My 2015 New Year’s resolution: Practice acceptance

santorini

One of my most pivotal moments of 2014 was on June 2010, just before 1 pm. I was sprawled in the middle of the street in Toronto, scraped up, bike by my side, arm broken.

I did some life experiments in 2014 – in optimism and vulnerability – but this was an uninvited experiment in acceptance. Could I take my broken arm for granted and go from there? Or would I repeatedly replay the scene and curse the streetcar tracks that brought my bike to the ground?

Well, let’s just say my 2015 New Year’s resolution is “practice acceptance” for a reason.

The more I thought about acceptance during my month of invalidity, the more it seemed key to happiness. The more I think about it now, the more connections I see between non-acceptance and many of my challenges in life.

Accept the self – increase confidence 

I am who I am.
I am what I am.
I am where I am.
I did what I did.
I can do what I can do.
I like what I like.
I feel what I feel.

One of the bits of self-insight I gained in 2014 was how much of a workaholic I am. Every minute must be productive; trips to the grocery store feel like a waste of time; sleeping to heal your broken arm is overrated (boy, was I wrong about that).

At the very root of it, if I dig down all the way and sift through things, I believe I feel this way because of a lack of self-confidence. Who I am today isn’t enough. I haven’t achieved what I see as my potential. I have to always be moving toward the person I want to be. In essence, I’m not accepting who I am today.

Accept circumstances – reduce worry and grumpiness

It is what it is.
It was what it was.
It will be what it will be.
It takes as long as it takes.

It certainly does take as long as it takes – almost 7 months later, my once-broken arm still needs stretching to recover full mobility. I’m okay with that, but the hassles of life still grate on my mood more than they should. Too-hot weather, long lines, slow Internet, and unfulfilled expectations bring me down. And worrying about the future – my career, my health, and whether my favorite Survivor contestant will win – is just another form of non-acceptance. Que sera sera.

Accept others – improve relationships

He is who he is.
She is who she is.
They are who they are.

I’ve always been someone with a strong sense of morality and justice, which is another way of saying I have lots of ideas about how things should be done. When people do things “wrong,” I itch to tell them (or someone else). But I want to learn to be more understanding and empathic, particularly for the people I care about. I want to love them as they are, because they are wonderful.


As I’ve said before, I don’t think this advice is for everyone. Some people need a bit more righteous indignation and dissatisfaction to get things going; for them, their acceptance may have reached the level of passivity. But not for me. My pendulum has swung in the other direction, and what I need is a hefty dose of acceptance to balance out my tendencies to resist, regret, and judge.

In some meditations, you learn to label your thoughts as “thinking” or “feeling,” which is supposed to create some distance from them. If you can be a third-party observer to what’s going on in your head, you don’t get so caught up in it. I’m hoping the same thing works for acceptance. My resolution is to be aware of the times when I’m not accepting, and soothe myself with the balm of the trivially-true-but-so-profound statements above. Is this awareness and reframing enough to make a difference to the way I feel? I’m not sure yet, but it will be a great experiment. 

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The cosmic lessons of a broken arm

broken armBuddhist broken arm proverb: What’s the sound of one hand lathering up soap? 

(Hint – It sounds like: grumble, grumble, grumble, why is this taking so long??) 

Thirty days ago, my bike got caught in the infamous Toronto streetcar tracks as I was making a left turn, and the routines of my life came to a thudding halt. 

Not that I recognized it right away. I was shocked, lying in the middle of Queen Street with a useless right arm and a laptop (thankfully unharmed) slung over my shoulder. A Red Cross volunteer and a pregnant lady rushed to help me up. (A bad omen – you know something’s wrong with you when a pregnant lady is helping you up.) 

For a while, I thought I would just go on with my day with a sore arm. “How silly!” I thought. “One little fall can’t be so catastrophic it will affect me for weeks to come, could it?” As the pain got worse, I realized it probably would…

The early days of my broken arm – A.B., after break, Fred jokingly called it – were just a series of dawning realizations about what I could not do. I could not type. I could not floss my teeth. I could not sleep on my side. I could not do the dishes (darn!). I could not eat with chopsticks. I could not go the gym. I could not cook. I could not pull my hair back into a ponytail. 

For someone who often feels rushed, who prizes efficiency, I was suddenly forced to go slow. Showers took an hour, and I usually needed a nap afterward from all the exertion. I had to peck away slowly at my keyboard until I discovered voice dictation. Even lathering up soap to wash my face was an exercise in patience.

Right after my fall, while I leaned against a building waiting to get driven to the emergency room, I actually laughed. Good one, universe. I had all these to-do’s and worries for the afternoon, and you just gave me a slap in the face (or elbow) to get my priorities straight. For the next two weeks, try as I might, I could barely put in two hours of work a day. The God-given painkillers started making me miserably nauseous whenever I tried to read email, and I napped like there was no tomorrow. I couldn’t stray far from my apartment for fear of a sudden attack of exhaustion. I slept fitfully the first 12 days, trying to construct elaborate pillow pyramids to make my fractured elbow comfortable.

