Chill Out! How to Overcome Burnout

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

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

The Biology of Burnout

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

Driven

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

Draggin

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

Losing It

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

Hitting the Wall

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

Burned Out

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

How to Chill Out

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

Chill Principle 1: Become a grazer.

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

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

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

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

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

Chill Principle 3: Exercise for fun.

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

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

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

Chill Principle 4: Unplug heaters, plug in coolers.

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

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

Chill Principle 5: Practice peace.

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

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

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

Make the Madness a Game…Wisdom from Martha

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

It is because I’ll be playing Bingo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Survive Life’s Rough Patches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is?”

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

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

Life Is a Highway

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

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

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

Behold the Rumble Strip

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

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

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

Et voilà: rumble strip.

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

My Rumble Strip

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

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

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

Navigating Rumble Strips

STEP 1: Hit the brakes.

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

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

“Stop what?”

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

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

STEP 2: Put your mind in reverse.

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

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

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

“But it did!” Dorothy muffled a sob.

“Well, was any part of it good?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Did you learn from it?”

“I learned so much,” said Dorothy.

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

“Well, no.”

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

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

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

STEP 3: Find and follow smooth terrain.

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

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

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

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

The Village Where You’ll Thrive…Wisdom from Martha

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom from Fixed Ideas…Wisdom from Martha

Freedom from Fixed IdeasAlmost every client I’ve ever coached, including multi-millionaires, has been worried about money. Everyone’s after the magic that will pop abundance into their bank accounts. Often, that magic is hideously oversimplified, boiled down to ridiculous magical thinking.

On the other hand, everything I’ve observed in decades of coaching and observation tells me that there really is a process—subtle and far from obvious, but real—that draws wealth to some people, and almost seems to snatch it away from others.

I’ve spent enormous amounts of time pondering this, thinking of all the people I’ve coached, trying different processes myself. Recently, I realized that I’d formed a subconscious conclusion—one that surprised me. In my experience, two things combine to enable financial success. No, they are not family wealth and the ability to cook blue meth. They are freedom from fixed ideas and attention to inner guidance.

The first element is one very few of us ever try to develop. We’re told to believe a thousand things, but the value of releasing beliefs easily isn’t one of them. For about three centuries the Western economy has been dominated by jobs that require fixed, repetitive actions. A large number of these jobs, up to…um…all of them, are now vanishing. (For a great current analysis of the decline and fall of jobs, check out this article in The Atlantic: A World Without Work.)

The possible disappearance of all jobs isn’t bad news for those who are willing to fall back on the traits that made us such a successful species long before jobs were ever created: our ability to master unfamiliar environments and tasks by playing, fumbling, experimenting, and observing. Returning to the open mind-state that’s natural to all of us enables us to spot new opportunities when old ones disappear and create innovative solutions to unprecedented problems. And this is how one succeeds financially in a time of massive change.

Freedom from fixed ideas also opens our attention to a subtle but consistent source of guidance that seems to come from within. Think back on any major decision you’ve made, bad or good. Hold the memory of making the decision in your mind, paused like a frozen screen. Now, get very quiet and feel within yourself for a calm knowing that said either, “Yes! You go!” or “Um, no. Not so much, dear.” I used to think this kind of guidance was only available to the enlightened. But in working with thousands of clients, I’ve come to believe it’s always right there, nearer than near, whispering a calm truth. Find that voice. Follow it. You are guided.

If these instructions sound frustratingly nonspecific, it’s because I can’t know what your internal guidance will say. Only you can. Ask yourself, right now, how to succeed at anything you’re trying to accomplish. Then let go, get still, and allow. An idea may occur. It will be simple, straightforward, and clear. It won’t tell you your future. You’ll simply know to do something, now. Do it. Then repeat. Luck won’t get you to the life you want. Neither will hard work, good grades, or connections. But freedom and faith in yourself will. Despite everything you may have been taught, it’s letting go, not holding on, that can always show you the way.

