Are your books talking about you?

Do your bookshelves contain a story about you as well as the stories within their covers? What could a stranger walking into your home learn about you from the titles she saw there? I asked myself these questions when I came across this banner in front of the Latvian embassy:

Latvian embassy (1)

Apparently it’s a thing for Latvians to make gentle fun of themselves for being so introverted. But it totally makes sense that a nation of introverts would also be a nation of writers and readers. Introverts, after all, like to have plenty of alone time and prefer to think things through before speaking them out loud. And what better way is there to spend solitary time than with a book or pen?

When I review my bookshelves, I see someone who has some favorite authors (Amy Tan, Chris Bohjalian, Ann Patchett) and nerdy interests (“The Gene,” “Longitude”), but also a healthy supply of the classics, plenty of biographies, and a sizeable collection on stress, spirituality and wellness. There are books for every mood – whether it’s a desire to escape, a curiosity about the world, or a quest for answers about life. Sometimes I deliberately search for a specific book, other times I read whatever is available. But no matter what, I read.

Here’s what I’ve recently been enjoying:

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak. This is a beautifully-written novel about love and loss by the author of “The Book Thief.”  It’s the story of five brothers living near Sydney, Australia who have to deal with the death of their mother and the abandonment of their father. The story goes back and forth in time so that we get a full picture of each character and what drives them. I was slow to be drawn in, but by half-way through, I couldn’t stop reading. I only wish they wouldn’t categorize this book as “young adult” in my local bookstore, because so many fewer people will find it.

The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West by Lorna Gibb. I’ve been a fan of Rebecca West’s ever since reading her magnum opus, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” many years ago, before visiting Yugoslavia for the first time. While this biography is not particularly well-written, it is fascinating all the same for its in-depth look at this formidable 20th century British woman. West was ahead of her time, breaking ground as a writer, journalist and literary critic. She was well-known for her coverage of the Nuremberg trials and for her long relationship with H.G. Wells.

November Road by Lou Berney. What if it was the mob who killed JFK? That’s the premise of this novel about a low-level fixer for a New Orleans mobster who has to flee when he realizes he knows too much. When he meets a woman and her children on the road, he uses them as a convenient cover until he realizes that he actually cares for and wants to protect them. Don’t try to guess the ending of this one.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. This might qualify as “summer reading” if I believed in such a thing, although it would be misleading to characterize this book as “light.” It is a sweet romance about a young woman who comes to teach school in a small English town right before the onset of the first World War. But it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of that war, and it also addresses topics such as sexism, classism and homosexuality in a typically genteel British way.

Louisa May Alcott once said that “Good books, like good friends, are few and chosen; the more select, the more enjoyable.” I suspect that Alcott was an introvert, as am I, but I don’t see the need to be as selective about books as I am about friends. Ranging wide and choosing eclectically can, after all, lead to so many surprising discoveries. I was puzzled a while back when a neighbor asked me what kinds of books I collect (he liked certain types of history). Why would I “collect” just one genre or topic when the whole world is out there?

What do my bookshelves say about me? That I prefer a feast to a single course, a saga to a short story, a journey rather than a day trip. And speaking of trips, if you’re planning one, be sure to grab a book on your way out the door.

 

 

 

Stop trying to be happy, and…just be

Our natural human tendency to focus on what’s wrong often means that “what’s right” can be just under our noses and we don’t see it. Santosha, or contentment, is sometimes hiding in plain sight until the conditions become right for us to discover it.

In yoga, we’re often encouraged by teachers to work toward the midline of the body. I always thought of this instruction as something muscular, a goal that required striving and effort in order to achieve. What I realized only recently is that focusing on the midline is much more than getting muscles and limbs into position – it also refers to being in harmonious alignment, that place we enter when we have the right balance of “sthira” (steadiness and effort) and “sukha” (ease).

