Video Sneak Peek of the New Book!

 

Here’s a sneak peek of the stuff I’ll be discussing in my new book:  what’s YOUR “call of the wild”?
 

Finding Your Way in a Wild New World: Reclaim Your True Nature to Create the Life You Want will be released December 27, 2011. Reserve your copy on Amazon.com now. 

Seeing Your Emotional Blind Spots

Most of us have such psychological “blind spots,” aspects of our personalities that are obvious to everyone but ourselves. There’s the mother who complains, “I don’t know why little Horace is so violent—I’ve smacked him for it a thousand times.” Or your gorgeous friend who believes she has all the seductive allure of a dung beetle. Or the coworker who complains that, mysteriously, every single person he’s ever worked for develops the identical delusion that he’s shiftless and incompetent. As we roll our eyes at such obliviousness, some of us might think, What about me? Do I have blind spots, and if so, what are they?

You can find the answers if you care to—or more accurately, if you dare to. This is the roughest mission you can undertake: a direct seek-and-destroy attack on your own pockets of denial. Denial is far trickier than simple ignorance. It isn’t the inability to perceive information but the astonishing ability to perceive information while automatically refusing to allow it into consciousness. Our minds don’t perform this magical trick without reason. We only “go blind” to information that is so troubling, so frightening, or so opposed to what we believe that to absorb it would shatter our view of ourselves and the world. On the other hand, becoming fully conscious of our perceptions—simply feeling what we feel and knowing what we know—is the very definition of awakening. It creates a virtually indestructible foundation for lasting relationships, successful endeavors, and inner peace. Hunting down your blind spots is a bumpy adventure, but it can lead to sublime destinations.

Identifying your own blind spots is an exercise in paradox, because if you’re aware of a problem, it doesn’t count. It’s like tracking the wind: You can’t observe the thing itself, only its effects. The tracks that a blind spot leaves are repetitive experiences that seem inexplicable, the things that make you exclaim, Why does this always happen to me? For example:

1. You keep having the same relationship with different people.
All of Macy’s friends are “takers,” emotional parasites who drain her and give nothing back. Steve’s three ex-wives all had extramarital affairs. No one in Corrine’s life—her children, her coworkers, her mother—ever responds to her feelings.

These people don’t know that they carefully choose friends and lovers who match certain psychological profiles or that their behavior elicits similar reactions from almost everyone they encounter. It would take you about five minutes with Macy to see that she’s so self-effacing she actually resists normal friendships, gravitating only toward takers. Steve’s friends will tell you he falls for women who remind him of his mother, an enthusiastic practitioner of promiscuous sex. Corrine is so reserved that even the most intuitive people can’t read her moods. All three have gone through life blaming their relationship patterns on other people’s shortcomings.

2. Your luck never changes.
Over years of life-coaching, I’ve become more and more convinced that we create our own “luck.” I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as blind fate, but I am saying that choice is far more powerful than chance in determining the pattern of our failures and successes over time.

Many of my clients have lost jobs in the recent economic downturn, but those who were previously doing well in their careers are finding ways to learn from their experience and bounce back. Those who complained of relentless bad luck before being laid off have slid further downhill. A client I’ll call Shirley recently complained, “When my sister was fired, I thought we’d bond because we both had the same bad luck. But then she started her own business, so it turns out that for her getting fired was good luck. Just like always, she gets all the breaks.” As I punted Shirley to a psychotherapist, I wondered if they train Seeing Eye dogs for people with her kind of blindness. If so, Shirley will almost certainly develop a dog allergy.

3. People consistently describe you in a way that doesn’t fit your self-image.
If tracking patterns in love and luck isn’t enough to reveal your blind spots, there’s another way to go after them. You just have to notice what people tell you about yourself—the things you have always cleverly ignored or routinely discounted. Complete the following sentences as accurately as you can, and you might be closing in on a truth you haven’t fully acknowledged.

  • “People are always telling me that I’m…”
  • “I get a lot of compliments about…”
  • “When my friends or family members are angry with me, they say that…”
  • “People often thank me for…”

If you heartily agree with all the information that pops up in response to these phrases, you’ve simply reinforced an accurate self-concept by recalling times when others have validated your perceptions. But if any of the descriptions seem strange, incongruous, or flat-out false, consider the possibility that your image of yourself may not be accurate—and almost certainly doesn’t correspond to what other people perceive. By the way, you may well discover that you’re blind to your positive characteristics as well as negative ones. Some people (especially women) may be so biased against being arrogant that they overlook or dismiss their own best qualities.

