I dream of a day when, in response to the question “What do you do?”, people have such replies as:
I build model airplanes, study ancient civilizations, and take long walks every day with my partner. Oh, you mean how do I make money? I’m an accountant.
I tend to my huge backyard vegetable garden and write novellas. And to pay the bills I am also an x-ray technician.
I salsa dance, run marathons, and am learning to cook Indian food. I also work as a public defender.
In the west, we’ve become so obsessed with figuring out how to categorize and classify people, that we need to know RIGHT AWAY what someone does for work. So, this is often one of the first questions out of our mouths when meeting someone for the first time. The answer will help us to know how much money they make, how educated they are, and how we are “supposed” to interact with them (i.e. how they are expecting to be treated). Informative? Perhaps. Helpful? Not as much.
Responding in the ways offered above, by describing the things we do that we enjoy, that bring us pleasure and challenge, that we have chosen to commit time to regularly, we are presenting a much fuller picture of our lives and our selves. And this would lead to much deeper conversation about the things that matter.
Of course, there are people who do work that actually encompasses the activities and interests about which they are most passionate. And this is really the dream, isn’t it? But even in these cases, I do not think that telling someone one’s job title alone provides a sufficient picture of who they are. You’re a financial planner and you absolutely love going to work every single day? Terrific. But this is still just one component of how you spend your time. How different our interactions with one another would be if we didn’t stop at finding out how someone earns a paycheck, and stopped deciding that we know who someone is based on their job title. Perhaps a better question might be:
These are a few of my favorite phrases to hear in career counseling work:
“Oh wow, I’d never thought about that before.”
“I really don’t know. That’s a great question.”
“I’ve got some work to do to figure some of this stuff out.”
Why are these some of my favorite things to hear? Because it can be wonderful not to know all the answers! Only when we come up against what we don’t know—and get clear about what information exactly is missing from the equation—can we move forward in a different, improved way. Trying the same tactics, with the same mindset and the same set of assumptions will (not surprisingly!) bring you to the same places you’ve been before.
We must reorient ourselves in order to tread new ground. We must find our blindspots, fill in the gaps, and feel a little uncertain, a little unsettled, but hopefully… a little excited by the possibilities.
Sometimes all it takes is one good question to make a huge shift. The next time you have a big decision to make, ask yourself: What am I overlooking? What is another piece of information that would be nice to have as I make this decision? Is my assumption about __________ really correct? How can I test that out?
It’s easy to focus on the pieces of information we have in front of us, sometimes to the extent that we overlook the pieces we don’t yet have. Slowing down and asking just a few simple questions can lead down a path of important insight.
Don’t set goals for 2013. Just don’t do it. At best, you’ll achieve them. At worst, you’ll fail miserably. But you’ll likely land somewhere in between… and feel a middling sense of accomplishment, mixed with a touch of regret at what was left undone. Even if you do succeed at shedding some extra weight or getting a promotion at work, what happens once you’re done? Once that hurdle is cleared, what propels you forward? An emphasis on the outcome, on attaining a concrete objective, can certainly be useful in some instances—but it’s no way to build a life.
We live life one moment at a time and in each moment have the opportunity to be present to ourselves and those around us in whatever way we choose. Intentionally and purposefully.
The practice of setting an intention may be familiar to the yogis in the house. In many classes, instructors will offer an opportunity for students to set an intention for their time on the mat. Setting an intention involves remaining focused on in-the-moment ways of being, rather than future-oriented outcomes. If you can objectively succeed or fail, you have set a goal. Instead of focusing on the “what?” or “how many?”, an intention focuses on the “how?” and “with what kind of energy?” am I going to show up for certain people, activities, or responsibilities.
It’s the difference between the statements:
“I will lose 20 lbs by March 15th” and “I will choose healthful foods that nourish my body and make me feel alive”.
Sure, there may be times we choose to eat a plate of fries that are neither “healthful” nor do they make us “feel good”, and this may sound (and feel) a lot like a mini failure. But if the sense of failure is a here-and-now experience, chances are there’s a here-and-now alternative to feeling disappointed in yourself. It’s likely that it is not so much a failure as it is an intuitive sense that there was a better choice and we didn’t make it. And that’s okay! If an intention is a way to be present to our lives and choices in a certain way, there’s always an opportunity around the corner to be in our lives differently.
Set an intention to be in your life in the ways you want to be. No numbers, no hours per week, no goals at all. Choose how you want to show up—each and every moment of 2013.
A recent post on the Harvard Business Review Blog described the benefits of reading poetry for individuals working in business and management. (Article can be found here.) A compelling argument for poetry’s usefulness for professional development pertains to the concision and efficiency of the poetic form. In other words, “poetry teaches us to wrestle with and simplify complexity…improving one’s ability to better conceptualize the world and communicate it — through presentations or writing — to others.”
One of the most interesting ideas around this topic came from the comment section. Here, a reader suggests that it isn’t the reading of poetry itself that leads to the numerous positive effects on the brain research has attributed to poetry. Rather, this individual posits, it’s that the types of people who read poems for pleasure are the types of people who have the ability to reduce a complicated, layered idea down to its essence—and who enjoy this kind of intellectual exercise and implement this kind of thinking in other areas of their lives.
