Letting Go of Control for Greater Equanimity

Peaceful SunsetWishing for something to be different from what it is can be a strong motivator for planning and making decisions in your life. And yet it is incredibly fruitless to try to control the outcome. As much as you try to orchestrate a certain outcome, it doesn’t always come out the way you want. That doesn’t mean you never make choices. You make choices all the time. The key to less agonizing over a decision is to realize that even if you think you are making the right choice, it won’t always come out the way you expected. It doesn’t make the choice wrong and the outcome bad. It is just the outcome you got.

It can feel really scary to accept that we have no control. We hang on to the illusion that if we try hard enough we can control our situation. But we can’t control the outcome no matter how much we try. And a perhaps counter intuitive fact is that our suffering is due less to the outcome itself and due more to our trying to control those outcomes. According to Buddhism, we suffer because of our constant attempts to try to get and hold on to what we like and avoid and eliminate what we don’t like. If we loosen the reins of control and allow the outcomes to just be, we suffer less. Letting go of the illusion that we have control is very freeing, but it takes patience and practice to get to that place of ease.

For instance, it seems rather crazy to think we can control the weather, yet we get frustrated that the weather isn’t the way we want it to be. There really isn’t anything you can do on a day-to-day basis to control the weather (global warming long-term influences not withstanding). You can put on more clothes to keep warm, wear lighter clothes to keep cool or turn on the heat or AC. But you don’t have control of the day being sunny and clear or rainy and dark. And yet most of us are very impacted by the weather and wish it to be other than it is. And wishing it to be other than it is rather than accepting what the weather is causes us to suffer. When you think about it so concretely it sounds pretty silly of us to think that we can control the weather. Giving in to the lack of control sounds scary, but with practice it is actually very freeing.

You can practice acceptance with simple things like weather before you tackle harder stuff. I tend to feel cold much of the time so when the weather isn’t warm enough for me I get to practice acceptance. And that doesn’t mean that I have no ability to help myself. It is cold for May so I am doing what I need to do to stay warm by turning on the heat, taking hot bubble baths, drinking hot tea and wearing more layers. But there is no use in getting mad at Mother Nature that is it rainy and cold outside. It feels dreary to me but that is more of my mindset than the truth that it is merely rainy and dark. In fact a friend of mine prefers the dark and cool to what she considers the jarring sun and heat. The weather is the weather. You can’t control that. You can take responsibility for how you deal with it. Acceptance is a peaceful balm.

We want so much in life all the time from small things to big things. Wanting is a tough habit to break. You want to be happier, you want to be thinner, you want to be stronger, and you want a house, car, or some other object. Often when you finally get that thing, it isn’t as wonderful as you thought it would be. That is a sign that wanting isn’t very helpful to enjoying life. Accepting with gratitude what you have right now is so much less fraught with discomfort than wishing for more. Realizing that you can’t control much in life and you can’t always get what you want (cue Mick Jagger) will take away much of your disappointment and suffering.

When you are confronted with big and important life decisions, you can easily get paralyzed because you are concerned that you make the right choice. And then after you make the decision you find yourself second-guessing your choice and that causes even more suffering. The problem is your belief that you can control the outcome. For instance, perhaps you are deciding where to live or deciding whether to take a new job or deciding whether to have kids. It is easy to get tripped up by what you expect the outcome to be. You might imagine how it will be if you move to that new city, take that new job or raise a child. But how it plays out is an unknown.

It feels scary to make a big decision because what if it doesn’t turn out the way you expected? Well, it probably won’t ever be like you imagined. I mean, who can really anticipate what your new boss or colleagues will be like, who can anticipate how it will be to raise a child, and who can anticipate who you will meet in a new city and what it feels like to live there? No one can predict the outcome so why bother beating yourself up for making the wrong decision if the outcome isn’t as you expected. That just piles on more suffering. You learn along the way and then make new decisions that perhaps move you in a different direction. Throughout this process you are learning and growing and creating your life as it unfolds. It is much less disappointing if you recognize that there are no bad outcomes, just unexpected adventures. You can’t control life, but you can find gratitude for what life reveals to you.

xoxo Rachel

Finding Awe In Your Everyday Life

Cloud AweLately I’ve been very aware that nature is my balm for feeling filled with a magnitude of delightful emotions all at once. I call it awe. Awe is wonder and amazement and gratitude and more wrapped into a moment of time. Being in nature gives me that awe opportunity when I see a beautiful sunset or sunrise, wild animals roaming, or trees swaying in the wind. Much of this awe stems from my visual sense of the vast beauty in nature. Although I find it much more palpable when in nature, even a photograph of nature can evoke that same awe feeling.

