The following entries are a varied lot. Consisting of different thoughts on different subjects, and of different length and scope, they are short pieces that have yet to be placed into a larger more organized body of work.


Tuesday
Oct212014

yoga and self-acceptance


I signed up for Yoga classes a couple of months ago. It’s not the first time I’ve tried doing Yoga, but it has been a few years since I’ve worked it into my schedule.

I took my first class a very long time ago (maybe in the early 90’s), when I visited my oldest brother out in California. I don’t remember a lot about the specifics of the class, but I remember how it seemed to help me release a lot of tension I had been carrying around with me. Stretching out and then relaxing that way was not something I had ever done before. The music was kind of weird, but it was also weird how my neck and shoulders felt completely different after class. I suppose we never realize how tense we are until after something relaxes us so deeply. Anyway…. after that class, probably 10 years passed until I went to another one.

About 3 or 4 years ago, after I had been running quite a bit and focusing more on my health in general, I signed up for a few more yoga classes. This time I signed up for a class called "Yoga Stretch" that was taught by a fellow runner. Overall, I liked the class and I learned a few new stretching techniques, but when my 12 week pass expired, I didn’t feel the need to sign up for more. At the time, yoga just seemed like a good thing to do occasionally, when I felt like I needed to stretch out and take a few deep breaths. And for the most part, this is still how I think of yoga… with one exception.

After signing up for a few classes again this fall, I have started to think more about the psychological aspects of yoga. Since I’ve always been interested in philosophy, I’ve started thinking about some of the bigger questions. For example, I’ve been thinking a lot about self-acceptance. I’ve been thinking about why it’s hard for me to relax sometimes? Or why I feel so self-conscious doing something that I’m not very good at? Or why it’s weird being the only guy in the class sometimes? Or why I feel bad that I get cramps occasionally? Or why my body protests if I try to do too much?

One thing that I have certainly learned this time around is that yoga helps develop a healthy sense of humility. It makes me think about what it means to be confident. I may be a good runner, a decent athlete, and a fairly smart guy, but I’m definitely not very flexible. My back is usually stiff. My muscles are usually tight. I get cramps in my feet and hamstrings. The foot I broke a few years ago isn’t the same as my other foot. My chest and arms are sometimes sore from lifting weights.

I know that I’m not supposed to compare myself to the people around me who can all touch their toes with no problem, but sometimes I can’t help it. Lately, I’ve started closing my eyes occasionally to think less about everything. I think maybe I’m just not too jazzed about being not very good at things. After all, being not very good isn’t usually an impressive trait. Nobody wants to be the last kid picked in gym class or the last person asked to dance. Nobody wants to get the lowest grade in the class, and nobody wants to date the person with the most boring job. After all, there are reasons why people are impressed with each other, and those reasons usually revolve around excellence. We might all give lip service to the notion that we are beyond this, but are we really? When I ask myself who I am most impressed with… I do tend to think of people who are successful at something. Luckily, over the last few years my values have slowly evolved away from being impressed with superficially successful people and toward being impressed with more spiritually successful people. And lately, I've even become more impressed by people who keep doing things even though they might never be really good at them.

I went to watch the finish of a half marathon race this past weekend. And, while I was definitely impressed with and inspired by the fast runners up front, I was equally impressed with the slower runners who finished toward the back. And, I was especially impressed with the close friends and couples who made it a point to cross the finish line together.

I wonder if all this competition is really mostly about love? Maybe we all tend to compete with each other in an attempt to be more lovable? And maybe if we knew we are already loved and accepted, then it would be easier for us to put our desire for excellence into perspective?

In the end …. maybe I'm just slowly learning that I don't have to be good at everything. While I will always like pushing myself in a 10k race and placing high in my age group, I think I’m also learning how to be cool with being the least flexible guy in my yoga class. Hell.... Maybe it’s even OK to be inflexible sometimes. And maybe for me, yoga shouldn’t be about getting better at anything anyway. Maybe it should just be mostly about accepting my current inflexible self and embracing where I am right now - stiff muscles and all.

At least that’s what I tell myself when my eyes are closed.