Yoga International explains that “sukha” originally referred to the smooth ride that resulted from an axle being well-centered in the wheels of a cart. Today, if I start to drift out of my lane when I’m using cruise control in my car, it will gently pull me back so that I am perfectly centered between the lines – sukha in action. Sukha means being comfortable, sitting in a good space; it is an “authentic state of happiness,” according to Yoga Journal. And that is often where we find contentment.

How do you know when effort and ease are in balance? When have you tried hard enough to be ready to accept where you are? Baron Baptiste writes that, “We have a responsibility in our practice to be straight with ourselves…There’s a difference between accepting where you are and making excuses for hanging back. But really, you know.” On the yoga mat, and in life, listening to the body, the heart, and the mind, we have a sense of what harmonious alignment feels like. Any additional striving is just resistance.

When the natural rhythm between effort and ease is disrupted, we are less able to be resilient in the face of stress. Science teaches us that in any stressful situation, the body wants to return to homeostasis, “steady state.” Much like the cruise control in my car, homeostasis is designed to get us back to exactly where we were before we went off course. But a newer term, “allostasis,” better reflects how we need to respond in many instances. As defined by Bruce McEwen (and quoted by Jon Kabat-Zinn), allostasis means “remaining stable by being able to change.” Allostasis recognizes that there is a range of places where balance can be found.

I can think of countless times in my life when I struggled against something because I wanted it to be just like it was before. Only when I stopped resisting and accepted where I was, could I find a peaceful balance again. I had to change in order to regain stability. As Baron Baptiste writes, “Be where you are and melt into that experience…All the frantic and unnecessary doing will drop away..” Going from effort to ease is recognizing when to cede control and choose to surrender to where you are. It’s the difference between saying, “I’ll be happy when….” and “I’ll be happy now.”

Just as my summer solstice this week will mean the approach of winter for someone in the southern hemisphere, what you see and experience depends on where you’re sitting at the present moment. For me, the solstice signals the beginning of summer, a time of ease. It means giving myself permission to be a little less effortful. Maybe I can sit in that good space for a while and discover some contentment there. Where will you find your good space?

 

A soft focus gives you a clearer picture

Do you ever wonder why we have so many expressions about being tricked by our senses? We want to believe that the things we see, hear and taste are reality; but are they? Sensory input is prone to all sorts of distortion by the mind. As Mark Twain said, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

David Life, writing in Yoga Journal, said that “Our attention is the most valuable thing we have,” yet because the visible world is “overstimulating” the eyes wander and we become distracted. Gymnast Gabby Douglas has spoken about how hard it can be for her to focus: “I’m like: ‘Look, something shiny! No, focus. Oh, there goes a butterfly.'” The wandering eyes result in a wandering, hyperactive mind, jumping from one thing to the next with no real sense of clarity about anything.

Butterflies_03This is why the concept of “drishti” is so important in yoga, and can also be a practice that helps us off the mat. Drishti is a Sanskrit word that means “gaze” or “sight”; but also vision or point of view. By practicing drishti, we potentially develop better focus, concentration, and receptivity. It is a technique, but also, Life says, a metaphor.

In simple terms, drishti during a yoga practice means that you look at one point with a soft, unfocused gaze. Baron Baptiste says that making the eyes “soft and tender” first physically grounds us, then calms the mind and allows the senses to turn inward. During yoga, this has the physical benefit of helping us find stability in balance postures as well as making the practice feel like a moving meditation. In Ashtanga yoga, there are actually nine different drishti points where the gaze can be directed, depending on what you are doing – points such as the tip of the nose, the hands, the big toes, the thumbs or the third eye. But in most classes, people are just directed to find a drishti somewhere.

