Monday, November 29, 2010

The Virtue in Just Giving Up

One of my former teachers was a big fan of the idea of never giving up. No matter the challenge, no matter the odds, he said that we should just keep trying, because “there is nothing in this entire world that is irrevocably unchangeable.” It’s an incredibly inspiring philosophy, this belief that with enough effort and determination, any goal can be reached. For many years I lived by this credo, and because of it, I achieved many things that otherwise I never would have dreamed of.

But the other day as I stood in the shower, I had a mini-epiphany of a different ilk. I had been worrying about whether a friend of mine was annoyed with me. He had been acting withdrawn, and I was trying to figure out whether I had done anything to irritate him, or if I could do anything to make him feel better. Suddenly, I had a flash of all the times in my life I had experienced similar worries. I saw a long line of anxieties and concern of a similar nature extending back years and years.

And then I saw a million other anxieties that I had carried at various times in my life. In my mind’s eye, I perceived an endless line of concerns that I had been trying to correct or control through changing myself or modifying circumstances. I had been trying to change all those things so there would be nothing to worry about, so that everything would be good and right and virtuous. But then, in that moment, I saw that the universe has a life of its own and no matter how much I tried, the flow of the universe would continue in it’s own way, carrying me with it. Right there in the shower, I said aloud, “I give up.”

When I said, “I give up,” I meant that I would stop fighting to patch things up, to correct reality. It was as if my entire being made a choice at that moment to completely and absolutely accept what is. I was accepting the intelligence of the universe, feeling that it was perfect, even in its imperfection. I was accepting myself, accepting that my basic nature was gifted to me at birth, and while I can strive to be the best me I can be, I’m always going to be me. Being me may involve some blunders, some clumsiness, some bad choices and even bad actions, but I realized I’m better off accepting that I’m imperfect me than desperately trying to be someone better and constantly failing. Better to just accept everything inside and outside than to constantly be in “fix-it” mode, because trying to fix things takes too much energy, and we have limited time here and limited energy with which to live our lives. Even if others don’t like me as I am, the universe seems to accept me completely, as it hasn’t booted me out of existence yet, and that’s a wonderful thing.

I felt such a relief, as if I could breathe deeply from the soles of my feet to the top of my head. I was no longer fighting anything. I was no longer trying to hold back the dam. I was surrendering to the river of life, and it felt exhilarating, wonderful, liberating. So much of my life energy was being zapped right out of me with worries and the feeling that I needed to improve, but when I gave up, that energy was restored.

I’m NOT saying here that it’s okay to let cruelty and injustice run wild on the planet or to act with disregard for others or to just live with terrible dysfunction. I’m also not saying we should be happy with intolerable circumstances. Rather, I’m saying we can surrender to those circumstances inwardly, so that we can then find a new calm and inner peace that allows us to make choices for change, if need be. Attacking problems head-on sometimes just creates more problems and causes so much inner strife. But accepting that you have this problem in your life, trusting that the universe has given you this problem as part of its perfection, gives you your dignity and faith back, and the clarity and serenity with which to choose a course of action.

I do think there’s a place for the “Never give up” credo, for consciously trying to bring harmony and beauty to the world and to our own psyches, but I think surrender has to come first. I have a feeling that until we really surrender to how things are and how we are, with our eyes wide open, not pretending to be better than we are, nothing will really change. Until we accept what is, until we stop fighting reality, how can we change it? Only by embracing reality do we have any power over it, and the power that we gain by surrendering is the power of love. What greater power can there be?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Studies Show Gratitude Enhances Health

 The arrival of Thanksgiving in a few days pinches us to remember that no matter how difficult life may be, we have so much to be grateful for. True—this has been a challenging year for many people—with the economy in dire straits and the ever-increasing pace of existence. But still, most of us have decent shelter, food to eat, a friend or two, and the ability to see beauty and hear music. In fact, most of us have a lot more than that.

Several studies out of UC Davis have found that those who practice gratitude daily experience significant boosts in well-being. In one study, the researchers found that subjects who were asked to write down five things they were grateful for every day scored a 25 percent increase in happiness and optimism. The grateful subjects also exercised an hour-and-a-half more daily, compared to subjects who were asked to write down five hassles every day.

