I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving day yesterday, filled with family or friends, plenty of good food and some time spent reflecting on the blessings that fill your life. I deliberately waited until today to wish you a happy Thanksgiving, because I’d like to propose a change in perspective. In addition to setting aside a day each year to specially notice and to celebrate all the good gifts with which you’ve been graced, why not follow the advice of the wise folks at our local Lutheran church and make Thanksgiving a lifestyle?
After all, there is no better way to create contentment, an open-hearted and open-handed way of being, and a feeling that you have all you really need than to count your blessings every single day. It can’t possibly be a coincidence that every faith and spiritual practice that I know of offers gratitude as a key element to living a fuller life.
On a good day, a day when things are going your way, when you got that promotion or won a contest or received a sweet letter in the mail, this is super easy to do. Not only is it easy, but it will leave you with such a profound sense of good fortune that it is almost impossible to resist the urge to share it with others. Whether this is done by way of scattering smiles and kind words wherever you go, or by making an out of the blue donation to a charity you believe in or by taking time out to help a friend or even a stranger in need, your sense of the richness of life will only increase with each act of generosity.
On a bad day, a day when things aren’t going at all your way, when you had a fender-bender, or the dog got sick or you’re just feeling blue, this is a little less easy to do. But on days like this, the practice of counting your blessings is even more powerful. For even on a day when it feels like everything is going awry, there are blessings to count. The warm sun on your face as you wait for the insurance adjustor to arrive. The fact that you have a vet who you trust implicitly. The presence of a friend or neighbor or therapist or priest who is ready and willing to let you cry on his shoulder. The knowledge that tomorrow will be a new day (it always is) filled with new possibilities and new hope.
Gratitude can be counter-intuitive. It almost goes without saying that when you’re frustrated or even angry with someone, finding something to thank them for is typically not a knee-jerk reaction. That said, digging deep and doing just this (even if all you say is, “Thank you for your time. I don’t think this is the right moment for us to figure this out.”) can diffuse the situation – both between the two of you and within yourself. By expressing some gratitude, you give the other person the gift of not having a temper tantrum in their presence or at their expense. At the same time, you give yourself the gift of some time to cool off and to better see possible options. You get the chance to live more like the person you want to be.
Gratitude can give you a surprising infusion of strength. When you’re being challenged – even to the point where you’re certain you’ll fail – gratitude is, oddly, the answer. Looking back on life, I suspect you’ll find that your challenges have made you who you are. While hard to do in the moment of your struggle, remembering this can help you rise to meet your current challenge. Taking a deep breath and saying an inner “thank you” for the chance to work at the edges of your abilities, the opportunity to stretch yourself in ways you never dreamed of stretching and the occasion to grow and change can give you the staying power and even inspiration to see your way through whatever you’re experiencing.
Gratitude can flip your perspective. When your children are irritating you, making a little list of all the ways they make you smile can entirely shift your mood. When your to-do list at work feels endless, a moment reflecting on how fortunate you are to have your job can help you see the forest for the trees. Even when you don’t feel grateful at all for your situation, gratitude is the answer. If your child has been diagnosed with a chronic illness or your parent is sinking into dementia or your friend’s marriage is disintegrating it is possible to find something to give thanks for. Even if these things feel tiny, as if you’re grasping at straws – possible advances in medicine, the loving caregivers at the care center where your dad is now living, the support your friend feels from his church – refocusing on these small blessings is enough to brighten even the darkest moments just enough that you can take your next step.
Living a life of gratitude is a choice and it can take some practice. Honestly, it can take some hard work. But, as we all know, the more we practice anything, the more natural it begins to feel. And when we’re talking about something as life-changing as creating a grateful life, I think we can agree that it’s easy to choose to do the work.
The word “hate” has long been an issue for me. In fact, my (oh so hilarious) kids have actually joked, “Mommy hates it when we say we hate something.” And I do. I hate the cavalier use of such a loaded word.
