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Nicole Arnold's Adventures

My impressions as I boldly go where I have not gone before.

Do You Want a Piece of This?

Last weekend I did something radical (for me). I turned off my phone at sundown and didn’t turn it on again until Saturday night. I started to write that I didn’t pick it up again until Saturday night, but then I remembered that isn’t true.  I picked it up automatically when I woke up in the morning.  I picked it up again when I was curious about the weather for the day.  Then another time when I was thinking about a friend and wanted to check in.  Each time I put it back down.

Here’s why: I was looking for peace. Also, I was looking for honesty. I made a conscious decision to prioritize both, believing passionately in the concept that I get better at what I practice.

The week before was The Shabbat Project.  For The Shabbat Project, Jews of all kinds practice observing Shabbat, paying attention to their practice in a more focused way then they do on other weeks. As a JWRP ‘graduate’ there was a fair amount about The Shabbat Project in my Facebook feed and in the What’sApp group text from my Israel trip group.  I decided it didn’t really have to do with me, because I’m already thoughtful about my Shabbat observance and don’t require outside direction and community support.

(There are many moments when I don’t seem to have left adolescence)

When my trip leader suggested that our group members take the opportunity to shut off our phones for Shabbat, I thought to myself, “I already do that, I don’t text on Shabbat.”.

Except for when I do.

I confess (I know – wrong religion, or at the very least wrong time of year) that I often get stuck in the commandedness of these things.  I don’t like to be bossed.  I don’t like to be told. (See adolescent comment above.)  I don’t react well.

But, I’m not 14 any more.  I’m 44.  I know things about myself that I might not have known as an adolescent. I know that while I don’t do well with being commanded, that my most powerful motivation comes from being inspired. I know that as a liberal Jew, that Judaism and my Jewish communities are exactly that for me – inspiration.

So, I let myself be inspired.  I turned off my phone.

Here’s what turning off my phone helped me practice:

Patience.  Every time I thought about something I wanted to search (up) on my phone, I thought that it could wait.

Awareness.  Since I wasn’t distracting myself with my phone, I could hear my thoughts. A lot of my thoughts were planning related thoughts.  Planning thoughts take me out of the moment ALL THE TIME.

I was also aware of just how much of a reflex turning to my phone has become in moments of boredom or discomfort. I don’t need a reason – I don’t need to be waiting for an email or text. I don’t need to look anything up. There is simply the desire to reach for my phone about every 10 minutes or so.

Connection.  As I had taken my principle tool for numbing and distraction away, I focused on what was in front of me – usually people, sometimes our puppy. I paid attention. I invested. I had time.  There was no text waiting to be responded to or sent.

Joy. There was something about opening up this space and time that led me to seek joy. I found myself thinking, what can I do that will feel good? What would be fun?

As the hours tick down to sundown, I’m looking forward to turning my phone off again.  I like the challenge. I like the sense of affiliation with every other Jew who is doing the same. I like modelling putting my phone down for my family. I like how I felt practicing seeking peace.

I love the idea of seeking peace. For me.  For the world. I think we all need more peace.

In September, I spent a day at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto in silent meditation. I was acutely aware of the agitation of my body and mind.  It felt like both were shaking regularly. I have a tremendous amount of goodness and happiness in my life. Still, I feel a lot of agitation.  Until that day in September, I wasn’t aware of how much.

I want more peace.

I’m so aware of the agitation in the world – all around me, so much of the time. It’s everywhere. Agitation is a fantastic force for change, but I don’t think I need so much of it.  I don’t think our world needs so much of it.

Be the change you want to bring to the world.  I find those words so inspiring.  Thus, I practice seeking peace. I think peace is something that we can give.  I think that it is something that we can find. I love thinking about how peace is something that we can build.

So, when I turn my phone off in several hours, I’m going to build some more peace in my life.

Shabbat Shalom.