Body Truth, Mind Lie: How to Make the Right Decision

Decisions,_decisions_-_geograph.org.uk_-_191544Five minutes into our session, Claire dissolved in tears. “I’m so exhausted from making decisions!” she said. Claire did have a lot on her plate. Her boyfriend, Mike, had proposed to her (she loved him but said he was often impatient, so she wasn’t sure he was The One). She was looking for a new home (an apartment, actually, in case things with Mike went south) but hadn’t found the perfect place. And she was desperate to quit her boring job, but was still in the process of zeroing in on a better one. It all sounded normal until we started discussing time frames. “Impatient” Mike had been waiting almost four years for Claire’s answer to his proposal. Claire had been house hunting for three of those years. And her career indecision? Almost a decade old. Claire’s exhaustion didn’t spring from making decisions; it came from not deciding—from vacillating, fretting, seeking endless advice. In a word, dithering.

Now, most of us dither now and again, but there comes a time, as an old translation of Goethe’s Faust has it, when “indecision brings its own delays, and days are lost lamenting over lost days.” If you ever find yourself singing this particular sad song, it’s time to change course—before you hem and haw your life away.

Opportunity Misers

Claire thought her problem was excessive optimism: “I intend to have the perfect man, home, and career,” she explained, “so I can’t commit to the wrong thing!” But optimists are relaxed, and Claire was anything but. Her whole life was devoted to obsessively avoiding something economists call opportunity cost. Whenever we choose one course of action, we rule out others. Giving up those other options is the opportunity cost of any decision. Claire couldn’t bear the thought of losing any opportunity by making a clear choice. She was an opportunity miser.

Just as money misers hoard their wealth, living as if they were poor even when they’re rich, opportunity misers hoard their freedom to choose—and end up becoming prisoners of indecision. Because she was unwilling to limit her future opportunities even slightly, Claire was never able to enjoy the opportunities she had. Yet she felt huge pressure to do so, as she admitted during a couples-coaching session with Mike. “I know I need to step up and make the rational choices,” she said.

Ironically, that was exactly what she didn’t need to do.

Breaking Through Decision Deadlock

From Plato to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, countless wise men have advised us to make rational decisions. Put aside emotion! Compare the costs and benefits of your options! Pick whatever option yields the highest value for the least cost! This seems like pretty logical advice—so how come other cultural icons, such as Captain Kirk, are always boldly going where passion takes them, making decisions based not on reason but on courage, love, loyalty? As it turns out, there are good reasons logical Mr. Spock ranked second in command, while emotional Kirk was captain.

We now know that decision making is an emotional process, not merely a calculation. Brain-damaged patients who can still think rationally but have lost the ability to process emotions can become pathologically indecisive. They may spend hours simply deciding what to wear. (I’m not sure I have this kind of brain damage, but it would explain a lot.) And it’s impossible to rationally calculate opportunity costs, because life is unpredictable. So decision making is always a gamble, and gamblers need confidence in both their calculations and their hunches.

People who trust their gut over their brain often take flying leaps with little information—risky, but at least they get somewhere. Folks with no faith in either their intellect or their instincts generally follow the path of least resistance; again, not an optimal strategy, but not paralyzing, either. Great strategists trust both intellect and instinct; they gather information until they feel they can make a good decision. But people who try to decide with the mind alone, who place no faith in their heart’s desires, are doomed to stall and fuss, compare and contrast, forever insisting that just a little more knowledge will make the choice clear. It won’t. Luckily, the two steps below just might.

Getting Unstuck: Step One

A yogi friend of mine once told me, “The body truth goes ahead of the mind lie.” When we dither over a decision, our intellect tries to gain the upper hand, shouting, You’d better be sure! Keep your options open! Have you considered the legal implications? and so on. Fortunately, our bodies patiently persist in telling the truth. All we have to do is listen.

Here’s how:

  1. Think of a time you said yes to something you later regretted. Vividly remember the moment you made the decision. What were you feeling, physically? Did your gut churn? Did your hands feel cold? Did your feet get hot? Even small sensations are significant. Describe them.
  2. Next, think of a time you said no to something and later wished you’d said yes. What physical feelings did you have while you were making that choice?
  3. Now recall a time you said no and were later relieved that you’d passed on what would have been a bad experience. What were you feeling physically when you made that choice?
  4.  Finally, remember a time you said yes to something that turned out to be a great choice. How did you feel, physically, when you were making that choice?

Generally, the sensations of an unwise decision will be consistent, whether your choice was yes or no. A wise yes or no will also have a consistent “body truth.” Focus on these sensations until you can tell them apart.

