Be Honest: How to Do What You Really Want

One of my more embarrassing memories is the day in high school drama class when I was assigned to deliver the famous monologue in which Lady Macbeth loses her freaking mind. Bumbling my way through history’s worst rendition of that scene, I suddenly understood why actors are always asking, “What’s my motivation?” I had no idea how to portray Lady M because I couldn’t imagine what the heck made her tick.

At the time, I blamed my abysmal acting skills, but now that I’ve lived many additional decades and watched 800,000 episodes of Law & Order, I realize my horrible performance wasn’t entirely my fault. Lady Macbeth is incomprehensible because after years of secrets, lies, and manipulation, her mind is such a mess even she can’t find her way around it. She lives in a private hell, and as she puts it, “Hell is murky.” She’s constantly scrubbing at her hands, but that doesn’t help. Nothing is clear to her. Nothing is clean.

Though few of us are in Lady M’s league when it comes to foul deeds, most of us at least occasionally act on motivations that are less than pure. We tell little lies to get people’s approval, do things for acceptance that feel wrong-ish, soothe a friend’s feelings not out of unsullied love but because we’re hoping for a favor. To live a totally clean life is as rare in its own way as being a mad murderess. But even if we can’t be completely pure, it’s within our power to do what twisted sister Macbeth couldn’t: clean up our act. Which is another way of saying welcome to the Agenda Cleanse.

Why an Agenda Cleanse Is Good Life Hygiene:

The problem with hiding your real motives is that you’re essentially keeping a secret, and as neuroscientist David Eagleman has written,”The main thing that is known about secrets is that keeping them is unhealthy for the brain.” When we begin to weave webs of deception, we need to expend enormous mental energy to prevent them from tangling. There’s less brain power left over for solving real problems, and we start to falter in other areas of our lives.

The problems may even show up in our bodies: Secrets and lies can weaken our immune systems. They’re also hell on rela­tionships, both personal and professional. People can feel the difference between a pure agenda (you kissing your baby) and a murky one (a politician kissing your baby). They find ulterior motives vaguely to intensely repulsive. As a result, impurely motivated actions tend to backfire. Lie for approval, and people disapprove. Try to control people, and you lose control. Pre­tend to be perfect, and you risk being caught by folks who’ll abhor your pretense of perfection more than your imperfections themselves.

If, in light of all this, you’re hesitant to do the Agenda Cleanse, I’ll assume it’s because you’re either Lady Macbeth or Mother Teresa. Everyone else, please meet me at the next paragraph.

Agenda Cleanse Step 1: Pick an interaction, any interaction.

Think of something you plan to do in the upcoming hours or days that involves other people. It could be going to a coworker’s birthday party, putting in a day at the office, attending square-dancing class, whatever. We’ll call this interaction activity X.

Step 2: Ask yourself the actor’s question.

Keeping activity X in mind, ask yourself, What’s my motivation for doing this? Don’t spit out the first facile answer that comes to mind (Um, I have to?). Give it real thought, and be brutally honest. Your clarity—maybe a little piece of your sanity—depends on it.
There might be several reasons you’re planning to undertake activity X. Feel for the one that’s deepest. Maybe you’ll be attending the coworker’s birthday party because you sort of want to be there but also to be polite, and mainly because you want cake. You may go to work to earn money, and to feel important, but primarily to prove your worth to your parents. Perhaps you square-dance partly for love of the music, partly to show off your new Frye boots, but mostly because your friends just keep hounding you until you go. Pick the motivation that feels most true, your real bedrock reason.

Step 3: See if your real agenda aligns with your apparent agenda.

Now that you’ve identified your actual motivation, check to see whether you’re making it clear or hiding it from others—and even yourself. Finish this statement, and don’t hold back. Tell it like it is.
I let myself and others think the real reason I’m doing activity X is _______________________________________________.

To the extent that this answer is the same as your answer in step 2, your agenda vis-á-vis activity X is transparent. If the two answers are different, you’re in hot water. Happily, I mean that in a good way.

Step 4: Clean your hidden agendas with an unbroken stream of truth.

Simply by stating your real agenda and admitting that it’s different from the one you present to the world, you’ve already started getting clean. To keep the process going, consistently tell yourself the truth about your motivations and any deceptions you perpetrate. You won’t change your behavior immediately, and that’s fine. Just keep getting clearer inside by acknowledging where you’re not being clear outside.

This means that as you wish your acquaintance a happy birthday, you remind yourself, I’m here for the cake. As you assure your boss you love your job, own the truth: This is pure b.s.—I need the paycheck. While do-si-do-ing, silently admit, I’m doing this only because I didn’t have the guts to say no. 

Sustained personal truth-telling will gradually cleanse your inner life. This, by the way, is what happens in good therapy: Each week a perceptive professional helps you admit to the real forces behind your actions. As you start to see your inner motivations more clearly, you begin relating differently to the world around you. This leads naturally to the next part of our cleanse.

Step 5: Allow your pure inner agenda to radiate outward.

