A new year of possibility…step by step

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but any time we turn the page to a fresh year, it can be worthwhile to think about the connection between intention and action. My beliefs about myself and others, my outlook on life, and my readiness to change converge as the starting point for every action I take and every habit I adopt:

Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny. (Gandhi)

Once you start thinking along those lines, you see the connections everywhere. For me, it’s been manifested in the movies, plays, and even the commercials I’ve seen lately. Here’s what I mean:

Downsizing – This film is advertised as a comedy, and it’s certainly funny at times, but it has a resonant message about what’s important in life. At the end of the day, it isn’t the place you live or the things you have, but rather whether you find meaning  in your life. Living a life of purpose and action, driven by values, is what really matters.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – In many ways, this movie was about knowing when we need to change our beliefs, especially about other people. Help doesn’t always come from the place or in the manner you thought it would. If you hold on too long to your fixed beliefs, you won’t take the actions that are needed to fulfill your destiny.Prague Budapest Trip 457 (2)

Nothing to Lose (But Our Chains) – This show by The Second City and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Companies was written by, and starred, Felonious Munk. The title comes from an Assata Shakur quote that was a catchphrase of the Ferguson, MO protests. But Munk takes it further in this show loosely based on his life, saying, “Some of us aren’t just oppressed by the larger society, we’re oppressed by the ideas that we’ve been conditioned with from birth.” Until we can let go of some of those self-destructive beliefs, forgive others and ourselves, our heads aren’t in the right place to find the path we need to take.

The Shape of Water – Okay, this movie was harder for me to like. Beautiful, yes, but at the end of it, I was left feeling a little, “So what?” On the other hand, it was definitely a film about values and the courage it takes to not back off when faced with choices that test them. Although the Gandhi quote suggests that actions lead to habits and habits lead to values, it works the other way too. Holding strong values and living by them influences the actions we take.

The new State Farm commercial – this spot uses the Simple Minds song, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” to remind viewers that volunteering shouldn’t stop when the holiday season ends. In the ad, we see a homeless shelter or soup kitchen filled with people who come to help during Christmas; then that scene fades to the same space post- holiday, with only the people in need remaining. It’s a very affecting way to say “Don’t forget your good intentions – let them drive your actions all year long.”Lake Como_387

Martin Luther King wrote that, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Whatever intention you may have, trust is the bridge between thought and action — trust in yourself, trust in others, trust in the future. So whether you’ve made resolutions or set intentions, have you put them into words? Taken any action? Did you trust enough to take your first step?

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Wobbling toward trust

Bob Dylan sang, “Trust yourself …If you need somebody you can trust, trust yourself.” Somehow I think he must have known just how much many of us need to hear that.

Reckless personWhen I wobble in tree pose, or can’t bring myself into a headstand in yoga, it’s not just equilibrium or core strength holding me back – it’s lack of trust in my ability to do it. When the anxiety over my recent move took hold of me, it wasn’t because anything was going wrong — it was my failure to trust myself and my strength. When I worry about one of my kids doing something new, it’s not so much about them, but about me not trusting that I taught them well.

According to Psychology Today, not trusting ourselves often evolves out of being hurt by someone or something we trusted. We become afraid to trust anyone again, and we start to question our judgment. From there, faith in our selves begins to dwindle. So how do we rebuild trust in our own abilities, capacities and judgment?

The magazine offers this simple somatic exercise as a first step to restoring trust in yourself:

“Sit or lie down so that you are comfortable and in a safe place.
Now, how can you make it even more comfortable? Get a blanket, a pillow… whatever will make you feel relaxed and content.
Once you are settled, ask yourself: “How do I know this is comfortable?” This might appear to be a silly question, and perhaps even confusing. However, it is an important one in increasing your skills of building trust.
Continue to explore what sensation you feel that you recognize as comfort. For example, you might think, “I do not feel any pain,” “I breath easily,” or “I feel relaxed.”
You might be anticipating that this feeling won’t last, which is true. We can’t control or grasp on to this pleasurable feeling. It’s only important that you are in the present moment right now, not drifting into thoughts of the future or the past. Thinking of the future can create anxiety; thinking of the past can create depression.
Remain aware of any sounds, the temperature, the light, and your physical sensations. Can you let yourself simply enjoy the moment?
You can practice this exercise for as long as you prefer and as time allows you. Just keep checking in with your level of comfort. What feelings indicate that you are comfortable? With time, you may start to trust your feelings again.”

When we were babies, we learned to trust when our needs for food, safety, warmth and love were satisfied. This exercise takes us back to those basics. If I believe that this warm, comfy feeling I’m experiencing right now is real, then I can have faith that it will come again and I will be able to recognize it.

Great Ocean Road_23.1The other thing worth noting about this exercise is that it is very much focused on present-moment awareness. If we think about trust as the flip side of fear, then the inability to trust is all about fear of what the next moment, or the one after, might bring. By staying focused on the present, we only have to trust what we are experiencing in this moment.

Life is full of surprises, dangers, joys, hurts, disappointment, elation, boredom, passion. In order to have the good with the bad, we need to worry less about what’s around the corner and focus more on everything that is absolutely right, right now. As Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, instead of asking, “What’s wrong?”, we should learn to ask, “What’s not wrong?”

Knowing when to surrender

While doing child’s pose yesterday in yoga, our teacher said that the pose is also called “wisdom pose”. I had never heard this before, but as I thought about it, it made sense. In child’s pose, we need to relax and surrender to gravity, to make ourselves vulnerable like children. And in life, it often requires a lot of wisdom for us to fully surrender and let things be.

Do you ever think about how much energy you use up fighting things? From the mundane fights (traffic, kids’ bedtimes, the cable company) to more important fights (interpersonal conflict, problems at work, health issues), so much of our time is taken up with struggling against things that we sometimes feel like we’re not moving to anything.

Part of what drives us is the need to have and keep control of things in our lives. A feeling of control is important to managing stress; but so is realizing when something is out of our control, or deciding that control just isn’t worth the price it requires. So there might be times when it’s appropriate to “give in”, such as when maintaining a relationship is more important than winning an argument, or when the outcome is clearly more important to the other person than it is to you.

Exercising control is often a response to fear as well. Fear of change, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of facing difficult emotions – all can lead us to fiercely hold onto positions that really aren’t serving us. Bertrand Russell said that “to conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” And sometimes surrendering control, allowing events to happen and feelings to rise, is the beginning of conquering fear.

Sometimes when we are over-efforting, micromanaging every detail, too focused on the outcome, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. If we take a step back to see things as they are, and just stop trying so hard, we might be more successful in reaching our goals. Soren Gordhamer writes that “we can often make more progress and with less stress not by trying harder but by trying softer. By doing so, there is an ease to our effort…”

Top athletes and other types of performers know how to try “softer”, although they may call it by a different name. They train and practice for hours, but when called upon to perform, they have to let go of thinking through every move, step, or note and just let things flow through them. They have the wisdom to surrender, and to trust what is inside of them.

I just read about a study of centenarians showing that the people who live longest are the most optimistic and carefree, relaxed and upbeat, and notably non-neurotic. They are the people who let go of their stress rather than internalizing it. I don’t know if they are practicing child’s pose, but something tells me that they are also people who have learned the value of surrendering.