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!

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.

The Magic Created Just for You

magicEvery year, before I go to Londolozi, South Africa, for our annual Self Transformation Adventure Retreats (STARs), I expect magical things to happen. When I get there I always panic—Holy crap, I’ve promised something I can’t possibly create. Will the magical things arrive?

And every year, they do.

This year—whew!—was no exception. I watched our STARlings create magic for themselves, and I watched Africa embrace them, and it was awesome. But right now I’ll just tell you something that happened to me, me, ME, because as Nisargadatta Maharaj once half-joked, “God is doing all of this for me.”

Before leaving for Africa, I went to my favorite bird-watching store in San Luis Obispo and bought a fabulous hat. It was made in Canada, with straps both in front and behind (I challenge any of you to wear anything half so dorky).

Three weeks into my Africa stay, I was sitting with the Vartys, who run Londolozi, when master coach Michael Trotta said, “Do you know there’s a secret compartment in your hat?”

Sure enough, the crown of the hat has a false bottom, sealed with Velcro. Inside was a little plastic bag for storing things like money, or methamphetamines, or whatever (those bird watchers are CRAZY!). And inside the plastic bag was a small card. And on the card was a tiny photo of a man with an elephant. I read the card aloud to the Vartys, “Elephant trainer Michael Hackenberger of the Ontario Zoo had his Tilley hat snatched and eaten by an elephant. Three times.”

“Oh,” said the Vartys. “Michael Hackenberger. Yes, we know him well. He sold us some tigers. His elephant came from this area.”

Are you getting this? I bought a hat in California that was made in Canada, and unknowingly carried a tiny photo of an elephant back to the precise location in Africa where that elephant was born. Then I discovered the photo at exactly the time and place I’d read it to the people who could tell me about this…coincidence?

Are you KIDDING?

This proves nothing, of course. It’s just one hell of a coincidence. To me, it’s the vast intelligence of the cosmos winking at the point of itself that is me, saying, “This world is far more magical than you realize—oh, and by the way, God is doing all of this for you.” If there’s one thing I re-learn every year at Londolozi, it’s that every one of us can say that, and we’ll always be right.

P.S. Are you feeling the call to magical adventure? Jump on the STAR interest list to stay in the loop about our 2016 trip!

How to Turn Failure into Success

1339521_38971392I spent at least half my childhood drawing. By the time I got to college and signed up for my first drawing class, I was pretty comfortable with a pencil. My teacher was a brilliant draftsman named Will Reimann. To impress him, I fired up all my best tricks: lots of varied lines, fade-outs, soft gradients. One day while I was drawing, something landed on my sketch pad. It was a mechanical drafting pen.

“Use that from now on,” said Mr. Reimann. And he smiled the smile of a man who has hatched an evil plot.

Oh, how I hated that damn pen! It drew a stark black line of unvarying thickness, making all my faboo pencil techniques impossible. You’d think my teacher would’ve been helpful, or at least forgiving. But no. He’d glance at my awkward ink drawings, groan “Oh, God,” and walk away holding his head in his hands, like a migraine sufferer. My art grade plummeted. I writhed with frustration. A few weeks later, as I sat in another class taking notes with the Loathsome Pen of Doom, something happened. Without my intention, my hand started dancing with that horrible pen. Together, they began making odd marks: hatches, overlapping circles, patches of stippling.

The next drawing I completed won a juried art show. “How did you figure out a drafting pen could do this?” one of the judges asked me.

“I failed,” I told them. “Over and over again.”

Since then I’ve had many occasions to celebrate failure, in myself and in others. From my life-coaching seat, I’ve noticed that the primary difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is that the successful people fail more. If you see failure as a monster stalking you, or one that has already ruined your life, take another look. That monster can become a benevolent teacher, opening your mind to successes you cannot now imagine.

The Optional Agony of Defeat

My dog-groomer friend Laura breeds and shows prizewinning poodles. One afternoon she arrived at the off-leash dog park looking thoroughly dejected.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her as our pets gamboled about.

“Ewok,” said Laura, nodding mournfully toward her well-coiffed dog. “He didn’t even place at the show yesterday. Didn’t…even…place! And he just hates to lose!” Her voice was so bitter I winced. “He should have been best in show,” she said. “Look at him—he’s perfect!”

