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That Which is Inside You August 17, 2009

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If you bring out that which is inside you, that which is inside you will save you. If you do not bring out that which is inside you, that which is inside you will destroy you.

Jesus Christ, The Gospel of Thomas

Sometimes we’re drawn to particular quotations. We memorize them, write them down, and put them up on our refrigerator. These quotes articulate some conclusion or other we’ve already drawn from our experiences. For me, this is one of them. Religious aspects — like The Gospel of Thomas’ place in Christianity — aside, this quotation contains one piece of advice I’d gladly give my daughter.

We all know what we want. If we’re miserable, it’s because somewhere inside ourselves we’re comparing our reality with the internal model of who we wanted to be — and finding a mismatch. That mismatch causes us pain. How many times have we heard friends say wistfully, “I always wanted to get my degree,” or “I wanted to be a doctor/writer/entrepreneur/librarian/race car driver/whatever,” or “I always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail”?

Oddly enough, it’s not necessarily the lack of achievement of these dreams that causes us the most pain, it’s the fact that for a thousand reasons of our own, we didn’t go after them. These dreams are part of our personal magic, and the degree to which these dreams match our core being is the degree to which they’ll save us if we go after them, and the degree to which they’ll destroy us if we don’t.

Experience brings wisdom, and often, I used to think, wisdom come too late. In the last couple of years, though, I’ve learned that wisdom is wisdom, and is a blessing any time. Once I knew where my magic was, but foolishly chose to follow the “safe” path of convention and did what others my age were doing. As I came to realize my blunder, it seemed impossible to leave the path I’d begun. My magic seemed lost forever, and I began the slow spiral into the Dark Period. I know now that it’s never too late, and that our magic is always there to save us. We just have to reach for it.

My wish for you today is that you have the courage to bring out that which is inside you. It can change your life.

Make a great day.


Be Your Own Cheerleader August 16, 2009

Posted by beholdthestars in Life & Living, Motivation, Positive Thinking.
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I carry a 3X5 card in my purse with by biggest dreams written on it.  When I feel less than positive, I read the goals and remind myself that at one point, I felt I could achieve them.  Taking that moment for the bitg picture reinforces that if I believed in myself to achieve something significant (like building a school) then I can easily deal with the smaller hurdles in my daily life.

~Sarah Taylor, Sebastabol, CA
Letter to the editor from Whole Living: Body + Soul

What can I add to that?  One of the hardest things for us to do is to continue to hold on to our dreams.  We set our goals when we feel strong and all is going well, but when times go bad — the car breaks down, there are layoffs at work — we can have difficulty keeping the faith. What were once vivid, spirit-filled dreams can now appear foolish and overly idealistic.

But we need to move past that. Great things aren’t accomplished in 30 days, and that means facing emotional peaks and valleys.  If we gave up every time things got tough or every time we faced self-doubts, we’d never do anything.

One of my favorite quotes says,”Sometimes you have to believe in other people’s belief in you until your own belief kicks in.” What Sarah suggests above is that you can be the other person whose faith supports you when doubt creeps in.  You look back and trust the other you who dreamed those dreams and had enough faith and courage to write them down. That person believed in you and your dreams. Use that strength to carry you through.

Make a great day.

Heck, while you’re at it, make it a great day for someone else, too.

Tip #34: Spiritual Cross-Training August 15, 2009

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Do you ever exercise? You know how it works. You make the trek to the gym to lift weights. You suffer for a couple of weeks until your body has gotten into the swing of it. You soon feel better, stronger, and you’re starting to see changes in your out-of-shape body. Two or three months down the road you have transformed your body.

But after a while, something starts to change. You don’t feel as strong. Where once you could add weight to your exercises each week, you now can’t seem to get any stronger.  Those bulging biceps that grew like weeds six weeks ago have stopped growing. You’ve hit a plateau, and your progress has come to a discouraging halt.  What happened?

The scientists know. It called adaptation. Your body had adapted to the exercise routine. That’s why you get fitter in the first place: your body adapts to the exercise. That’s the good part. The bad part is that after your body adapts, you don’t get the same response to the exercise. You can’t do the same things and expect the same results.