A common element of my experience of awe comes through my visual senses. I call it beauty though lately I feel challenged by that word because there are a lot of social parameters as to what constitutes beauty. I mean beauty in a more broad spiritual sense rather than some culturally defined version of beauty. I am a lover of art and the astounding awe experience of seeing a phenomenal work of art can be heart stopping. That is similar to my experience of viewing vast vistas in nature, but museums make awe more easily found if you aren’t in nature.

I have had plenty of awe moments while gazing at skylines in cities, yet nature has even more to offer than just visual awesomeness. Right now we have tree frogs creating a cacophony of comforting sounds in the afternoon and evening. And we have a new family of ducks who moved into the marsh near us. They are so adorable to watch and their occasional quacks are indeed awesome.

Of course scent is another sense that creates magnitudes of awe for me. These days of spring I am always sniffing the air when I am outside for signs of flowers and blossoming trees. And though I love many perfumes, they don’t create that kind of awe experience I get when inhaling a bouquet of peonies or lilacs or roses. The moment of awe is even grander when the buds are experienced in their natural state in a garden.Daffodil AweNature certainly is an effective way to find moments of scent awe, but it isn’t the only way. Baking is an important route to awe for me. I love nothing more than the amazing enveloping warm feeling of the smell of cookies or cake baking in the oven. Vanilla and spices are the common denominator of the awe smell of baking. And of course my taste buds get to have delight when the baked goods are ready to eat.

I find that there are big moments of awe and also small moments of awe. I don’t discriminate. Awe through sounds can be huge and loud or soft and intimate. It depends. I am as easily awed by a loud music piece as I am by the gentle ringing of chimes in the breeze. Live concerts are particularly wonderful awe experiences because they involve sight, sound, and if the beats are loud, reverberations in my body too. What makes the experience of awe so wonderful is the depth of feeling that runs though my body in an instant. All the emotions swirling through my body and soul during a moment of awe gives life a wonderful intensity.

Where do you find awe in your everyday life?

xoxo Rachel

The Pause That Refreshes

Pausing to refreshI just started reading a wonderful book by Oren Jay Sofer called Say What You Mean: A mindful approach to nonviolent communication. What I love about his approach is that it is grounded in three areas that I am particularly immersed and interested in: Buddhist Meditation, Nonviolent Communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg and Somatic Experiencing develop by Peter Levine that deals with the nervous system’s role in healing trauma. I am only as far as Chapter 3 in Sofer’s book and already I am drawn to his techniques for engaging in life more fully and calmly. This section is called The Power of Pace: Pausing.

I’m a child of TV advertising. Jingles and taglines always stick with me. The Pause That Refreshes is from a Coca-Cola ad I remember from childhood. It immediately popped into my head when I read the section heading and I couldn’t resist using it for this title about the benefits of taking a pause—not for a sip of soda but to regain your presence. Taking a pause is a very pragmatic and useful approach for many things in life.

In Sofer’s book, much of the focus is on regaining your presence in a given moment, particularly while you are experiencing the normal fluctuations of your body’s nervous system during conversations and everyday encounters. Just as meditation is simple and yet not easy, taking a pause sounds simple but might not be easy to do in the moment. The key is to practice pausing to bring your body back to a calm and non-reactive state so that you are more aware of your own voice and the voice of others.