Getting Rid of Your Blind Spots

If the evidence suggests that you have blind spots, you can try to eliminate them with a simple mindfulness exercise. You already know what’s in your blind spot; it’s just that looking at it makes you extremely uncomfortable. Only by being very gentle with yourself will you become able to tolerate more awareness. So as kindly as you can, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What am I afraid to know?
  2. What’s the one thing I least want to accept?
  3. What do I sense without knowing?

Whatever comes into your mind, do nothing about it. Not yet. If you feel even a hint of some new realization, you’ve taken a huge step. More insights will arrive soon, and the kinder you are to yourself over time, the more likely you are to experience major breakthroughs.

Hunting for your own blind spots, like trying to examine the back of your own head, is much less efficient than soliciting feedback from others. This process combines the attractions of strip-dancing and skydiving, making you feel completely exposed yet energized by the sense that you could be catastrophically injured. I known how valuable honest feedback can be, how much precious time it can save in my struggle to awaken. I still have to force myself to go looking for it, but when I do I almost always benefit.

Try this: For a week, ask for blind-spot feedback from one person a day, never asking the same person twice. Just say it: “Is there anything about me that I don’t seem to see but is obvious to you?” You’ll probably want to start with your nearest and dearest, but don’t stop there. Surprisingly, a group of relative strangers is often the best mirror you can find. I’ve worked with many groups of people who, just minutes after meeting, could offer one another powerful insights. Like the emperor in his new clothes, we often believe that our illusions are confirmed by the silence of people who are simply too polite to mention the obvious. Breaking the courtesy barrier by asking for the truth can change your life faster than anything else I’ve ever experienced.

Handling Feedback

Any feedback is scary. The kind that addresses topics so uncomfortable you’ve stuffed them into a blind spot can be almost intolerable. That’s why, before you even ask for an honest appraisal, you have to have a strategy in place for processing it.

1. Just say thanks.
When others discuss your blind spots, you may have a violent emotional reaction. Remember: All of the upheaval is a product of your own mind. You do not have to dissuade or contradict the other person in order to feel calm. Instead of launching into an argument, just say thanks. Then imagine yourself tucking away the other person’s comments in a box. You can take them out later, examine them, decide whether or not they’re useful.

2. Dismiss useless feedback.
There’s real feedback, and then there’s the slop that’s merely a reflection of the speaker’s dysfunction. Fortunately, you can tell these things apart because they feel very different. Useless feedback is nonspecific and vague, and has no action implication. It demotivates, locking us in confusion and shame. Useful feedback is specific and focused. It can sting like the dickens, but it leads to a clear course of action; when you hear it you feel a tiny lightbulb going on upstairs.

“No one could ever love you” is useless feedback. “You project a lot of hostility, and it scares people” gives you information that you need to make healthy changes. It’s safe to assume that useless feedback is coming from people who are themselves shame-bound and blind. The best thing to do with it is dismiss it and focus on the information your gut tells you is valuable.

3. Absorb the truth.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about a man who, virtually blind from early childhood, had an operation that restored his sight when he was middle-aged. Though the man’s eyes now took in visual information, his brain wasn’t used to making sense of it. He couldn’t differentiate between a man and a gorilla until he touched a nearby statue of a gorilla; then the difference became immediately clear.

This confused state is similar to what you’ll feel when you’ve accepted feedback about what lies in your blind spots. You’re not used to this new set of eyes, this novel image of self. After my first revelation of how I can be very dominant, I felt incredibly clumsy. I felt a little as if I were talking while listening to headphones: I couldn’t correctly gauge how I was coming across to others. Slowly, asking repeatedly for feedback, I began to see my own behavior more clearly. My false image of self gave way to a more accurate model, and I learned to avoid accidentally stomping on people with my conversational style.

Deliberately, methodically eliminating your blind spots simply intensifies the natural process we all endure as life teaches us its rough-and-tumble lessons. If you undertake this accelerated journey, you will learn much more in much less time (albeit with a few more scrapes and bruises) and achieve a deeper level of self-knowledge than you otherwise would have.

Just observing the truth about yourself without judgment or spin will begin to change you. It’s well-nigh impossible to see yourself more and more clearly while continuing to act without integrity, or in contradiction to your life’s real purpose. Eventually you may come to see what Marianne Williamson meant when she said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” To see your truest nature is to recognize that you have a capacity for goodness far greater than you ever dreamed, with all the awesome responsibility that entails. It’s a difficult proposition, but in the end the view makes it all worthwhile.

Watch Martha at O You! 2011

At O You! 2011, Martha used her experience in tracking animals in Africa as a metaphor on how to go back to your “last hot track” when you’ve lost your way and are having trouble finding your passion.  Watch more below!

