How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

25Several years ago, four of my friends—Marlene, Ellie, Karla, and Chip—all resolved to get in shape and lose weight. Now, these people had never met, so the odds of their making exactly the same resolution were…actually quite predictable, since pretty much everybody puts fitness on their New Year’s resolutions list. There are rumors of humans who’ve never resolved to eat less and move more, but until scientists discover concrete evidence (hair, fibers, DNA-smeared doughnut boxes), we must assume they exist only in hallucinations of ordinary people who’ve been weakened by months and months of dieting. 

At any rate, by February all my friends had fallen off the resolution wagon and were munching their way to larger clothing sizes and a profound sense of failure. Something similar may happen to you this year, whatever your resolutions.If it does, don’t blame your weak will; blame isolation. Research shows that humans tend to do difficult things much better in teams and groups than on their own. I suggest that this year you seek a specific type of goal-oriented companionship I call the Fellowship of the Resolution. 

The Virtue of Motley Crews 

If you loved J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (or hated it but absorbed the plot because of peer pressure), you’ll recall that the Fellowship of the Ring was a team consisting of hobbits, humans, a dwarf, a wizard, and an elf. Although these species usually avoided one another, their disparities turned out to be essential for saving Middle Earth. The Fellowship met monsters only a hobbit could trick, caves only a dwarf could spelunk, spells only an elf could counter, and orcs whose strength could be overcome only by Viggo Mortensen’s flexing of his facial muscles, paralyzing the beasts with acute awareness of their inferior looks. 

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, you, too, need a Fellowship. But it’s not enough to enlist your longtime BFFs—the buddies you’ve known forever, who think and act just like you. As Tolkien’s story suggests, the key to success is teaming up with people who are emphatically not on your wavelength. This is especially true in behavioral patterns called conative styles. 

How You Do That Thing You Do

When people talk about change, they often emphasize affective factors, which shape our feelings, and cognitive differences, which influence thinking. They overlook patterns that relate to doing. According to Kathy Kolbe, a specialist in learning strategies, conation is the aspect of human consciousness that determines how we tackle any task. She has identified four conative styles:

  • “Quick start” adherents swing directly into action, making creative discoveries—and mistakes—through trial and error.
  • “Fact finders” need information; they’re the friends who’ll research every relevant factoid about any task they’re preparing to undertake.
  • “Follow through” people naturally use methodical systems: They set up files for every receipt and alphabetize their refrigerator contents.
  • “Implementers” focus on physical objects and environments; they figure out things by building models or grabbing the appropriate tools. They respond better to bricks and mortar than castles in the air.

If necessary most of us can tap into and use all four conative styles, but we tend to favor one or two of these behaviors. Yet conatively, as in every other area of life, too much of one style can be a weakness. For instance, consider the “failure modes” of the four dieters I mentioned earlier:

  • Marlene, who favors quick-start action, leaped straight into an organic raw-food diet. Two weeks into her regimen, her hunger and disgruntlement triggered a backslide to a menu of cupcakes and beer, which Marlene maintains today.
  • Ellie, who prefers the fact-finder conative style, never actually began dieting or exercising. She’s still researching and evaluating fitness programs, using a process so detailed she’ll finish her analysis next July (at the earliest).
  • Karla, as a follow-through, has a zest for systems, so she joined a reputable weight loss program, which was perfect—except that she hated it. The weekly weigh-ins terrified her, and the prescribed food had all the epicurean appeal of bat guano. After a month, she began sleep-eating peanut butter.
  • Chip, with his love of the concrete implementer strategy, drastically cut his food intake while quadrupling his level of exercise. Back spasms soon landed him in bed, where he began inhaling polymer-based foodlike products from the minimart to ease his frustration.

They each failed because their closest friends share their conative preferences, which means they had no one to help them in the areas where they were weak. But if these four very different people linked up as a Fellowship, things might have turned out differently. Marlene’s dynamic quick-start energy could have pushed Ellie past her analysis paralysis. Ellie could have researched a weight loss system more suited to Karla’s taste. Karla’s methodical approach could have pointed Chip toward a sustainable exercise program, and away from the weekend warrior syndrome. And Chip’s enthusiasm for three-dimensional places and processes could have inspired the women to hit the gym more often. (There are many more benefits this Fellowship might have discovered, but you get the idea.) 