But what about our spiritual/emotional/happiness work? I noticed that my beloved Gratitude Journal began to have less impact as time wore on. For the first few months, the effects were astonishing, totally unlike anything I’d done before. But as time went on, I found it harder and harder to find the energy to come up with list items. In fact, it got to the point of being a chore. Little good it was doing for me at that point. Like the effects of exercise, the effects of my Gratitude Journal were stalling.

I just found an explanation in “The Mixed Success of Positive Psychology” from the August 7, 2009, issue of The Chronicle Review: A Weekly Magazine of Ideas, the supplement that comes in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Sonja Lyubomirsky, a research psychologist at the University of California at Riverside, has found that “people who take time to count their blessings, write optimistic visions for themselves, or express thanks, report greater happiness.” Okay. We expected that. And she found that “subjects who performed any of a list of 10 acts of kindness three times a week for 10 weeks reported increases in happiness.” But what interest us here is that “another group that performed the same three acts every time actually ended up feeling worse.”

Of course, it makes sense. Our bodies adapt to exercise, our minds adapt to learning, wouldn’t our spirits adapt, as well?  And since they adapt, we’ll have to adapt our efforts, as well.  What do athletes do to counter the negative effects of adaptation? They use techniques like cross training and muscle confusion, methods that constantly confuse the body and force it into a state of continuous adaptation. In other words, they build a routine that is never routine.

Let’s do the same. Rather than taking an exercise like the Gratitude Journal and drawing from it until the well is dry, we can draw from different sources by regularly selecting from a number of exercises: meditation, exercise, volunteering, reverse gratitude journals, personal mission statements, and so on.  Doing that will allow us to stay fresh, and perhaps more importantly, allow all our sources of inspiration to recharge.  After all, variety is the spice of life.

Make a great day.

Tip #33: Stop Discounting the Positive August 9, 2009

Posted by beholdthestars in Positive Thinking, Tips.
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When I was younger, a friend and I played music in local clubs. It was nothing special, really, just two college guys playing acoustic music in places that would let anybody play. No matter how badly we had played, someone would come up and tell us how great we were. We got requests for our original songs, and girls would cry when the sad ones reminded them of their recent breakups. Often, as people were saying how much they liked a song, my inner voice was also talking: “Didn’t they see that you missed a note on the solo? And what about the flubbed word in the second verse?” My suspicion was that either they were lying to be kind or had tin ears. Couldn’t they see that we weren’t any good?

It’s true. We weren’t any good — compared to our heroes — but for two local guys, we were okay.  We took these “gigs” seriously. We practiced, worked up interesting harmonies and guitar work, and tried very hard to set a standard above what others were doing. But what ultimately mattered to me was one simple thing: practice was challenging and fun, but performing was Hell.

I have to admit that one of the reasons I stopped performing so many years ago was that during my performances I was totally focused on perfection and aware of every mistake. I thought that music, like math, had a right answer and a wrong answer. You practiced, got it down, and then played it perfectly in performance every time. So when I missed a note or forgot a lyric, it felt like failure. Disaster.

Four hours of playing each night. A room full of appreciative ears. A handful of compliments. A handful of tiny mistakes. Which do you think I took home with me?

Think about that for a minute. You’ve been there, and you’ve had friends who have been there. You know where I’m going with this. Is there a better way to make ourselves miserable than by discounting the positive in our lives and acts?

Look at your life. I suspect you’re doing some of that right now in some area or another. Work? Relationship? Hobbies? Cooking? Where are you doing something pretty well, but not giving yourself credit or not enjoying your success?  Think about it.

Make a great day.

I Wanted to Go This Way July 22, 2009

Posted by beholdthestars in Life & Living.

Like all other parents, I tried to teach my daughter the lessons I’d learned or wish I’d learned. One of those lessons was how to deal with mistakes, failures, detours, and problems. I tried to teach her that it’s our response to a mistake or failure, rather than the failure itself, that matters. “There’s no use getting angry over mistakes,” I’d tell her, “Just adjust and fix the problem.” As an example, I taught her to work her artistic mistakes into the picture, rather than to start over.
It all came back to me one day as I was driving her to school. She was about three years old and still strapped into a child seat. Thinking of other things, I missed the turn to her school, which would now require me to backtrack through side streets to the main road. I grumbled and griped as I began the process of getting us back to the right road. As soon as I had made my first turn, from the back seat came a small voice saying, “Don’t worry, Daddy. I wanted to go this way today.” Suddenly, all my lessons came back to me, and I broke into a smile. It seemed that my four-year-old knew the lesson better than I.

