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Personal Development with Gray Miller

Archive for the tag “practice”

practice good hugs

Hugs, Broccoli, & Yoga

“We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” – Virginia Satir, “The Mother of Family Therapy

Basibanget via Flickr CCAs promised, today’s Practice post is all about hugging. Hugging may not be your thing, but like broccoli and yoga, it probably should be. As a liberal dance artsy type, I’m pretty familiar with hugs; as a midwestern male former Marine I’m also pretty familiar with how awkward, clumsy, and even creepy they can be. So how do you manage to get your RDHA (Recommended Daily Hug Allowance) without getting a reputation as Person Most Likely to Be a Reincarnated Octopus?

Here’s a few tips that I’ve found work pretty well. Keep in mind they are only suggestions – not rules. In researching this post, I found many “how to” guides on hugging, and after many head-shakes, spit-takes, and more than a few expletives following the words “What the -“, I threw them all out. Everything that follows is either hard science or else personal opinion. Cultural mores? Customs? I can’t pretend to speak for your world, your friends, family, or comfort zone. Use your best judgement.

  1. You need hugs. Saying “I’m not a hugger” is kind of like saying “I’m not an exerciser” or “Yeah, nutrition, I’m not into that.” It may be true, but your body – specifically your body chemistry, which controls things like your mood – is totally into that. So bite the broccoli and get your hugs.
  2. Ask for consent. Just as you wouldn’t force-feed someone broccoli or do “enforced yoga”, if someone doesn’t want to hug you, you need to gracefully accept the “no.” More than that, you should give them the opportunity to say no – ask “Are you a hugger?” or hold your arms out (see #3) when you’re still quite far away from them, so they have time to frown, shake their head, run away, or give you some other indication that they are ok with their depleted oxytocin.
  3. When in doubt, do an X hug. Did you know hugs can be dominant or submissive? Or that if you hug someone around the neck, it’s romantic? Neither did I. In fact, I’m pretty sure I still don’t know those things. What I do know is that when I started giving X hugs, things got easier. All that means is that you hold up your right hand and stretch down with your left. Hopefully your hug partner does the same, and when you come together your arms make an X – that then collapses in on itself, because you want to try and -
  4. Hug Longer. Though I’ve heard “six seconds” is as long as it takes to get the oxytocin pumping, all the research I found online said twenty seconds or more. Now, that can be easy if it’s somebody you’re really comfortable with, but it can be a really long time if it’s someone you don’t really know all that well. One way to get past that is to simply -
  5. Breathe. C’mon, you knew that if this was a touchy-feelie post I was going to say “Just breathe…” at some point, right? If I didn’t, they’d take away my Personal-Development Blogger License. The fact is, though, when you breathe deliberately you not only center yourself, you also give the person you’re hugging something to focus on. Above all, don’t hold your breath – it kind of negates the point of the hug. The other person might be holding their breath, which we’ll cover in number seven. But you should breathe, and just breathe. In fact, you kind of step out of space and time and -
  6. Make a Bubble. For the duration of the hug – no more, no less – don’t do anything else. Step out of the busy, create a tiny little unreality where the two of you are simply sharing human touch – a language far deeper than words or even expressions, a language so deep our bodies are designed to respond to it. Take just that little moment – that twenty seconds out of your day – and make it just for hugging. If it helps, decide that for that one-fifth of a minute your job, your vocation, your calling in life is to hug well. After that you can go back to being a rocket surgeon or whatever.
  7. Listen for the Disengage. This is a vital skill. This is how you aren’t creepy. You are paying attention to the other person’s body language to judge how comfortable they are with the hug. Sometimes people just hug you back. Other times they tense up at first, but you’re breathing (right?) and they kind of relax into it. Sometimes they just keep holding their breath though, and that’s your cue to disengage. Not like they’re hot lava, but quickly and graciously. Also, if they do hug you back, be listening for that moment their body signals they want the hug to end. It may come from their hands, it may be a slight drawing-back of the body – but whatever it is, listen to it and respect it. Do not force a hug to last longer, any more than you would force a dinner guest to have seconds on broccoli.
  8. Acknowledge. It doesn’t have to be a big deal – just a simple “Thanks” or even a smile and a nod. Whatever it is, it’s like you had a conversation, and at the end you say “goodbye” or “see ya later.” You don’t just walk off abruptly. You’ve just made a bubble and breathed together and communicated – so give that triumphant example of human interaction its proper due and say “Hey, thanks for the hug…
  9. Establish a Supply. I don’t expect you to hug everyone for twenty seconds or more (though if you do please email me and let me know how that went). While you can offer hugs to everyone – and yes, you’ll be known as “that huggy person” and suffer the fearful derision of the macho – you will find out pretty quickly that there are some people you can get your twenty seconds from and some who are just good for a brief pat on the back. That’s fine – you can become a hug connoisseur, and appreciate the trust involved with simply being in such close proximity to another human. Save the hug buddies for when you both really need your fix.
  10. Hug How You Want. In researching this post I came across a lot of derisive posts about certain kinds of hugging. Some said the “guy hug” (clasping hands and bumping shoulders with a single hearty pat on the back) was ridiculous. Others talked about how bad “A” hugs were compared with “I” hugs, or that you had to be a certain age or height differential to hug other people. All of this is hearsay, custom, opinion, and bull. The twenty second thing? That’s backed by science. But everything else is basically about you and the person you’re hugging. So ignore convention, and do what feels right to both of you.