Forming Your Fellowship

Because I’m aware of conative styles, I never set out toward a difficult goal without a team of opposites. I know that I mostly prefer quick-start action and hands-on implementer creativity, and I feel about strict systems the way tigers feel about vegetarianism (“Are you fricking kidding me?”). So when I first started my own business, I hired my friend Yvonne, who’s high in both follow-through and fact finder, to run it. 

Yvonne and I knew from the outset that we’d butt heads. Her meticulous system maintenance makes me want to drive cactus spines into my skull, while my frequent leaps into the unknown give Yvonne nightmares. But we also knew that our differences made us a damn fine Fellowship, back when I was starting out. With me spewing ideas like the chocolate assembly line in I Love Lucy and Yvonne insisting that everything get properly packaged and inventoried, we created things neither of us could have managed on our own. 

You can achieve similar success this New Year by forming your own Fellowship of the Resolution. First, identify your own behavior style. You can do this for a moderate fee on Kathy Kolbe’s Web site (; $50), or you can figure it out yourself using the loose descriptions in this column (if you go the former route, you’re probably high in follow-through or fact finder, while taking the fast-and-loose approach suggests you have quick-start tendencies). Please remember that you may enjoy one or two action styles, but virtually no one is high in all four. 

Next, you want to find people who prefer action styles you avoid. Meeting people with your conative complements isn’t hard, though teaming up with them will feel a little weird. Remember, hobbits and elves and dwarfs and men were uneasy with each other, too—but just think what would have happened to Middle Earth if any of them had been omitted from the mix! We’d all be slaves in Mordor right now! 

As you assemble your Fellowship, you can once again refer to Kathy Kolbe’s Web-based evaluation (having your collaborators take the official conation test), or you can shoot from the hip. Since we now understand that I personally am a hip-shooter, I’ve assembled some guidelines for targeting people you might want in your Fellowship. This involves knowing your own conative dislikes and going directly toward them, rather than running away from them:

  • If you have trouble getting started on difficult projects, look for a quick-start companion— the person who shocks you by getting married, moving house, or adopting a pack of dogs mere hours after coming up with the idea.
  • If you absolutely hate doing research, never reading the entire recipe or instruction manual before starting to cook or assemble furniture, you need to find yourself a fact finder—the kind of person who won’t so much as wash her hair without first googling every ingredient in her shampoo.
  • If you love creative chaos and can’t stand systematic repetition, add a follow-through to your Fellowship. This will be the friend whose closets are organized by clothing style, color, date purchased, and price (adjusted regularly to account for market fluctuation).
  • If you’d rather not grapple with the actual objects involved in your resolution (reorganizing your office, getting and using a yoga mat, devising an ingenious machine that gives you a powerful electric shock each time you reach for the potato chips), you should team up with an implementer. She’ll be the one who raves about the joy of installing her own bathroom tiles or taking trapeze lessons from circus acrobats.

A general rule is that your best partner will be the person who makes you shake your head in disbelief and mutter, “I guess it takes all kinds.” Because it does. (And it may help to remember that your conative compadres will be looking at you the same way.) One more hint: Because most people are moderately or very strong in more than one conative area, your Fellowship could be formed with just one companion—if that person is strong in the one or two areas in which you are weak. 

Once you’ve got your group in place, I recommend that you take a little bit of time to discuss your opposites-attract strategy with your Fellowship. Yvonne and I work together successfully because we’ve always acknowledged our conative differences. When I hanker to move faster than Yvonne, she reminds me, “Settle down, woman! You hired me to be a follow-through!” When she yearns for a coworker who doesn’t think quite so much like a Labrador retriever, I point out that my quick-start enthusiasm gives her a whole lot of things to organize. Do the same with your Fellowship, and you’ll remind yourself that everyone benefits when all four conative styles are covered. 

This year I’m going to urge Marlene, Ellie, Karla, and Chip to join forces. Once people assemble in such unlikely Fellowships, they realize an equally unlikely result: success. Whether your resolution is to lose weight, budget better, cut back on Internet poker, or slog to Mordor carrying the Ring of Doom, finding your motley crew of opposites will help you make it all the way to your goals—and the Fellowship itself, I believe, will bring great joy. Especially if it includes Viggo Mortensen. 