The article is a great read, and it’s always encouraging to see research supporting the notion that a well-rounded, balanced life contributes to satisfaction and success across the board.
*Bonus: this is also a great reminder that correlation does not equal causation! :)
What is often referred to as a “balanced life” by mass media is something of a misnomer. The idea we have in mind when we say “balanced” is not that all parts are given equal time: spending 8 hours at work, 8 hours asleep, and the other 8 hours evenly distributed between our familial, household, and personal demands. Not only is this not realistic, but it also does not allow for the flexibility required to attend to what is happening in our lives in a moment-to-moment or season-by-season way.
A better way of conceptualizing a healthy, functional life might be one in which the right parts are given appropriate priority considering one’s own values and circumstances. This means that sometimes we work 60-hour weeks and others we work half days from home. Or sometimes we need to attend to a family emergency instead of keeping up on the housework. There might be a season of life in which a romantic relationship is given more hours, more energy, more attention than anything else––and it might be that this is precisely what is needed for this relationship to thrive. A few years later, this same relationship might be stable and strong enough to support one party’s need to spend more time, energy, and attention on a budding career or an ailing parent.
And these examples are by definition imbalanced. But this imbalance is exactly what is called for in the face of these circumstances. So, instead of juggling all of the balls of our lives all the time, giving equal attention to each, we can swap one out for another. We sometimes even set down two or three for a period of time. There may even be moments when all of the balls crash to the floor, and we have the opportunity to search for the ones we can’t live without and leave another we didn’t really need to collect dust behind the couch.
Life is not a fixed, quantifiable entity. It is ever-changing and subjective, and to try and measure it out into even categories misses the point. What’s better than a perfectly balanced life? Deciding what we value and making conscious efforts to ration our time and energy in ways that prioritize these values.
Beginning any new experience can be intimidating. Be it a new school, internship, job, volunteer position, or even leisure activity, taking on unfamiliar tasks in a foreign setting alongside people you don’t know and don’t know you can feel paralyzing. Am I going to fit in? Will people think I’m competent? Can I do what is expected of me? While the answers to those questions are likely a resounding “Yes!”, these anxiety-provoking new experiences are some of the most valuable learning opportunities we can ever have.
When we find ourselves in situations for which we don’t have a frame of reference regarding how to act, what is expected of us, how people treat one another––when we generally don’t know the status quo and culture of a place––we are forced to be present to what is going on around us on a moment-by-moment basis. We must listen carefully, attend to the body language and tone of others, and speak and act intentionally in order to avoid social blunders and misunderstandings. This combination of alertness and vulnerability provide a rare chance to observe our thoughts and actions with curiosity; we are able to ask ourselves questions like, “How should I respond to that statement?” or “Why did I say what I just said?” with a frequency we don’t normally experience when we are within our comfort zones. With careful consideration both in these immediate experiences, and in reflection afterward, we are able to gain valuable insight into ourselves and our patterns of behavior.
It is the very act of stepping outside of these comfort zones that gives us room to stretch and try on new ways of interacting with people around us. If we’re open enough and non-judgmental toward ourselves and others, unfamiliar experiences allow us to choose more consciously and mindfully how we engage with the world moving forward.
An interesting and concise description of the effects of mindfulness on our everyday experiences by Dr. David Rock appears in the June 2011 Psychology Today. While the ideas described in the article weren’t new to me, the way that they were tied to one another made it a fascinating read.
In short, Rock explains that there are two modes your brain can be in at any time: narrative (or default) mode and direct experience mode. The former is the mode most people exist in most of the time, and it is when “you are thinking about your history and future and all the people you know, including yourself, and how this giant tapestry of information weaves together” while taking in information from your experience. The other mode, a.k.a. direct experience, is just as it sounds:
When the direct experience network is active, several
different brain regions become more active. This includes
the insula, a region that relates to perceiving bodily
sensations. The anterior cingulate cortex is also
activated, which is a region central to switching your
attention. When this direct experience network is
activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or
future, other people, or yourself, or considering much at
all. Rather, you are experiencing information coming into
your senses in real time.
Rock goes on to explain that recent studies have shown that the two modes of thinking/experiencing are inversely correlated, which makes sense. You can’t be processing experiences directly AND filtering them through your meaning-making circuitry simultaneously. The two ways of being are mutually exclusive. Anyway, the most exciting connection for me is the following:
…people who regularly practiced noticing the narrative and
direct experience paths, such as regular meditators, had
stronger differentiation between the two paths. They knew
which path they were on at any time, and could switch
between them more easily. Whereas people who had not
practiced noticing these paths were more likely to
automatically take the narrative path.
Now, I knew that we were finally beginning to scientifically show and measure how meditative practices physically change the brain, but I had not read or heard much about what this might mean for everyday living. Does meditation induce the relaxation response in the body and mind? Yep. Does it ameliorate the effects of stress on the body? Looks like it. But the idea that meditative practices might simply remind a person that he or she has a choice about how to experience their life is pretty radical to me. When you consciously (and eventually habitually) choose to take the time to be quiet and still your mental chatter (chita vritti in yogi-talk!), this practice truly becomes practice for every other experience you’ll have that day.
I will never hear the phrase “meditative practice” the same way again.
Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it.