That’s it! Got more suggestions? Any hug questions for me? That’s what the comment section is for! Now go out there and hug!

Did you know that giving on Patreon feels almost as good as a hug?
Ok, that may not be backed by science –
but I know it feels good,
because my patrons have told me so.

finding nobility in simple practice

And Now, the Classics…

This is an epic moment. For the first time in my life, I’m going to quote Virgil:

Virgil, courtesy Thomas Hawk CC

Even now the countryman actively pushes on to the coming
Year and its tasks; attacking the naked vine with a curved
Pruning knife, he shears and trims it into shape
Be the first to dig the land, the first to wheel off the prunings
For the bonfire, the first to bring your vine-pole under cover;
But the last to gather the vintage…
It makes for hard work.

Why am I, a humble amateur author with a B.S. in Dance, of all things, bringing ancient Greeks to your browser this morning?

It’s kind of a balance, actually. After last week’s talk about flourishing and focus and such, I felt that it’s worth remembering that what you’re doing right now is actually pretty awesome, too. Or at least it could be, if you chose to see it that way.

Mind you, I’m not saying you should. Sometimes the only thing that gets you through that thing you are doing is the release valve of being able to complain about it. That’s how I’ve managed to cultivate an almost-daily yoga practice, after all – by keeping my own inner monologue going (I call it “bitter yoga”).

But the point of Virgil’s poem was to show the simple nobility of the work of the farmers of his time. He was praising the virtue of the simplest task, in the purity of a zenlike monofocus on doing what is necessary because it is necessary.

“The Colour of Hope”

IMG_0865.JPGThe philosopher John Armstrong (from the School of Life) suggests that we can take a similar tack in our own tasks, especially those which we may have a less-than-friendly relationship with. For example, I happen to really dislike working with my finances; even with eight months of detailed monthly reviews and spreadsheets and a much better bottom line, I still procrastinate opening up the file and actually looking at the numbers. Even with cool apps like Mint – which is about as friendly as a financial app can get – I just get uncomfortable dealing with it.

Armstrong suggests perhaps framing it in a Virgil-esque way:

…And take yourself also, as the sun is setting,
To a stationery supplier and get yourself a quantity
Of manila folders, the colour of hope
Dine early and lay all the pieces of paper before you on the carpet.
Divide them, as the Gods divide the just from the unjust
Into two piles. Arrange them by Date. Work slowly.
And when you are done, pour a libation to Apollo,
Who loves clarity and order.

Suddenly opening that spreadsheet becomes the opening of a ritual of the seasons, a festival of finance that occurs once every full moon. It can be accompanied by Bacchanalian music and secret single-origin dark chocolate only opened for these sacred moments…

Or whatever works for you. I’m sure, here as the week begins, you have something going on that seems mundane. That seems tedious and just totally taking time away from the things you want to be doing.

Maybe take a moment and realize that you are the caretaker of your life’s garden, and this is part of the pruning and tending that is necessary for you to grow. Make the tedium into a sacrament for just a moment, a ritual contributing to your quality of life.

Then you can go back to complaining, if you like. But very few complaints are the color of hope.

the focused browser practice

A Simple But Profound Change

Last week I said some harsh (for me) things about Cal Newport and his ideas in So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I stand by my evaluation of that particular manifesto, but I don’t want to discourage you from reading more of his work at the Study Hacks blog; it’s a regular read for me, and in particular this entry on focused web surfing during the day seemed like a good practice to try out. “No clickbait. No Facebook. No blogs (except, of course, Study Hacks…)” he says.