Mostly, I hate it because the word just seems awfully strong when you’re referring to broccoli, or the skin of peaches, or the irritating girl in science class or having to clean up your room. My oldest, always up for a good semantics debate, would invariably ask me what he was allowed to hate if he wasn’t allowed to hate French toast, or whatever was currently offending him. “War. Sickness. Death.” I would reply. And he’d deftly parry with a spot-on retort such as, “But you say you hate to be cold.” And I’d be left hoping at least a bit of my parenting lesson had sunk in because I do really hate to be cold.
I also hate “escorting” spiders out of my living spaces. And fighting. And clutter. And scrambled eggs.
For the record, I also hate how long the list of things I hate just got. For someone who hates the word hate, I wish I’d had to work a little harder to come up with anything that makes me feel the need to use it, let alone a laundry list like this.
But all is not lost. I actually know how to transform hate into tolerance.
I learned how to do this on my yoga mat where I surprised (ok, dismayed) myself by finding something to hate within a practice designed to foster peace and harmony. I discovered on my yoga mat that I hate to be upside down. To this day, it rattles me. Sometimes I get a pit in my stomach before going upside down. Often a little voice in my head tries to talk me out of doing the inversion. Almost always I have to dig deep to find the will power and determination to move into one of these postures.
Yet, six days a week, I go upside down. Some days, just twice. Most days, however, I opt to do this thing that I instinctively hate five or six or more times. Facing my fear over and over again has helped me to develop a deep level of understanding of my hate. Repeated experience helped me see that fear is at the root of my hate. Once I understood that I was afraid, I was able to focus on better understanding these postures. This knowledge combined with loads and loads of practice has brought me to a place where I can do (most of) the inversions in my practice safely and even confidently.
While I could have skipped over these postures, thus avoiding a lot of unpleasant sensations and hard inner and outer work, I “manned up.” I worked hard. I endured the pit in my stomach and the cold sweat. I ignored inner voices that frankly made a boatload of sense to me while I was in the grip of my fear. I dug deep and turned myself upside down. And – though it’s not always pretty and I still don’t like it – I always do it. In short, rather than allowing my instinctive hatred of being upside down to control me, I choose to control it.
This is yet another one of those skills that works as well off the mat as on. Interestingly, I actually use the thought, “I hate that!” as a flare of sorts. (Good news! We don’t have to stop cold turkey!) When I catch myself having this reaction to something or someone, I know it’s time for some hard work. It’s time to try to understand what it is about spiders that makes my skin crawl, what it is about fighting that sets my teeth on edge and what it is about clutter that makes me feel so unsettled. Finding my way to this new understanding takes practice. Sometimes a lot of it.
Each time I bring myself face to face with something I hate, I can rest assured that the next time will be easier. And while I may never love spiders or fighting or clutter, I know I will one day be able to tolerate them. I know this because I now tolerate being upside down in a mostly calm way that I could never have imagined when I first faced these loathsome postures. Speaking as someone who hates to hate, I’ve found that tolerance is well worth the hard work required to get there. It leaves you feeling a million times better than hate does.
So, let’s make a deal with one another to work on transforming at least one of our “hates” into tolerance. Just don’t make me choose to work on scrambled eggs.
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]Sliding Scale: a scale of fees, taxes, wages, etc. that varies in accordance with some kind of standard. – The Free Dictionary [/mk_blockquote]
We all use sliding scales. For instance, my friend pays her full-time, full-grown nanny, a higher hourly rate to care for her children all day long than she pays my 16-year-old daughter to watch the same children for a couple of hours so she can go out to dinner. And this is absolutely appropriate. Her nanny is an adult. She not only feeds the boys and keeps them safe and happy all day long, but she drives them to school and anywhere else they need to go. My daughter, on the other hand, builds Lego towers and drives toy trucks with the boys until it’s time for bed.