Just as muddy motives leak, revealing impure agendas to the people we’re trying to fool, a sustained clear agenda becomes ever more luminous to others. Even if you don’t mean to change your behavior, your cleanse will begin shining truth on everything around you. This may disturb people whose motivations are still impure. Indeed, these people may become so alarmed that they try to pressure you back into insincerity.

In response, you can always go back to having crazy-making, murky agendas. Or you can keep cleaning up your act until folks around you either undertake their own cleanse or go away. One client told me, after an especially hidden-agenda-packed meeting, “I’m exhausted by my own hypocrisy.” Once you start articulating such feelings, you’ll stop doing things with impure agendas, slowly separating from people and events that are essentially environmental pollutants.

Of course, there are scenarios in which it isn’t wise to take your true feelings public. But these scenarios, like Lady Macbeth, are truly insane: political dictatorships, prisons, reality shows featuring various populations of “real” housewives. People who live within such systems sustain impure agendas just to survive. As you become more honest with yourself, you’ll know whether being more pure in your outward behavior is truly inadvisable or whether “I can’t say what I really mean” is just another fib.

Step 6: Fill your life with clean, clear things.

I’ve noticed that as my clients begin speaking the truth to themselves more often, they grow increasingly accurate at spotting false agendas in others. This makes them safer in every situation.

Run frequent agenda cleanses, and you’ll unconsciously steer yourself toward activities you truly love and people who truly love you. People will trust you, and you’ll know whom to trust. The brain space that was tied up in conniving manipulation will be free for problem solving and creativity. Your energy will rise; your stress level will fall. You’ll be happier and more at peace.

Macbeth tries to make this happen for his wife. He orders a doctor to “Cleanse….that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart.” The doctor, checking his records and noticing that psychiatry won’t be invented for centuries, says, “Therein the patient must minister to himself.” Agenda cleansing, you see, is an inside job. And I have nothing up my sleeve when I say I think you’re just the person to do it.


 

Make of yourself a light

I’ve heard from so many of you in recent days, weeks and months about how we can get by during a period when the news from the world feels cruel and dangerous. I wanted to talk to you directly about the helplessness many of us feel at such times.

Click to watch video

The Buddha’s last words were, “Make of yourself a light.” As a tribe, it’s my wish that we may all be lights for ourselves and each other in times that feel dark.

All for All, Always

0603

Task Seven: Notice that you are all for all, always.

We’ve arrived at the final task in our newsletter series based on my new book, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening. The Seventh Task in becoming your wild self is the ultimate act of spiritual surrender, in which you completely release your identification with what I call your “meat self”, that sense of individuality and “me-ness” that has defined you throughout your life.

So, why not do that now? Take a deep breath, and just let go of your ego forever. Take a few moments, if you need them. I’ll wait.

Obviously I’m kidding, though kudos to any of you who just achieved spontaneous enlightenment through the sheer power of suggestion. The Seventh Task represents the end of all suffering, which makes it the Big Banana, spiritually speaking. It’s what generations of mystics and yogis dedicated their lives to seeking, and very few were ever successful. So it’s fairly safe to say that you and I are unlikely to spontaneously achieve the Seventh Task in the checkout line at Whole Foods, no matter how raw and organic our groceries.

If you’re using the first six Tasks consistently, Task Seven will take place when you add in stillness, in the form of some kind of meditative practice. You might even find that your meta-self begins moving into stillness spontaneously. The magnetic tug you felt when you first let your body be moved in Task Three, the deep fascination of Task Six, might all steer you in the direction of some sort of meditation. Give in to the desire to be still, even if it hits you in that self-same Whole Foods checkout line. We all know the staff there have seen weirder things than a spiritual seeker clambering atop the avocado display to assume the lotus position.

Give in to stillness; more importantly, open into it.

If you can do this for long enough, I’m telling you, you’re going to experience something more miraculous and bewildering than anything you’ve encountered on this path so far. You keep opening and opening into the stillness, and at some point, something very… unusual happens. And by unusual, I mean by standards that would have even veteran Whole Foods employees shaking their head in disbelief. But bear with me. Do this for long enough and a moment will come in which you will experience the universe opening its eyes as you. If you continue to expand, the scope of the intelligence that’s looking out through your eyes grows incredibly, impossibly, magically vast.

And then one day you just might find yourself looking at the world with a new understanding: I made this. Not your individual identity, but the entirety, the consciousness that existed prior to energy and matter; the creator whose name is Stillness and out of which all things come. And you know for a fact that if a miracle were needed, you could perform one. There is no doubt, no self-aggrandizement, no ego—there’s no you. There’s no self left at all.

The spirit that wants to heal the earth for us—not for itself, but for us—is abroad in the human race right now. It’s in you and in me with the intention to show us that “you” and “me” are an illusion. There is only “all”—all for all, always. When we wake up to that, we will save the world.

And that, my darlings, is about as wild as it gets. Wouldn’t you agree?

You can find the links to all seven tasks below:

Task One: Calm All Fear

Task Two: Don’t Swallow Poison

Task Three: Let Yourself Be Moved

Task Four: Demolish Your Definition of Self

Task Five: Tell the Truth

Task Six: Let Your Meta-Self Flow Through You

Task Seven: Notice that You Are All for All, Always.