When you eliminate the chance of web surfing, you tend to be more efficient in processing your work. (The way I see it is that I’d rather finish my day an hour early than sprinkle an hour of time wasting throughout.)Of equal importance, the simplicity of the rule — no web surfing, no exceptions — makes it easy to avoid this temptation when trying to work deeply, thus preventing unnecessary ego depletion.

Now, I confess I found it a little strange that there was an external link to the “unnecessary ego depletion” phrase – that, plus other ads on his blog, would seem to be a bit hypocritical in the realm of “focused browsing.” In fact, in the midst of writing this post I found myself on Amazon looking to see if any of those books he recommends were in the Amazon Prime free reading list (I’ll save you the clicking: they aren’t). I also have to question the idea that it is more “efficient”; to me, the efficiency of a process is not so much a matter of speed as of quality. In other words, if I write a blog post quickly, because I didn’t follow up any outside links, it may not be as good as one where I spent some time wandering through related topics and gaining a deeper or broader understanding of the topic.

Reminds me of a time when I was asked to teach a class on “speed rigging” for some aerialists. My response was “Sure – but I get to pick what speed.”

courtesy Ngo Quang Minh, Flickr CC

Not that browsers make it easy…

Every Little Bit Helps

At the same time, I did take that challenge and found it did have a kind of “purifying” effect for me. If I was tempted to check twitter, or Facebook, or any other article, I was more quick to catch myself and say “No…” and get back to the job at hand. The net result was that at the end of my workday it was easier to point out to myself what I had accomplished, and that in turn made it easier to allow myself to relax.

I’d recommend you try it out this week. Just give a couple of days and aim for that “pure” web browser history that shows that everything you did on the web had a purpose – even if that purpose was a moment of entertainment. It’s an incremental change towards a more focused day in general, and since we know that multitasking doesn’t work, that’s got to be a good thing.

Let me know how it goes, and I’ll read your responses on the Love Life Practice Podcast next week!

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ten travel tips

The Practice of Travel

As I come home from an excellent relationship intensive in Heber, UT, seems a good time to update my travel tips.

1. Wear slip-on shoes, not laces. If you usually wear a belt, shift it to suspenders. Also having a satchel, purse, or jacket to easily stash your wallet, watch, etc. will speed up your trip through TSA *immensely*.

2. Have your contact’s phone number, name, and address memorized. Sure, having it in your phone and written down are all good – until your phone breaks or your briefcase is lost or any other number of things. Your memory is the last best traveler’s companion.

3. If you like hot drinks, bring a tumbler. It will often save you money getting refills (especially at outrageously priced airport cafés), can be filled on the plane and get you more than that little silly styrofoam cup, and besides, it’s good for the environment.

4. Be polite. Either *don’t* recline your seat, or if you must, turn and let the person behind you know that you’re about to do it. Why this is not taught at the same time kids learn to say “please”, I do not know. But economy ain’t getting any bigger, and the least we can do is not sacrifice other’s actual comfort for our own minimal improvement.

5. Check with the attendant at the gate to see if carry-on luggage can be checked to your destination. Often they’re happy to (it saves overhead space and quickens boarding time) and you get all the convenience at none of the cost.

6. Don’t buy bottled water. It’s not any better than the stuff in the water fountain, and you’re contributing to the ever-growing mountain of plastic that is slowly eating the globe (seriously). Instead, get yourself a collapsible water bottle. They’re cheap, they are easily carried, and really can help you get better hydrated.

7. You can actually do yoga in your seat on the airplane! Twisting poses, drawing your arm across your body, stretching your wrists, and (depending on your seating space) doing leg bridges, etc can make a long flight much more bearable. Try out any of the many “desk yoga” workouts available online, but modify them for the airplane seat.

8. Stay hydrated. Aside from the water bottle mentioned above, make a rule that when they offer water, you say yes. When they offer some other drinks, ask for water *in addition* to it. And never let yourself walk past a water fountain in the airport without taking a drink from it. Traveling dehydrates you far more than you’d think.

9. Unless you’re allergic to nuts, carry around a small bag of almonds, maybe mixed with something (I happen to like dried cranberries). For some strange reason, almonds are not only a good source of protein, they are also a magic food that helps counter cravings for *other* foods. So when you’re hungry, tired, and walking past some unhealthy restaurant choice, you can pull out the almonds and they will not only tide you over, they will also help get you past that craving for a double bacon cheeseburger with mushrooms. Plus you have something to throw in case you are attacked by nut-allergic ninja pirates.