Clicking on the above video will direct you to oprah.com website.

 

Martha on Oprah: The Truth Will Set You Free

Recently Martha joined Oprah for a live webcast after the episode “The Truth Will Set You Free” from Oprah’s new Lifeclass series on OWN.  With her signature blend of humor, science, and spirituality, Martha helps us understand how lies and secrets affect relationships, self-esteem, and even our health. Both Martha and Oprah then offer their keen insight and clarity on how to to speak your truth so that you can live the life you are meant to live.

Clicking on the video above will redirect you to oprah.com. 

How to Break Through Old Limitations

As many of you know, my system of coaching consists of several conceptual “tools” that can quickly cut through the chatter of people’s socialization and connect them with their essential self.   Recently, I have modified one of the tools, turning it from a paring knife into a sort of Swiss Army affair with additional flanges. Because this exercise has helped me get through the month, I want to share it with you.

Right now, in your imagination, call up a persistent problem that you have been unable to solve for yourself. Maybe you never get the rewards you feel you deserve, or you can’t get rid of the clutter in your home, or your health just keeps failing you. Maybe you can’t stop kidnapping zoo animals and hiding them in your bathtub. Whatever this problem is, the persistency with which it occurs and your inability to make it go away show that it is hiding in a mental blind spot. You are the common factor in all these situations, and the likelihood that they are happening to you by sheer random bad luck is vanishingly small. I know you don’t know what you are doing to cause this problem, but I’m willing to piss you off by saying that you are doing something.

(By the way, we were all educated in a system where the “right” and “wrong” answers were determined by the system’s definitions. In that sort of environment, you can argue your way from a C- to a B+ by making excuses, pointing out how much stress you are under, or showing the teacher where the test was wrong. Don’t even try that here. If your life isn’t working, you can be sure that there is a cause and effect reality at play. For example, if you tried a thousand times to make fire by bashing two rocks together, it would not be your teacher’s judgment that would show you failure. You could not argue the rocks into creating fire for you or into feeling sorry for all the stress they are putting upon you. Your life gives you solid, empirical evidence that what you are doing does not work.)

Now comes the tricky part: Holding your problem in your mind, relax all your muscles and breathe deeply and without effort. Instead of thinking about your problem, feel the energy of the problematic situation as a sensation that affects your entire body. You may notice strong emotions arising without quite knowing what they mean. Just keep breathing, and if you are tempted to become analytical, repeat in your mind words like “let go,” “relax,” and “be still.” Keep feeling. Somewhere in this welter of emotion, you will connect with a sensation of yearning. Oddly, you may not feel this as your own yearning; rather, it is the problematic situation itself that is yearning to change. Where you may think you want a certain person to love you, truly and romantically, the situation may be yearning for you to stand up for yourself. Where you may believe it is up to you to organize those papers in your office, the situation may be begging you to bring in another person whose filing skills are better than yours. Where you may think you should take charge of your teenagers, the situation may be yearning for you to relax and laugh with your children, to accept them without reservation and to trust them to keep themselves safe.

It may take five or six minutes before you get even a flicker of this sensation. We are so used to working these problems in our minds that letting go to see what wants to happen can at first be a baffling experience. Let the emotional power of your wish for a better life motivate you to persist in this exercise until you can feel what your life is begging for.

You will then be faced with some interesting choices, because the situation will not be yearning for what you already know how to do. It may not even ask you to do something that you think is logical or “right.” Feel free to go back to your old methods of dealing with this issue. The next time it kicks you in your teeth–and it will–this exercise will be waiting for you to reorient your approach. When you take the leap of faith to do what your wilder instincts recommend, you will break through old limitations and find that the problems evaporate.

When People Are Mean

When Mean People Suck TeeThe first time I saw a T-shirt that said “mean people suck,” I thought, Now, there is a heartfelt sentiment, succinctly expressed. I only wished I’d been the author. I mention this because recently I’ve encountered several mean people, and I’ve had to remind myself that the concept of authorship is key to surviving these experiences.

I don’t know about you, but my favorite ways of reacting to mean people are (1) getting mean right back or (2) lying down quietly to display the word welcome! written where my spine used to be. Annoyingly, my job constantly reminds me that there’s a more responsible and effective way to live. That’s how it is for us authors. I say “us” because you’re an author, too. Not all of us write for publication, but every living person has the power of authorship when it comes to composing our lives. Meanness emerges when we believe that we have no such power, that we’re passive receptors of life’s vagaries. Inner peace follows when we begin responding to cruelty—our own and other people’s—with the authority we’ve possessed all along.

