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?

Advertisements

Reaching for gratitude amid chaos

One year ago, in the aftermath of the election, I wrote here about values, attempting to make sense of what had happened in our country. From my perspective, many of our country’s shared values had been put to the test and failed. Twelve months later, I’m no closer to understanding and my head is still spinning.

Things get crazier by the day.  Lying is an everyday occurrence in the White House. We now know that the Russians meddled in the election in a big way, enabled by our own social media companies. Powerful men are dropping like dominoes in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations. Evangelical Christians, the group who used to most strongly believe that moral character was important in our leaders, are now the group least likely to profess that belief. Hypocrisy reigns supreme. Maybe there are no shared values.

In some ways, the Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow gives us a pass on seeking shared values. Because it centers around the family and the table there’s no requirement to celebrate with someone who looks different or has opposite beliefs. Sure, there can be plenty of dysfunction and strife within families, but we accept that. They belong to us.

So this Thanksgiving when I consider what I’m grateful for, I think it’s important to look outside the cocoon of my own family and my personal life. Not that I don’t have plenty to appreciate – all the people closest to me are happy, healthy, and doing pretty well. But as Gilbert K. Chesterton once wrote, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” Here are just a few of the people and organizations that we can’t afford to take for granted anymore:

Our free press. Under a constant bombardment of tweets calling them “fake news,” our major news organizations continue to do a mostly good job of reporting things just as they are. For about a year, The Washington Post has used the slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” on its masthead. That about says it all.

The ACLU. Perhaps no organization is more important when it comes to defending our liberties under the constitution. Whether it’s LGBT protections, sanctuary cities, people with disabilities, or aggressive policing practices, the ACLU is on the front lines.

Planned Parenthood. With women and their health needs under attack, Planned Parenthood is continuing their 100-year history of providing care and advocating for women, from their local community health centers to their global partnerships.newspaper

The women who are coming forward. It takes a lot of strength and bravery to speak out against powerful people and to discuss painful and uncomfortable incidents. My hope is that the women who are speaking out now will put predators and misogynists on notice, so that our children and grandchildren will live in a safer world.

The Southern Poverty Law Center. With hate crimes at a 5-year high and a president who is reluctant to fully separate himself from extremists, the SPLC’s mission to fight hate and bigotry is more important than ever. Their Teaching Tolerance project helps educators reduce prejudice and sow understanding in schools.

Local food banks. Too numerous to name them all, local organizations who focus on food insecurity are the angels in every community. From the Capital Area Food Bank and Martha’s Table, who I work with in Washington, to the Houston Food Bank, which was there for people after Hurricane Harvey, these groups provide critical support 365 days a year.Fairchild Airmen volunteer at local food bank

Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed by the news of the day, it’s difficult not to feel something like despair. Can we get through this time? Will people learn to trust again? Will civility return? But then I remember all the good people and organizations who are powering through, and I have a little bit of hope and a lot of gratitude. Thanks to all of you, from the bottom of my heart.Cloud White Blue Love Heart Sky Loyalty Luck

 

How do we define our values after an election that tested them?

It’s been hard not to think a lot about values during these days following the election. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that “If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values…all reality hinges on moral foundations…” With those moral foundations so profoundly shaken, can Americans still believe in shared values?

Difficult times test people’s values, and the election proved to be one of those times. Many of us trusted that shared values of love, respect, kindness and honesty would guide people’s decisions. But as I wrote several weeks ago, people often vote with their toddler brains, not their adult brains. Competing values, or alternative interpretations of values, prevailed.

Values can be organized a couple of different ways. We can talk about core vs. satellite values, with core values being the ones you are most strongly attached to, the ones you would fight or die for; and satellite values being ones that are more loosely held and amenable to change. We can also define values as being either instrumental or terminal. Instrumental values are those personal characteristics and traits that guide us, such as honesty and courage, while terminal values are those related to goals or outcomes like having a job that will allow you to support your family.picture1

People’s core values usually don’t change much over time; they are central to who you are. But what if you have to choose between upholding one or another of your core values? Then what? That collection of core principles must be subject to some sort of hierarchy of importance. Is having enough money more important than religion? Some people make that choice when deciding whether to work on the sabbath. Is spending time with your family more highly valued than your career? Many of us have to make that choice.

In much the same way, if we look at values using the instrumental/terminal construct, there might come a time when you perceive that a choice is necessary between upholding an instrumental value, such as respect for others or yourself, and a terminal value, such as getting the job you want.

What do we do when we are tested like that? I could say that I would never sacrifice my core values of respect for others, belief in religious freedom, and teaching our children  loving kindness — no matter which other core value was at risk. But perhaps not everyone feels they have that luxury. Or maybe they just see it through a different lens.

When they cast their votes, did people think that they could temporarily set aside the values of respect, knowledge, inclusiveness and truth, and get them back later? Did they realize that they were making that trade-off for only a promise of something better, not a guarantee? What happens when we are tested again?

