Friday, November 28, 2014

Negativity can be contagious

In my part of the country, the weather has gotten extremely cold quite early, earlier than we've become accustomed to in more recent years at least. And I've noticed my tendency, and that of others around me, to complain about the weather almost as a way of greeting each other. After saying, "Hi," often the first words out of our mouths are, "Can you believe this awful weather?" or "I'm sick and tired of this cold."

I've caught myself doing that way too much lately. It's not that the weather isn't a proper topic for conversation, it's more that I would rather not start conversations on a negative and complaining note. Knowing that a negative attitude is contagious, can I stop it before it even starts?

I'm trying to do so. Can I think of something else to say to the person at the check-out? To the receptionist in my doctor's office? To the person on the other end of the phone?

Certainly I could say something good about the weather. Or I could find a different topic of conversation. There are many good things going on all around. I'm going to try to focus on those. It's not that I want to be a Pollyanna. When difficult things need to be discussed, I'm not going to bury my head in the sand. But I wonder if, in these challenging and sometimes difficult times in which we live, we won't do better to focus on the wonder and delight that also fill our days. To focus on the positive instead of the negative.

What do you think?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Awaken with gratitude

No matter how you plan to spend today, I hope you awoke with a list of things for which you're grateful today. Yes, it's Thanksgiving here in the U.S.

Because I keep a Gratitude Journal, I don't just see today as the one day in the year to be thankful for my blessings. Every day is a good day for gratitude.

What's on your list this year? Even if you don't write it down, it's a wonderful way to start each day. Once you begin a day by thinking of everything for which you feel gratitude, you start to really pay attention and to notice all the good things—many of which escape your notice and are taken for granted as you fly through your days.

And don't just think of the biggies such as your family and friends. Notice colors. Textures. Branches against the blue sky. Sunlight shining on your cat's fur. The sound of your granddaughter's giggles.

It's fun to really pay attention and see what you might have missed noticing before. Any surprises?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Expectations & attitude

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the U.S. For many people that means family gatherings. And family gatherings can mean both fun and dysfunction. For some families, it's either fun or dysfunction. And for others, it's both.

If Thanksgiving gatherings have been pleasant experiences for you in the past, no doubt you look forward to tomorrow with high anticipation. However, if you've had negative experiences in the past, you may be approaching it with at least some fear and trepidation.

Or you might even be one of many in our society who have no special plans, no family with whom to share the day—or perhaps family far away and unable to gather. Or perhaps you have what I call "chosen family"—friends who have become as close and as important to you as family and with whom you spend holidays.

Whatever your circumstance, your expectations and your attitude toward your situation can make a difference in how you experience tomorrow. If you are less than thrilled about what tomorrow will bring, is there one small change you can make to your attitude that will ensure a better day? Is there even something you can do to make tomorrow better for someone else you know—or maybe even for a stranger? As we know, reaching out to do good things for others has a way of coming back to us, too.

Here's wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Real freedom means letting go

I talk frequently about letting go. It seems to me to be one of our primary tasks as we age. By the time we reach midlife, we have experiences, grievances, hurts, habits and negative behaviors—just to name a few things—that we can well afford to shed. Not only can we afford to shed them, we will be far healthier and better off letting them go.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years, he spoke of the importance of forgiveness and letting go. "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom," he said, "I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."

What a powerful image. And isn't it true? When we hang onto old hurts, old tapes, and other negative experiences, we are imprisoned by them. Those things can hold us captive. And when we let go, how much lighter and freer we feel.

From what would you like to be free today? And what steps are you willing to take to let go and move toward freedom?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Changing habits

Have you ever tried to change a habit? If you have, you know how difficult it is—especially when it's one you've had for many years. It's not impossible. Just difficult.

Ariana Huffington in her book Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Happier Life refers to the work of Charles Duhigg and scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who have mapped the habit genome.

Duhigg talks about "keystone habits" that, when changed, make changing other habits easier. He says, "Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything. Keystone habits say that success doesn't depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers."

