The Adequate-Sleep Life-Enhancing Experimental Project

First of all, I want to register a simultaneous apology and complaint:  My blog won’t post pictures today.  This has made me feel so defeated I think I’ll go back to bed.  Which leads me to today’s topic…

Something incredibly bizarre happened to me last night.I turned out the light at midnight, but didn’t fall asleep right away, because—this is the bizarre part—I wasn’t tired.

I didn’t know that was even possible.True, I was only really tired during one period of my life, but that period lasted from January of 1970 until this past June. By then I’d begun getting Messages From the Universe indicating that I’d spent enough time in a physical and mental fog.For example:

  • Having heard that Thomas Edison relied on refreshing mini-naps, I started taking them regularly. While driving.
  • I had elaborate, compulsive fantasies about sleeping with all the most beautiful people I know.None of these fantasies involved sex.
  • My caffeine-related jitters were interfering with seismographic readings as far away as Bangladesh.
  • I kept confusing Anne Coulter with Kim Jong-Il.
  • I was legally required to change the eye-color listing on my driver’s license from “blue” to “red.”
  • One night in a hotel room, judgment deeply impaired, I used the scissors from my travel sewing kit to give myself a haircut that was basically an Homage to Sheep Shearing.

Then an intuitive friend said something I thought was very profound:“What would you do if you knew that every good thing in your life depended on your getting enough rest? Because it does.”

At least I think that’s what she said. And I think it was my intuitive friend. It could have been the cashier at Target. Or Kim Jong-Il. It’s all sort of hazy.

Anyway, at that moment I made a radical decision: I would put sleep above all other priorities until I was no longer tired.Every night, I would sleep until I woke up. I would consume no stimulants, and I would go back to dreamland whenever I felt fatigued.

When I woke up six weeks later, the whole world seemed shiny and attractive, like Patrick Stewart’s head. I was filled with ideas. My eye-bags had shrunk to the point where they looked less like Hefty garbage disposal units than tasteful evening clutches. I felt an inner peace I thought came only from enlightenment or horse tranquilizers.

That was yesterday, and it was followed by the bizarre experience mentioned above: I just lay there, awake and perky, feeling the amazing sensation of not being tired, and vowing that somehow, I’d make the feeling last.

So I invite you to join me in something I’m calling the Adequate-Sleep Life-Enhancing Experimental Project (ASLEEP).The requirements for membership are simple: we sleep until we aren’t tired, whenver possible. And I mean WHENEVER POSSIBLE, as in, if you show up at your best friend’s wedding tired, you take a pillow and sleep through the ceremony. Better yet, don’t show. Man up. Stay in bed.

If you violate the project’s strict standards, the rest of us… won’t even know about it.We’re ASLEEP, remember?We don’t check up on our collaborators, evaluate performance, or do a damn thing with the data from our research.All we do is enjoy life a hell of a lot more than we did when we were always tired.Because every good thing really does depend on rest.Go get some.

Summer Slowdown

Maybe I like this joke because tortoises are my totem animals (they remind me to take life in turtle steps, keep a tough outside but stay soft inside, stick my neck out to move forward, etc., etc.).  Here’s the joke:

 A turtle gets mugged by a large, hostile snail.  When the police ask him what happened, the turtle stammers, “I…I don’t know, officer.  It all happened so fast….”

That’s the way this summer is going for me.  It’s very, very slow, but when I look back on it, the time seems to have gone in a flash.  I used to worry about this, but I’ve recently been convinced that it’s a good thing.  Those of you who’ve roamed within earshot of me this past month have heard me raving about the process of skill development in the brain.  It turns out those “turtle steps” I take may actually be more useful than a jackrabbit sprint.

 

How Slow Can You Go?

My obsession with skill development comes from reading a book by Daniel Coyle, entitled The Talent Code.  Coyle describes the way the brain develops high levels of skill—basically, by wrapping a neural synapse in more and more layers of myelin, the waxy substance that coats our nerves like the plastic on a copper electric wire. 

The more myelin you’ve got, the faster and more preferentially the neuron will fire.  And the way to develop more myelin is something Coyle calls “deep practice.”  Repeating a skill-based action rapidly over and over won’t develop as much skill as doing it slowly, correcting your errors, then doing it slowly and correcting each tiny error again.  “It’s not how fast you can do it,” Coyle writes, quoting a famous tennis coach.  “It’s how slow you can do it right.”

Me gusta mucho.

The Firebirds

We residents of Phoenix should rejoice at this discovery, especially in the summer, because Phoenicians slow down this time of year.  I mean a lot.  In case you didn’t know, it gets hot here.  No, really.  This city was named after the mythical bird that burned itself up every so often, only to be reborn from the ashes, because birds that venture out during summer days frequently burst into flames.

Phoenix pigeon spontaneously combusting.

Or possibly the Holy Ghost.

The sun does not rise over Phoenix on a summer morning; it heaves itself over the horizon like a World Wrestling Federation steroid abuser and beats the crap out of the earth for fourteen straight hours before grumbling off to its locker room in the west, where it prepares for another onslaught.

So yeah, we slow down in the summer months.  A couple of times a day, Phoenicians may percolate from one air-conditioned space to another, but slowly, so as to generate no temperature rise within the body.  Walk at a normal pace in a Phoenix summer, and your brain will solidify in your head like a poached egg.  Errands are best run—or rather, ambled—between two and four o’clock in the morning, when you stand a reasonable chance of opening your car door without searing all the flesh off your palms. 

As someone who works from home year round, preferably in pajamas, I do what turtles do: lurk in shady places, take an occasional step forward, and watch out for hostile snails.  I strongly encourage this for you, too.  You can learn a lot living like a tortoise.  Here are some of my activities this summer, and what I am very slowly learning from them:

Self-Improving Thing One

This summer, I have watched every episode of the TV show So You Think You Can Dance.  This has not taught me to dance.  (Are you serious?  There’s not enough sweat in the world to cool a dancing Phoenician).  What it’s taught me is that there are human beings who get more exercise in three minutes than I’ve accumulated in my entire lifetime. 

     

Mary Murphy Rendering an Opinion    Daughter of Zeus and Barbie

I’m talking, of course, about Mary Murphy, a delightful woman and one of the show’s judges, who gets her workouts by shrieking about Mexican food at a decibel level that requires all the other judges to wear adult diapers.  The dancers themselves are not actually human beings.  They are the result of sexual congress between Greek gods and Barbie dolls.  If you haven’t watched them, you should.  Seriously.

Self-Improving Thing Two

After climbing a mesquite tree in the middle of the night to hang up a squirrel-proof birdfeeder, I learned that squirrel-proof bird feeders are also largely bird-proof.  However, after weeks of depressingly low sales to neighborhood birds, my feeder was discovered by two Gila woodpeckers, who now show up every morning.  I named them Sodom and Gomorrah.  (Just because.  They did nothing to deserve it.)  Their daily visit are a high point in my life, probably because, as has so often been noted, I am on the wrong medication.

                                 

                       Animal-proof feeder.            Sodom.  Or maybe Gomorrah.  I can’t really tell.

 

Self-Improving Thing Three

Boldly mastering my DVD player after a mere six years of skill development, I just managed to watch the movie Taken, with Liam Neeson.  From this I learned that if you haven’t really been there for your kids during their childhood, you can make up for it when they’re teenagers with a rampage of torture, murder, and car theft.  The police, realizing that you are merely parenting, will leave you alone, especially if you shoot their wives in the arm.

Loving father, inspired by the movies, winning his children’s hearts.

 

Self-Improving Thing Four

Um…er….  Actually, there isn’t a Thing Four.  I’m trying to pace myself, dammit!

 

Signing Off for Myelin Synthesis

So that’s what I’m doing, thus far, on my summer vacation.  If you’re out there in Winnipeg or Pluto or other places that are notable for cool weather, you may not have slowed down quite as much as I have. This means that your myelin sheaths just aren’t going to build as effectively as mine.  