Why are people mean?

Here’s the short answer: They’re hurt. Here’s the long answer: They’re really hurt. At some point, somebody—their parents, their lovers, Lady Luck—did them dirty. They were crushed. And they’re still afraid the pain will never stop, or that it will happen again.

There. I’ve just described every single person living on planet Earth.

The fact is that we’ve all been hurt, and we’re all wounded, but not all of us are mean. Why not? Because some people realize that their history of suffering can be a hero’s saga rather than a victim’s whine, depending on how they “write” it. The moment we begin tolerating meanness, in ourselves or others, we are using our authorial power in the service of wrongdoing. We have both the capacity and the obligation to do better.

We perceive our life events as story lines. We continually (though often unconsciously) tell ourselves tales about life, and since no story can include every tiny event, we edit and spin the facts into the stories we prefer. Many of our stories are pure fabrication, and all of them are biased, dominated by our flair for the dramatic, our theories about life, and our fears. A typical mean person’s story line goes like this: “I am a victim; people want to hurt me; I must hurt them first to be safe.” This is why mean people may turn ugly when you say something like “Please pass the salt” or “Hey, it’s raining.” They immediately rewrite whatever they hear to support their story line (“She’s saying I’m a bad cook” or “He’s bringing up the weather to avoid talking about us”). The story, not other people’s behavior, both motivates and excuses their hostility.

If we react to this type of meanness with cruelty of our own, we climb onto the wheel of suffering that drives all conflict, from lovers’ spats to wars: You’re mean to me so I’m mean to you so you’re meaner to me so I’m meaner to you….

We’ll stay on this sickening merry-go-round until we decide to get off—and please note that I did not say “when others stop being mean to us.” We can ride the wheel of suffering when no one else is even present (telling ourselves the same old sad story again and again), and we can leave it even in the midst of violent persecution. The way out is not found in changing our circumstances but in the power of authorship.

Here are some ways to use that power…

Like any work of fiction, your life story begins with description. Try sitting down and writing a one-page account of your life (no stressing over style; this is for your eyes only).

Now go get a hat. That’s right, a hat. When you wear this hat, you become the Reader, a different person from the Author. Put on your hat and read what you’ve written, pretending you’ve never seen it. Ask yourself, Is this the story of a hero or a victim? Is it a tale of the terrible things that have happened to the central character (you), or does it speak in terms of the choices you’ve made to create those circumstances? Do you dwell on vengeance or gratitude? Do difficult people and situations appear as forces who control you or as problems you are busily solving?

Now take off your hat and get a second piece of paper. Write another description of your life, one that is more heroic than the last (if your first story was valiant, make this one even more so). Mention times you chose wisely, instances when people were kind to you, moments you knew that no matter how bad things looked, you were going to succeed.

Don your hat, read your new history, and see how it compares to the first draft. I suspect that you’ll find it much more interesting and enjoyable. You’ve just exercised the storytelling talent that will take you off the wheel of suffering: the power to write your character as a hero rather than a victim.

This skill not only keeps you from being mean to others—if you’re consciously composing your life as a hero’s saga, you won’t excuse your own cruelty or anyone else’s—but also guides you to healthy options when others are mean to you. You’ll respond bravely but compassionately to the villains you encounter. You may need practice, but you can compose your hero’s saga with your actions, not just the written word. Feel hemmed in by obligations to children, siblings, parents? You are free to say no, even if it rocks the family boat. Trapped in an unenlightened culture?

You are free to act on your own principles, whatever the response. Take your liberty. Use your power. Rewrite every memory of your own victimization as a hero’s adventure.

“Mean” can also be defined as “small.”

Mean people live small, think small, and feel small—the smaller, the meaner. The belief that we are smaller and less powerful than others underlies most meanness, even when that belief is delusional. But we can also use our author’s imagination to size things in our favor. Think of a person who’s been nasty to you. Imagine that person shrinking to one inch tall. Picture your enemy stomping around in the palm of your hand, yelling or sneering all the customary cruelties. You’ll find that if your critic is making a valid point, it will still sound accurate, but mere verbal abuse is hilarious when squeaked in the voice of an inch-tall Mini-Mean.

Whatever your reaction to this tiny villain, that’s probably the best way to react to your life-size challenger. If the insults are laughable, just laugh. If the mean person has a point, tell her that you get it, but she could stand to work on her people skills. Practice what you would say if you felt big and invulnerable, then say it, even if you’re scared. Be “big” by responding to cruelty with honest calm rather than aggression or submissiveness.