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How I Met a Civil Engineer Playing Bridge or When a Blogpost doubles as an Anniversary Present

After over a year of blogging regularly, I’ve learned that my own life is the greatest source of inspiration for my writing. Thus, as today marks 18 years of marriage for Pascal and me, it seems like a worthy creative opportunity.

When I was contemplating this piece over the course of the morning, I wondered how many people would be interested to read a story about how I met Pascal. Then I remembered that I like to read about everyone else’s lives and I imagine that most people are the same.

Of course, writing this post is a self-serving exercise. Anyone who reads my blog regularly, knows this is often the case.  It’s self-serving because telling this story makes my marriage stronger.

I learned that from Sue Johnson when I read “Hold Me Tight – Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.”

The book is designed as a self-guided manual of Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. Working through it significantly changed how I looked at relationships, by helping me see how much conversations are dances until both parties feel secure.

One of the exercises in the book is to think about the stories you tell yourself about your partner and your marriage.  If we understand stories as a way to organize our thoughts and beliefs (the Torah and the Koran come quickly to mind) then increasing our awareness of the stories we are telling ourselves helps us better understand the ways we are directing our thoughts and beliefs. For instance, if the story that I am telling about myself is that I quit things, perhaps remembering one particularly shameful episode, then I am more likely to remember other times that I have quit (cause reinforcing your beliefs with other beliefs feels good) and organize them together to help tell the larger story that I am a quitter.  This power also works for good – if I focus on stories where I persevered and assemble evidence of THAT over time, then I will think about myself as perseverant.

Once I understood how the stories I tell impact how I feel about myself and others, I started paying attention to the stories I tell myself about Pascal and our marriage.

When I took an inventory of the stories that readily came to mind, I realized that over the years, the stories of us meeting, moving in together, getting married, buying our first house and starting our lives together had been replaced by more recent stories that catalogued hurt, resentment and sadness.

The point of the exercise is not to erase the stories that feel negative and only tell positive stories.  The point is to bring awareness and intention to the stories I am telling most often.  The same stories that come to mind first when I did the exercise were the same stories that came to mind when we were arguing.

I wanted a better catalogue of stories, so, directed by the written word of Sue Johnson, I started telling them – to Pascal and to myself – so they could be a resource for us in hard moments.  I wanted stories that exemplify what I love about Pascal and the goodness of our partnership.  Just the same way that when my kids are feeling scared, I tell them how brave they are, I wanted a reserve of stories about Pascal for when I get scared to help remind me why I keep choosing him as my life partner.

Here’s the one of how Pascal and I began.

We met on a Thursday night, about 24 years ago at Gert’s – McGill’s campus pub.  If there had been course credit to be earned by playing pool, Tetris, cards and smoking ridiculous amounts of cigarettes, it would have been mine. I was teased regularly for how much time I spent there. Thus, it’s probably no surprise that Pascal and I met at Gert’s. I was out this particular Thursday night because a friend (who never showed up) had convinced me to join the newly formed Bridge Club with him. There I was, a 3rd year Political Science student who was arrogant about card play in general, but a total newbie at Bridge, surrounded by engineering students who laughed openly about my Arts degree. There were three other engineering outsiders in the group –  two guys who worked for Facilities and liked to drink a lot of beer, smoke cigarettes and play cards (exactly in that order) and the husband of an engineering grad student.

The second week of Bridge Club (I still cringe slightly when I read that) there were only seven people at Gert’s. Since you need multiples of 4 to play, we were scanning the room for a fourth (to be clear – the pub was packed and only seven people were actively putting up their hand to play Bridge). A few of the guys recognized Pascal from the Engineering world and called him over. (Being 6”4 helps when being scouted for a card game – the odds were in favour of my childrens’ (tall) future.)

Pascal took in the invitation, assessed his remaining beer and said, “I have a Chemistry midterm in an hour, but I still have half my beer left – so sure, I’ll play a game.”

Here’s what I (think) I remember:

He didn’t pass the midterm.