 It may not look as though I’m doing all that much, but I’m developing skills, baby—deep skills that will make your speedy accomplishments look like just another layer of shallow frippery.  I figure it will only take me about 687,950 more Phoenix summers.  Come turtle along with me!

How to Be Richly Rewarded

So I wrote this book about training your mind to reprogram your body to be thin.  It’s called The Four Day Win, and much to my delight, it seems to have helped some people lose weight and feel better about their lives in general.  But I keep getting questions about this book; questions I never anticipated.  My method of weight management is based on the fact that your body is an animal, and animals are trainable.  You can train your body in much the same way you could train, say, a wild boar.  Not that you in any way resemble a wild boar.  I’m just saying. 

Now, to train an animal, you ignore behaviors you don’t want, and reinforce behaviors you do.  I learned this from Amy Sutherland’s wonderful book What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage, which applies the techniques of exotic animal training to human behavior. 

  

This book can help you train any animal, including yourself.

For example, if your dog howls annoyingly, don’t react at all.  This response, or lack of response, is known as the LRS, or “least reinforcing scenario.”  Offer praise or treats only when the dog is quiet.  (You may have to be persistent.  I did this for 15 years with my beagle, and now he has totally stopped howling, partly because, as noted in a previous blog, he is dead.  So stick to it!)  When an animal does something you like, such as administering acupuncture correctly, give him a reward: a pat on the head, a romp in the yard, a Lexus. 

The same principle applies when training yourself to eat right, stay active, finish your email, or complete any other desirable behavior.  Break the challenge into tiny steps, then take one step each day, following the step immediately with a reward of some kind.  If you repeat the same behavior-plus-reward for four consecutive days, the behavior becomes a pattern, and you’ll be able to sustain it with very little effort.

A lot of my readers tell me that they’re great at setting objectives, and pretty good at following through.  When it comes to the reward, however, they get stumped.  Here’s the question most frequently asked by Four Day Win readers.

“How do I think of the right rewards and punishments to motivate myself?”

Response to FAQ, Part One:

First of all,

PUNISHMENTS?  WHO SAID ANYTHING ABOUT PUNISHMENT?  There’s nothing in any of my books that suggests anybody should punish anybody.  Yet people seem to pick this up between the lines, particularly if they learned to read in Catholic school. 

What do they teach you in there?

I mean no offense by this.  I’m not saying you Catholics are rigid or prudish—in fact, I grew up in a religion that considered y’all to be wild-and-crazy libertines, with your alcoholic Communions and your fancy pope hats.  I didn’t go to Catholic school, and I don’t know what you’re learning in there, but apparently it enables you to find the word “punishment” in any written document, including the instructions on microwave popcorn.

Admit it: if you went to Catholic school, right now you’re thinking about dozens of ways you could punish yourself with microwave popcorn.  You see?  This is exactly what I’m talking about.

Tragic popcorn self-punishment.

But back to my point.  If you’re trying to adopt healthier habits in any way, ix-nay on the unishments-pay.  Positive reinforcement is about 50 times as effective as punishment in sustaining patterns of behavior. 

Response to FAQ, Part Two:

Once you’ve gotten over the need to punish yourself, how do you come up with motivating rewards? 

It amazes me that most people can’t think of anything they really want or like.  Occasionally when I’m running a seminar, I’ll ask a group of people what they’d like me to do for them.  If it’s within my power to do it, I tell them, I will.  But most people, even those who’ve sacrificed money and time to come hang out with me, can’t think of a single request.  In fact, I think they’re actually paying me to tell them what they like.  This is expensive and insane, and I’m so glad people keep doing it.

But there are easier ways.  Check out books like these:

  

 

I think people have trouble rewarding themselves because they associate rewards with ease, with absolute lack of difficulty.  They think the reward has to fall out of the sky, that actually, aggressively pursuing satisfaction is “too hard” to be rewarding.  But brain research indicates that we reach a state of “flow,” or maximum positive brain stimulation (read Mihaly Csikszentmihaly or Gregory Berns) when we’re doing something difficult.  Mountain climbers get a happy rush of dopamine while ascending a steep face.  Crossworders get it from the Sunday Times-the hardest puzzle of the week.  Mihaly Csikszentmihaly experienced it while trying to spell his own name.  Counterintuitively, the  most enjoyable things are difficult.

        

Strange but true: hard games are more rewarding than easy ones.

 

The Nothing-to-Something Barrier

There seems to be an initial resistance to the effort of doing things that, once we’ve begun, are highly rewarding.  Getting over that initial resistance is the key to self-reward.  I call this the “nothing-to-something barrier.”

I’ve found that no matter what I’m doing, going from absolute zero to some forward momentum requires daunting effort.  I enjoy working out, but takes about 5 minutes in the gym, riding a stationary bicycle or dodging body-builders with ‘roid rage, before the enjoyment kicks in.  Writing a first draft of anything, from an email to a book, is hellish; from there, editing and rewriting are almost easy.  I could paint all day, but I don’t like setting up the easel and prepping the canvas.  In all these areas and many more, I get past the nothing-to-something barrier by using a few mental tricks that temporarily boost my enthusiasm.  Here are my favorite methods:

Getting from Nothing to Something

Method 1: Expose Yourself to Role Models

No, I don’t mean that way.  Let us pause while those of you who went to Catholic school punish yourselves, immediately and protractedly, for even thinking such thoughts. 

At your service!

Thank you.

What I mean by “expose yourself to role models” is that you can get through the nothing-to-something barrier by focusing attention on people who are already doing something you enjoy.  For example, reading fitness magazines makes me much more likely to work out.  Reading books and articles by authors I love makes me want to write.  Visiting art galleries makes me want to paint.  The energy created by other people can heave me right over the nothing-to-something barrier into the enjoyment zone. 

 Method 2: Make Foolish Promises

Hiking the Grand Canyon is difficult.  Promising your outdoorsy friends that you’ll hike the Grand Canyon with them next summer is easy.  Backing out of a promise is, once again, often difficult.  For this reason, I encourage you to make ridiculous commitments that sound exciting at the time.  Your first reaction should be, “Oh, yeah!” followed almost immediately by, “Oh, %$&*!”

Foolish promise fulfillment

For example, yesterday I promised two friends that I’d go to Uganda with them next year, to see how well life-coaching works on people whose circumstances make most of my clients’ worst problems look like paradise.  Also to see wild gorillas.  Who knows–maybe the gorillas will want life coaching!

To me, this is a wonderful foolish promise.  There’s no pressing demand for me to life coach in Uganda, and it’ll take all kinds of preparation, money, and inconvenience.  Because it’s in keeping with my heart’s desires, every foolish step will be tinged with excitement.  Every time I get past the nothing-to-something barrier (because I promised my damn friends I would) I’ll feel rewarded by the process.

A gorilla and her life coach.

So today, promise someone—preferably several someones—that you’ll join them in doing something you want to do anyway.  Start a book club and read all of Tolstoy.  Learn Zen archery.  Grow an herb garden.  You may feel grumpy about it, but only until your promise pulls you over the nothing-to-something barrier.  Once in action, you’ll find the effort more rewarding than total lethargy.

Method 3: Ask WWOWDWOW?

You know that dream you had, in which Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed and Rabbi Hillel all descended from the clouds and promised you that Oprah was destined to transform your life into a nonstop adventure filled with delights you previously experienced only when you took an overdose of Percoset after your gum surgery? 

Well, I hate to break this to you, but everyone in the world has had that dream.  Except for one person, of course: Oprah.  She, poor woman, is the only person who can’t fantasize about what would happen if she showed up.  When she wonders what Oprah could do for her, her only option for wish fulfillment is to rear up on her hind legs and do it.

