Demolish Your Definition of Self and Other Wisdom from Martha Beck

Flower Pic for March General Newsletter InsightThe Fourth Task to Bewilderment: Follow Love

This month we’ve reached the fourth of our Bewilderment Tasks! If you have no idea what this means, you’re already bewildered and may be excused—or read my last three newsletters,* which cover the first three Tasks. But if you’ve been following along, you know that Bewilderment is a re-awakening of the wild essential self, and that the Tasks are practices for encouraging this awakening.

My favorite deceased Indian dude, Nisargadatta Maharaj, once said, “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I look around and see that I am everything, that is love.” Task Four is about connecting with the world so intimately that you experience everything as your true self. As you practice the first three Tasks, you’ll be living more fearlessly, honestly, and fluidly. Now your wild side will begin pushing you—sometimes subtly, sometimes overwhelmingly—to begin connecting with other beings and including them in your definition of self.

Task Four is simply to let yourself follow this impulse toward love whenever you feel it. This very moment, your heart is turning toward certain people, places, and experiences the way a flower turns toward the sun. It wants you to reach out and connect: write an email, offer help, give someone a moment of your attention. So do it.

Today, as on many days, Task Four took me outside to meditate under a tree with bird seed sprinkled across my lap. Every time a bird or chipmunk hopped onto my knees and gazed into my face, I fell in love. That’s the reward you get for practicing Task Four: the heart-opening connection with the parts of you that you haven’t yet recognized as parts of you. It will demolish your definition of self, because that’s wisdom, and replace it with the entire universe, because that’s love.

*You may read the first three Tasks described in my newsletters here:

Let Yourself Be Moved and Other Wisdom from Martha Beck

Insight-Pic-for-Feb-NewsletterThe Third Task for Bewilderment:
Let Yourself Be Moved

Lately we’ve been discussing the Tasks of Bewilderment, a series of exercises designed to help you become your wild self. Task One is Calm Down. Task Two is Don’t Swallow Poison (anything, from a food to a belief, that makes you ill). If you’ve mastered these two tasks, your life is already better than most.

People often protest, “But if I’m not acting out of fear and obligation, I’ll just sit around licking butter right off the dish.” Actually, once fear and poison are out of our energy, we begin to move like Luke Skywalker trusting the Force. Enlightened people say they watch as some benevolent energy does things, efficiently and effectively, through their bodies. Learning to let yourself be moved this way is the Third Task for Bewilderment.

To practice, take 10 minutes to sit or lie down. Relax completely, allowing your body to feel whatever it’s feeling. Should your body begin to move in any way, allow that too. If you’re tired, you may simply fall asleep. If you’re repressing emotion, you may begin to laugh, cry, or shake. Allow it all. If you feel energetic, try standing, hands to your sides, and waiting for your body to move in any way it wants.

It feels very strange when your body begins to walk without your conscious intention. It freaked me out at first, but now I’m not surprised even when I break into a hard sprint, which happens fairly often. I never get creaky or breathless when my body runs this way. It’s kind of spooky—and very, very fun.

To keep your mind from taking over, make sure no one’s watching. Don’t force or judge anything your body does. Just allow.

Practice this Task every day, and you’ll begin to feel weirdly…how can I put this…assisted. Things will get done more quickly and easily. Inspiration will begin to flow. It won’t work if you’re stuck in fear or poisonous beliefs, so make sure you keep up Tasks One and Two. Write and tell us what you end up doing-without-doing, and stay tuned for Task Four next month!

Lame Animal Totem: Lungfish

The lungfish is an African creature with awesome skills. In dry times it digs into the mud, encases itself in a hardened mucous shell, and lowers its metabolism to 

almost nothing. It can stay that way for up to four years, reviving and emerging when rain finally arrives. Occasionally people make bricks out of the mud, and on rainy nights newly-awakened lungfish start slithering out of their walls. Altogether charming!

Use Lungfish’s spiritual essence to help you spend most of your time totally lacking in ambition or motivation, thrashing around at rare intervals just barely enough to survive. Lungfish energy will help you encase yourself during your periods of lethargy, though instead of hardened mucous, your “shell” will be made of emotional numbness, or possibly aluminum foil. Call on Lungfish to help you pop out of nowhere into the lives of long-lost lovers and childhood friends, shouting, “Hi! I’m here to spawn!” Just like Lungfish, you’ll leave memories that never fade, even with the help of pharmaceuticals.

