Uprooted, upended, upside down

Change. The thing you find lying randomly on the sidewalk. And that other thing that defines what being alive means.

My one and only daughter turned eighteen the other day. I experienced a mixture of sadness and elation. Sad that her childhood is slowly coming to a close. And elated that she is now responsible (at least legally) for the actions she takes.

“I can shop online now!” she said.

“You can do your own paperwork now.” I said.

“I can drive a car now.” she said.

“You can look into how much it will cost. And pay for (most of) it.” I said.

Image used with permission (c) 2013 Klaus Polkowski

Image used with permission (c) 2013 Klaus Polkowski

Her younger brother congratulated her and said in the same breath, “Now you are no longer under Mom’s thumb. You can do whatever you want!” he said.

“I’m still under her thumb,” she said. “You’ll see.”

Ah yes. That pesky financial dependence thingy.

This past week we looked at a one-year college prep program. It is as far away as she could possibly get and still be in a German-speaking country. I duly took note of it, but then realized how perfect it all seemed for her. She will attend for a year, then see if she might apply elsewhere.

And when her birthday — in the midst of our college tour — came around, I felt the swirl of her roots, the tangle and gentle sprouts, twirling in a new direction, branching out farther away than I felt comfortable with and yet so appropriate to gain the nourishment they need to sustain themselves away from the Mother Tree.

I felt upended and it wasn’t only the grueling 1,000 mile drive that did it. It was the sense that freedom comes with a cost. She may not know it yet. But she will. And, speaking from experience: living in a different country will indeed be the best thing for her to experience what being on her own is really like.

I may never get over it. Neither will she. And that is exactly what is supposed to happen. Even when the tree topples.

Upside down and all.

The Alignment of Heart and Head

Kindness has a broader reach than hatred, which trickles in the snow like blood, standing frozen, marring beauty, seeping into the deep, but going nowhere.

Kindness has a gentler bounce, a firmer foundation, a more profound penetration. It is like silk to hatred’s dirty rags. Kindness, once rendered, shows up again and again. Hatred leaves frayed edges. It jangles its chains, spewing fumes of funk and fantasy. It settles into exhausted minds, confuses, leads astray.

Sowing seeds of kindness or, as I like to put it, sprinkling fairy dust wherever we go, starts with a single ripple. It is a quieter motion than hatred’s tsunami wave. But it is more sustaining and sustainable. It rocks like a cradle, lulling us into a calming centeredness.

When my children were tiny tots, I would tell them the story of Mr. Heart and Mr. Head. Mr. Head was always wanting to have his way. He demanded chocolate for breakfast, never brushed his teeth and insisted that it was his way or the high way. Mr. Heart would gently ask Mr. Head if he thought it was a good idea to do those things. Mr. Head’s standard response was always the same:

“I want what I want when I want it!”

Then Mr. Head would get or do what he wanted and his remorse was nearly immediate. Mr. Heart would then hug him and say, “And the lesson learned? Don’t eat chocolate for breakfast (or fill in the blank)!”

The stories were meant to acknowledge my children’s rather irrational desires while teaching them that better choices were available to them. Emotion-driven decision making can lead to disaster (and cavities!). But more importantly, an alignment between the heart and the head is important to lead a great life.

What I have witnessed over the past few months is a tsunami of emotion, which can be helpful when balanced with rational thought. It is my plea that we choose kindness over hatred, principles over populism. It means taking a stand for what we believe in, maintaining our standards and using our anger to make the world more just. Pretending that we are not angry is not kind. Being “nice” for the sake of a harmony that is not justified is not kind. It is false. Applying those emotions to create a better space for everyone, based on decisions that have a lasting, positive impact, is the right thing to do.

I think Mr. Heart – and eventually Mr. Head – would agree.

When “Why” is all there is

Having a vision is an incredibly important ingredient to having a great life. It is the “what” that we often pursue: more money, more fame, more of simply everything.

But is the “what” really a driving force that can sustain us?

I think not.

Even if we can define our “what”, our vision, our deep-seated desire to articulate that which our hearts bleed for, we may not be sure how to get there.

So we look to the “how” of things. How can we attain that which we hope for? Yearn for? Want more than anything?

I used to believe that if we knew what we wanted, the how would come.

How wrong I have been.

Simon Sinek, the British author of Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, says that we should start with the reason why we do things. Two-year-olds know this. They ask “Why” all the time. They embrace what Sinek calls the golden circle. Start from the center and everything else will come. But somewhere along the line, children accept the adults’ answer that it’s because we say so.

