Spring Cleaning for the Mind

It’s another holiday here in China–May Day, Labor Day, and we have off from school. One of my big projects is to go through my stuff and get rid of things that I don’t plan to bring to Laos. I’ve come to appreciate time off from work, not because I am tired and need rest as insomuch that I appreciate this down time and space to reflect and pursue interests and projects–a bit of “spring cleaning” for my mind. Every little holiday I have a deep need to either travel, to read, and/or to learn something new. I don’t want to squander my time because I know how immensely precious it is. I have come to crave this time in which I can be creative, taking the time to entertain new ideas and challenge my existing dogma. This is the power of creating space and gaps in our mundane lives.

Innnovation happens in the white space, it happens in the gaps between the things we think we are supposed to be doing. But if we are squeezing all of the white space out of our lives by filling it with actiivity, then we are not pruning and saying no to things on occassion then we are not going to have the space to innovate and think.

-Todd Henry- Author of The Accidental Creative

I can hear you thinking: “But Judy, you are lucky–we don’t have the amount of time off that you do!” Well, that is probably true, but there are numerous ways to create this space in your life. I am going to share 5 ways.

Practice Mindfulness

Are you breathing? Good–then you can do this! So, I am starting with the easiest, in my opinion, to do because EVERYONE can spend 1-2 minutes a day being mindful. All it takes is paying close attention to something, most commonly your breath. Right now, you can do this. Close your eyes to limit your distractions, and breath in, filling your lungs and belly with breath. Hold it for 3 seconds and exhale. Repeat 2 more times, paying close attention to your breath. Takes about a minute to do this, but your brain went offline and carved out some new neural real estate for new ideas to emerge in your brain’s network.

Increase Your Bandwidth

Another way to create space and cultivate a higher quality of life is by quitting your addiction to “junk food” for the brain. This could be watching senseless cat videos on YouTube or the latest episode of America’s Next Top Model or Jersey Shore. I know that this seems obvious but many people find “tuning out” a really important way to decompress after their day. The only problem is that this activity doesn’t actually allow for your brain to recover.

The average American is watching television an average of 4 hours a day. 4 HOURS OF TELEVISION.

4 hours of television over the average adult life span means that they spend about 13 years sitting in front of the boob tube. So they are watching television for 13 years–that’s over a decade! People have a lot more time than they think they do.

-Brendon Burchard-

However, there are countless other ways to promote mental hygiene and create some space and relaxation in your life. Going for a walk, exercise or doing yoga are the best replacements because these activiites inspire new cell generation and increase the flow of oxygen to your brain. But if you are feeling lazy then reading a good book or looking at the stars provide you with a brain break and are a fix for the mundane in our lives.

focus on becoming

Build Meaningful and Inspiring Relationships

What you spend time on is just as important as WHO you spend time with.  The quality of our relationships can really impact our emotional lives. Building real relationships with people who can fuel you rather than empty your tank is super important. No one wants to be around a “Debbie Downer” and the reason is that you actually have a chemical response in your brain that depresses you. Surround yourself with positive and interesting people so that this personal network helps you to discover new ways of
thinking and opens you up to fresh perspectives. Bumping into these novel ideas helps you to reframe your current mindset around ideas that may be causing you stress, or at least puts on a “pause” button from your worrying mind.

Schedule some Deep Thinking Work for 1 hour a week.

alberteinstein1.jpgI believe that thinking is becoming a lost art. Our attention to social media makes it so much easier to confuse someone else’s opinion as our own. However, if we were to take some time for introspection, examining our values and beliefs, then we would uncover what is our truth and our purpose in life. That sort of thing is extremely liberating and fulfilling. Spending some time weekly to journal and write about what has inspired and interested you this week makes it easier to prioritize our tasks and can be extremely motivating. This “Power Hour” is game-changer.

So how do you carve out this time? Well, one way is to wake up earlier so you have an uninterrupted moment of calm (this is what I do) but not everyone is a lark. So another effective productivity hack includes clustering similar tasks that use the same amount of cognitive power in order to create blocks of time to do work that is meaningful. You can create a theme for the day or for those blocks of time so that you can really focus on converting the “to do list” to be the “to done list”.  You would be so amazed at how a little reorganization in your schedule can have a big effect on your week. Once your time is organized, you will definitely see gaps and space emerge which can be devoted to more exciting pursuits and opportunities to examine solutions to problems you face in your personal and professional life.

Travel

Travel is, in a lot of ways, the easiest way to jostle your brain and expand your horizon. You don’t need to plan a 10-day vacation to Bali to do it either, it can be as simple as driving/biking/walking to work using a different road or path. Or taking a trip to your local museum or park. What about having a picnic outside instead of eating at the kitchen table? No matter how small or large the journey, this break from the norm creates novelty in your brain and builds new networks and connections.