This might be a good time for all of us to consider the constitution. Not the U.S. Constitution, but our personal constitutions. A personal constitution is a written clarification of values, a way of identifying and prioritizing core and satellite values.  Your constitution can be just a paragraph that describes in your own words what you believe in and what it means to live by your values. That statement, says Stephen Covey, “becomes the criterion by which you measure everything else in your life.” It’s your guidebook for challenging times and moral tests.

If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values. Start with the constitution, your constitution. Let it be your foundation for the next four years and beyond.

 

 

How to revamp your resolutions

So we’re eleven days in to 2016, and the tension might be starting to mount. Will it be the fresh start or the old ways that win out? Just how stressed are you about your new year’s resolutions? Are you wondering why a promise to yourself might be harder to keep than one you make to someone else?

If you’re having trouble, take heart. You’re not alone and there’s still a way to salvage your resolutions for 2016. But change is hard, and stress is a given as we fight against those entrenched habits of mind and body that just want to maintain the status quo. Dealing with the stress of change has to be the underpinning of the other resolutions.

Sydney_69

To help you out, I’ve adapted my top ten stress management tips to relate them to your new year’s resolutions and goals. I’ll share the first five here, and the others next week:

Know what you value — We all have core values, which may include things like health, family, religion or money; and then satellite values that we feel less strongly about. How are those values playing out in the resolutions you’ve made? If your core value is good health, for instance, and appearance is more of a satellite value, then maybe your weight loss resolutions need to be tweaked. Rather than setting a specific weight loss goal so that you can fit into a certain size, a health goal of consuming less sugar might be more aligned with your values.

Nurture your relationships — The support of the people around us can play a major role in the success or failure of our resolutions. How strong are your relationships with the people in your social network? Are there things that need repair in some of your friendships? Have you been supportive of other people’s goals? Think about how turning your attention to someone near you might provide emotional support to you both.

Practice gratitude — When we hit a roadblock, or cheat on a diet, or fall off the wagon, it’s easy to start berating ourselves and feel like we’ve failed. Use those moments to practice gratitude instead. Be thankful that you had five good days of healthy eating before something tempted you. Express gratitude for the sunny day that will allow you to get out and exercise, even if you didn’t yesterday. Say thank you to the employer who is paying for your smoking-cessation program.

Be present — Slowing down and paying more attention in each moment can make us more aware of the choices that precede our actions. When we’re trying to make “better” choices or break “bad” habits, mindfulness makes the choices more conscious, less rote. For instance, when you’re eating, just eat — don’t work, drive or watch TV at the same time. Sit down and look at the food, smell the food, notice the colors, before the first bite goes in your mouth. When we choose food deliberately, eat slowly, and savor each bite, we can feel more satisfied with less, because we have been fully engaged in the process of eating.

Don’t forget to breathe — Breathing mindfully can focus attention in a way that may clarify your resolutions for you. Thich Nhat Hanh has a breath exercise he suggests for bringing the mind back to the body. While slowly breathing in and out, you say “Breathing in, I’m aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I’m aware of my whole body.” If you’ve been living too much in your head, and neglecting your health, this can be a way of turning your attention back where it’s needed, while letting go of any tension that might have built up.

Wayne Dyer says that our intentions create our reality. It’s my hope that these five ways of bringing more intention to your resolutions will help make them your reality.

Lucky in love

What is the essence of a strong, fulfilling relationship? Experts agree that it should make you feel happy and loved, safe and secure, respected, and respectful. It’s one where you can be yourself, or as Erich Fromm said, you unite “with another while still remaining an individual.”holding_hands1

My husband and I are celebrating our anniversary this week, and it makes me reflect on why our marriage has lasted as long as it has. How much was luck, and how much hard work?

Since 2004, the Cornell Legacy Project has been collecting “practical advice” from a large group of people over 70. They’re asked for their counsel on different aspects of life, such as raising children, living through wars, and dealing with loss.  When they were asked about what makes a successful marriage, the top responses were:

  1. Marry someone who is like you in their core values, and don’t think you can change them after marriage.
  2. Friendship is as important as romantic love in lifelong relationships.
  3. Don’t keep score. Marriage isn’t always a 50-50 proposition. The key to success is that both partners try to give more than they take.
  4. Talk to each other.
  5. Don’t just commit to your partner; commit to marriage itself and take it seriously.

The first two tips are about choosing your partner. Marrying someone who shares your values and can be your best friend allows you to take the leap of faith that true intimacy requires. The word intimacy comes from the Latin word meaning “within”, and that willingness to let someone else inside our hearts requires trust. That’s the first building block.

Intimacy is important, but it’s not enough. That’s why I think #5 – commitment — comes next. There has to be a sense of mutual obligation – we’re in this together and we both have to make it work. Both people have to set the intention that they are going to make the relationship a priority.

But once the choice is made and the intention is set, sustaining any relationship over the long term requires attention and effort. It has to be cultivated like a garden so that it thrives. I agree with the advice that marriage isn’t always 50-50. At any given time, someone is going to be giving more than the other, and there are times when you have to make an effort even when you don’t have the energy for it. You just hope that it balances out in the end, that you feel as if the relationship has enriched your life well beyond what you’ve put into it.wildflowers 3

Communication is the other vital element. The elders say “talk to each other”, but I would suggest learning to listen more than you talk. Listen to understand instead of listening just to reply. Listen with empathy. Don’t react quickly, but respond thoughtfully. Apply mindfulness practices to your relationship.

