What do you want to add to your life?

A list, by its nature, has to have some importance. We make lists to organize our thoughts and to remember what we want to recall, and why would we do that if it wasn’t for something meaningful or important? Right now I have a grocery list in my purse and a to-do list on my desk.  On my iPad, I have a list of 100 books “That Shaped America”. Last week the “Best of 2016” lists started appearing. And a few years ago, Rosanne Cash even made an album called “The List”, featuring the songs her father had considered essential for her to know.

So lists can be made up of things that are the best, the most influential, or the most essential. And lists can be more mundane: groceries, names, chores, goals. The common factor is always, “Let’s not forget these things.”

For my birthday, I received a journal called “The 52 Lists Project“. The idea of the journal is to take lists beyond what we want to remember and into the realm of inspiration and insight. What do our lists reveal about us? Loosely organized around the calendar year, each week’s list challenges the writer to look a little more deeply inside.

List #48 asks me to “list the things you want to add to your life.” This is the time of year when many of us are expecting gifts, but list #48 is something different — the non-tangibles that I desire. Here is my list:

Joy/smiles/laughter — is there anyone who feels they have enough of these? Our world gives us so much to be serious and worried about, but how can we temper those thoughts with occasions of joy?  My inner child wants to delight in the glow of holiday lights and the beauty of new snow, to laugh at something silly, to smile at a loved one.zoolights-december-5

Civility & respect — These traits seem to have gone missing from society. A nearby Quaker church used to have a banner that asked, “How does your life help to remove the causes of war?” My question now is, “How can my life add to civility and respect in the world around me?” Can the way I think and talk about people, places and things (even in my own home) be a small step that contributes to a shift in the environment?

Volunteering — Our time and presence are powerful gifts to offer others. When we give help, most of us get just as much out of it as we put in. It’s an opportunity to put passions into practice; get out of our own heads for a while; and shift our perspective. It is also a way to experience humility and demonstrate respect for others.

Meditation — I’m in the middle of a personal 28-day meditation challenge. I especially like a 5-minute meditation I found on YogaGlo called “With empty hands, I take hold of the plough.” It helps me visualize the balance between letting go and holding on, as well as approaching each task with openness.Hand Reaching

Sleep — The Dalai Lama has said that sleep is the best meditation, but it is an ongoing challenge for me to get deep, uninterrupted sleep. Since sleep is so important for repairing the body, and contributing to a longer life, this will always be on my wish list.

Time with friends — It’s so easy to get caught up in juggling everyday life that time with friends often goes to the bottom of the list. But the nourishment that comes from these moments together makes our daily burdens so much lighter. As Henry Van Dyke wrote, “A friend is what the heart needs all the time.”

A list of 6 simple things to add to my life. Now I’ll see if it translates to action, or just procrastination!

Some lists endure longer than others. The grocery list might get tossed tomorrow; the book list will be marked up and crossed off; the to-do list will probably get longer. Some lists, like #48, serve as guideposts. Some, as Rosanne Cash discovered, become legacies. What kind of list are you writing this week?

Now what?

What do you with what you know, what you’ve learned, the gifts you have? Is having it all enough for you, or does meaning only accrue when you act on what you have? In “The Illuminations” by Andrew O’Hagan, one character says to another, “People who read books aren’t reading them properly if they stop with the books. You’ve got to go out eventually and test it all against reality.”

Several days ago, I went to a yoga workshop billed as “Yoga: The Advanced Practices”. Now that title might make you think that I’m someone who can do a headstand with ease, or twist my leg around neck, or any number of other challenging yoga postures, but nothing could be farther from the truth. And, in fact, the workshop’s “advanced practices” weren’t about asana (physical postures) at all. They were about the real “meat” of yoga — pranayama (breathwork) and meditation. We spent only about 40 minutes of the three hours doing asana.

Why do the other practices matter so much more? As our teacher, Greg, said, they provide the answer to the question, “Now what?” As in, “I’ve mastered a handstand. Now what?” Or, “I’ll never master a handstand. Now what?” Breath and meditation give you the space, the way, to take the yoga off the mat and into the world. As you grow in emotional awareness and focus, they help you be the person who can give back to the community, who can be the better spouse, the better friend, the better parent.

The very next day after the yoga workshop happened to be the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. As I was reading through the prayerbook, I came across this meditation: “Why be concerned with meaning? Why not be content with satisfaction of desires and needs? The vital drives of food, sex and power…are as characteristic of animals as they are of us. Being human is a characteristic of a being who faces the question: After satisfaction, what?

Now what?

The world we see reflects who we are. Sometimes we need to correct our course or re-affirm our best qualities and intentions so that they are manifested in that reflection. Any kind of meditation helps us do that, as does the meditative practice of affirmative writing, part of the “Writing to Heal” program. Affirmative writing can crystallize values and create a vision for one’s life; it helps us identify our gifts and be grateful for them; and it can be a guide to living a life where you flourish and grow.

So take paper and pen, find somewhere to sit quietly, and answer these questions in writing (resist the urge to self-edit):

  1. What are your gifts? You best qualities, what you offer to others?
  2. What gift do you feel is ready to emerge, evolve or resurface?
  3. How have you denied or hidden any gift in the past?
  4. How is your life and others impacted when you withhold your gift?
  5. How might your life and others be impacted if you offered your gift?
  6. What might living with this gift look like and feel like?
  7. What support from others do you need to develop your gift?
  8. What does your gift need from you?

Naming your gifts, and thinking about how others are impacted when you offer them, is a powerful way to answer the question, “Now what?” When I did this exercise, and I responded to question 6, how would living this gift look and feel, the words I wrote were, “spacious, exciting, vibrant.”

An authentic life is an examined life. Living with questions like these can sometimes make us uncomfortable. But eventually, if we want the answer to “now what?” we’ve got to go out and test the answers against reality.