every weekend at the farmer’s market. Spending money on the first leaves her feeling empty, even foolish.  The flowers, by contrast, bring her closer to her love of nature and beauty (intrinsic values). In this way, the flowers are that much more meaningful despite being the ‘cheaper’ (monetarily) purchase.  A small, but illustrative example perhaps? And one we can maybe keep in mind as we make out our Christmas lists.. . .  

Happy holidays, all!

***

The Psychology of Money:  An Exploration of Money, Values & Self-Worth workshop is coming soon, 9 February 2019.  For more information, see this link or email Kelly@w11coaching.com

Gratitude Isn't Just for Thanksgiving

Today is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.  As an American expat in the UK (albeit one who, after 18 years, feels as much British as American these days), I still like to commemorate the day.  

Below is an American parable, perhaps familiar to some:  

The Two Travellers and the Farmer

 A traveller came upon an old farmer hoeing in his field beside the road. Eager to rest his feet, the wanderer hailed the countryman, who seemed happy enough to straighten his back and talk for a moment.

"What sort of people live in the next town?" asked the stranger.

"What were the people like where you've come from?" replied the farmer, answering the question with another question.

"They were a bad lot. Troublemakers all, and lazy too. The most selfish people in the world, and not a one of them to be trusted. I'm happy to be leaving the scoundrels."

"Is that so?" replied the old farmer. "Well, I'm afraid that you'll find the same sort in the next town.

Disappointed, the traveller trudged on his way, and the farmer returned to his work.

Some time later another stranger, coming from the same direction, hailed the farmer, and they stopped to talk. "What sort of people live in the next town?" he asked.

"What were the people like where you've come from?" replied the farmer once again.

"They were the best people in the world. Hard working, honest, and friendly. I'm sorry to be leaving them."

"Fear not," said the farmer. "You'll find the same sort in the next town."

A teacher of mine passed on the tale some time ago and the lesson stuck.  Although one could be forgiven for feeling more like the first traveller these days, this perspective can shift depending on the lens we use.  


These are tricky times.  The constant drip of cortisol-producing news headlines is taking its toll on many. There is a feeling of helplessness and overwhelm in the air.  I see it up close in in my consulting room; I feel it even closer in myself at times. And yet, we can turn to the wise words of the late American hero, Mr Rogers:  “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.”’  So this is what I do to manage my own psyche these days.  Look for the helpers.  And the not-so-curious thing is the more I look, the more helpers I find.  With gratitude, a Thanksgiving shout-out to the following ‘helpers’ who have kept me firmly in ‘Traveller 2 stance’ recently.  

My son W whose humour and winning smile can cut through just about anything.

My American family who never make me feel guilty for moving thousands of miles away - ‘i carry your heart(s) with me.’

My adopted British/international extended family who share my day-to-day celebrations (+ sorrows) and have stopped questioning my love of country music.

My dog Teddy who always makes me feel like the person he thinks I am.

My wonderful colleagues and clients who allow me to engage in what feels like meaningful work with people who care.  

My pain in the a*s acquaintances.  After I’m done cursing you, I usually learn something from you.  

And to my many ‘podcast friends.’  With the exception of weekend papers, I’ve largely turned off the news and social media these days.  ‘My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane’ said a New Yorker cartoon making the rounds.  Quite.  But there are ‘keepers of the faith’ out there in podcast land or in their writing/speaking/videos.  People who can and do grapple with difficult issues in a civil, constructive manner without resorting to divisive ‘us vs them’ soundbites.  These are fellow travellers I like to tune in to. In alphabetical order (so as not to have to rank which felt wrong).  Thank you.

Tara Brach

Brene Brown

Glennon Doyle & Wolfpack

Seth Godin

Sam Harris

Esther Perel

Maria Popova

The School of Life*

Tami Simon & Sounds True

Krista Tippett & On Being

Happy Thanksgiving, all. But remember, gratitude isn’t just for one day of the year.  Cue plug for the work of Martin Seligman. This ‘father of positive psychology’ found that keeping track of blessings (3/day in a journal) led to an overwhelming majority (92%) of people feeling happier.    A simple exercise in ‘re-focusing the lens.’  Maybe try it on for size?  Happy travelling, and keep looking for the helpers. 