But the world carried on. My colleagues graciously stepped in (thank you Will and Camila!), and I didn’t die from not blogging or not finishing that week’s book. My inbox didn’t appreciate the strain, but it’s now (mostly) under control.   

I learned that happiness is all about your attitude – because at first, that’s literally all I had to go on in judging the quality of the day. I track my happiness level every day using AskMeEvery, and the usual things that would make me happy – being productive, or discovering a new cafe – were completely absent. All I had was read, nap, lunch, read, nap, dinner, Survivor – and my attitude. It usually came down to: did I struggle and sigh under my burdens, or stay positive? Did I get frustrated and impatient, or smile at the random strangers who offered me help and the barista who gave me extra chocolates because I looked so pitiable? 

(If you’re wondering, it took me 12 days to recover my usual 7/10 happiness level, after dipping into the 4-6 range. That’s coincidentally the same number of days it took to start sleeping normally…) 

In the end, I leaned on other people to get me through it. Even a nice nurse or a friendly fellow patient – who saw me tearing up in the waiting room and struck up a conversation about the ridiculous wait times – could turn my mood around. When I was in the emergency room, feeling sorry for myself because it was 3 am and I’d been there for 6 hours – all I could focus on was the elderly man across the hall who kept crying out for nurses to bring him water. I heard the doctors mention his nursing home and my heart sunk: he obviously had no one. I, on the other hand, had my long-suffering boyfriend and de facto caretaker holding my hand. I hope that man is okay.

I may forget lots of these details, but I won’t forget the way Fred took care of me. All my grumbles, all my 2 am despair from lack of sleep, all my exhaustion crashed on the shore of his positivity, warmth, and acceptance. Where others might have grumbled themselves, he pushed me to do less: “Nope, you are not independent anymore. Nope, you can’t make your own smoothie. Now get back to bed, broken-arm girl. Your full-time job is healing.” 

IMG_3475Thirty days later, I still can’t put my hair up in a ponytail, or chop apples, or twist a door handle. I’m back to the gym (left hand only), and back to doing dishes occasionally. Over the past few weeks, I’ve felt like a child going through a series of firsts: “Wow, Kira, you can put your clothes on now? You can make your own cereal? You can tie your shoes?” 

And at this point, all I can do is laugh.

“The Power of Now” translated for logical people 

Eckhart Tolle - Power of NowA few years ago, I would have scoffed at Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and put it down after the first page. Any book that talked about Being with a capital “B” was surely not worth my attention, a waste of my intelligent, rational mind.

Today, I’m in a humbler place. I’m not so sure I’ve got it all figured out, because I’m not 100% happy. I still roll my eyes when I drop in on overly mystical yoga classes, but I have started meditating and practicing mindfulness. 

So when I picked up The Power of Now, I could tolerate a little bit of the Being talk – because the message was appealing, and not altogether illogical. By living in the present and practicing acceptance, Tolle says, anyone can cultivate an undercurrent of peace and bliss in their lives. And we can all do that right now

“You ‘get’ there by realizing that you are there already,” says Tolle. “There is nothing you can ever do or attain that will get you closer to salvation than it is at this moment.” Well, then.

Did I lose you yet? If not, let’s take a look at these claims one by one. 

Living in the present

Even the most rational among us have to accept that the present is all there is. You never exist in the past, or in the future; every moment is the present. Beyond that, any idea we have of the past or the future is likely skewed by our interpretation: maybe we look nostalgically on the past, or we envision a depressing future. 

“You can always cope with the present moment, but you cannot cope with something that is only a mind projection – you cannot cope with the future,” Tolle says.

For Tolle, living in the present – the Now – means eliminating unproductive thoughts about the past or future. Sure, he acknowledges that we have to plan and set goals, but he warns against the kind of distracting thoughts that keep us from being fully present with a conversation with a loved one, or the singing of the birds, or the feeling of our bodies. If we worry about the future even after we’ve done everything we can to prepare for it, we’re wasting time. If we harp overly on the past, we may start to construct a narrative about ourselves: we’re an “anxious person,” a “smart person,” a “failure.” We forget that the present is a blank canvas.

Another example of not living in the present is something I’m guilty of: “waiting.” You look toward some goal, some future moment in time when you’ll finally reach happiness, and forget to enjoy the present.

“If you then become excessively focused on the goal, perhaps because you are seeking happiness, fulfillment, or a more complete sense of self in it, the Now is no longer honored. It becomes reduced to a mere stepping stone to the future, with no intrinsic value,” says Tolle. “Your life’s journey is no longer an adventure, just an obsessive need to arrive, to attain, to ‘make it.’ You no longer see or smell the flowers by the wayside either, nor are you aware of the beauty and the miracle of life that unfolds all around you when you are present in the now.” 

He adds, “It is not uncommon for people to spend their whole life waiting to start living.” Carl Jung once spoke to a native American chief, who saw the tense faces of white people and asked, “What are they seeking?” 

When our minds seem to run away from us, we can look to children or animals, who completely engage themselves in the joy of the moment. In complete seriousness, Tolle writes, “I have lived with several Zen masters – all of them cats.”

Acceptance

Just as, logically, the present is all that exists, we should also accept it – because it exists. 

“Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment,’” says Tolle. “What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to something that already is?”

Yet we go through life with so much resistance, if we take a moment to notice it. We complain when things don’t go our way – fighting them. We stay home watching TV and feel lazy, resisting our decision. We get stressed and hate the feeling of constriction and tension in our chests.

Tolle’s acceptance isn’t the passive kind, where you just say, “That’s the way things are” and do nothing. He acknowledges that you might decide to act – in just a moment. First, you have to take a good look at reality, and realize that it is. It’s the clay that you have to work with, the default conditions. Then you can do what you have to do, but without the burden of resentment and bitterness. 

What’s wrong with this picture? 

It’s easy to critique Tolle by attacking the idea that anyone is deserving and able to achieve peace and bliss. What about a serial killer, or someone who just lost a spouse? Are our character, our family, our achievements of so little value that they don’t count? Do we all deserve perfect self-esteem?

Like many things about The Power of Now, it comes down to interpretation. The way I interpret what Tolle’s saying is that we all have access to the very profound feeling that I am enough, and life is okay. I am alive, and whatever happens to me, I have the power to accept it and decide how to deal with it – internally and externally. It’s like we’re all constructing buildings – some more beautiful than others – but this sense of peace and bliss is our common foundation, if only we choose to lay it. “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place,” Tolle says. 

The harder idea to accept is Tolle’s assertion that we are not our minds. If you can observe your mind, he says, then the “you” doing the observing must be something other than your mind. To Tolle, that’s the real you – the you that is beyond thought or emotion. It consists in the energy and life force of Being. 

But whose mind is it, or what is the mind, if not us? I’d prefer to see the mind as one part of us, and not always the most life-enhancing part. Our minds can torment us, distract us, get us carried away on spirals of obsession or despair. But I can’t go so far as to accept that that’s not part of who we are. 

In the end, it’s hard to argue with Tolle, because he doesn’t mean to be taken literally. He actually says that some sections of the book don’t convey information, but rather speak to our inner essence in an attempt to conjure up those feelings of peace and bliss, of recognition. This assertion – while frustrating – also makes it easier to look beyond Tolle’s talk of things like “Being,” the “pain body,” and the immortality of our essence. As I interpret it, those are just mental tactics that help conjure up the right feelings and get us in the right mindset to deal with the emotions of life. 

Have I lost my mind in taking this seriously? My confident, hyper-rational college self would think so. But in reading the first few chapters of The Power of Now, I felt a sense of relief. Happiness – or peace, as Tolle prefers – is not only possible, but possible now. It may not be easy, but it is simple. And we get there by being aware of what’s happening around us and inside us, and saying yes to it. 

Positive people: For Fred Ngo, being positive is a no-brainer

This is a series profiling positive people and attempting to discover what exactly “positivity” is. If you know a positive person we should write about, email kiramnewman @ gmail.com. 

Disclosure: Fred is my fiancé, which also makes him an excellent test subject. 

Fred NgoIn 2003, Fred Ngo signed a five-year lease on a dance studio for Cat’s Corner, the swing dance school and venue that he had created five years earlier. At the time, Cat’s Corner was barely breaking even and Fred didn’t know if the school would still be in business in a few years, but he didn’t dwell on it.

“I can only do the best I can and let the chips fall where they may,” he says.

But Fred wasn’t relying on blind faith to get him through; his positivity came from the confidence that he would be able to figure it out. He had already paid most of his way through college, worked as an adjunct professor, and gotten a full-time job; he could make this work, too.

Fred’s experience suggests that positive people may spend less time planning and thinking about the future because they trust they’ll be able to adapt and prepare for it. In entrepreneur fashion, he actually says, “Planning is a fallacy.” But that doesn’t mean Fred or other positive people think they’re invincible; in fact, it’s essential to recognize that you have faults and will make mistakes so you don’t react negatively to them.

“You have to give things the fullness of time to work themselves out. You just prepare as best you can and you let it play out, see what happens,” Fred says.

The second pillar of Fred’s positivity seems to be the practical realization that negativity and worrying are useless. In the early 2000s, while he was working a full-time job and starting Cat’s Corner, Fred finally decided that if he didn’t stop stressing out, he was going to have a heart attack. That motivator – not having a heart attack – was an easy mental switch that has kept him more relaxed for the past ten years. Now, he says, the little things don’t matter.

Nor do the things that he can’t control. In Fred’s eyes, there’s something especially ridiculous about giving yourself a heart attack over things that are set in stone. So he always asks himself: can I change this now? If not, “that’s life.” That goes for things like not getting a particular job or losing a bunch of money.

“Recognizing reality is a very powerful thing.” he says. “You could argue your entire life is a process of learning reality and recognizing it.”

Fred relates this to the concept of a sunk cost in economics, a cost that can’t be recovered and should have no bearing on future decisions. Once you accept past costs, you can focus on doing the best you can now.

Fred’s story shows us three elements of positivity that we could all learn from: self-esteem, practicality, and acceptance. It reminds me a bit of the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Except Fred’s version is a bit more secular; we might call it the Practicality Principle:

I have the practicality to accept the things I cannot change,
The ability to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.