So Huffington says her most powerful keystone habit was sleep. And once she changed the amount of sleep she got, regularly getting enough each night, other habits became easier to change. Her discovery is in line with what psychological studies show: that willpower alone isn't enough because willpower is a resource that gets depleted the more it's used. Dr. Judson Brewer of Yale says the common signs of resource depletion are hunger, anger, loneliness and tiredness (HALT).

That makes sense to me. When I'm tired or any one of those other things, it's far more difficult to create positive habits. Now that I know this, I will pay more attention to the idea of resource depletion and to keystone habits.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Feel the difference?

Perhaps you've experienced it both ways, too.

I've been in homes into which I've been welcomed and even though I know the hosts are busy people, I've felt they had all the time in the world to spend with me. They've listened thoughtfully, shared of themselves and helped me to feel relaxed and very special indeed.

Conversely, I've been in homes in which I can feel the busyness and stress even when I've just put one foot into the door. Even though the welcome was genuine and the hugs heartfelt and sincere, I felt as though I were intruding on their busy lives. They took phone calls while I was there, whipped out emails and weren't really present in our conversations. Ever experienced that?

As I reflect on the differences, it raises my awareness about my own behaviors. Do I help others feel welcome? When I am with someone, do I make them feel there's nowhere else I'd rather be right then? Do I listen attentively? Or am I formulating my next response? Or thinking about all the work I have yet to do?

I often have to remind myself: Be here now, Sonia. Stay in the present. Be with the people you're physically with, Sonia. Make them feel welcome and special. I know I can feel the difference.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The power of presence

I will always remember the scene even though it occurred more than 40 years ago. My sister's young husband had just been killed in a car accident. I was preparing to pack up our youngest son, an infant, and drive up to be with my sister. My husband and two older sons would follow later.

My heart was breaking for my sister and my young nephew. The doorbell rang. When I opened the door, a friend from our congregation simply enfolded me in her arms and said, "I'm so, so sorry." It was just what I needed at the moment: a long, strong hug. No pious platitudes. Simply a loving, caring presence. I didn't need answers. There simply weren't any. I didn't want to hear any easy, simple phrases about why this happened or what good might come from it. This was tragic and sad,  and no words were going to make it right.

Sometimes all you and I need to do in similar situations is just be a presence. A loving, caring, silent presence. We don't need to have answers. We don't need to find just the right words. Just show up. Just hug or hold. Just bring a hot dish—or provide a service that's needed but getting lost in the unfolding situation. Just your presence. That's powerful enough.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Bless one life at a time

Have you ever wondered whether your life matters to anyone? Whether what you do makes a difference? Perhaps you feel that your work or your volunteer activities aren't a big deal and really don't matter. If so, let me remind you of the starfish story. Or perhaps you've never heard it.

A young man walked along the beach by the ocean and noticed thousands of starfish washed ashore. Then he observed an old man walking slowly and stooping frequently to pick up one starfish after another and toss them gently into the ocean. "Why are you throwing them into the ocean?" the young man asked. "Because the tide is going out, and they will die if I don't throw them further out into the water," the old man replied. "But don't you realize there are thousands of starfish and you can't save them all? Even if you work all day, your efforts won't make a difference at all," the young man said. The old man listened calmly, bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it out into the sea. "It made a difference to that one," he said.

Yes, what you do does matter to someone. Or perhaps to several someones. You don't have to worry about saving the entire planet. Bless the life or lives you touch today. That's enough. And it does matter! You matter. It's all in your perspective.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

8 things I've learned so far

Recently a group of friends and I talked about things we have learned as we age. I'm sure there are many more things, and I definitely plan to learn more in whatever years I have remaining, too. But here are some things I've learned so far:

• We live in a both/and world. Much of life is not either/or and clear cut. More of it is ambiguous and both/and. For example, I can be clear about my own values and beliefs and still be open to learning about those of others. I can let things be what they are and still be an agent for change, in my life and in the world. I can follow my passions and dreams and be with what's real right here and right now.
• Authenticity is important. I want to be true to myself and not be who others want me to be.
• Gratitude makes my life richer and better. I've heard it said, "Energy flows where attitude goes." An attitude of gratitude is a good start.
• I need to let go, let go, and let go some more. Old tapes, limiting beliefs, wrongs I've done or that have been done to me, behaviors that don't serve me or anyone else. So much to shed so I can live a clearer, more joyful life.
• Self-love and self-care are not selfish. They're essential if I'm going to love and care for others, too.
• Life is all about relationships.
• I am a better person when I stop to smell roses or watch butterflies. No one gets to their death bed thinking, "I wish I had worked harder" or "I wish I'd spent more time in the office." Breathe!
• I need my friendships with other women. I love the special men in my life, but my "girlfriends" are so essential to my well-being.

What would you put on this list for yourself?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Avoiding some disappointment

Each year I choose a word or phrase that I keep at the back of my mind (or sometimes, the front) so as to change some behavior and assist in my personal growth. This year I chose "non-attachment."

Sometimes I get too attached to outcomes; my expectations get in the way and cause disappointment when things don't work out the way I had envisioned. And don't we often find that life has a way of not cooperating with our best-laid plans?! That can lead to lots of disappointment.

I can also get too attached to ways of thinking and belief systems. I want to have my values, beliefs and thoughts—and also be open to those of others without judging those. So I am trying to practice more non-attachment.

Mind you, non-attachment is different from detachment. Detachment is more a way of ignoring my thoughts and feelings. When I do that, those thoughts and feelings seem to pop up anyway—and often in ways I don't like. With non-attachment, the thoughts and feelings are there and I can acknowledge them. But then I can also set them aside and not let them rule. By setting them aside, I'm not letting them ruin my day. I can go with the flow a bit better because I have acknowledged my thoughts and feelings and then made a choice about what I'll do with them.

This is difficult work. But it's worth doing for me. What are you working on these days that's difficult for you? Don't give up. Our habits and ways of being took years to develop—it'll take time to make changes, too.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A gratitude-joy connection

Is there a difference between happiness and joy? Sometimes in my blogs I use the terms interchangeably. But technically, I believe there is a difference.

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brene Brown says that she interviewed many people in research she did and many told her that "Being grateful and joyful doesn't mean that I'm happy all of the time." When she asked them to say more, she got similar answers that she described as, "Happiness is tied to circumstance and joyfulness is tied to spirit and gratitude."

That resonates with me. When good things happen in my life, I am really happy. It's sort of giggles, bubbles and sunshine time. However, when things become difficult and I am really challenged by the events in my life, I can still feel a deep-down joy—a sense that, ultimately, things will come right again. That's more of a kernel of hope, of a tiny light shining amid the darkness. It is different.

So how do we get to that place of deep joy? I do believe it's in our attitude—and it starts with gratitude. If I can receive what's given me and find something in it for which to be grateful, I will create a reservoir of joy that will build and carry me through the tough times. I will also notice so much more in my life for which to be grateful. It's about awareness and attitude. Perhaps it sounds overly simplistic. It isn't, however.

What do you think? Do you see a connection between joy and gratitude? Can you find joy amid the dark times?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Nature's lessons

Granted, many trees (at least where I live) no longer have many of their leaves. Lots of those leaves provide a blanket for the grass instead. But those that remain on trees are more muted shades of orange and gold now—more rust than orange, more shades of brown than gold. To me, however, they're still lovely.

I used to enjoy only the brightest shades of fall color. And I really still do enjoy fall colors at their peak. I am filled with wonder and delight at those bright colors, especially when the sunlight washes over them until they almost glow.

But now I enjoy the colors of late autumn, too. Is it because I am in life's autumn myself, I wonder? It might be. At last, I am able to appreciate each of life's stages and recognize that there's a beauty in each stage. I love the innocence and curiosity of the very young. I enjoy the confidence and brashness of teens and young adults. I'm enthralled by the energy and seeking of those just new to careers, parenting and mortgage acquisition. I am thrilled by the integration of values and experience I see in mature adults. And I soak up the wisdom and non-attachment of those who have lived many more years than I. Now I value and appreciate it all. I see the beauty in each stage. Perhaps that's why I can enjoy those stages in nature as well.