 

* Full disclosure:  I work as a psychotherapist at The School of Life.  Even before joining their psychotherapy team, I was a huge admirer of TSOL online videos, thebookoflife.org and their many workshops and events.  

On the Merits of Conflict...and Trust

I've been branching out lately.  Doing more corporate facilitation than has been my thing for a while.  It is a different lens with which to view the world vs the predominantly 1:1 client work that has been my mainstay for the last few years.   It is has been instructive in so many ways, not least to remind me how much more people are willing to disclose in the privacy of a 1:1 setting (unsurprisingly) than in groups.  The information, in privacy, isn't always 'pretty,' but it almost always rings true.   And for this I am grateful.  Conflict in the consulting room has ushered in far more mutual understanding and connection between me and clients than the more 'pleasant' sessions.  By contrast, sometimes I feel a group holding back, leaving important points unspoken.  A theme that keeps re-emerging in both group and 1:1 realms is the direct link between conflict and trust.  This is a natural tension that, it seems to me, is worth pondering...

The groups I have been working with lately almost ALL voice an aversion to conflict.  Don't want to rock the boat.  Prefer to be seen as a 'team player.'  To be 'nice.'  To which I introduce another distinction:  the difference between 'nice' (very conciliatory, ignoring or 'papering over' dissent...) vs 'kind' (acting in a way we believe will actually help most, even if it introduces aforementioned conflict).  As I've often heard said, 'kindness is rooted in love, niceness is rooted in fear.' 

In the many firms I've worked for (so no fingers pointed here!), the ones who think they are the 'best for people' are often times far from it.  Because they confuse the difference between nice and kind.  Smoothing over and keeping the calm vs being real.  Relaxed appearances hide mounting tensions beneath the surface.  The important conversations happen on the side, rather than in the open.  No one fully understands where they stand which creates considerable anxiety.  An anxiety that only further encourages people to stay quiet (if you're not feeling safe, you're not definitely not taking risks).  

Here is where the 1:1 and couples work I do actually informs what I tell groups (and the research supports me here):  The best relationships aren't without conflict.  By contrast, they are full of it.  They wrestle with difficult questions and don't always agree.  But all parties have a considered say.  They trust that they are valued as individuals, and that they are in something that strives for the greater good of the group rather than needing to hunker down, focused on self-protection and preservation.   The relationships that are dead in all but formality are the opposite:  They have played 'nice' for too long and the concealed resentments have solidified, leaving little room for renewed connection.  After too long avoiding inevitable conflict, it erupts in a mammoth struggle of who's right vs who's wrong, the camps divided. 

In the midst of all this pondering, a coach friend was nodding along while we talked, and then asked 'Have you read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patick Lencioni?' I hadn't, but did the initial research I do before ordering a new book and listened to a talk by the author and it completely resonated.  It's worth a listen.

The model is common sense but insightful.  In the way that many of the truly great ideas are.  Punchline:  We don't have enough (constructive) conflict, because we don't have the precursor of trust.  Without trust we are lost in the water.  Fostering trust has been the mainstay of my 1:1 work as a psychotherapist and coach these past years....I'm now working on how to extend this to the corporate realm...are you with me? Thoughts?

* * *

YouTube talk on the 5 Dysfunctions https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w42Sfbh91vU

 

Chasing Joy

‘Blue Monday’ came and went earlier this week.   The term dates back to 2005 when Dr. Cliff Arnall, a South Wales lecturer, called out the third Monday of January as the worst day of the year.  His reasoning?  The realisation that the holidays are well and truly over, the apparent debt hangover from holiday spend, and the fact that most people have broken New Year’s Resolutions by this point.  The rain pissing down in London on the day wouldn’t have helped.  So far, so depressing. 

