Celebrating the Ebb Tide

You are an ocean. You’re about 60 percent plain water, with an admixture of chemicals that approximate the sea in which your most ancient ancestors evolved. Also like the sea, you are tidal. You ebb and flow. Your heart and lungs continuously contract and expand.

Your circadian rhythms alternate between alertness and sleepiness. You also have ultradian rhythms, multiple physical systems that ebb and flow within each day. Ultradian rhythms control things like your hormonal levels, heat regulation, appetite, and nostril dilation. (Yes! Nostril dilation!)

Unfortunately, you’ve had your natural rhythms disrupted by a culture that praises you for working continuously, and makes you embarrassed or ashamed of the need to rest. But in high performing roles, from musical performance to office work, human beings function best in bursts that max out at 90 minutes. These work periods are interspersed with at least 20-minute periods of R&R (I myself find that 70 minutes on, 30 minutes off, is the best way to get things done).

Here’s my challenge for this month: Try tuning into your innate rhythms, allowing ebbs as well as flows, and see what happens. When you settle into work, or play with your children, or clean the house, set a timer for an hour. Before you start, rate your energy level from 1-10, with 1 being “I am so close to dead I can see Grandma beckoning from heaven,” and 10 being “I am on crack and plan to take over the universe.” Work with full attention until the timer rings, then check your energy levels again. If you feel like resting, even a little, do it. Lie down. Wrap yourself in a soft blanket. Read a book. Close your eyes and feel yourself descend into an ultradian peace. After 30 minutes, check your energy again. If you feel like working, set the timer and dive in again. If you don’t, rest a bit longer, then re-check. All day, follow your own rhythm.

Just paying attention to this will tune you into your own best working pace. If you can keep yourself from comparing your rhythms with others, or insisting on mechanical consistency, or panicking about everything that’s still left to be done (dear, there will always be infinite things left undone) you’ll eventually find yourself working more powerfully and resting more deliciously.

Just to reinforce the importance of ebb, as well as flow, let’s celebrate the resting times. Curl up and rest, cuddled up, eyes closed, nostrils dilated out to here, and trust that when you stop fighting the pull of the tide, the ocean in you will bring everything you need.

Like Ten Thousand Knives When All You Need Is a Spoon

spoonIt’s been a long day, and I’m almost out of spoons. I have a couple to use writing this, but I’ll need a good sleep to forge more spoons for tomorrow.

Does this sound odd to you? Let me tell you about “Spoon Theory,” my current preoccupation. Spoon Theory is a real thing—you can find it in Wikipedia, listed as a neologism (a phrase just entering popular usage). Spoon theory is the brainchild of the wonderful blogger Christine Miserandino, who has Lupus. She explained life as a Luperian (is that a word? A neologism?) by using spoons to represent the energy it takes to do things.

According to spoon theory, every task we ever do—getting up, taking a shower, driving the kids to school—costs a spoon. Most people, most of the time, have dozens of spoons. But there are times when some of us wake up with only ten, or four, or one.

If you’ve only got one spoon, you have some decisions to make. Should you shower, make breakfast, pay your bills, or focus on a crucial work project? Choose carefully. Your options are practically nil.

As someone who’s had various autoimmune diseases since my teens, I’m acutely aware of everyone’s spoon count. I raised my longsuffering children on a king-size bed, since I usually couldn’t walk, sit, or stand without pain.

So the other day, when someone with her own autoimmune issues offered to check my email for me, I said, “That’s not happening. You’re out of spoons.”

“No, you don’t understand,” she said. “That would give me spoons.”

Wait. What?

“If it were my email, it would take spoons,” she explained. “My email makes me want to join a witness protection program. But doing it for you makes me happy. See?”

And I saw! I did! Her cheeks were pink, her eyes suddenly, subtly, brighter. She had accrued a spoon! Just one, but still.

The implication of this event, while shocking, must be faced squarely:

SOME ACTIVITIES CAN GIVE YOU SPOONS!

This isn’t part of classic Spoon Theory, so far as I know. But as I cast my mind back to my own most spoonless times, I remembered occasional, inexplicable surges of energy. I’d hear a bit of wisdom, and feel my baseline vim spike up to near normalcy. Or I’d have a good cry and then feel lighter, stronger. In fact, most of my self-help advice comes from being absolutely out of spoons, and then noticing that certain thoughts and actions added to my inner silverware drawer, instead of robbing it.

