Loving Your Inner Pup

pupThe other day I heard something that hit me like a wrecking ball. Along the coast of California, thousands of baby sea lions are dying. The herring their mothers live on have disappeared, so the mothers had no choice but to leave their babies to starve.

Not long  after hearing this, I had the extreme good fortune of speaking with Byron Katie, who I believe to be a fully enlightened being, and whose work has literally kept me alive (check her out on YouTube if you don’t know about her yet).

“I use the tools you teach, Katie,” I told her. “I question all my thoughts. But I can’t get over the sea lion pups. No matter how hard I try, this makes me so sad.”

And Katie said, in the calmest, most untroubled voice imaginable, “Well, sweetheart, why don’t we start by helping the one pup who’s here right now?”

I came unglued, of course. I’d been trying to embody the pain of ten thousand starving mothers and babies, thinking that somehow this might help. (Right. Because that always works.) The pain had closed me up in a “protective” shell of fear and hopelessness. Katie’s words broke the shell. There it was again, that thing that keeps catching me whenever I fall: Infinite love. Grace. Comfort.

I’ll do what little I can to help to the sea lions. And the polar bears. And the pups of every kind, everywhere. And the human beings suffering various forms of misery all over the planet. But to do so, I have to return, over and over again, to the simple act of allowing kindness to touch my own broken heart. When we do this, possibility and healing replace despair and paralysis.

Today I put out water for the animals who are suffering from drought in my own neck of the woods. I encouraged a sad friend. I let myself believe that though we’re always dying, we’re held by something bigger than death. Right now. Always.

Try it. Give love and comfort to the starving pup inside you. Then let the love and comfort guide any action you take. It’s a simple little practice. It might not save the world. But then again, it might.

Photo courtesy of FerrF

Landing in Love: Falling into Intimacy Without Resistance

1414578_36595743Psychologists tell us we’re born afraid of just two things. The first is loud noises. Do you recall the second? Most people guess “abandonment” or “starvation,” but neonatal dread was simpler than that: It was the fear of falling. Today we all have a much richer array of consternations, but I’ll bet falling is still on your list. Why give up the prudent concern that brought your whole genetic line into the world clutching anything your tiny fists could grab? Fear of falling is your birthright!

Perhaps that’s why most of us, at least some of the time (and some of us most of the time), are frightened by another deeply primal experience: intimacy. Allowing yourself to become emotionally close is the psychological equivalent of skidding off a cliff; hence the expression “falling in love.” This gauzy phrase usually describes a sexual connection. But love has infinite variations that can swallow the floor from under your feet at any moment. You’re securely installed in a relationship, marching through life, keeping your nasal hairs decently trimmed. Then boom! You hear a song and know that the composer has seen into your soul. Or you wake up, bleary with jet lag, in a city you’ve never seen before and feel you’ve come home. Or the wretched little mess of a kitten you just saved from drowning begins to purr in your arms. Suddenly—too late—you realize that your heart has opened like a trapdoor, and you’re tumbling into a deep, sweet abyss, thinking, ‘God, this is wonderful! God, this is terrible!’

The next time this happens, here’s a nice, dry, scientific fact to dig your toes into: The sensation you’re feeling is probably associated with decreased activity in the brain region that senses our bodies’ location in the physical world. When this zone goes quiet, the boundary between “self” and “not self” disappears. It isn’t just that we feel close to the object of our affection; perceiving ourselves as separate isn’t an option. Some being that was Other now matters to us as much as we matter to ourselves. Yet we have no control over either the love or the beloved.

The horror! The horror!

We focus attention on stories about people, from Othello and Huckleberry Finn to the lusty physicians on Grey’s Anatomy, who trip into versions of intimacy (passion, friendship, parental protectiveness) they can neither escape nor manage. These stories teach us why we both fear and long for intimacy, and why our ways of dealing with it are usually misguided. Two of these methods are so common, they’re worth a warning here.

Bad Idea #1: Guard Your Heart

There’s an old folktale about a giant who removes his own heart, locks it in a series of metal boxes, and buries the whole conglomeration. Thereafter, his enemies can stab or shoot him, but never fatally. Of course, he also loses the benefits of having a heart, such as happiness. The giant sits around like Mrs. Lincoln grimly trying to enjoy the play, until he’s so miserable he digs up his heart and stabs it himself.

This grisly parable reminds us that refusing to love is emotional suicide. Yet many of us fight like giants to guard ourselves from intimacy, boxing up our hearts in steel-hard false beliefs. “I’m unlovable” is one such lockbox. “Everyone wants to exploit me” is another. Then there’s “I shouldn’t feel that” and “I have to follow the rules,” etc. Whatever your own heart-coffins may be, notice that they’re ruining your happiness, not preserving it. As poet Mary Oliver puts it,

Listen, are you breathing just a little,
and calling it a life?…
For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?
Fall in! Fall in!

If you’ve buried your heart to keep it from hurting, you’re hurting. You’re also in dire danger of using Bad Idea #2.