I looked at Ewok. He looked fine—but perfect? Who knew? To me, saying a poodle with long legs is better than one with short legs seems absurd. A poodle’s a poodle, for heaven’s sake. I think Ewok would’ve agreed. He certainly didn’t seem to be the one who hated losing. He’d discovered a broken Frisbee and appeared to be experiencing the sort of rapture Saint Teresa felt when visited by God.

Laura’s desolation stemmed not from what actually happened at the dog show but from her ideas about success and failure. Lacking such concepts, Ewok was simply enjoying life. Going to dog shows and winning, going to dog shows and losing, going to the park and scavenging—from Ewok’s perspective, it was all good. Meanwhile, Laura’s thoughts about losing had tainted all these experiences. Thankfully, she’d managed to avoid a pitfall even worse than failure: success.

“Success is as dangerous as failure,” said Lao-tzu, and any life coach knows this is true. I can’t count the number of times people have told me, “I hate the job I’m doing, but I’m good at it. To do what I want, I’d have to start at zero and I might fail.” Dwelling on failure can make us miserable, but dwelling on success can turn us into galley slaves, bound to our wretched benches solely by the thought, “I hate this, but at least I’m good at it.” This is especially ironic because researchers report that satisfaction thrives on challenge. Think about it: A computer game you can always win is boring; one you can win sometimes, and with considerable effort, is fun.

With time-killing games, where the stakes are very low, pretty much everyone’s willing to risk failure. But when it comes to things we think really matter, like creating a career or raising children, we hunker down, tighten up, and absolutely refuse to fail. Anyway, that’s the theory. The reality is, we are going to fail. Then we make things worse by refusing to accept this.

Tammy came to me distraught because her 17-year-old son, Jason—her perfect son, whom she’d raised with perfect love, perfectly following every known rule of perfect motherhood—had been arrested for public intoxication.

“I’ve failed,” Tammy sobbed. “I’ve failed Jason; I’ve failed myself!”

“Yup,” I said. “You got that right.”

Tammy stared at me as though I’d slapped her. Clearly, that was not my line. I shrugged. “You’ve failed a million times, and you’ve succeeded a million times. Welcome to parenthood. Do you know any mothers who never fail their kids?”

“Sure,” Tammy said, nodding. “A lot of my friends at the country club are perfect mothers.” She wept even harder. “And they say horrible things about the bad mothers. Now they’ll judge me, because Jason…” She dissolved in sobs.

“Tell me,” I said, “do you actually like any of those women?”

The sobbing stopped abruptly. There was a long moment of silence, and then Tammy seemed to transform before my eyes. She sat up straighter.

“You know, I don’t,” she said. “I don’t really like any of them.”

“I believe you,” I said. “I don’t know your friends, but if I had to live with someone like the person you were a minute ago, I’d start drinking too.”

“I do live with her,” said Tammy wryly. “And I’d love a drink.”

“Hear, hear,” I said. “So go home and apologize to Jason for imitating mothers you don’t even like. Try being real with him—teenagers love that. Every moment you’re real with him, you’re succeeding as a mother. Every moment you lose yourself by trying to be perfect, you’re failing. And the moment you accept that you’re failing, you’re succeeding again.”

Tammy squinted at me. “You’re telling me to accept failure as a mother?”

“Whenever you fail,” I said. “Got any other options?”

“Well, no…but accept failure? As a mother? I can’t.”

“Sure you can,” I said. “Try this: Think about the fact that you failed to control Jason. Notice how you’re all scrunched up, thinking, ‘Oh, no!’?”

Tammy nodded.

“Okay, now unscrunch, and instead of saying, ‘Oh, no!’ say, ‘Oh, well…'”

I beamed at Tammy. She waited for me to go on. I didn’t.

Tammy laughed. “I can’t believe this,” she said. “I came here thinking you could tell me how to fix my son, and the best advice you’ve got is, ‘Oh, well’?”

“Damn. You’re right,” I said. “I’ve totally failed you.” I took a deep breath, and relaxed. “Oh, well…”

Tammy looked at me for another long minute. Then she said, “Just your saying that makes me trust you.” This is the magic of accepting that you’ve done your very best but failed. Own your failure openly, publicly, with genuine regret but absolutely no shame, and you’ll reap a harvest of forgiveness, trust, respect, and connection—the things you thought you’d get by succeeding. Ironic, isn’t it?

