What if…?

Everyone feels stuck sometimes. I was feeling pretty stuck just before I started writing this. 

There is only one thing that stops us from moving forward, from getting unstuck.

Insecure thinking…

Insecure thinking arriving in the form of fear, doubt, worry, shame, or a million other shades of insecure.

We worry that somehow we will not be good enough, accomplish or do enough or have enough in our life. 

In the periphery of our awareness, we can start to become aware of the droning din of the conditioned, habitual mind incessantly dangling the thought of “What if…”

And because these insecure thoughts are in our mind and they are our thoughts, we feel that we have to take them seriously, as if they were facts or truth.

‘What if” thoughts are either focused on some fearful future or feverishly reviving some regrettable experiences from the past.

(Side note: we tend to forget that both the future and the past are never here right now…)

“What if I’m not good enough?”

“What if other people don’t like me?”

“What if I fail and everyone around me will discover that I’m a failure?”

“What if I missed the boat on what I was supposed to do in my life?”

“What if I never find out what my life is supposed to be about?”

“What if I have been doing the whole thing wrong all along?”

Insecure “What if” thoughts can cause us to feel distressed and despairing, which goes on to impact what we are willing to do or not do next, which then impacts what kind of thoughts we have about ourselves, and it goes on and on, all day, every day.

What if you gave yourself the gift of slowing down right now…. would you do that? Could you?

Take a few moments out of your busy day to reflect on the following questions with an open and curious attitude:

(Breathe in deeply and then let the breath go…you can do it again, if you’d like!)

What if you didn’t have to believe every thought that bubbled up in your mind all day, every day?

What if you were able to see that all thoughts are neutral, that thoughts have no power other than the power that you are currently giving to them?

What if you started to notice that there are countless habitual thoughts showing up in your mind throughout each day, without you ever inviting them or wanting them or making them happen?

(Breathe in deeply and then let the breath go…you can do it again, if you’d like!)

What if you discovered, in this moment, that you have a built-in superpower? 

A superpower?

What if your superpower is your capacity to simply notice and let go of negative and critical thoughts about yourself or others?

What if you saw with clarity that your moment-to-moment experience of your life in any given moment is a function of your moment-to-moment thinking?

What if you could clearly see that the thoughts you are having right now, this very moment, have a corresponding feeling? (Don’t take my word for it, try it out for yourself…)

What if, for example, you noticed that it’s difficult to feel confident and secure when your mind is full of insecure thoughts?

What if, for example, you noticed that it’s difficult to get upset when your mind is full of peaceful, grateful or loving thoughts?

What if you suddenly realized that you are always choosing to either take a thought seriously (and suffer the consequences) or choosing to dismiss it and let it go?

What if you became aware that your built-in superpower gives you the ability to change every aspect of your life, starting right here and right now?

What if you clearly realized that the thoughts ‘I’m stuck’ or “I’m not good enough,” are simply thoughts with an associated sensation, and that if you wanted to, if you chose to, if you were willing to practice, you could let them go?

What if you started to create a rich, vibrant and engaged life, doing the things you really want to be doing and having the experiences you really want to be having, all because you you had discovered how to use your built-in superpower throughout the day?

What if you really got it, right this very moment, that you are the one creating your own unique experience of life, from moment to moment, based on which thoughts you are taking seriously, and which thoughts you are letting go?

What if…?

(Paintings by Ian M Crooks, MD)

Why Choosing Is The Right Choice For You…

“If I don’t take care of myself, who will?”

What a great question to ask ourselves as we go through our day-to-day living.

We are always making choices…even the choice to not choose on purpose, based on what matters to us, is a choice.

Each moment of the day, we are arriving at a fork in the road. The path on the left looks wide open and free from obstacles. It is the easier one to take, at least at first. It’s the path that contains all the habits and behaviors that in the end don’t serve us well. But because the path is well-worn, we tend to head in that direction.

The right path may have some obstacles in it, some challenges that require effort and commitment, but the right path leads us to things we most desire.

But because we can imagine the obstacles and the effort it would take to get by them, we tend to shuffle over to the left path, which is wide open and clear, forgetting that it never takes us to where we really want to go.

Should I eat the healthy food or just grab some fast food that I know in my heart is not good for me? (Imagine a bowl of fresh fruit on the right and on the left is chips, ice cream and your favorite junk food…which one will you reach for?)

Should I get some exercise or just keep mindlessly watching a Netflix series that I don’t even really care about?

Should I take time to meditate and practice some form of self-care, or should I just keep being available to the demands and whims of others? Should I just keep accumulating stress throughout my day and end up having poor quality of sleep because I’m still wound up?

Should I focus on this present moment and take actions that are in alignment with my freely chosen life values, or should I just keep hanging out in my head, replaying old arguments, ruminating about things that didn’t work out well, and frightening myself with what awful thing could happen at some point in the future?