If you’ve been waiting for the Oprah gravy train, try wearing a bracelet that says WWOWDWOW, for “What Would Oprah Winfrey Do (Without Oprah Winfrey)?  In other words, if Oprah woke up in the life you’re living right now, what would she do to make that life better? 

Fill in the blank.

For you Catholics (who seem to be the particular target of this blog) it might help to recall that Pope John Paul I struggled with a similar issue.  After he’d ascended to the papacy, he’d wake up worrying about some problem facing the church, and think, “I’ll have to ask the pope about it.”  Then he’d wake up a little more and realize, “Oh, my goodness, I am the pope!”  If you’re the Oprah, the pope, the hero of your own life, the buck stops with you.  All the fancy hats in the world can’t save you from the responsibility to work your own miracles.

Seriously, right now imagine what your most revered role model would do in your wildest fantasies.  Write it all down—the places you’d go, the great things you’d accomplish, the experiences you’d have.  Piggyback on this role-model fantasy to gather enough excitement to propel you over the nothing-to-something barrier.

What if you were the one in the fancy hat? 

Something to Something Better

Once you cross the nothing-to-something barrier, you’ll get better and better at thinking up rewards for your meritorious behavior.  You’ll develop a whole armament of TV shows, books, hobbies, friendly outings, and interesting adventures, any one of which can motivate you to take the next turtle step on your quest for self-improvement. 

Like anything else, thinking up rewards is a skill that gets easier with practice.  Getting from nothing to something: difficult.  Getting from something (anything!) to something better: easy.  And every fabulous life is build from nothing, to something, to something a tiny bit bigger, then a tiny bit bigger still.  If this method doesn’t work, you can always try punishing yourself.  But you’ll have to find the instructions for that in somebody else’s blog.

 

Call Me Crazy…

Exciting news, people!  Right now, specialists around the globe are working on the DSM V, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders!  Since the DSM is practically a biography of my addled old self, I’m preordering today—but sadly, the new version isn’t due out until 2012.  We’ll have to wait until then to find out about new proposed disorders and diagnoses, like “embitterment disorder” and “apathy disorder” (I didn’t make those up; they’re really considering them). 

Thinking about the long wait until publication makes me embittered and apathetic, conditions for which I will demand medication, come 2012.  Until then, I’ll be passing the time by thinking up new mental illnesses on my own.  I’d like to invite you to join me.

New Flavors of Nuts

For example, right now I’m suffering greatly from “Excessive Attempted Temple Disorder,” or “EATS.”  It begins when I decide that my body is a temple, the earth is a temple, we all exist in a temple of consciousness, and I must be reverent and righteous about everything.  At that point I start reading inspiring works by Hafiz, St. John of the Cross, or Bono, and embark on a program of healthy eating, meditation, yoga, and charitable thought, speech, and action toward all beings.  I answer my email, even the weird stuff from readers who have mistaken me for Martha Stewart and want my opinion on their choice of duvet covers.

EATS, stage one.

Sometimes I can keep this up for literally minutes.  Then the next few symptoms of EATS descend upon me like a flock of harpies.

This generally begins in a bewildering flurry of carbohydrates.  For example, yesterday for breakfast I had a smoothie made of organic pomegranate juice, a blend of Chinese herbs, and organic blueberries.  Midmorning snack: two handfuls of raw organic almonds.  Then, around 2:00 p.m., I suddenly ate three cupcakes, two cans of Diet Coke, and toast.  You know there’s something seriously wrong when you follow up cupcakes with toast.  Next I bought 14 books for my Kindle (you can download a novel in seconds, no waiting, no trips to the bookstore) and spent most of the afternoon crouching behind my bed, hoping no one would catch me reading for pleasure.

EATS, stage two.

New Candidates for the Diagnostic Manual

I don’t know of any cure for EATS, and since I probably also have apathy disorder, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever bother to find one.  It’s just nice to have something to call it.To while away the time until the assistants take off my restraints, I’ve been soliciting ideas for new brands of insanity.  Here are some I’ve gleaned from friends and loved ones:

Pundimania:  Actually caring what is said by televised political pundits.  Leads to rage, profanity, brain erosion, sleep crime, and the catastrophic failure of all relationships.

Birkenstockholm Syndrome:  Spending so much time at meditation retreats that you begin to accept hemp clothing as formal wear.

Recovering Religious Renunciate Rebound Regression (RRRRR):  Affects anyone who once gave up large chunks of personality in an attempt to be loved by weird religious definitions of God.  Under pressure, the patient snaps back into believing that s/he will be smitten with boils for using the word “damn.”

Petopediac Confusion:  The sincere belief that your pets are human children.

When humans get Petopediac Confusion, it’s the innocent who suffer.

Acute Peripatetic Obsession Disorder: Becoming temporarily obsessed with a sequence of different topics, such as songwriting, ornithology, Facebook, astral travel, and French.  Treatment includes integration of topics (writing birdlike songs in French about astral travel to post on Facebook).

Delusional Literary Purchase Syndrome: The conviction that buying 20 books per week is the same thing as reading them.

Law and Order Disorder:  The paranoid sensation that there is nothing on TV but Law and Order, which is on every channel, all the time.

Syndrome Syndrome:  Developing the symptoms of every syndrome you read or hear about, eventually acquiring so many overlapping diagnoses that they mush together.

Protective headgear: a common symptom of Syndrome Syndrome.

Your Turn

So what’s your disorder, or the disorder of that awful man in the cubicle next to yours, who seems to have been hacking up a single hairball since the day he was hired in 1997?  Let me know, and we’ll beat the DSM V to market.  The manual we create may one day sit on every therapist’s shelf, and lead a new generation of parents into overmedicating themselves and their children! 

Or not.  If not, I’ll be so, so embittered.  Not that I give a damn. 

I have to go now. I think I’m developing boils.

 

How are you feeling, really?

by Pamela Slim

If I were to attach a giant magic probe to foreheads across the U.S. right now, what emotion do you think would be off the charts?

Fear, anyone?

Market meltdowns, government bailouts, war, natural disasters and election uncertainty make this point in history a pretty unsettling one, at least for those of us in the United States.

However, I would guess that under the general feeling of panic, there are some other emotions which are causing people to feel paralyzed.

As my friend Colleen Wainwright said recently, “What is really harshing your mellow?”

Chapter Eight of Martha’s book Finding Your Own North Star offers an extremely simple but highly effective way to decipher your emotional state, asking the question: “Are you more sad, mad, glad or scared?

This works like magic with my clients that feel foggy, conflicted and totally stuck.  When I ask “how do you feel?” they often do not have an answer.  But with the question, “are you more sad, mad, glad or scared,” most will immediately choose one of the words, like “mad” or “scared.”

Once the primary emotion is identified, we dig down and find out what is causing it. With the cause identified, we define what course of action is necessary to get them to feel better.  Once they see a path forward, the original emotion almost always dissipates, or at least does not feel so overwhelming.

So if you are feeling stuck and uncomfortable in some part of your life but don’t know what to do about it, try this 4-part exercise from Finding Your Own North Star:

Magic Question #1:  What are you feeling?

Exercise

1.  Right now, are you feeling more sad, mad, glad or scared? Even if your feelings are very mild, try putting them in one of these categories.

2.  Now write down at least six different words, besides those listed above, that describe your feelings at this moment.

a.
b.
c.
c.
d.
e.
f.

3.  Think of three works of art (songs, movies, images, poems, plays, books, etc.) that resonate with your current emotional state.

a.
b.
c.

4.  What do these works have in common?

5.  Complete the following sentences. Don’t think about grammar or spelling; just shoot for emotional accuracy.  No one has to see this but you.

a.  I wish …
b.  I hope …
c.  I’m angry that …
d. I’m afraid that …
e. I’m sad about …
f.  I’m happy about …
g.  If it weren’t embarrassing, I’d feel …
h.  Even though it’s stupid, I feel …

Magic Question #2:  Why am I feeling this way?