I have been trying this technique just now while I am writing. It is very interesting that while my head is so engaged in creating the words that flow from my fingertips into the computer, I lose awareness of myself. It is as if I go unconscious about my posture in the chair, my breathing is less regulated and I am excited and somewhat uneasy. Now obviously I am not unconscious because I am thinking and writing, but I am less than fully present. My focus goes to the words and the keyboard. I am not body aware. So as practice, as I write these words I am trying to breathe evenly and look around me to ground myself as to where I am in the room (a somatic experiencing technique). I feel calmer and it works for a second and then my presence is gone again. So I take another pause. Yes, practice is needed.

If you think that is hard, now try being present while having a conversation with someone else. That is a wonderful way to practice using pauses to bring yourself back to present calmness. As an east coast fast speaker I have been working for years to try and slow down my rate of speech—sometimes with success, other times not so much. Taking a pause can feel awkward when you are rushing to get your thoughts out. And that’s the problem: rushing. Pausing is incredibly helpful for becoming more present so that you speak more thoughtfully and kindly. What is working against you is that the nervous system often is activated while having a conversation, even if it isn’t a difficult conversation. Whether you are introverted or extroverted, the mere prospect of saying something may be enough to activate your sympathetic system (fight, flight or freeze response). So by practicing pauses, you can slow your physical state down to become more present and available to your own thoughts as well as the words from the other person.

Sofer gives some very practical methods for creating pauses during conversations. He suggests simple sentences, like, ”Let me think about that a moment” or “I’m not sure, Let me think about that.” Even saying, “Hmm” while you gather your thoughts can slow down the pace of a conversation to allow yourself to reset and regroup. Of course you can always excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or create some other deliberate pause. However, you need a certain amount of presence to be aware that you need to pause, so once again practice is the key. And like anything else you are working on in your life, don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t go as you hoped. Creating greater awareness of your experience of life is something to celebrate not berate. Be grateful that you are trying to be more present throughout the day. With practice the pause that refreshes will become more natural to you.

xoxo Rachel

Rumination And Sitting With Discomfort

Woman ThinkingI find that after I have a get-together with other people, I tend to ruminate on what was said. Whether I or someone else said something that was revealing or didn’t land quite how the speaker intended or provocative in some way, rehashing conversations is a big part of my experience of life. The rehashing is, unfortunately, rarely a positive recollection. Usually rumination brings up uncomfortable feelings. I reveal this because in talking with others about this experience, many report that they do the same thing after social encounters-particularly if they are introverts. This discomfort can be very disruptive, especially if your thoughts tend to rally when you are getting into bed for sleep.

We might think that in our search for peace and a general sense of well being that we can ignore or push away feelings of discomfort. We might use food, drugs, alcohol and plenty of other activities to distract ourselves from the uncomfortable experiences. We try to somehow remove the thoughts from our head. That doesn’t work. Sitting with the discomfort is much better than pushing it away. When you sit with the feelings and sensations that come up you realize that they can’t kill you even if at moments you think these thoughts can kill you. If you quietly listen to what your head is saying and try not to judge yourself or your thought, you are one step closer to letting the thought dissipate. I know that isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Meditation practice can be very helpful for lessening the discomfort of your experience of rumination. There are many different techniques for doing meditation so do not assume that you must stop your thoughts in order for it to be considered “real” meditation. I like to think of many of the meditation approaches as ways to soften your focus on thoughts. Eyes closed or softly gazing down, sitting still and balanced on a chair or cushion is half of the gift of meditation even before you start attending to your breath or whatever anchors you use. I encourage you to take a class or two with different meditation instructors to find what styles work for you. If you for some reason assume that you can’t meditate, you might be surprised to learn that meditation practice is not what you expected.