Now, please don’t think I want you to buck up, ignore your depression or fibromyalgia, and clean your damn house. Dude, you might as well just fling all your spoons into a live volcano. No, no, no. I just want you to go wherever your spoons take you.

See, we don’t get to choose which effect a given activity has on us. I can’t make my email give me spoons—I’ve tried, and the effort left spoon-shaped gouges all over my soul. But sometimes when I’m low and miserable, I notice a topic, a book, or a person, and hear a tiny plink! inside. My ears perk up. My mind clears.

Spoon!

I believe we’re all being steered by our true selves, and our true selves’ favorite steering mechanism is spoons. When we stray off course with actions or even thoughts, nothing on earth can make us feel spoonful. When we take a single step in the right direction: Spoonage! Maybe a teeny espresso spoon appears, or maybe it’s a big old soup ladle. A spoon is a spoon. Just keep doing whatever created it.

If you long for the world to be a saner, more loving place, please be advised that you must start inside. Care for your sick, anxious, exhausted self as lovingly as you want to care for every suffering thing. And when you find something that gives you spoons, go toward it. Go right into it. Go wherever it takes you. If I’m brave enough to follow my own heart, I know I’ll have the spoons to meet you there.

May all our scores be very low

Doggie Do-Good Camp was supposed to last twclaireo weeks. That’s a long time to be separated from a dog you’ve just adopted, but when we got Claire, our emergency backup Golden Retriever, it seemed necessary. She was anxious, jittery, and unresponsive to even simple commands. After two weeks, a Doggie Do-Good trainer called to report that Claire needed more time. “Claire is one of the cutest dogs we’ve ever worked with,” said the trainer. There followed a charged silence. The trainer took a deep breath and added, “Her scores are, er, very low.”

It was hard to contradict, but still, harsh, dude. All our lives we’re taught to jack up our scores, fight for every point we can get, compete for rank like hyenas fighting over filet mignon.

After a full month of Do-Good Camp, Claire came home with a dim, flickering concept of the word “Come.” Mainly she just figures we like to shout randomly; she hasn’t put this together with us meaning for her to do…well, anything.

We could go back to rigorous training, but we haven’t. You know why? Because even with all our kvetching and complaining about a dog who has the same I.Q. as a patch of mold, Claire’s joy in being naughty has brought us untold happiness.

It’s amazing to watch a life lived without concepts, without rules, without fear of punishment. Claire is free from all that, and so even more than most dogs, she continuously chooses love over everything else. Love of play, love of sleep, love of our motley little pack of people.

Today, for at least fifteen minutes, try channeling your inner Claire, doing something that may look messy, but fills your heart. (I’m sharing a video for inspiration.) Every few hours pause, tune in to your desires, and then throw yourself into something that feels as luxurious and sensual to you as rolling in the dirt does to Claire.

claire video

We didn’t name our emergency backup retriever, but her wonderful former owner did it perfectly. “Claire” means light; for us, living out of sheer joy, no rules, lights up our family and teaches us how to illuminate our own experience. This month, may your life be filled with light, and may you care not one bit if your scores are very low.

Not to Worry: 10 Things to Stop Worrying About

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.

 

Freedom From Fear

Polar Bear (Sow), Near Kaktovik, Barter Island, AlaskaLately I’ve become thoroughly exasperated with the part of my tiny brain that insists on continuously creating fear. Fear of dying soon. Fear of living too long. Fear of being alone. Fear of being spread out too thin between loved ones. Fear of drought. Fear of flooding. Fear of change. Fear of things staying the same.

ENOUGH, ALREADY!

I’ve tried suppressing my fear. It gets stronger. I’ve tried looking for the bright side, which simply focuses my mind on the inevitable dark side. I’ve tried medication, meditation, mediation, and a host of other ations. None of them worked. But recently, I’ve discovered something that does.

Here’s the thing: we can’t save ourselves from fear by seeking safety, because safety always means there’s something to be safe from—in other words, something to fear. The way out of fear isn’t safety. It’s freedom.

For a few weeks, I’ve been replacing every fearful thought in my head with a loving-kindness wish to be free from that specific fear.