Those of you who have young children will immediately recognize this exercise.  It is attributed to the Japanese car manufacturer Toyota who used it in their rigorous quality program to drive production efficiency, but we all know that they just stole it from a bright toddler (Mom, do I have to eat this ohitashi? Why?  Why?  Why? Why?  Why?).

Exercise:

1.  What was the strongest emotion that emerged as you did the exercises from Magic Question #1?

2.  Why do you feel this way?

3.  Why?

4.  Why?

5.  Why?

6.  Why?

When you get to the real reason you are not feeling good, you may find the answer is not one you want to hear.  Martha says:

“One way you can always tell when people have lost touch with their emotions, or are unwilling to admit to them, is that when you ask them about their motivations, they’ll say, “It’s complicated.”

The Question:  Why didn’t you call me last night?
The Answer:  “Um…it’s complicated.”
The Truth:  “I didn’t want to.”

The Question:  “You seem so distant; what’s wrong?
The Answer:  “Well, it’s complicated.”
The Truth:  “I don’t like you.”

The Question:  “Don’t you want to date me anymore?”
The Answer:  “It’s just complicated.”
The Truth:  “No.”

Usually, people who use the “complicated” line actually believe it themselves.  They think of emotion as a tangled web of contradictory forces.  This is because their emotional compasses are pointing in directions that offend their Everybodies or their social selves.  The only way out of a “complicated” emotional situation is to figure out which feelings are coming directly from your core and which are imposed on you by social fears and obligations.”

This exercise can be very helpful for going from big, global problems like “the state of the economy” or “greedy corporations” to something specific that is within your control to change.  Here is a common scenario which you may relate to:

What are you feeling? “I am angry at my company for laying people off.”

Why? “Because it should care more about employee loyalty.”

Why? “Because I work my heart out and expect to get something in return.”

Why? (I usually amplify this question by asking “Have they given you any recent evidence they  will reward your loyalty with lifetime employment?”) “Because I am ignoring the fact that companies have not rewarded employee loyalty with lifetime employment for a long time, if ever.”

Why? “Because then I have to take responsibility for my own career, and that is scary.”

Why?  Because I have limited networks outside my job and don’t know what else I could do to make money.”

Bingo.  In this scenario, there are two prevalent emotions:  anger and fear.  In order to get to a pragmatic course of action like working on alternate career paths, you may need to release some anger.  Releasing anger can also lead to grief:  longing for the way companies used to be, when you did not have to be so fearful of layoffs and where long-term employment with one company was encouraged and desired.  Once these emotions are expressed, you can get to work on the one thing in your control:  your own career path.

Magic Question #3:  What will it take to make me happy?

Part of what keeps people paralyzed is that they believe that the only way they will feel better is by expecting others to change.  Using my recent example, you can see examples of useless and useful yearnings:

Useless Yearning:  “I want corporations to stop laying people off.”
Useful Yearning:  “I want to develop a career path that will not be dependent on the rise or fall of any one corporation.”

Useless Yearning:  “I want Wall Street Traders to stop being so greedy.”
Useful Yearning:  “I want to have my money in stable, smart investment vehicles.”

Useless Yearning:  “I want things to go back to the way they were, before all this doom and gloom.”
Useful Yearning:  “I want to learn how to feel grounded and positive, regardless of what chaos is going on around me.”

Exercise

1.  Think about a situation that makes you feel angry, sad or scared.  What is it about this situation that you wish were different?

2.  Think about a situation that makes you happy.  Which elements of this situation do you want to keep?

3.  What do you want most right now?

4. What do you really want most right now?

Try to get to a description of something you want that is within your span of control, even if it involves the help of others to make it happen.

Magic Question #4:  “What’s the Most Effective Way to Get What I Want?”

Exercise

1.  Think of a very inexpensive item you’d like to own, such as a Popsicle or a shiny new pencil with your name stamped on it in gold-colored letters.  Make sure it’s something you don’t own a the moment. Note what the object is in this space:

1.  Now think of six ways you can get the item you just named without leaving your house.  You can use any communications devices or other technologies at your disposal, and you definitely don’t have to go it alone.  (Magic question No. 4 is all about working with others to reach your objectives.)  Even if the methods you come up with aren’t things you’re really comfortable doing (like borrowing or calling third parties to ask for help), list them.  You may build up some courage, and even if you don’t, you’ll find that refusing to censor your inventiveness will lead to more solutions.

a.
b.
c.
d.
e.
f.

3.  Read over the solutions you have listed, and see if any of them are a) possible, b) legal, and c) morally acceptable to you.  If an action plan fulfills all these criteria, go ahead and use it.

4.  Double-check to make sure your social self isn’t ruling out workable solutions.  Here are some signs that your social self is acting as your master, rather than your servant:

a.  When you think about putting the solution into action, you find yourself laughing in embarrassment.

b. You react to the proposed solution with thoughts like “I could never do that” or “I can’t just…” or “But I have to…” These statements tend to reflect social inhibitions, not actual limitations.

c.  You immediately think of some person who’d be upset if you took this course of action, or you stop yourself with the question “What would people think?”

5.  If you have had any of the reactions above, consider whether you might want to break the rules of the social game.  Be sure you stay within the confines of your own moral system; violating your integrity will lead you directly away from your own North Star.

Once you complete this trial exercise, guess what:  time to try it with something you really want from Magic Question #3.

And if you are still feeling a bit scared at this point, I am hoping that it is no longer the “we are doomed, the sky is falling” variety, but rather specific, healthy anxiety that comes up when you start working on getting what you want.

The trick to nipping late night Oreo nashing

by Pamela Slim

Do you ever fantasize about looking in the mirror and using one of those magic “before and after” wands to shrink your chubby thighs to the size of a long distance runner’s? I know I do.

We are bombarded by weight loss commercials, fat-free food and stick-thin Victoria’s Secret models wherever we go. Yet we persist, at least in the United States, in being one of the chunkiest people on earth.  We eat without abandon, then try to balance our excess with a variety of fad diets.  Low carbs one day, high protein the next, lemon juice and cayenne pepper fasts wreak havoc with our minds and bodies.

Switch your focus from your body to your brain

The real problem is that we have been obsessed with managing our bodies, when in fact, the attention needs to go to our brains.  Martha explains:

“People get fat because their brain’s calibration of the amount they need to eat, and the amount of intake they should store as calories, is altered by neural structure and its interface with the endocrine system.  The starved and frightened brain drives overeating and low metabolism.  The calm and secure brain drives a very different set of biological motivators and consequences. In other words, when your brain is fixed, you eat less and burn off excess as heat, whereas the “famine brain” caused by stress and hunger– including dieting — really does make you consume more and store more as fat.”

How to calm down famine brain

The first step to getting a handle on the state of your brain in relation to food is to examine the thoughts that lead to feelings which lead to actions which lead to results.

Thought or Belief:  I have so much to do!  I am overwhelmed.

Feelings:  Stress.  Fear.  Anxiety.

Action:  Stuff 42 M&Ms in your mouth

Result:  Stubborn metabolism and no chance at fitting in those skinny jeans

Change your thoughts, acknowledge your feelings

Once you identify the thoughts that are causing you stress, you can replace them with more accurate, positive ones.  Byron Katie’s 4 questions from The Work are a great tool:

The Four Questions from “The Work.”

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it is true?
  3. How do you react when you think that thought?
  4. Who would you be without that thought?and

    Turn it around (come up with another thought that is opposite from the original meaning, but still very true for you).

The is a more robust explanation of The Work in a past post:  Are your thoughts keeping you stuck?  Time for some belief busting.

Another powerful tool comes from Brooke Castillo’s book If I am so smart, why can’t I lose weight?

When you fight a feeling of negative emotion you actually make it stronger.