10. Be polite (part 2). Far too often people presume while traveling that they somehow have some privilege that enables them to talk to the attendants, TSA workers, or shop cashiers as if they were second-class citizens. Don’t be that person. In fact, be the person who stands out because in the midst of a simple interaction (“*Would you like fries with that?*”) you managed to make a connection, human-to-human. You can be the person who the airport worker tells their family about that night, who had the nice smile and treated them so *nicely*. Really, though, you’re being selfish – because treating other people that way makes you feel really, really good about yourself. So tip extra, let people get in front of you in line with a smile, and layer on the “sir” and “ma’am” even if the person looks surprised to be addressed that way.

Actually, *especially* if they look surprised. A little respect can go a long way.

That’s the latest edition of “the Nomad’s Guide to the Practice of Travel”. Got more? Let us know in the

IMG_5850-1.JPG

the power of the next “no”

A Simple Plan

I started a relatively basic but drastic life hack last week. I call it “no obvious sugars”, and basically the idea is to cut out the blatant sweets in my diet. Things like donuts, candy, cookies, cereal, I’m even going so far as to eliminate things like ketchup or soda with high-fructose corn syrup. I am not eliminating all sugars; aside from how hard that would be (I’m old, my eyes can’t read those ingredient labels like they used to) I also have a hard time believing that fruit and a bit of honey in rolled oats is causing the kind of blood-sugar spike that doctors warn of.

That’s the motivation behind it, you see. If you want specifics, take a gander at this video:

Now, I’m not actually all that concerned with occasional spikes. What I’m concerned about is the idea of being dependent on the sugar. Of needing it, rather than simply enjoying it. Honestly, it’s less about health and more about some issues of control, but hey, if we can channel the latter into the former, it’s all good.

Curbed Custard

I should add, I live in Wisconsin. Land of frozen custard, the best donuts in the Northern Hemisphere, truffles and chocolates and more. I was raised within a reward system where the Ultimate Reward (and symbol of adulthood) was a Hot Fudge Brownie Sundae. My devotion to the art of the pancake is literally internationally known. My partners, my kids, even my co-workers know that I have a sweet tooth.

So cutting out sweets, even only five days a week, represented a pretty major lifehack. It’s not as easy as just dumping all the sweets in the house – after all, on the weekends, I plan to indulge. I’m not forcing my partner Natasha to do it along with me, so the temptations still abound – especially in a home office environment, where for hours there is nobody here but me and that bag of Twix bars…

Micro-Effort

A little wear, but runs great!

A little wear, but runs great!

Yet it’s really not been that difficult to do. I’ve been astonished, in fact, at just how easy it has been. At the risk of jinxing myself I will tell you my strategy.

I deliberately did not focus on the long-term benefits. I have a sneaky suspicion I’m losing weight, but that’s a side effect. I know that my mood has been very down lately, which would suck if it wasn’t an indication that this was a good idea in the first place. I’d rather have my mood not altered by my sugar intake; not that other things like body chemistry wouldn’t affect it, but somehow it feels more authentic.

I just focus on one thing: the next “No.” That is, in a few minutes when I go in to refresh my coffee, that cookie will be sitting there on the counter saying “C’mon. Eat me! I taste gooooooood…” And I reach into my metaphorical mental pocket and pull out the “No” that I’ve kept there, and I move on.

The great thing about the Metaphorical Mental Pocket is that it spontaneously generates the next “No” for me, without even being asked. So when lunch comes around and I have something savory and delicious and the server asks “Would you like some dessert?” I can reach in and pull out the slightly ornamented “No, thank you.

See, I don’t have to worry about going without sweets for the next week, or month, or whatever. I just have to be ready for the next time that sweet comes around, and already have my decision ready.

No.

It’s a way to get past the dangers of ego-depletion (great podcast about that on the latest You Are Not So Smart, by the way). So I invite you to try it out this week, for something that you might want to change. You don’t have to make all the right decisions. You just have to make the next one.

Now: what do you want to change?

the true cost of distraction

Paying Attention

Over the weekend I had one of those epiphanies. One of those moments that changes your perspective on things, that makes you suddenly see the elephant in the room.

Specifically, it’s the metaphor of the elephant as being the bulk of our subconscious psyche – our emotions, our habits, our desires. It’s an example used by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. He also posits a rider perched on top of the elephant symbolizing the conscious mind, riding this massive, powerful animal. If it were a contest of strength, the elephant obviously wins, right? The rider can’t use force to make the elephant go somewhere. The entire process of self-improvement is figuring out ways to persuade, trick, distract, or train the elephant to do what the rider wants.