Check out our Lungfish friends here:

Mirror, Mirror: The Power of Perseveration

mirror-mirror-on-the-wall-1436523I have the most fabulous conversations when I’m alone. Driving, exercising, flossing my teeth, I offer opinions and advice that would change the world, if only the people I’m talking to were actually there. One day I’ll laser-focus on a particular client, telling her exactly how to dump her awful boyfriend and develop some self-esteem. The next day I’ll masterfully elucidate how a friend should raise his children, or help the president better handle the media. So great are my powers of persuasion that I can go back in time, intercept Virginia Woolf as she heads out to drown herself, and help her resolve her issues so she wants to live, live, live! Also make her subsequent novels a little less weird!

I think most people engage in this sort of mono mano a mano from time to time. I’ve spent countless hours listening to clients explain what a loved one or coworker needs to hear—so many, in fact, that I finally had to make a formal policy: I don’t coach anyone who isn’t in the room. Yet when a session is over and my clients leave, I frequently go right on coaching them in my head. Recently, I discovered a way to turn these hypocritical solo conversations into a self-improvement tool. I find it surprisingly powerful. I’m hoping you will, too.

Mirror, Mirror

Psychologists call it perseverating: “To repeat or prolong an action, thought, or utterance after the stimulus that prompted it has ceased.” Our subconscious minds cause us to obsess—perseverate—about people who mirror something in ourselves that needs our attention. I often marvel as clients bewail the very things in others that reflect their own actions. For example:

“I can’t believe my kid has been smoking pot—I’m so upset, I’ve had to double my anxiety medication.”

“My boss is incredibly secretive. It’s so unhealthy—she’s creating a culture of concealment. But don’t tell anyone I said so.”

“I wish I could get my sister to stop tearing herself down. I mean, she’s not a total freaking loser like me.”

From the outside, it’s obvious these statements are masterpieces of self-referential thinking. But when we’re the ones perseverating, we don’t realize we’re looking at human mirrors. So I devised the following exercise, which I call Epistles of Perseveration. It can help puncture denial and make the changes your subconscious mind knows are most important for you, right now.

Step One: Choose A Negative Perseveration Person (NPP)

Think of a person who’s been on your mind, someone whose misdeeds really chap your hide, and who could benefit—but plenty!—from your awesome insight. Get a pencil and paper and prepare to perseverate in print.

Step Two: Unleash Your Inner Bitch

I first tried this on a day when my mind was a storm of advice for an acquaintance I’ll call Glinda. Since trying to confine my inner judgmental bitch wasn’t working, I decided to let her burn off some energy on paper. At the top of a notebook page, I wrote, “Dear Glinda, here is what I really think about you in my lowest moments.” Then I scrawled out all the things I’d been trying not to think.

“You’re so two-faced!” I wrote. “You fawn over people until their backs are turned, and then you criticize and undermine them. You’re sneaky and manipulative and insincere. It makes me sick!” Writing this down felt horribly liberating. I could practically hear the hormones gushing from my adrenal glands as I scribbled.

Now it’s your turn. Write a letter to your negative perseveration person—not to send, but to capture the harsh thoughts howling through the darkest caverns of your mind. Enjoy this step; most people do. The next one’s kind of a buzzkill.

Step Three: Change the Name to Stop Protecting the Guilty

Once you’ve fully expressed your thoughts to your NPP, cross out his or her name at the top of your letter. Write in your own. Now read the letter as if it’s written to you—and instead of defending yourself, absorb it the way you’d want your NPP to: thoughtfully, openly, without resistance.

In the case of my rant at Glinda, my hypocrisy was obvious. I hadn’t told the woman I thought she was vilely duplicitous—except when she wasn’t there. In her presence, I was polite. In short, I was being friendly to her face, then attacking her (if only in my mind) behind her back. I was being, in my own words, “sneaky and manipulative and insincere.”

As soon as I realized all that good advice was for me, my perseveration about Glinda turned into a humbling effort to be more honest and consistent in my relationships, with Glinda and everyone else. I almost stopped thinking about her—except as a teacher I could thank for helping me see my own problematic behavior.

When you read your NPP letter, it may be obvious you deserve the very feedback your inner bitch is handing out. If not, look more deeply. For example, if your NPP is a bully but you’re a mild-mannered sort, notice where you’ve allowed yourself to be intimidated; cringing is half the bullying dance, and you may have been dancing it all along. Or if your NPP is fanatically controlling and you’re generally relaxed, notice that you’re trying to control this person’s controlling-ness. If your NPP wastes money and you’re frugal, see where you’ve squandered currencies other than money, such as time or attention (for example, by perseverating).

The wonderful thing about recognizing your own worst traits in your NPP is that your letter will be rich in good advice. By perseverating, you’ve explored all sorts of ways in which your target—that would be you—can do better. In fact, the bitchier you’ve let yourself be, the clearer the instructions.