Friday
Oct032014

Foundations of Happiness


Introduction

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of reading. I haven’t been reading a lot of fiction though. Instead, I’ve found myself reading a lot of books about philosophy, psychology, religion, and spirituality. I suppose that since I was a little boy, I’ve always been endlessly curious and asked questions about things that most people don’t really think about all that much. In the last several years, I’ve come to the conclusion that living a happy life is actually more about focusing on being healthy than it is about trying to be happy. I think it is best to think of happiness as a side effect of living a healthy life and making sure you have a few key areas of life well taken care of. I’ve broken them down into just four, and I believe that if we can learn to develop each one and balance them with the others, then we are bound to feel pretty good about who we are and where we are going. On the other hand, if we haven’t developed each of them fully, then we are bound to feel unhappy or feel like life is missing something. The trick is to figure out what area(s) we need to develop and how to strike the perfect balance between them. I call these areas the Foundations of Happiness, and they are:

1. Physical Health (your body)
2. Social Health (your relationships)
3. Financial Health (your stored energy)
4. Spiritual Health (your calling)

As you’ll notice while reading the summary for each below, they are all related and intertwined. I’m sure many other writers and thinkers have mentioned them before in different contexts. I certainly can’t take credit for their origins. My goal is to simply organize them a little more clearly and make them more digestible and easy to remember. There are surely many other important things for us all to consider as we live our lives, but these four foundations have served me well for the last 5 years, so I thought I might share them with whoever might be interested.

Physical Health

It all starts with our bodies. A healthy body will generally be happier and more cheerful than an unhealthy body. A sick person feels down. A fat person feels lazy and tired. A skinny or mal-nourished person may also feel lazy and tired. It is hard to feel good about ourselves when our bodies are in bad shape. We get angry and impatient when we are hungry. We get depressed when we stop moving. And, not surprisingly, we feel better after we have exercised. We might feel tired after a brisk walk or a run, but it will be a good kind of tired that helps us sleep well, and we tend to feel proud of ourselves afterward. Ultimately, all of us need to move around and eat properly in order to be at our best. None of us need to be Olympic athletes to be healthy, but we certainly need to take care of ourselves. How we treat our body is the beginning of living a happy and healthy life. Our bodies are truly the beginning of how we understand ourselves and relate to others in the world. We need to take care of our own physical well-being. We shouldn't be afraid of exercising and feeling out of shape or short of breadth sometimes. Pushing our bodies for a few minutes means we are growing. We are stronger than we realize, and we will recover and be stronger afterwards.

If you don’t take care of yourself, perhaps it is because your parents didn’t understand how important it is to do so, or perhaps they did provide a good example, but the message didn't sink in as deeply as it could have. Either way, it's never too late start, and the good news is that it's not that complicated. We all just need to get some exercise and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. As I'm sure you've heard a thousand times, whole grains and lean meats are also healthiest. There is nothing more to say really. Get on the internet and do some research. It’s not that hard, and once you start, you will feel better. Don’t choose to be unhealthy and depressed. Instead, choose to eat well and exercise. Make exercise part of your routine and lifestyle, not just something you do to lose weight. Happiness is a side effect of having a healthy body. Focus on your body and good feelings will follow.

Suggestions: Walk with a friend instead of watching TV after dinner, run around the block, go for a bike ride (it’s fun and will remind you of when you were young), play tennis, sign up for a softball team, walk your dog, take the stairs, race your kid upstairs to bed, run around the yard with your dog, dance, try yoga, sign up for a 5k, lift weights, swim, jump rope, do pushups before you brush your teeth at night….

Eat more fruits and salads, eat a banana every morning, spread peanut butter on an apple, eat yogurt instead of ice cream, make a smoothie, take vitamins, make vegetable soup in the winter, cook vegetable stir fry with all kinds of different sauces. Teach your kids family recipes and cook together rather than watching TV. Make meal times fun times… and not a chore for just one person. Take turns cooking and have fun family contests. Bring your own healthy lunch to work. Have fruit with lunch and a salad with dinner every day. Organize a healthy potluck with your friends.

Social Health

You’ll notice that in a lot of suggestions I gave for becoming more physically healthy, I also suggested you do these things with family and friends. Though some of us might not want to admit it, we need other people to feel happy and healthy. We are fundamentally social creatures who learn about ourselves by interacting with the people around us. We empathize. We compare. We share. We talk. We listen. We laugh. We love.

