How to Stop Regretting Decisions

Great Egret in FlightSo here’s the story: After a lifetime of hand-copying ancient texts, an elderly monk became abbot of his monastery. Realizing that for centuries his order had been making copies of copies, he decided to examine some of the monastery’s original documents. Days later, the other monks found him in the cellar, weeping over a crumbling manuscript and moaning, “It says ‘celebrate,’ not ‘celibate!’”

Ah, regret. The forehead-slap of hindsight, the woeful fuel of country ballads, the self-recrimination I feel for eating a quart of pudding in a crafty but unsuccessful attempt to avoid writing this column. If you’ve ever made a bad decision or suffered an accident, regret has been your roommate, if not your conjoined twin. It’s a difficult companion, prone to accusatory comments and dark moods, and it changes you, leaving you both tougher and more tender. You get to decide, however, whether your toughness will look like unreachable bitterness or unstoppable resilience; your tenderness the raw vulnerability of a never-healing wound, or a kindness so deep it heals every wound it touches. Regret can be your worst enemy or your best friend. You get to decide which.

There are at least two time zones where you can choose to make regret’s powerful energy healing rather than destructive: the past and the future. Both can be transformed by what you decide to do right now, in this moment.

Let’s start by changing the past. If you think that can’t be done, think again. Literally. The past doesn’t exist except as a memory, a mental story, and though past events aren’t changeable, your stories about them are. You can act now to transform the way you tell the story of your past, ultimately making it a stalwart protector of your future. Try these steps, more or less in order.

1. Get Beyond Denial
As long as you’re thinking, “That shouldn’t have happened or I shouldn’t have done that,” you’re locked in a struggle against reality. Many people pour years of energy into useless “shouldn’t haves.” The angry ones endlessly repeat that their ex-spouses shouldn’t have left them, their parents shouldn’t have overfed them, or their bosses shouldn’t have made them wear uncomfortable chipmunk costumes in 90-degree heat. Even drearier are the sad ones, who forever drone some version of “If only.” If only they’d married Sebastian, or gotten that promotion, or heeded the label’s advice not to operate heavy machinery, they would be happy campers instead of les misérables.

I call this unproductive regret. People use it to avoid scary or difficult action; instead of telling the story of the past in a useful way, they use it as their excuse for staying wretched. If you’re prone to unproductive regret, please hear this: Everyone agrees with you. That thing you regret? It really, really, really shouldn’t have happened. But. It. Did. If you enjoy being miserable, by all means, continue to rail against this fact. If you’d rather be happy, prune the “shouldn’t haves” from your mental story, and move on to…

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The Joy Diet: A Brief Guide to Feasting on Life

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

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

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

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

How to Throw a Feast

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

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

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

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

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

Feasting On Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feasting On Beauty

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

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

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

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

Feasting On Feeling

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

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

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

Feasting On Love

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

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

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

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

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

The Empathy Workout

I can’t say I always enjoy cardiovascular exercise. I don’t think anyone does. Oh, I’ve seen those infomercials featuring models whose granite abs and manic smiles become even more sharply defined at the very sight of workout equipment. But as we all know, these people are from Neptune. Being an Earth-human myself, I strongly resist read more…