When we get encouragement or validation from others, it feels good, doesn’t it? What happens if they don’t deliver on any given day? We can feel pretty depressed, overwhelmed and under-loved, right?

If you could live your life independent of the good opinion of other people, would you choose that?

If you could be less in your head and be more engaged in living your life as it is happening, would you choose that?

If you knew that you were the only one who can take care of yourself in all the different aspects of your life at all times, would you choose to do that?

It would be great if other people would take care of us, be 100% reliable, always respectful and constantly going out of their way to make sure that we felt safe, loved and happy, but how realistic is that based on your experience?

If don’t take care of myself, who will? The answer seems pretty clear…no one will.

Even those people who do love you and care about you cannot do for you the things that only you can do.

At each moment of every day, you are either choosing the well-worn path that leads where you don’t want to go, or choosing the right path of doing those things that lead in the direction of living the life you really want.

You don’t have to wait for the cavalry to arrive to save the day…… You are the cavalry!

You don’t have to wait and hope for the hero to come along and save you…. You are the hero!

“If I don’t take care of myself, who will?”

Questions are the answer…

You can feel it wherever you go during this global pandemic…uncertainty, fear and insecurity.

For some, the encouragement to stay sheltered in place has started to feel oppressive rather than protective.

Simple things like needing to go out into the world to get groceries or pet food can turn up the volume on anxiety and day by day, the anxiety can accumulate, wearing us out, making us feel apathetic and despondent. When will things get back to normal again?

Humans have a penchant for wanting things to stay the same, to be consistent, reliable and predictable.

The arrival of the novel coronavirus has ripped away the curtain of the illusion of stability. We can see more clearly than ever that life is all about uncertainty. Nothing stays the same, everything is changing.

Whenever we are out of alignment with how life works, we will feel distressed and can succumb to a strong desire to exert control over situations or other people to get things back to what we consider normal. This strategy rarely works, though, does it? No matter how much it promises, it doesn’t deliver, or rather it does deliver, but just not the kind of things or experiences we want: frustration, resentment, reactivity, apathy, amongst others.

There has been unimaginable suffering throughout the world these past few months, including around where we live, work and play.

There are people dying in the hundreds every single day due to the virus. There have been and will be many other losses, (financial, professional, social, adventure or travel opportunities), with no guarantee about when it will all stop.

We have no control over any of it.

The Stoic philosophers say that the only thing we have control over is what we do in this very moment, right now. That’s it. Everything else goes on the list with the header, “Not Under My Control.”

If something or someone is not under my control, how much effort should I put into trying to control it/them? (It sounds ridiculously obvious when it is put in that way, but it usually doesn’t stop us from trying to control, does it?).

It can be helpful to use this strange time to engage in some reflection, something that was usually in short supply when we were back in the pre-pandemic days.

Taking time to press pause and examine our minds and hearts can provide some much needed hope and direction.

Here are a few questions that I have found helpful in terms of gaining more clarity about my life and regaining my poise. I hope they might inspire you to put aside some time to consider them, or come up with your own questions that will lead you to being the kind of person you want to be, even during these strange times:

“If I were being the person I really wanted to be in this situation, what would I be doing, saying?”

“What could I learn from this, even though I don’t like the feeling I have inside about it right now?”

“Am I living today, this moment, in accordance with the kind of person I want to be?”

“How much of what my mind is telling me about this situation is based on reality vs fear?”

“Do I have any control over this situation or person?  If not, am I willing to loosen my grip in trying to control what is not under my control?”

“If I were really living freely and authentically, (not in reaction to others, or some kind of self or other imposed expectations), what would I be doing with my life?”

“If I could freely choose who I want to be and what I want to do, what would I choose?”

“What have I always wanted to be, do or have but have not allowed myself to experience, yet?

“What do I think is holding me back from living the life I really want for myself?”

What would happen if I did take the actions that are in alignment with the highest vision I have for me and my life?”

Sometimes, questions provide the answers that we are looking for. They can help us navigate more smoothly through the inevitable rough waters of life.

We are all truly in the same boat right now. The more we treat ourselves with care and compassion, the more capacity we will have to treat others with care and compassion. The clearer we are about what matters in our life, the less time we will spend struggling with the things and people over which/whom we never had any control anyway. The energy that is freed from fruitless efforts to control is now available to live my life right now.

Who am I? What matters? What do I want my life to be about? Revisiting these questions over and over can help ground us while the surges of uncertainty crash all around us.

“The tranquillity that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do…” -Marcus Aurelius

Only You Can Cause Yourself to Feel the Way You Do…

Everyone has opinions. Everyone has thoughts about what is okay or not okay. Even if you disagree with this, you are entertaining an opinion.

