When the Road I Traveled Becomes an Open Path

Do you ever wish you were a better person than who you are? Me too. Like all the time.

A couple weeks ago we had a terrible thunderstorm with torrential downpour and lightning that sparked the night with a purple white glow. Since the street to my home is riveted with deep muddy potholes, I was nervous that my friend’s car might get stuck or damaged when she dropped me off, so I decided to walk. At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do, but as soon as the car sped away, I felt a real sense of stupidity and fear.  I was going to have to wade through knee-deep water to get to my home. The story of a colleague’s neighbor getting bit by a baby cobra was stuck in my head and it too added fuel to the fear that was sloshing in my mind. I realized that these flooded waters could very well be full of water snakes and other creatures that could cause harm. But if I was going to return home, I really had no other alternative but to walk through these deep “puddles” that were a block long. I chanted “Please God help me” as I entered the road and stepped into the dimly lighted water, my flip-flops searching for an ounce of high ground. 10 minutes later, I arrived at my gate, very wet but very relieved that I somehow managed to make it through to dry land.

the truthAs I stripped off my wet and muddy clothes, I recanted my daring act to my husband and realized that I may very well have this experience again. This is Laos and I have signed up for an adventure, clearly. Why did I think this was a good idea? I wanted a postcard type of experience, you know–coconut trees swaying in the breeze and an easy going pace to life, but this is what I chose. I had the luxury to choose to live in a developing country and now I faced the reality of what is it like to live in a country that is so poor that most of the streets of its nation’s capital aren’t even paved.

All of sudden it got me thinking, if this experience was a lesson, what did I learn? How am I going to meet this “road”–My attitude? Am I going to go running and screaming down it (kind of what I did) or can I manage this experience a different way–My actions? How else could I go down this “road”–My opportunity? And who do I have to become in order to travel on this “road” that I have chosen–My identity?

I am in the process of answering these questions and was reminded recently of a poem by a famous Indian poet,  Rabindranath Tagore, whose message made me awaken out of self-absorption and see the truth that I am not alone on this journey. (None of us are.) Although I am unique, I am not different, because we all wrestle with the circumstances and the choices that create change in our lives.

Closed Path

I thought that my voyage had come to its end
at the last limit of my power,—that the path before me was closed,
that provisions were exhausted
and the time come to take shelter in a silent obscurity.

But I find that thy will knows no end in me.
And when old words die out on the tongue,
new melodies break forth from the heart;
and where the old tracks are lost,
new country is revealed with its wonders.

I connect deeply to this idea of  “new country”; this experience is revealing how much of me is a work in progress, as I reflect on who I am and how I see the world. There’s quite a bit that I can improve upon, let’s just say. However, to meet this challenge with self-loathing of all the things I wish I could be would be squandering the possibility for serious transformation. I still haven’t sorted out how to approach this task but I know that this discomfort is the first sign of the real potential for change. And if I keep focused….well who knows where this road I traveled where lead me.

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.

Awareful

That’s not even a word, so my spell-checker tells me. And it doesn’t even have any suggested alternatives but I swear it’s real. I’m going to attempt to define it through this post.

Have you ever heard about the Dhamma Brothers?  Years ago, I watched the documentary about these high-security prisoners that were taught Vipassana meditation and how much it changed them, inside and out. It’s profound, but you can hear about its synopsis in the TEDx talk below.

 

I think what I love most about this story is that they learned to not be victims anymore, to take personal responsibility for their lives (past and present), and recognize that they have a choice. Even in their environment of violence and despair, they can take a moment to reflect on how they feel, what thoughts they are having and the quality of their relationships. We all have that opportunity–we all have that choice, to recognize how our actions, words, and deeds can impact, not only ourselves but others. This is how I am going to define this word: AWAREFUL

I believe that most of us going through life thinking that we are victims of circumstance-someone did something and now we all are paying the price for what THEY did to US. Maybe it’s the politicians or the bankers or the teachers or the lawyers or our neighbors or our families. It doesn’t matter who you think did what when you blame another, you give away your inherent freedom of personal choice. Even in the most oppressive environments, one has the power to choose. Choose what? Your attitude!

Your attitude is the sum of your beliefs about life and your place in “the big picture”. Do you feel powerful or powerless? Do you feel connected or disconnected to others around you? Do you feel well being or sickness? Do you feel happy or discontent? However you feel, it makes a difference in your behavior and affects the “vibe” you bring wherever you go.

You don’t have to convince me about that–I teach 3-5 year olds! They are sponges and act like mirrors. I know that I have to get my attitude in order if I am to teach them or they get completely nutty. I may jest that “it must be a full moon or something” but I know in my heart that they are just responding to what I am projecting upon them through my energy, words, and reactions to them. They provide excellent personal data, I tell you what!