Ask For It

iStock_000018596624Small“If only I were free enough/ rich enough/ young enough/ supported enough to do what I want, my life would be perfect.” 

I’ve heard some version of this sentiment from literally thousands of people. I’ve also noticed that what these people lack is almost never the freedom, money, youth, or support they think they need. What’s really holding them back is simply that they don’t know what they want.

This is how most of my coaching conversations start out:

ME: So, what do you want to experience during your life?
CLIENT: Yeah, that’s the question, isn’t it?
ME: Yes, and I’m asking it. What do you want?
CLIENT: Mm, I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that.
ME: Please think about it now. What do you want in this moment?
CLIENT: Well, what’s supposed to happen to me?

And so on.

At least I know what ­I want in these moments: I want to stab myself in the head with a crab fork. There’s nothing I can do to help someone who won’t look inside and identify a clear desire. My hunch is there’s nothing The Force can do in these situations, either. It’s like going into a restaurant and saying, “Bring me the food I love best!” without identifying the food.

My experience is that there’s almost always a way to get what you want, but (stay with me here) you have to ask for it. Specifically. Here’s a helpful hint: Right now, think of something that sounds fun, something you could do today. If nothing sounds fun, think of something that would be a comfort, or just a relief. Got it? Good! Now you can take steps to make it happen. And as you take one step toward the thing you want, it really does take a hundred steps toward you. 

Lame Animal Totem: The Oak Titmouse

unnamedOak Titmouse is a small bird the color of dry bark, with black eyes and a jaunty little crest. Unfortunately, its name was chosen by middle-school boys high on cough syrup, and made official by sex-starved geek biologists. Now the Oak Titmouse is stuck with a label no one can get past.
If Oak Titmouse flutters into your life, you are probably holding onto moronic traditions from your family of origin, e.g., “Of course I beat my children. I’m Talullah Heiniehumper, and that’s how Heiniehumpers roll.” Titmouse teaches you to close your claws tightly and proudly around all that baggage.
Titmouse energy is bigoted, insulting, and hypersensitive. It can guide you unerringly to a soulmate just as dysfunctional as yourself, or spark sibling rivalry that may well end in murder. Channel your Titmouse totem through tantrums or silent treatments. Spend twenty years in therapy, but never change. Then feel superior. Things could be worse. You could be called Fir Mousetit.

How to Stay Sane This Holiday Season


Are you looking forward to the season ahead with shivers of anticipation? Or just shivers? Here are 6 steps to save you untold aggravation, angst, time, and money by persuading you not to do the things you don’t want to do this holiday season.

List Your Holiday Traditions 

Take a few minutes to write down every holiday custom you feel you should follow. Start with family patterns, but don’t end there. Offices and friendships have their own traditions. 

Choose to Enthuse 

Looking over your list, visualize each activity. Notice how your body reacts. Do you tense or relax, feel like smiling, snarling or weeping? What creates a genuine sense of enthusiasm? True enthusiasm makes us feel divine, whether we take that as a religious reality or simply a wonderful emotion. The holy days are the best times to focus on real enthusiasm, the inner source that lightens and sanctifies our lives all year. 

Apply The Three Bs 

Once you’ve figured out which traditions you love, eliminate the ones you don’t. I suggest the Three Bs: Bag it, barter it or better it. Bagging is simple: If you don’t love to do it, and you don’t have to do it, don’t do it. To barter a task, find someone who loves doing what you hate, and who dislikes something you like; then swap services. Traditions that can’t be bagged or bartered can usually be bettered. If you’re tired of shopping but really want to choose gifts yourself, use catalogs or the Internet. 

Manage That Uneasy Feeling 

As you read over the preceding paragraphs, you may have felt resistance. This is what I call social dissonance, the conditioned reaction to breaking a group rule. It’s the primary force that keeps us obeying the demands of others. Tolerating this dissonance without reacting is the key to maintaining control of your life during the holidays and beyond. 