Blasting Through Attachments

I owe my ability to accept maternal failure to my son Adam. Though I bred young, never smoked or drank, ate right, and all that, Adam showed up with an extra chromosome, mentally challenged. Oops. From the word “go,” I’d failed to make him a successful student, athlete, rocket scientist. In my mind, nothing could compensate for such massive failures.

This was when I discovered that the bigger the perceived problem, the better it delivers failure’s great gift: freedom from attachment to ideas about success. A lucky person escapes her enemies. But a really lucky person (as the poet Rumi puts it) “slips into a house to escape enemies, and opens the door to the other world.”

This can happen in tiny ways and huge ones. The day my pencil-proficient mind accepted failure and allowed my hand to start dancing with that mechanical pen, a door opened on a new way of drawing. Accepting that I’d failed to create a “normal” life for my child blasted away much bigger assumptions, bone-deep beliefs like “Successful mothers have smart children” and “My kids should never fail.”

This hurt like a sonovabitch, but when the rubble cleared, I found myself in a world where all judgments of success and failure are arbitrary and insignificant, as ridiculous (no offense) as the American Kennel Club’s definition of the “perfect” poodle. Without judgments, it’s obvious that joy is available in every moment—and never in anything else.

I can see that Tammy gets this. Jason’s rebellion becomes a gift as failure does for Tammy what I’ve seen it do for so many others: soften, mellow, calm, enrich, embolden. The poet Antonio Machado expressed it this way:

Last night as I was sleeping
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

I can’t say I look forward to the failures that await me. But they’ll be along in no time, so I feel lucky to know what to do when each one arrives. It will work for you too. Unscrunch. Exhale. Let go of “Oh, no!” and embrace “Oh, well…” Then, whatever door opens, walk through it.

Failing Upward

By my sophomore year in college, mechanical pens were my favorite drawing instruments. Trial and error (and error, and error) had made me so comfortable with them that they felt like extensions of my hands. Being a masochist and a fool, I signed up for another class from Mr. Reimann. One morning while I was drawing, something landed on my sketch pad. It was a watercolor brush.

“Use that from now on,” said my teacher. “You’ll hate it. You put a mark down on the paper, and half an hour later, it decides what it’s going to look like.”

I picked up the brush. “You’re not going to help me with this, are you?”

“Well, let’s put it this way,” said Mr. Reimann. “The sooner you make your first 5,000 mistakes, the sooner you’ll get on to the next 5,000.” And he walked away smiling his evil-plot smile, having arranged yet another dance with failure, inspirer of all uninspired artists, master teacher of all master teachers.

How to Find Joy That Lasts

189758_3698It was the bottom bottom of the ninth inning in game seven of the 2001 World Series. The New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks were all tied up. As Arizonans, my family and I were thrilled to see our state getting attention for something other than sun damage, so when Luis Gonzalez hit a bloop single to drive in the winning run, we went bananas—screaming, punching the air, jumping like jackrabbits on crack. Now, ordinarily my beagle Cookie (may he rest in peace) loved human celebrations. He’d howl along and do a little tap dance, castanet toenails clicking on the floor. But after Gonzo’s historic hit, as the rest of us shrieked in victory, Cookie ran trembling to hide under the bed.

While trying to extract him, I suddenly realized that our revelry had indeed felt a bit crazed. Upon further reflection, I saw that it echoed a similar craziness in the TV commercials that had aired during the game. On television, people weren’t just pleased about new dust mops or deodorants—they were ecstatic. Women threw back their heads to laugh wildly. While eating salad. Alone. Car salesmen announced bargains with such enthusiasm, I feared for their undershorts. In fact, everything I’d seen during the broadcast suggested that the ideal emotional state is one of intense, manic euphoria, and that we should all feel that way almost all the time.

Well, it isn’t, and we shouldn’t.

Cookie’s animal honesty woke me up to the strangeness of something I’d begun to take for granted: the fact that our culture has come to define happiness as an experience that blows your mind. It’s as though we’re somehow falling short if we don’t routinely feel the way Times Square looks—madly pulsing with a billion watts of Wow! 