I think of that these days as I look over the progress of my life. It hasn’t always gone as planned for me or many of the people I know. I’ve spent years mourning bad decsions, failures, betrayals — you name it. I lived as though the life I was living wasn’t the life I was supposed to live, as if somehow those other paths would have assuredly led to happiness and glory.

But those other paths are fairy tales, and they could just as easily have ended up less like Galinda the Good Witch and more like the Wicked Witch of the West. More likely, though, my life would have progressed in a way similar to my current one: some good things happen, some bad things happen. Just because you were betrayed doesn’t mean that if you had never met the betrayor that things would have gone along swimmingly. Just because you lost the chance to have the one job you wanted most, doesn’t mean it would actually have been the right one. How many times have you heard the story of someone who realized at 35 that the career they’d always wanted was not, if fact, all that great after all?

The lesson for me is to live the life I have, and not to compound the unpleasant parts with some fantasy of what “should” have happened. In fact, my life is the way it should be because that’s the way it is. It should be what it is. If it should have been otherwise, it would have been. I’ve been blessed in a million ways. Just because I wasn’t blessed in the ways I thought I wanted (I’m not even remotely rich) doesn’t mean I’m not blessed.

So today, as I find myself taking another detour, I’m going to take the time to find what’s good and interesting about this new — and unexpected — path. You know why? Because today I wanted to go this way.

Make a great day.

Tip #32: Adjust Your Sails December 3, 2008

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shipI’ve been a little cranky lately. Things have been going bad one-after-another, and I’ve begun to notice that my overall attitude has gone sour. Heck, everybody notice it. I’ve become the guy who shuffles down the street grumbling to himself, the cartoon character with the scowl and smoke coming up from his head who’s terrorized by the neighborhood kids’ pranks. While turning myself into a cartoon, I stumbled (or grumbled) upon this quote on a poster in the hall where I’m working, and it seemed pertinent:

“You can’t change the direction of the wind, but you can adjust the sails.”

In an instant, I felt myself turn back, like Pinnochio, into a real boy.

You know, sometimes things go against us. Geez, sometimes lots of things go against us. Right now it isn’t just my attitude that’s gone bad, but it seems that every time I turn on the TV or open the paper there’s more bad news about the economy — stock losses, layoffs, closings, bankruptcies, and foreclosures. To make matters worse, my college football team was humiliated two weeks ago, I have a flat tire, my girlfriend’s alternator is shot, and my car failed everything (it seemed) during an inspection. There’s lots to be cranky about.

But my hallway poster reminds me that those things are only the wind blowing me this way and that. But ships don’t adjust themselves to changes in weather. My job, as the captain of this ship, is to make the adjustments. I must willfully and deliberately change my attitude about what’s happening, and that means to use any of the tools we’ve discussed at Behold the Stars. My first choice, as always, is to make a list of what is going right. Then I make a list of what needs to be done. Finally, I commit to rolling up my sleeves and knocking a few tasks of my list. And you know what? I find that I feel pretty good about things after all.

So don’t let a run of “bad luck” steer you off course. Really, only you can do that. So don’t. Adjust to the wind conditions, and sail off to your future.

Make a great day.

 Photo: MikeBaird


Simply, Keep Going November 17, 2008

Posted by beholdthestars in Life & Living, Quotations.
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windermereYears ago, I spent some time hiking alone in England’s Lake District. You’d recognize the Lake District from any English travel brochure or Merchant Ivory film you’ve seen – green hills dotted with sheep and criss-crossed with stone fences. My plan was to walk from Windermere, where I had spent the night, to a nearby town where there was to be a bed and breakfast and another warm bed (and, of course, breakfast).

