Live your life on purpose . . .

Monday, August 22, 2016

How Deeply Do You Listen?

I’m sure you’ve heard many times how significant listening is in communicating with others. In spite of all we know, we often lack good listening skills, struggling with our own overwhelming need to be heard. I admit that I experience this problem almost daily, although I’m working on becoming a better listener as a result of a book I’m currently reading. This book, The Art of Communicating, was written by Zen master and Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. In it, he speaks of something called “deep listening” as one of the key components of successful human communication.

So what is “deep listening” and how does it differ from the kind of listening (or non-listening) we normally find ourselves doing? At its very heart, deep listening requires “mindfulness of compassion” for the speaker. Nhat Hanh says that our purpose must be to reduce his or her suffering by paying close attention to what is being said, refraining from interrupting, and exercising a non-judgmental approach. This sounds really difficult to me! Yet, such is necessary for true understanding, paving the way to a more loving and sincere relationship between speaker and listener. It’s also something that, undoubtedly, takes focused effort and training.

Assuming you’re willing to attempt to put all this into practice, first take a moment to honestly answer a few important questions. How many times do you listen to someone with the intent of helping them feel a sense of ease? When you listen, do you try to really hear where the other person’s words are coming from – do you pay attention to their heart and not merely their words? Do you also try to withhold opinion, correction, or reproof as you listen? These are fundamental considerations if we want to improve our connections to the world around us.

I challenge you today to spend more time really listening to others and less time talking. Since we were given two ears and only one mouth, we should be listening twice as much as speaking! Being mindful of your verbal interactions with others, pause in your day and make a deliberate attempt to listen deeply. You’ll probably learn something new about the other person, and you might even learn something about yourself. Most importantly, when you listen to someone in this way, you will have made them feel important, special, and loved – something we all need from each other.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Have an Attitude of Gratitude!


It’s pretty easy to feel on top of the world when things are going our way. We are able to experience satisfaction when our needs are met, when we feel appreciated and loved, and when we are able to move through life with ease. The trouble is, no one completely dodges pain and suffering, no matter how fortunate their circumstances may seem. Complaints arise, emotions such as anger or bitterness edge their way in, and in extreme instances, a sense of hopelessness replaces former contentment. Suddenly, life seems like a drag.

Experts tell us that it’s important to our happiness that we practice gratitude, but how is that possible when we feel that the universe has us under attack? Might be easier to just hide under the covers at home for a few days until troubles subside. But that’s not realistic either. There’s a better way, if we are willing to develop a new mindset regarding difficult situations. What I mean to say is that, it’s entirely possible to look at problems as a means for teaching us lessons in gratitude. Before you decide that I’m making no sense, hear me out. Some key points regarding gratitude are as follows:
  1. The practice of gratitude can be learned. While it’s true that most humans are pretty selfish, it is possible to step outside ourselves and focus on the world around us. We can mindfully look around and see others whose circumstances are much worse. This might help us put our troubles in perspective and feel less negative about them. Even more importantly, however, we might even begin to see how our troubles can sharpen our life skills in a way that constant success cannot.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  2. Demonstrating thankfulness in one’s life can increase levels of joy and connection to others. Giving the gift of appreciation and returning kindness to someone else acknowledges them as an important being. We all have a basic need to experience that from others, and we all benefit from knowing that we have reached out to another person. It just feels good to put a smile on someone’s face, after all.                                                                                                                  
  3. Gratitude is good for our minds and bodies. Studies have shown that practicing it decreases blood pressure, strengthens the immune system, reduces anxiety and depression, and enhances relationships. Apparently, it works even better than the latest dietary supplement or superfood!
There are many easy ways to get started strengthening your gratitude muscle, but one idea I recently came across is that of creating a “Gratitude Box”. In her book entitled More Language of Letting Go, Melody Beatty suggests taking one slip of paper for each problem one is currently experiencing, another slip of paper for everything/everyone you are worried about, and yet another for persons you wish to bless (both loved ones and those you resent!). Put these slips in a small box, then spend a few moments each day giving thanks for everything in the box, or take out one slip of paper at a time and give thanks for that. Leave the box where you can see it every day, as a continual reminder that practicing gratitude can change your way of looking at your situation. Give it a try. Soon, you will see how much having an attitude of gratitude can transform your life!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Learning From Pain