He played against me and won with clear ease (and a fair amount of glee).

It wasn’t love at first sight – but he did impress me with his card play – which was no easy feat.

Fast forward three months, many card games, beers and cigarettes later: I had fallen in love with Pascal and not even realized it. I did realize (a little) that I was jealous when he mentioned a girl that he was dating. Or when he asked me to help convince another girl to come out with us one night. Or when he sent a postcard during Reading Week to that same girl (same girl as cajoling to go out, not the same as his girlfriend) and not to me. It seems fair to mention that if Pascal was co-writing he would mention that I was engaged to someone else, so his options were limited. That’s a story for another time.

I realized I had fallen in love with him when I noticed I was watching the door each Friday for him to appear in his button-down shirt and tie (the Engineering students liked to fancy it up before drinking cheap beer on Friday afternoons).  Early into our Bridge Club days, he had started hanging out with my friends and me on Friday afternoons, happily learning Italian cards (even though he couldn’t adjust to counting a 40 card deck) and playing a wicked pool game that often made people’s jaws drop. I realized it when I started missing him when we weren’t together and when I found myself choosing my clothes based on imagining the look on Pascal’s face when I entered the room.

By mid-February 1995 I was totally in love.

Three weeks we had moved in together.

But, that’s a story for another day.

I’m not sure – by words alone – how this story represents what I love most about Pascal. I know that the very telling of it puts a smile on my face and a profound sense of gratitude for the forces of cards, slacking and joy that brought Pascal into my life.

Thanks for helping me celebrate.

 

How Puppies and Sex are Teaching me About Willpower

I realize that puppy training and sex don’t seem like they go together – but I bet anyone who has had a puppy and tried to have sex while caring for said puppy understands that they can have a negative impact on one’s sex life.  It’s a little like trying to have sex when you have a baby.  Except the baby doesn’t stand by the side of your bed barking.  Or jump on the bed. I don’t remember what our strategies were when my husband and I had our babies and our first puppy. Truthfully, so many of my memories are hazy from 2001-2010 (sorry, kids).  But now, with two Psychology degrees, countless psychology books and a growing number of train your puppy books (which really read like psychology books) under my belt, I have a keen sense of the power of training. That was really handy for Week Three of my The Science of Willpower course. It’s all about training. I’ll explain and then get back to what this has to do with sex and puppies.

In the book, The Willpower Instinct, How Self Control Works, Why it Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It Kelly McGonigal, PhD. explains how our willpower is related to our resources. The bad news is that research has shown that when I apply my willpower strength in one area (like getting myself out the door to run) that I will have less strength for the next test of my willpower.  So, it wouldn’t be a good idea to come home from a run and open the fridge and contemplate what I could eat for dinner.  I’ll be less likely to make choices aligned with my current willpower goals of:

I won’t eat compulsively.

I will eat mindfully.

I want to have a healthy, strong body.

Willpower gets depleted.  Essentially because it requires resources from our brain and these resources are not infinite.  Furthermore, when our brain senses the depletion of resources, it puts up the equivalent of a blockade for giving up more resources – even when there are more to give. Pretty rough, right? It definitely explains a lot of choices I’ve made over time – like why resisting saying how I feel has often been followed by eating something that I swore that I wouldn’t touch.

The good news is that we can expand our willpower reserves – so even though they remain finite, we can increase the amount. Furthermore, if we practice pushing back against some mental resistance, our capacity to override our initial instinct to ignore our  goal increases. I first experienced this running. The first few (okay, way more than that) miles that I attempted, my body responded by crying out, begging for me to stop.  My legs felt heavy.  My lungs burned. Everything thing in me cried out for me to walk. But I was determined to train for my first 5km. I loved the idea of identifying as a runner and I had a fantasy of having a runner’s body. So, I pushed past the heaviness and the burning. I responded to the cries to stop with encouragement.  I developed many strategies to push through. Two decades and many, many miles later, I don’t exactly identify as a runner or have a runner’s body but I know that there is a difference between sharp pain or exhaustion and discomfort.  So, I push through the discomfort and experience the satisfaction and often euphoria of triumph. I’ve learned. I changed my thinking and increased my capacity to run.  I was able to take that thinking into Crossfit gyms and hot yoga studios. I believe that increased capacity to push through discomfort and pursue satisfaction and euphoria helped drive me to leave professional fundraising and go back to school full-time to study psychology seven years ago.