Be Yourself, Don’t Explain Yourself 

You don’t have to prove that your preferences are right, theirs wrong. Differences are inevitable and acceptable—attempting to persuade someone to value the same things you do just perpetuates conflict. Simply hold your ground. Kindly tell everyone that you’re observing a set of customs that work for you. 

Wait ‘Em Out 

Every group has its own form of punishment. It may be that you are one of the unlucky minority of humans whose social groups are so rigid they won’t tolerate your decisions, but this can be its own gift. You’ll be free to create and follow traditions that take you to the places where you’ll find your tribe. Far more likely, though, using the season to practice living authentically will transform your holidays without causing too much ruckus in your world. 

Yes, you may ruffle more than turkey feathers. Your loved ones may fuss and fume, but guess what? They’ll get over it. They’ll probably even like it, once they see the payoff: the joyful version of you.

Lame Animal Totem: The Clam

ClamsClam energy is exuberant, witty, wise, hilarious, and brilliant, but no one ever realizes this, because Clam keeps it all inside, out of fear that someone will steal its intellectual property.

When Clam maneuvers its way into the bouillabaisse of your life, play your cards close to your vest. Closer! CLOSER! No one must know of your genius, or they will filch all your best ideas! (Which you’ll get around to developing any day now.)

If Clam is your totem, your inner life is teeming with good intentions, none of which you ever act upon. You’re possibly the world’s best singer, writer, dancer, and inventor, but you haven’t yet begun singing, writing, dancing, or inventing. Continue in this vein. Remember that no matter how secretive you are aliens are probably trying to read your mind. Hide your talents in a hard shell of paranoia, or alternatively, aluminum foil. As a Clam, you can never be too careful.

Fang and Buddy: Tuning into your Inner Wisdom

1425765_31554285This very day, two individuals are vying to be your personal adviser. The first, whose name is Fang, dresses in immaculate business attire, carries a briefcase full of neatly organized folders, and answers all e-mails instantly, via BlackBerry. In a loud, clear, authoritative voice, Fang delivers strong opinions about how you should manage your time. Fang’s résumé is impressive: fantastic education, experience to burn.

The other candidate, Buddy, wears shorts, a tank top, and a rose tattoo. If you question the professionalism of this attire, Buddy just smiles. When you ask advice on a pressing matter, Buddy hugs you. There are almost no words on Buddy’s résumé (the few that do appear are jokes and song lyrics), and in the margins, Buddy has doodled pictures of chipmunks.

Who will you hire to advise you?

Yeah, that’s what I used to think, too.

Long, long ago, as a teenager, I gave the name Fang to my socially conscious, verbal, educated mind. Buddy was what I called a perverse, disobedient aspect of my being, who apparently never evolved logical semantics and simply does not understand How Things Are Done Around Here. Fang is wary and suspicious, while Buddy ignores all caution in the pursuit of appealing experiences, like a puppy on LSD. In high school, I vowed to let only Fang run my life. A couple of decades later, I noticed something surprising: Though I generally did listen to Fang, it was Buddy who was always right.

When clients tell me they need to find their “inner voice,” I suspect they’re already listening to one: a loud, logical, convincing Fang-voice that echoes parents, teachers, priests, and angry personal trainers. You have no problem hearing this voice; the problem is, its counsel rarely leads to fulfillment. Yet you sense there’s someone else knocking around in your psyche: someone whose counsel might make you happy—the kind of wise, primordial self I named Buddy. Unfortunately, Buddy is almost nonverbal, initially unimposing, and, from Fang’s point of view, way too weird to trust. I believe one of the primary tasks of your life is to trust Buddy anyway. That means first learning to recognize true inner wisdom, and then opening yourself to its peculiar counsel.

Noticing What Your Inner Wisdom Is and Is Not

Real wisdom is so different from what’s drilled into us by most authority figures that we tend to go functionally blind to it. But even if you can’t recognize your own wisdom, you can notice what it isn’t. Compare this list of Buddy traits with their Fang opposites. 

Wisdom Is Sensory, Not Verbal 
“It’s not as though I hear a voice,” says a friend of mine who’s famous for her wisdom. “It’s more like a little kid tapping me on the shoulder. It’s something I feel.”