Bad Idea #2: Control Your Beloved

“If you don’t love me, I’ll kill myself. If you stop loving me, I’ll kill you.” Some people believe such statements are expressions of true intimacy. Actually, they’re weapons of control, which destroy real connection faster than you can say “restraining order.” Though few of us are this radically controlling, we often use myriad forms of manipulation and coercion. We can say, “Sure, whatever makes you happy,” in a tone that turns this innocuous phrase into a vicious blow. To the extent that we try to make anyone do, feel, or think anything—whether our weapon is people-pleasing, sarcasm, or a machete—we trade intimacy for microterrorism. So, if neither control nor avoidance works, what does?

Good Idea #1: Be Willing

In The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams reveals the secret of flying. Just launch yourself toward the ground, and miss.

“All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt…if you fail to miss the ground. Most people fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard.”

This is the best advice I know for coping with fear of intimacy. Avoidance and control can’t keep our hearts from falling, or cushion the landing. Why not try throwing yourself forward, being willing not to mind that it’s going to hurt? Please note: “Being willing not to mind” isn’t the same as genuinely not minding. You’ll mind the risks of intimacy—count on it. Be willing anyway.

How? Simply allow your feelings—all of them—into full consciousness. Articulate your emotions. Write about them in a journal, tell them to a friend, confess them to your priest, therapist, cab driver. Feel the full extent of your love, your thirst, your passion, without holding back or grasping at anything or anyone (especially not the object of your affection). The next suggestion will show you how.

Good Idea #2: Go “Woo-hoo”

Author Melody Beattie took up skydiving and was scared senseless. Another diver told her, “When you get to the door and jump, say ‘Woo-hoo!’ You can’t have a bad time if you do.”

This phrase works as well when you’re falling emotionally as when you’re falling physically. When fear hits, when you want to grasp or hide, shout “Woo-hoo!” instead. While there is never—not ever—a sure foundation beneath our feet, the willingness to celebrate what we really feel can turn falling into flying. You don’t need an airplane to practice woo-hoo skills. For instance: I’m writing these words at 2:15 in the morning because writing, like other intimate pursuits, often occurs at night. As I type each word, I come to care about how it will be read—about you, there, reading it. Caring is scaring. It makes me want to stop right now, or spend years composing something flawlessly literate. Unfortunately, my deadline was yesterday, and Shakespeare I ain’t, so…woo-hoo!

Now it’s 2:20 a.m. Across the hall, my son, Adam, is dreaming dreams I’ll never quite understand, because his brain is different from mine. Shortly before his birth, I learned that he has Down syndrome, which put mothering him well above skydiving in my Book of Fears. I yelled a lot during Adam’s birth. Twenty-five years later, I’m still yelling “Woo-hoo!” And so far, the only consequence of that particular plunge is love.

Which takes me to my final point.

What I really panic about nowadays isn’t falling; it’s landing. But even that concern is fading because I’ve realized there are only two possible landings for someone who embraces intimacy, and both are beautiful.

The first possibility is that your beloved will love you back. Then you won’t land; you’ll just fall deeper into intimacy, together. This is how bald eagles prepare to mate—by locking talons and free-falling like rocks—which is deeply insane and makes me proud to call the eagle my country’s national bird.

The other possibility is that you’ll throw yourself forward, yell “Woo-hoo!,” and smash into rejection. Will it hurt? Indescribably. But if you still refuse to bury your broken heart, or force someone to “fix” it—if you just experience the crash landing in all its gory glory, you’ll create a miracle.

A Jewish friend told me this story: A man asks his rabbi, “Why does God write the law on our hearts? Why not in our hearts? It’s the inside of my heart that needs God.” The rabbi answered, “God never forces anything into a human heart. He writes the word on our hearts so that when our hearts break, God falls in.” Whatever you hold sacred, you’ll find that an unguarded broken heart is the ideal instrument for absorbing it.

If you fall into intimacy without resistance, despite your alarm, either you will fall into love, which is exquisite, or love will fall into you, which is more exquisite still. Do it enough, and you may just lose your fear of falling. You’ll get better at missing the ground, at keeping a crushed heart open so that love can find all the broken pieces. And the next time you feel that vertiginous sensation of the floor disappearing, even as your reflexes tell you to duck and grab, you’ll hear an even deeper instinct saying, “Fall in! Fall in!” 

The Last Temptation of…You

temptationA friend of mine called recently to say, “I’ve been offered a job I don’t want. The money, power, and prestige are huge. I’m not sure I have the guts to say ‘No.’”

If I’d had to, I would’ve shot him in the foot right then—anything to keep him from selling his happiness so cheaply.

Fortunately, my friend prevailed. He rejected all that power and money, knowing it would turn him into King Midas, surrounded by gold, yet lacking the warmth, tenderness, and joy that are his real life’s purpose.

I know many people who are having similar experiences. As they get closer to leaving a dysfunctional way of life, the old way rises up like an abusive spouse shocked by a divorce decree. “Just stay with me!” it begs. “I’ll do anything you want!”

This pressure always peaks before big breakthroughs. Jesus was reportedly tempted with the power to do massive philanthropy just before he started teaching. The Buddha’s wealthy father showered him with wealth and privilege as he prepared to walk into the forest, seeking enlightenment. It may be that many almost-heroes failed similar tests. We don’t know about them, because they never quite woke up.