Now think of a decision you’re making today—where to buy yogurt, whether to change religions, and so forth. Feel which choice your body wants to make. Thinking about that option will ease your shoulders, open your lungs. The opposite choice will close you up like a clam. Once you’re able to sense these feelings, go on to step two.

Getting Unstuck: Step Two

Claire found that her body always felt queasy when she was making an unwise decision, solid and centered when she was choosing well. But when she tried to sense what to do with her many big decisions, everything became a nauseated blur. Nothing felt right.

This wasn’t because all of Claire’s future options were bad. Her body was reacting, as bodies always do, to the way she was spending her energy in the present moment. Our minds may tell us that deferring a decision can ensure our best possible future—even when doing so is making us crazy right now.

Check in with yourself: Does your life feel meaningful and on-purpose at this moment? If the answer is yes, your energy is invested in living your best life. But to the extent that you feel misery, your energy is asking to be reinvested. Misery literally means “the feeling of being a miser.” If you’re miserable, stop hoarding your life energy. Spend it now! Make a choice, any choice. If you’re still miserable, you can choose again. Eventually, you’ll see that all misery is simply life asking you to trade your current course of action—or inaction—for something purposeful and true.

…And Repeat

“Are you in earnest?” says my dog-eared copy of Faust. “Seize this very minute. What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” This doesn’t mean you’ll never misstep. It means that when you trade indecision for choice, you’ll be rewarded with either success or education. Guaranteed.

Claire finally said yes to Mike and no to her own apartment. Though her mind yapped like a mad poodle about lost opportunities, her body relaxed. She became less frantic. She hasn’t switched jobs, but right now, she says, that feels okay.

Claire discovered the genius, power, and magic that comes with finally, actively choosing. You have the opportunity to discover that for yourself. Feed your mind, but feel your heart. Trust in your truth. It will be the best investment you’ll ever make.

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!

The New “No Normal”…Wisdom from Martha

no normalI remember how relieved I was when I first heard someone say, “This is the new normal.” I was always trying to resist change, and I’d never, ever succeeded. The idea of a “new normal” allowed me to relax, no longer fighting pointlessly against the continuous change that is reality.

Recently, though, I’ve had to update the concept “new normal.” Change has gotten so incredibly zippy and sustained that it’s pretty obvious the only “new normal” possible anymore is “no normal.”

Now, the word “normal” comes from the Latin “norma,” meaning a carpenter’s square (not to be confused with “norma rae,” meaning a small feisty union leader). “Normal” things conform to precise measurements and angles. They’re consistent. Predictable. Just like…pretty much nothing that will ever happen to you from now on.

Take the weather. Please. Meteorologists were onto global warming when I was a kid, but no one predicted the weather patterns it’s creating now: the mega-drought parching us Californians, five-foot snow dumps in New England, my kids in Tucson complaining about all the rain. Economist Thomas Friedman recently labeled this “global weirding.” And it’s just going to keep getting weirder.

The same thing’s happening in other aspects of our lives. All institutions are unstable, all situations fluid. In such an environment, letting go of normal is the best thing you can do for yourself. It puts you in “don’t-know mind,” the Zen ideal of being fully present, observant, and accepting of whatever happens.

So what’s that you say? Pluto got fired from being a planet? Geneticists combined the DNA of spiders and goats and created goats whose milk turns to spider silk? You can now buy bacon-flavored toothpaste? Bruce Jenner felt like a woman all along? None of that surprises me. Ain’t nothing surprising up in here—not since I embraced the No Normal.

So my advice to you is to drop-kick whatever attachment you have to a square, predictable, normal life, and embrace the global weirding of everything. I’ve found that when no normal becomes your new normal, the weirdness can be a damn fine ride.

Not to Worry: 10 Things to Stop Worrying About

Photo: Simon Hayhurst/CC BY 2.0

Photo: Simon Hayhurst/CC BY 2.0

Everywhere I turn these days, people are urging me to worry. “Restaurants are swarming with bacteria!” shouts a local news promo. “We’ll tell you what to beware of!” From the computer in my lap, a parenting blog warns, “There’s plenty to be anxious about.” Noting the pallor of my furrowed brow, a neighbor clucks, “I think you should be more concerned about your health.”

