How to Get Your Cool Back

I lost it yesterday.  After several days of heavy gray skies, the afternoon sun broke through and the clouds blew away.  I was driving north at the time, heading home from a friend’s house, and my spirits soared as I gazed at the stretch of blue sky.

Then I turned west and saw that, above the clouds, planes had been busily laying down their trails.  They aren’t contrails, you know.  Exhaust doesn’t stop and start.  And it doesn’t continue across the entire sky, from horizon to horizon, spreading broadly.  These spreading white and charcoal strips were the product of “stratospheric aerosol injection.”  And the aerosols, I had learned, held all sorts of toxins that are harmful to every living thing on the earth.  Nanoparticles of aluminum, barium, strontium, lithium and more are falling daily now from the skies, and all of us are breathing them.

Normally, like pretty much everybody else, I ignore them.  There’s nothing I can do about them anyway.  Why let them detract from an otherwise beautiful day?  But I’d recently been exposed to more information about them, and yesterday the sight of them triggered me big-time.

At first I was mad.  Then my mood crashed into a combination of profound sadness and helplessness.  I wanted my sky back.  The one I knew as a kid.  The one where skies were a clear and vibrant blue and where clouds were puffy and looked like heaps of whipped cream.  Not skies that were dropping poisons on us all, night and day, killing off animals and plants, sickening my fellow human beings.

To make it worse, I ran across an article this week that theorized we’d been spraying so heavily for so many years now that we might create even bigger problems if we stopped.

So here I was, bummed out mightily about a problem over which I have absolutely no control.  And some of me realized that was downright stupid.   I couldn’t impact the problem in the skies, but I did have a say about my state of mind.

That’s the first step toward regaining your equilibrium when you’re upset:  Recognize that you’re upset.  Admit that it doesn’t feel good at all.  Then, you take the second step: Deciding to feel better.

You might think I’m going to tell you to think positive thoughts.  A lot of people think that’s what positive living is all about.  But it’s not.  And that’s not what I’m going to tell you.

The next thing you do, after you become consciously aware that you’re upset, is to let yourself feel your emotions.  Feel the weight and texture and color of them.  Notice where they are in your body:  In your throat? Gut?  Shoulders?  Chest?  Recognize them as a valid part of you, as an aspect of your experience of being human.  Then send them some acceptance.  Be generous to them and compassionate.  Around the world, right this very moment, thousands of other people are feeling very much the same thing.  Maybe not for the same reasons.  But they’re feeling the same way.  Send a little wave of compassion to them, too.

Then, just breathe.  Take a nice, slow breath and let it out.  Then another, and another.  And you’ll begin to notice how the feeling softens and begins to dissolve.  All it wanted was your acknowledgement and acceptance.

That’s what I do.  It’s a beautiful technique, and it leaves you feeling larger somehow, big enough to hold even the suffering of life.  And the suffering, once acknowledged, finds its place and eases, freeing you to notice some of the other things you’re capable of experiencing.  Like peace, and sometimes—actually pretty often—a kind of openness and joy.

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A Kindness Challenge

Given all the conflict that’s filling the airwaves at the moment, I’m declaring “Universal Kindness Month.”  You in?

It’s not as easy as it sounds, this kindness stuff.  You have to turn your attention from your own concerns and direct it toward the needs of someone else.  You have to let go of criticism, judgement, sarcasm, condescension and blame. And truth be told, we all spend time in some of those toxic pools.  They’re tactics of our egos to make us feel that at least we’re not as bad as that guy. It’s kind of silly when you think about it. But you have to admit that it’s true.

In his book Strength to Love, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about this other-directed kindness in a paragraph about the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  (Wikipedia describes the Parable like this: “The parable of the Good Samaritan is a parable told by Jesus in Luke 10:25-37.  It is about a traveler who is stripped of clothing, beaten, and left half dead alongside the road. First a priest and then a Levite comes by, but both avoid the man. Finally, a Samaritan happens upon the traveler. Samaritans and Jews generally despised each other, but the Samaritan helps the injured man.”)

Here’s what Dr. King said:  “I imagine that the first question the priest and Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But by the very nature of his concern, the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

That’s the essence of it, being more concerned with what you can do for someone else than you are with yourself.  It means acting from your heart, with compassion.