It’s not just in money-related areas that we use sliding scales. My expectations for my three children vary wildly depending on the task at hand or even on the day itself. (As you can imagine, this sliding scale is a bit of a hot button in my house.) One struggles with chronic messiness, and, thus, my standards of what constitutes “clean” when inspecting that bedroom are somewhat lower than for the other two. One struggles with timeliness and I find I’m thrilled whenever something gets done even close to its due date while I (admittedly) expect promptness from the other two. I may even expect less helpfulness from one child than the others when he or she is having a particularly stressful week.
My sliding scales of expectations extend beyond the walls of my own home. I expect more tightly packed bags from some baggers at our local market than I do from others. I expect more solicitous service from the wait staff at higher end restaurants than I do at Chili’s. I expect the yoga pants that I anted up for at Lululemon to last a whole lot longer and wear a whole lot better than the ones I found on the clearance rack at the Gap outlet.
My scales slide in accordance with a few variables. Age and ability are absolutely important to consider. Value and my investment play a part in the way my standards shift as well. But most important is a factor that is a little more elusive. It falls under the umbrella of compassion. If I notice that the waiter at the fancy restaurant seems to be having a really rough night, I cut him some slack if his service is slow. Similarly, if one of my kids is having a horrible week, I ease up on them. Sometimes this means I ask more of the other two. Sometimes it means I pitch in to help in ways I wouldn’t normally – making a lunch, extra help with homework, or the gift of a blind eye to the explosion of clothes covering a floor.
There is one area, however, where my scales don’t slide very much –if at all. I’m pretty tough on myself. I am always comparing myself to some imaginary ideal that I would never expect of others. Depending on the day, I can beat myself up about the way I mother, the way I keep in touch with my extended family, the state of my home or my yard, the quality (and frequency) of the dinners I prepare, or the proficiency of my yoga practice. I rarely give myself a break on an extra-busy day. I rarely cut myself a little slack for being tired or stressed.
In other words, the scale I use to judge myself seems to be stuck. From what I hear from my clients and friends, I’m not the only one with this problem. For all of us, compassion is the missing “lubricant” that would allow the scales of our self-expectations to slide better.
Learning to have compassion for ourselves can take practice. But it is a skill well-worth that work. Self-kindness plays an enormous role in the way we feel at the end of each day. Whether we feel frustrated or successful, whether we feel content or wanting, whether we feel at peace or unsettled can often be tracked back to our expectations of ourselves.
The time you spend on your yoga mat offers dozens of opportunities to pull out your sliding scale. Just because you’re wobbly in balancing postures one morning doesn’t mean the practice was a waste of time. Trying to balance is the key to eventually regaining your balance. Even if you were too fatigued to finish the series you set out to practice, remember that you still reaped the rewards of mindful movement and breathing. If today wasn’t the day that you finally figured out the posture you are currently working on, don’t forget that every attempt is a step closer to your eventual success. Taking a bigger picture view of the practice allows you to focus on all that went well rather than the bits that didn’t.
This shift in perspective is a generous and compassionate gift that we readily give to others but are often loath to give ourselves. Your yoga practice is a great place to learn to do so. If you’re anything like me, when you do manage to activate the sliding feature on your scale of self-expectations, you’ll find you feel a lot better about yourself at the end of each day. Better yet, when I give myself a little extra breathing room, I find that I more regularly stretch myself to new heights I never thought I’d reach. I bet you will too.
Both of my daughters row on their high school crew team. This is a particularly tough sport. The athletes endure grueling work-outs on and off the water – they run, they do strength work, they “erg” on the universally hated rowing machine and they row – all with masses of painful blisters and aching bodies. In short, daily these girls do many things they don’t want to do.
Interestingly, these same girls often struggle to get themselves to do many other things that they don’t want to do. For instance, turning off the television to finish a physics lab, cleaning a bedroom, packing a lunch for the next day or going for a run on their off day. The levels of procrastination (remarkably high) that I see in my daughters is mirrored by the levels of lack of motivation (remarkably low) when they’re faced with an unpleasant or simply undesirable task.