  • When I’m scared that all the polar bears will die, I don’t say “Keep the polar bears alive!” until I’ve said, “May I be free from my fear for the polar bears.”
  • When I’m sure I have some dire illness, I don’t think “I must be healthy forever!”  I think, “May I be free from my fear of illness.”
  • When I miss someone, I don’t pester the person with needy phone calls.  I think, “May I be free from my fear of separation.”
  • Etcetera.

This request for freedom has been granted with subtle but remarkable power. I’ve had one of the calmest months on record. Freedom is landing me in peace, a state from which I function far more effectively—and safely—than anxiety. So feel free to try it. Really. Feel free.

Easy Does It

tumblr_lsmnttn3jX1qg5i5zLife is hard. We all know that. It is one of the primary beliefs that helped you gut it out through school subjects you hated, your soul-vampire of a job, and the years when your children, your partner, and your parents all depended on you. When I read through the journals I have kept sporadically throughout my life, I can see how acknowledging that life is hard helps me survive and overcome obstacles.

But, something weird is happening.

It’s not just me; it’s also people I work with, people I coach, and friends from all walks of life. We are being challenged to let things be easy. This is not an altogether new idea. 2000 years ago, Jesus supposedly said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The Buddha tried a life of pain and self-denial, then declared that it was not enlightenment and chose an easier path.

My favorite philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “The great Way is easy, yet people prefer the side path. Be aware when things are out of balance. Stay centered within the Way.”

It seems to me these days that the easy way is no longer an option for us: it is an imperative. What you are meant to do in the world may have begun with difficulty, but from here on, you are obliged to find the easiest path to all of your objectives. We live in a time of astonishing ease, especially those of us in the first world. Almost every day, at least one person says to me, “I can’t believe it’s that easy.” Guess what? It is.

For example, here are some of the things that seem too easy for me. I was educated to spend hours in libraries shuffling 3×5 note cards, searching through stacks of books, and reading thousands of pages in search of one nugget of truth. Now, I can Google “nugget of truth” and come up with over 2.5 million results in 0.23 seconds. In fact I just did it; how about this? “You are a dream of God come true.” That’s just awesome. That’s just too easy!

Another example: Now that I live in the country, shopping means a full-on expedition requiring at least an hour in transit just to buy groceries or a pair of flip-flops. Some of my neighbors recently told me that they shop online and have all of their purchases delivered to their country home. What? That’s just too easy!

Just one more: I have trouble remembering writing deadlines. So, right now, my wonderful Master Coach Jill Farmer is typing up this newsletter as I dictate it, while I’m giving myself a pedicure. Decadently easy!

By the same token, a dear friend of mine recently found a significant other through an online dating service. My daughters create astonishing works of art on their computers that would take thousands of hours to paint on a canvas. When I set out to plant a vegetable garden, a dear friend who loves to garden came and showed me how. We just ate our first batch of potatoes, a small miracle that required virtually no effort on our part.

All of this easiness is causing great un-easiness. At least a dozen people, over this past month, have asked me for coaching because certain tasks had become so easy they feared they were doing something wrong. I don’t think so. I think that a wave of easiness is rising all over the world. Does mean that people are not suffering or experiencing enormous difficulty? Of course not. But it may mean that even solving the problems of the destitute is meant to be an easier task than we believe. It may mean that the everyday labors of our lives are being facilitated by something that is teaching us to use our striving, tenacity, and grit to do things so huge and beautiful that they have never been possible before.

Do this for me: This month, every time you set out to do any task, ask yourself, “Is there an easier way?” Or, “How can I make this easier?” Can you ask a friend for help? Have you tried Googling it? Are there services out there to help you? Might small miracles happen if you simply ask the powers that be for assistance? It floors me when I ask this question to myself and realize how much easier tasks have become. And, the strength I gained gutting it through the hard parts of life is now free to flow into tasks that have one common purpose: to make things easier for others. That’s why all of this is happening, people. We are a species that works to make things easier. We’re getting really good at it. But, unless we drop the idea “life is hard,” we can’t take advantage of the astonishing ease we have created.

Get Out of Jail

iStock_000001616955SmallRecently, I had the chance to watch the movie Instinct in which Anthony Hopkins plays a primatologist who “goes native” with a group of mountain gorillas. When humans kill his gorilla family, he goes berserk, kills some of the attackers, ends up in an African prison, and refuses to speak for years. Finally, a psychiatrist played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. breaks through and hears the story of Hopkins’ adventures.