Instead of fighting, which in the case of eating patterns means shoving lots of food in your mouth to dull the pain, try this instead:

Sitting at a kitchen table and feeling a feeling all the way through, instead of eating, is a very courageous act. When the fear starts to come and we recognize it as fear, we need to sit and watch it come. Welcome it. Expect it. Don’t run to the refrigerator and start eating so you can forget about it. Don’t start thinking about how fat you are. Stay with this feeling right now and
acknowledge it. It really can’t hurt you if you let it in to wash over you. If you start to resist it or fight with it or try to deny it, it will cause you additional pain in your life. I like to use the example of someone coming to your house to break in. If you aren’t expecting them and they sneak in the back door and you pretend they aren’t there, they can cause you harm. But, if you are expecting them and you are sitting calmly on the couch with a couple of police officers, it’s not so bad. You let the guy come in and you watch him leave peacefully with the police.

Weight loss coach Lisa Cavallaro was kind enough to record a coaching conversation with me to illustrate this concept.  We used my late-night Oreo cookie-eating sessions as an example. When I finally get my kids and husband tucked away safely in bed, I prepare for a couple of peaceful hours of uninterrupted work. But as soon as I sit down at the computer, I get an overwhelming desire to shove a few cups of sugar in my mouth.  Like a possessed madwoman, I forage in the kitchen for ice cream or chocolate or cookies.

Listen to this 20 minute conversation and see how Lisa’s coaching might help your own version of my late night snacking.


MP3 File


I hope some of these brain-related exercises are more successful at changing your eating habits than hanging your hopes on the next fad diet or exercise program.

I learned that a bit of indulgent “me time” may be the trick to nipping my sweet habit.  I will see if my local spa does late night in-home pedicures.  That would beat a heaping bowl of ice cream any day.

Confused about which of your inner voices to trust?

by Pamela Slim

A core part of Martha’s approach to life coaching is the concept of the Body Compass. Housed deep inside you, your compass is always pointed True North, towards the life that will make you happy, healthy, wealthy and wise.

The body compass speaks through your physical body. So as you think of incredibly positive experiences in your life, you pay attention to how your body feels when you are having this experience. Then, you do the same for incredibly negative experiences. (See complete Body Compass instructions at the end of this post)

Everyone is different, but many people find the following physical reactions when they are pointed in a positive direction:

  • Open, full breathing
  • Relaxed muscles, especially in the shoulder and neck area
  • A feeling of lightness and openness in the head

When pointed in a negative direction, they find the following physical reactions:

  • muscle constriction in general, in the shoulder and neck area in particular
  • tightness or “pit” in stomach
  • headaches, inability to concentrate

With this information, when you are faced with tough decisions, you can use your physical feelings to guide you towards a good answer.

But here is the catch: What do you do when your body compass talks trash? Here is an example:

My client was frustrated on our call. He is a talented musician who has wrestled with the idea of performing full-time professionally vs doing it for kicks on the side of a day job. He was unsure of the right answer, since in the past when he had done lots of live performances, he was plagued by insomnia the night before shows.

After doing the body compass exercise and lots of research and reflection, he came to the conclusion that he did, indeed, want to do music professionally. He scheduled a show, and shared the following experience with me:

“I don’t know about this body compass stuff. I did all this work to get clear on what I wanted to do, and it all pointed to music. I scheduled a gig that I was excited about and all seemed well. Then the night before my performance, the insomnia hit again. When I would start to drift off to sleep, it felt like a chemical would shoot through my body and my eyes would fly open.

If music is something that I am supposed to do, why am I getting such a strong negative signal from my body when I pursue it? Does this mean the body compass is bunk, I am moving in the wrong direction, or my compass is broken?”

I had an inkling that what my client was feeling was a strong case of lizard fears. To check my assumptions, I called Martha. After explaining my client’s situation, she said:

“Now that you mention it, in my books, I have never directly addressed the issue of how anxiety frequently comes up when you are on your path to your North Star. In my own life, I felt intense anxiety, sometimes paralyzing, when making positive life changes like writing a book or becoming a life coach. I am so used to it that I never thought to write about it. But it is very common, and can make it really hard to read your body compass.”

She suggested I look at the physical symptoms of anxiety disorders. This is what I discovered, via the National Institute of Mental Health:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

GAD is diagnosed when a person worries excessively about a variety of everyday problems for at least 6 months. People with GAD can’t seem to get rid of their concerns, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants. They can’t relax, startle easily, and have difficulty concentrating. Often they have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Physical symptoms that often accompany the anxiety include:

  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • muscle tension
  • muscle aches
  • difficulty swallowing
  • trembling
  • twitching
  • irritability
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • lightheadedness
  • having to go to the bathroom frequently
  • feeling out of breath
  • hot flashes

Do you notice the link with these physical symptoms and the negative body compass symptoms? Not everyone will have full-blown General Anxiety Disorder of course, but many of us experience mild versions, like my client’s insomnia.

Why do we get so anxious when we are headed in the right direction?

Steven Pressfield, in his brilliant book The War of Art describes it this way:

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign.

Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.

Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

Have you ever watched Inside the Actors Studio? The host, James Lipton, invariably asks his guests, ‘What factors make you decide to take on a particular role?’ The actor always answers: ‘Because I’m afraid of it.’

Anxiety can hit anyone, regardless of his or her level of talent (Sir Laurence Olivier and Barbara Streisand both developed social anxiety disorder at the height of their careers). It makes sense that enormous talent would feel like an enormous responsibility, which can lead to anxiety.

So how can you distinguish between “anxiety because you are on the right path” and a “negative body compass reading,” which means you are heading away from your North Star? Here are a couple of ways:

1. In The Joy Diet, Martha outlines four questions to ask when considering a course of action that scares you:

  • Is this risk really necessary to achieve my heart’s desires? Do I feel a genuine longing for whatever it is I’m seeking?
  • Does the thought of taking this step create an inner sense of clarity, despite my apprehensions? (When a risk is good for you, you may feel apprehension, but little or no confusion)
  • Do I feel only fear, or is there also a sense of toxicity akin to disgust? (Pay attention: a good risk feels like taking a high dive into a sparkling clean pool; a bad risk feels like taking the same leap, but into polluted swamp water)
  • At the end of my life, which will I regret more: taking this risk and failing, or refusing to take it, and never knowing whether I would have succeeded or failed?

2. Do the arm test

This physical exercise is your built-in lie detector. It requires 2 people.

  1. Person A asks Person B to stick out his arm in front of him
  2. Person A asks Person B to repeat one phrase at a time while trying as hard as he can to keep his arm up
  3. As Person B sticks out his arm and repeats each phrase, Person A pushes down on Person B’s arm
  4. If Person B’s arm remains very strong as he repeats a phrase, most likely this is a true statement for him
  5. If Person B’s arm is weak as he repeats a phrase, most likely this is a false statement for him
  6. It is good to start with items that fall pretty clearly in each direction. Martha’s favorite “false” statement is “I love to vomit.” A good true one (for most people, not all!) is “I love my child.”
  7. Once you get warmed up with some reactions, throw in the tough questions, like in my client’s case, “I want to play my music full time.”

I conned my son Jeffery into demonstrating this for you since the instructions can be confusing if you can’t see it live. Here is our home-grown instructional video:

Martha says she does the arm test with her drug-addicted clients with tremendous results. While their body is screaming “I want heroin!,” their arms are weak uttering the same phrase.

If you think you have any issues with general anxiety, get some professional help. There are great therapies available these days to quell your symptoms without resorting to medication.

If your physical symptoms are more like the butterflies that you get while falling in love, press on! The world is waiting for your gifts.

Do any of you have any “anxiety hitting just when achieving my wildest dreams” stories? Any effective ways you have learned to distinguish between “good” and “bad” body readings? Please share!