I think that Kelly McGonigal is teaching that the recipe is to articulate an intention (I want…I will…I won’t) for something that is important to us and then use that as fuel to override our initial discomfort and expand our capacity to pursue our goals. The key is, it needs to be salient enough (that’s psych-speak for REALLY matter) to shine a light on our thinking in critical moments and lead us to take the uncomfortable path.

Which brings me back to sex.  I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to make sure that sex is a central part of my marriage.  Easier said than done, right? Happily, I work from home and my husband works close to home, so sometimes we have non-working lunches.  Enter the puppy. This is a good time to confess that despite my training credentials, I’m a sucker for the puppy. Especially when she wants attention and for some reason especially when she wants to cuddle on our bed. However, when she stood on our bed earlier this week barking for attention, I knew what I wanted (uninterrupted time with my husband) and I knew that I needed to move through Lily’s and my discomfort and increase her capacity to self soothe.  So, I firmly (despite my husband’s useless laughter and serious skepticism) kicked her off the bed and directed her out of the room. It took some time, effort and muffling of my husband.  But it worked.  I’ll end that story there…

So, what have we learned (besides to ring the doorbell when visiting my house midday)? I’ve learned that willpower is a diminishing resource, so that I need to be mindful of my actions – particularly after I’ve expended a fair amount of willpower in one area. I think this can be managed with planning.  Thus, if I know that I’m going to be working on my website for the morning, which often takes a ton of will to start and then stay on task, that I will benefit from planning my lunch beforehand and even measuring out the portions before I get started, when I have an untapped amount of willpower.

I have also learned that the power part of willpower is expandable by practice and that my motivation to practice is rooted in how important my goal is to me. At the very least I need to articulate a goal – but I find that is usually not enough. I need to really think about why the goal is important to me, how it is aligned with my values and how pursuing it will benefit me.  It’s important for me to remember that it’s not the goal achievement that will benefit me (even if I think it will), it is the value of pursuing the goal that I need to understand. Then I will be far more likely to move past discomfort to get to the benefits.

Who knew that getting a puppy would teach me so much about willpower training?

What Happens When the Threat You’re Fighting is You? (Week 2 of The Science of Willpower Course)

I believe that many people can recite a fight/flight theory of emotional response, regardless of their background.  It comes up everywhere – at the doctor’s office when talking about stress, anxiety or weight gain or at your child’s school when learning about schoolyard behaviour or child/parent communications. The term is tossed around pretty casually.  Many know that fight/flight is a physiological fear response that could save our lives.  We understand that we’re seeing mortal threat in interactions that are not actually mortally threatening and that the regular cortisol production that come with lots of flight/fight reactions is bad for our health.  Many of us even know that our adrenal glands and amygdala are involved in this process.  We don’t even need to be arm chair psychologists to have this awareness – we can be teachers, high school students, parents, organizational leaders, you name it.

In my case, I read and talk about fight/flight responses daily (to the joy of my husband, kids and clients).  This might explain why I glossed over the critical fight/flight message in Week Two of Kelly McGonigal’s Willpower program. (See last week’s blog to understand why I’m talking about this at all.)

I glossed over the section where she compared resisting a slice of cheesecake to fighting a sabre tooth tiger and I focused on the part where she explained that our fight/flight responses suppress our impulse control. That was enough to bring to mind the past few conversations I had when I felt threatened and could almost watch the words come out of my mouth before I considered the damage they might do.

