Wisdom by way of Picasso and Elizabeth Bennet

Our greatest thinkers, artists, innovators and scholars have in common a curiosity that persists throughout life. They are open to new ideas and never stop learning. As Pablo Picasso said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

All dimensions of wellness “act and interact” in ways that impact quality of life. Growth in the intellectual dimension helps us pro-actively solve problems, widens our understanding of the world and its people, and gives us a sense of control over events. Intellectual well-being is a key factor in maintaining resilience in the face of stress because it enables us to think critically, to see opposing points of view and to trust ourselves to make good decisions.IMG_0416

Recent findings from the Benefits of Lifelong Learning project show that non-job related adult education increases self-confidence and well-being, leads to greater tolerance of and trust in other people, and broadens social networks. Adult learners become more health-conscious, start doing more volunteer work in their communities, and show increased motivation to further their studies. Learning begets learning, or as daVinci noted, “Learning never exhausts the mind.”

Earlier this week, I attended a funeral where a young man eulogized his grandfather by sharing with us some of his wisdom. The older man was intensely proud of his grandson, yet he often said to him (with a smile), “Remember – you’re always a freshman.” Not only was he saying, “Don’t get cocky,” he also meant that we’ve always got something to learn, we’ll always be new to something. Or as John Wooden put it, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

There’s often a sigh of relief at graduations – whether high school, college or grad school – that formal education is finished, at least for a while. But after some time passes, many of us miss those days in school, and not just because of the lifestyle. We miss being challenged, stimulated, exposed to new ideas, that buzz we get when we feel ourselves growing. Unfortunately modern life often distracts us from further intellectual pursuits – we get caught up in earning a living, raising a family, keeping up with the latest technology, and think that we don’t have the time or money or energy to take a class, learn a language or practice a musical instrument.

Fear sometimes holds people back too. Deciding to learn something new first requires us to admit that there’s something we don’t know. That’s more difficult for some of us than we’d like to admit. We don’t really want to be “a freshman” again. What if we fail? What if we’re not good at something? Can our fragile egos take the risk?

Fortunately, there are ways to dip a toe in the water of intellectual growth if signing up for that degree program or those cello lessons is too big a step right now:

  • Read a book for fun. Yes, fun. It might be non-fiction on a topic that interests you; or try fiction in a genre different than your usual taste.
  • Attend a seminar or lecture. Local newspapers are usually full of listings for free events, at least in big metropolitan areas.
  • Write. A private journal or a blog such as this one will stimulate critical thinking and send you out looking for information and ideas.
  • Play old-fashioned board games or card games. Many of these challenge you to think strategically.
  • Watch a TED talk. They have thousands of short lectures that offer “ideas worth spreading.”
  • Stay up to date with events in the world, but don’t just accept what you see and read. Question it, look for the opposite view.

There’s a scene in “Pride and Prejudice” where Mr. Darcy tells Elizabeth Bennet that he doesn’t have the talent for easily conversing that some people do. Elizabeth counters by saying that she doesn’t play piano as well as some women, but she always took that to be her own fault for not practicing enough. Ultimately we are each responsible for our own growth and development, aren’t we?

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How high do you bounce when you hit bottom?

Humans may be unique among species in our potential to be resilient in the face of change. Biological imperative drives most species to persevere in a programmed way even when circumstances become dire. The sea turtle returns to the same beach no matter how much development or predation occurs there. The monarch butterfly’s route to a certain Mexican forest is encoded in its DNA and it flies as if on auto-pilot. The salmon will swim upriver to spawn even when a dam is in its way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPerseverance is necessary for our success too, and sometimes it’s enough. But today, more than ever before, the world is changing at a breathtaking pace and we need something more than drive and diligence. We need resilience.

Resilience is the ability to adapt to change, to bounce back from losses and hardship, to thrive anew after experiencing adversity. Our resilience benefits us in small ways every day, but especially when life throws a big curveball our way. Think job loss, natural disaster or personal tragedy.

Resilience is about having inner strength, but it’s not about being a Lone Ranger kind of tough guy. In fact, one of the hallmarks of a resilient person is being socially connected: having supportive relationships, working collaboratively with others, and asking for help when necessary.

Our ability to be resilient isn’t fixed — it’s not even something we’re really born with. According to This Emotional Life, resilience develops as people grow up. We gradually gain more knowledge and experience, and that enhances the belief that we can cope with new situations. Ideally, we also learn self-management skills such as how to express emotions. And if we enjoy supportive relationships with our family and community, they help us gain trust and optimism.