In other words, while the voice of social conditioning manifests itself as a stream of thoughts in the head, wisdom often appears as emotions or physical sensations in the body. Brain-damaged patients who lose function in parts of the brain that register emotion may still understand the logic of a problem, but can no longer reason effectively or make advantageous decisions for themselves. The emotional centers of the brain, along with the elaborate bundle of nerves in your belly (the so-called gut brain), have been evolving far longer than language. And that system, more than logic, is exquisitely attuned to helping you navigate your way through life.

So if you’re wondering whether a choice is wise or not, don’t search your mind for a rational argument. Instead, hold each option in your attention, then feel its effect on your body and emotions. When something’s wrong for you, you’ll feel constriction and tightness. The wise choice leads to feelings of liberation, even exhilaration.

Wisdom Is Calm, Not Fearful 

The inner voice of social conditioning—that would be Fang—doesn’t just speak in words; it shouts them. “Do it my way!” Fang shrieks. “Do not screw this up!” By contrast, inner wisdom is stillness itself. If you’re waiting for wisdom to outscream paranoia, get comfortable. It’s gonna be a long wait.

Instead, you might want to regard the thought stream in your brain as an annoying TV talk show playing in an upstairs apartment. Send your attention downstairs, to a place in the center of your chest where Buddy is smiling in the stillness. It helps to take some deep breaths. You may have to lie down. But as you feel for that stillness, the yawping from your brain will seem less important. As you begin to relax, you’ll find yourself guided to do unexpected things. These may include just resting, often the single wisest choice.

Wisdom Is Chosen, Not Forced

From infancy we’re trained by adults who can force us to cooperate. Sometimes, indeed, we’re trained so well that we begin to expect all instructions to come through coercion. “You’re crazy to want that!” Fang shouts as you try to grow or enjoy life. “You don’t deserve it!” “You’ll fail!”

Meanwhile, your inner Buddy knocks gently, then waits to be invited in. Wisdom is far, far stronger than fear, but while fear gladly forces itself upon you, wisdom will do nothing of the kind. We can’t be victims of wisdom: It must be chosen.

Stop and examine any frightening, ugly, or painful thought that customarily drives you. Ask yourself: Really? Is this really the kind of energy you want blaring through your inner space? If not, calmly state a truer thought: “You’re wrong, Fang. I do deserve this, and even if I do fail, the world won’t end.”

Fang will not appreciate this. There will be shouting. But you’ll gain wisdom every time you choose to believe the peaceful thoughts again—and again, and again, and again. Ultimately, this practice will enable you to take Fang less seriously. Then you can go out to play with Buddy, who’s much more interesting.

Following Your Inner Buddy

Exercise 1: WWBD?

Think of a challenging circumstance or difficult decision you happen to be facing right now—something that’s been keeping you up at night. With this situation in mind, write the first answer that comes up when you ask yourself the following questions. Don’t overthink the answers. In fact, don’t think about the answers at all—just blurt.

With regard to your difficult situation…

  • What would calm do now?
  • What would peace do now?
  • What would relaxation do now?

(Note: I don’t include “What would love do now?” because so many people have such misguided interpretations of love. They think love would sacrifice its own happiness, or throw a tantrum, or hide in an ex-boyfriend’s garage wearing nothing but night-vision goggles and a leopard-print thong.)

The more often you ask yourself these strange questions, the more open you become to the gentle energy of your own inner wisdom. When you feel your body begin to let go of tension, you know you’re headed in a wise direction.

And that’s what Buddy would do.

Exercise 2: Nightmare Board, Wisdom Board

Perhaps you’ve heard of vision boards: collages you assemble from pictures of things that appeal to you. Most of us go through life carrying something similar in our minds—except that instead of pictures that appeal to us, they’re crowded with pictures that torment and terrify us. I call these nightmare boards.

Your nightmare board, curated, assembled, and prominently displayed by your inner Fang, contains images of everything that frightens and upsets you, including all your most hideously painful experiences. Fang is continuously adding new pictures to the board and lovingly retouching the old ones.