Thus, it wasn’t until later that I had a flash of understanding, when I was attempting to escape one of my thoughts.  You know how it goes: “I will put this cookie into my mouth before I contemplate whether I’m hungry, whether I need it or whether I’ll regret it later.  See – I’m eating it, what are you going to do now?? Eat another cookie, maybe?”

I got it!  The threat I’m facing is MY thoughts.  Not another person.  Or a saber tooth tiger.  Me.  My thoughts.  The ones that aren’t aligned with my goals and values.

When I’m wrestling with self-control, I’m often trying to flee from my thoughts. The very process makes me physically uncomfortable – my heart starts beating faster, my stomach feels uneasy, I feel unsafe. No wonder I seek numbing behaviour in those moments!

It’s a paradigm in which I am always the loser. Even if I have won, I have lost. Even if I have escaped, I have also been deserted – cause it’s all me. There is nothing about this kind of thinking that builds my will-power or self-control. When I position myself as threatening or something/someone I want to escape for, then it’s hard at the same time to believe I’m worth fighting for.  No wonder that kind of process is exhausting.  It’s also so divisive.  I feel best when I feel whole and this kind of thinking is the opposite of that.

The antidote to fighting/fleeing is pausing/planning. I find it energizing in the same way that I find the fighting/fleeing tiring. As soon as I start to ask questions, a smile automatically forms on my face.  It surprises me every time. As soon as I slow down, I suddenly am aware of my breathing and then I slow down even more. When I ask questions, I gain perspective. I remember what I planned.  I think about what I want. Everything feels manageable in a way it didn’t moments before.  I feel more acceptable in a way that I didn’t feel before. When I’m not fighting my thoughts then I can try to understand them. If I’m fighting them, then I’m just trying to annihilate them or run away from them.

The thing about changing habits is they come up every day! I can’t run away from them.  I need to problem solve my way out.  There’s nothing problem solving oriented about fighting or fleeing.  But pausing and planning is the essence of problem solving.

Kelly McGonigal has some clear direction about maximizing the potential for shifting from Fight/Flight to Pause/Plan.

First, I need to have the most important base resource: sleep. I am finding more and more that when I have less than 7 hours of sleep that I am more likely to be in a headspace where I don’t remember my current goals, my plans, why I like the people in my life or if I have every achieved anything of value, EVER.  It’s very hard to orient myself toward my aspirations in moments of fight/flight when I have no energy and can’t remember why I want to aspire at all.

McGonigal says that one way (besides sleep, which is critical) to get energy is to increase physical activity – by any amount at all. I have taken this seriously the past two weeks and have incorporated two 10 minute runs into my week. (Full disclosure: this was actually a Sweet Spot tip, but it has been reinforced by reading The Willpower Instinct.) I feel amazing after these runs and I’ve reduced the barrier for getting out the door, as it’s really hard to tell myself that I don’t have time or energy to run for TEN minutes.  It builds up my reserves in incredible ways – being outdoors, keeping my promise to run and exercising my heart and lungs.  McGonigal went out of her way to emphasize that research keeps showing that even the smallest intervals of exercise make significant differences in our physical health and our emotional resilience.

Another tip that McGonigal provided is to simply find time to relax.  The essence is to give my body a chance to do the opposite of what it does it Fight/Flight mode.  To practice being in relaxed mode.  In Fight/Flight mode I breathe quickly, zero in on something specific and tense my body for combat. Taking time to relax – even for 5 minutes – helps me practice breathing deeply and unclenching my mind and body. My body could use the training.

I love how much this course feels like training – training my mind and my body (as if they’re different entities) to help me do what’s best for me.  The more I train like this, the more I understand our minds/bodies as being designed for this kind of practice.  I understand it this way because the feedback loops are so powerful.  Doing this kind of work produces such strong results and good feelings.

Help! (and maybe it will help you too)

 

I’ll cut right to the chase. I’m at the lowest weight that I’ve been in twelve years or so, but I don’t want to stop losing weight – so much so that I’m looking for help to keep my momentum going.