Ernest Hemingway claimed the most essential talent for a good writer was simply a “built-in, shockproof shit detector.” Great authorship is all about truth. To write the stories of our lives as honestly as possible, we must thoroughly reject crap. This is especially useful when cruelty masquerades as kindness. Some of the most merciless behavior ever perpetrated looks very nice. The sweeter a lie sounds, the meaner it really is.

“Honey, people are whispering about your weight.” “Stop talking back, or you’ll lose that husband of yours.” “Oh, sweetheart, that’s way too big a dream for you.” Statements like these may be well-intentioned feedback—or spite. The difference is that honesty, even the tough stuff, makes you feel clearer and stronger, while meanness leaves you mired in shame, despair, and frailty.

This is true physically as well as psychologically. I sometimes make my clients do push-ups while repeating feedback they’ve been given, such as “I need to lose 20 pounds” or “I should be nicer.” If the statement is false, the strength literally drains from their bodies. If it’s true, they become stronger. One client, a couch potato in her 60s, started cranking out literally hundreds of push-ups once she rejected the feedback she was getting from her husband and chose to believe what her heart was telling her. Try this yourself to see what your internal detection system reveals about the feedback you’ve received. Trust, remember, and revisit honest advice. Muck everything else right out of your mind.

If you opt to write your life consciously, you’ll find that a tale acknowledging your hero’s strength feels truer than one depicting you as a victim. You’ll see that whatever your physical size, you really are a bigger person than any bully. You’ll learn that the truth, no matter how hard, always strengthens you more than a lie, no matter how nice. On the other hand, if you don’t take up your authority, you give mean people the power to write your life for you. In the end, they will make you one of them. That should give you the motivation you need to take up your authority, because let’s face it: Mean people suck.

Turn on Your Right Brain

This morning I sat down to write about how we can all learn to better use the right hemispheres of our brains. For 30 minutes, I tapped restlessly at a laptop. Nothing much happened, idea-wise. Flat beer.

Finally I resorted to a strategy I call the Kitchen Sink. I read bits of eight books: four accounts of brain research, one novel about India, one study of bat behavior, one biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and one memoir of motherhood. Next I drove to my favorite Rollerblading location, listening en route to a stand-up comic, a mystery novel, and an Eckhart Tolle lecture. I yanked on my rollerblades and skated around, squinting slack-jawed into the middle distance. After a while, a tiny lightbulb went on. “Well,” I thought, “I could write about this.”

Duh.

The Kitchen Sink, you see, is one way to activate your brain’s creative right hemisphere. Every writer I’ve ever met uses some version of it, as do Web designers, cartoonists, TV producers—all “content creators” who regularly face the terrifying thought, “Well, I’ve gotta come up with something.”

If you’re not a content creator, wait a while. The 21st century is to content creators what the Industrial Revolution was to factory workers: In a world where information is superabundant, unique and creative ideas are hot-ticket advantages both personally and professionally. More and more people are finding more and more ways to parent, make money, find friends, and generally live well by relying on creativity.  The demand for creative thinking is both a challenge and an opportunity. It requires us to use more than the logical left-brain skills we learned in school. These days, we all need to get back into our right minds.

Historically, most brain science came from studying people whose brains had been damaged. Depending on the injury’s location, these patients had varying disabilities: If you lost one brain section, you might be unable to do long division; wipe out another patch, and your lace-tatting days were over. The famous Phineas Gage had an iron rod rammed all the way through his head, permanently losing the ability to be nice. One can hardly blame him.

People with left-hemisphere brain injuries may have trouble thinking analytically or making rational decisions. Many with damage to the right hemisphere, on the other hand, can still pass their SATs but become unable to connect parts into a meaningful whole. Oliver Sacks wrote about such a patient in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. This gentleman saw perfectly but could identify what he saw only by guessing. If you showed him a rose, he might say, “Well, it’s red on top, green and prickly below, and it smells nice…. Is it a flower?” One day, while looking for a hat to put on, he reached for his wife instead, perhaps thinking: “It’s familiar, and it goes with me everywhere…. Is it my hat?” I’m sure this was awful for his poor wife, though it could have been worse (“Well, it’s the size of a small house and it needs cleaning…Is it my garage?”). But still.

For most of Western history the right side of the brain was short-shrifted by neurologists intent on helping people think “rationally.” Only in recent years have experts begun to laud the creative, holistic right hemisphere. Interestingly, left-hemisphere strokes appear to be more common than right-hemisphere strokes. Perhaps we’re overusing our left hemispheres to the point of blowout. Or perhaps illness is trying to nudge us back to the mysteries and gifts of the right brain. Fortunately, we now know we can effect this change deliberately, without having to survive neurological disaster.