Don’t get me wrong. Excitement is a great and necessary thing; without it life wouldn’t be complete. But happiness—real happiness—is something entirely different, at once calmer and more rewarding. And cultivating it is one of the most important steps we can take toward creating fulfilling lives.

Peak Experiences: Faux Happiness

Intense excitement is what Asian philosophy might call the “near enemy” of true joy—something that looks like the genuine article but is in reality its evil twin. When a gift recipient or jackpot winner starts shaking, screaming, or hyperventilating, we call it happiness, but actually it’s evidence that their neurological fight-or-flight mechanism has been triggered. (This helps explain why it’s not just a play on words to say that mania can create maniacs, and why in some cases sports fans seem to riot more violently after their teams win than after they lose: Our fight-or-flight system predisposes us to violence.) Switching on this mechanism switches off the physiological processes that allow us to relax, connect, and absorb joyful experience.

What’s more, high excitement is often followed by a mood crash. Afterward we may go through a phase of feeling lifeless and depressed. Users of the recreational drug Ecstasy are familiar with the hormone drop that follows a weekend rave. They call it Suicide Tuesday, and if you’re an obsessive euphoria seeker, you’ve felt it, too, with or without drugs.

For people who think mania is happiness, the only remedy for Suicide Tuesday is another intensely exciting experience. This may explain why trips to Disney World are exalted like pilgrimages to Mecca, and why multi-day extravaganza destination weddings are becoming ever more the norm. The attitude can be traced all the way back to the European adventurers who seeded American society; they were always seeking some variety of El Dorado, some prize to top all other prizes. As a Pueblo Indian chief once told the psychiatrist Carl Jung, “The whites always want something; they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all mad.”

The Plains of Peace: Real Happiness

True joy lacks the wild ups and downs of an excitement-based life. It’s a peaceful landscape, filled with peaceful thoughts and peaceful emotions. Indeed, it’s so peaceful that, to our adrenaline-soaked culture, it looks rather plain. In fact, I like to think of it as the plains of peace.

You can probably look back on times that didn’t seem very memorable when they were happening but that stand out in retrospect for their sweetness: floating in the ocean on a summer day; seeing the sun set as you drove home from work; picking berries in the country with friends. Relive those moments—the sound of the surf, the breeze on your face, the taste of salt on your lips, the gentle rocking of the water—and you’ll see that they’re rich, layered, and powerfully sustaining to the soul. Beagles, who wag their tails over every small joy, seem to recognize these moments continuously. Humans, not so much.

If you worry that your life is lacking in events so exciting they’ll make your head spin like an industrial food processor, I have good news: You can relax. The best way to increase genuine joy is to stop searching for manic highs and instead explore the plains of peace. Happily, you’re in the perfect place to begin: this very moment. 

How to Be Here Now

People started telling me to “be here now” when I was about 20. “Great!” I responded. “How?” Be still, they said. Breathe. Well, fine. I started dutifully practicing meditation, by which I mean I tried to be still while compulsively planning my next billion-watt wow. But one day, while reading up on the latest research in positive psychology, I discovered a two-word instruction that reliably ushered me onto the plains of peace when I couldn’t force my brain to just “be still.” Here it is: Make something.

You see, creative work causes us to secrete dopamine, a hormone that can make us feel absorbed and fulfilled without feeling manic. This is in sharp contrast to the fight-or-flight mechanism, which is associated with hysteria hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Research indicates that we’re most creative when we’re happy and relaxed, and conversely, that we can steer our brains into this state by undertaking a creative task.

To get a dopamine “hit,” make something that pushes you to the furthest edge of your ability, where you’re not only focused but learning and perfecting skills. Cooking an unfamiliar dish will do the trick, as will perfecting a new clogging routine. At first, depending on how addicted to mania you happen to be, the excitement-grubbing part of your brain won’t want to stop obsessing about over-the-top experiences. It will cling to its fantasies about the next huge thrill, its fears of Suicide Tuesday. Keep creating. 

As you persist, your brain will eventually yield to the state psychologists call mindfulness. Your emotions will calm, even if you’re physically and mentally active. You won’t notice happiness when it first appears, because in true presence, the mind’s frantic searching stops. In its place arises a fascination with what’s occurring here and now. Though this feeling is subtle, it’s the opposite of dull. It’s infinitely varied and exquisite.