Here’s a radical assignment: Make your nightmare board real. Glue up some actual images of every frightening thought that haunts you. But don’t stop there. When you’re finished, you’re going to make another board. This new board must contain three or more images that contradict every picture on the nightmare board. For example, if your nightmare board shows a devastating oil spill, your vision board might feature three photographs of people tenderly swabbing oil-coated ducks. For every image of violence, come up with three examples of loving kindness; for every crisis, find three beautiful, ordinary moments of calm.

When you’re finished, ceremoniously shred, burn, or otherwise trash Fang’s nightmare board. Then put your wisdom board where you can see it. Focusing on hope in a world of fear isn’t naive. It’s the irrational essence of wisdom.

Exercise 3: Vocab Rehab

Take ten minutes and write a description of your life—stream of consciousness, no self-judgment, no editing. Then go over your description, looking for every word that carries frightening or painful associations. These words have more power than you might think. Studies show that after focusing on words having to do with aging, people walk more slowly; when they see words associated with anger, they’re more likely to be rude.

This phenomenon is called affective priming, but it works both ways. You can use it to connect with your inner wisdom by changing every stressful word in your self-description to something more freeing, relaxing, or exhilarating. If you wrote “I’m nervous,” see whether “I’m excited” may also fit. The word unsure could be replaced by open. As you change your story, Fang’s voice will begin to soften, and the peace that comes from your wiser inner voice will begin to arise.

Practice Makes Permanent

All these exercises can divert your attention from bossy, self-righteous Fang and help you appreciate the brilliance of your inner Buddy. Wisdom will never be the loud, obvious one in this odd couple. It will never shout down its opposition or barge in uninvited. But each time you choose wisdom as your adviser, you come closer to making the choice a way of life. Trust me, that’s advice you want to take.

Foul Play

Gould_Wild_turkeyIn 1666 a Dutch physicist noticed that two pendulums mounted on the same board always ended up swinging at the same rate. He called this “entrainment.” It affects any oscillation, including breathing, heartbeats, brain waves, and turkeys.

Yep. Turkeys.

Yesterday I decided to meditate on my front porch.  As I settled in, a large delegation of wild turkeys scurried up the road that leads to my bird feeder. They do this every morning, like commuters, so I barely noticed them. I was using the mantra, “I am infinite stillness.” As I repeated this, feeling all spaced out and blissed, I opened my eyes to see that the turkeys had stopped in front of me.

They stood absolutely, unnaturally still. Not a feather moved, not a toe, not a head. I’ve never seen turkeys behave this way. I kept meditating, and not one turkey moved AT ALL for over five minutes (I clocked it). Then I counted them (there were 21). As I counted, they all suddenly began moving again. Counting had taken me out of stillness. So I went back into meditation. All 21 turkeys lay down, limp as opium smokers, until I finished meditating. Then they resumed their usual speed-walk to the bird feeder.

It’s great, quirky, subversive fun to experiment with entrainment. When you get reeeeeaallly calm, it reeeeeeaally calms everything around you. And what most everyone wants is to feel reeeeeaally calm.

At peace. 
At one. 

You are the master of the energy you radiate. You always have a choice. Don’t fall into resonance with some random person who’s feeling lost and scared (as most humans do, most of the time). Be the peace you wish to see in the world, and watch the turkeys in your life—both literal and metaphoric—join the stillness. (Insert Thanksgiving joke of your choice here.)

Lame Animal Totem: The Tick

woodtickYou never know when Tick will enter your life, so undress carefully and check all your crevices as soon as possible after reading this. When Tick does crawl up your pant leg and into your life, rest assured that this totem animal will help you take advantage of others while inspiring revulsion in all you encounter.

Tick energy is intrusive, draining, and waaaaaay too intimate. Let it inspire you to show up at the homes of friends you barely know, asking to stay for an indefinite period. Eat their food, borrow their clothes, and follow them into the bathroom to tell them long stories about the bad things done to you by your ex-spouse. Whine. Wheedle. Attach yourself. Tick energy will give you all the inspiration you need.

If your spirit animal is Tick, you already know how to sink your mouth parts into a juicy situation, whether it’s a pyramid scheme that sells automatic buttock massagers to the elderly, or a naïve lottery winner whose money you’ve volunteered to manage. As you enjoy your Tick magic, be aware that you are genuinely disgusting. Also, avoid people with matches and pets with those special collars. You are already living on borrowed time.