Learning From Pain

Although it’s been a year now since I suffered from an impinged shoulder, I still remember what it felt like. I can recall how, try as I might, I could not raise my left arm straight over my head. And I couldn’t bend my arm behind my back without pain. It took 3 months of hard physical therapy to finally get back to normal. All the while, I kept wondering whether things would ever be the same again, whether I would regain the easy mobility I had enjoyed before the injury.
I call it an injury, but really, I’m not exactly sure how my shoulder got to be that way. Everyone, including my physician, asked me what I had done to it. Even today I am fairly clueless. Could have been related to lugging a suitcase on wheels over several paved city blocks on a trip to San Francisco late in the year, nearly five months hence. Or hoisting said suitcase into the overhead compartment on the plane. I just don’t know. Anyway, I do know that I ignored the pain and stiffness for a while, thinking that maybe it would go away on its own. It didn’t. Finally, I saw my physician, and he recommended physical therapy. I had done just that a few years earlier for a rotator cuff injury on the other shoulder, an injury which I might say only took 6 weeks to heal. But then again, I was much younger. I’ve noticed that the older I get, the longer it takes to heal.
Anyway, in my mind, physical therapists are both sadistic and saintly. They put the injured party through some painful exercises, all the while apologizing for the discomfort. However, my threshold for pain is not what it used to be. In fact, might I say that I liken the squirm factor to childbirth – or is that being too dramatic? Whatever the case, physical therapy works. That’s where the saintly part comes in, because my physical therapist was nothing short of a miracle-worker in the end. But that’s another story for another day.
All the weeks of stretching, strengthening, and such gave me plenty of time to develop my mental state as well as my physical abilities. As I was whining to myself (and sometimes to others) about how much it hurt to move my shoulder and how having this injury limited my mobility to the point of preventing me from going through my normal active day – I  began to imagine what it must be like to have chronic pain. I’ve been fortunate in the health department, I must admit. But some people, even a few close to me, suffer daily from conditions that prevent them from functioning without great pain. I’m not talking about something that can be treated and eliminated in a few weeks or months. I’m referring to constant, day in and day out trauma. I can’t even fathom what that must be like.

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That seems to apply here both literally and figuratively. I did become physically stronger over time. I learned a lot about movements to avoid as my body ages, in order to prevent future problems. But I also gained an appreciation for those who experience no light at the end of the tunnel, folks who must go through the remainder of their days only reducing the pain at best, but actually learning how to live with it. For them, the only solution is to find a new normal and make peace with that somehow. Once I contemplated that, I became a bit embarrassed about my whining. I gained a new respect for those in chronic pain, but also a new awareness of how blessed I am to have a body which responded to healing therapy in such a finite time. I now take the time to treat my physical self with more lovingkindness. Hopefully, my new insight will pay off in better overall health for me, as well as increased compassion for those who suffer daily.

Monday, January 12, 2015

New Year's Resolutions That Really Count

We are now well into the new year, and I would venture to say that, if you made any resolutions for 2015, many of them are already broken. With good intentions, we make often impossible promises to ourselves at the beginning of a new year, only to fail at keeping them in the long run. We vow to quit smoking, lose weight, and exercise more. We swear to get a new job, go back to school, take up piano lessons, and even spend less time on Facebook! While these things may indeed be important, we tend to look at them as goals to reach within a fixed amount of time, and we feel guilty if we don't succeed in meeting them. That only tends to make us feel worse about ourselves, something that leads to dissatisfaction and loss of peace in our lives.

But there's something more. Resolutions such as these focus on our physical well-being and not so much on our inner life or the relationships we have with others. Maybe it's time to step back and examine how much more meaningful our life would be if we resolved to make some changes in how we perceive the skills and challenges we have been given in this life -- and how we might improve our manner of dealing with others in our world. These types of resolutions are for everyone, for all time -- not just for 2015. They are meant to be ongoing, with no measurable goal in mind, other than a sense of peace and contentment with one's life. So, are you ready to consider some changes that would benefit both you and those around you? Here are some ideas to get you started:

Forgive someone who has hurt you...Get in touch with a forgotten friend...Be more trusting and trustworthy...Write a letter...Give a soft answer...Encourage someone who is down...Be a person of your word...Swallow your pride and apologize...Be more understanding...Listen more and speak less...Think of others before self...Take time to laugh...Express your gratitude...Welcome a stranger...Enjoy the wonder of life and the beauty of the earth...Limit your demands on others...Lose the need to be in control...Tell someone that you love them.

Just think how different 2015 would truly be if we chose only one or two of these "resolutions" and made them a part of our daily walk. They could become habits for a lifetime, transforming us from the inside out, and helping the world around us to become a kinder and gentler place to live.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Talk is Cheap -- A Roll of Duct Tape is Cheaper

I'm thinking very seriously of going out and spending a large sum of money on duct tape. Yeah, you know, the stuff that comes in huge rolls and can be used to patch up just about anything. Of course, several rolls would be for my own personal use, but I'm thinking of giving certain other folks in my life a roll as well. Not to use for some new home project, or even to create one of those funky duct tape wallets you see hanging out of teenagers' pockets. Here's the thing... Sometimes our mouth gets us in alot of trouble. Who can honestly say they've never wanted to take back words spoken in anger, frustration, or sheer stupidity? If only we could stop ourselves from saying dumb things in the first place, we wouldn't have to "eat crow" later. Hence, the duct tape.