This movie is based on the book Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, which I think all humans should read. The film has powerful implications about the 20th century, especially the great machine of industry that is our economy. If someone you love (possibly you!) is caught in a stifling system, being torn from their true nature and being forced to act as a cog in the machine, buy this movie and watch it together. The filmmakers’ symbol for society is a prison for the insane known as “Harmony Bay.” In it, you will see every horrible boss, every stupid meeting, every injustice and every suffocating separation from nature that corporate life inflicts on so many people.

Sorry to spoil the surprise, but Anthony Hopkins eventually frees not only himself but Cuba Gooding, Jr. and a lot of the other prisoners. Freedom looks different for each of these people. For some, it is simply the power the say no to a bully. For others, it’s the creation of loving relationships. But for still others, it is almost complete separation from all human structures. Every character is liberated from some sort of cage, and the key to the cage is always the courage to use all one’s available power and freedom to choose what most nourishes the heart.

Today, you can use the same key to unlock any prisons in which you feel confined. Freedom can start as simply as wearing the clothes you really like instead of what your friends will really admire. It can be standing up for a stranger who’s unfairly bumped out of line at the post office. It can be structuring your schedule to suit the wildest part of yourself, instead of the most docile and broken. We all have freedoms we have not yet explored.

Today, break a few bars and venture into territory that initially makes you say, “Oh no, I could never.” That phrase is a sign that you have bumped up against the bars of your cage. Notice if it comes with a nervous laugh instead of genuine revulsion (because of course if you are cruel or unkind, those bars are there for good reason.) Do something today that you think is too delicious, too selfish, too wacky to fit within the rules of your life.

After my family watched Instinct, I told my partner Karen I wished every man in America would watch it. Men in particular are trapped these days in the image of themselves as cogs in the great economic machine. So, Karen began telling people “Have you seen Basic Instinct? It’s amazing! Every man in America should watch it.” People began giving Karen strange looks. Eventually, someone told her why. But Karen did not suffer because she’d been recommending soft core porn rather than a fabulous drama. She did not disintegrate because of the head scratching and raised eyebrows of the people who now think she’s an obsessive Sharon Stone fan. A 55-year-old woman earnestly recommending smut to all her dearest friends is not a problem for her.

When you break your rules, when you act “crazy,” you won’t disintegrate, either. You will just join those of us who like to play outside our cages and respectfully do not care what anybody thinks.

Good luck and bon voyage!

Knowing When to Quit

I call my friend Betsy “Best-y” for two reasons: first, because she’s one of the best-beloved people in my life, and second, because anything she tries, she does better than anyone else in the world. The one thing that occasionally ruffles our mutual affection is that we’re both rather competitive, in the sense that if you wondered aloud which of us could most quickly remove her own gall bladder with kitchen implements, Besty and I would be fighting for steak knives before the words left your mouth.

That doesn’t bother me, though, because I’m less competitive than Besty. If someone were to rank us on noncompetitiveness, I would definitely win.

Anyway, one January—resolution time, goal time, gotta-shed-holiday-weight time—Besty and I joined some pals at a spa, planning to refocus, get in shape, prove that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Instead, that week taught me to honor W.C. Fields’s profound statement “If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” The thing is, science supports this. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the ability to quit easily makes us healthier—and wealthier—than does leechlike tenacity.

Quitters Win and Winners Quit

After settling in at the spa, Besty and I considered the activities being offered the following day.

“Oh, look!” said Besty. “There’s a morning hike at 5 a.m.!”

“Great!” I said, trying not to show horror. If Besty could haul herself out of bed and frolic athletically in the middle of the night, then, dammit, so could I.

“We’ll be back in time for water aerobics,” said Besty. “And after that, weight training and then kickboxing. This’ll be so fun!”

“Fun!” I echoed. Then I heard my own voice, like a train with no brakes, saying, “How about Pilates and Jazzercise after that?”

“Cool!” said Besty. “I’m in!”

Dammit!

The next day was a blur of sweaty, exhausting, recondite competition. Besty walked faster than I did on the hike, because I’m not a morning person. Then I edged her out in weight training. Kickboxing was a draw—her kicks were higher, but she’s tall, which must be considered. Besty got more praise from the Pilates coach, but I got more in Jazzercise. After seven straight hours of strenuous exercise, I felt as though my muscles had been taken apart, scoured, then badly reassembled by a team of evil student nurses. Besty still looked fresh. Pert. She looked really pert.