With that in mind, being awareful is a chronic habit timg_3278hat I have been developing. Throughout the day, I have these reminders on my phone that go off, suggesting that I take a moment to breathe and get in touch with my body or ask me how do I want to feel? I want to develop my focus so that I can be more mindful in my actions. It is my intention to develop proper attention. And some days I’m awesome at it, and other days…..um… I could improve. lol  But I know, I always have a choice, and if I don’t choose to be mindful, then it’s MY choice–no one else is in control of me. And me taking personal responsibility for that choice? –well, that’s a work in progress! But at least I am aware that it’s a choice of mine to make.

….. Enough 

When I was 14 years old, I ran away and lived on the streets in Atlanta, Georgia for several weeks with my best friend at time. Thinking of all the terrible things that could have become of me is baffling and nothing short of miraculous, however we were taken in by a couple of neo-nazi skinheads who sheltered and fed us during this time. (Yes, even neo nazi skinheads can be caring)One night we went to a skinhead party with them and I met a “white power” skinhead named Christopher and we talked until a fight broke out. What intrigued me most about Christopher was that he was a young African-American who believed that something was inherently wrong with him and that he should be subservient to white people. I was confused by him. Up until then, I had never really thought much about race, but after that, I absolutely knew that I was in the wrong crowd and I needed to get away from these skinheads.

Although this part of my life story is embarrassing, interesting and complicated, I have to leave it there. Obviously, it left an indelible mark on me. And my story has a happy ending since I am writing this today. Clearly, I am lucky to have a loving family who has always supported me through my troubled times.

Although it may not be as obvious in places like America, it is blatantly clear in countries like South Africa in which race inequality is apparent.

However, it was the first time I became aware of my white privilege. I wouldn’t expect most white people to identify it let alone acknowledge it, but I know it’s a real thing. Not only have I experienced it first hand but I’ve lived its opposite vicariously through my husband, an Indo-Guyanese, and witnessed it with others. And no matter where I go, in South America, the Middle East, Asia or now in Africa, the attitudes toward race are consistent: the paler your skin is, the better. This attitude that was imprinted during imperialistic times still is in different cultures today.

Lately the international news is full of all things American- mostly the social discord brought about by Trump’s presidency. In particular, women are protesting him and his vision of “greatness”. However this has struck a chord with women around the world and these protests went global. Undoubtedly this confuses Trump supporters, men and women alike, with them thinking that he has been fair enough to women. Perhaps white women are “privileged enough” but what about the women of color- whether black, brown, yellow or red?-maybe they are tired of slathering on whitening cream and putting on pants to justify that they deserve a fair shake at the benefits afforded by men-especially white men- men like Donald Trump- who never had to make difficult choices about whether to buy food or diapers for his children. It seems clear to me that there is another perspective to this reality tv show called American politics that is being reflected across the oceans,  and ideas about race and gender are being challenged.

All I know is there seems to be a day of reckoning that is upon us as we hold our collective cultural beliefs up to the light.  This is a time for reconciliation, courage and thoughtful action. To be unaffected by these events seems impossible and it has definitely stirred up a lot of emotion, even for non-Americans. As I am a tourist here in South Africa, a nation still grappling with its recent past of apartheid, I am wondering if I treat my fellow humans with the dignity and kindness that should be afforded to all people, or am I just being “good enough” to them.

From my Christian background, this is one of those bible verses that clings to my heart and reminds me that kindness and understanding should be my compass as I encounter others.

I know that I can’t change the inequities of the world but I can change my behavior as I interact with others. I can see others in their humanity and embrace the differences between us. I can acknowledge that their struggles are real and offer them genuine compassion- not pity or indifference- but respect for who they are and encourage them. We are all one. I truly know that with every fiber of my being. The Catholic faith taught me that first and my life experience continues these lessons. I can be more forgiving, more patient, more willing to see others’ perspectives.

I do not know if this “enough” but I feel that this is the soundest action to take in the moment.

2017: Awesome and Wonderful?!

I miss the admonishments of my British friends for my overuse of the word ‘awesome’, claiming that applying it incessantly to everyday circumstances diminished its meaning. But what if 2017 is the year of the AWESOME (and Marvelous, darling)?

So, if that indeed is my intention, then how I am going to cultivate a genuine Awe for my life? How can my life be more Wonder-Full? Before I go forward in any argument towards marveling at the mundane, what are the indicators of it? I mean, how should I define it so I can catch it? As I reflect on this, these are some characteristics that I think can signal that something is awesome:

  • It leaves us surprised and curious.
  • It puts us in the NOW.
  • It touches the heart and penetrates our soul.
  • It puts us in any anticipatory state, in which you feel the joy in advance of the experience.
  • It overwhelms us with beauty and attunes us to the divine.
  • The experience is uncontainable and must be shared.
  • You feel privileged to have had the experience.