Addendum: Body Compass Exercise Instructions

  1. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and think about an exceptionally unhappy event in your life or a very unhappy period in your life.
  2. Now focus on your physical body and notice how this memory is making you feel, not emotionally, but physically. Where in your body do you feel sensation? What kind of sensation is it?
  3. Some people notice a pit in their stomach, or tightness in their chest or constriction in their shoulders. It is really important to identify the particular place or places in your body where you feel the sensation.
  4. Now think of a name for the sensation. It can be something like “the crushed feeling” or “acid stomach.” Use a term that will help you recall the specific physical feeling.
  5. Next, assign a score from 1-10 to this negative feeling, with the worst possible manifestation ranking a 10.
  6. Complete the entire process using the memory of a very positive event or period of your life.
  7. The physical memories, named with a catch phrase and scored, will be indicators of your “bad” and “good” compass readings.

Do you and your lizard live in a van down by the river?

by Pamela Slim

I listened intently to my highly educated and successful client express his fears about quitting his job to start a business.

“What are you really afraid of?” I said.

“When it comes down to it, I am afraid of living on the street and eating garbage out of a dumpster.”

This fear is very common for people who are making significant career or life changes. It doesn’t matter how much experience they have or how much money sits in their bank account, they feel as though one wrong move will utterly destroy their lives.

This is no accident.

We all receive multiple messages a day about how there are not enough resources in the world to support us (“The economy is falling!” “There are no good men left in New York!” “I must eat the WHOLE cake, or never eat again!”) and how we should be very afraid of the future (“The ice caps are melting!” “Serial killers are on the loose!” “The terrorists are coming!”.) Martha calls this the Wizard vs. Lizard battle for your brain in her new book Steering by Starlight.

What is lizard brain?

One of the deepest layers of your brain is a neural structure evolved in early vertebrates. It is wrapped around the cortex of your brain and blasts signals on a regular basis intended to keep you fed and out of danger. Martha says in Steering by Starlight:

The entire purpose of your reptile brain is to continually broadcast survival fears- alarm reactions that keep animals alive in the wild. These fears fall into two different categories: lack, and attack. On one hand, our reptile brains are convinced that we lack everything we need: we don’t have enough time, money, everything. On the other hand, something terrible is about to happen. A predator– human or animal–is poised to snatch us! That makes sense if we’re hiding in a cave somewhere, but when we’re home in bed, our imaginations can fixate on catastrophes that are so vague and hard to ward off that they fill us with anxiety that has no clear action implication.

Animals will live longer when obsessed with getting more resources and avoiding danger.

Humans, on the other hand, especially those of us driving minivans and owning large-screen televisions, carry that same instinct, without facing the same dire situations. This leads us to act in all kinds of unpleasant ways, including paranoid, greedy, suspicious and desperate. The more we listen to our inner lizard, the more we are pulled toward a fate we most fear:

  • A salesperson, certain that he won’t be able to sell a thing in a tight economy, calls the same prospect five times in one week, leading him to be permanently blacklisted from the company.
  • A jealous boyfriend, convinced his girlfriend is cheating on him, secretly monitors her cellphone calls, follows her, breaks into her email and has a fit whenever she wants to go out with friends. Guess what happens? She packs her bags as fast as she can (unless her lizard fear is “I will never find another man” in which case she marries him, stays in relationship hell for a decade or two before having a heart attack from the stress)
  • A young woman, so terrified that she will make a fool of herself presenting to a debate team for the first time, actually passes out when she gets to the podium. In this case, it was Martha, as described in Finding Your Own North Star (Coincidentally, as lizard wizardry works, when her worst nightmare was realized, she overcame her deathly fear of speaking and went on to be a secure and polished presenter.)

Examples of Lizard Fears:

“I’ll never find love”
“Something may have gone right, but you know that other shoe is going to drop”
“You can’t trust anyone in this rotten world.”
“I have to keep secrets; people will use information to hurt me.”
“Ultimately, everyone will betray me.”
“The minute I get anything, someone will take it from me.”
“Nice guys always end up getting screwed.”
“Successful people have all the luck – I just get bad breaks.”

Notice the lack and attack themes that permeate these thoughts? If you want to make progress towards your goals, you must learn to tame your inner lizard. Here are five ways, summarized from Steering by Starlight.

Step 1: Clarify how your inner lizard “thinks”

As you move through your life, are there any recurrent fears that keep popping up? Look at the list above for inspiration or choose your own. Examine the fear and see if it is primarily lack or attack based. When does it hit you? What is your reaction?

Step 2: Name your inner lizard’s top ten tunes:

We create justifications for our lizard fears in order to keep them in place. Complete these sentences with the first thing that pops into your mind. Afterward, scan the list for your personal “lack and attack” themes.

  • Oh no! I don’t have enough__________
  • If I don’t watch out, someone will__________
  • People want to take my__________
  • I can’t be perfectly happy until I get__________
  • Everybody pressures me to__________
  • You just can’t trust__________
  • People will hurt me unless I__________
  • If only I had__________
  • Someone’s always out to__________
  • I must hang onto__________

Step 3: The Name Game

Martha asks clients to name their inner lizard or even get a physical representation of them, like a pin or figurine. Her lizard is named Mo, and is fond of grapes, which she tosses to him whenever he whispers sweet lack and attack tunes in her ear.

My lizard, pictured in this post, is named Jorge and lives in the shadows of the pyramids of Chichen Itza in Mexico. Since Jorge’s home is in one of the most powerful spiritual epicenters I have ever visited, he reminds me that where a slippery lizard fear lounges, spiritual power and grace sit quietly by.

When you feel your lizard fears raise their wrinkled necks, instead of wrestling them with force, turn to them softly, call them by name and say gently “There, there Jorge, you do have a flair for the dramatic! Look — there is a ripe mango on that tree, go get it!”

Step 4: Find the Ridiculous

Nothing is funny about being deathly afraid. But once you begin to examine and debunk your lizard fears, they take on a certain hysterical quality:

  • Do you really think that you will end up alone and bitter in a cold, windowless room if you leave your marriage?
  • Are you really so incompetent as a mother that your new baby will end up underfed in need of therapy by the age of 4? (you may need to be a mom or married to one to truly get this one — new babies are the perfect storm of lizard fears, hormones, and sleeplessness-induced hysteria)
  • Or my very favorite Saturday Night Live-inspired lizard fear of all time: Will you be 35, divorced, and live in a van down by the river?

The dear departed Chris Farley from Saturday Night Live in his role of Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker brings to life one of the best, and funniest, lizard tunes I have ever heard. Since the original video was not available (legally anyway), here is a creative interpretation using kinetic typography. If you cannot see this video window, here is the direct link on YouTube.

If you can laugh till your gut busts, like I do, every time you hear this, you will loosen the grip of lizard fears on your brain.

Step 5: The “Shackles Test”

What if you should be afraid?

The question always comes up: what if my lizard fear is right? Bad things happen every day, to good people, so are we being foolish to not be afraid?

Yes and no. There is a distinction between trusting your instinct to avoid harmful situations (like stepping into an elevator in an empty building with only you and a decidedly creepy guy) and taking a risk, (like going back to school to get your Master’s degree when you are 55 years old). Both fears can feel the same until you give them the Shackles Test.

Shackles on test

One person place or thing that doesn’t serve my destiny is:____

When I let this person, place or thing fill my conscious mind, my body and mood react in the following ways: __________

This physical reaction is your “Shackles ON” feeling. Remember it.

Shackles off test

One person, place or thing that does serve my destiny is:____

When I let this person, place or thing fill my conscious mind, my body and mood react in the following ways: ____

This physical reaction is your “Shackles OFF” feeling. Remember it.

Once you become familiar with these feelings, you can use them to test your thoughts. For example:

  • Does the thought of leaving my job feel shackles on or shackles off?
  • Does breaking off my engagement feel shackles on or shackles off?
  • Does eating this entire box of Oreos feel shackles on or shackles off?
  • Does buying this pair of $300 shoes feel shackles on or shackles off?
  • Does working with this partner feel shackles on or shackles off?