The aftermath of a creative surge, especially one that involves a new skill, is a sense of accomplishment and increased self-efficacy—which psychologists recognize as an important counter to depression. Instead of a Suicide Tuesday crash, you’re left with the happy fatigue of someone who is building strength.

Pay attention to this process, and you’ll see that the motivation to be here now will gradually grow stronger than the cultural pressure to seek excitement. You’ll find yourself increasingly able to tune in to the delights of the present even when you’re not actively creating. When this happens, you’ll be on your way to genuine happiness: abundant, sustainable delight in the beautiful moments of ordinary life.

And when something genuinely thrilling happens, you’ll be ready. That wild rumpus celebrating the Diamondbacks’ victory in the World Series turned me into a baseball fan. Ever since, I’ve enjoyed watching large men in pajamas strive for victory. I enjoy going briefly berserk when my team wins. I enjoy seeing the women in commercials ecstatically dust their furniture. But I don’t take any of it seriously. What I do take seriously is the lesson I learned from Cookie and his successor, Bjorn: that happiness is available to me in every moment. It’s there in the words I’m writing now, in my engagement with those around me, in the happy sigh Bjorn breathes as we sit together exploring the plains of peace. Wow. 

Ask For It

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

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

This is how most of my coaching conversations start out:

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

And so on.

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

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

Radical Fun

So this month I was curled into my usual fetal position wondering how to make good things happen without moving at all, when I came upon a thought. The thought was this: Since the energy of every effort creates a result in the same general zone of energy, my usual habit of working throughout most of every day was generating a great deal of what we might call “energetic fertilizer” (in other words, poop). I was trained for years to work myself to the point of feeling pooped, and I am very good at it. But who, I thought, wants to buy pooped energy? It seems we all generate plenty of that on our own. What I wanted was more energy of fun. I presume this is also what many of my customers and clients want. I decided to run an experiment. I decided that for two weeks—the final two weeks of April–I would dedicate myself not only to feeling passively well, but to having fun. Radical fun.

Author and journalist Joshua Foer, who trained as a competitive memorizer (of all things), writes about something called the OK Plateau. That’s the place where things are going well enough that we can stumble along fairly well without needing to improve anything. I have spent years on the OK Plateau when it comes to having fun. I have found that many clients report the same tendencies. When life gets to OK they stop thinking about things like fun. The challenge of radical fun is to take those OK experiences and make them delightful. We tend to assume that this is the result of laziness and selfishness, and that we would all do it automatically if we weren’t so disciplined and virtuous.

What I’ve discovered during radical fun month is that fun is a skill. Most of us are terrible at it. We immediately turn to tired stereotypes, clichés like sleeping on the beach, drinking, eating too much, and spending a lot of money. I have nothing against these activities, but they’re pathetic attempts at creating genuine exuberant joyful feelings. When I ask clients to reward themselves for difficult achievements they find that coming up with the reward is harder for them than the achievement itself. So right now, I’d like you to turn your attention to finding or creating a fun experience for yourself. Do this in the knowledge that the energy of fun will fuel your productivity in every area of your life–and also that any activity in your life is only worth doing if it facilitates the experience of joy.

First question, Are you tired? When you are tired no significant effort is fun. The clichés I’ve just mentioned (the beach, the drinking, etc.) exist largely because most of us are significantly sleep deprived. If your answer to this question is yes, you must–I said must–aggressively create opportunities to rest and act on them.

When you are no longer tired you can ask the second question: What did you do for fun as a child? Our fun preferences appear very early in our lives and tend to remain extremely stable over time. What was fun for you at age 2 will probably be the most fun you can have at 92. For me, one obvious answer to this question was reading. I learned to read very young and stopped only under extreme duress. However, my literacy was turned into work, first by my education and then by choosing a career as a writer. I realized that I frequently slip into the bad habit of reading only for work and not for pleasure. So just reading wasn’t enough fun for me. I needed to read something pointless, non-work-related, and highly entertaining. Thank you Hunger Games. By jumping into young adult fantasy fiction, I yanked myself right off the OK Plateau and into some radical fun. For you, reading may not be fun at all. DO NOT JUDGE YOURSELF. Just look back on your childhood and find what you did when no one was forcing you. Did you climb trees? Did you play computer games? Did you build forts? Did you dress in a ninja outfit and hide in the closet of your best friends bedroom? Don’t do that—it isn’t legal. But find an alternative based on the original fun experience.