Step Four: Choose A Positive-Perseveration Person (PPP)

Taking your own negative advice is strong medicine, but for some people the second half of this exercise is even harder to assimilate. Please persist through these last three steps, though, or you’ll miss half the messages from your human mirrors.

For this step, choose a positive-perseveration person—someone you think about in a grateful, admiring, even envious way. Often these people will crop up in your solo conversations, but instead of ranting, you’ll find yourself listening, repeatedly remembering something they said or did.

Not long after composing my letter to Glinda, I visited a dying friend I’ll call Sue. Sue didn’t want to talk; her esophagus was blocked, and although she was receiving fluids via an IV drip, her mouth and throat were terribly dry. I sat beside Sue for half an hour before noticing that my mind was repeating part of a poem from a collection called Thirst, by Mary Oliver: “Don’t worry, sooner or later I’ll be home. / Red-cheeked from the roused wind, / I’ll stand in the doorway / stamping my boots and slapping my hands, / my shoulders / covered with stars.”

I know this poem because I’m mildly obsessed with Oliver’s work, in a way that definitely counts as perseveration. Phrases from her poems often fill my mind like looped recordings, repeating as tenaciously as my advice to NPPs.

To comfort myself as I sat beside Sue, I began silently reciting other Oliver poems (“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.” “And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away / from wherever you are, to look for your soul?”). After a while, though I hadn’t moved or spoken, Sue looked at me, smiled, and whispered, “That feels good.” Then she slowly relaxed and fell asleep.

I took out my notebook, turned to a fresh page, and began to write: “Dear Ms. Oliver, here is what I really think about you in my lowest moments.”

Step Five: Unleash Your Inner Adoring Puppy

I hope you’re following the process here: Choose a PPP—a person you admire and appreciate—and write an absolutely honest letter to him or her. When I do this, I become as worshipful as a rescued pound dog. “Thank you for walking away from busyness to linger in nature,” I wrote to Mary Oliver. “Thank you for finding words to say what silence teaches.” If she’d been there, I would have given her all my chew toys.

Step Six: Again, Change the Name

Once you’ve written to your positive perseveration person, repeat step three: Cross out his or her name and substitute your own. Read your own feedback, absorbing it without resistance, because once again, you were really talking to yourself.

My letter to Mary Oliver stunned me. For years I’ve chastised myself for periodically ignoring e-mails and appointments to disappear into the mountains or the African savanna. But now I saw clearly: My AWOL adventures haven’t been a waste of time! When I travel, I’m hunting and gathering messages that comfort me not only in the hubbub of life but also in the face of death. I’m no Mary Oliver, but something in me has been trying to follow her example.

What does your PPP letter tell you to love within yourself? For which of your attributes are you unconsciously grateful? Whatever you’ve written, now is the time to accept it. Embrace it as you’d want your heroes to embrace your appreciation. You really are that person.

Upon Reflection…

It’s helpful to remember that our subconscious minds continuously seek out human mirrors and hold them up to our conscious awareness. Looking deeply at our own “reflections” expands our awareness of our worst qualities (so we can correct them) and our best (so we can enhance them). Perseveration letters can transform your solitary conversations into powerful dialogues, because the person you’re talking to—you—starts to hear. And when that happens, in small but deeply significant ways, your good advice really does begin to change the world.

The Next Step to Bewilderment…And Other Wisdom from Martha

jan2016Bewilderment Lesson 2:
Don’t Swallow Poison

Last month I invited you to join me in a process I call bewilderment (the effort to be wilder) with a series of simple steps. The first of these, as we saw, is CALM DOWN. The second—my New Year’s resolution for 2016—is DON’T SWALLOW POISON. If you take these first two steps, virtually all the wondrous, magical, fulfilling things you’ve ever hoped for will finally reach you. Yet, of the thousands of folks I’ve coached, only a tiny percentage will even experiment with Step Two.

By “Don’t Swallow Poison” I mean refusing to internalize anything that causes pain, sickness, or extreme distress. We do this pretty well when it comes to food. When I was about five I had stomach flu after eating a lime Popsicle. I’ve never eaten a lime Popsicle since.  Avoidance of nausea is one of the most powerful responses we possess.

It’s weird, then, that most of us continue swallowing thoughts that sicken us, over and over. “Swallowing” thoughts simply means believing them. When we believe a thought that’s wrong for us, our hearts and bodies struggle, retch, and spasm, trying to eject them. It’s not a subtle reaction, yet we grimly keep down our poisonous beliefs by refusing to question them.