These five steps don’t necessarily need to be done in sequence to be effective — experiment with tossing your pet lizard a grape, laughing hysterically at your worst fears, or using the shackles on/off test in a critical moment.

One thing is pretty certain: if you learn to decipher your lizard tunes, you won’t end up living in a van down by the river. Unless you want to, of course.

photo credit: Lewis Stewart (Pam’s Dad!)

Do you really HAVE to do anything?

by Pamela Slim

If you have ever watched the Discovery Channel, you have seen the fury of a mother bear defending her cubs from the video lens of an over-eager nature lover. With fangs bared and claws ready to attack, she focuses all of her power and girth at taking down the potential threat.

Such intensity almost matches a creative father who adamantly defends his miserable career as a network administrator since he “has to” pay for his children’s education.

Or a young college student who “has to” answer her overbearing mother’s calls, even in the middle of a date.

Or a mother who “has to” feed her children only organic carrots fertilized with vegetable compost blessed by Tibetan monks.

Or an executive who “has to” work weekends and vacations in order to stay competitive.

The fact is, we don’t have to do anything. We choose to do things with specific consequences. Different choices = different consequences.

This slight distinction has huge implications for your sense of personal power.

But releasing these ingrained “have tos,” also called your “personal religion,” is not easy.

To get you started, here are three short exercises:

1. Body Compass:

  • Close your eyes and deeply relax. Vividly recall an exceptionally painful or unhappy experience. Notice how this memory is making you feel, not emotionally, but physically. What bodily sensations or symptoms are connected to the negative event?
  • Name this sensation with a word or phrase.
  • Assign a score to this negative feeling from 1-10, with the worst possible score being a 10.
  • Repeat this process, thinking this time about the very best time of your life. Notice your body symptoms, name the sensation, and assign a score.

Once you have this valuable information about your “body compass,” you can use it to understand how you are really feeling about a situation. When you think a thought or ponder a decision, what do you feel in your body? Is it your “best” or “worst” feeling? What is the score?

2. Think of some things you have had to do lately that made you uncomfortable, sad or angry such as:

  1. I had to lend my brother $250 (again) so he could pay his rent
  2. I had to attend a boring all-day meeting
  3. I had to enter my credit card items in Quickbooks to prepare for my tax filing
  4. I had to attend a dinner party of a neighbor who I don’t particularly like
  5. I had to do my laundry
  6. I had to fire an employee
  7. I had to take my son’s car away after he had an accident
  8. I had to call a client and tell him we were behind on his project
  9. I had to decline a weekend away with the girls since I didn’t have enough money
  10. I had to walk the dog in -20 degree weather

Using your body compass, assign a number from -10 to +10 to each item, based on the way your body reacts to each item.

3. Take the item with the worst score and examine the belief.

Belief: I have to lend money to my brother.

Why?: Because if I don’t, he will get angry and call me selfish.

What will happen if he gets angry? He may stop talking to me.

How will you feel if your brother stops talking to you? Crappy. Unloved.

What do you really want? I want my brother to love me.

Since you can’t control anyone else’s thoughts and emotions, what do you want? I want to feel loved.

What is another way you can feel loved? I can love myself. I can surround myself with people whose love is not contingent on loaning money. And I can love others.

Suddenly, your steadfast belief that you have to lend your brother money loses its power. You learn that you can choose not to lend the money and still feel good. And if you choose to lend the money, you will do so freely and without the expectation of anything in return.

You can apply this framework to any one of the above scenarios and see how it changes your sense of obligation.

Original thought: I have to stay in this job to pay for my kids’ college
Underlying desire: I want my kids to get a good education.
Question: How can I help my kids get a good education?

Original thought: I have to answer all my mother’s calls, no matter my personal situation
Underlying desire
: I want my mother to know I love and respect her.
Question: How can I demonstrate love and respect to my mother while still maintaining my independence and privacy?

Original thought: I have to feed my kids 100% organic food at all times
Underlying desire: I want my kids to be healthy.
Question: How can I help my kids be healthy?

Original thought: I have to do my laundry
Underlying desire: I want to have clean clothes
Question: How can I get my clothes clean?

All this boils down to realizing that you have unlimited choices about how to live your life. When you own your choices, you feel more powerful and are more able to act in your best interest.

Let’s try something: If you catch yourself saying “I have to … ” this week, stop, pinch yourself and say “I choose to …” If you don’t like your choice, make another one! You may be surprised at how free you feel.

Can you share the results of your experiment here in the comments?

The Joy Diet: A Brief Guide to Feasting on Life

985571_59850291I had just traveled home from Singapore to attend my sister’s wedding. Now, a week later, I was back in Asia. My circadian rhythm was bewildered by two massive time-zone changes, so I was pleased to stumble across a magazine article about overcoming jet lag. The key, it said, was scheduling food intake. Travelers are supposed to eat at certain times and strictly abstain from food the remainder of the day. The article listed “feast/fast” schedules for several travel itineraries. I eagerly looked up mine. The chart said something like “feast, fast, feast, fast, fast, feast,” as if the author were sending a message in some kind of dietetic Morse code. But in my bleary-eyed incoherence, I misread the words. I thought the prescription said “feast, feast, feast, feast, feast, feast.” 

I felt a spontaneous smile ripple through my whole body. I was authorized for constant feasting! As an American female, I was accustomed to thinking that the occasional ounce of chopped celery was a righteous and appropriate diet. The word feast brought back memories of childhood Thanksgivings, when I was too young to be diet conscious; the lovely chaos of sounds, sights, and aromas that swirled around me as my enormous family sat down at a heavily laden table. Those feasts had been loud and obstreperous and wonderful, and I had given them up for lost. 

Within a few seconds, I realized that I’d misread the jet lag article. No, I did not have permission to indulge myself in nonstop feasts. I remember sighing with disappointment, but even so, something had changed. For the first time in years, I’d allowed myself to picture life full of feasts, and that glimpse was so seductive that it never completely faded. It took another decade or so, but I finally decided that I not only could but should “feast, feast, feast, feast, feast, feast.” 

Now I live that way all the time. I don’t mean that I never stop eating. I mean that every day I remind myself to return to the spirit of feasting. This is part of a program I call the Joy Diet, a regimen designed not for the body but for the inner self (the word diet originally didn’t mean an eating program; it was a way of living). To go on the Joy Diet, you add certain simple behaviors to your daily routine, practices that will improve your life whether you’re feeling just a bit dreary or utterly confined to the pits. Feasting (Joy Diet–style) means adding an element of attention and structure to events that otherwise might slip by as too ordinary for comment. Doing this can turn the most ordinary situations into celebrations. 

How to Throw a Feast

The most common definition of the word feast, of course, is a large meal. Most Joy Diet feasts, however, don’t involve food, and a big bunch o’ food won’t always qualify as a Joy Diet feast. A compulsive eating binge, for example, is the opposite of feasting. It is isolating and tasteless and sickening; it robs delight from both the senses and the soul. On the other hand, hearing a symphony or touching the curve of your lover’s elbow could definitely count as a feast, provided that you pay the right kind of attention. 

It helps to perform some kind of ritual that will direct your attention to the symbolic significance of your actions. A ritual, however simple, creates a border around an activity the way a frame does around a picture. It sets this activity apart from regular life in a way that emphasizes beauty and uniqueness, ensuring that those who participate in it become more aware of its meaning. 

I’ve watched my own children, who grew up with very little ritual, develop their own ways of formalizing celebration, as though the need to do this came precoded in their brains. One year, while learning the distinction between Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza, the kids asked me about their own ethnic heritage. I explained that their ancestors were Celtic and Scandinavian, so we should probably observe the winter solstice, maybe by—I dunno—wearing Viking helmets, painting our faces blue, and eating venison. I was joking, but my children were so entranced by this idea that we actually started doing it (though we substitute steaks for wild game). This is now one of our family’s cherished yearly rituals, one that strengthens our bonds to one another by reinforcing other people’s belief that we are insane. 