Periodically, I’ll be sharing the animal totems you wish you knew more about: the marginalized, the disrespected, nay I say, the lame. You’ll learn the illuminating messages they hold for you. You’re welcome. ~Martha

Yes? No? Maybe? How to Make Decisions

_DSC6293“I’ve got to commit to this relationship or end it,” said Tessa, sounding a little desperate. “I can’t go one more day without making the decision.” It was clear that she really meant this…just as she had the first time I heard her say it, eight years earlier.

Tessa is prone to ambivalence, a torturous condition that simultaneously pulls and crushes us between incompatible alternatives. Though it can make us say laughably absurd things (“I’ve known for eight years that this can’t go on one more day!”), ambivalence feels anything but funny. If you tend toward indecision or face a problem with a number of equally good solutions, it can help to be reminded that you may have more options than you think possible. 

Option One: Do Nothing

If you’re feeling intransigently ambivalent, it might pay to formally accept what’s already happening—that is, decide not to decide. Here are three ways to take the pressure off yourself to make a choice right this second.

  1. Refocus. Stop thinking about the problem by thinking about something else. Read a book. Feed the homeless. Learn French. You’d be amazed what you can do with the energy you once put into fretting. If a decision is absolutely necessary, change will eventually push you off the fence. Tessa, for example, will stay in her relationship until it becomes unbearable or her boyfriend leaves her or they die in a hail of satellite debris, or whatever—whether Tessa continues to agonize or focuses on more interesting pursuits.
  2. Delegate. Officially give someone else authority to make the choice, as you might pay a skydiving instructor to push you out of an airplane or an organization expert to trash the objects clogging your home. Warning: When the moment of decision comes, you’ll disagree, rationalize, possibly weep. So make sure your adviser is both honorable and utterly ruthless.
  3.  Research. Indecision may come from an instinctive hunch that there’s more you need to know—which means it’s time to learn everything you can about the pros and cons of each option. You can continue on this track, however, only as long as you’re unearthing genuinely new information. The moment your research becomes reiterative, you’ll need to go to Option Two.

Option Two: Do Anything

I often make ambivalent clients play that game where you find a hidden object by following the clues “You’re getting warmer” and “You’re getting colder.” Ditherers often stop dead in their tracks and start asking questions: “Where is it?” “Is it under something?” “Can I look up?” These are smart people and the game is extremely simple, but my waffling clients manage to find the one possible way to lose at it: not moving.

The reason I make my clients search my office for a pen, a coffee cup, or my elderly, immobile beagle is because many of us do this with major life decisions. I want to go back to school, but what if I ruin my career? That’s a nice house, but what if it burns down? Instead of asking whether one option makes us feel “warmer” (as in happier) or “colder” (unhappier or generally squashed by the universe), we may ponder such questions for ten, 12, 50 years…then, boom! A quail-hunting expedition or liposuction procedure goes awry, and the only determination left is whether we’d prefer to spend the future in a coffin or an urn.

If you’re waiting for the Right Answer to end all uncertainty, look no further: The answer to every “what if” question (which I got from a fabulous teacher named Nancy Whitworth, who got it from her special-needs students) is “som’n else.” What will you do if you make the wrong choice? Som’n else. If you lose your job? Som’n else. If your fiancé stomps your heart into a pulsating pancake? Som’n else. Using this principle, we can formulate a complete guide to life:

  1. Do anything.
  2. See if you feel warmer (happier, more alive) or colder (more miserable and dead) if you do X.
  3. If it feels colder, do som’n else.
  4. Repeat as necessary.

Some people, however, are too baffled to use this method. For them doing nothing is intolerable and doing any old thing is overwhelming, but they have one option left. My favorite. 

Option Three: Do Something Completely Different

No problem, said Einstein, can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. Then he resolved ambivalent aspects of Newtonian physics by figuring out relativity. Intense uncertainty may be a sign that a problem is pushing us toward a new level of consciousness. Instead of choosing one of two options, we may squirt sideways, like a pinched watermelon seed, into an entirely different way of seeing.