It seems we all have a tendency to speak out at times before considering the consequences, without thinking about how foolish we look when we do that. Reflecting on this very topic, Mark Twain once said "It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt." If such a thing were available in his day, I bet I'd see him in line at the hardware store, purchasing rolls of duct tape to have on hand should someone need them. I don't know about you, but I like to think of myself as an intelligent person. My words belie me, however, when they are not well thought out and are spoken impulsively. I have to heed Mr. Twain's advice then and keep silent at the risk of appearing to not have all the answers -- which I don't anyway! I'm not sure what it is that causes us to think that we are "right", that people should listen to us, or that somehow our opinion is the most fascinating thing since language began. The truth is... listening is what helps us understand others better and makes our loved ones feel that we really do value them.

So get out the duct tape and apply it daily. It's a lot less expensive and painful to put a guard on our lips than it is to do damage control later. Everyone will be grateful, and you won't have to backpedal to make up for any insensitive and useless comments. Smile wisely, and keep your mouth shut!

If you keep your mouth shut, the flies won't get in. -- Spanish Proverb

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Time Passages

Recently, I got news that yet another high school classmate had passed away.  These days, more and more of my former childhood acquaintances aren't showing up at reunions.  Years go by without a word from some of these folks.  And some are gone forever.  When we lose touch with a piece of our past, oftentimes it's too late to catch up.  The hands on the clock are insensitive to our need to slow down and reconnect with the people who once mattered to us.  Time is oblivious to our cries for more hours in the day, more years to our lives.

Al Stewart recorded a song called "Time Passages" many years ago. I was thinking of these lyrics as I wrote this essay:

Well I'm not the kind to live in the past
The years run too short and the days too fast
The things you lean on are the things that don't last
Well it's just now and then my line gets cast into these
Time passages
There's something back here that you left behind…
Though I'm not trying to sound nostalgic, it’s true that time passes quickly and life is short in retrospect. When we're young, we tend to think our life will last forever, and that nothing bad will ever happen to us. When we get older, we see that just isn't true. On the surface, people can appear successful, popular, and wealthy. That’s why we’re so surprised when their lives take a turn and they end up losing all we thought they had. Oftentimes, perceptions of others are colored by our own immaturity and the pursuit of "things that don't last". Have you ever thought of someone you once knew, and then filed them away in your mind, frozen in time as a figure in a wax museum? Later on, you might’ve been shocked to find that that person didn’t match your image of them. This can be a delightful discovery, or a total disappointment. I’ve come to believe that, either lots of people undergo great transformations in life -- or perhaps they never were who we thought them to be in the first place (or maybe it’s both!).

Recently, I've gotten reacquainted with some former classmates, and I've discovered many to be compassionate, hardworking, faithful individuals. Those I'd decided were out of my league in high school -- belonging to a different "caste system" than I -- turned out to be some of the most real and down-to-earth people I now know. I didn't think I had much in common with them at that time in my life, but now I see that they're just people like me who struggle with family matters, health conditions, and economic security. We are on a more even plane these days, as we really get to know each other in a way we couldn't have before. That's a blessing that I hope you get to experience in your life as well. Take a moment to reconnect with those from your former days, but don't put it off for too long. We never know how many days remain for any of us.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Having an Attitude of Gratitude

It's that time of year again when we reflect on the many things for which we are most thankful. Traditionally, we gather at the table with family and friends to enjoy a meal together and, hopefully, to express appreciation for the bounty in our lives. Although I don't object to such practice, why must we be prompted by a holiday -- a mere date on our calendars -- to voice our gratitude? Shouldn't this be a daily part of our life, this giving thanks for all we have, for all we are? In the busyness of living, it's sometimes hard to find the time to contemplate the beauty of our world and the gift of our very existence. But the truth is, no matter what hardships may come our way, we are all loved by our Creator and called into fellowship with one another. This is universal, and this is something for which we can all be grateful. Starting at this point and then continuing to make an effort to find one or more blessings each day can become a habit. Pretty soon, this simple exercise may develop into an attitude of gratitude. You may notice that your heart is lighter, your relationships better, and your overall health is much improved. All this from simply choosing to be thankful.

So what comes to mind when you are counting your blessings? A safe and comfortable place to live and work? The company of others who care about you? Specific freedoms you enjoy? Whatever it is that most appreciate, begin to make a conscious effort to express gratitude for it every day. Let others know that you love them, share your blessings with as many people as you can, and try as best as you can to live in contentment with what you have been given in life. If it helps, you might want to consider keeping a journal of sorts where you can record your thanks. Periodically reviewing what you have written down might even lift your spirits during difficult times and help you to focus on something positive.

Whatever you decide, begin now. Don't let another Thanksgiving go by without making a permanent change in being more mindful of the love, goodness, and providence in your life. You will find that, once you begin, there are more blessings in your life than you will be able to count!