They say that “time is a luxury that most of us can’t afford”, so I hope these ideas inspire you to think about how you might “clean up” your time so that you can engage in more meaningful work or stimulating perspectives.

When Your Cultural Identity is Adrift

Who Am I? That’s a difficult question for anyone to answer, let alone expats nevermind the children of those expats.

I remember my first time living abroad. As an American, we delight in our ethnic heritage, saying something like “I’m 50% Irish, 30% Polish, 10% German and 10% Cherokee”. I had said something to that effect to an Irish guy at a pub one night. He lashed out at me, ” You are NOT Irish. You are American. Nothing about you is Irish and you know nothing about Ireland, I bet.” It stung, and he shattered my cultural paradigm. I was deeply humbled. Although I might be a 3rd generation Irish, he was right, there was nothing about me that declared I was Irish other than this family history. Culturally I walked, talked and dressed like an American. I thought like an American. I liked American music and movies. I cared about American politics and issues. It was really the country and culture that I identified with. From that point on, I embraced being American, rather than caring about my genetic lineage.

But technically I haunaltered home.jpgve lived over 12 years overseas, a significant portion of my adult life. When I come back to America, I often go through reverse culture shock. I have a hard time relating to other’s view of the world, and what they feel is culturally significant like the Bachelorette or Unicorn drinks. This past summer was so challenging for me, with all the politics, I really struggled with all the intensity and polarization. Moreover, I really couldn’t understand how we had come to such a juncture in our history that hatred and misogyny were becoming a “thing” again. It really devastated so much of the tenderness and appreciation I have for my country and the people who I love there. So now I find myself in a strange sort of void, in which I do not really resonate with the culture I live in geographically but don’t really feel American all that much either. Although my accent remains, so much of national pride has withered away with my lack of attention and focus on America. It’s a strange and terrible feeling. It now seems like my cultural identity has become untethered, and will remain adrift.

For my daughter, she too is somewhere in between 2 worlds–the worlds of her parent’s heritage and the country in which she lives. They have a name for her kind: Third Culture Kids. She has lived most of her life outside of her parent’s culture and is used to traveling and living in different places in which things are foreign. She connects with others not through language as much as feelings. However, I didn’t expect last year’s summer trip to impact my daughter so greatly. As much as she loved being with my family and friends, enjoying new foods and experiences, it really stressed her out. She stared at these “real American” children with confusion and amusement, literally, and at one time, when we were camping, some boys called her a freak and pretended to shoot her. It genuinely stunned her. Luckily since she is so well traveled and resilient, she managed it well, but as one month turned into two months, her nerves did fray. My husband told me about one day when she fled downstairs to the basement in tears, wondering if the “black men” were coming and how he could protect her. It was all the conversation and media messages that she was exposed to with the “Black Lives” vs. “Blue Lives” Matter debate that got her feeling paranoid, which was sad since ironically she is a child of color, as my husband is dark skinned.

In 2 months from now, we will touch down in Chicago, spending 3 weeks in America– a much shorter visit this time. As much as I look forward to seeing my family and friends, I absolutely dread this feeling of disconnection, especially with Trump’s presidency bringing tension and conflict to an all-time high. After this brief visit, I will step out of my homeland and my foot will land upon a new country, Laos, with its own complexities and challenges which my family will have to navigate. I remain hopeful that we will set down roots there, an antirumi field.jpgdote to this unease, making friends and building a life of joy and peace there. However, Who Am I? clearly is not a question that can be answered with nationhood or birth origins. Its answer, I imagine, that is somewhere in a vast space, the field that Rumi writes about in his poem.

Perhaps I will see you there.

Plasticine

It’s the second law of thermodynamics that everything moves toward entropy; so you know that things aren’t going to remain static and things are going to be changing. And no matter what you are trying to accomplish in your life, you need to learn how to not only learn how to cope with change but actually how to harness it and leverage it.

-Dr. Norman Doidge

Most of us grew up thinking that our personality and inclinations begin the calcify process when we are about 7 years old and are solidified when we are in our early 20s. But that myth has been absolutely disputed and proven wrong–if you change your mind, you can change your body and transform the quality of your life. We’ve heard countless stories of what seem like anomalies of people getting over incurable disease or other disabling health issues with a thought–one thought–that they could be a better version of themselves.  When we think a thought over and over again, it begins to harden into a belief and our beliefs become our personality which determines the intensity and consistency of our moods from day to day. However, we are merely one thought away from growing, from healing, from becoming a new and improved version of ourselves, and neuroscientistfocus meme.jpg like Dr. Norma Doidge (quoted above) is demonstrating this in spades. They are showing that these beliefs literally rewire our neural connections and, indeed, we are plasticine in nature, with these new ideas shaping our bodies, ergo our reality as well with new synapses being constructed and old ones being pruned. This is a wonderful and simple explanation of your fantastic plastic brain explained, giving a lot of insight into how your brain changes.