The fabulous thing about returning to childhood pleasures is that you now have things like computers, cars, and the ability to purchase or barter for experiences to which you had no access as a child. If you liked playing hide-and-seek as a kid you can now go with your friends to a paintball maze and have a radically fun experience. If you liked to pretend you were a famous singer you can get voice lessons, then have your spouse film you using nothing but a phone and reach your fans online. This is the age when magical technologies make more and more radically fun ideas plausible, even easy. You’re only limited by your creativity and the OK Plateau.

Since I started my radical fun experiment, ridiculously positive things have been happening. I’ll tell you about them next month if they all pan out (some of them are still in process). But right now I’m telling you, according to this experimental sample of one, radical fun leads to radical positive results which seem to have nothing to do with the new fun games you are playing. Fun creates more fun. This month, insist on it.

Revealing Ourselves: The Art of Self-Disclosure

Cindy was my own little JFK: A riddle wrapped in a question locked inside an enigma. She’d been my client for nearly three months, but I still had no idea what she thought or felt. Our conversations always went something like this:

Me: “So, Cindy, what’s going on in your life?”

Cindy: “Oh, you know. Like, my parents…[long pause]”

Me: “Yes?”

Cindy: “You know how they are.”

Me: “Um, not really. How are they?”

Cindy: “It’s like, well, anyway…I don’t know, they…like…[sigh]”

Me: “Like what?”

Cindy: “You know.”

As flattered as I was that Cindy seemed to consider me omniscient (she said “you know” approximately four thousand times per session), I eventually had to advise that she stop wasting money on a life coach who had no clue what to tell her. “But,” Cindy exclaimed with obvious dismay, “you’re the only person who really seems to understand me!” 

Until that moment, I’d assumed that Cindy didn’t trust me enough to talk about her inner life. Then I realized that she just didn’t know how. To some degree, most of us share her dilemma. We want desperately to be understood, and we think this will happen when we meet the Perfectly Understanding Person. The truth is that we lack the capacity to make ourselves understood, the ability to disclose our real selves in a way that connects us with others. Even if you’re as stuck as Cindy, you can—and if you want to live joyfully, you must—learn to do it. 

The Dance of the Seven Veils 

The ability to make yourself understood is a prosaic, practical skill, like swimming or telling time but more fundamental to your emotional health. In his poem “A Prayer for My Daughter,” William Butler Yeats called it “the heart-revealing intimacy / that chooses right,” phrasing that emphasizes the importance of opening our feelings to others—but carefully. Most of us reveal ourselves about as gracefully as drunken ducklings until we’ve had a little experience. Like Cindy, we may spend years in inarticulate silence, then blurt out things that make us feel, well, like we’re exposing ourselves. 

The ability to disclose our true selves effectively is a bit like the famous dance of the seven veils, in which the dancer removes one veil at a time, with plenty of dancing in between, creating far more allure than if she just showed up buck naked. Relationships, even completely asexual ones, work the same way (one of my clients used the term falling in like to describe the happy dance of gradual disclosure involved in making friends). Our true selves are hidden behind innumerable veils. Each time we disclose a truth about ourselves—anything from our favorite color to our deepest feelings—we remove a layer. Pay attention the next time you do this. Notice the other person’s reaction. Does it make you feel understood, safe, glad you’ve unveiled a bit? If so, you’ll probably feel like shedding another layer sometime soon. If not, simply stop unveiling. By responding to your instincts, you’ll develop the skill of setting boundaries very precisely. This sets you free to bond with people who really understand you, while remaining cordially detached from those who don’t.