Of course we’re all born with different kinds of temperaments, and most of us don’t grow up in that kind of ideal environment. So it comes as no surprise that many of us aren’t all that resilient. We become rigid in our beliefs, resistant to change, and unwilling to look for silver linings. We dig in our heels, deny that change is necessary and hold on to the status quo as long as possible.Detour

See, decide, believe. That’s how someone who resists change can change himself. Like any behavior change, first it’s necessary to see that you might not be so resilient, then decide you want to change. After that, start telling yourself that you are resilient. Believing it helps make it so, because brain research suggests that resilience depends on communication between the logical, prefrontal cortex part of the brain, and the limbic system, which is the seat of emotions. So what we say, what we think, the story we tell about ourselves, helps make the reality.

Other tips for building resilience come from the Mayo Clinic and the Centre for Confidence:

  • Try to see change as a meaningful challenge, and make each day have purpose
  • Learn from experience, and use it to build problem-solving strategies
  • Nurture connections with others; try to resolve any persistent conflicts with family or co-workers
  • Stay positive and hopeful
  • Know that you cannot control all events, but you can control your reaction to events
  • Take care of yourself – being physically, mentally and spiritually well prepares you to adapt to change.

Nothing lasts forever, change is a given and there are no guarantees. The headline of a piece in the Harvard Business Review said it best: “Surprises are the new normal; resilience is the new skill.” Be ready.

How to take a time-in

My breath slowed as I rolled out my mat and sat down to await the start of yoga class. I looked around at the mostly-young group of people there for the 5 pm class. Had they left work early? Do they have flexible hours? Do they work part-time? Were they going back to work later?

As I silently congratulated all of us on taking time out of the day to do something good for ourselves, I realized that it wasn’t really a “time out” – it was very much a “time in”. It might even have been the most time I’d really spent “in” and engaged all day.

What is “time in”? It’s not just time spent looking inward, though that could be a part of it. It’s time being fully present, and in the moment. It’s time when our brains get a rest from the over stimulating environment that we’re exposed to most of the day. It’s time when we pay attention to our senses, stop multitasking, and regain focus and concentration.

Spending time in meditation, for instance, leads to a restful, yet awake, state where we have more alpha wave activity in the brain. This brings greater mental clarity, fosters creativity and enhances memory. Research shows that regular meditators can stay on task longer and are less distracted even when they are in a multitasking situation.

Less formal meditative experiences happen in yoga, where the sequence of postures commands focused attention, or in exercise such as running, when the sounds of the breath or footfalls become a focal point. Such activities have a beneficial effect on the brain, making us alert to what’s happening in the moment, and sometimes opening a window to better directions or opportunities.

I’m continually surprised by the way that an idea will just pop into my head when I’m in a yoga class or out for a run. Even when I’ve been blocked creatively about something for days, allowing some mental space from it and taking “time in” almost always helps. That must be why companies such as Google, Nike, Ben & Jerry’s and Zappo’s have on-site meditation classes or nap rooms for their employees. Resting the brain can have surprisingly productive results (like new ice cream flavors!)

Being able to bring intense focus and concentration to a project is a necessary element of what is called a “flow” experience in positive psychology. Flow is “a joyful state” that we experience when “we are actively involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills”. During “flow”, we lose track of time and self-consciousness. People who are “high-flow” generally demonstrate better performance, commitment to goals, and greater long-term happiness. Without the motivation or ability to focus, however, high-flow activities seem too hard. We choose the easier low-flow activities (like watching TV) that might provide immediate gratification but don’t really lead to long-term satisfaction. That’s why it is so important to well-being that we strengthen the capacity to focus through “time in” pursuits.

Instead of saying we don’t have time to meditate or exercise, we should be saying there’s no time to waste before starting. Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, says that “Our daily decisions and habits have a huge impact upon both our levels of happiness and success.” Maybe today’s decision to spend “time in” will be the start of a recurring pattern for you – one with a far-reaching effect on your fulfillment in life.

Vacation days

First day of vacation: The monkey mind is still alive and well, jumping from thought to thought. I wake with an undercurrent of dis-ease. What am I “supposed” to be doing today? My mind isn’t yet allowing me to surrender to the idea of slowing down and doing nothing.
 
So I get up and make a list of things to do. I write some emails. I find something to clean. I sit in the sun and try to read. I start to doze off, the first moment of the day that feels lazy and luxurious. But soon I’m up again, going off to exercise. I believe in working out on vacation, but today it feels like part of my “organized” life, something I’ve scheduled, not something that says “vacation”.
 