I want to be ever more open to what lessons I can learn in the stage I'm now experiencing—to what life brings to me now. Perhaps nature is one way I can better enter into the openness and possibilities being offered to me. Do you experience lessons through nature, too?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

'Life is no brief candle'

As much as possible, I want to make my days count. I want my life to count for something. I realize every day can't be a red-letter, amazing and totally productive day. But I at least want as many of my days to "burn as brightly as possible."

That's why this George Bernard Shaw quote really struck me when I came across it: "Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I am permitted to hold for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."

Shaw's attitude of life as a privilege comes through—"... a sort of splendid torch which I am permitted to hold for the moment...."Yes, truly life is a gift. That said, how do you want to spend it? And what do you want to leave as your legacy for future generations?

It's always good to reflect on such big life questions so we can be intentional about how we want to spend our days rather than sleepwalk through life and get to the end with regrets.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What can you learn today?

When you start your day, you have absolutely no idea what situations might arise or what you might learn. It's good to stay open and aware so you don't miss possibilities to learn about things you otherwise might not have discovered. Such opportunities open the doors to compassion and to wisdom at a level we can't imagine ahead of time.

Last Sunday at coffee hour following our worship service, we sat at the same table as a young man we'd not seen before. Through conversation, we discovered that he had only recently aged out of the foster-care system. He now lives in an apartment near our church and is job-hunting. And, oh, the stories he could tell about his experiences—some good and many of them just heart-breaking and sad.

I left the coffee hour grateful for the opportunity to get to know this young man just a bit and to learn more about a way of life with which I'm not very familiar. All I know about the foster-care system is what I've read. And I'm sure what he told at the table is only the tip of the iceberg. But it raised my awareness significantly.

What might provide a learning opportunity for you today? Stay awake and aware so you don't miss a chance for growth, increased compassion and wisdom.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mind your boundaries

A client recently told me about difficulties with a person in her life who has real control issues. My client said she was trying to set boundaries but the other person wasn't respecting her boundaries.

That often happens. The boundaries we set are for us—it's to remind ourselves of what we will and will not accept in terms of the behavior of others. If others do not respect those boundaries, it's up to us to follow through on whatever we've decided we will do when others cross the lines we've set. For example, you might decide that you don't want anyone to yell at you; it's too upsetting for you. Others will need to speak in a moderate tone of voice, or you will leave the room. If it continues, you may even decide to leave the house or building—or even to leave the relationship. That's completely your decision—and you need to let offending people know this is your boundary.

Your action depends on how much a particular behavior upsets you. You get to set your own boundaries. They are not to punish others. They are simply your own rules for what you will do when someone crosses a boundary. If you don't follow through, of course, people won't respect your boundaries.

As I told my client, "You're only responsible for the effort, not the outcome." In other words, it's up to her to set and maintain her boundaries. If the other person doesn't respect them, that's not my client's responsibility. She isn't responsible for the outcome. But stating her boundaries and sticking to them is her responsibility.

If you have questions with boundaries or problems with maintaining them, I invite you to contact me for a complimentary strategy session. It's an important part of our life together in community.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Just this moment

I must confess that I don't always do this myself. But I'd surely like to try. And that's why I like to read books by inspirational writers. They spur me to become my better self.

Anyway, here's what suggested the above paragraph: "...ever since my cancer experience, I enter every meeting with another being saying to myself, 'If I only have this time on Earth with this person, if I may never see them again, what is it I want or need to ask, to know? What is it I want or need to say?' I find I come upon others now as if I have just crossed a desert and each of them is an oasis." This from author and poet Mark Nepo, whose writings always make me think.

Isn't that a lovely image? Each person as an oasis. Each experience as an opportunity.

I don't know about you, but I tend to live more as though I have endless time to do and say what I want. But I don't know that I have more time. I may have just this current moment. What do I want to ask? To say? How can I make every moment count? Can I spend my time with others wisely? Can I also do a better job of listening to them?