“Ready to call it a day?” I asked.

“Well…” Besty said. “There’s still an advanced yoga class before dinner.”

I looked at my schedule. Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!

“Shall we?” asked Besty, like a kid on Christmas morning.

“Absolutely!” I gagged. “Wouldn’t miss it!” That class lasted approximately as long as the Pleistocene epoch. I try never to think of it. Sometimes, though, despite heavy medication, the memory returns unbidden, and I hear again the yoga instructor’s comment, “The key to success is persistence. Quitting is failure.” My mind reacted to this with numb acquiescence—I’d heard it so often, after all. But my body silently screamed, “Not always!”

Turns out my body was right.

Recently, psychologists Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch set out to investigate the mental and physical health of people who resist quitting, and of those who throw in the towel when facing unattainable goals. The second group—the quitters—were healthier than their persistent peers on almost every variable. They suffered fewer health problems, from digestive trouble to rashes, and showed fewer signs of psychological stress.

In another study, which followed a group of teenagers for a year, subjects who quit easily had much lower levels of a protein linked to inflammation than did their more tenacious peers. This made them less likely to develop many debilitating illnesses later in life.

The mechanism that helps people quit appropriately, Miller and Wrosch discovered, was not wisdom but dejection. People who are trying in vain eventually get depressed about their ongoing failure, and those who respond to this depression by quitting when it first appears enjoy all kinds of benefits.

I didn’t think about this scientifically during that yoga class—though I experienced it subjectively when the teacher guided us into a shoulder stand. The pose caused my body to quake violently with exhaustion as my workout shorts fell back around my pelvis and my gaze was forced upward. Gentle reader, you cannot imagine a ghastlier view: The depression evoked by the gelatinous consistency of my thighs beggars description.

I should’ve quit right then. I would have, if Besty weren’t so competitive.

The Quitting Bonus

The fact that I continued with the class exemplifies my approach to life and no doubt explains my digestive troubles, rashes, and inflammatory illnesses. But the implications don’t stop there: Not quitting may be at the root of fiscal problems as well as physical ones. That’s right—quitters prosper not only physically but financially.

Every first-year economics student learns about the “sunk-cost fallacy,” though virtually no one remembers it when making spending choices. The sunk-cost fallacy is a universal human error. It refers to our tendency to throw good money after bad, trying to justify our mistakes by devoting more resources to them. For example, a gambler who’s lost a small fortune is likely to stay and keep hemorrhaging cash precisely because he’s losing. “I’m down $10,000,” the thinking goes. “I have to keep playing until I get it back—this rotten luck can’t go on forever.” This is how human psychology works.

It is not how reality works.

A gambler is no more likely to win on the 500th roulette spin than on any of the previous 499. But a huge amount of effort goes into attempts at redeeming things—lemon cars, money–pit houses, horrible relationships, wars—that just aren’t working. Learning to quit while you’re not ahead, when the dull ooze of depression tells you things are not going to get any better, is one of the best financial and life skills you can master.

This should have occurred to me well before Besty and I hit that yoga studio. It should have occurred to me several years earlier, when I first realized that she was simply better than I was at everything. But even after a thousand failed attempts—and even though I once actually taught at a business school—I forged on.

How to Quit

Moving from shoulder stand to triangle pose, I was hit by two things: a back spasm and the realization that though I was ready to quit, I didn’t know how. I’d never practiced quitting. I didn’t know the right path out of the room, the right facial expression, the right way to give up.

So there I stood, befuddled, trying to touch my right foot with my right hand while bending sideways, when I heard a complicated thumping from the other side of the studio. By rolling my eyes far back into my skull, I saw what had made the sound. Besty had toppled from triangle pose directly into corpse pose.

She seemed too tired to speak, but from her feeble movements, she might have been trying to signal something—perhaps that she wished to be rinsed. But I took my own message from her example. In that moment, I saw with great clarity that (to paraphrase poet Elizabeth Bishop) the art of quitting isn’t hard to master. We can always just go limp.

That’s something any toddler intuitively knows. For instance, when my daughter Katie was 3, she said she’d just met “that fat lady next door.” I told her that was wonderful, except that it was better to refer to “the fat lady” as Mrs. Ellis.

“What if I forget?” Katie asked.

“Well, honey, then I’ll remind you.”

Katie thought for a minute and asked, “What if I refuse?”