In his fascinating book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle describes how the brain reacts when a person develops a new skill. Performing an action involves firing an electrical signal through a neural pathway; each time this happens, it thickens the myelin sheath that surrounds nerve fibers like the rubber coating on electrical wires. The thicker the myelin sheath around a neural pathway, the more easily and effectively we use it. Heavily myelinated pathways equal mad skills.

Throughout your education, you myelinated the left-brain pathways for thinking logically. You were prepared for predictability and order, not today’s constant flood of innovation and change. Now you need to build up myelin sheaths around new skill circuits, located in your right hemisphere. To do this, you need something Coyle calls deep practice.

Deep practice is the same no matter what the skill. First visualize an ability you’d like to acquire—swimming like Dara Torres, painting like Grandma Moses, handling iron rods like Uncle Phineas. Then try to replicate that behavior. Initially, you’ll fail. That’s good; failure is an essential element of deep practice. Next, analyze your errors, noting exactly where your performance didn’t match your ideal. Now try again. You’ll still probably fail (remember, that’s a good thing), but in Samuel Beckett’s words, you’ll “fail better.”

Examples of people engaged in deep practice are everywhere. Think of American Idol contestants improving their singing, or Tiger Woods perfecting his golf swing. I once saw a television interviewer present Toni Morrison with the original manuscript of one of her masterpieces. Morrison became slightly distracted, running critical eyes across the page, wanting to make changes. She clearly can’t stop deep practicing. That’s why she won the Nobel Prize.

Deep practice is hard. It makes your brain feel like a piece of raw hamburger. It’s also weirdly rewarding, dropping you into rapt concentration, yielding quick improvement, and (if you’re lucky) producing good work. Here are some tricks you can deep practice to buff up your right hemisphere.

1. Sign your name every which way. My favorite teacher and artist, Will Reimann, was brilliant at getting his students to use the right side of their brains. There were many squinty eyes in Reimann’s studio, much neural myelination. Here’s one of his exercises:

Sign your name.

Done?

Okay, now things get gnarly. Sign again, but this time, do it in mirror writing—right to left, rather than left to right (just moving your hand backward fires the right brain hemisphere). Got that? Now sign upside down. Then backward and upside down. Repeat this until you can sign in all directions. Good luck.

2. Have a bilateral conversation. For this exercise, take a pencil in your right hand (even if you’re left-handed) and write the question: “How’s it going?” Then switch to your left hand, and write whatever pops up. Your nondominant hand’s writing will be shaky—that’s okay. The important thing isn’t tidiness; it’s noticing that your twin hemispheres have different personalities.

The right side of the brain, which controls the left hand, will say things you don’t know that you know. It specializes in assessing your physical and mental feelings, and it often offers solutions. “Take a nap,” your right hemisphere might say, or “Just do what feels right; we’ll be fine.” You’ll find there’s a little Zen master in that left hand of yours (not surprisingly, left-handed people are disproportionately represented in creative professions).

3. Learn new moves. You need your right hemisphere to move in an unfamiliar way, whether you’re learning a complicated dance step or holding a new yoga posture. Or cutting your own hair (actually, don’t—I speak from experience).

Try this: Walk a few steps, noticing how your arms swing opposite your legs. Now walk with your right arm and right foot going forward simultaneously, then the left hand and left foot. Is this difficult? No? Then do it backward, with your eyes closed—any variation that’s initially hard but ultimately learnable. You’ll master a new skill, sure; more important, you’ll build your overall right-brain facility.

4. Toss in the kitchen sink. Time to push your newly awakened right hemisphere into useful service. Think of a problem that’s had you stumped for a while: Your preschooler won’t nap, you can’t make yourself exercise, you need to cut expenses without sacrificing quality of life. With this challenge in your mind, read a few paragraphs in several totally unrelated books. Then relax. Play with your cat, wash the dishes, watch the neighbors through binoculars. Think of the problem periodically, then drop it again.

This process encourages eureka epiphanies, like those moments in TV dramas where the brilliant doctor or sleuth gets the “ping” of insight that solves the case. Your first few ideas may not be perfect—many will be awful—but there are more where they came from. Once you begin encouraging the right brain to churn out solutions, it will do so more and more abundantly.