Other studies have found that cardiac patients practicing gratitude had fewer heart attacks, and grateful polio victims slept better. Dr. Lisa Aspinwall at the University of Utah found that subjects asked to practice gratitude maintained higher levels of red blood cells that protect the immune system.

It is a simple practice, to write down your daily five on a gratitude list. Merely thinking of five things doesn’t have quite the power of committing those things to paper and reading the list aloud. If you consider yourself at all a spiritual being, this would seem to be a foundational endeavor—something to do first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Gratitude is a prayer, an offering, an affirmation, and a celebration all rolled into one. That we can feel grateful at all is a gift in itself, a thing of such great beauty and healing light, a miracle.

Here’s my gratitude list for this morning: I am grateful for waking up in one of the most beautiful places on earth, for the gentle breezes and moist morning air, for the roosters crowing in the yard, for being able to write about what moves my soul, for my sweet dog sleeping on the couch, for the deep friendship and support of my life partner, and for being able to share the healing practice of TAT. There’s so much more—but these are the first seven that popped into my brain. Limiting it to five didn’t work this morning. Please feel free to share your gratitude lists here! Let’s inspire each other!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Call Refused (Your Own Hero's Journey)

In the hero’s journey model, the hero (you) starts out in his or her normal life, and then something happens that offers an opportunity for change. It may be an outer event (a relationship starts or ends, schooling begins, illness happens), or something inner (you get disillusioned and restless, or become curious to try something new). This opportunity for change is known as “the call to adventure”-- whether that “adventure” is something you sought after or something that was thrust upon you (getting fired, for instance, or having your spouse leave you).  Sometimes change clobbers you on the head, whether you seek it or not.

We can see the call to adventure exemplified in so many movies and books. In the film Avatar, marine Jake Sully gets the call to adventure when summoned to Pandora for a mission. In The Wizard of Oz, the tornado sweeps Dorothy into her adventure. And in Good Will Hunting, Will’s adventure launches when he’s caught solving the math puzzle.

But the call to adventure doesn’t just happen in movies. It also happens in our lives, over and over. Sometimes we may enthusiastically follow the call—sometimes too enthusiastically, in fact, taking on more than we’re ready for. But at other times, and more typically, we resist the call because we fear change. This phenomenon is known as “the call refused”—when the hero (you), tries to keep life as it has been, whether that’s possible or not.

Undoubtedly, you have been called to adventure many times, although you may not have framed events in quite that light. How many of those calls have you followed? When in your life have you refused that call? What opportunities have you let slip by? What did you begin but never finish? What people did you let get away from you, with whom maybe you could have had meaningful relationship? What inner urgings are you ignoring now? What outer changes are you resisting instead of embracing?

I’d like to invite you to take 15 minutes right now to write about how you’ve resisted the call in your own life, and with what consequence. It may help to spend five minutes brainstorming first, just listing the times you’ve refused the call. Chances are something surprising will pop up for you. Then, start writing.

At the least, the exercise will help you to remember that you can reframe everything that happens in your life as part of your heroic journey, and to acknowledge that everything offers opportunities for learning and transformation. Please let me know how it works for you!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why You Can't Recapture Past Bliss

When I was 19 or 20, I had an experience that turned everything I had known until that point on its head. I was camping out at a remote lake in Canada. My mind was clear and my heart calm. As I gazed out over the lake, I suddenly “saw” all the ripples on the surface of the lake merge together as the lake started laughing. And then, time stopped. I knew in that moment the meaning of eternity. I understood what time was, and wasn’t. I knew why I was on earth and I knew my place in the flow of life. I know this sounds very cosmic and perhaps even delusional, but it really did happen. The effects of the experience lasted for several weeks, but gradually, I returned to my normal consciousness.

After that experience, I wanted little more than to have another experience just like that one.  But alas, no matter what I did, I could not make the universe expand again. I took up meditating, I prayed, I joined a spiritual group and dedicated myself heart and soul to the quest for over 20 years, and even though I had some wonderful experiences, never again did time stop for me; never again did I feel as clear and connected to divinity as I did at that moment. I continually prayed for another 10 seconds of such divine bliss.