 

All of this heaviness made me think of something I often suggest to clients:  The benefits of  ‘chasing joy.’  So often, people assume the sole focus of therapy is ‘fixing things’ that aren’t working.   Concentrating on negative emotions and processing these to affect healing and change.  While there is certainly an element of truth to this (no one said therapy was all fun and games), I like to point out that we need to look at the other side of the coin as well:  What brings incremental happiness.  Specifically, what do we like doing for no other sake than pure enjoyment?  To be clear, this is something that may energise or relax us, or just make us feel more connected in our relationships or environment.  But the crucial caveat is the activity is only for cultivating joy, not as part of some ‘self improvement’ crusade, or because we feel like we ‘should’ be adding a new layer of x-y-z to our lives. 

 

For some clients, it works best to have a weekly ‘date’ to pursue such activities.  Others prefer to have a few minutes or half-hour every day.  Whatever you can fit in is a start.  Because the more our focus and attention is on finding joy, the more we somewhat unsurprisingly start to see it show up in our lives. 

 

For me, I realised over the holidays that I very rarely read fiction any more.  Anyone who knows me knows I am a voracious reader, and I do love keeping up on all the science and research surrounding mental health.  I have a towering pile of what I affectionately call my ‘psych porn’ on my desk and another next to my bed.  I love the stuff.  And yet, this type of reading always has a little bit of an agenda in the back of my mind – how I may incorporate the new thinking into my work.  It is never for pure fun and relaxation.  So I picked up a novel on the plane home for Christmas.  And loved lazing with it either in the jet-lagged wee hours of the morning or during an afternoon snooze on the sofa.  And then I moved on to another…and now another.  A well crafted sentence, a quirky-but-lovable character, an author’s attention to subtle detail….these things make me, well, happy.  They bring me joy.  That’s me.   Others have shared with me joyful pastimes as diverse as drawing or painting; cooking or crocheting; gardening or cold water swimming (Seriously?!  Apparently so…).   It doesn’t matter what the activity is, merely how it makes you feel.  Joyful, hopefully.  

Give yourself the gift of time, sit back and enjoy.

Resolutions and the Paradox of Change

After the early years of 'growing up' during which we carefully plan our education, career and family aspirations, most of us don't stop to think about our values and goals in the same serious and structured way later on. The exception, of course, is the short period around when the calendar changes from one year to the next and we come up with our list of resolutions for the year ahead. But I'd argue this type of life planning can't be reduced to an early January fleeting concern; it's a 365-days-a-year one. Spending a mere week or so mulling over things we think we 'should' do (but may not necessarily want to do) then mustering up all the willpower we can manage and hoping for the best may explain why the failure rate for New Year's resolutions is so high, reportedly 80-90%.

 

Don't get me wrong, I whole-heartedly believe in the value of making intentions then putting actions in place to achieve these goals (I'd be in the wrong profession if I didn't).  But sometimes the endless treadmill of ‘self-improvement’ is really self-flagellation in not-so-subtle disguise; a critical voice that keeps saying you aren’t successful enough, attractive enough, kind enough, fill-in-the-blank-enough.

 

This critical stance erroneously has us clinging to a habit of ‘if only’ thinking:  if only I got that promotion, or lost those last five pounds, or was in a relationship or had a bigger flat…then I’d be happy.  We set our New Year’s resolutions accordingly, hitching our wagon of future happiness to the attainment of these goals.  The problem with this is it means we’re starting from a place of ‘not okay’ as it is.  Think about that for a moment.  If our starting point is ‘I’m not okay,’ that’s a hugely demoralising place, and frankly one that isn’t true.  We fill up our minds with ‘I have to work harder, must go to the gym more, need to start meditating or dating or whatever it is…’  Shoulds, musts, needs.  It all sounds like impossibly hard work; standards imposed by the outside world as ways we need to improve ourselves.  It can be overwhelming and exhausting.  High time for a different approach.