The Golden Circle - Start with the Why and the How and What will follow

The Golden Circle – Start with the Why and the How and What will follow

What kind of answer is that?

Why is where the heart is. It goes beyond our rational thinking to a deeper, more innate understanding. Why lives on a completely different plane.

Change can only really happen effectively if we understand why. So if an organization is undergoing change, employees need to get a grasp on the reasons for the change. “Why should I care?” Answer that question and people will follow you anywhere — or lead others down the path you intend to take them.

Have you ever considered why you do things?

Why do I write? Why do you take pictures? Why does she selflessly help other people? Why does he get up again and again after yet another defeat?

The “why” of things is the underlying power that inform our days. It is equivalent to our life’s purpose. It is the very reason we are here.

Understanding the “why” of things not only helps us accept change, it also helps us learn better. My son recently changed schools. For years he struggled with the German school system – an institution that insists students learn the “what” of things. “How” was even harder and it seemed as if no amount of tutoring was going to help him because he never, ever understood why he was supposed to learn the things they told him to learn.

Why do we learn math? Why do I need to know the inner workings of a cell? My son knew he needed to make a change. Why? Because he wanted to learn. Along with his very powerful reasons, a series of circumstances and good fortune brought him to a new school where his teachers actually take the time to tell him why. And magically he has never been as motivated to run out the door to school as he is today.

The same applies to our lives as adults. Why do we want to achieve certain things? What are our motivations?

Have you ever wondered why certain tasks seem effortless? Why you enter a space of flow — and with other tasks it feels like carrying a boulder uphill to the stars?

When we know why we are doing something (love is a really good reason), we just do it. Without question. Without faltering. With an effortlessness that makes us heroes in our every day stories.

Ask yourself why you do what you do. Do you have the answer? Are you satisfied with the answer you tell yourself? If not, put down that boulder and make a change toward who you really are.

Why? Because your life depends on it.


Miracles Take Time

Time is one of my favorite topics. It affects absolutely everything in the Universe, inanimate or not. How long a thing, person, plant, planet or pet exists depends on the isochrony of the clock.

When I was a graduate student, I brought my love of language together with my love for time in a course on the study of timing in speech. Words and time melded into a cacophony of noise and blips on a screen. My final presentation was based on President Clinton’s Inaugural speech, measuring the length of time it took for him to say “My fellow Americans.”

According to Wikipedia, isochrony can be defined as “the postulated rhythmic division of time into equal portions by a language.” In other words, how long does it take to say something and how even are we with its delivery?

Sometimes it takes years — and its delivery is neither even nor measurable.

In my experience, life cannot be measured by the speed of words, although linguistic professors might disagree. Trying to quantify speech is a noble and — in my mind — fruitless effort. What and how things are said are less important than the meaning that lands on the listener.

How we define things informs our experience much more than the speed with which such things are conveyed. Slow plays a central role when we realize the tempo of life cannot be measured in syllables or Southern drawls. In this sense, Slow means mindfulness. We bring our minds — and our hearts — into the equation of Truth, resting there like a swan on a lake’s edge.

My son amazed me with his courage today. He knew — in his heart of hearts — that speaking his truth was more important than following someone else’s guidelines. He wants to switch schools to find the square hole for the peg he has carried through his entire school career. So he took matters into his own hands and wrote a letter to the school principal who runs the school he wants to attend. Despite her office’s initial rejection, he spoke his truth — in his own time and with his own words.

The result was a tearful call from the principal who said, “I want to meet this kid.”

Force may chip away mountains, but authenticity moves them.

Miracles take time. In fact, they are beyond time. Miracles are not the fulfillment of our every wish, but the realization of what is already there. We tend to believe in miracles when things go our way; but if we dig deep down into That Which Is, we realize that miracles are really the emergence of what we already have.

If you know something is true beyond reason, evidence or physical manifestation, then wait for the miracle — for it will come. You are not insane, but wise beyond words. And time too.


Mystery Unfolding

Wouldn’t life be grand if only it would work out according to plan — I mean our plan. You know the one. All neatly folded and earmarked and tagged with colorful sticky notes that indicate the direction, timing and course of All Things.

And then Life, as it is, unfolds. Exactly as it should. But not exactly as we think it should. Kids get sick. Or angry. Or defiant. Clients move on — without you. Love gets lost. Then found again in a completely surprising, delicious and wondrous form.