Zen masters force this to happen by requiring students to meditate on baffling queries called koans. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “What did you look like before your mother and father were born?” The masters insist that students answer such unanswerable questions, deliberately causing severe ambivalence. Why? Because this is the path to something called satori, an experience of the mind suddenly sidestepping its usual level of consciousness, recognizing its own limitations.

For instance, I once spent years studying role conflict in American women. Our culture has created two almost irreconcilable descriptions of a “good woman.” The first is the individual achiever; the second, the self-sacrificing domestic goddess. I found that women fell into one of four categories: those who’d chosen career (and were very conflicted); those who put family first (and were very conflicted); those who’d combined work and family (and were very, very conflicted); and mystics.

Mystics? Where the hell did that category come from? It was so unexpected that I did years of interviews without even noticing that the calmest, happiest women had all experienced a kind of satori: Faced with two mutually contradictory options, they had discovered and come to trust an intensely personal inner voice. Each had found some method of detaching utterly from social context, connecting deeply with inner peace, and carrying that peace with them back into their hectic lives.

Practical Steps to Satori

If you are now facing a confounding choice, congratulations. Your life, that crafty old Zen teacher, is lining you up for your next satori. A silent meditation retreat might help. Can’t go to one? No worries; ambivalence will bring one to you. You’ll sit sleepless, hour after hour, staring at nothing through red-rimmed eyes that see no satisfactory answer.

Once you get really sick of this, you’ll be motivated enough to take a tiny vacation from doubt and fear. Just for a few minutes, stop trying to solve the problem and relax into trust: Trust in the process, in your true self, in God, in the scientific method, in any force you hope may be strong enough to hold you, ambivalence and all, for even a little while. It is in moments of surrender, following terrible vacillations, that quietly earth-shattering revolutions occur.

I can’t tell you when or how your satori will arrive. All I can tell you is that if you keep struggling with ambivalence, then relaxing, then struggling again, resolution will come. You may invent a solution no one’s ever seen. You may realize that not deciding—ever—is perfectly okay. Or you’ll feel free to do anything at all, and then do som’n else. The alternative you select will be inconsequential next to the realization that your frustration came not from a difficult choice but from the way you thought you had to choose.

Life is full of tough decisions, and nothing makes them easy. But the worst ones are really your personal koans, and tormenting ambivalence is just the sense of satori rising. Try, trust, try, and trust again, and eventually you’ll feel your mind change its focus to a new level of understanding. The problem that was tearing you apart will suddenly appear as a little puzzle, already solved. It will make you nod, or smack your forehead, or roll your eyes. It will make you laugh right out loud. 

Make Your Own Pocket Eden

220px__lesser_goldfinch_1I’ve written a lot of delirious prose about my experiences in Africa, and in my new home where the back yard is a national forest. If I could, I would take everyone to these gorgeous places that restore my spirit. It frustrates me that I can’t. Recently, however, I’ve found a spot as wondrous and magical as any safari I’ve ever taken—and this one you can replicate, if you want. I highly recommend it.

Here’s what I did: I put a bird feeder and a little fountain outside my bedroom window. I face that window when I meditate. While I’m supposed to be watching Nothing, I sometimes realize that I’ve become enthralled by the miniature ecosystem outside.

I especially love a family of tiny Lesser Goldfinches who couldn’t care less about an ordinary birdbath, but love to bathe in running water. I am not kidding; these little yellow puffballs love bathing like drug abusers love crack. They shiver with joy, lowering themselves into the water and fluffing their feathers with pleasure so obvious it would get them arrested in some states (not California). Each time I see this, it makes me deeply, absurdly happy.

I’m going on about this because I’m pretty sure you could make this experience, or something like it, happen for yourself.  If there’s even the tiniest space—a window ledge, a planter box—where you could invite nature in, do it. Then sit still long enough to see wild things discover and enjoy what you’ve offered them.

I could quote studies showing that this will do fantastic things for your physical and mental health. But I’d rather just have you go look outside, maybe scatter some birdseed, and let the wild things come and tell you themselves. 

P.S.— Watch my home video of the tiny goldfinches frolicking in the bath above. Then, click on the picture below to see how my oneness with the tiny birds manifested the first-ever appearance of an eagle (captured by a nature camera on a different part of my ranch).