Don’t let this happen to you.

If you sense that joy, freedom, and love lie in a given direction, go that way no matter what the rest of the world may offer. Peel your ego’s fingers from their grip on illusions like lifelong security (doesn’t exist), your parents’ approval (can’t make you happy) and “the normal way” (disintegrating as we speak).

Your heart is a compass in a chaotic world. Follow it. Resist anything that looks reeeally good, but feels reeeally bad. Be like my friend, brave enough to turn away from shiny objects, and toward the light that makes them shine.

Photo styled and shot by Ken Weiner

How to Know You’re on the Right Spiritual Path

My religion is called Do-Be-Do-Be Do, pronounced “doo-bee-doo-bee doh.” The final “doh” (Japanese for “the Way”) is more properly written like this: Do-Be-Do-Be means “the Way of Do-Be-Do-Be.” According to the religion’s only member—me—it aims to balance the active “doing” of Western religions with the serene “being” of Eastern religions.

This name is meant to sound silly, because along with Reinhold Niebuhr, I believe that “laughter is the beginning of prayer.” But when it comes to religion, I can be as serious as typhoid. Born into an intensely religious tradition I would later leave, I’ve studied and pondered the subject intensely. I’ve come to believe Marx’s dictum, “Religion…is the opium of the people.” Or, at least, part of it. Marx wasn’t wrong—but he didn’t know that opiates aren’t purely negative. They can drug us or poison us or sustain us. In fact, we naturally produce the “endogenous opioids” necessary for happiness. So a quest for truth isn’t about being a glazed-over religion addict or cold-turkey atheist. It’s about learning which opiates are healthy and testing each new idea before we take it into our systems.

Flying High on Faith

My friend Drew never thought much about spirituality until a college friend took him to hear a charismatic preacher. Drew was immediately hooked. Listening to Preacher X, he remembers feeling “high as a kite. I would have walked on fire, juggled rattlesnakes, done anything the guy said.” Drew embarked on a religious journey that now makes him blush. “I’d always questioned authority, but when I met Preacher X, that way of thinking sort of zoned out. I was like an addict—I felt stoned on being part of the group and on thinking we had the Truth. You know, no questions or uncertainty.”

Drew dropped out of college and moved into a commune with other followers of Preacher X. “I was euphoric for more than a year,” he says. “Then problems started coming up, some from inside my mind, some from outside.” Drew found himself questioning Preacher X’s insistence that he alone knew the mind of God. Soon after, a 17-year-old friend told Drew she and Preacher X were sleeping together. This major buzz kill finally jolted Drew out of his religious “high.”

Drew regrets this whole uncharacteristic episode, but he was following deep-rooted patterns of human behavior. The great sociologist Max Weber hypothesized that every cultural movement began when a charismatic leader gathered a group of followers. The word charismatic is important: Though we use it to describe charming or impressive people, charisma also means the ability to connect with the divine. People follow charismatics because they purport to speak for God, providing compelling truth claims that help people feel guided, protected, and united.

This psychological pattern is the reason people attach passionately to value-based groups, from teenage gangs to political parties. It’s why reasonable people may become irrationally loyal to such groups. We’re wired to experience euphoria when we belong to a band of people championing common values. It literally intoxicates us.

Compared with the other side effects of religion, getting high off religious participation, even becoming “addicted,” as Drew says he was, is a relatively innocuous one. In addition to the obvious Jonestown-style cult craziness, mainstream religions present their own dangers—because their substantial history, sizable population, and organized structure make their members even more certain that they have the Truth. When another group shows up with another version of the Truth, all hell breaks loose. “Us versus them” thinking can swell from prejudice to unspeakable violence. The Crusades, the Holocaust, 9/11, and countless other atrocities had religion at their cores. The perpetrators were so stoned on being Absolutely Right that they never noticed the mind-blowing irony of hating in the name of love, killing to defend the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” and waging war under the banner of peace.

One regrettable consequence of this is that onlookers often conclude that religion causes the violence done in its name. Many well-meaning atheists believe that getting rid of religion would eliminate ideological discrimination and violence. Some believe this so strongly that they become angry, even violent, and…oh, hello! Here we are, back at holy war! If you doubt that doctrinaire atheism is as dangerous as doctrinaire religion, study the history of communism in the 20th century. You’ll find the same charismatic leaders claiming to know the Truth, the same us-versus-them psychology, the same intoxicated evangelism, the same unfortunate habit of slaughtering people by the millions to improve their lives.

In short, absolutism is the opiate that turns the masses into ideology-addicted murderers, whether religious or irreligious. Doctrinaire atheism keeps the bathwater aspects of religion and forcibly ejects the baby—the one thing religion has that atheism lacks: spirituality.