When the eyes stop wandering and the gaze is directed to a single point, it helps us see more consciously, “past the screen of our prejudiced beliefs,” according to Yogapedia. This effect can help clear away fears and judgments, the experience of what happened yesterday, the preconceived notions about what we can do and who we are. As Baptiste says, we expand from the default view to the 360 degree view. This allows us to become the observer of our own experience, enabling us to see things through new, uncolored lenses. IMG_2347

When the drishti calms the mind, we may even approach the moment with what is called “beginner’s mind,” as if it is something we are seeing for the first time. We can still build on past experience while recognizing that this moment is a new opportunity, one to be viewed neutrally and with receptivity. Possibilities widen. Eventually, David Life says, the development of a single-pointed focus helps us build compassion – for ourselves and others.

Jeff Brantley and Wendy Millstine offer a practice in their book “Five Good Minutes” that takes the lessons of drishti and applies them to the ability to really see another person. With a picture of a loved one in front of you (or in your mind’s eye) and while breathing mindfully:

  • See the person as if for the first time. Drop all the old stories about him or her. Notice as many details as you can.
  • Imagine this person moving through the stages of life, as a child, adolescent, adult, in old age, and at death.
  • See in this person the same wishes and fears everyone has. See the desire for love, safety, and peace.
  • End by releasing the image and noticing your own thoughts and feelings without judgment.

In this way, drishti helps us un-see so that we can bring fresh insight to the people and situations we experience each day.

 

 

More kindness — the only resolution I need to make

It occurred to me on New Year’s Eve that the only resolution I needed to make was to be more kind. Why? Because kindness covers all the bases – my physical and mental health, my relationships, my productivity and my emotional well-being. Kindness differs from simply being “nice” because it requires action – just as resolutions do.

If I’m more kind to myself, I’ll be mindful about eating in a healthy way and getting more exercise. I’ll engage in self-care practices like getting more sleep and drinking more water. I’ll make my doctor’s appointments and take my vitamins. If I’m more kind to myself, I’ll stop feeling guilty about the time I spend reading, daydreaming or watching TV. I will accept myself as I am.

If I’m more kind to the people I live with, our relationships will improve. Kindness will heal the small hurts and be like a balm for the irritability and impatience we sometimes (unfairly) foist on our loved ones. Being kind will keep me from making the snarky comment or the unreasonable demand. Being kind will help us smile more.California - March (8)

If I’m more kind to the strangers I meet as I go about my day, it will improve my mood and maybe theirs as well. There is research that shows a small, but significant, boost to personal well-being from being kind to others. Being kind to strangers may open the door to unexpected and even delightful interactions which I would otherwise miss. Kindness will build bridges to understanding — as Mark Twain said, it “is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

If I’m more kind, I will remember to say “thank you” more often. Recognizing the kindnesses that others have shown me and expressing gratitude for them will build goodwill and “create a ripple with no logical end,” as Scott Adams has said.

More kindness will lead to more forgiveness. Maybe I won’t beat myself up as much when I procrastinate or make a mistake. Maybe I won’t be as critical of others or hold them to a higher standard than they can meet. Maybe I can even be kind to those who have hurt me or the people I love.

Being more kind, whether it’s to myself or others, won’t be easy. As Jill Suttie writes, “We are naturally conditioned to pay attention to the negative things happening around us,” and we have to “purposefully create opportunities for positive emotion.” She suggests starting with simple, small acts such as smiling at someone on the street because that can act as a “gateway” to more kindness.

As Jon Kabat Zinn has written,

If I become a center of love and kindness in this moment, then in a perhaps small but hardly insignificant way, the world now has a nucleus of love and kindness it lacked the moment before.

So what if we all at least tried to become centers of love and kindness? Then it might truly be a happy new year.

 

Staying out of troubled waters

There’s an adage that goes, “Never meet trouble halfway. Let it travel the full distance. Something usually happens to it before it arrives.” Good advice, right? So why is it that so many of us go looking for trouble?

  • Do you wake up at night and start worrying about what might happen tomorrow? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.
  • Do you get stuck in the middle of a project because of self-doubt? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.
  • Do you come up with a million reasons not to take the risk to do something that you know you will love? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.
  • Do you believe that the problems you’re having today will last forever? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.