Enter social media. Suddenly the rider becomes just another voice in the maelstrom of sensory inputs. The poor, harried, distracted elephant suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous updates. The elephant wants to go where the rider directs, but there are just so many confusing directions possible to go, and many of them seem like innocuous detours but end up in miresome swamps of time-guzzling clickbait.

But this isn’t just another “We should all focus better” post. No, this one is different.

The Value of Me

A friend of mine recently shut down his Google apps. No more Gmail, no more Drive, no more Docs. Instead he’s switching to Apple’s cloud-based apps – iCloud, etc – which offer much of the same functionality.

Still, it seemed rather strange to me. When I asked him why he was doing it, he said it was because he objected to the way Google used the data of his online activities to target advertising, etc. It’s the argument that your data belongs to you, and if you’re using something for free it means that you are the product.

I’m familiar with that argument, and I still use Google, mainly because I find their apps convenient. As for the data they gather on my website usage, that’s ok with me too – I’m not using it, after all. To me giving them knowledge of what kind of things I look for on Amazon, what kind of articles I like reading, even what kind of movies I love is not a big deal.

The Value of Attention

However, there was one sentence in an article on Medium that changed everything. The article had the relatively unwieldy title of “Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Their Laptops Away” It’s well-worth a read, not the least to keep yourself up-to-date on some of the studies of this brave new information age.

For example, there’s the usual “multitasking is an illusion!” diatribe. But it includes a link to a study that showed that multitasking is not only bad for the person doing it – it actually takes away from the capabilities of people around the multitasker:

…participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students…

But we knew that already, right? But how about this: since the studies prove that attention is a limited resource, what are these social media venues doing? They are taking that resource away from you, with the help of every new “update”:

…the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field…

That’s what caught my attention (sic). That “emphasis on “getting””. Suddenly I realize that while I don’t care about the corporations making use of the trail of digital detritus I leave behind, I resent the hell out of them stealing a non-renewable resource that is more valuable to me than anything: my time.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 12.16.29 PM

Actual Screen Shot!

Attention on FULL

There are many, many articles on how to focus, how to eliminate distractions. I’ve written some myself. There are also many apps that can help, with names like “FocusFree”. But I’ll tell you right now the singular practice that I started directly after reading that article: FULL SCREEN MODE.

No more windows. If I’m in my browser, that web page is the only thing there on the screen. If I’m writing (as shown here) there’s only my wonderful Ulysses app here in front of me. I haven’t yet tracked down all the screen alerts, so it’s not perfect yet, but when I can I shut them down. Ad-free is worth the cost, and the tweets can wait until the blog post is written.

It’s changed the way I work. What do you use to focus? Or what do you wish you could change?

find the right mantra for yourself

MANTRA OVERBOARD!

I remember when I first consciously became aware of the use personal affirmations. I’d been under the influence of them for years before, of course, from the little “choose the right” ring I’d been given at age 8 through the many litanies of the Cub and Boy Scouts (“On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my Country…”).

But it was Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking that first made me realize that these words and others were a kind of magic spell we could cast over ourselves to alter reality. To be more accurate, we would use them to alter ourselves, or our perception of reality, but really that’s pretty much the same thing as far as it goes subjectively. He even said as much: “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Based in a Christian worldview, his short phrases got pasted all over my room – everything positive. “Never talk defeat. Use words like hope, belief, faith, victory.

I wish I could tell you that it worked wonderfully – that surrounding myself with a bubble of positivity absolutely made life better. Unfortunately, much as the “Choose the Right” ring didn’t actually make me virtuous, the words around me actually didn’t seem to change my world. In fact, since I was actually rather unhappy and felt like a loser, the affirmations seemed at best disingenuous and at worst mocking.

There’s actually a pretty convincing body of research explaining why that is, as well as a whole new way of looking at things:

…”Third Wave Psychologists” are focusing less on how to manipulate the content of our thoughts (a focus on cognitive psychotherapy) and more on how to change their context–to modify the way we see thoughts and feelings so they can’t control our behavior. Whereas cognitive therapists speak of “cognitive errors” and “distorted interpretation,” Hayes and his colleagues encourage mindfulness, the meditation-inspired practice of observing thoughts without getting entangled by them… – Psychology Today