“I’m bad.” “I’m ugly.” “I never get it right.” Just hold those thoughts in your mind and feel how sick they make you. I mean physically sick—weak, tired, achy, and vulnerable to stress. Then begin focusing on any evidence that refutes them. “My dog thinks I’m good.” “Some parts of me are beautiful.” “I got a lot of things right today.” Pay attention, and you’ll feel your sickness begin to lessen.

This year, try vowing not to swallow any belief that makes you sick. This isn’t easy. Few people ever try it. But the reward is incalculable: greater ease and joy in everything from sleeping to paying your bills. And if you can use the first two steps even part of the time, you’ll find yourself growing freer and more true to yourself, ready for the next step to be-wilder-ment.

Make Your Mind Part of the Peace…And Other Wisdom from Martha

dec photoRecently I’ve been pondering a process I call “bewilderment”—or, as I like to pronounce it, be-wilder-ment. It’s like enlightenment, but way less ambitious. I figure if we all become a little wilder, a little more present, a little more connected to whatever it is that makes dogs so damn happy, we’ll feel better and do better things. The first step in the bewilderment process, upon which everything else depends, is simple: CALM DOWN.

I had a chance to practice this step when Cloyd, the rattlesnake pictured here, visited my house. My first reaction to Cloyd was a jolt of fear. I sometimes call our reptile brain the “inner lizard,” whose job it is to ensure our survival by making us afraid. But the reptile self might also be snake, like the spiny critters pictured in kundalini yoga. As I regarded Cloyd, it occurred to me that if I could calm the snake inside me, I could probably calm the one on my front porch.

As my fear faded, it became obvious that Cloyd had no intention of attacking me, and would be at a massive disadvantage if he tried. I mean, what if someone took away your arms and legs, then told you to fight a massive creature equipped with limbs, digits, and high technology? Once I moved into this more accurate perspective, it was a simple thing to gently herd Cloyd into the woods, which was what we both wanted.

The whole world functions this way. Real threats do exist, but when we approach life with fear, we see threats in everything, including unconditional love. We puff up in self-defense, which others perceive as aggression. We use violent, extreme words and actions when peaceful attentiveness would work far better.

If you’d like to be-wilder yourself, try this: Whenever you notice that the monologue in your head is fear-based (worrying about the future, belittling yourself, fussing over what others may think) stop, breathe deeply, and switch to a silent loving-kindness meditation, repeating phrases like: “May I be happy. May I be calm. May I feel safe and protected.”

It sounds so simple, because it is. Wild things don’t make speeches, they just notice what’s really in front of them. What’s in front of us is a world where far more goes right than wrong. Think how many things had to go right for you to be reading these words (the survival of our ancestors; the families, food producers, and doctors who kept you and me alive; everyone who invented anything from the alphabet to the smart phone; everything that kept them alive, etc.). Make your mind part of the world’s peace, instead of its fear, and I promise, life will get better and better. And once you’ve calmed down, check back here next month to learn the second step in the bewilderment process!

Chill Out! How to Overcome Burnout

lighting-a-match-1-1245615-1280x1920You wake up almost as tired as when you fell asleep, four hours ago. After hitting the snooze button twice, you stumble to the kitchen and chug a quart of coffee. It doesn’t help. Your face in the mirror looks like the child you might have had with Voldemort. You can barely squeeze into your last-resort “fat pants.” Getting your kids off to school feels like climbing Everest; driving to the job you once loved, an uphill slog to the salt mines. You dread interacting with your coworkers. It’s not that you aren’t a caring, compassionate person; it’s just that you hate everyone.

If this sounds familiar, you may think you’re depressed. But you might be dealing with a subtly different problem: burnout. Scientists differentiate the two, and it’s a crucial distinction. If you confuse burnout with depression and address it only with antidepressants or therapy, you’ll overlook the behavioral changes you must make to restore your depleted physical and hormonal reserves. Left unchecked, burnout can be lethal. So if you’re anywhere between lightly toasted and totally charred, it’s time to chill.

The Biology of Burnout

There’s no specific medical disorder called burnout, but every doctor knows that prolonged stress has negative consequences. One of these is adrenal fatigue, which comes from overstimulating the hormones that fuel high-energy behavior. Initially, it feels fabulous—you can work like Hercules, compensating for exhaustion with adrenaline, caffeine, or straight-up willpower. But eventually your high-activity hormones run low. You slow down while trying to speed up. Illness, memory loss, and accidents replace achievement. Jesse Lynn Hanley, MD, coauthor of Tired of Being Tired, has identified five levels of burnout. See if one fits you.

Driven

You’re working flat-out, in a nonstop blur of accomplishment. You feel you can go on like this forever! You can’t!