I draw strength from Elizabeth Gilbert, kindred spirit of words and author of my ultimate favorite book Eat, Pray, Love. She admitted today on Facebook that she was to go to India tomorrow, a place I also want to visit some day. It had been 11 years since her last visit there. Due to a medical situation she had to change her plans. But not without a fight first.

All I was thinking about — even as the doctor was reviewing my results — was how to salvage this India trip, by any means necessary. At first, I negotiated quite hard against my doctor, trying to talk her out of her diagnosis, trying to convince her that my situation wasn’t really that big a deal, and that my treatment could wait. (Curiously, she was unmoved by my strong and completely un-medical opinion!)

Indeed I can relate to her unwillingness to surrender to her reality. How often do we fight against reality, only to lose on average, according to Byron Katie, 100% of the time?

My son admitted to me tonight that his failing grades might mean he has to repeat a grade.

“So what?” I said. “I have seen you work hard. You want to do well. And you’ve done your best. Trust the timing of things.”

Gilbert’s initial resistance to her medical reality gave way to broader insights, which I also shared with my despairing son.

1) Listen to your body. It speaks a language far smarter than any dialect we can speak.

2) Honor reality. It will win every time.

3) If something is not meant to be, then it is not meant to be — for reasons that you may never even know. You can fight against the timing of your life, or you can trust in it. The flow and the peace will only return when you learn to trust.

My son’s final shudder of relief and an exhalation of elation told me that life’s mystery is what we most honor, not the thoughts, agendas and mind maps we have in our heads.

Trust the mystery unfolding. It’s our beautiful companion. Our failure lies not in our lack of fulfilling what we think we should, but in not accepting that which is.

So close and yet so far

Blind spots switch the light to dim, if not dark.

Blockages keep us stuck.

Mental hinderances prevent us from moving forward.

Opening the floodgates to our inner potential isn’t easy, especially if we don’t even know what our potential is. We may have a vague idea, but we have no idea what we are capable of until we are tested.

For those of you with test anxiety, know that you are not alone. I used to call my mom every time I had an exam. She’d ask the same question every time:

“Did you study?”

“Of course!” I’d say, not without some indignance.

“Good. Then all you have to do is show up.”

Then I would laugh at myself and know she was right. I had done everything I could. The rest was up to time.

The other day, dish towel in hand, I found myself repeating those words to my fear-filled son who had just one more exam to complete before finishing the seventh grade. He had not only studied, he had also gotten a lot of tutoring to ensure he understood the material.

He did. In fact, he got his best grade of the school year on that test.

What was the difference? He had been able to unlock the door that had been kept shut to him for so long. His tutor helped him understand math in a way his teacher could not.

He had shed the light on that blind spot.

He had removed those blockages.

He had lifted the mental hinderance of thinking he couldn’t to entertaining the idea that maybe he could.

Sometimes we are so close to the answers, which ultimately reside within, and yet we feel so far from them.

They are there. The secret is finding the right key to fit the lock to our own inner wisdom.


The Death of an Icon

“Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.” – Maya Angelou’s final tweet, May 23, 2014

Maya Angelou has died. Her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings haunted me in college and I continued to follow her poetry and magic for the rest of her life.

Her elegance and eloquence despite much hardship made us all stronger. And her intensity inspired me to continue writing even when I didn’t want to.

I am sad to see her go.

Whenever someone of such influence passes away, I am particularly saddened — and reminded of how precious this life truly is. Yet we often live as if there is always a tomorrow.

There may not be.

It isn’t easy to be mindful every moment of every day. Life bogs us down with responsibility, pain and constant demands. In the face of all of it, it is understandable that we may lose sight of what is truly important because we are so preoccupied with just getting through the day.

Which is why it is so crucial to start each day with a reminder of your broader vision. Stating your daily proclamation really does make a difference in how you start — and spend — your day.

A morning mantra is a great way to say a blessing to the gift of another day on this Earth. And to remain centered when storms swirl around us.

Having a bad day? This too is a gift. You may not think it at the time, but that puzzle piece is just as critical to your life’s mosaic as the beautiful gems we all love to see.

May Maya rest among the angels now – her strength and beauty are a true testament to the human spirit and to the fact that we can make a difference if we listen to our calling.

Maya did. I hope with all my might to do the same.


Dipping into the Pool of Possibility

Would you rather hear what you can have versus what you can’t? Most of us respond better to positive reinforcement than to that ever-dangling carrot just out of reach.