Words of Power

henry_v__once_more_unto_the_breach_by_claudiakat-d55ewdlWhat puzzled me, though, was that there is a kind of mantra that does work for me. It’s not the “positive thinking” kind, though. Rather, it’s the battle cry – the kinds of things I came into contact with in the Marines or in the stories about other warriors, both real and fictional. Starting with hearing my Drill instructors talk about how “Attrition is the mission” (that is, they were going to try and make as many of us fail as possible) and through “Improvise, adapt, and overcome!” (the most valuable four words I’ve ever heard) these kinds of words have always struck a chord:

  • “The only easy day was yesterday.” – Navy SEALs
  • “Accomplish the mission, whatever the cost.” – USMC School of Infantry
  • “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” – Capt. Lloyd Williams, USMC
  • “To the confusion of our enemies!” – J. Robert Oppenheimer
  • “I am ready for whatever comes!” – Sioux War Cry
  • “Forward momentum!” – Motto of the Dendarii Mercenaries

So why is these resonate with me rather than things like “Every day, in every way, I am getting better? I think it has to do with the simple idea of verbs vs. nouns. Even the Latin mottos that I’ve enjoyed have verbs as their focus:

  • Dum Vivimus, Vivamus! – “While we live, let us live!
  • Nil Illegitimi Carborundum! – “Never let the bastards get you down!”
  • Carpe Diem! – “Seize the fish!”

Then again, Latin was never my strong point. As I puzzled over why “the Secret” doesn’t feel genuine but “Once more into the breach, dear friends!” will get my blood pumping, I figured it out. An affirmation is trying to describe the way things are – whether it’s realistic or not. What if I’m not getting better and better? What if it’s not a good day, or I’m not feeling my best? These affirmations become lies, and hollow.

On the other hand, a battle cry is a statement of intention. It is an acknowledgement that things may be rough, but it is also a plan of action to change what is necessary – whether that’s the situation or (more likely) yourself. Rather than trying to pretend that things are a certain way, it is the decision to make them a certain way – or at least try to.

My own mantra comes out of my dance background, but it’s equally a verb-type mantra. I use it when things are getting out-of-control, when I feel harried and not up to the chaos of life. I say to myself:

Dance, don’t scramble.

…and things tend to go a bit better.

What about you? What mantras work for you, and what ones don’t? Am I off-base with the whole verb vs. noun idea?

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the practice of reflection

Whatever you do, don’t look behind you!

There’s a very scary shelf among my books. It contains words that make me cringe, shudder, draw back in horror – and that’s not from reading them, it’s from the mere idea of reading them.

They are my journals.

While they’re not all quite in order, they do stretch back quite a ways – to middle school, in fact. In it are not profound thoughts, deep reflection, positive wisdom on the state of the universe. No, instead there is insecurity, fear, jealousy, selfishness, lost dreams, abandoned hopes…

Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself. It’s why I don’t read them terribly often. A fellow journal-writer and friend said it pretty succinctly:

I suffered immensely at the hand of my past. Re-reading that is to relive it, invoke that shame and disgust. And it is hard to get past that.

Hard indeed. But worthwhile, if only for the whole idea that those who are ignorant of their history are doomed to repeat it.

Image courtesy Kanghee Rhee via Flickr CC

There be monsters…

Pattern-Busting

One of the most practical reasons to re-read journals and blogs is to be able to read between the lines. You have a distinct advantage over the person who wrote whatever words you’re reading: you know what happened next. That means you can start to recognize cause-and-effect. Perhaps more importantly you may be able to recognize when an effect is not caused by something. Either way, you have new information from which to plan your future.

Of course, that’s another lesson you will learn from reading it: things don’t always turn out the way you expected. The things you feared? Didn’t happen. And if they did, they were likely not as apocalyptic as it felt at the time. Unfortunately the flip side is true, as well. Those things you looked forward to, that you worked diligently towards until you achieved them – likely they didn’t quite match up to the expectations.

Again, both of those are useful lessons to learn, especially when you’re trying to plan for the future. But the fact that a practice is useful and practical doesn’t make it any more appealing when you dread it. If that were the case, I’d be doing a lot more yoga in my day.

So how does one get past the paralysis of autographochronophobia, a word I just made up to describe the fear of one’s writing about times past?

Not Feeling Yourself

I can’t speak for my friend, but while I share his loathing for revisiting the past, I can say that like many fears when faced it turned out to be much less difficult than I expected. It took a while, but I realized why that was: I am no longer the person who wrote those words.

That person was still either in the middle of or just barely beyond whatever traumatic events I was writing about. There were still fresh memories; the images were connected to intense reactions of neurochemistry, emotional maelstroms of anger and sorrow and grief and whatever.