Make Your Own Opiate

Remember those natural endogenous opioids produced by healthy bodies—the ones Marx never knew existed? As a depressed teenager, I became addicted to them. I exercised maniacally, triggering surges of feel-good chemicals like endorphins, until my body basically fell apart. I developed a chronic pain condition that left me too crippled to do much besides lie still and breathe. Since it was one of the few things I could actually do, I began meditating. I hated meditation, but only for about 10 years. That’s how long it took me to realize that this practice could “turn on” the same natural opiates I’d once gotten from exercise. Unlike the rush-and-crash of my physical fitness addiction, however, meditation seemed to slowly fill a calm reservoir of joy that pervaded my life. I’d become my own source of connection to the divine. Literally and figuratively, I was making my own opiates.

The following is my recipe for Home-Brewed Charisma:

Embrace Uncertainty

The most powerful protection from the inherent dangers of spiritual seeking is to accept that human knowledge can never be absolute. I mean, you could be dreaming right now—of course, you aren’t…but if you were, how would you know?

René Descartes, one of the fathers of modern science, dwelled on this question until he felt, by his own description, “dazed.” Ultimately, he decided that the only thing he was sure of was that he wasn’t sure. Most people know Descartes’s famous statement “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). But he actually wrote “Dubito…cogito, ergo sum.” “I doubt…I think, therefore I am.” Though we like to ignore it, uncertainty, not certainty, is the philosophical foundation of science.

You’ll be vulnerable to “bad drug” religion until you can repeat these words without freaking out: “Nobody’s absolutely sure of anything, and that’s okay.” This frees you to do consciously what most people do unconsciously—make your best subjective judgment about the veracity or fallacy of any truth claim.

Test Every Idea with All Your Senses

The embrace of uncertainty replaces absolutism—the source of ideological toxicity—with a simple, open question: Since no truth claim is absolute, does this make sense?

That was the seditious thought pattern that made my friend Drew question Preacher X’s ranting. It’s what led Copernicus to dispute the religious “truth” that the Earth was the center of the universe. It’s what led the American founding fathers away from theocracy and toward democracy.

Asking if something “makes sense” has multiple meanings. It asks us to test a claim with both our common sense and our senses. Modern science owes its incredible advances to focusing on data perceived by our physical bodies. But other advances, like the “self-evident” truth of individual equality, resonate with a subtler, inner sort of knowing. Drew’s problems with his cult came from inside and outside his mind because our observations come from obvious physical experiences and intuitive ones.

We frequently reference physical sensations when discussing metaphysical ideas, calling on all five senses to describe something that ostensibly can’t be sensed: “I can see how that might be true,” we might say. “It sounds right.” Or, “Something about it feels weird. I smell a rat. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.” Some spiritual traditions refer casually to the five subtle senses, in addition to the five physical ones, and suggest we use all of them to decide whether we want to accept an idea into our belief system. That’s why I chose, as my own religious hymn, the song “This Smells Funny, and I’m Not Gonna Eat It.” If you get a queasy feeling from any of your 10 senses, back away. Don’t swallow it.

Notice Whether an Idea Unifies or Divides

The word religion derives from the Latin religare, which means “to bind together.” I finally fell in love with meditation when I felt it reconnecting me with my real self, with humanity, nature, the entire universe. This experience of oneness, at-one-ment, lies at the charismatic core of every religious tradition. So as you go along your spiritual search, observe the long-term effect of every doctrine and practice that comes your way. If it breaks, shatters, or destroys, it’s not religion—its absolutism. That drug’ll kill you. Real religion, by definition, makes things whole again. It heals.

“The problem for me,” Drew says of his youthful religious experiment, “wasn’t that I got high on religion. The problem was that the high was artificial. What I really wanted wasn’t just groupthink, it was love. Real love—the kind that takes time, testing, solitude, service, stillness, effort, the whole spectrum of religious practice.”

In other words, Do-Be-Do-Be.

So it seems Drew and I enjoy the same natural opiates, that we’re following the same basic religious path. We sometimes walk together and enjoy the other’s company, but we don’t need to be in lockstep. We trust our souls to the embrace of uncertainty, to the reliability of our senses, and to the grand, mysterious impulse that has always led human beings to create religion. Imperfect, foolish, and fallible as we are, each of us seems to be designed—and maybe even guided—to find our own Way.

Loving The Mess That Is My Best

bless this messI’m always pathetically grateful for January, this blank slate of a month, in which I can resolve to clean up the utter mess I made of the holidays. I always mess up the holidays. Combine my logistical incompetence with the social demands of December, and you have the Hindenburg of social faux pas. I could tell you everything I did wrong last month, but then I’d end up in bed eating the Funyuns of Shame for another week, so let us not speak of it.

Suffice it to say that as 2015 begins, I’m taking stock of my life and realizing that I have messed up virtually everything I’ve ever done for over half a century. News flash: I am never going to do life right.

And yet…

By being my incompetent self, I seem to have weeded out the friends and acquaintances who can’t stand my inadequacies. Each year I’m surrounded by more kind, understanding people who seem willing to love the messes I make.

When neurosurgeon Eben Alexander went into a coma and had one whale of a near-death experience, he received three messages:  “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever,” “You have nothing to fear,” and “There is nothing you can do wrong.”