Each day, many times a day, I meet with people in my office. It took me a while to realize that there are as many opinions of me as there are people I meet each day. It took a little longer to realize that what other people think of me doesn’t define me. Their thoughts, opinions and feelings belong to them and are not mine to try and control. I don’t have to take those thoughts personally. Those opinions, thoughts and feelings belong to them.

It may happen that one of my patients might come in and start to tell me what a great doctor I am. They might say that I helped them turn their life around. They sing my praises to their family and friends. Wow! Who doesn’t like being complimented? I may get absorbed with the praise and approval. Good feelings course through me. Good for me!

The next patient might come in and tell me that I am not helping at all. All of my suggestions and recommendations have not been helpful. In fact, things might be worse. They cross their arms and look at me with a sour expression. They don’t say it, but the subtext is that I am a failing doctor. I may begin to notice a sinking feeling pulling me down. I might feel the discomfort of defensiveness or the rising of resistance flooding my mind and body. Who likes being criticized or demeaned? I might then start to worry that someone has finally found out that I am not that good at what I do! Bad for me!

Other people make me feel they way I do…or do they?

What a surprise it can be to start to see that only you can cause you to feel the way you do. The way you feel is a function of whatever kind of thinking is in your mind at that moment. No more, no less.

You can easily prove this to yourself. Start thinking some angry thoughts for a few minutes…go ahead…really get into the way that the world has been cruel towards you, how people have been disrespectful or mean, or how undervalued or disrespected you are from people whose approval you wanted. Now, notice how you are feeling. It’s pretty hard to feel okay when we are really focusing on and connected to difficult thoughts, isn’t it?

It’s hard to be upset if we are connecting to wonderful thoughts (in the form or memories or images, for example) Try it for yourself. Take a moment to remember some people you really love and care about. Allow yourself to really get into some of the beauty, and awesomeness of your life. It might be a memory of being in nature with an incredible sunset, or looking into the vastness of space and getting a sense of what infinity might be. Remember some of the experiences you have had that were a highpoint in your life. Nice. Now notice how you are feeling. It would be pretty hard to feel upset right now, wouldn’t it?

It is common in the world we live in to hear or say, “You made me angry,” or “that situation really stressed me out.” As proof, we review the seemingly logical pathway, “I was feeling okay and then you came along and started talking at me and now I am feeling angry. Thus, you definitely made me feel angry.” Or, “I was feeling fine, but then I came into work and started feeling really stressed out. This workplace is what is making me feel stressed me out.”

But what is really going on here? A more reality-based account would look something like this: “I was feeling okay, and then you came along and started talking, and then I started having some difficult thoughts about you, and that is what is causing me to feel the way I do.”

Similarly, “I was feeling fine, but then I came into work and I started having a lot stressful thoughts about what was going on or about what might happen, and that is what is causing me to feel the way I do.”

Seen this way, we come to understand that other people are just being the way they are being. Other situations are just as they are. They don’t have the power to cause us to feel the way we do, but rather it is our evaluation (or thinking in the moment) about the person or the situation that is the direct cause of what we are feeling.

Our old friend Epictetus, the Stoic, reminded us, “it is not external events themselves that cause us distress, but the way in which we think about them, our interpretation of their significance. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble. We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, survived against all odds, having been stripped of everything and brutally treated in ways that most of us could not even begin to imagine. Listen to what he has to say, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

What a helpful reminder we are given from Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior with your consent.” When we begin to see that we are not mandated to go along with a difficult thought, we experience the freedom of being.

We can start to understand that who we are and what we are thinking/feeling are two different things. We have thoughts and feelings, but we are not our thoughts and feelings.

I can sit in my office during the day and listen to someone extol my virtues, and while that is nice, it is not going to change the way I go about doing what I do in support of them, because what I do is based on freely chosen values about what I want to stand for and how I want to behave in my life in all its various domains.  

Likewise, if someone comes in full of invective and negativity, I can notice that, and I can recognize that what they are saying doesn’t define me at all. It might define them as someone who is carrying around a lot of difficult thoughts and feelings.

This is not an invitation for me to become reactive, angry or stressed out, but rather an opportunity to extend compassion and understanding. Have I not also gotten caught up in difficult thoughts and feelings in the past? Sure I have. Seen in this way, it is something that we have in common, something that connects us. It’s called the human condition.

Only you can cause you to feel the way you do.

As you go through your day today, with all its demands and obligations, see if you can hold onto the awareness that what you are feeling in the moment is a function of what thinking you are attaching to in the moment. It is not a result of what other people are thinking, saying or doing And then, practice detaching from those difficult thoughts. Notice what happens next…

See if you can spot the judgements and evaluations that you are innocently and unwittingly connecting to, based on years and years of habitual thought patterns, beliefs, attitudes and perceptions that you have carried around with you whole life. Some of it learned, some of it modeled around you during your childhood and carried through into adulthood, some of it culturally ingrained.