The Art of Self-Disclosure 

Cindy didn’t have any objection to shedding her veils, but she was tangled in knots of inarticulate shyness. She had to learn the art of self-disclosure from the ground up. I use the term art advisedly. I believe even if you’re a bullheaded truckdriver with the emotional range of a stump, developing an ability to disclose will require—at least temporarily—that you become a self-disclosing artist. There are several different ways to awaken the artist in yourself, starting with: 

1. Let your body talk. You could assemble a group of mothers from Zimbabwe, Greenland, and New York, have them describe what it was like to give birth, and rest assured that they would soon be weeping for one another’s pain and laughing at one another’s jokes without any need for interpreters. Lacking a common language, they would speak in Body, the communicative code of gesture, movement, and facial expression shared by all people. If you’re not able to articulate what you feel or believe, you can use this code to let your deep self talk to your conscious, verbal mind. 

Cindy and I started using this process shortly after she rejected my suggestion that she find another coach. I had her describe to me, in as much detail as possible, some of the best and worst experiences of her life. Her words were few and halting, but the more she tried to describe these events, the more Cindy’s body unconsciously began to express profound experiences: hands moving protectively toward her throat or opening into starbursts of excitement; eyes narrowing in anger, then widening in astonishment; shoulders hunching, drooping, squaring off for combat. Every so often I’d ask Cindy to freeze, and we’d talk about what we thought her body was trying to convey.

You can use a similar method alone or (better) with a buddy or counselor or (best) with a group of friends. As you talk about a problem or prospect you’re facing, ask yourself and your observers what your body is expressing. When I do this in seminars, I’m amazed by how much information people get from one another’s physical signals, how sensitively they can interpret nuances of feeling, and how much consensus exists, even in large groups, about what any given person’s body is expressing. If your mind isn’t sure what you’re feeling, you’ll be amazed what you can learn from and say with your body.

2. Fumble for words. Despite the power of body language, we are ineluctably verbal creatures; words usually end up being our preferred means of self-disclosure. Most of us don’t realize that humans have barely begun using language to describe subjective experiences. Until a paltry few centuries ago, most people were far too busy surviving to spend time discussing thoughts and feelings. Many of the words we use to describe psychological phenomena (depression, excitement, humor) were originally used to refer to physical objects or actions (a concave surface, the initiation of motion, bodily fluid). These words were adapted almost fancifully to describe feelings or thoughts. They stuck because no better alternatives existed.

Since using words to capture and convey experience is so new, I think we should all consider ourselves verbal pioneers, pushing back the boundaries of the wild frontier, groping for the words to express things that may never have been expressed before. If you’re intimidated by the thought of saying the Wrong Thing, try deliberately playing fast and loose with words. Most of us censor and edit ourselves when the words that pop into our minds aren’t sensible. If Shakespeare had thought this way, he might have written, “That’s a hurtful thing to say,” instead of, “These words like daggers enter in mine ears.” The second sentence is less factual, but we can feel its meaning viscerally. When it comes to self-disclosure, choose guts over grammar. Say what comes up.

When Cindy began to experiment with voicing her first thoughts, rather than the “right” answer, I immediately began to understand her better. “I feel like my head is full of sand,” she said one day, “with a bird in it.” Then she blushed and apologized, “That makes no sense!” But it made perfect sense to me. I could feel the clogged thickness of Cindy’s brain in my own head, sense the fluttering, winged thing that was buried alive inside it. My inner life had connected with Cindy’s, and her emotional isolation began dissolving.

Try writing down the phrase “I feel like a ———” and then toss out the first ten nouns that come to mind: pizza, orchid, sword, whatever. Now read over what you’ve written and see what rings true. Do you really feel like an orchid? In what way? Be as irrational as you can be. The less you keep the rules, the more your mind will begin to use words as vehicles to convey the sense of your experience, rather than as rigid structures that limit your thoughts and feelings.

3. Use artists’ creations to describe how you feel. Great art, in my opinion, is simply a reflection of the artist’s ability to disclose his or her inner experience very directly and accurately. I know exactly how Edvard Munch was feeling when he painted The Scream, and so do you. A sequence of musical tones assembled by Bach, or a few words placed in a sparse line by e.e. cummings, can convey pure emotion or articulate truths I never knew about myself—I have no idea how this is possible, but it is. A wonderful way to disclose your own heart, then, is to get a little help from artists who communicate feelings similar to your own. I tend to play music for my family and friends (“Here! This is what I’m feeling!”) as a way of disclosing aspects of myself I can’t express. I also plague people with drawings, paintings, books, and movies that have touched me deeply. It always strikes me as miraculous that I—or you or even the noncommunicative Cindy—can borrow the genius of artists who lived in other times and places to build bridges across the voids that separate our hearts from each other. 