When we don’t make trouble travel the full distance to reach us, we easily become paralyzed, anxious and overly cautious. Productivity suffers, and we definitely can’t grow or change in a meaningful way. Studies have shown that anxiety and worry are negatively associated with self-efficacy, the belief in one’s capabilities and confidence that goals can be achieved.psychology-2422439_960_720

It’s tough to break the habit of anticipating trouble, or the vicious cycle of negative beliefs and avoidance.  Yoga teacher Kathryn Budig is one of the people who inspires me when I need a kick in the pants to make an intentional effort toward positive thinking. Her practices are all about empowerment, taking risks, having fun and not letting those nagging worries f*** with your head. During a challenging moment, she’ll simply say, “You’ve got this.” Or, “You know what? If you fall, you’ll just get back up and try again.” During tough moments, I remember her voice and repeat to myself, “I’ve got this.”

There are other ways to make trouble travel the full distance. One is to use visualization to flip the scenario that you’re imagining in your dark moments. Instead of picturing the worst, can you picture the best outcome? Build as many details into your mental picture as possible, until it becomes believable. The mind can be a powerful tool to your benefit, but sometimes it has to be gently coaxed to turn in the positive direction.

Looking back to your past can also be useful. In most cases, you know that you’ve been able to rise to challenges like this before. You can remember other times when your worries have been unjustified, when the outcome that you feared did not come to pass. The bottom line is that you probably have as much reason to expect the best as you do to expect the worst. So focus on those proven moments when you have been successful.

Choose some small change to make in order to build self-efficacy. Not something life-changing, but something achievable. When you see for yourself that you are capable of making the change, confidence in your abilities will grow and you can move on to something bigger. The more self-efficacy you build, the less anxiety you should have — because your belief in your ability to cope will be stronger. You will more often be making trouble travel the full distance to reach you.

Most important is to be firmly grounded in the present moment. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, each new day is a precious gift. Greet the peace and happiness that the day offers. Breathe it in. For this moment, don’t look any farther into what’s ahead.image

 

Apples and pumpkins and pears, oh my!

At first blush, Fall is not my favorite season. It is probably second only to winter as my least favorite since I’m a warm weather girl at heart. But, trying to find a silver lining, I decided to make a list of all the things I like about Fall, to see where that would take me. It turned out to be a longer list than I thought it would be.

Let’s start with the weather, shall we? Yes, fall brings cooler temperatures and sometimes rain, but it can also be glorious (as it is as I write this). Late September and early October offer us some breathtakingly beautiful days that feel like summer, but are all the more precious because they come as a surprise. As we count down the weeks until the real cold sets in, I have greater appreciation for the gift of these gorgeous days.

Cooler days also give us the opportunity to do more outside. The prospect of hiking or biking, which might have inspired groans on those 90-degree days with 90% humidity during August, is actually pleasant now. This is the time of year to explore and put some serious miles on the shoes before it gets too cold and icy.

It’s also a whole new season of produce at the markets. Yes, I miss the berries and peaches, but the apples right now are amazing. The pick-your-own farms are in full swing as well. What would Fall be without a trip to the apple orchard, the cider mill or the pumpkin patch?New Jersey apple picking (7)

I’m happy not to be a kid starting school in September, but for adults the fall offers rich opportunities for learning and experiencing culture. It’s a new theatre season, the serious fall movies are starting to appear and a new season of adult programming begins at local colleges, museums and art centers.

I can start wearing different clothes! If you’re like me, by the end of a season, you get sick of looking at the same wardrobe choices every day. It’s almost like buying new clothes when I can go into my drawers or closet and pull out a forgotten sweater or a long-sleeved shirt and remember how much I like wearing it. I warm up my feet, which have been in sandals all summer, rediscovering socks and boots.