Meditation is just one way to be with feelings of discomfort. If you are fortunate to have someone in your life that you deeply trust, sharing what you are going through can be very helpful. You will find that you are not alone in your reaction to life. Although we might feel like we are different and no one can imagine what we are facing, we are all humans and generally have a lot of practice experiencing similar discomforts. Talking openly with a close friend or loved one often reveals that they feel just the same way. When you tell your friend about your feelings of discomfort and they show that they understand and even have similar experiences, it can be very normalizing. Sitting with your discomfort and feeling heard and not judged (by you or others) just might be the best way to experience humanity and loving kindness.

xoxo Rachel

Personality Tests and Creating Your Own Expectations For A Meaningful Life

Be YourselfI am reading the book, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by Merve Emre. It is fascinating to trace how what we see as the modern day measurement and use of personality and style assessments comes from long ago. A mother-daughter team in the 1920s created Myers-Briggs yet their idea was based on Carl Jung’s personality typing that he developed before them and his approach incorporates even earlier philosophy and mythology. The use of personality and style tests has exploded in the past 50 years or so and has been the basis of so many applications including hiring and firing in jobs, acceptance to schools, team building and career planning to name a few.

Although there are many wonderful uses and I find assessments very helpful, I have been thinking a lot about why I am so drawn to them and how to make the best use of them. I have probably taken most of the assessments that are available in the corporate world as well as seeking out others on my own. They include Myers-Briggs, 16 personalities that is basically a modernized version of Myers-Briggs, I Speak Your Language, Strengths Finders, VIA Signature Strengths, Strong Interest, DISC, The Four Tendencies and more. There are overlaps and commonalities though they all have distinctive differences that can be very helpful for building your own self-knowledge.

And that is perhaps the main reason I enjoy these assessments. I find that the more that I can explore through assessments my approach to the world, the more I understand why I do what I do and why I have the wants and needs that I have. The greater my self-knowledge, the better I am able to create a meaningful life for myself. However there are some very important components of using these assessments that I always remind my clients and myself.

Personality tests can help you to understanding your perspectives on life, your strengths and blind spots. But they shouldn’t hamstring you to do only that which the tests say you are inclined towards. Because if you limit yourself to only doing what the assessments say you are best at, then you can’t stretch and grow. If instead you set your own expectations for what you want in life, keeping in mind your personality traits, you will be so much more fulfilled. What you expect from yourself will define what you achieve so don’t limit yourself based on a personality test. You are capable of so much more. Instead, use the styles and personality tests to help uncover that which you may not readily understand about yourself and to help reveal and even validate what you already know about yourself. Then go out there and consider what your dreams are. Let them be even more than what you expect from yourself based on a test. Be expansive so that you can create and redefine how your life unfolds. Believe in your capability beyond what others define you as, including any personality test. Because what is a meaningful life to you is not the same as what others define as a meaningful and purposeful life, even if they have the same Myers Briggs or whatever personality type.

Often times when I think about my purpose in life I can find myself pausing to ask, have I done enough? Have I contributed enough to the world? Am I continuing to contribute to the world? Are my contributions big enough? When I feel that I haven’t done enough and I think that I should be doing something big I realize that there are two key words in that sentence that need to be dissected: should and big.

The use of the word should implies that there is something inside or outside of you defining what is right or wrong or required that you must do. Instead if you ask yourself what you could do, and then make a choice as to what you choose to do, you are much more likely to follow through on actions that support your dreams and support your truths. The use of the word big implies that there is some standard of measurement of what is big enough to be deemed an important contribution. And that is garbage! You needn’t contribute big to have an impact on the world or to have a sense of living your life with purpose.

My life purpose is to contribute to the world and have an impact on others through my writing and coaching. I write because I feel compelled to write—it is essential to my being (even though I had been writing psychology and marketing research papers and presentation for years, revealing my personal voice came later for me). Even if only one person gets something from my writing it is big enough. Through coaching other people to help them find their own purpose, passion and meaning, I feel great fulfillment. Diving into understanding our psyche and motivations is what gives my life purpose and meaning. And yes, personality tests do accurately capture my leanings as a psychologist (even though I figured that out before I took my first assessment test.) Nonetheless, I created my own expectations and chose and continue to choose my life path. And I choose to deepen my understanding of my own tendencies by exploring personality assessment tools.

So if you decide to pursue personality assessment tests, use them to reveal some of your strong traits and styles. Then choose what to do with that information. Dream and create your own meaningful life. Choose what to expect from yourself and what you expect is what you can achieve.

xoxo Rachel