Draggin

You’re sucking up sugar and caffeine to fight fatigue, maybe popping over- the-counter sleep aids to help you “sleep faster,” and feeling unpleasantly chubby.

Losing It

You’re definitely tired, visibly plump (or alarmingly preskeletal), and perpetually grumpy. You lie awake nights, thoughts racing, longing for sleep. At work and at home, you’ve developed a charming habit of biting people’s heads off.

Hitting the Wall

You’re racked by aches and pains, gaining (or losing) weight, prone to temper tantrums or crying jags, hard-pressed to remember things like computer passwords or your children’s names.

Burned Out

By now you may have a serious illness (heart disease, an autoimmune disorder) or have been in a car accident. To stay marginally functional, you depend on drugs you obtain either from a shrink who innocently believes you’re just depressed or from a man you know only as “Viper.” Nobody likes you. The silver lining? As Hanley writes, “If you do not die during this stage, there is no place to go but up.”

How to Chill Out

Research burnout on the Internet, and you’ll find a trove of helpful hints like “Learn to manage stress!” and “Live life in balance!” This is like hearing a financial manager tell you, “Have several million dollars!” In contrast, authors like Hanley offer wonderfully detailed instructions. Of course, when you’re burned out it’s hard to read a shampoo bottle, let alone a book. The following abridged advice may help cool the burn.

Chill Principle 1: Become a grazer.

Since burnout often includes weight gain, many people try to eat less as stress levels climb. Yet going hungry can itself be very stressful. And feeding a body infrequently creates the alarm state that encourages fat storage. The solution: Eat more. I don’t mean doughnuts and lattes, though. I mean low-calorie green food that you eat throughout the entire day. Adding food with lots of antioxidants, water, fiber, and other nutrients can calm you and help your body relax. (I favor smoothies made from fruit and leafy veggies—tastier than they sound.) In addition, take daily omega-3 supplements such as fish oil. These healthy substances reduce inflammation, the physiological part of the “flame” that’s burning you out.

Chill Principle 2: Sleep as if your life depends on it.

Some people feel superior when they work around the clock. This is like proudly pouring Tabasco sauce in your eyes. Sleep makes you smarter, better-looking, more creative. It can add years to your life. It does more to improve the long-term quality of that life than money, fancy vacations, or hot sex. Not giving high priority to sleep is, frankly, insane.

Because our culture doesn’t teach this, many people feel they don’t have time to sleep. There are certainly days, even weeks, when this is true. But when sleep deprivation drags into months or years, we’re making choices that sustain it. Because I’ve been all the way to burnout, I’ve become vigilant about getting enough sleep—and I started when I was unemployed and in debt. Exert every ounce of your will and ingenuity to do the same. Hire someone to help with the kids, even if it means living in a smaller house. Refuse to work for bosses who expect frequent all-nighters. Don’t take on tasks that disallow sleep, any more than you’d say yes to a job that deprives you of oxygen.

For “driven” patients, Hanley suggests six to eight hours of sleep each night, with naps as needed. For “dragging” patients: eight hours a night, with one period of relaxation during the day (sitting somewhere quiet, even in a restroom stall, for ten to 15 minutes). If you’re “losing it,” you need eight hours of sleep plus two ten- to 15-minute relaxation breaks. “Hitting the wall” means eight to nine hours each night, plus two breaks. And once you’re “burned out,” you need eight to ten hours of sleep, plus three 15- to 30-minute naps or retreats. Ignore these minimums, and your body will eventually end up lying still anyway—in your bed, a hospital, or the morgue. You choose.

Chill Principle 3: Exercise for fun.

Almost no one ever tells you to exercise less, but if you’re burned out, you should. I fried myself into chronic pain by forcing workouts when my whole body wanted to rest. Ironically, when I began exercising less, I got leaner and fitter. Some exercise helps prevent burnout, but too much, at the wrong time, only turns up the heat.

If you’re “driven,” aim for an hour of vigorous exercise three to five times per week. “Dragging” folks should limit hard exercise to one hour three times a week, or one to three sessions of moderate activity like light yoga. If you’re “losing it,” do three gentle hours a week. “Hitting the wall” calls for 30 gentle minutes one to three times a week. If you’re totally “burned out,” roll over in bed occasionally until you’re stronger.

The key to gauging how much you should exercise is a mysterious thing called fun, which you may remember from childhood. While exercising, ask yourself, Is this fun? If running isn’t fun, walk. If walking isn’t fun, sit. If even that feels wearisome, take a nap. Your body-mind fun barometer is sophisticated and accurate. Use it.