Jean Piaget, one of the most influential cognitive psychologists of the 20th century, suggested that one’s intelligence is essentially knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do, implying discernment of our experience and wagering a risk to grow. Carol Dweck adds to this definition by reminding us to keep an open mind to meet challenges and put in the effort to overcome them as the essence of evolving one’s vision and developing life mastery. Her research on “growth mindset” vs. “fixed mindset” is catching on in schools and businesses, and is having a significant impact on changing the way people learn and companies conduct business. It has given license for people to take risks and make mistakes because doing so literally grows your brain and develops you cognitively.

On a personal level, earlier this year, I decided to apply the 2 minute rule to cultivating change in my physical health. I made it a daily goal to get some exercise and agreed that I could spend at least 2 minutes a day towards this goal. I believed that this small investment of time would be worth the effort and could create change. What’s interesting is that, over time, what appeared to be drudgery has now turned into a natural desire. My 2 minutes has easily turned into 20 minutes. And what is fascinating is how it has improved not just my physical state, but also my mental state. I am beginning to not just feel more emotionally content but my attitude has shifted to agreeing that I’m worthy of something better. In other words, I exercise because I’m worth it, and this self-improvement has made a great contribution to my quality of life. I’ve had to detach from who I have been in order to give birth to who I can become. The change in my waistline is just an inevitable outcome of these new physical and mental habits. And it all started with my thought that 2 minutes, well spent, could have health benefits. Now I believe this with every fiber of my being.

This is just one example, but this shift in one area of my life has cultivated momentum in transforming other areas of my life–a snowball is in motion, as I wonder what else do I think is impossible for myself which might actually be a probable outcome if I change my beliefs around it. I double dog dare you to experiment with this concept yourself–change a thought, repeat the new thought over and over again, make a new habit around it and observe the results. I think you will be surprised at you uproot long held beliefs and recreate yourself in a relatively short amount of time.

Remember, you are plasticine.

Innovate Yourself

There are many great people whose stories provoke me and have made me wonder if I was indeed doing enough with the gifts and abilities that I have have been born with. Currently, I am on the verge of one of a cathartic moment, as I read the biographical book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. I know it wasn’t on A Tentative Reading Lists for 2017 but it’s a must read. I am so inspired by him that it’s actually taken me a while to even attempt to articulate why it is that I feel the way I do. His struggle to envision the future to me is heroic, on par with my other heroes of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, due to his infinite pursuit of a dream that is larger is than himself. Now I know what you’re thinking–you’re comparing him to those great men?  Yes, yes, I am. Why?-because he stares at the abysmal status quo and is willing to do whatever it takes to disrupt it in an effort to move humanity forward. He has created a movement in technology and innovation that so is understated and he continues to doggedly persist in solving problems that seem impossible.

I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing internet stuff, finance and law. That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation.

Elon Musk

I mean, how many of you worked on, let alone sat and pondered these issues?

  1. Making life interplanetary
  2. Accelerating the transition to sustainable energy
  3. Artificial Intelligence

So many great scientists and engineers have asked questions that are beyond one’s comprehension. However, Elon staunchly believes that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they choose to make a commitment to asking insane questions in the quest of serving the needs of humanity. When your curiousity collides with your passion, a life’s purpose emerges and you can do things so much bigger than you could ever imagine. He challenges the assumption that innovation is a natural outcome of civilization as if evolution is set on an inevitable course. But without drive and intelligence, nothing new emerges and people and the planet languish in complacency’s wake. The notion that something is “good enough” is the antithesis to improvement and growth.

People think just automatically that technology gets better every year, but actually, it doesn’t. It only gets better if smart people work like crazy to make it better…otherwise it actually gets worse.

Elon Musk

As I reflect on these ideas, it appears obvious to me that when people accept what is average, what is the bare minimum and don’t demand more of themselves and each other, then they are ultimately in a death spiral. Doing the same thing over and over again is actually going backward (such as thinking that drilling for oil is the answer to our energy needs now and in the future). I remember a famous quote from Albert Einstein that stated, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”, which if Elon Musk was to rephrase it, it might be: It’s absurd to think that doing the same thing over and over again will yield innovation.