Turning on your right brain is a skill, one that grows steadily stronger the more you work at it. Trigger the sensation of deep practice by mastering any unfamiliar task, feed challenges and stray information into your right brain’s database, and see new ideas begin to emerge. As they do, you’ll move more confidently and productively through an increasingly complex world. When I see you out Rollerblading, eyes locked in a vacant yet squinty stare, I’ll know you’re getting the hang of it.

I Approve: The Value of Equality

Woman gazes in mirror.There are those rare individuals who cannot be distracted by the external markers of success—things like social rank, wealth, education level, and professional status. These individuals behave in ways that quietly but effectively elevate the lowly and humble the arrogant. How do they do it? They ignore two common misconceptions and act instead on bedrock truths about equality and individual value.

Misconception #1

Each person’s value is determined by rank on the pyramid of social success. Your worth as a person increases or decreases as you accumulate (or fail to accumulate) prizes like wealth, power or fame.

Almost all of us believe Misconception #1 at some point in our lives, and it’s no wonder: We are approval-seeking machines. From our infancy, everything we do — crying, playing, using the potty – brings either praise or reprimand from the grown-ups around us. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s the only way to socialize children. But is also conveys the pervasive idea that our value depends on behaving in ways that others see as praiseworthy. Success-driven behaviors can undermine the very thing we think they will provide: the certainty that we are important, lovable, good enough. If you’re waiting for the one achievement that will give you this certainty, prepare to wait forever. The only way to create such inner peace is to replace Misconception #1 with the following truth.

Truth #1

Each person, including you, is infinitely precious. No success or failure can ever alter that fact.

We may give lip service to the idea that every human consciousness is equal and invaluable. But in practice we go on ranking everyone according to external measures of success, surreptitiously comparing their achievements to ours. And deep down, most of us conclude that we’re a bit (or a lot) less equal than everybody else.

It is this lurking sense of inferiority that makes us lust for success, consider ourselves pond scum, or both. Ironically, this mind-set is precisely what keeps us from acting in ways that would elicit natural validation of our true value from the world around us.

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you feel worthless, think about the most powerful hero you can imagine, and how they would react in your place. Now consider this: your hero isn’t the one coming up with this new, self-confident behavior—you are.  Whatever you see your hero do in the fantasy you’ve created is precisely what you can do in reality, once you choose to believe in your own value.

Misconception #2

People will value me to the extent that I affirm the superiority of people who rank above me in the social pyramid, and my own superiority over people who rank below me.

Success is a currency that is not accepted by the heart: You can’t buy love. Only people who are caught in the same misconception will bond with your accomplishments. Success-based relationships are parasitic, and they vanish when the fame, money and power do. To forge caring connections, you don’t need a stronger résumé; you need Truth #2.

Truth #2

People will value me to the extent that they believe I value them.

Virtually all arrogant, domineering people spent their childhoods being cruelly devalued. As adults, they are starving for validation, and they try to force people to acknowledge their significance by sucking up to the powerful and dominating the weak. This tends to create the very hostility they fear. There are much better ways to get the acceptance we crave. One of the easiest is what I call “tossing the fish”.

If you’ve ever been to Sea World, you’ve probably seen trainers reward the dolphins and seals by feeding them fish. Sea mammals will do anything for anyone who’s carrying a bucket of what they love most. They’re a lot like people that way – and you just happen to have a bottomless bucket of what humans love most: approval.

Often people treat approval as though it were a severely limited resource. They give it stingily, if at all, as though every bit of approval aimed at someone else leaves less for them. But the more we express genuine approval, the more we motivate positive behavior in those around us, the more approval we’ll receive from them. (By the way, it’s crucial to fully internalize Truth #1 before  you set out to toss fish. Otherwise your compliments and new-found interest will come across as a Machiavellian ploy.)

In order to keep Truth No. 1 at the forefront of your thoughts, there are two techniques you may find helpful. First, rather than picturing intimidating people in their underwear, try to imagine them as their “bare selves” – as all those things that worry or motivate them. That way you can offer encouragement or support, just as you would with your peers, colleagues, or subordinates.

You may also try a technique I learned from Barbara Browning, a brilliant media trainer who teaches people how to come across on television. Barbara tells her clients, “treat the interviewers as though they were guests in your home.” This is exactly opposite  of most people’s first reaction. When the cameras roll, all their mental functions cease and they just sit there drooling (I speak from experience). But when you enter the mind-set of the “gracious host or hostess,” you equalize your own perception of the intimidating person’s power versus your own. The more lowly and inferior you feel at these particular moments,  the more important it is to get out of that frame of mind and into reality. The “host/hostess” trick can help you make the transition.