Chill Principle 4: Unplug heaters, plug in coolers.

Make a list of all the people with whom you regularly interact. Next, list environments you inhabit—your office, your car, rooms in your home. Finally, list your usual activities, from relaxation (ha-ha! just kidding!) to laundry to office meetings. Now imagine each item separately while noticing how your body reacts. Tension, jaw-clenching, or churning are signs you’re plugged into a heater. Muscle relaxation, spontaneous smiles, sighs of relief show you’re chilling.

You may not be able to eliminate the “heaters” from your life, but you can—and must—unplug from them every few hours and plug into “coolers” instead. Detach from your sick child, even for a few minutes, to call a healthy friend. Stop doing paperwork and read a novel for 20 minutes. Leave all technology and reconnect with nature—petting puppies, walking in the park—whenever possible.

Chill Principle 5: Practice peace.

I love watching TV cooking contests where grown adults go into full-scale hysterics over things like overboiled pasta. Since I’m not a foodie, I find it hilarious when people sacrifice their peace of mind to the Cuisine Gods. On the other hand, when my computer recently contracted a virus, sending early drafts of work instead of the final draft, my head nearly exploded like a popcorn kernel.

The fact is, all of us can eat soft pasta, correct computer errors, even fight an illness—in panic or in peace. But choosing peace doesn’t just happen; it’s a skill that takes regular practice to master. Choose and use such a practice, whether it’s prayer or simply clearing your mind. Though you may never reach Yoda-level equanimity, devoting even five minutes a day to telling yourself I am all right in this moment builds increasingly effective air-conditioning into your body and mind.

I’ve been to the bleary-eyed burnout stage, and I’m here to attest that these simple suggestions work. They aren’t difficult. Today, start grazing. Lie down for ten minutes and just breathe. Unplug from the chaos of life long enough to connect with whatever calms you. Tonight, choose to sleep; finishing that project or supervising that homework isn’t worth your health, and you’ll do it faster when you’re rested, anyway. In fact, everything works better when you stop playing Joan of Arc. Refuse to burn. Claim the time it takes to be happy. Everything you value will benefit as you learn to keep your cool.

Make the Madness a Game…Wisdom from Martha

goatThis holiday season, I won’t get into the knicker-twisting anxiety and exasperation that once plagued my holidays. No interpersonal conflict, no traffic jam, no decorating disaster will get my goat. I may get all the way through January with my goat entirely ungotten. Is this because I am an enlightened being? No. Is it because I am a patient and loving person? No.

It is because I’ll be playing Bingo.

If you’re in the Tribe, you’re probably familiar with Dysfunctional Family Bingo. The rules are simple: before the holidays, make or download a blank Bingo form (click here to download the special bingo card we use).

In each of the blank squares, write a brief description of something that virtually always happens to screw up your life during the holiday season. In one square you might write, “My kids have a screaming meltdown in the minivan.” In another, “My brother brings up the time I broke his Christmas present, 67 years ago.” In still another, “Mom asks me if I’ve considered Weight Watchers.” These may not be your issues, but you know what they are. Oh, yes—you know.

Once you’ve filled out all your squares, carry your Bingo card everywhere with you, along with your cell phone (if “I lose my cell phone” is in one of your squares, you may have to borrow someone else’s when it happens). Each time an event on your Bingo square actually happens, you get to mark off that square. Snap a picture of your event, or the immediate aftermath as evidence (you can later make a dysfunctional art piece by gluing these photos into the Bingo squares and framing the card. Print off several as holiday gifts for next year!).

When you’ve filled in a whole row, horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, you have Bingo! Snap a photo and post your winning cards on my Facebook page.

Seriously, this project will take you out of harried-holiday mind mode and put you into a peaceful observer’s brain state, making the madness a genuine game. And this year we’re all playing together, which is even more fun. So good luck, and happy happy holidays!

Post a picture of your bingo card, and hashtag it #bingomartha, or if you need to be on the down low, simply pop into the bathroom during your shindig, take a selfie of you reenacting your facial expression when uncle Ned passed gas at the table, and post it with #bingomartha.

How to Survive Life’s Rough Patches

"Long and Rough Road" by CT M is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Long and Rough Road” by CT M is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“What is happening to my life?” said Dorothy, exhaustedly sipping a triple espresso across the table from me. “Did I do something to deserve this?”

By “this,” Dorothy meant a series of crises that had recently hit her like a gang of meth-crazed prizefighters. Her husband had filed for divorce—a week after she lost her job, the same day she was diagnosed with diabetes. Then her best friend moved away. Now Dorothy was caring for both her aging parents while paying a divorce lawyer way more than she (or her retirement account) could afford. “I’m not sure I can go on,” she told me. “Why is all this happening at once?”