I love the idea of ‘returning’ to the body that I had in university. Or at least my 44 year old, post three babies, version of it. I’m well on my way there – I’ve lost about 40lb. in the past year, 30lb. of that since I started following a ketogenic based food plan in July. Yet, while I feel wildly successful about this change and very happy about fitting into clothing that I had almost given up on every wearing comfortably again, I’m scared of stalling.  Worse than that, I’m worried about boomeranging back to my state before of feeling uncomfortable, out of shape (well, a rounder shape) and demoralized about my ‘inability’ to stay at a healthy weight in my adult life.

This past Saturday night, my friend Rachel inadvertently gave me a plan (she joins the ranks of Ian, who inspired me similarly last week). We were talking about eating and weight loss and she said that it is an area that she has little willpower.  Well, I have the book for that! (I have a lot of books and sometimes I even read them.) The book is called The Willpower Instinct, How Self Control Works, Why it Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, PhD.  She is trained as a Health Psychologist and her course, The Science of Willpower, at Stanford University has attracted thousands of people to change their thinking about willpower.  My biggest take home from McGonigal’s book is that willpower is like biceps. We all have them and if I want to have stronger willpower, I need to exercise the muscles involved (in this case, brain areas).

This is where you come in. Everyone knows that if you want to do something, it’s easier if you have other people to do it with (my husband is snickering when reading this, I’m sure of it).  So, join me by also pursuing a goal or simply by cheering me on.

Is there a goal that you have that you think requires willpower to achieve?  It could be weight loss, like me.  It could be preparing for a 10km race; reducing your phone addiction; increasing your workout time; spending more time with your family or spending more time by yourself.  Something that you have tried to do a few times and don’t feel that you’ve been successful at (yet).

Here’s my plan: I’m going to follow Kelly McGonigal’s 10-week Science of Willpower course. If all you do is read my blog each week and cheer me on, I’ll be very grateful. I believe that will be enough (for my own success and possibly as well to spark some motivation for you). However, if you also have a goal that you want to pursue over the next 10 weeks, hop on board and we’ll work on it together. If you’re keen to read the book, feel free to pick it up.  If you’re like my friend Ian and would rather read the article, then I’m going to provide the ‘Coles Notes’ version of the book in weekly segments, personalized to my own goal (this is a pretty selfish post, if you haven’t figured that out yet).

Week One Highlights

  • It is best to pick one specific challenge that you want to focus on. McGonigal divides willpower challenges into “I won’t”; “I will” or “I want”.  Being an overcompensater (a word I just made up), I have formulated my goal with all three:

I won’t eat compulsively

I will eat mindfully

I want to have a healthy, strong body

  • Take on this project as a scientist. It is not all or nothing. It is not about success or failure. I will be focusing on increasing my capacity to exercise my self-control when eating and try to uncover what my stumbling blocks are and where my strength already lies. Curiosity and openness are key.  Thinking in terms of success/failure are barriers.  Scientists set goals but are looking to discover and learn.  That’s what I want to do.

scientist

  • I am training my brain. I can’t expect to run a marathon just by setting the goal and having the desire. The same is true for willpower.

Here are the two brain training exercises for Week One of the course:

  1. Try this for one day: Increase your awareness of the decisions you’re making related to your goal. For example, if you want to spend more time doing physical activity, pay attention to the choices you’re making in that area for as you move through your day. Write them down or put them into your phone. You’re a scientist – collect data.
  2. Practice mindfulness meditation for 5 minutes each day. Mindfulness builds strength for a lot of heavy lifting in our brains. It gives us perspective and it gives us focus. Just the same way I need to increase my cardiovascular capacity and my quad strength to run long distances, I need to increase my perspective taking and focus abilities to gain more self-control (aka as willpower).  There are a ton of mindfulness practices all over the Internet.  Here is one of my favourites.

Thank you in advance!  See you next week for Week Two.