It may take you several months of practicing these techniques before they come to feel natural. However we are all inexperienced travelers on this uncertain voyage through life, and we cling to the twin myths of inferiority and superiority out of fear and fear alone. To transcend that fear and connect honestly with others, priceless soul to priceless soul, is to succeed in the truest sense of the word.

The Formula for Happiness

IHeart Carvingn my “Zero Attachment, Zero Anxiety” post, I commented on a contradiction between some of my earlier writing and what I have come to see as a constructive approach to creating your best life. The contradiction was about the concept of yearning. In the book The Joy Diet, I wrote that yearning is the internal map of the course your life was meant to follow. I believe I wrote something like, “Your destiny pulls you through life by the heart.” Last month I wrote that intense yearning is a form of attachment that can actually stop the thing you desire from reaching you. In the past month, I’ve realized that each of these ideas is accurate in its own way. Yearning is, indeed, a valuable indication of our best future, but it contains an energy that can push away our dreams even as it tries to pull them towards us.

Here’s the key to understanding how you can use the positive aspects of yearning while avoiding the negative: Recognize that yearning is loving something before you believe in it. The same may be said of jealousy, envy, disappointment and even despair. To love something deeply without believing it can be true is enormously painful.

The problem here is that we often fight our desire rather than our disbelief. Being firmly convinced that what we want could never happen, we fight to extinguish the enjoyment and delight of the experience for which we long. But every great spiritual teacher, from Jesus to Forrest Gump, has tried to explain to the world that love is indestructible. Therefore, the part of the yearning equation we must eliminate is not the love of the unseen thing, but our fear that it can never be ours.

Let’s write this as an equation. Here is what happens when we fight our desire rather than our disbelief:

Love + Disbelief = Yearning

To eliminate the distaste of this yearning, most of us try to solve the equation this way:

Yearning – Love = Happiness

This does not work because, as stated earlier, love cannot be subtracted. It’s the one permanent thing in the universe. In addition, subtracting love from anything makes it more painful, not less.

So this month, try the following equation:

Yearning – Disbelief = Happiness

If you have trouble simply subtracting disbelief, please realize you cannot force belief to exist, so you can’t simply add belief to something you don’t believe. The way to balance the equation is to allow your heart to trust that what it loves is real. If you can do this, trust automatically causes disbelief to relax and disappear. Then your equation looks like this:

Yearning + Trust = Happiness

Right now, make a list of everything you yearn for. Make sure that you realize that your yearning is for the emotional sensation that the experience would bring you rather than the form itself. (For example, you don’t just wish for the perfect lover, but for the sensation of knowing you are deeply loved. The perfect lover without that feeling would do nothing for you.) Make another list of things you feel you deserve, but don’t believe you’ll ever get — things like good luck, a soul mate, a really great haircut. Again, focus on the essence of the experience, not the physical form.

Now try a small thought experiment. Go through this list item by item and allow yourself to trust that the thing you love not only will come, but has already connected with you through the barrier of time. Notice any fear that arises to tell you that the thing for which you yearn will never come to you. Notice the choking, tensing or other form of contraction in your body when you focus on your disbelief. This is the body’s response to a lie. Give yourself a short space of time, say one minute, to take your attention off your disbelief and focus instead on the love of this thing that has not yet happened. Feel the warmth and openness of your life when you believe that your connection with this thing is real, solid, and inevitable. As the poet Rilke said, “You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born. Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you long before it happens.”

Psychologists who study rats sometimes hook up the poor little creatures to harnesses that measure their pulling strength. Then they measure how hard the rats run away from an electric shock, or toward a pellet of food. If they put the shock and the food in the same place, the rats run toward it to exactly the point where their fear of the shock is as strong as their lust for the food. At that point, they develop what is called an “approach avoidance” response. They run back and forth, back and forth, toward the food and away from the shock and end up basically stuck in no man’s land.

When we yearn for something and focus on our fear that it may not happen, we create an approach avoidance response in everything our hearts desire. The love makes us magnetic to the outcomes we desire; the fear of loss or failure repels what we are trying to create just before it reaches us.

If we can change the way we solve the yearning equation so that more of our time is spent focusing on love and enjoyment than on our fear of failure or disappointment, the approach avoidance pattern begins to break down.

The future our hearts have already mapped for us gains the energy and momentum to break through the shell of fear and into our material lives. To live without fear or doubt is perhaps too much to ask of a small, frightened, human animal, but to practice the discipline of focusing on love rather than fear is something we can all achieve. Start with the things you want just a little. As trust begins drawing these things into your life, you’ll gain the confidence to escape approach avoidance responses and more impressive results will follow.

Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future has already entered you. It is pulling you through life by your heart.