“Well,” I said, “according to probability theory, random events can run in streaks. It’s like patterned disorder, and in nature it creates beautiful things.”

Dorothy looked as though I’d poured mouse droppings into her coffee. “That’s your explanation? My screwed-up life is just beautifully random?”

“It’s the most rational explanation,” I said. “It’s not my explanation.”

“What is?”

I shrugged. “I think you’ve hit a rumble strip.”

Then I laid out for Dorothy what I’ll now lay out for you, just in case your own current luck makes Job look like a lottery winner. I don’t know why catastrophes sometimes come in clusters. But experience and observation have convinced me that these patches of awfulness may be purposeful and, in the end, benevolent. If you’ve had a run of horrible luck, you can tell yourself you’re being tortured or punished. Or you can decide you’re being steered.

Life Is a Highway

Imagine that your true self is your essential consciousness, the part of you that still feels what it was like to be you ten years ago, even though most of the atoms in your physical body have been replaced since then. Suppose you set out to experience the adventure of human life by inhabiting your body. And that this essential you sees your life as an epic road trip. Destination: inner wisdom, love, and joy.

Now let’s suppose you forgot this destiny at birth. In its place you created a mental map of the life route you preferred—passing through good health, perfect romance, and professional success on the way to a cheery, painless death (say, being struck by a meteorite while bicycling at the age of 110).

Unfortunately, your essential self very probably has in mind a stranger and more exciting road, featuring spooky tunnels, scary precipices, and sharp curves. Which means your destiny isn’t at all what you think you want. Which means that as you drive along the road of life, there will be times when your essential self plans to turn even though you most certainly do not.

Behold the Rumble Strip

If you’re paying attention to your environment, relaxing and following the road, detours from your mental map may be unnerving but not catastrophic. Maybe you planned to become a dentist and marry your high school boyfriend, only to realize that (1) you hate staring into other people’s mouths, and (2) you actually prefer women. So you quit dental school, break up with Mr. Wrong, and find work and love that suit your innate preferences.

Or not. This is a best-case scenario, and such scenarios virtually never happen.

What virtually always happens is that when destiny swerves, we proceed straight ahead. We step on the gas, ignoring the fact that we feel trapped in the dead relationship, stifled by the secure job. We go blind to the landscape and the road signs, steering by our assumptions about what life should be, as unaware of those assumptions as a sleeping driver is of her unconsciousness.

Et voilà: rumble strip.

Suddenly, everything’s shaking, jolting, falling apart. We have no idea what’s happening or why, only that all hell has broken loose. It gets worse and worse—until we wake up, see through our false assumptions to the deeper truth of our situation, and revise our life maps. This isn’t punishment. It’s enlightenment dressed as chaos.

My Rumble Strip

I hit my first rumble strip while driving hell-for-leather toward my third Harvard degree. In six memorable months, I was almost killed in a car accident, in a high-rise fire, and by a violent autoimmune reaction to an accidental pregnancy. I had incessant nausea. And fibromyalgia. And lice. By the time the baby was diagnosed with Down syndrome, I was pretty much done for.

It took all that to shatter my core assumption: that achievement and intellect gave my life its value. Only after my world seemed to completely fall apart did I learn the lesson my true self needed me to learn: that no brass ring is worth a damn compared with the one thing that makes life worth living—love. Duh. You’d think I’d have figured that out earlier. There were signs absolutely everywhere. But until my first rumble strip shook me awake, I never even noticed them.

I’ve had other streaks of awful “luck” since, but none has ever caused as much suffering. That’s because I’ve developed a rumble-strip coping strategy. If your own luck seems weirdly cursed, try this:

Navigating Rumble Strips

STEP 1: Hit the brakes.

When Dorothy told me over coffee that she wasn’t sure she could go on, I secretly rejoiced—not because I wanted her to suffer, but because I didn’t.

“Yup,” I said, trying not to sound smug. “The rumble strip is telling you to stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Everything,” I told her. “Except what’s necessary to survive. Eat. Sleep. Go to the bathroom. Make sure your children, pets, and sick parents eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. If that’s beyond you, ask for help. Not forever. Just for now.”

This time Dorothy looked as though I’d asked her to stab a baby panda, but she was too exhausted to argue. That was a good thing. When you feel so beaten down that you can’t sustain normal activities, it’s time to stop trying. Surrender, Dorothy.

STEP 2: Put your mind in reverse.