Ultimately, the support that comes from strong relationships is a powerful component of staying healthy, both physically and mentally. Having someone to confide in, to touch, and to provide companionship leads to a better, longer life. It has certainly made my life richer and more meaningful. So has my marriage required hard work? Definitely. But at the same time, I feel really lucky.

Our essence

Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person? Do you have only the vaguest idea of what that means? Does it matter?

Spirituality is one of those amorphous words that mean different things to different people. That’s part of why it’s a mistake to draw too many conclusions from the new religious affiliation study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. While the number of people who say they are not affiliated with any religion has grown to 20% of adults, 37% of those people say that they are spiritual; and even among those who do affiliate with a religion, many say they are “spiritual, but not religious”.

Spirituality is important for health, which is why it is one of the Six Dimensions of Wellness. Its role is to bring together the other dimensions by providing meaning and purpose to our lives. It is not enough to be physically, intellectually or socially healthy if there isn’t an overarching “world view” supplying significance to our actions. Herbert Benson, in his book, Timeless Healing, discusses the idea that humans might be the only species with a sense of our own mortality. If our brains were not wired to “harbor beliefs” that there is a deeper meaning to life, we could easily be overcome by dread and fear.

More and more research shows that people who are religious or spiritual are healthier and live longer than those who are not. The problem is that most studies are based on religion rather than that vague “spirituality” because it is easier to measure. So it’s somewhat unclear where the health benefits come from – the belief itself, the healthy behaviors required by some religions, or the social support that comes from belonging to the religious community?

Unlike religion, each of us can personally define spirituality. At its core, it is about feeling connected to something larger than ourselves. As we become more spiritual, we focus on others more than just ourselves, and move away from material things as a source of meaning. So how do you tell if and how you are spiritual? One good way is to ask yourself where you are and what you are doing when you have feelings of spirituality. In the Pew study, about 58% of people said that they have a deep connection with nature and the earth. For many, spirituality can be found most easily in nature.

What are your beliefs and values? Are you putting them into practice in your life? For many of us, stress results when there is conflict between our values and our actions. The Dalai Lama says, “I don’t see any difference between religious practice and daily life. One can do without religion, but not without spirituality.” He calls spirituality “the full blossoming of human values that is essential for the good of all.”

Other characteristics of a spiritual nature are compassion for others, having the capacity to love and to forgive, altruism, and the ability to experience joy. Even if you feel that you are lacking in one of these areas, they can all be developed and enhanced through practice. Whether it’s volunteering in your community or engaging in compassion meditation, there is a way to cultivate greater spiritual connection.

The root word of spirituality, spirit, comes from the Latin word for breath. A sense of spirituality may be as natural to us as breathing. We not only need it to live, we need it to live well.

Stories we tell

Every family has stories – usually a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. Some stories are told over and over, and others get hidden away like skeletons in the closet. But all the stories shape us and our life stories.

Sometimes I stare at the old photos of my great-grandparents, or my dad with his army buddies, and try to figure out who they were. Were their lives mostly hard work and disappointment, or did they experience joy and possibility? How does the answer to that question explain who I am? Did I just inherit my blue eyes and brown hair from them, or does their legacy also include patterns of behavior and ways of looking at the world?

Carl Jung wrote that, “The more intensively the family has stamped its character upon the child, the more it will tend to feel and see its earlier miniature world again in the bigger world of adult life.” In other words, our perspective can be profoundly shaped by our early experience.

People in my family have been farmers, miners, autoworkers, soldiers, teachers and cooks. One was a blacksmith, one a postmaster, and another a mayor. One person has a library named for him, while others lived and died in anonymity. Their stories include poverty, abandonment, infidelity and suicide, as well as pioneering spirit, public service, loyalty and courage.

While I want to embrace many of the values I inherited from them, such as a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility, I sometimes find myself stuck with some of the others, such as a tendency to think small and play it safe – characteristics that probably result from generations who always had to struggle. Can we change our lives enough as adults to establish a broader legacy for our own children? Is it possible to get past the negative self-talk, the family dysfunction, and the habitual patterns of behavior to grow into a more satisfying life while still building on the positive aspects of the past?

Just tuning in and becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings, then being able to label them, are good first steps. In their book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves define emotional intelligence as “your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships.”

Understanding emotions and managing behavior require us to pay attention to them. Sometimes we are so caught up in daily life that we act and react without thought. Keeping a journal (or writing a blog) can help focus the attention on what we are doing and feeling.  Formally practicing mindfulness can also help develop the ability to slow down and pay more attention to our emotional lives. A mindfulness practice can be as simple as sitting quietly and observing the breath for a little while each day. In his book, Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh writes about mindfulness that it “enables us to be in touch with life, which is wonderful in the present moment.”

So perhaps that is the legacy I can give my children: a consciousness of my actions, a smile shared in joy, an awareness of how awesome life is right now. If I can do that for myself, and for them, what stories will they tell?