My New Year’s resolution is first, to do my best in all situations, and second, to stand in the mess that is my best, and remember Alexander’s three messages:  Dearly loved, nothing to fear, no way to get it wrong.

Just contemplating this helps me put down the Funyuns. It makes me suspect that maybe, instead of being here to get things right, we’re here to learn to love the mess that is every human life. If that’s the one thing I get right this year, it just may be enough.

Lame Animal Totem: The Blobfish

blobfishThe Blobfish is a creature made of gelatinous tissue that allows it to float around the deep ocean floor, compensating for near-total lack of muscle by being totally nondiscriminating in its eating habits. Sound like you? Quelle coincidence! You and I have the same totem animal this month!

Blobfish energy is flaccid, weak-willed, and…I don’t know, whatever. When Blobfish floops and plurbles up through the plumbing of your subconscious and into the toilet bowl of your conscious attention, it’s time to relinquish all resolve, put on your bathrobe, and eat every last bit of pudding in the fridge.  If you can’t find pudding, eat…you know, whatever.

Call on Blobfish for help when you feel too energized, focused, and successful, which is just annoying to the rest of us. Blobfish will drag you right back down to a place where you inspire no envy or competition, where you can spend entire weekends just gloomily watching your thighs age. Then, like me, you can pass along to the world the ringing message at the core of your life:  Um…like, you know, whatever.

Conjuring Good Magic: Setting Powerful Goals

Photo by Sheeshoo

Photo by Sheeshoo

“Life would be so great,” said Ilsa, a fledgling entrepreneur, “if I could just start a business to pay all my bills.” Another client, Sue, wanted to have a baby. “Being a mom would make me happier than anything in the world,” she told me. Like any codependent life coach, I wanted everything for Ilsa and Sue that they wanted for themselves. I longed for a magic wand that would let me bippity-boppity-boo their dreams into reality, fairy godmother–style. Instead, I did the next best thing: I worked with them as they made to-do lists and financial plans and stocked up on computer software and folic acid.

Although it seemed like a good idea at the time, my boosterism had some significant blowback. You see, Ilsa’s business did succeed, but its rapid growth required her to work like a pack mule. Sue eventually had a baby, who filled her heart with love—and her ears with colicky shrieking that nearly unhinged her. Both women were in more distress after achieving their goals than they’d ever been before.

I blame myself. In my fairy godmother role, I should’ve paid less attention to logistics and probed deeper into the reasons Ilsa and Sue had focused on those particular ambitions, because stated goals are quite magical. They dictate our attitudes and behavior and where we put our energy. But using magic inexpertly, as most fables (and almost every Harry Potter movie) can attest, is a bad idea. After years of helping clients like Sue and Ilsa, I learned how to help people set goals to get what they want without unintended consequences.

Words of Power

The difference between a dangerous spell—um, I mean goal—and a safe, effective one has everything to do with parts of speech. Most goal setters use mainly nouns and verbs (“I want my business to succeed,” “I want to have a baby”). This frequently leads to either outright failure or the kind of success that doesn’t make people nearly as happy as they expect. But there’s another class of words that work much better—adjectives.

I’ve come to depend on adjectives because goals made of nouns and verbs are risky: They bring to mind “imagined situations,” as opposed to “imagined experiences.” The two are subtly but crucially different, and experiences, not situations, are always what we really want. Ilsa expected business success to produce feelings of contentment; Sue thought a baby would make her feel loved. Neither fully anticipated what would happen after they achieved their goals.

By using adjectives, you can avoid this trap by focusing all your efforts on the quality of the experience you want to create. This process is harder than “normal” goal setting—it requires some serious soul-searching and perhaps a good thesaurus—but it does pay off.

Step One: Pick a goal, any goal.

Think of a typical noun-verb goal, something for which you frequently hanker. Be honest rather than politically correct. Some people may have deep desires to establish world peace, stop global warming, and end poverty, but maybe you actually think more about, I dunno, reaching your target weight. And that’s okay. This is not a beauty pageant (those contestants can afford to wish for world peace; they’ve all reached their target weight). What I want you to do is fess up to your real desires. Now pick the biggest, most ambitious one.

Step Two: Gaze into the future.

You don’t need a crystal ball to see what’s up ahead; the three pounds of gray matter between your ears will do fine. Use your brainpower right now to imagine what your life would be like if you realized the goal you just identified. Create a detailed fantasy about it. Loiter there awhile, observing your dream-come-true with your mind’s eyes, ears, nose, skin. Then, clear your mind and your throat: It’s time for the magic words.

Step Three: Generate adjectives.

This is the heart of a really effective goal-spell. Begin listing adjectives that describe how you feel in your dream-come-true scenario. This is a simple task, but not an easy one. It requires that you translate holistic, right-brain sensations into specific, left-brain words. Author Craig Childs compares this to “trying to build the sky out of sticks.” Spend enough time in your imagined situation to let your brain leaf through its vocabulary, scouting out accurate adjectives. In goal setting as in fairy tales, the minimum magic number is three. Don’t stop until you have at least that many ways to describe those lovely feelings.