From a place of minimal functioning, you can back off the rumble strip—by reversing the assumptions that steered you onto it in the first place. These key assumptions are clearly marked with intense negative emotions: fear, anger, sadness. Such feelings are big red WRONG WAY signs. Back away from them.

To help Dorothy do this, I asked her which, of all her tribulations, was causing her the most pain. Topping her very long list was the thought “My marriage has failed.” So that’s where we began shifting Dorothy’s mind into reverse.

“Give me three reasons your marriage actually didn’t fail,” I said.

“But it did!” Dorothy muffled a sob.

“Well, was any part of it good?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Did you learn from it?”

“I learned so much,” said Dorothy.

“And is every learning experience that comes to an end a failure?” I asked. “Like school, or childhood, or life?”

“Well, no.”

Dorothy paused, thinking. Then her shoulders relaxed just a little. Ta-da! She’d begun reversing a painful assumption.

To be clear, I wasn’t trying to minimize Dorothy’s pain or plaster a creepy happy face over her legitimate sorrow. I only wanted her to alter her beliefs enough to catch a glimpse of a different road, where a marriage could succeed as a soul adventure even if it didn’t last forever.

Try throwing your mind into reverse right now. Think of the worst, most hurtful thing that’s happening in your life. Now think of a way this horrible thing might be good. The more rigidly you hold on to your assumptions, the harder this process will be. But with practice you’ll improve—and trust me, it’s so worth the effort. When life gets rumbly, being able to reverse an assumption turns out to be the handiest skill imaginable.

STEP 3: Find and follow smooth terrain.

Because rumble strips are one of the few experiences that will make sensible people hire a life coach, I’ve been privy to hundreds of them. And I’ve noticed a very consistent pattern: At the point when someone sees through a false assumption, the road of life suddenly turns smooth. Instead of crazy bad luck, bits of strangely good luck start showing up. They’re small at first, inconspicuous. Never mind—slather them with attention. Your attention is what steers your life, and it’s much more pleasant to steer by focusing on the good stuff.

In Dorothy’s case, the moment she reversed her assumption that divorce always means failure, the waitress brought her a cupcake, said, “On the house,” and walked away. Later that afternoon, Dorothy found an abandoned New York Times unfolded to an article titled “The Good Divorce,” which helped and encouraged her. Then she ran into a former boyfriend she hadn’t seen in years. During their brief interaction, he told her how much he still respected her, and how valuable their “failed” relationship still was to him.

Little miracles like this will begin happening to you whenever you turn toward your right life, even if you’re in the middle of a rumble strip. If you stop everything you think you should be doing, surrender to what’s actually happening, reverse your assumptions, and steer toward the glimmers of light that appear as your old beliefs shatter, the small miracles will turn into big ones. Eventually, your good luck will seem as incredible and mysterious as your bad. Once more you’ll be asking, “Did I do something to deserve this?” Only this time, the question will arise from a sense of overwhelming gratitude, not overwhelming pain.

By the way, the answer to that question is yes. You did do something to deserve this. You had the courage to keep traveling the precarious road of life. You deserve to be guided. And rewarded. And, when all else fails, rumbled.

The Village Where You’ll Thrive…Wisdom from Martha

village buildingA bunch of us coaches gathered recently to run workshops for some corporate friends (you know who you are, folks, and it was a joy to have you here). Afterward we gathered in a circle under a big tree to share everything we’d learned from our coaching. We got fixated on the concept of “village building.”

We’re living in the time of gathering, when individualism—summed up in the phrase “self help”—doesn’t work as well as helping one another. Villages are forming within larger societies through long-distance travel and communication. For instance, I think of my website and social media platforms as a village where you all can meet, communicate, and offer mutual support.

So how do you build a village that serves and helps you? We ended up concluding that there are four components. (For you coaches, these phases map to the four squares of change.) First, a village must help each person live his or her best destiny (we call this “coaching”). Second, we need a sense of purpose and numinous meaning (we coaches call this “the woo woo.”). Third, we need common endeavor—shared acts of pragmatic service (Horse coaching, anyone?). Fourth, we need chances to share abundance, celebrate, and maximize joy (Welcome to the meet ‘n’ greet, tribemates!).

If you’re not a coach and don’t yet have a village, here’s how to get one: live in absolute integrity. As we “Integrity Cleanse” folks are learning, being absolutely honest tends to repel people who don’t like your true self and attract those who do. Integrity will always take you to the village where you’ll thrive best.

We coaches got very excited about this under the big tree at the ranch. Then, when we drove to town, we saw this weird little sign in the middle of nowhere that said, “Village Building Workshops.” Always nice to get a sign. So welcome to our village! I hope you stay, but if you don’t, I urge you to go out and build a village of your own.