Although we are certainly capable of surviving and “being fine” doing our own thing, we never truly shine until we are in the company of others. It is through our interactions and relationships that we grow and evolve. Some people will bring out our best and others will bring out our worst. Some people we long to see more often, and other people tend to bring us down. Some people are just comforting to be around and others not so much.

Sometimes we become friends with people because we share interests. In the case of our families, because we share or have shared a home. There is really nothing complicated about this area of our lives either, unless we make it so. Ideally, our loved ones are simply the people who bring out the best in us. We may be related to them or not. It doesn’t really matter. When we are unhappy, a lot of the time it is because we are stuck in unhealthy relationships. We are trying to get along with people we don’t naturally get along with. So, if we want to improve our lives, we should make an effort to spend more time with people who appreciate us and less time with people who don’t. It is OK for us to avoid people who drain our energy. We can be friendly and polite and love people from a distance, but we should not sacrifice our health and happiness for someone who is negative and exhausting. We all influence each other. It is important to pay attention to the people that we spend time with and to note their impact on us. As human beings, we can love everyone and wish them the best, but we need not try to become close with people who operate on a different wavelength. It is right and good that “birds of a feather flock together.” It is OK for us to have a close inner circle of trusted friends and loved ones. And, it is OK if we need to keep things a little more distant and polite with others. We should never feel bad that we don’t click with someone. We all have unique personalities and should embrace the kindred spirits we come across throughout our lives. Be kind and compassionate to all people. Life is short. We are only so strong. Spend your free time with the people who bring out the best in you, and try your best to bring out the best in them.

Suggestions: Give your mother a nice long hug and don’t stop until she lets go first. Tell your Dad he did a good job as a provider for the family and that you are proud he is your Dad. Get along with your brothers and sisters, even if they annoy you sometimes. Call them to say “hi” every once in a while. Attend family reunions and focus on the good memories not the bad. Learn some jokes to make your friends laugh. Spend some time in groups and some time just one-on-one with your loved ones. Buy a friend lunch, just because. Buy a friend a beer, just because. Root for a loved one’s favorite team. Be proud of your friend’s accomplishments. Ask about how their work is going. Ask about how their kids are doing. Don’t be afraid to tell your closest friends about your mistakes and the times you have failed. Be happy for them when they go on vacations. Ask to see the pictures. Ask for their advice. Tell them what they are good at… they may have forgotten. Make sure the people you love know it.

Financial Health

For me, and most people, money is mostly about security and freedom. Some philosophers have also defined it as “stored energy.” Money is what we work for to provide the basics for ourselves and a few luxuries if we can afford them. Most of our money goes toward our home, our food, our clothes, and if we have them, our children. And some of our money also goes towards the things we want: electronics, entertainment, shopping, and vacations, among other things.

In order to be financially healthy, we need to be especially clear about our priorities. We need to work at a job that suits us, and we need to make sure that we are spending our energy and money on the things that will help us feel most secure. Our jobs don’t have to be perfect. Most of us will be lucky if we enjoy 50%-75% of what we do each day. I’m sure even famous actors and actresses and travel writers have certain things they don’t like about their job. If you dislike more than 50% of your job, you should probably look for another. Sometimes an OK job will do the trick for a while, but then we will get restless because we won’t feel like we are growing. If this is the case with you, then either talk to your boss about working toward a promotion, or start looking for another job that seems to have more potential. It’s amazing how a job won’t feel so horrible if you know that it is a stepping stone to another position. Sometimes, just being on the right path is enough to make us happier at work.

When we buy things, we should try to avoid getting caught up in acquiring too much stuff that we really don’t need. Many of us have a hard time saving money for things that would make us truly happier. Instead of saving money for emergencies and retirement and feeling comfortable about our future, we allow ourselves to be coaxed into bad shopping habits that put us into debt and make us less secure and happy. When we buy something we can’t afford, we might feel temporarily excited by our new purchase, but we are also choosing insecurity and unhappiness over the long haul. When we are more disciplined and manage our money well, we are choosing security and lasting contentment. Debt is like a nagging pain in our back or a headache that lingers. It is hard to relax when we know we are living beyond our means. Instinctively, we all know this. It is why we keep our debts secret and why we are ashamed every time we get a bill we can’t afford in the mail.