Did you know that the majority of Americans don’t use all of their vacation days in the year, leaving billions of dollars of benefits on the table? Many don’t take vacation because they can’t afford a trip, but others are afraid for their job security if they ask for time off.
 
While most employers recognize the value when employees come back rested, refreshed, and more productive, many also expect their employees to answer emails while on vacation. In fact, more than half of the people in one survey said that they are expected to have email access on vacation. So while vacations usually enhance family relationships, work interruptions can actually impede that benefit.
 
Second day of vacation: I’m up early to walk the beach checking sea turtle nests. It’s light, but the sun isn’t up over the horizon yet, and the moon is still visible high in the sky. The shrimp boats are out on the water, and a group of deer graze on the dunes. They let me get amazingly close to them. I’m reminded that the only important things to do today are eating and spending time in nature.Kiawah 003
 
Psychology Today says that “Vacations have the potential to break into the stress cycle,” getting us off the merry-go-round of chronic stress, sleep deprivation and unquiet minds. Vacations are also good times to establish new health habits, especially around exercise.
 
Third day of vacation: I wake in the pre-dawn to the sound of rain beating on the roof. I drift back to sleep thinking about a day spent reading and watching movies indoors. But by 7:00 the storm clouds have moved out to sea and people start to wander onto the beach for morning runs and walks. What will the day ahead hold for me? Beach? Yoga? Biking? All three? Kiawah 006
 
While the joy of vacation wears off quickly when we return to work, people still say they are happiest having spent money on an experience rather than a material possession. Most of that positive feeling comes from being able to share the experience with friends or family. The vacation becomes part of the story of the social network.
 
Fourth day of vacation: Here’s the beauty of it — I don’t need to know what tomorrow will bring. Yes, there are are many more things to do, but there are also all the remaining vacation days on which to do them. It’s time to disconnect……

You gotta have heart

For how many moments of your life is your heart present? Do you do things in a “half-hearted” way? Do you agree to do something, knowing that your “heart isn’t in it”? We use expressions like this to describe lack of enthusiasm, but they are really just another way of describing an absence of mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, described in an interview the Chinese ideogram for the word mindfulness. He said it is made up of the character for presence, combined with the character for heart. In essence , mindfulness means presence of heart. By cultivating a quality of presence, he says, we inhabit our true selves and are more able to uncover our sense of compassion.image

I’ve spent the past few days reading a book called The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin. It is a novel about separation and grief, loneliness and misunderstanding, freedom and imprisonment. It contains a beautiful passage that, to me, perfectly describes mindfulness:

When she was alone, when she was working, it was as if she forgot about herself. It seemed strange to state it this way, but it was as if she had no outline, no body, even though the work was physical. Where did her mind go? Her mind was steeped in the task at hand. At such times she felt a depth of kinship with the earth, and also felt very grown up, rife with compassion.”

Is mindfulness necessary for compassion to exist? Are we able to feel deep sympathy for someone else, and to care about ending their suffering, if we don’t have the ability to pay attention and be present to what they are feeling? The character in the book realizes in moments of mindfulness at work that she has attained a greater capacity to feel, that there is a spaciousness in her heart that wasn’t there before.

I’m also reminded of Like Water for Chocolate, in which all of the emotions of the character Tita become contained in the food she prepares, so that when people eat the food, they immediately feel what she feels — sadness, joy, pain. It doesn’t matter if you believe in the magic; there is something to learn from the idea that our work can contain some essential part of ourselves and that others can use their senses (taste, in this instance) to feel the emotion and presence that we put into it.

If we tune in to what our senses are telling us, really tune in, what can we learn? Whether it’s the expression on someone’s face, the sound of birds chirping, the smell of someone’s perfume, the taste of just-baked cookies, or the touch of a dog’s nose on my arm — engaging with my whole heart in that moment can help me understand what someone else feels, what is happening in my world, or just how much love can be contained in a batch of cookies. And that sense of understanding can open doors in the mind.image

Our brains are plastic; we can change them if we desire. The work of Richard Davidson and other neuroscientists has shown that if we train ourselves in mindfulness, we can hone skills that help us experience more happiness and compassion. But this isn’t something minor that just makes me or you happy on an individual level. The more we “widen our circle of compassion” as Einstein said, the more chance there is for harmony and peace in the world.

Our brains are plastic, but in order for them to expand, our hearts need to be present. So think about it — can you bring your whole heart to more of what you do every day?

Go out and play!

Plato wrote, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Playing allows us to take risks, to laugh at ourselves, to fall down, and to get back up. We discover truths about ourselves, as well as others.