I walked from my hotel down to Lake Windermere, rode a small ferry across, and headed off. The weather was sunny and cool, perfect for hiking. After crossing, I followed a trail that ran, it seemed, straight up the mountain, no switchbacks. The English are a hardy bunch, apparently. I walked on and on, occassionally running into locals out for a day hike. We’d stop and chat, and they’d tell me the history of, or recommend, one local landmark or another. I’d thank them and go on my way.  As my hike went on, I saw fewer and fewer fellow hikers.

In the late afternoon, in a heavily wooded area, I lost the trail.  No matter where I looked or in which direction I hiked, I could not relocate the trail. There I was, in a foreign country, lost in the middle of the woods with darkness slowly approaching. Added to this was the unfortunate fact that no one knew where I was since the decision to go to the Lake District was done on a whim after I got to England.  Tired and frightened, I found myself in a low-grade panic.

With my fear-addled mind spinning, I tried to figure out what to do. I was near the crest of the hill when I lost the trail, so any time I was going downhill was probably the right way. And I wasn’t in the middle of deepest, darkest Africa. There would be a road or a town within a couple of miles in any direction I chose. All I had to do was walk downhill in any direction until I found a landmark. Okay. I headed straight through the woods in the general direction of the next town. After an hour or so I found a trail, the trail led to a road, and the road lead ultimately to the town I had set out for. It turned out that the B&B I had counted on didn’t exist, but by that time I didn’t care.

My Dark Period worked that way for me. Lost and alone during the worst parts, I tried everything — counseling, psychology, philosophy, religion, and exercise. I must have read half the books in the public library, but nothing really made any significant difference. I kept going, though, putting one foot after another, sometimes crawling on hands and knees. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t heroic, but I kept trying.  Then one day I was out.

If you are going through hell, keep going.
~ Winston Churchill

When I realized that I had come through, I found myself trying not only to understand what I’d been through but how and why.  What had made the difference?  Winston Churchill had it right when he said, “When you are going through Hell, keep going.” I have no doubt that my efforts had a cumulative effect. Each book, each effort, was another step on the path.  But I think what made the difference was my willingness to get up each morning and try to make it through another day.

Do you want to know how to pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death? By walking out.

Make a great day.

Photo: magnusfranklin

Tip #31: Limit Your Use of Instant Replay November 9, 2008

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watch-faceLast Saturday, #6 Texas Tech beat #1 University of Texas with a touchdown pass with one second left on the clock. Graham Harrell threw a pass to Michael Crabtree who, covered by two Longhorn players, amazingly managed to catch the ball while remaining in bounds and run it into the end zone. An exstatic Texas Tech crowd poured onto the field.

But wait a minute! Was Crabtree in bounds? Let’s look at the instant replay. The availability of instant replay allowed us to see that Crabtree was clearly in bounds. Touchdown. After the game, Texas Tech fans could rejoice while watching that play again and again on instant replay.

Instant replay is a great thing. It allows us to review our performance in a million situations, and that process of review helps us to learn. Remembering what fire feels like keeps us from touching the stove again. Remembering what happened the last time you mouthed-off to a big drunk guy in a bar keeps you in line the next time. And instant replay can bring us pleasure. Imagine how Harrell and Crabtree feel each time they remember that play. But if we aren’t careful, the ability to replay can allow us to dwell on our mistakes.

A couple of weeks a ago, an out-of-work friend told us about a recent job opportunity that he felt he had lost because he had said the wrong thing during the interview. He wondered aloud what it said about him and the interviewer, the company, and today’s job market. He wondered how he could have handled it differently.  Here he was, weeks later, repeatedly replaying his error, analyzing the dynamics of the interview, and seeking guidance and solace from the group. He seemed to be endlessly spinning his wheels trying to change something he can’t change: the past.

When we endlessly replay our errors, we deny the reality of our past. That keeps us caught in a past we can’t change and keeps us from focusing our energy on what we’re doing now. When our friend Tom replays the conversation with his girlfriend the night she left, subtly changing his responses until he gets his mind’s version of her to see things his way, it’s as if he secretly believes that if he could get it just right, the new perfected scene will replace the original one in his life. But that won’t bring her back. We get second chances — Tom’s girlfriend might come back — but they don’t change what happened the night she left.