One good thing about exercising and cooking healthy meals is that we will have less time to go shopping for things we don’t need. And, if you can cut back on watching TV and exposing yourself to a bunch of advertisements, you will find that there are fewer things you will actually want. It is no wonder that we feel unhappy and unfulfilled if we spend our days and nights eating unhealthy meals and watching TV. Commercials are meant to make us want things. TV programs are funded by companies who want us to feel dissatisfied. Think about it… if we feel satisfied with what we have, then why would we need to buy a lot of stuff that we don’t need?

Even if we are living lives that are physically and socially fulfilling, we will still feel bad if we don’t have a decent job and we aren’t keeping our money in order. We will feel tired, worried, and have less energy. Our work will never be perfect, but we should be grateful for the opportunity to earn our living. Once we start to get our finances in order, we will instantly start to feel better. There is no shame in admitting that we can’t afford something at the moment. Financial health is just like physical and social health… it requires honesty and discipline. But, if we are smart and make sure to avoid certain temptations, then we will be strong enough to start saving our money and saving our energy for the things that really matter. A stressed out mother or father will not provide their children with the comfort they need to thrive. A stressed out friend drains the energy of his or her friends by always complaining and being negative. With our money in order, we will feel happier and healthier. We will have the energy to be better parents and friends. We will have the energy and the money to spend on our own and our loves ones deepest needs.

Suggestions: Review all of your accounts. Determine how much you are worth or how much you owe. Do some research online or buy a book to learn how to make a realistic budget. Spend Sunday evenings planning your week and reviewing your finances. Pick just 2 or 3 nights a week to watch TV. Turn it off otherwise. Consider cancelling your cable TV subscription and watch the local channels for free using an antenna. Watch more public TV and less news. Most news is negative and adds needless worry to our lives. Start keeping track of your spending. See if you can go 1 week without buying anything other than food. Picnic in the park instead of going to the mall on a Saturday. Sort through your clothes closet. How much money have you spent on all the clothes you rarely wear? Ask yourself… “what else could I have done with that money?” Host a yard sale with your friends. Pay off your credit card balances as soon as you can. If you don’t have debt, open a savings or retirement account and have money automatically transferred into them. Carrying a credit card balance is like leaving a door open in the middle of the winter. You are just giving money away. So, make sure that debt door is closed. Move into a smaller apartment or home. You will save money on rent/mortgage and utilities, and it will help you get rid of extra stuff you don’t need. Next time you need a car, buy a small one that gets great gas mileage. Talk to your family and children about money. Make a plan with them. Let them see that you are learning how to be more responsible. Tell your friends you are cutting back on expenses and that you would like to do different activities with them. Be a good example for the people around you. Remember… money is stored energy. Don’t waste it. We all need to learn how to manage it well. Our health and happiness depend on it.

Spiritual Health

The final area of life that we need to acknowledge if we want to feel happy and healthy is our spiritual life. If you are religious and believe in God, you can think of it as nourishing your soul. If you are not religious, you can think of it as developing your unique personality. Either way, the general idea is to recognize that you will be happiest and healthiest if you are using your inherent talents and personal gifts for the betterment of yourself and the people around you. In a way, your spiritual health is about self-understanding and self-knowledge. In order to positively impact the world, we all need to use our gifts to the fullest. Even if we are healthy physically and have plenty of great relationships, we still won’t have enough to make us feel whole. Even if we are a billionaire with all the money we could ever ask for, we still won’t have enough to make us feel deeply content.

What I call spiritual health is basically our need to become our best selves. We all have a deep-seated need to follow our calling. We all need to live a life with purpose and meaning. When we die, we all want to look back on our lives and think to ourselves “Yes, I lived a good life.” We all want to impact the world in a positive way. Whether we are mothers, fathers, teachers, business owners, managers, firemen, philosophers, artists, aunts, uncles, athletes…. We need to feel proud of our contributions. We all need to matter, and in order to matter, we all need to find our rightful place in the grand scheme of things.