Despite our self-absorption, on the whole we humans do tend to be generous to others in times of emergency or tragedy.  We band together and rise to the occasion in whatever way we can.

But it everyday life, when the needs of others aren’t especially obvious, we tend to overlook them.  Dedicating yourself to kindness means setting an intention to be helpful.  Then, as you begin your day, you remind yourself that you want to look for opportunities to practice being kind. Set up a trigger for yourself, maybe remembering your intention every time you check your email or look at the time or date.  Remind yourself when you enter a room or go through a door.

You don’t have to do big deeds.  A little eye contact and a sincere smile can make someone’s day.  Putting a little extra effort into a job you’re doing for someone else lets them know you care.  Reach out to someone with a call or an email.  Let someone know you notice and appreciate what they do.  Encourage somebody.

Here’s a zen quote from my collection that lays out the ‘how’ of it really well: “Always keep a smiling face and a loving mind, and speak truthfully without malice.”

The rewards are worth the effort.  Love feels good!  Kindness truly is its own reward.

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How to Keep an Open Mind

I had a friend once who absolutely couldn’t stand being confronted with information that contradicted her beliefs.  “Don’t confuse me with the facts!” she would say, “My mind is already made up.”

I thought of her this week when I came across a quote from Pema Chodron.  “The truth you believe and cling to, makes you unavailable to hear anything new.”

As I said in last week’s post, nobody enjoys discovering that what they believed to be true is not.  But our pain only lasts as long as we insist on clinging to our erroneous, distorted, or incomplete beliefs.

The reality is that none of us has the whole picture about anything.  We make up a lot of stuff.  We grab soundbites from the news, read something, or pick up viewpoints from family or friends and add them to our information stock without question, especially when they fit in well with the beliefs we have already formed.  Then, when they’re challenged, we tend to get defensive.  It can be uncomfortable to let go of a belief.

But it doesn’t have to be.  You can toss out a torn or outworn belief as easily as you throw out a sock with a big hole in the toe or a shirt you’ve outgrown.   The key is to see that learning something new is an adventure, an opportunity to get a wider, fresher view of things.   Moving toward a greater truth is freeing.

When you encounter information that challenges your beliefs, see it as a chance to expand your understanding of the world.  You don’t have to buy into it right away. Investigate. Poke around a bit.  Probe the new data to see how sound it is.  Is there good evidence for it?  Great! You’ve opened a new door.  You don’t have to form conclusions immediately.  You can just accept the possibility that maybe there’s something to these new ideas and poke into them some more.  They may lead you back to your initial belief, strengthening and broadening it.  Or they may lead you to a different and clearer view of the world that empowers you to act in it in a wiser, more informed way.

And right now, we need all the strength, clarity and wisdom we can get.  Competing voices from all sides are vying for our loyalty.  It’s important to consider which ones are based in facts and which are riding on mere platitudes or suppositions.  Keep an open mind and do some research into the claims.  Try to distinguish between arguments that are presenting facts and those that are appealing to your desire to cling to an established belief.

Sorting things out calls for a commitment to finding the truth, regardless of where it may lead you.  But searching for greater truth is the greatest and most rewarding adventure of them all.

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When Your World Crashes Down

Let’s talk about beliefs today—the ones that are so deep it doesn’t even occur to us to question them—and about what happens when they turn out to be wrong.

We all have them.   We build them in order to have the world make sense to us so we can navigate through it with some sense of security and make reasonable decisions about how to reach our goals.  If we didn’t have a set of core beliefs, the world would seem overwhelming and unpredictable.  We’d be lost in a frightening and incomprehensible chaos.

We aren’t born with beliefs.  We acquire them through a kind of social osmosis from our families, teachers, cultures, media and peers.  And while they have deep roots, they’re also somewhat fluid, changing with our experiences in the world.

Still, they’re so much a part of us, that we identify with them.  We prefer to be with people whose beliefs are in harmony with our own.  We tend to be judgmental of those whose beliefs contradict our own, labeling them, at best, as misinformed.  Depending how different their beliefs are from our own, we may even think those who hold them are stupid, evil, or demonic.  When someone questions or attacks one of our beliefs, we tend to take it personally and rise to defend ourselves as if our beliefs were who we are.

But they’re not.  We’re the “I” that does the believing.  The beliefs themselves are simply ideas that we have adopted as good descriptions of the way reality is and how it works, or should.