That, frankly, was a stumper. I had no real way to force my daughter—or anyone else—to continue doing something she simply refused to do.

So, how do you quit doing something when depression, inflammation, and financial disaster loom? If worst comes to worst, just stop. The formalities will take care of themselves. I’m not advocating this, but if you stop showing up at work, they’ll fire you. If you refuse to act married, your spouse will eventually drift away or file for divorce. It’s far better karma to be up-front and honorable about quitting. I’m just pointing out that you always have the power to quit something at a physical level. In other words: Corpse pose is always an option.

This applies to everything, including (stay with me here) the process of quitting itself. If you’re trying in vain to quit something you do compulsively, like overspending or smoking or macramé, try quitting the effort to quit. As therapists like to say, “What we resist, persists,” and this is especially true of bad habits. Imagine trying not to eat one sinfully delicious chocolate truffle. Got it? Okay, now imagine trying to eat 10,000 truffles at one sitting. For most of us, the thought of not-quitting in this enormous way—indulging ourselves beyond desire—actually dampens the appetite. It’s a counterintuitive method, but if the “I will abstain from…” resolutions you make each year are utter, depressing failures, you might quit quitting and see what happens. When my clients stop unsuccessful efforts to quit, they often experience such a sense of relief and empowerment that quitting becomes easier—it’s paradoxical but true. (Try it before you dismiss it.)

I didn’t know what made Besty hit the floor of the yoga studio. I assumed she’d simply misplaced her center of gravity, due to having lost so much weight in one day. But I was wrong. She’d had enough—and her giving in to the force of gravity had a liberating effect on me. I found myself shuffling toward the door, and as I did, my depression lightened. I’d stumbled across a transformative resolution I’d keep all that year: to quit when I was behind, without shame or self-recrimination. It was a watershed moment in my life and in my friendship with Besty. She was fitter and more determined than I was, and even when it came to quitting, my friend had done the job first, and best.

Dammit.

Rumble Strips

Rumble Strips AheadI am going to assume that y’all are already on board with my obsessive belief that we are undergoing a transformation of human consciousness. I could be wrong, but let’s just say I’m not. It seems that this change is imminent, if not already upon us. In Eckhart Tolle’s image, blossoms are opening in individual human beings all over our flower-field of a planet. This is beyond exciting! It’s also slightly more than terrifying if you are going through it. So here are a couple of concepts to calm and comfort us all.

The first is what I call “culture versus compass.” If we are meant to continue living on this particular planet, we must switch—very rapidly, now—to a way of thinking and living that has never before existed. This is necessary because the conditions we now face as a species are utterly unprecedented. What this means is that no culture—I repeat, no culture whatsoever—can give us full instructions on how to embody this new consciousness. Every culture provides hints, but none by itself could possibly be complete.

So how does one steer a path that does not yet exist? Since there is no cultural map, we have no alternative but to rely completely on the internal compasses we all carry in our hearts.

This sounds dangerous, even to me. The human heart seems full of bugs and errors. I have a firm faith in destiny but have never thought it wise to trust humans too much. Tough! The heart is all we have left to guide us. The ongoing miracle I have been experiencing recently is the discovery that our hearts are being guided more benevolently and helpfully than I ever dreamed possible. Even people who set out to harm others end up accidentally helping them. (I call this the “nemesis phenomenon”; the villain who sets out to destroy the hero, but without whom the hero could never discover the limits of his superpowers.) So all of this is just to say that any decision you are facing is best made in the deepest confines of your own body and brain. They are instruments miraculously calibrated to lead you; you must trust them now more than ever. For further information on this, please read everything I have ever written.

The next most useful tool in these chaotic times is what I call the rumble strip. A rumble strip looks like this: your dog dies on the same day your car is totaled, your daughter joins a cult, your best friend moves away, and your refrigerator explodes. In other words, it’s a barrage of seemingly unrelated catastrophes so severe you cannot ignore them. You have no idea what’s happening or why, only that this feels too freakishly bad to be coincidental.

I believe that, as the phrase suggests, rumble strip experiences are designed not to torture or punish us, but to steer us. We are headed in the wrong direction, not through malice or even intent, but simply by mistake. We’re like drivers who have fallen asleep at the wheel and the fates are conspiring to awaken us. If you encounter a rumble strip, from a morning of small annoyances to a year of crises, please realize that part of your awareness is asleep. By this I mean it is tied up in erroneous assumptions. Assumptions, by definition, shape the way we see the world. We are as unconscious of them as a sleeping driver is of sleep itself. That’s why the rumble strip feels so chaotic: it is jolting, jarring, and breaking apart the basic foundations of our worldview.