My clients frequently try to squirm out of the process by muttering, “It’s hard to explain,” or “Oh, I don’t know,” or “I can’t describe it.” Well, of course it’s hard to explain; yes, you do know; and if you keep trying, you can too describe it. Your adjectives don’t have to be eloquent; use simple words like energetic, focused, delighted, and fine. But you owe it to yourself to persevere until you’ve found some reasonably descriptive words. Three of ’em. Write them down and then share them below in the comments:

1.____________________

2.____________________

3.____________________

Step Four: Focus on anything that can be described with your adjectives.

Drop the fantasy situation you imagined in step two and concentrate on those adjectives. You might notice that these three words bring your stated goal into sharper focus. For instance, if your New Year’s resolution is to lose ten pounds—a noun-verb goal—but your adjectives are strong, confident, and healthy, you might realize that your actual aim is to get fit. You would see that the strategy you came up with to diet (i.e., eating your weight in hydroponic cabbage) might leave you thinner but also recumbent on a couch without the energy to leave the house—which isn’t what you really want. Thanks to adjectives, you can fine-tune your strategy: Swap a fad diet for a meeting with a nutritionist, and sign up for weight training classes at the gym.

Sometimes tweaking isn’t enough. Your adjective goal might utterly contradict your stated goal. Time to rethink that original target. For example, if you think you want to win an Academy Award, you may imagine your Oscar acceptance speech, and feel “valued, satisfied, and unstoppable.” If you think that only a night at the Kodak Theatre will lead to those feelings, you might spend years obsessively pursuing movie stardom, ignoring everyone and everything except your ambition. Odds are you still wouldn’t win an Oscar, but you’d probably get a rapacious ego that could inhale all manner of rewards without even noticing them. On the other hand, if you immediately begin focusing on aspects of your present life that make you feel valued, satisfied, or unstoppable, you’ll feel an instant lift. All sorts of things may happen. Sure, you might win an Oscar. But if you don’t find yourself onstage, blurting out that the statue sure is heavy, you’ll be left with…a pretty good life. You might even find that as you follow the things that make you feel appreciated, you’ve tripped into an entirely different career. So starting now, survey your life for anything (I mean anything) that can be described with any of those three words. Putting all your attention on those aspects of your life will make you happier right now and help you create future situations that fulfill your true desires.

The Science of Good Magic

I realize that all this sounds a little woo-woo, but psychological research on happiness backs up my strategy. Over and over, researchers studying happiness have found that the situational elements people crave—money, social status, possessions—don’t reliably lead to an experience of well-being. By contrast, learning to find joy in the present moment (a.k.a. focusing on experiences you truly want in your life) increases life satisfaction, improves health, and allows us to live longer, more fulfilling lives.

My clients form my own database of sorts, convincing me that good goal-setting magic is (to use the social science terms) robust and valid. For example, when I asked Ilsa to go back in time and imagine what she once thought she’d get from a successful business, she described herself with the adjectives relaxed, joyful, and secure (ironically, the demands of her wildfire success made her feel tense, joyless, and insecure). When she scanned her life for activities and relationships that made her feel aligned with those adjectives, she found them everywhere: in gardening, reading novels, playing with her niece. “Damn!” she told me. “I’d already succeeded before I succeeded!” Indeed.

In Sue’s case, remembering how she’d expected motherhood to make her feel yielded the adjectives loved, rejuvenated, and emotionally replenished. She realized that her noun-verb goal (having a baby who’s beautiful and also colicky) actually created the opposite of her adjective goal—she felt unappreciated, haggard, and drained. It turned out that her magical adjectives described the way she felt when connecting with old friends. Both Ilsa and Sue managed to give more attention and time to the things that evoked the feelings they really wanted. (That’s the beauty of adjective-based goals: They can work even when you’re already suffering the consequences of unwise noun-verb spells.) Ilsa carved out time for reading and gardening; Sue put the baby in the bouncy seat and caught up with friends on Facebook.

These efforts helped Ilsa and Sue work and parent better, and handle the difficulties conjured by their original goals, all of which eased my fairy godmother guilt.

In other words, we lived happily ever after. So if you find yourself longing for some idealized goal, take a moment to go fishing for adjectives. Then use them to identify the aspects of your life that are already drawing you toward your heart’s desires. Focusing on these people and activities will lead you gently toward even more fulfilling experiences. One day you may find yourself in a situation more interesting and delightful than anything you ever imagined. Listen closely and you’ll hear my annoying little voice in your head, whispering, Bippity-boppity-boo.

The Rainstorm After the Calm

drought

Photo credit: Kym McLeod

Drought is a strange stressor, a parade of beautiful days that slowly become terrifying. The current drought in California is the worst in history. While the rest of the country shovels snow and preps for floods, we Californians dab on the sunscreen and freak out a little more each day.

I have reached the New Age-y point where I really do see how I’m creating many aspects of my reality: my friendships, my business, my sinus headaches. But so far, this drought has me stumped. I tried controlling it with my mind. It gave me a sunny sneer that lasted more than a year.