That’s important to keep in mind.  You don’t disappear when your beliefs change.  You simply operate from a new perspective.

I wanted to bring this up this week because my personal reading of current events leads me to suspect that in the very near future many of us will find ourselves stunned by what will unfold.  I think we’re entering a very dangerous time.  Many of us may find firmly held beliefs destroyed.  If you’re one of them, remember you are not your beliefs.  You’re simply a human being who is getting a new perspective.

You may feel shaken, disillusioned, or even betrayed.  That’s because we identify so closely with our interpretations of the world.  When a belief is shattered, it’s as if a part of ourselves has been destroyed.  We can go through the whole range of stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance.  That’s okay.  Let it be.  Just know that you’ll come through it and adapt to the changed reality in which you find yourself.  We are, after all, resilient and creative beings.

At one time or another, most of us find ourselves in a situation that challenges our beliefs.  It could be a crisis of religious faith, or discovering that a close friend or a partner has betrayed you.  An accident or natural catastrophe could wipe out a home or business you assumed would always be there.  You could suddenly lose a loved one you expected to have in your life forever.  Your career could suddenly be upended.  Life is an uncertain place.  We believe it’s one way, and it turns out to be something else altogether.

You know that quote collection I told you about?  Well, I have a couple that apply here.  The Dalai Lama says, “Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.”  Know what really matters to you and find a way to translate that into your changed world.  Who do you want to be in the face of this new reality?  Let that vision guide you.

Author Edward Abbey says, “Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion.”  Finding out first hand why they say “Ignorance is bliss” may not be pleasant.  But, be honest with yourself, wouldn’t you rather know the truth than live in a lie?

Truth, sometimes, is bitter medicine to swallow.  But it’s the elixir that frees us to see past the walls of illusion into a broader, more light-filled world.

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The Highest Achievement

This week I want to continue sharing some of the shining nuggets of wisdom that serendipity led me to find.  I picked three that have served me well, especially when I’m catching up with the day’s headlines.  In fact, I’ve come to look at reading the news as a kind of test to see how well I’m doing with them.

The first one comes from Zen teacher Traleg Rinpoche: “The only thing we really have any control over,” he says, “is our own experience.”  That’s a tough one!  Am I getting irritated?  Frustrated? Angry? Depressed?  Whose fault is that?

It’s mine, I realize, when I remember this nugget.  And when I realize it, I’m free to examine my feeling, to choose to let it go, or to contemplate why I’m holding the thought, what stories it’s triggering, whether there’s a larger context than what I’m focusing on.  I can play with looking at my reaction from a different perspective.  I can recognize that what I’m feeling is simply an automatic reaction to whatever evoked it.  It’s a mere thought, and I can acknowledge it and let it go.  Or I can listen to it and see what it’s asking of me.  But I get to choose.  I get to claim my power to control my experience.

The second piece of wisdom comes from Osho, who counsels:  “Don’t seek, don’t search, don’t ask, don’t knock, don’t demand – relax.  If you relax it comes.  If you relax it is there.”

Oh!  Yes, of course.  Relax.  In my experience, that’s advice of the very highest order.  And I love linking it to my realization that I get to control my experience.  Relaxing opens my heart and my mind.  It lets unnecessary thoughts and emotions float away.  It brings me back to the present and centers me.  To my delight, it arouses my sense of humor and my sense of wonder.  It allows me to remember that everything is a grand mystery and that I’m lucky to be experiencing it.

And that leads me to the third nugget, a Zen proverb that says, “To be calm is the highest achievement of the self.”  It’s the highest achievement because it provides the highest rewards.  To be calm is to have inner peace, to know serenity regardless of what is happening in the world around you or within your own body or mind.  It summarizes both of the previous two nuggets.  It allows you to respond to life with authenticity and presence.

Unlike the realization of self-possession in the first nugget, or the counsel to relax in the second one, calm isn’t a means to an end, but an end in itself.  It’s the state to which self-possession and relaxation lead.  It’s evenness in mind, emotions and spirit, a beautifully worthwhile space in which to live.

So I give you these three nuggets to place in your pocket.  Think of them as smooth pebbles you can caress with your fingers whenever you notice that you’re ruffled or out of sorts.  I especially recommend holding them in your hand whenever you read the day’s news.

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