Some of us might have just one primary role and others might have a few roles. But, we all have a unique path to discover and follow, and we need to do some thinking, reflecting, meditating, or praying to be true to ourselves. Some people may nourish their spirit in groups and others may need to be alone. Some may thrive spiritually by attending religious services and others by attending yoga classes. The important thing is for all of us to honor our deepest core identities. We need to learn to follow the little voice inside of us, the one that whispers “this feels right” when we are on the right track. We need to understand that we are all mysterious creatures who are worthy of love and respect. We need to remind ourselves regularly that our lives are precious and important and vulnerable and powerful. We need to take our lives seriously and try not to waste time on the wrong stuff, the superficial stuff.

If we learn to pay attention to our intuition, or the voice of god within us, all will be well. A healthy spiritual life can be different things for different people, but it is certainly something that we can’t become fully happy and fulfilled without. Spiritual health is about living our lives with purpose, and it is ultimately about recognizing and honoring the deep mystery of life within us all.

Suggestions: Think about why you were born. Think about how you want to be remembered after you die. Think about the times you felt like you were on the right path. What are you really good at? What comes natural to you but is also challenging? How can you get better at that? What are you most scared of? Often times our truest path is the one that we care the most about but are also afraid to face. Are you living a life that makes you proud of who you are? Who is one of your heroes? What is it about them that you so admire? What if you contacted them to learn from them? Is there a certain person’s biography that seems particularly interesting? Then read it. We all need mentors and guides from time to time. Many religions offer healthy belief systems and lifestyles to follow. Is there a religion you have always been curious about? Is there a writer or philosopher or psychologist that seems especially interesting to you? Have you ever kept a journal? Does communing with nature help calm you? What helps you feel at peace with yourself? Follow your intuition. Be true to yourself. No one else knows what is best for you. Trust yourself. Trust the invisible spirit within you. It doesn’t have to make sense. Sometimes we can’t explain why we want to try something. That’s OK. The best things in life never make sense in the beginning. It’s OK to be unsure. Test the waters. Be adventurous. Take that first step. Life will instantly become more interesting. Take the time to follow your intuition. You will not feel fully content or fully alive until you do.

Conclusion

So, there you have it. the Foundations of Happiness. It took me a long time to create the life that is best for me, and I am still working on it. I’m still trying to evolve and grow. I always will be. In the past, sometimes I followed what I thought other people wanted me to do and struggled because of it. But, for the last 10 years or so, I have been balancing the physical, social, financial, and spiritual areas of my life pretty well. A few years ago, I made a color-coded guide for myself and posted it on a bulletin board near my closet, so I see it every morning and evening. Sometimes my path hasn't felt so clear, and I've become sidetracked, but that is part of the learning process, and I am thankful for the difficult detours as well. Currently, my strengths are in the physical and spiritual areas of my life, so I have recently been focusing on the financial and social areas a bit more.

Chances are that you too are stronger in some areas and weaker in others. You might have a wonderful church and close family relationships, but struggle with your physical health or your weight. You might exercise and enjoy your job but struggle with family life and relationships. In short, you may be focusing on one or two areas but are neglecting others.

You might also have noticed that each area overlaps with the others in certain ways. For example, if you are lucky, then your job might serve financial, social, and spiritual needs. You might also notice that exercising serves both a physical and a spiritual need. You may also feel deeply connected to your spirit even though you have physical challenges. There is no single perfect way to organize the lives of everyone. My suggestion is simply to try to strike a healthy balance for yourself given your unique circumstances, and to acknowledge that no matter how hard you try, there will always be work to do. Our life is a gradual evolution, and we will continually need to make adjustments as we evolve and grow. Don’t worry about the end result too much. None of us will ever achieve perfection. Accept as much and enjoy knowing that you are on the right track.

Another important thing is not to feel bad about where you are now, but rather to feel proud that you are doing what you can. It is in the trying that we grow to be healthy. As a yoga teacher once reminded me, we are exactly where we are supposed to be right here and right now. And, if we continue to grow and nurture ourselves, then we are already the type of people that the world needs more of. So, start today. Eat a healthy dinner. Invite a friend to go for a walk in the park this weekend. Turn off the TV. Read a good book. Learn something new. Be honest about who you are now and who you want to become tomorrow. Don’t try to be happy all the time. Instead try to be healthy, find your true place in the world, develop your talents, inspire the people around you, and happiness will take care of itself. We owe it to our family and friends to become the best version of ourselves. We all influence each other, and we can all make each other’s lives more beautiful and fulfilling.