Also, I think the easy yet difficult part is to CHOOSE it–choose to put my antennae up and tune into it.  I know that miracles happen every day so why wouldn’t today be the day? Of course it’s possible! I have to be disciplined enough to take personal responsibility for my joy, and not be satisfied with my day until I find something that was utterly remarkable about the day. Seek and ye shall find. 

Of course there are big things that I wish to accomplish. I love this idea and inspiration from Ray Edwards:

“In the next twelve months, what must I become or do so that I grow in every area of life—and how can I enjoy the process?” ‘What do I most want to be thankful for one year from now?’ I write the answer down, and it becomes a focus for the new year.”

So, as I look at that quote, it summons within me a desire to do things differently in the year to come. “Enjoy the process!?-since when do we humans enjoy change, you say??- this is why so many people quit their resolutions!”

Perhaps, but...

a-mans-bewilderment-is-the-measure-of-his-wisdom-quote-1I think cultivating a habit of relishing in the mundane in pursuit of beauty and the divine is a resolution that is worthy of devotion. I wonder if my dedication will wane but I am curious about the result if I were to make consistent steps towards this goal. What if extraordinary things would ensue just by virtue of my openness to the possibility that something amazing could happen today?

And at the end of the day, I’d rather say that I bore witness to something utterly astonishing, that my eyes and ears were open to the extraordinary around me, and I could experience it as awesome, standing agape at the marvels of my life. To be in that state of expectancy I imagine would bring about a peace and fascination with life that I have yet to know yet in my life. So, in this year–2017–I am now hitherto for christening it as the year of the AWESOME. It is my wish for you too, dear friend, to experience more moments of profound gratitude and joy in the year to come:

May you be happy.

May you be at ease.

May you be free from danger.

May you be loved.

 

The Ultimate Power

“Words only weigh as much as the air used to breathe them unless you give them the ultimate power.”–my mind has been musing over this quote from B.A. Hunter for nearly a week now.  I’m often amused by what comes out of my mouth when I am in a conversation, but more often it’s the words that are unspoken, bobbing around as my thoughts, that are the most elusive. Obviously as I try to “quiet” my mind, it leads to a deeper exploration of  my mind’s “search engine”, as I observe the needs, beliefs, and emotions that seem to color my perspective of reality. What am I focusing on? Because what I focus on gives it meaning, and that meaning produces emotion; this emotion produces my action. What’s my model of the world?–how do I feel about the state of my world.

henry-ford-airplane-quoteWhich has got me thinking about my auto-pilot: how can I create a positive mindset that is programmed and automatic? After watching Habit’s 101 , I made it a daily dedication to study how I can create proactive habits in my life. Now that I recognize that my mindset mostly dwells on the past, and my past=my future,  I can set the intention to get new habits of mind that promote the changes I wish to see in my life.

So then focus becomes my ultimate power and my point of change. Noticing that I have a pessimistic view point seems to be the most obvious place to start. You can’t change what you aren’t aware of, right? Then once I am aware of it, I have the opportunity to pivot when I encounter a negative/ non-self serving thought. It takes deliberate practice, but with effort, comes the change. This is where the rubber meets the road!

In order to transform my perspective, I have to DECIDE that I can do this– reframing ‘impossible’ to I’m Possible–cheesy but true. Currently my confidence comes from finding some ideas that inspire nudging me in the right direction. Here are some strategies that I have found and am willing to try out:

  • Generating positive emotion by exploring possibilities with “What if”.
    • Example: What if I made that goal? What if I had more time?
  • Dr. Daniel Amen has a a strategy for countering what he calls “ANTs” (a negative thought).
  • Tony Robbins suggests that we can DOUBT IT OUT! He says “we doubt we can succeed when we should doubt that we could fail.
    • Pondering 5 Reasons why the “worst” may not be true.
    • Finding “exceptions” to the rule.
  • Influenced by Daniel Kahneman’s research on our thinking processes, David Casti suggests redirecting those mental movies to transform guilt and regret with using the sentence stem: “Next time, I intend…..”
  • Change the focus from having resources to being resourceful. This cultivates appreciation and considers how contributions are being made for improvement.
  • And I love this idea from Brian Johnson about playing Angel’s advocate and finding “what can go right” in a situation.

You know what I find so ironic and cool, that the minute I start researching how to modify my mindset, I find a warehouse of resources and tools that are out there. Most of them are super simple and take minimal time.  I also find exercises like the ones I’ve listed not only mind-opening but also alter my emotion and lift my spirit. Win-Win!- I dig it!

So,  I’ve decided to amplify this approach by using  my new favorite app: Way of Life. I understand that what I measure, I can improve; so if I keep track of it, then I suppose “shift happens”.

Until next time….Keep Breathing!