The best response is to slow waaaaaaay down. Begin to see where the thoughts you believe most deeply no longer serve to explain the chaos in your life. The rumble strip is pointing out the assumptions you must question, and in its elegant mercy it paints them so vividly with emotional pain that they will be hard to miss. For example, my first rumble strip was the year I described in my book Expecting Adam, when I was afflicted by everything from a nearly lethal illness to high-rise fires to lice. Fun! And then there was my son’s Down syndrome diagnosis. It took all that to smash apart my assumption that the value of my life was my intellect. You may have different assumptions but, trust me, some of them will not work in the months and years ahead.

The transformation we are feeling will only speed up from here. So please pay close attention to your inner compass. If you stop steering by your compass you will hit a rumble strip. Don’t panic. Just question your assumptions and you’ll be back on the road in no time.

There is Room

Broken Watch FacesEverything changes in time. This is the one constant in a Universe where all solid things ultimately disintegrate. It is the core principle that drives our fears and that led the Buddha to proclaim that the understanding of impermanence was the first “noble truth” that must be mastered by anyone who hopes to attain enlightenment.

Me, I’m just trying to get my damn laundry done before I have to leave for the airport.

I have struggled with time since I was a very small child. I remember vividly lying awake the night before my 4th birthday, staring at the ceiling, worrying intensely over how little I had accomplished over such a long period of time. I assumed that all the other 4-year-olds were much further along in their life missions. By the time I was in high school I was virtually insane with time anxiety. I got into a bitter argument with a friend who asked me what bothered me most about this world. I said “transience.” My friend thought I said “transients.” To this day, I think he abhors my position on our nation’s homeless population. What I meant, of course, was that everything passes away, and that I could not reconcile myself to the continuous loss that is an inevitable aspect of linear time. On a more basic note, I never felt I had enough time to do everything I hoped to accomplish. If I had known in high school how dramatically time demands would increase in the 21st century I would still be under my bed.

At this point in my life, I am lucky enough to have help with many tasks that once filled my available time and spilled over into time I should have spent sleeping. Even so I always feel I am running behind schedule. A few weeks ago I lost the cheap plastic Target watch that I was wearing because I know that I am always losing watches. For a few days I was on the road without a clock on my body. I was shocked by how often I looked at my left wrist. I remembered a Haitian proverb that became popular after slavery was abolished on the island: “The white man’s shackles have been replaced by his watches.” I had been experiencing time as my prison, my limitation, and my overseer.

To my huge relief, I soon bought another cheap plastic watch. But this one had a feature I had never seen. To set the time, I had to bring up a screen that said “chrono.” Every time I saw this screen a strange thought would pop into my mind. Not chronos, kairos. Chronos is a greek word that referred to the passage of linear time. Kairos means the time of the Gods. A moment of chronos is simply the tick of a clock. A moment of kairos is an undetermined time when an opening appears for the entry of the divine into the material world. Chronos is clock-time, kairos is god-time.

Either my subconscious mind or a passing guardian angel seems to be telling me that in order to move forward successfully with my purpose in life, I must relinquish my death grip on chronos and surrender to kairos. I am only beginning to experiment with this–such is the obsession with chronos I’ve had since preschool. At this point, my practice (and I would suggest this for you too if it feels interesting) is to notice that every day is peppered with kairos moments. A kairos moment may occur when your schedule is so full you feel like screaming. The message is to stop, to forget chronos, and to feel the calming force telling you almost nothing on your schedule is really important. A kairos moment might be the double-take you do when your eyes catch something beautiful or awe-inspiring. Take off your watch: the divine is speaking to you. A kairos moment may be the burst of laughter that comes when you realize all your darkest fears are fabrications of your mind. They are not happening now in this moment. This moment is the doorway to god. Stop and open it.

To remind myself of this I have been taking off my watch for several hours each day. Each time I look at my wrist and see nothing but skin I remember to drop chronos and feel for kairos. Within the kairos moment nothing ever needs to be done, and everything can happen at once. Life can weave itself around my heart’s desires. In one instant of kairos, there is room for everything we have envisioned for ourselves and for one another. I’ll meet you there.