Earlier this week, my yoga teacher announced at the beginning of class, “We’re just going to play today.” It was the last class there for most of us, since the yoga studio was closing at the end of the week. We all felt a little bittersweet about it, and by making the class more playful, our teacher helped us focus on the sweetness and joy rather than the sadness at the ending.

We went on to practice a lot of partner postures, flying postures and other fun stuff. We had to trust each other and give up some control in order to balance in the air on someone’s feet. Some of us found that easier than others, but there was laughter all around as we played together. And yes, I did learn more about my flying partner in that hour than I ever had by practicing yoga next to her.

Playing helps take us away from the stresses of “real” life, but it also prepares us for them. The first time I tried the trapeze, years ago, I was terrified. You have to stand with your toes hanging off the edge of a platform, high in the air, and lean forward to grab the swing with the assistant only holding onto your harness with a finger. I had to trust myself to reach for the swing as I stepped into the void, and know that there were only two possible outcomes. Either I would be successful, get a grip on the swing, pull my legs up over it, and fly through the air (with the greatest of ease?). Or I would miss the bar, fall into the safety net, and..….be okay. The only thing at risk was my ego.

Why do you think we use terms like “take the plunge” and “leap of faith” to describe life’s risk-taking? Those physical chances we take during play – diving into the deep end of the pool, and jumping off the trapeze — teach us that we will probably be okay even if we fail. By continuing to play as adults, we keep ourselves flexible (mentally and emotionally, as well as physically) and more able to deal with changes that come along.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Do we play enough? NO! Even kids don’t play in the traditional sense nearly as much as they used to. And adults are often so oriented to work and worried about the future that we forget to incorporate play into our lives. Deep down, though, we all want and need to play.

How can you start playing again? Try a Laughter Yoga class, where you can just be goofy and creative for an hour or two. If you’re near Washington D.C., check out an organization called “Spacious” that connects people around fun and play. Bring the Instant Recess program to your workplace. Play in the snow, dance in the street, go on a roller-coaster, ride a wave, or even try the trapeze. Re-discover that baseline joy that comes from letting go and trusting that everything will be okay.

Lessons from “30 Rock”

Toward the end of the “30 Rock” finale, Liz Lemon is explaining to Tracy Jordan how difficult he has been to work with, and how hard he made her job, but she says “because the human heart isn’t properly connected to the human brain,” she loves him anyway.

The “30 Rock” characters have change thrust upon them as the show ends; they experience love and loss, see dreams fulfilled and have wishes granted. Above all, the last episode is about how sometimes our hearts and our brains are at cross purposes. We think we want one thing, but when we get it, we find out it doesn’t make us happy. Or we discover that the thing that makes us happiest has been right in front of us all along.

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert has written, “We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present…We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.”

The question is whether instead of always using the present to project a rosier future, can you stay focused on the here and now, the reality of what is?

In “30 Rock”, Liz gets the children she wanted and becomes a stay-at-home mom, only to realize that she misses work terribly. Her husband gets a new job, and is miserable because he desperately wants to be at home with the kids. Jack gets his dream job as head of G.E. and immediately starts questioning whether he is truly happy. Jenna and Tracy struggle to figure out their identities now that their show is over.

The only character who doesn’t seem to experience any angst in the face of change is Kenneth. As the intern who becomes the head of the network, he is the only person completely comfortable in his new role. Perhaps he was the only one who had stayed present-focused all along. With his sunny optimism and his homespun wisdom, he never lost touch with his inner compass.

In an article in Yoga Journal, Kate Holcombe wrote about the idea of getting to know your true self, and how we often mistake some external attribute for who we really are. The Sanskrit word “asmita” refers to this misidentification which “happens when you identify with the parts of yourself that change – everything from your mind to your body, appearance, or job title – instead of with the quiet place within you that does not change.”

It’s easier to accept change on the outside if we are more connected to our unchanging self, says Holcombe, and not identifying “too closely with the changeable aspects” of ourselves. That requires a great deal of self-acceptance because the answer to the question, “Who am I?” doesn’t change.IMG_0271

Accepting and connecting with the unchanging self makes it easier to see when you’ve gotten off course, easier to see what it is that serves your needs at any given moment. So, like Liz Lemon, you might realize that being a stay-at-home mom isn’t right for you; or like Jack Donaghy, you might see that it’s not getting the dream job that makes you happy, it’s what you can do in the job.

Sometimes you get your heart’s desire; sometimes you don’t. But “because the human heart isn’t properly connected to the human brain,” you might find that you’re very happy anyway, just because of who you are.