We can take a lesson from the football teams.  Players watch the replays, learn the lessons, and then move on.  If a defensive player misses a tackle that leads to the game-winning touchdown by the opposing team, he doesn’t spend the next week watching the films of that missed tackle. With a game next week, he simply doesn’t have time to worry about the past. He goes out and practices tackling, and if he has a good coach, that coach will keep him focused on what’s coming up, not what’s already passed.

So when you blow it — and you will — take some time to review and learn what you’ve done. That’s what instant replay is for. Then move on.  Focusing on the mistakes of your past can only weaken you.  Accept that you aren’t perfect and start preparing for your next victory.

Make a great day.

Photo: fdecomite

Book Review: The Bounce Back Book by Karen Salmansohn October 29, 2008

Posted by beholdthestars in Book Reviews.
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I recently wrote about the current growth positive psychology, the “scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive,” and the resulting growth in self-help books that utilize its research results. These books are more inclined to offer specific, research-based prescriptions — “A well-known research study at Duke University showed that going for a brisk 30-minute walk three times a week is as effective as taking antidepressants to improve your mood.” — than traditional self help clichés — “Let a smile be your umbrella.” Specific steps rather than vague generalizations — That’s the new way. One of the best of this new breed of self-help books is The Bounce Back Book: How to Thrive in the Face of Adversity, Setbacks, and Losses by Karen Salmansohn.

The Bounce Back Book has 75 chapters, or “tips,” each devoted to one technique to help you…well, bounce back. Each numbered tip has a witty catch-phrase, for example,  “Tip #39: Turn negativity into nuggetivity,” or ” Tip #8: A Rolling Stones fan gathers less moss.”  Following that is a page or two explaining the tip and the research behind it.  Other than this numbering system, the book has no conceptual structure and the tips come in no particular order. It is really just a big list, but it works. My only complaint is that there is no table of contents or index to help find a particular tip once you’ve finished reading the book.

Salmansohn has filled The Bounce Back Book with useable ideas. Nothing in here requires you to stick to a large project (one that for most of us would be doomed to failure). Instead you can take your choice of 75 bite-sized tips that you can easily put into practice today.  Meaning and happiness are made up of a million small acts.  All you have to do is find the one that seems right for you right now.

The Bounce Back Book in covered in red rubber (like a ball – get it?) and has an inconsistent and whimsical style.  The fonts are in bright colors, and the book seems designed by someone from the women’s magazines (it doesn’t really feel like Salmansohn wrote this for men), but none of that gets in the way of its purpose, which is to give us the tips for getting through the hard times with our souls intact.

You know what? It’s pretty good. I would gladly recommend it to someone going through a divorce, job loss, breakup, or worse.  It is a good resource for someone who’s new to this information and doesn’t have time or inclination to search it out on his or her own. Pick it up if you get the chance.

Make a great day.

The Big Fun House October 28, 2008

Posted by beholdthestars in Life & Living, Quotations.
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I just ran across a great bumper sticker:

The Meaning of Life is to Live It.

NPR this morning told the tale of a couple in foreclosure. 10 years ago she was a CPA with a six-figure salary. Her family had a nice home on the coast, took exotic vacations, and still had money left for their 401k. Then she so severely injured her back that she could no longer work. During the next 10 years her family faced multiple medical issues — a knee replacement, a broken jaw, and complications from surgery. They sold their beautiful home on the coast and purchased, using a sub-prime mortgage, a modest ranch house further inland.  Now the mortgage crisis hits…

They didn’t plan for this. They did what they were supposed to do, but life had other plans. That’s a phrase we hear a lot: “…but life had other plans.” And it’s true.  What did our couple do? They did what most of us would do — they saved, worked, tried to pay off debts. 10 years later they’re still trying to clean up the mess. That’s what you do.

The excitement of the fun house is that we don’t know what is coming around the next corner. The excitement of our lives is just the same. 10,000 joys; 10,000 sorrows. We create dreams and plans, but when it comes down to it, life is what it is – a wild ride at the fair. We may see success way beyond our wildest dreams or we may face tragedy that would bring the strongest man to his knees. Our job is to stay on this ride until the big doors open and we pop back out into the glare of daylight. We don’t have a choice, really.
That’s it. The meaning of life is to live it.

Get busy, then.

Make a great day.