So recently, when our beautiful medicine man friend came to visit, my hopes were low. Way low. He stayed for a week, during which the landscape hummed with wild animals and an undeniable electric energy. But when the medicine man blessed some sand, laid it down, and told us it would bring the rain, my hopes were minimal.

The next morning we woke to a dense, drippy fog. The following day it rained. Then a few more foggy mornings, and finally, a day I spent editing a book and looking up every minute or so to relish the fact that, yes, it was still raining. For ten hours.

That night I turned on the local weather report to share the general rejoicing. Confusingly, the sad weather man said that no rain had been reported anywhere. No precipitation anywhere. It seems to have rained for ten hours almost exclusively on my property.

Was this a coincidence? A hallucination? I’ll never really know. California is still in a historically severe drought, clearly a punishment from God.  Or, perhaps, a chance to learn the hard way—really, is there any other way?—that miracles can happen.

Whatever your personal drought (a love drought, a health drought, a money drought), I know how awful it feels. I’ve been all the way through all those droughts, and come out the other side. I’ve learned that one day, when your hopes are so low you finally stop grasping at them, the rains arrive.

Top Dog: How to Deal with a Know-it-All

776462_41885922Recently, due to several misguided decisions, I found myself having a sleepover with five friendly but ambitious dogs. The entire night was one long dominance display. No sooner had I settled each pooch onto a separate cushion than the biggest one got up, grabbed a chew toy, and stood over the others, proclaiming (in dog language): “I am Bjorn! And I am Pack Leader! For this toy is mine! And I own this toy! And the toy is my property!” and so on.

It reminded me so much of Harvard, I got a little misty.

We humans use many “toys” to claim dominant status in our own packs—cars, clothes, houses, job titles—but one of our favorites is knowledge. In our school system’s educational meritocracy, having answers means winning praise and attention. This has given rise to a certain breed of human, commonly called the know-it-all, which tends to frequent university settings. Know-it-alls can be good companions, but the breed also has many annoying behavioral problems that must be dealt with decisively if you’re going to have any peace. Before we discuss training techniques, here’s a short list of ways in which know-it-all behavior problems are often manifested.

The “Right as Might” Assault

In dog packs, being big and strong is the quickest way to dominance. In humans, sheer physical power, though useful, is often trumped by being right. Many know-it-alls have high IQs, but such low EQs (levels of emotional intelligence) that they actually think people admire them for saying things like “It’s a common misperception that, as you so quaintly phrased it, ‘You never know what’s going to happen,’ but that rationale applies mainly at a subatomic level of analysis, while in a macro setting, Laplace’s model of a mechanistically determinate universe remains a remarkably robust predictive cosmology.”

In a few paragraphs, we’ll discuss appropriate responses to such comments. But your initial response to a know-it-all assault like this one should be to remain calm and resist the urge to bite.

The “God Is in the Details” Display

Detail-oriented know-it-alls don’t sit around memorizing textbooks. Instead they correct others’ versions of events, often missing the whole point of a conversation in their obsessive focus on minutia. Their conversations frequently go something like this:

Ordinary person: So there we are at Breakfast Buffet, having waffles, and this guy comes in with a gun! A semiautomatic! And he’s waving it around—

Know-it-all: No, that’s wrong. You weren’t having waffles. I had waffles. You had the French toast.

Ordinary person: All right, whatever. Anyway, this gunman is yelling, “Where’s my wife? Where is that two-timing slut?” And then—

Know-it-all: I’m sure you didn’t have waffles, because when we got our order, you said to me, “Darlene, now I wish I’d ordered the waffles, because those are some good-looking waffles you got there.” Remember?

Ordinary person: Okay, okay. So anyway, then he starts shooting at the pie counter, and there’s pie flying everywhere, and—

Know-it-all: You’ve never had waffles since that time in Hoboken when you had the hiccup problem.

Detail-oriented know-it-alls have been known to sustain a conversation like this, with periodic interruptions, for up to 50 years. Most of their friends simply talk over them, though if you have a detail-oriented know-it-all in your immediate circle, it helps to have a choke chain available for emergencies.

The “Answer for Everything” Reflex

Some know-it-alls may be so rabidly committed to displaying fact-based dominance that they claim expertise about things they have no possibility of knowing, like this:

Ordinary person: I have this friend, Raoul, and he’s been driving me nuts, because—

Know-it-all: I know. Totally into the machismo thing.

Ordinary person: But…you’ve never met Raoul.

Know-it-all: Oh, honey, I know all about Latin men.

Ordinary person: Raoul is Swedish.

Know-it-all: I knew that.

This strain of know-it-all has answers for every question except: “How the hell do you presume to know that?”…

The “I Can Fix You” Frenzy

Another typical know-it-all behavior is to insist on solving your problems for you, even if you don’t want them solved or, in fact, see them as problems. Fixer know-it-alls will persist in making recommendations the way a Chihuahua might persist in making amorous advances to your leg. Here’s how they operate:

Know-it-all: Hey, you look a little down in the dumps. What’s wrong?

Ordinary person: I’m really all right. It’s just that I’ve been visiting my parents, and they’re getting old and sick, and it got me thinking about age and mortality and the impermanence of everything.