I take this as an invitation, and I'm going to live with these questions and this idea to see whether I can see others as an oasis, too. It's all about my attitude.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

You choose

Have you ever noticed how your mood can shift when you're around children playing and giggling? Or when you're hanging out with happy and optimistic friends?

An article by journalist Bhava Ram cites a study by the British Medical Journal in conjunction with scientists from Harvard University and UC San Diego that shows that happiness spreads through social networks. The study showed that knowing someone who's happy makes you 15.3 percent more likely to be happy yourself. And even a happy friend of a friend increases your chances of happiness by 9.8 percent.

Ram also cites research by the late Dr. Candace Pert, a neuroscientist and pharmacologist who identified what she called the "molecules of emotion." Ram said she "documented how our thoughts create an inner chemistry that either agitates and imbalances us, or helps us to heal and enter states of inner peace, calmness, and happiness."

That brings me back to what I often write in these blogs about making sure our environment supports our happiness and well-being. Make a choice to be positive and joyful, insofar as you are able to do so. I understand full well that clinical depression and other medical situations can change that. Live in gratitude. Surround yourself with positive people. Tune off negative radio and TV shows. Listen to inspirational music and talk shows. Expect good things and look for the miracles and beauty that always are there if we but notice them.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Work for your dreams

Since yesterday was Election Day, the saying that appeared on my calendar page a couple weeks ago is especially fitting.

William Arthur Ward, a writer of inspirational maxims, said the following: "Do more than belong: participate. Do more than care: help. Do more than believe: practice. Do more than be fair: be kind. Do more than forgive: forget. Do more than dream: work."

Taking advantage of the right and privilege of voting is right in line with that attitude. It's participating in the collective work in which we engage as a society. It requires being an informed citizen. It's more than belonging to this society. It's participating in it. Action is required.

As a woman, particularly, I don't take this right and privilege for granted. It sometimes stops me short to remember that in my own mother's lifetime, women did not have the right to vote. Because of the hard work and risk-taking of several women who marched, spoke out, withstood jail and a variety of abuses and endured other hardships, today I'm able to do more than belong to society. I am able to fully participate by voting for those whom I think will be responsible, just and wise leaders. Those women who went before me did more than dream. They put in the hard work to ensure that one day, women would have the same rights as men—and that our voices would be heard. I'm so grateful. And I, too, want to do more than just the minimum.

What about you?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Savor this day you're given

I am so enjoying fall this year. The trees dressed out in brilliant and stunning color. The lawns blanketed with crunchy and colorful leaves. Crisp and fresh air. No mosquitoes. Sunny days.

I don't much like what I know will follow. I'm really not a winter person. When I was younger and my sons were smaller, we liked to go sledding, cross-country skiing and do other outdoor activities. I don't do that anymore. I'm not sure why, but I just don't.

So these days I'm trying hard to focus on each day—not on what's around the corner. I want to savor what is here right now and not cloud this time by unhappy thoughts of snowy roads, ice build-up on my roof, canceled dinners because of weather and more. No, I don't want to go there.

It's part of keeping awake and aware, isn't it? I want to sustain my awareness of what's in front of me right now. Don't let tomorrow steal the happiness and joy today can bring.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Obstacles & opportunities

I've said before that how we see things determines how far we can go in life. It makes a huge difference in how much joy, serenity and peace we feel, too.

Educator and author Marsha Sinetar puts it this way, "Life's ups and downs provide windows of opportunity to determine your values and goals. Think of using all obstacles as stepping stones." It's true. All those obstacles and opportunities mold and shape us, determining goals and values.

"Windows of opportunity." What a good description for the ebb and flow of life. I've heard it said that we wouldn't know the beauty of mountains if we never spent time in the valleys.

Sometimes it's important to just keep our seat belts fastened for this roller-coaster ride we call life. We can't know what's ahead. And it's far easier for us if we are able to accept the ebb and flow rather than fighting obstacles and missing windows of opportunity.

What might change in your life if you saw obstacles as stepping stones? Might it have made a difference in some past event? Do you think it's possible to begin seeing them that way now? What one small step could you take to help you see a current obstacle as an opportunity?