Yet, five days a week, without complaint, they row. In the cold and in the heat. In the rain and in the blazing sun. When they’re perky and when they’re exhausted. They’re never late. They don’t whine. They don’t even consider not showing up.
What’s the difference?
I believe it boils down to one key factor: their team is counting on them. All the impossibly hard work that they do benefits their team. All the suffering that they endure is shared with their teammates. They know if they each get better, the team will get better. Even more powerful, they know that if they don’t show up, seven other girls will be “erging” rather than in the boat.
The desire not to let others down is a powerful antidote to procrastination and a lack of motivation. This is true for most of us well past our high school years. When someone else is counting on us, we’re much more reliable than when we’re accountable only to ourselves. For instance, most of us are less likely to even think of skipping a meeting than to leave an errand or chore to another day. Hard work is simply easier for us to embrace when we know it will benefit some greater good.
But there are many times when it is what we want for ourselves that requires us to do things we don’t feel like doing, many times when it is our own hopes and dreams that require hard work. Singers have to practice in order to perform. Chefs have to try hundreds of recipes to find one that is just right. Runners must train in order to win races. Seekers must sit in prayer or meditation over and over again to receive the moments of clarity for which they yearn. You get the picture.
So how do we get ourselves to show up and do the hard work when we’re accountable only to ourselves? Where does our motivation come from when we can’t rely on our commitment to others?
As an answer, I’d like to share the story of my yoga practice. When I first started practicing, I was a “regular” at two yoga classes a week. I had fallen in love with the community of my classmates almost as much as I’d fallen in love with yoga. I was excited to see my classmates and, therefore, loath not to show up. I almost felt like my absence would let down the class. I also felt an obligation to my teacher – to honor all that she’d shared with me by being a reliable and committed student. My commitment to the class community played a significant role in getting me to class on busy, stressed or otherwise challenging days.
When I began to teach, it became increasingly hard for me to get to yoga classes. Logistically, I needed to develop a personal yoga practice. Suddenly, I, who almost never missed class, was finding it challenging to get myself on my mat. I was shocked and confused enough to turn to a teacher. I’ve never forgotten her advice – “You have to commit to your appointments with yourself as fully as you are committed to showing up to appointments with others.”
Slowly but surely, I found a rhythm. Over time, I began to see the time I set aside each day to practice as immutable as the hours I spent teaching group classes and private clients. Just as I’d never schedule lunch with a friend, or a doctor’s appointment, or errands during an hour when I was meant to be teaching (when I was beholden to others), I stopped doing so during my practice time (when I was beholden only to myself).
As the weeks and months and years went by, the challenge of maintaining my commitment has shifted from one logistics to one of priority. Each time I don’t want to practice (and, trust me, there are loads of these times), I shift my focus from what I don’t want to do (90 minutes of moving, sweating and breathing on my mat) to why I do that hard work. After all, after so many years of regular practice, I know I always feel better – more comfortable in my body, stronger, more energized, more focused, more in tune with what really matters – for having practiced. I also know how lousy I feel when I skip it.
Back in September, Rick Warren published an essay on his blog called Daily Hope in which he wrote, “maturity is when you live your life by your commitments, not by your feelings.” While the maturity he’s describing is easier to access as we age, it really is not age-dependent. Rather it’s reliant on the ability to step back from our feelings of “I don’t want to” to refocus on why we’ve committed to do the hard work. Glimpsing the bigger picture – our desire to grow, to learn, to improve, and so on – is often as compelling a motivator as a commitment we’ve made to others. It is this maturity that I exhibit each time I practice even when I don’t feel like it. It is a result of some personal development, a little trial and error, and a whole lot of practice.
The next time you find yourself thinking, “I don’t want to …”, take a deep breath. Then, take a mental step back and shift your focus from your problem – your exhaustion, your boredom, your distraction, your laziness, your whatever – and refocus on why you made the commitment in the first place. When you do so, while it may not be as simple as it is for my daughters to show up for their crew teammates, I suspect it will be easier for you to stop procrastinating and do the work you need to do.