Neuroscientists agree. In a recent study published in Social Neuroscience, researchers found that a more positive approach to coaching enhanced students’  ability to visualize their future. By asking students where they saw themselves in ten years (instead of having them focus on their immediate weaknesses and areas of improvement), the researchers found different areas of the volunteers’ brains lit up when scanned. The so-called “positive coaching” group showed brain activity in the following areas:

  • Visual processing — the area of the brain that is activated when imagining future events

  • Empathy and Emotional Safety

  • Global processing — the ability to see the Big Picture

  • Proactive approach to reaching goals rather than simply reacting to loss or fear

When we look at what’s wrong, instead of looking at what’s right, we get mired down in feelings of despair and dread. But when we shift our focus to what is working, our brains actually respond! We can literally change our entire world simply by taking a different perspective. It doesn’t change the facts, but it does change how we feel about them.

It’s like that with time too. If we think we don’t have enough, we’re right because time is actually relative — our sense of time is intimately interwoven with our moods and emotions. If we feel centered and in control of our schedule, we are empowered and more productive. We can accomplish things in quantifiably less time when we are less stressed and more focused.

So let’s concentrate on what’s right about our world instead of looking at what we don’t have. And that dangling carrot? Well, think of it as the driving force that keeps you moving forward, a beacon on your path to what’s next without losing sight of the beauty of where you are now.

P.S. Need to slow down? I just had a chat with Matt Townsend on his radio program about why we need Slow more than ever. Have a listen!

Naming the Year

A new start, a new year, a new opportunity to do things a little differently. Saying goodbye to 2013 was a blessing. It meant truly putting in the past what belongs there.

In contrast, welcoming in a New Year is often as joyous as the birth of a child. It gives us hope, promise and a sense of warmth. January offers us a chance at a new life. For just a moment we broaden our vision to the time that lays before us with a feeling of renewal and, in some cases, decided grace.

Whether you brought in the New Year  in your sleep or in a completely awakened state of mind, we are all faced with the challenge of living to our fullest capacity. Will we repeat the mistakes of the past ~ or have we learned from them? Will we branch out, stretch beyond what we thought possible and become even better versions of ourselves?

That is the hope for 2014.

As we enter this year, I ask you to consider naming your year. Whether it is the Year of All Dreams Fulfilled, the Year of Flow, or the Year of Travel, framing your year with a sense of purpose will serve to remind you later when you forget the very thing that made you smile on January 1.

I declare 2014 the Year of Kindness ~ to myself and to others. Kindness comes in many forms ~ in forgiveness, in shared laughter, in a book read outloud or an unexpected hug. I look forward to discovering how kindness will take shape this year.

What are you looking forward to? Remember the past is behind us forevermore. Now is what we have ~ and the promise of a brighter future filled with love, fun, and immeasurable joy.

That is my wish for you, dear ones.

Welcome to the world of all things possible for you — and for everyone.

Reclaiming Your Power

Have you ever noticed how we all seem to act according to the rule book in our heads? We acquire a set of ideas about how we are supposed to be, what we are supposed to say, how we are supposed to feel. Then, like a theater piece, we act out our lines, memorized through years of personal experience.

That’s when the trouble sets in.

As we live out our customized scripts, we end up having internal dialogues with ourselves when we think we are actually talking to the other person.

What we’re mostly doing is talking to ourselves or — at most — the first person with whom we had a similiar experience.

Let’s look at a workplace example.

Your boss comes into the office, grumpy as hell, and scowls at you. His face reminds you of your first grade teacher, the one that scared you so badly you actually peed in your pants. Now, back at the office, you have that same feeling and you spend the rest of the day recovering from the embarassment you first experienced at the age of six. Your boss’s behavior has nothing to do with you, but it triggered a memory that burns in your mind to this day.

Many of us operate from that child-like space inside. We forget that we are now adults who get to choose things from a broader view of the world. We aren’t at the mercy of crazy adults anymore.

But how many of us actually liberate ourselves from the thinking that was formed when we were?

There are no “supposed to’s”. Sure, we have traffic rules and rules of etiquette at dinner parties. Most of it is based on honoring the higher good. Somewhere along the line, however, we tend to bastardize those rules. Once meant to keep us safe, they morph into a haunting series of behavioral adaptations that leave us twisted, corked up and completely divorced from ourselves.

Weird, isn’t it? The very thing that is meant to make us happy and well-adjusted leads us down a path of self-inflicted sorrow.

We can reclaim our power by recognizing when our past conditioning kicks in. It is as much a part of us as our heartbeat is. It is what makes us tick.

Believe me when I say: You are beautiful just as you are — peed pants and all.