Friends, there are many areas in which I need encouragement, but worrying is not one of them. I worry the way Renée Fleming sings high Cs: Effortlessly. Loudly. At length. You may be similarly gifted, because worrying comes easily to a certain subpopulation of humans, namely those of us with pulses. We’re constantly creating new, worry-based strategies for living.

But worrying is worrisome: It’s stressful, and as we all know, stress will kill you. I worry about that a lot. So today I’m striking a tiny blow for sanity with my list of ten things you can officially stop worrying about.

1. What’s on Your Plate

“If I can just finish this project,” says my ultrabusy friend Nancy, “I can stop worrying.” She’s said this every time I’ve ever spoken to her. No matter how much work Nancy finishes, by the time it’s done she’s fixating on a whole new crop of chores. In our achievement-obsessed society, this is “normal.” But I realized just how insane it is when a friend was dying of cancer. On her deathbed she managed to joke with me, “Hey, at least I only have one more thing on my to-do list.”

Instead of fretting about getting everything done, why not simply accept that being alive means having things to do? Then drop into full engagement with whatever you’re doing, and let the worry go.

“But,” you may be thinking, “I can’t just cut my anxiety loose! It isn’t under my control!” I empathize with this argument. I also know it’s bunk. To stop worrying about something, simply direct your attention toward something else. Personally, I like to interrupt my flow of worry by imagining—vividly—what I’d do if an elk walked into the room. See? Distraction works.

2. Needing Help

I used to be one of those people who spurned assistance—from other people, from God, from chemicals. Not anymore! These days—whether I’m begging for divine intervention, enlisting a fellow coach to help me overcome my aversion to e-mail, or refilling the awesome prescription that helps me sleep no matter how disruptive my schedule—I pretty much walk around hollering, “Help wanted!”

Are my helpers crutches? You betcha. Mama needs crutches, and she doesn’t worry one little bit about using them. If you worry about needing what you need—a shoulder to cry on, a standing date with a shrink, whatever the shrink prescribes—come to Mama, and she’ll smack you upside the head with her crutches until that worry flies right out of your mind.

3. Your Children

There was a time when I spent many hours worrying about my kids. In fact, I was so worried my firstborn would feel unloved that I “soothed” her constantly, blasting the poor child with a fire hose of anxious energy. It’s a wonder she survived.

My second child, who arrived with an extra 21st chromosome, eventually led me to a shocking conclusion: We don’t actually have much control over the way our kids turn out. Genes do a lot of the deciding, and the owner of those genes does most of the rest. Some kids let parents have a great deal of influence; others don’t. Either way, people blossom when we love them, not when we worry about them. Worry just teaches worry. Let it go.

4. Your Face (and Hips, and Butt…)

As long as we’re on the subject of DNA, let’s take on the big kahuna of worries: our appearance. Ten bajillion product ads notwithstanding, your looks are another thing that’s basically genetic. Stressing about them only deepens the facial creases that make everyone in your family resemble perturbed bulldog puppies. Key phrase: everyone in your family.

Instead of obsessing over your own appearance, try noticing—and mentioning—beautiful things about everyone else. This will make people adore you, which, last time I checked, is what most of us are hoping to achieve by worrying about our looks in the first place.

5. What You Own

The trick here is learning to reframe your perspective. For example, my friend Kathy always lays a colorful towel over her expensive tablecloth before serving her twin 7-year-old granddaughters a snack. One of the twins recently said, “Grandma, you don’t need to worry about us spilling. Spills are just memories.” If you’d rather live surrounded by pristine objects than by the traces of happy memories, stay focused on tangible things. Otherwise, stop fixating on stuff you can touch and start caring about stuff that touches you.

6. Everything You’re Doing Wrong

I don’t know any perfect people, but I know many who worry about being perfect. They exercise religiously and serve their families home-cooked organic free-range Tofurky recipes. They are unbearable.

I love the Buddhist concept of enlightenment as living without anxiety over imperfection. You can strain every fiber of your being trying to be flawless, only to face inevitable failure—or you can stop worrying about perfection, which instantly makes everything feel great. Save time and tofu: Choose option two.

7. The Past

I agree that your divorce settlement was a travesty of justice on par with the sack of Troy, that your last boss was abusive, and that you shouldn’t have calmed yourself with so many Cosmopolitans prior to testifying before Congress. I do not agree that worrying about it now will do any good.