It really doesn’t matter where it came from. It is enough to see that the thoughts and feelings that arrive in any given situation are not facts, and not truth, but just thoughts and feelings.

When we detach from the thoughts and feelings, we have our own personal experience of realizing that who I am and what I’m thinking/feeling are two different things.

The lungs breathe. The heart beats. The brain thinks. No one has ever been able to stop the brain from filling the mind with thoughts.

You have lungs, but you are not your lungs. You have a heart, but you are not your heart. You have a brain, but you are not your brain.

When we see for ourselves the value of looking at our thoughts rather than through them, we give ourselves the gift of freedom. When we notice that we are having the experience of a feeling and are not that feeling, we create some space to go through the world with more psychological flexibility.

We begin to realize that we are never at the mercy of other people’s opinions as the cause of why we feel the way we do.

Only you can cause you to feel the way you do.

How might you see this working in your life? What have you noticed as you begin to make a distinction between who you are and what thoughts and feelings are filling the screen of your awareness?

How might you share this with someone to help them live a better quality experience of life?

Feel free to leave your thoughts, reactions or observations in the comments below! Thanks for reading!

Creating Vitality in Your Life

When it comes to actively engaging in your positive aging, how are you doing?

How strong are you? An important part of leading a vital and engaged life involves improving your lean fitness. This means building muscle. Challenge your body a few times a week with resistance or bodyweight training that asks your muscles to do more. The improvement in strength and stability is something that will serve you well throughout each day in the weeks, months and years to come. You will be more able to actively engage in life, doing things that are fun and life-enhancing when you are stronger and mobile. Sitting in a chair all day, or living a sedentary life comes at a great cost to your health and well-being. The alternative to building your strength and improving your mobility is to neglect your body passively allow it to fall into disrepair, experiencing increasing limitation and more frequent aches and pain with each passing day. You want to be able to live your life rather than feel buffeted by and at the mercy of life, stuck on the sidelines, while other people are out doing things that are interesting and rewarding.

How fit are you? Take time each day to improve your overall aerobic health. This means dedicating time each day to moving your body. Take walks, go for a run, play some golf (without a cart), do some yoga, or find an activity where you can be moving around and exploring. Getting the heart rate up, (but not too high) is a great way to encourage your heart and muscles to become more efficient in what they can do. When doing any activity, get to the level of intensity where you can still hold a conversation without gasping. Do this for 30-60 minutes each day, rain or shine. Open your eyes and see what is happening out in the world. Instead of sitting around and casting about for diversionary activities such as watching TV, scrolling through social media or taking frequent naps, get up and get out. There is much healing and health promotion in simply getting out of the house and into the world.

How mindful are you? When doing those activities that are in support of improving your health, pay attention to what you are doing as you are doing it. Don’t go so hard or so long that you injure yourself. Especially if you are older, plan on taking the long and winding road to improve your health. Overdoing and injuring yourself takes you out of the game, and can keep you out of the game of life for some time as you recuperate. So pay attention. As you are doing an activity, be aware of what you are doing. Be mindful. It is often the case that our mind can convince us that we are younger, stronger or more capable than we are at present. Whereas we might have been able to go all out and return that cross-court tennis volley when we were younger, doing so now could represent an increase in the risk of having something unfortunate happen, something that could sideline us. Use the measuring stick of enjoyment and a slight challenge to evaluate your progress to better physical health.

Who do you love and who loves you? An important aspect of life that requires ongoing investment but that pays off many dividends is cultivating meaningful and mutually supportive relationships. When it comes down to it, the quality of our life is a direct result of the quality of our relationships. If you have cut yourself off from family, friends or have stopped interacting with others, know that the world is teeming with people. At last count, there are about 7 billion people living on the planet right now. Are you lonely? If so, take time to reflect on the cost of cutting yourself off from interaction with others. Introverts and extroverts alike can benefit from taking action and calling or texting a friend and making that effort to keep in touch with others. Read the local community newsletter and scan the activities that are going on today or this week. Show up, even when it feels burdensome to do so. Identify those activities that you value and have experienced as rewarding and invigorating and find out where those activities are happening. While you might begrudgingly have to get yourself to go to a gathering, most people will report that they feel better having gone out and connected with other people.

If you don’t take care of yourself, who will? When it comes down to it, the quality of your life is largely in your own hands. Unless or until you come to the realization that no one is coming to save the day, you will passively wait for someone else to come in and rescue you. No one is coming. Your life is your responsibility. If you choose, you can live a fuller and more vitally engaged life by greeting each day as a new opportunity to do those things that tip the scales in your favor. All of us want to live in a way where we are grateful for the experience of being alive. The decisions you make and the actions you take this very day are either leading you in the direction of living more fully, or they are leading somewhere else, somewhere most of use do not want be. Make the inner decision to be on your side. Show up.