 

Often, when I suggest the above to clients, I get push-back.  There is great fear that if they are not hard on themselves, all will go to hell in a handbasket.  Not only won’t they make desired changes, they will actually regress.  I have a lot of time and understanding for these fears, especially as we've been so conditioned to think this way.  Equally, I like to point out that the critical approach has been in place for the person for years (often decades) and there is still an inability to make desired changes.  So why not ‘risk’ another approach?  As in ‘the one you are currently using definitely won’t work (based on history) whereas the one I’m suggesting only might not work and it very well may work if you believe the research.’  Risking success, if you follow me…

 

‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.'  Carl Rogers

 

I’m with the late American psychologist Rogers on this.  One of Rogers’ biggest contributions to the field was the assertion that for people to really grow and change they needed a supportive environment consisting of genuineness, acceptance and empathy.   Switching from a critical (shaming) backdrop to one that is more nurturing.  When we apply this to self-regard, we can think of it as moving away from a ‘critical parent’ stance towards ‘nurturing parent,’ the one that loves us unconditionally and just wants the best for us.  Where the starting point is one of acceptance for ourselves – and even gratitude for the many things going right in our lives -  but where we acknowledge that there are things we want to do to increase our general happiness and wellbeing.  Less self-improvement, more self-care.

 

While Rogers’ work dates back to the 1950’s, there is an increasing body of scientific evidence that suggests nurturing positive emotions such as gratitude, compassion and pride (as opposed to arrogance) are instrumental to wellbeing.   As Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University David DeSteno’s research concludes, ‘what these findings show is that pride, gratitude and compassion…push us not only to cooperate with other people but also to help our own future selves.  Feeling pride or compassion has been shown to increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent.  Likewise, gratitude and compassion have been tied to better academic performance, a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily, and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity and tobacco and alcohol use.’   Simply put, cultivating these positive emotions – gratitude, compassion and (appropriate) pride – are our best hope in getting our New Year intentions to stick.  Happy 2018, all!

If you are looking for help making the mindset shift that will best support growth and change, join us at W11 Wellbeing for our Taming Your Inner Critic workshop 24th February, or get in touch with Kelly@w11coaching for 1:1 coaching. 

 

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Quiet II

I've been praising quiet lately.  It seems especially important this time of year when 'silly season' can take hold and December pass in a blur.  I wrote last week about developing a meditation practice, but this isn't the only way to get still.  One of my favourite means of cultivating quiet is my morning routine.  I've always enjoyed rising earlier than anyone in the household (and much of the outside world) as I find it a gentle ease into the day.  Even when I was working in finance and had to be at my desk at stupidly early hours, I still managed to get a bit of time in for myself before the news feed and blackberry (in those days) messages took over.  But over the past few years, I've begun to use the time a bit more differently, to great benefit.  Whereas I used to enjoy attacking my 'to do' list early on so as to get a 'head start' on the day, I now intentionally leave the space more open, if loosely structured.  I do tinker with the format from time to time, but generally speaking my chosen morning routine includes:

  • Some version of meditation, 10 mins.  I mentioned Headspace before and that's still an app I turn to, but I am just as likely to do 10 mins on my own or guided by another practitioner (10% Happier app has a good selection; Tara Brach is my 'go to girl' if I have a bit longer).
  • Some journalling.  There was a time when I was working my way through The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron's wonderful programme to rediscover creativity.  This approach includes writing 'morning pages' every day (three pages of A4, stream of consciousness, freehand).     These days I'm not focusing on my writing as much, but I still capture something in my journal or (as currently), put thoughts down in a blog.
  • Some checking in with 'what's going right.'  Simply put, a gratitude practice.  Sometimes the things I'm grateful for are the subject of my writing.  Sometimes I just sit with what comes to mind and pause to appreciate these people or things.  Other times I may write a quick card or email to the person I'm thankful for to let them know.  Before you roll your eyes and think I'm going all Northern California on you, keep in mind that a growing body of scientific research is pretty clear on the benefits of gratitude.  This is a big topic for a later post, but suffice it to say that our brains naturally migrate to what is going wrong, so some time and effort redirecting them to what is actually going right is time well spent.  
  • Focusing on what matters:  Intention setting for the day.  Here I pause to make the case for old school diaries.  As in the paper kind.  I am particularly taken with my Passion Planner for all the space it allocates to intentions, goals, focus...whatever language you want to use.  The simple truth is we need to get clear to ourselves what really matters each and every day as this becomes the driving force for our actions.  Over time, a lot of daily intentions/actions create the bigger picture life we're living.  Another reason for this intention setting using diary:  it allows me to get very precious with my time.  To check in that all of the activities and appointments I have planned for the day are important to me. This isn't to say I ruthlessly cancel plans last minute on a regular basis (I am usually pretty careful with my time in the first place and don't put things in unless they matter to me), but this is an opportunity to just double check that I'm using that precious resource of time in the best manner possible.
  • Some inspirational reading.  There is just SO MUCH bad news out there.  Honestly.  It's enough to leave us ALL feeling bombarded and overwhelmed.  Again, a big topic for a later post, but for now I'll just give a plug for actively seeking something to read that inspires you and opens you up rather than depressing and closing you down.  My current read I'm dipping into is Mark Nepo's latest, Things That Join the Sea and the Sky.  Or I'll turn to a classic (Marcus Aurelius's Meditations is also on my desk).  Poetry is great for this time in the morning.  Whatever floats your boat.  

If the above sounds like it would take hours to do every day, be assured this need not be the case.   I am happy to enjoy a long quiet if I naturally wake up earlier than usual, but this isn't always possible.  Plenty of wise souls I know get in a full morning routine in approximately 10 minutes (granted, this means an abbreviated meditation).   For anyone still pushing back that there 'isn't time,' I'll quote uber-coach Tony Robbins:  'If you don't have 10 minutes, you don't have a life.'  Typically blunt / to the point as is his style, but kinda true, right?  

 

Time for a Time Out

'Beware the barrenness of a busy life.' – Socrates

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately.  Maybe because it pertains to so much of the client work I’m engaged in.  Most of my clients are highly functioning individuals.  They are rightly proud of the accomplishments on their CVs, speak of close family and friends and multiple outside interests.  And yet there are general themes of either burnout or meaninglessness.  Of going through the motions.  Of getting to the end of the week/month/year and wondering “What in the heck just happened here?”  Of feeling like all of the various interactions and events are passing in rapid succession rather than being experienced and enjoyed.  This is what Socrates cautioned against. 

'At ever turn, we need to stop the noise, our own and everyone else's, not to retreat from the world but to live more fully in it.' - Poet and author Mark Nepo

One important step is just to stop every now and again.  A busy life is orchestrated by a busy mind. Our brains are hard-wired to be forward-looking, and this power of prospection serves many good purposes. But it can keep us feeling like we are on a treadmill, ever in transit to an elusive destination.  We need to step off it on occasion. 

Mindfulness is an over-used buzzword these days but really it just means paying attention to what is happening in the present.  In fact, the word mindfulness is somewhat of a misnomer as it isn’t about engaging the mind at all; rather it is about stepping out of incessant thinking and planning.  When we’re living in the future, we’re missing what is happening in the moment. And the next moment. And the next. Left unchecked, these passing collective moments can lead a person to feel pretty detached from his own life. So mindfulness is about taking our hands (and minds) off the controls, of becoming a curious observer sitting in the passenger seat.  Taking in – via all the senses and bodily sensations – what is happening right now.  Not tonight.  Not tomorrow.  Not next week, or next year.  In this way, we cultivate self-awareness.  From awareness comes an understanding of what’s important.  And from this understanding comes a clearer path for meaningful action.  A reasonable antidote to barrenness it would seem.

There are many ways to cultivate this 'quiet,' but for people new to this way of being, it is often helpful to have some type of guided practice.  The well-known Headspace meditation app is a great one for beginners and experienced practitioners alike.  It is my 'go to' recommendation because the approach is so accessible, rooted in science and lacking jargon.  

In my next blog, I'll turn to a more self-guided practice:  'the morning ritual.'