*****

As a matter of fact, Cindy the Silent gradually blossomed into one of the most expressive people I’ve ever coached. After learning to interpret her own feelings, speak freely, and ride piggyback on the self-disclosing genius of others, she decided to quit her dead-end job and enroll in film school. She recently sent me a still shot she’d taken of me sitting in my office with my dog, discussing the art of self-disclosure. Beneath the image Cindy had written, “This is a little underexposed, like me. But I’m working on it.” She didn’t need to say more. She knew I’d understand.

Distort Your Reality

Welcome to what some are describing as the very last year ever. Not that we’re all going to die, I am told, just that according to the Mayans—or the Aztecs or the people at Burger King or wherever—time will cease to exist this year, and therefore the word “year” will become meaningless. Why the hell not? 
 
So, as long as we’ve still got time, let’s talk about how we can use it. I just finished the longish biography of the shortish life of Steve Jobs. I read it on my kindle for iPhone, which I carry everywhere in my purse, giving me access to hundreds of books anytime I find myself waiting in line or stuck in an airport. It was an odd experience of cognitive dissonance; I’d read about how Jobs refused to bathe, threw tantrums and objects, and stabbed friends in the back, and think, “What a jerk!” Then I would highlight a particularly striking passage, and think, “Oh, my gosh! When I touch the screen a little magnifying glass appears! This is the coolest thing!” And, of course, my iPhone would not exist if Steve Jobs had not done what he did. Computers would still belong mostly to hackers who would sit in their garages designing inelegant machines for other techno-geeks. 
 
One theme in Jobs’ life was what his associates called his “reality distortion field.” Jobs would demand that his engineers create impossible gadgets and designs. There were actually signs posted in the Apple offices saying, “Beware the reality distortion field.” Yet, when they were face-to-face with Jobs, even staring right at such a sign, people tended to forget their own limitations and believe that they could do what Jobs said they could. This begs the question, what was the real reality distortion at work? The fact is that most of the “impossible” things Jobs demanded were actually produced, though their creators had to work feverishly to create them. In other words, the reality all along was that they had this capability. Their conviction that they could not do extraordinary things was actually the distortion of reality. It made me feel much more forgiving of Steve Jobs eccentricities. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be to know something was possible and that your friends could do it, and to have every one of them denying the reality you knew?
 
So as the year begins, I’ve been thinking about my own reality distortion fields. Where is my mind attached to ideas of limitation that are in fact distorted version of reality? What wonderful devices or innovations could I create if I surrendered my preconceptions? I’ve found that within me, as within Steve Jobs, there is a sort of psychological pioneer. It wants to see wonderful things happen in the world and it assumes that my job is to make them happen. I don’t think I’m at Steve Jobs’ level by any means, but that lunatic fringe part of my consciousness behaves a bit like him. When I’m trying to master a new technology on my computer, or find a way to get through to a client who is truly locked in a destructive worldview, or find a way to help rehabilitate Earth’s ecosystems, I reach the emotional level of a two year old. I feel petulant, teary, and seized by a combination of intense desire and stubbornly persistent fear.
 
I suspect we all have this pioneer archetype within us, pushing us to achieve things we know for certain to be “impossible.” We tend to stay away from that portion of our awareness for the same reason many people steered clear of Steve Jobs. (What a jerk! What distortion of reality!) But as I look around me at the change that Jobs created in the world, I have come to believe that I must befriend this delusional whiny pioneer within me. My task is to access that part of myself without the loss of compassion or patience that interfered with Steve Jobs’ personal relationships. Can I go to the furthest limits of my imagination and figure out where my supposed limitations are actually distortions of reality? Can I hang on long enough to the “impossible dream” to see it become real? I’m not sure. But as my resolution of this last of all possible years, I am determined to try.
 
So what about you? Can you find the Steve Jobs aspect of yourself? Can you “distort” your reality by believing against all odds that you can do something spectacular? Try entering your reality distortion field long enough to achieve the impossible. Believe that one human being can transform everything. Work your heart out in the service of your most optimistic imagination and then go one step beyond even the genius of Steve Jobs by continuing to bathe regularly.