The word worry comes from the Old English wyrgan, meaning “to strangle.” When we fixate on something in the past, we grab our own histories by the throat, cutting off the flow of physical and emotional energy that keeps us fully alive. To start the flow again, look forward. Think how you can apply what you’ve learned. Let your divorce teach you to negotiate assertively, your horrible boss help you spot and avoid other creeps. Let the debacle at Congress send you to a 12-step meeting. Embracing the lesson always loosens the stranglehold of worry.

8. What People Are Saying About You Right This Very Second

People are always telling me elaborate stories about the elaborate stories other people are supposedly telling about them. “I know people mock my pain,” growls one client. “Everyone expects me to be strong,” says another. “You think I’m expendable,” sobs a wife, while her husband protests, “You think I’m a robot.” All of these people are wrong, but they’ve got company. We all worry what people think about us—until we decide not to waste the energy.

When I first started coaching, I noticed that I never worried what my clients thought of me. Why not? All my attention was focused on understanding them. I watched like a Martian observer, not a vulnerable peer. This took me out of worry mode, and it helped clients feel seen. By not worrying about what they thought of me, I accidentally ensured that they thought well of me.

Today, pretend you’re a Martian gathering data on humans. As you notice what they do and say without focusing on your fear of their opinions, you’ll feel less self-conscious, and they’ll feel the nonjudgmental attention they’ve always wanted from you. Win-win.

9. Your Account Balance

I have nothing against the globally sacred rite of worrying about money. Except this: People, it has no payoff.

I stopped worrying about money when I was unemployed, living on credit card debt. It wasn’t that my ship came in. It was just that I’d decided to try writing for a living, yet I was too worried to write. So I proactively pushed aside worry as I worked. Did I make money that day? No. Did I make money sooner because I stopped worrying? I think so. Did I enjoy my life more from that moment on, regardless of how much I had in the bank? Abso-freaking-lutely. Go about your business, whatever it is, with full energy. And drop the worry. Watch how much stronger your moneymaking skills become when you’re not dragging around a hefty load of anxiety.

10. Worrying

If your Spanx are now totally knotted from trying to stop worrying, it’s time to take a nice, cleansing breath. Aaahhhh. Remember point number six: We’re not after perfection here. If you’ve felt even a tiny release from worry while reading this list, you’re succeeding. That slight lessening of anxiety is all you need.

Wiggle your worries a little each day, and they’ll gradually lose their hold on you. Trust that you’re already counteracting the barrage of messages that tell us, every day, to worry, worry, and worry some more. Enjoy the liberating sense of bucking the cultural tide. And speaking of bucks, if you have further questions, please feel free to direct them to my elk.

 

The Turbulent Secrets to Soul Renewal

unnamed-15Some of my favorite writers are fond of housework as a kind of counterbalance to spiritual attainment. Jack Kornfield, writing about enlightenment, says, “After the ecstasy, the laundry.” And Zen teacher John Tarrant (see this month’s book recommendation below) advises his readers, “When something wonderful comes our way, it is good to do the dishes.”

I thought about this today as I listened to my washing machine run in one room, the dishwasher in another. I’m lucky enough to have machines for both tasks, but however you clean clothes and silverware, the process involves common elements: soaking, sudsiness, turbulence, rinsing, drying.

It occurred to me that I haven’t been willing to allow these processes, so obviously necessary for cleaning my sheets and plates, to run their course as they clean up my life. I’d prefer a steady state of peace and happiness, please—and would you mind liberally sprinkling that with delirious joy? I forget that in the material world, the process of renewal and refreshment often requires stewing in my emotional and logistical gunk, enduring high-temperature turbulence, and occasionally (when the newfangled methods fail and the old-fashioned ways come out of retirement) getting pounded on rocks or scraped with sand.

So here’s my new favorite meditation: Load up your dishwasher or washing machine, press the buttons, and then sit by the magical cube as it does its magic. When it roars and sloshes, hear the echo of your fear, anger, and despair. When it spins, recognize your own times of confusion, of apparently pointless repetition. When it seems to have finished, only to rev up again, think of the times you’ve had to start over. And realize that all this bashing and crashing is your soul being cleaned, renewed, and made fresh again. Once you relax into the process, you’ll learn the great secret: It is through doing the laundry that we find our way to the ecstasy.