And then, a few weeks ago, a friend named Jeffrey Courson said something that made so much sense that I had to write about it. He said that after spending years trying to recapture a peak experience that he had gone through, he finally realized that life never repeats itself. Just as no two snowflakes are identical, neither are any two experiences in life, and nothing will ever happen again in exactly the same way it did the first time. In other words, those early amazing experiences will NEVER recur. Instead, they lay a foundation upon which something new can grow.

And of course, this is 1000 percent true. It’s true not only for spiritual experience, but for everything. You can’t ever re-experience love in exactly the same way as you did in the past, nor creativity, nor success. It’s futile to pine for another peak experience like the one from the past, because it’s impossible that it will ever come round again. What will come around is something with more shading, more complexity, more depth—because it will be layered on top of whatever you experienced before.

In fact, holding onto the idea that you need to recapture anything actually shuts down your energy systems. You wear lenses tuned only to the frequency of what you already know, instead of remaining absolutely open to something new. If you let go of the thought, “someday I’ll find that bliss again,” you’ll notice a feeling of spaciousness inside, a feeling of relief, a feeling that you are allowing the universe to flow through you again in its own way.

Every breath carries a new promise, completely different from any breath that came before it. We humans constantly try to shape life into a solid form that will comply to our hopes and bestow upon us what we want, but the river of life can’t be stopped, shaped, or made to flow backwards. What came before has long since gone down river. Perhaps wisdom lies in surrendering to that river with open eyes, open ears, open arms, an open heart, and a life filled with gratitude for being able to take the ride, come what may.

Many Blessings,

Dr. Hiyaguha Cohen offers life coaching by Skype or phone and in-person Hawaii counseling. Click HERE to go to her website.

Monday, November 1, 2010

How to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed: Part 1

 Many of us scrape through life drained and exhausted. We can barely manage our to-do lists, no less find time for creativity or following passions. One way to free up some energy and end that overwhelmed feeling is to clear up your “tolerations.” Tolerations are those things you put up with—things that can be so subtle that you don’t even notice them any more. I usually ask new clients to make a list of the top 10 things they’re tolerating right off the bat, and typically, after they give it some thought, the list spills off the page. Once you start noticing the little things you’re putting up with, you’ll probably notice all sorts of other things, too.

A sticky computer key might be a toleration for you, or a cluttered desk, or a friend who keeps “forgetting” not to call you at work. Maybe it’s the tea that your favorite cafĂ© serves too hot every time you order it, or your own messy hair in need of a trim, or the neighbor’s dog that does his business on your lawn, or your mother’s habit of interrupting you mid-sentence. Maybe it’s the client who always pays late, or the crooked picture on the wall, or the un-filed papers, or the science projects in the fridge.

The thing about tolerations is that they add up. The cumulative effect of those 10 little things you tolerate is huge. Each item alone might not seem like much, but add all 10 together and you have a life-zapping monster capable of completely enervating you. In fact, one of the reasons vacations tend to be so restorative is that when you go away, you finally escape your tolerations, at least for a time.

Thomas Leonard, the founder of Coach U, points out that the rearing process for most kids involves developing patience, waiting your turn, thinking of others and not just yourself, and so forth. Kids are taught to compromise and be 'flexible.' While these attitudes and behaviors may promote interpersonal harmony, at the same time, they set the pattern of ignoring what bothers you.

Also, we ignore many things because we don’t think we can handle the consequences of doing something about them, or they seem too time-consuming. We fear telling Mom to stop interrupting because we don’t want to deal with her hurt feelings and going ballistic; we don’t file the papers because it doesn’t seem a priority, and so on. In the end, though, we pay a high price for letting things slide, in some cases, to the point of losing zest for life. This is no exaggeration!

Try writing down your top 10 tolerations right now. Take your time. When you finish, choose one item on the list to take care of today. And then, go do it. Finish it or fix it so you can scratch it off your list. Choose another for tomorrow and so on, until you get your list as trimmed down as you can. Some things may take longer than a day to complete, but if you start by vanquishing an easy one today, it will energize you to tackle the bigger ones later.

Good luck! Let me know how it goes!

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