Of course, you might just be thinking that’s all well and good for the development of plasma TVs, internet speed and space rockets, but so what, What does innovation have to do with me. I’m not an engineer or scientist, and I certainly not a millionaire. That may be true, but there is NO area in life that couldn’t be innovated; it only takes a willingness to acknowledge that failure is a possibility and do it anyway.  Take, for instance, Gandi. He went against the British government and won India’s independence through non-violence. Non-violence?! This idea still is revolutionary and to my knowledge, Martin Luther King is the only other man who has attempted to use it against oppressors with success. But the idea works! And yet we still wage war–outdated, archaic and what should be obsolete methodologies–when you look at the power of this innovative strategy. It’s the equivalent of riding a horse and buggy to work, and yet so many people favor guns and bombs over the more impactful approach of non-violence. This astounds me. Yet I digress….elon musk

If you were to trace the trajectory of anyone who did anything amazing, they did things in spite of their fear and knew that the person who they were now was not the person they needed to be, thus they had to innovate themselves. Not only did they seek to educate themselves, but they supplanted their beliefs so that the importance of their cause was too cemented in order to slink away from daunting challenges. These people have loads of fear but their faith in the do-gooding nature of their intended movement has more power over them. Going back to Gandhi, he was a rather wealthy lawyer from India who transformed into an incredible man whose heart was impenetrable to the evils of his self-doubt and worry cast upon him from naysayers. He legacy still remains: Be the Change You Wish To See In The World. This could be a true mantra for a life worth living if we were willing to make small, yet extraordinary changes in our thinking. These incremental changes have a snowballing effect over time. There is a level of willpower that must be developed and exercised so that we can overcome the mentality of the status quo and accept a higher version of what we could create with the intelligence we were given.

Obviously, this is something that I am ruminating on diligently–what sort of mental program do I need to download so that my small-mindedness gets an upgrade? What am I capable of that I am allowing fear to be my obstacle? In what ways can I innovate myself so that I can pay it forward to humanity?

Perhaps you too are haunted by these thoughts as you examine your life. How about we give each other permission and get set to work to do something amazing?

 

My Mind Drowning in the Wet Cement

I joked to one of my friends that the only vice I have left is swearing–I don’t drink or smoke or eat junk food or lie or even watch T.V.–but she assured me that I have other vices. The nerve, right?! But I think I found one.

The other day my family and I were walking back from shopping when I decided to dodge one of the fire stove “popping machines” that you commonly see on street corner here in China. It makes a popcorn-like treat and, when it’s ready, has this booming noise that scares the bejeesus out of my daughter. So my husband went towards the popping machine while my daughter and I  took a long way around and encountered fresh wet cement. We jumped over it–as the area wasn’t roped off and no sign was posted–but then a strange and sudden urge took me over. My eye spotted a narrow scrap piece of PVC pipe by a tree stump and I picked it up. Before I knew it, I had written Hannah’s name in the wet cement. Hannah asked “what’s the big idea” but then she added a smiley face after I pitched the pipe.  All of a sudden it hit me–I probably just committed a crime, in broad daylight, in China, with my daughter as an accomplice. What kind of parent am I?  And all the mischievous fun that spurred this impulse suddenly vanished and I felt awful–like nearly wanted to cry because of the shame and guilt that was summoned up by my reflection of this event.Why had I indulged in such a frivolous action? I had spoilt the wet cement and there was no way to fix it. What had I done?!!!!

When I came around to the other side of the “popping machine”, I confessed to my husband who shot a barb–“Judy, they’re cameras everywhere! They totally know it’s you!” He was right. This is a police state. I was certainly busted. Inside, you would have thought I had killed someone. I was ready for the police to handcuff and cart me to jail. For at least 15 minutes, I was definitely imprisoned, in my mind, awaiting trial and execution. However, when Ryan realized that I was seriously upset, he tried to console me–“They will probably think, ‘oh wow, cool, it’s English’. Don’t worry.”

And it occurred to me–why am I beating myself up? I  can’t go back and fix it. My action was silly and irresponsible, certainly not a good role model for my daughter, but it wasn’t dastardly. I didn’t harm anyone. The real crime is if I don’t forgive myself and move on.


Weeks have passed now since I first started writing this post and I finally summoned the courage to take a look at that spot where I had written Hannah’s name in the wet cement. When I saw it, I laughed out loud because it was sullied with bicycle tire marks and footprints. You can barely make out my writing.

Although I had intentionally defaced the sidewalk, there were numerous amount of people who had unintentionally done the same. Did that make them “bad” people? Do you think they lost sleep or mildly trembled with the thought of their carelessness? Doubtful.

I am still pondering the lesson of this wet cement and the inability to forgive myself. Did I suffer such a strong reaction to such a minor infraction due to the fear of getting in trouble in China or because I was a poor example to my daughter? Not sure, but I know that it was my perspective that caused my self-disappointment, and it has made me reflect on what other trivial things I beat myself up for that aren’t really probably worth the time or effort.

Can anyone relate to this?