That’s not the case when you re-read it. Instead you are removed from the situation, enjoying the benefit of perspective. You have greater strength and resilience that comes from having survived longer than that person who wrote the words. Not only that, you get to remember that you did survive all that – a reminder of the simple and admirable skill of survival.

Perhaps you’re in a better place now – then you’ve got even more reason to celebrate! I know I’ve looked at some journals from about twenty years ago and just shake my head. How did that young man manage to do all that stuff? I’m tired just reading it! My life now is both more simple and more wondrous than he would have ever been able to imagine.

Riding the Changes

Your motivations and values have changed – either become more refined and clear, or perhaps changed completely. You can see what dreams you carried with you, and what ones you left behind or traded in for new dreams. The same applies to friends, family, food, and probably a few other words that begin with F.

You may still have some things in common with that person who wrote the journal. You certainly owe them a debt of some kind, whether that’s positive or negative, because it was their action that put you where you are now. Perhaps you want to let them know how that makes you feel. No, it won’t make a difference to them, but it certainly can make a difference to you.

That’s why it’s not only worth it to make a practice of journaling, but also of reviewing your journals. Take advantage of holidays, for example, and spend an hour just paging through your past thoughts.

It’s not as scary as you think. It can’t hurt you; whatever pain was possible has already been inflicted. Instead it offers a chance for further healing, for more strength, and for a better future.

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The Numbers Game, part 1

Any technique will work, so long as you relentlessly work it. It’s a numbers game. That is, success is a pure function of the law of large numbers. – Nick Murray

The Universe likes to play with synchronicity. Ok, not really, but our brains like to pretend it does, and so I like to think it was kismet that led two respected colleagues of mine to say the same thing in two different ways. First was a colleague who doesn’t even know I exist: Steven Pressfield. His books on creativity, his tales of the publishing world, and his ongoing blog have been a major inspiration for me. Recently he wrote a blog about The Game of Numbers. It’s a reference to a business book of the same name, and the principle is so simple that it’s unsexy:

The rule is: Pick a constructive aim that you can control; then do it and keep doing it, regardless of immediate success or failure. In the end, the law of large numbers will kick in and you will win…Do not judge yourself or your work. At the end of the day, ask yourself one question only: “Did I do my pages today?” If you did, you have succeeded. Simple as that.

“Simple” is right – simple and absolutely dreary. It falls right into the “do the next thing” idea, though it focuses it a bit. Before writing this post, for example, my brain tried telling me “the next thing” should be installing a new theme on my word processor. Or responding to that comment on my blog. Or checking for interesting tweets. Or doing pilates. Or anything but what was really the next thing: writing this post.

courtesy Rodrigo Moraes  via Flickr CC

courtesy Rodrigo Moraes  via Flickr CC

Making the Calls

A few days after reading the blog post by Steven I was having a great talk with a new/old friend named Tom Kastle. He’s a musician and sailor, and travels a lot. We were talking about the various aspects of being an itinerant professional, particularly along the lines of lining up gigs. That’s the thing they forget to tell you when they talk about the romance of working for yourself: there’s always this ineffable cold darkness on the horizon, just past your last scheduled gig. It’s traveling towards you quickly, and the only way to push it back is to line up another gig. Tom’s to the point where he doesn’t have to worry about it much – people are happy to have him all over the world, because he’s both talented and professional. I’m almost to the point of not worrying about it much – because I can fake professionalism and talent pretty well while I work on actually developing both. But Tom told me of another friend, a friend who was actually kind of annoying. He didn’t seem too pleasant in manner, in voice, in personality – but he was immensely successful. In fact, Tom said, he’d once claimed to have done something like 267 gigs in one year. “I told him he was crazy,” Tom said. “No one could have done that many. Especially being his own agent. He looked at me and said ‘Yeah? I made sixteen booking calls before breakfast today. How many did you make?’” The Law of Big Numbers doesn’t play favorites. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s a sure-fire way to succeed, as long as you show up.

How to Become an Overnight Success

That’s the measure of my success here at Love Life Practice: three posts a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. There is no big end goal, no expectation that there will be a big payoff at the end. There are smaller payoffs, like my Patreon supporters and getting closer to completing my Defining Moment book. There’s a podcast now, which has been downloaded a whopping fourteen times; that’s three times the last time I checked! It’s ok. I don’t need to have Oprah notice me, or suddenly go viral (when, exactly, did that word become a good thing?). If you need a practical reason why you, too, should pick something to persist at, maybe the story of Darlena Cunha will help.