There are more people around. Some places feel more crowded,  but that’s a good thing in general. It means that people are back from their summer vacations and more available for making plans and getting together. It’s a good time to plan a nice fall dinner party, maybe one featuring squashes and Brussels sprouts.IMG_1043

I can turn off the air conditioning and open my windows. I love the fresh air (well, as fresh as it gets in the city) and even the noise that goes along with it. It makes me feel connected to the outdoors and to the neighborhood.

We can start anticipating and planning for holidays. The sight of the pumpkins and other squashes, the apples and pears, the sweaters and boots, makes me think of Thanksgiving and beyond. What will be on the menu this year? Who will be with us?  What traditions will we keep and how will we celebrate differently?

Anthony Doerr, the author of the acclaimed novel “All the Light We Cannot See”, has said,

The preciousness of life and the changes of weather and the beauty of seasons – all those things have always sort of dazzled me.

I’m setting an intention right now to let Fall dazzle instead of disappoint this year, to look with new eyes on its changing colors, to savor the tastes and textures it offers, and to accept the season in all its unique beauty without wishing I was in any other season.

How to disable the rudeness virus

What was the first thing you did when you got to work today? Greet someone warmly, or snub someone in the elevator? Hold the door for someone, or send the nasty email you were stewing over all night? Compliment someone’s work, or leave a mess in the kitchen? While you may think that your action ends there, it has repercussions throughout the day – for anyone who witnessed it.

Like many emotional states and behaviors, rudeness is actually contagious. And when someone witnesses what they perceive to be rudeness early in the day, it tends to color their perceptions of all the subsequent interactions they have during the remainder of the workday. It contaminates their view, and makes them more likely to perceive something as rude later in the day. That makes rudeness something more than just an encounter between two people; it has ongoing social ramifications that could really impact a workplace or community.Spain-Barcelona (87)

Much of the recent research on the contagion of rudeness has been conducted by Trevor Foulk, a professor at the University of Maryland. And while a great deal of that research has focused on the workplace, there are parallels to what we see every day in the larger societal sphere. A rude tweet early in the morning sets the stage for an escalating battle of words throughout the day, and a tendency to take offense at even the most benign statements because rudeness has been “activated” in people’s associative networks.

Every time we witness something like this, we make an assessment as to what to do about it, using up valuable mental resources that could be better spent on work tasks or other activities. It also makes us more likely to just avoid such social interactions. People with higher self-esteem and a stronger locus of control may have a greater ability to cope with these situations, but even for them, it’s a drain on resources.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about something similar — the Buddhist concept of “knots:”

When we have sensory input, depending on how we receive it, a knot may be tied in us. When someone speaks unkindly to us, if we understand the reason and do not take his or her words to heart, we will not feel irritated at all, and no knot will be tied. But if we do not understand why we were spoken to that way and we become irritated, a knot will be tied in us.

knot 2He goes on to say that these knots will grow tighter and stronger if they are not untied, and lead to feelings such as anger, fear or regret, creating “fetters” that effect us, even if they are repressed. They eventually express themselves through “destructive feelings, thoughts, words or behavior.” In other words, rudeness and unkindness are as contagious as a physical illness, and we can become carriers without intending to be. It’s not too much of a leap to see a connection to the recent decline in civility across American life and the erosion of trust among people.

How can we inoculate ourselves from the contagion of rudeness? Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we need to “live every moment in an awakened way.” We must be aware of our feelings and motivations. Where are they coming from? Can we hold them in our consciousness and examine them without discomfort overwhelming us?

If awareness is the first step, then perhaps the second is to recognize the power you have to control your own feelings and thoughts. Not everything is personal. Practice your ability to change negative thoughts into positive ones, remembering that you always have a choice in how you interact with the world around you.

Be more intentional in your words and actions. Too often, we are reactive and impulsive in our responses. But if rudeness is contagious, so can kindness be. Choose your words more carefully, thinking first about how they will be received. Set an intention to start each day with an act of kindness. As Aesop wrote so long ago, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”