Put Your Mind in Service to Your Higher Self

may 2016Task Six:
Let Your Meta-Self Flow Through You

Task Hello, beloved readers! If you’ve been following along—or if you’ve read my recent book, which is finally out and about in the world—you know it’s time to learn the Sixth Task of Bewilderment (pronounced “be-wilder-ment”). It’s all part of the process of waking up to your inner, deeper, higher purpose.

Task Six is about learning to let inspiration flow not only through your limbs and heart, but also through your brain. This delicate operation can’t work well if you haven’t mastered at least the rudiments of earlier Tasks, particularly Task One, which is to calm yourself out of fear. Most people tune into fear and use their thinking as a control mechanism, trying to access good feelings and avoid bad ones. This approach can be quite effective. It can get your taxes filed, your children educated, and your ordinary work done. But it’s sort of like inheriting a magic wand and using it only to stir soup. When you put your mind in the service of your higher self, it becomes limitlessly resourceful, creative, and beautiful.

The way to do this is simple: find a problem you want to solve or a skill you yearn to master. Work very hard to find a solution or acquire the skill. Then stop—completely—and go out to play. Think. Don’t think. Think. Don’t think.

If you repeat this process enough, a fabulous thing will happen. You’ll get a feeling of something forming in your brain, and then, quiet suddenly (and most often during a “don’t think” period), an idea will pop into your consciousness like an egg rolling out of a chicken’s derriere. Or, with an almost audible click, the skill you’ve been struggling to learn will suddenly become easy.

This won’t feel like something you’ve done, because you don’t have to do it. Your larger self (I like to call it your meta-self) does it for you.

I could go on and on about the number of inventions, philosophical ideals, scientific breakthroughs, and artistic masterpieces that have come to be through this method. But I’ve thought enough for now. I’m going to call my dog, roll out my new electric scooter (a hundred bucks online—so worth it) and toodle about the countryside, waiting for my higher self to lay its next egg.

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

Lame Animal Totem: Bony-eared Assfish

bony eared assfish

There is a creature swimming our oceans that is called Acanthonus armatus. But, perhaps because Acanthonus has the smallest brain-to-body weight ratio of any vertebrate, it prefers to go by its more familiar name, the bony-eared assfish. I did not make that up.

You can know that Acanthonus armatus is your animal totem if you’re swimming around subtropical waters and you hear yourself call out, “Whoa, Mabel! Get a load of the bony ears on that ass fish!” Listen: fish don’t have ears, and you don’t know anyone named Mabel. Now, I know that if the bony-eared assfish is your totem, you’re already having trouble following this, so just lie still and try not to think.

Make Language Your Servant

mb_0407When you look in the mirror, you don’t see what the rest of us recognize as your face. You see all your small asymmetries—the freckle on your left cheek, your crooked smile, the part of your hair—reversed. When you think about yourself, this quirk of perception is much more dramatic, because as Byron Katie says, “Like a mir­ror, the mind has a way of getting things right but backwards.”

Katie fans (including all MBI coaches) spend a lot of time noticing this reversal of the real, and flipping our thoughts to discover the truth. This is what I’m calling the Fifth Task of Bewilderment. It’s a way of making language our servant, not our master, as we wend our way toward the truths that set us free.

If you’ve never heard of this Task, but you’re sick of misery, I urge you to learn it and use it, soon and often. Try this: call up an unhappy thought you believe about yourself—“I’m a loser/ idiot/ failure/ hot mess/ etc.,” or “I’m too old/ fat/ stupid/ loud/ etc.” Write it down.

Now, you may recall that the Second Task was simply noticing what nourishes you, and what poisons you. Read your unhappy thought, and just notice how poisonous it is. It will corrode your happiness like acid destroying silk. The Second Task asks you to push it aside, but the Fifth Task makes it useful. Your pain is the indicator that this thought is useful and important, but only because its mirror image, its polar opposite, is trying to make itself known to you.

The full Byron Katie work will help you see this at a deep level, but right now, try a shortened version. See if you can think of real, factual evidence indicating that the opposite of your unhappy thought is the truth you most need to learn right now.

The word “opposite” is key, here. If you think you’re too old, the truth isn’t just that 60 is the new 40—that’s just a lame way of comforting yourself, while still believing that there’s such a thing as “too old.” The Fifth Task asks us to radically shift our whole perception of reality. It asks you to think of a way in which you’re actually too young.

For example, maybe only immature humans, who haven’t yet noticed the ageless Being powering all of our meat-selves, fuss about aging. Maybe you’re too young to have stumbled across Einstein’s discovery that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS TIME. Maybe you’re still so little you still believe it’s better to begin a journey than to come home.

Can you see how the Fifth Task forces open the tight fist of the mind, allowing you to touch and feel and play with reality in new ways? It’s the very definition of out-of-the-box thinking, and as you do it, you’ll find that your suffering begins to dissolve. What’s left is not a new box of thoughts, but a free mind. What you’ll see in the mirror after that is a wild, beautiful, undefined creature, with a wild thing’s pure delight in the experience of life.

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

Demolish Your Definition of Self

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

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.