You probably perform dozens of small rituals already, whether you realize it or not. For example, you may follow the same pattern of actions every night before you go to sleep, when you drink a cup of coffee, or when you exercise. 

If the most meaningful rituals you already observe involve preparing the washer for the addition of fabric softener, you might want to add some with a bit more psychological oomph. Here are some suggestions for ritualizing, and thereby feast-ifying, some ordinary events that can and should be extraordinary.

Feasting On Food

Though the Joy Diet isn’t a typical food regimen, it does have two strict rules about eating. They are: 

1. You must eat only what you really enjoy. 
2. You must really enjoy everything you eat. 

This means that if you want a fudge sundae and you substitute raw broccoli, you’re totally blowing your diet. On the other hand, if you’re happily inhaling your sundae and you start to feel uncomfortably full, the Joy Diet requires that you stop eating immediately. 

I settled on these two rules to normalize my own eating, which, believe me, was no easy task. Having danced a few youthful numbers with an eating disorder, I’ve done plenty of fasting, as well as my share of uncontrollable bingeing. When I first considered obeying my natural appetite, it sounded like leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse. I expected to stuff myself so unstintingly that I’d end up the size of a municipal library. But after years of apprehensive experimentation, I realized that my body just wanted to establish its ideal weight and eating patterns. 

True, for a while I ate enough chocolate to cause a price spike in the world cocoa market, but this was not so much my body’s wish as a psychological reaction to denying myself yummy things for years. I believe that our psychology—and also our body chemistry—wants us to hoard whatever pleasures seem to be in short supply. Starve yourself, and your body will want to binge. Then it will store every calorie as fat, bracing itself for the next period of famine. On the other hand, if you give yourself permission to eat whatever truly makes you feel good, you may be surprised by how dietetically correct your body wants to be. Pediatricians tell us that left to their own devices, children will choose a balanced, healthy diet. Adults will do the same—unless they are eating for reasons other than physical hunger. 

If you are using food to soothe feelings other than hunger, you won’t be able to tell what your body really wants, or to really enjoy what you eat. The rest of the Joy Diet will help you address the psychological issues that may result in this kind of emotional eating. Once you’ve resolved those issues, eating what you enjoy and enjoying what you eat can turn the simplest meal into a festive event. At each meal, feed your body what it requests, without judgment or stinginess. Spend an extra buck on a really satisfying snack, rather than a cheaper but less tasty substitute. Get the original-recipe treat instead of the gritty, boring, low-fat foodlike product sitting next to it. Keep asking your body—it will tell you exactly what it prefers. 

Feasting On Beauty

Food-feasts are particularly gratifying to the senses of taste and smell. However, the Joy Diet encourages you to indulge in feasts for the other senses as well. We usually apply the term beautiful to things that appeal either to our eyes or our ears. Seeking these kinds of delights is what I call a beauty-feast. 

I had a beauty-feast right after my first book tour, a grueling affair that involved discussing the book I’d written until I hated to talk about it. By the tour’s end, the thought of saying another word made me want to hurl myself into a volcano. I retreated home with just one thought in my head: orange. I don’t mean the fruit, or even the word orange. I was obsessed with the color. I was entranced by sunsets and poppies, but also by traffic cones and bags of Chee-tos. I bought a canvas and spent several days painting it with orange of every tone and hue, parking myself in the visual right side of my brain while my verbal left side recharged its batteries. It was one long, delicious feast for my eyes, and a much-needed rest for what little was left of my mind. 

A visual beauty-feast can be even more enthralling if you add auditory pleasures, such as music, the thunder of waves, or crickets’ song. 

It’s amazing how long we may go without feasting on things we find beautiful. We may own dozens of CDs and a great sound system but virtually never listen to our favorite music. We hate the mustard color of the bathroom but never get around to painting it our favorite shade of periwinkle. I often force clients—not at gunpoint, but almost—to revisit and reclaim the things they find most beautiful. When they seek out beauty for their daily feast requirement, the world abruptly becomes more vivid, often breath-snatchingly lovely.

Feasting On Feeling

So far we’ve covered four senses: taste, smell, sight, and hearing. The remaining sense, touch, can provide the most amazing feasts yet. Leading the list of tactile feasts is good sex—need I say more? A luxurious massage can be added to or substituted for this kind of pleasure, depending on your state of mind and social calendar. Then there are other spa-type activities: facials, manicures, elaborate baths. Just making sure you have appealing textures next to your skin can make the day feel festive. Flannel pajamas are a feast for a tired hide. So are fuzzy slippers or your favorite old T-shirt. 

There’s a sort of feeling called proprioception, the sensitivity that tells you how your body is positioned and how it’s moving. Just lying down and relaxing can be a feast for the body, especially if you can get away with doing it for a few minutes in the middle of the day. Stretching, scratching, skipping, dancing—anything that moves your body in a pleasurable way can be a feast. 

Another entry I’d put in this feasting category is that sublime nourishment, sleep. Our economy loses billions every year because of problems caused by widespread, chronic sleep deprivation. I myself slept for approximately 15 minutes between 1986 (when I started graduate school and had my first baby) and 1993 (when I finished my degree and sent my youngest child to preschool). Since then I’ve slept pretty much continuously. If your lifestyle doesn’t permit you to sleep until you feel rested, commit to changing it. If you have insomnia, see a doctor. Reclaim naps not as the refuge of the lazy but as the birthright of every creature able to snooze. There may still be times when you won’t be able to have as many sleep-feasts as you want, but these should be rare. 

Feasting On Love

In the end, there is one sort of feast that eclipses all the other kinds put together, and that is a feast of love. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, keep searching until you do. There are as many different love-feasts as there are moments when one person reaches out to another, and all of them are wonderful. 

To me a feast of love is any instant (or hour or lifetime) when human beings exchange affection. I see my 14-year-old son and his friends giving each other gentle punches on the arm; that’s a love-feast. A client tells me that I actually helped, and I tell him it was his doing, not mine; that’s a love-feast, too. A crowd shows up to cheer for the runners in a marathon, and the runners wave back. Massive love-feast. It’s true that sometimes we head hopefully toward what we think will be a love-feast, offer our hearts, and meet rejection. It’s true that this hurts. But you’ll find that love-feasts are so incredibly nourishing to your soul that it’s worth the risk of heartbreak to attend even the smallest or most crowded one around. 

Here are some ways to make sure you never miss a love-feast you could have attended. (1) In Benjamin Franklin’s words, “If you would be loved, love and be lovable.” Love-feasts are always potlucks: Each person must bring the ability to love, somehow, some way. If you’re waiting for someone else to supply 100 percent of the love you need, find a therapist who’s willing to accept reciprocation in the form of cash. (2) Don’t hide love. If you feel it, express it—not to demand that others love you back, but simply to live outwardly the best of what you feel inwardly. The worst that can happen to your heart is not rejection by another person but failure to act on the love you feel. (3) If you have a choice between a feast of love and any other option, go with love. 

Compared to other activities, love-feasts will mess up your life, complicate your career, wear you out, make you crazy. But I guarantee that when you look back over the time you’ve spent on earth, the feasts of love will be the events you’ll remember most joyfully, the experiences that will make you glad you have lived. 

Consciously choosing to have at least three square feasts a day may simply cause you to notice the sacred and wonderful ceremonies that already fill your life. Or it may remind you to discover and enjoy things you would otherwise never experience. Either way, it will ensure that you have a more joyful, balanced life, a life lived in the conscious pursuit of your dearest longings and grandest hopes. Now, that’s what I call a healthy diet.