I wrote daily, on my own blog and for outfits like The Huffington Post, Thought Catalog and McSweeney’s, for free, lucky if a few hundred people read it. I was working my fingers off, even as my loved ones started to suggest I try something else. It had been five years, after all. Just as I was about to give up: boom.

That “boom” was her post not only becoming popular, reprinted, well-read – it became the most-read story of all time in the Washington Post. Think about that, next time you feel like quitting your creative endeavor, shutting down that blog, giving up on your dream, whatever it is. Really, though, I prefer to think of the term “overnight success” in a different way – back to that idea of numbers. Today I needed to produce a certain number of videos; to write a 500-word flash fiction piece; to consume less than 1500 calories; to create this blog post. When those numbers are hit, I can rest easily in the successes of the day overnight. Tomorrow is another chance to become an overnight success all over again.

just do the next thing

I’m just no good at life! – almost everyone, at some point.

Eldest daughter has been having a rough time of it the last couple of days. With her permission, I get to share a little of it, because it’s a great illustration of a couple of solid survival practices.

But He’s My Little Baby!

First Grandson Harvey begins school in ten days. That makes it time to register, and if you’ve never experienced trying to get a child registered for school you’ve really missed out on some of the best examples of bureaucracy-in-action that our society has to offer. Health forms, questionnaires, releases, schedules, equipment lists, physical education waivers, instrument rentals, field trip forms…it’s truly a dizzying amount of paperwork. That’s at the best of times. My daughter was perfectly willing to jump through all the hoops and joyfully release her son into the wilds of the public school system, except for one obstacle: They didn’t believe in him. More to the point, they told her that she couldn’t register him without his birth certificate. She had his social security card, she had his immunization records, she even thought she could get a record of birth from the hospital in Arcata, CA, where he was born. But no, the administrator told her. It had to be a birth certificate. Nothing else was acceptable.

The Ragged Edge

Eldest Daughter's shared her crap with me since the day we met...

Eldest Daughter’s shared her crap with me since the day we met…

It was at this point that I’m very happy to say that Eldest Daughter called me. I’m happy that she thinks of me as a resource for her, and I talked with her about various options and strategies. We talked about the ways to try and get the record from Arcata (which looked to take months) but also about actions to take here. Who did we know in administration? Who could we bring with us to speak before the school board at the next public meeting? What were the options of home schooling him if we couldn’t get him enrolled this year? At the same time she was dealing with this overwhelming personal sense of failure. She felt that she had failed her son, that she’d ruined his life, that she was a bad mom. She said “I don’t know how you did it with the four of us, Dad, I can’t even do it with one!” That just about broke my heart. The last thing I ever want is for my daughter to hold up my experiences with the four of them as some kind of standard. Yes, I’m proud of the fact that they all ended up wonderful women – but that was despite the way they were raised, not because. However, I could give her one piece of advice: You wanna know how I did it? I just did the next thing in front of me. There was no big picture. The big picture was too bleak. The big picture was too much. But I could break it down into the next thing I had to do, and I did it. Over and over again, until it got less scary, until I started seeing those obstacles behind me, not in front of me. Fill out the next form. Cook the next meal. Wash the next dish. Whatever it took. So with Eldest Daughter we talked about making lists. There was a California list, with all the things that needed to happen to get the birth certificate. There was also the Madison list, with the phone calls and strategies for what to do if we couldn’t get the right paperwork. She calmed down, breathed, even when the dear boy came up and said “Mommy, why can’t I go to school?” I swear, children can be more cruel than anyone imagines.

Deus Ex Machina

This is the part where you know I am writing a blog about reality, not making stuff up. If I were creating this as a story, there would be a series of struggles overcome until a triumphant climax with lessons learned through perseverance and toil. Ad astra per aspera. Instead, a few minutes after I hung up the phone with a still-scared but more-prepared daughter, I got a text from her:

Oh good god. I just called the school back and asked “What’s it gonna take to let him start?” They put me on hold and she comes back and says “Oh, you know, what I said before was wrong – his immunization record will do fine.”

This was followed by another text:

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!

…which she later told me was the hysterical laughter that happened with the sudden relief of pressure. Because that’s the other reason to keep doing the next thing, and just keep doing it. Because there are forces out there moving in mysterious ways, and suddenly things can change completely. You can’t count on it – sometimes the miracle is just that you suddenly discover that you’ve done the last thing that you needed to do. But when it does happen, what else can you do but laugh? And then look around for what the new next thing is. When you don’t know what to do next, that means it doesn’t really matter. Just do the next thing, whatever it is.

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