Know-it-all: You know, I used to worry about those things, too, until I started getting colonics. Have you tried that?

Ordinary person: Oh, I don’t think I need—

Know-it-all: You’ve got to. Hey, tell you what—I’ll call my favorite hose attendant right now. We’ll get you hooked up later this afternoon. Ha ha! Hooked up! Get it?

Ordinary person: Really, thanks but no thanks. I—

Know-it-all: And if that doesn’t work, we’ll go line dancing!

Be forewarned that courtesy will not work on a fixer know-it-all. If you plan to have a conversation with one, you should carry a spray can of mace. Which brings us to the instructional part of this article…

You can see this nerdy yearning in books like Jurassic Park or The Da Vinci Code, which are about know-it-alls who wind up in ridiculously contrived circumstances where their knowledge of dinosaur behavior or Catholic symbology actually comes in handy. Such opportunities are rare in the real world. For instance, my family cherishes the know-it-all euphoria we felt when I discovered a small but terrifying creature in our basement and my daughter correctly identified it as a Costa Rican tailless whip scorpion. (Of course, we had no clue what to do with it. We named it Vivian and placed it under 24-hour surveillance until someone thought of sucking it into the vacuum cleaner.)

How to Deal with a Know-It-All

You can begin training the person to be a calm, loyal companion by employing one or more of the following responses:

1. Fight to win.

If you’re in a feisty mood and you’re confident you can beat the know-it-all at the intellectual dominance game, you may decide to argue your rival into submission. This is what we’re trained to do in school, but I use it only as a last resort, since it tends to leave both contestants growling, angry, and bleeding from wounds to the ego. Choose another method for know-it-alls you want to remain part of your immediate pack. If you do decide to exert dominance, say something like: “Laplace? Mechanist determinism? Oh, please. Unless you plan to ignore all of postmodernism, as well as both Heisenberg and Kant, it’s incontestable that uncertainty and subjectivity are experiential absolutes. Ergo, I stand by my position: You never know what’s going to happen.”

2. Change the stakes.

If you want a know-it-all to stay in your pack, there’s a better way to deal with a dominance challenge than wading into the IQ challenge. Approach your know-it-all at the level of EQ. Know-it-alls are weak as puppies in this area, so be gentle. In a soft, nonaggressive tone, say: “Pat, I think you’re showing off your brain to get social acceptance. The thing is, that really doesn’t work. Think how you’d feel about a rich person who wouldn’t stop harping about their net worth.”

The know-it-all will respond, “Don’t you mean ‘a rich person who wouldn’t stop harping about his or her net worth’?” Say, “Pat, you’re doing it again.”

If a few such prompts have no effect on the know-it-all’s behavior, you may have to consider an appropriate shelter, such as a research institute or a Tolkien convention, where the organization helps place know-it-alls in better homes. But don’t do this without trying the next technique.

3. Put your know-it-all to work.

I’ve seen this gentle social training succeed on others and, more to the point, on me. That’s right: By breed I am a know-it-all. But ever since a kindly teacher took me aside and explained that my behavior was the social equivalent of leprosy, I’ve tried hard to overcome my genes. Sadly, I passed on many know-it-all traits to my children—even my son with Down syndrome, who, when I corrected him for skipping numbers on a kindergarten counting assignment, gave me a withering look and said, “Hello, I was counting by fives.” My kids and I are “useless factoid” know-it-alls. We rarely dress ourselves correctly, but we know all about, say, the mating rituals of penguins. It’s not that we mean harm; it’s just that we’re a working breed, like German shepherds or bulldogs. What we want most is to be of service.

Compass v. Culture

compassAs the seventh of eight children, I was raised with little pressure. For instance, no one at home cared much about my test scores, or even whether I took tests. This was wonderfully freeing but disorienting, so as an adolescent I absorbed the culture of driven materialism that still dominates American society.  

Of course, this created the suffering that arises when we live life from the outside in, rather than the inside out. That blessed &%#$ suffering helped me let go of societal expectations and feel around for my “inner compass.” Ever since, in any argument between Compass v. Culture, I’ve tried to let Compass win.
 
Right now, many of us feel an immense shift in the way humans live in this world.  That shift, while benevolent, comes from within, rather than from our culture. That means your inner compass will inevitably tell you to break society’s expectations. Maybe that’s happening right now. If not, wait a few minutes. It’s coming. 
 
Your counter-cultural impulse may be large (sell everything and become a goatherd), or it may be small (just let your thighs do whatever they freaking want). Maybe you’ll feel like becoming nocturnal, breeding hamsters, or spending hours staring blankly at a wall.
 
You can recognize a Compass v. Culture moment when something you’re “supposed” to do feels like trying to French-kiss a wolverine, and something that “makes no sense” feels incredibly seductive. Personally, I absolutely love staring at walls; it feels blissful enough to be a sin. Go figure.
 
Mind, born in culture, will never understand your inner compass. Soul, so much bigger than culture, may tell you where to go without explaining why. Follow it anyway. If it creates suffering, stop. But if it opens up a road you’ve never imagined, take it. I hope I’ll see you there.