The Sweet Spot – Where Ambition, Joy & Meaning Meet

My friend Ian, unwittingly gave me the idea to start writing articles about books. We were in a meeting discussing fundraising and he referred to Anchoring – a social psychology concept describing the human tendency to mentally gravitate towards a specific starting point.  It could be used to explain why my husband says things like, “$1.50 for a pack of gum? That’s crazy.”  I first learned about Anchoring in Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, a book that, among other things, explains why humans are generally suckers for marketing. Even when we know we’re being suckers.  I got a little excited at the possibility of discussing Predictably Irrational with Ian, until he explained to me that he reads articles about these kinds of concepts, not books.

I walked away from the conversation with two new understandings: 1) I’m desperately looking for people to discuss the books I’ve read/am reading (my children and husband will wearily attest to this) and 2) What I’m learning in the books I’m reading could make for practical blogposts.  So, here we are.

I found the perfect book for my first book review blogpost on my night table (It helped that there are 10 books on my night table.) The Sweet Spot – How to Find your Groove at Home and Work (or How to Accomplish More by Doing Less) by Christine Carter, PhD. (Thank you Karen Elkin!) I have been trying to solve the problem of balancing all the roles I play in life for quite some time and gravitate toward books that offer a solution. The Sweet Spot offered many, many solutions.

Which brings me to my first problem: one of the hardest parts of discussing this book is distilling it into bite size ideas.

I was going to summarize the categorizes that Carter created, but that felt more like a book report and writing book reports isn’t very interesting to me (and probably not so much for you either). Instead, I’m going to share one of the concepts from the book that I incorporated in the past week and how it’s altered my experience. (Does that make this a reality blogpost?)

The first section of The Sweet Spot encourages everyone to take Recess.  Carter explains why our brains need breaks every 90 minutes or so. My son seems to have a handle on this, because when he crossed the stage at Grade Eight graduation this past June, Recess was named as his favourite subject.  I too have always loved Recess and breaks. So much so that much of my time at Earl Haig S.S. and McGill was more break than class.

Herein lies the problem regarding how I think about breaks as an adult.  Breaks = slacking.  I’ll take them, but not wholeheartedly.  They’re guilty pleasures. They come wrapped up in the belief that I’m taking a break from doing what I need to be doing (to be doing something less important and possibly self-indulgent).  Baked into that is the belief that if I was stronger, I wouldn’t take a break.

The Sweet Spot says that taking Recess is not a sign of a weakness – it’s a practice that strengthens us.  Studies have shown that people who take regular breaks are more productive.

So, this week, I started taking planned breaks.  I organized my work day into 90-120 intervals.  At the 90-120 minute mark, I get up from what I’m doing.  I find that I’m often flagging by then anyway – even if I was going strong for quite awhile. Carter teaches that my energy dip is in line with ultradian rhythms (like circadian rhythms but with different characteristics).   During my breaks, I’ve walked outside for 10 minutes, caught up on my texts, checked my email or hung out with the puppy.

The rule that Christine Carter lays out is that whatever you’re doing during your break, it can’t be advancing the progress of your to-do list.  The activity needs to be enjoyable. I believe that part of the goodness of this practice is to increase the frequency of asking yourself,

“What would I like to do right now that I would enjoy?”

Considering what that might be and then taking time to do it is a very empowering act.  Each time I have taken a break, I have returned to work energized, focused and generally feeling good.

I think Recess is a very well-constructed habit. The practice is self-reinforcing – it generates good feelings both in the moment that the action is taking place and also upon reflection when the positive effects are experienced (e.g. increased productivity, feeling good for an extended period).  Many habits become boring to us over time – a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation.  Hedonic adaptation’s kryptonite is variety. Thus, so long as I maintain variety in what I do with my 10 minute breaks, I’m not likely to get bored of the practice.  I’m already excited about the potential productivity and creativity that practicing Recess is going to bring me.

The Sweet Spot is full of constructions like Recess.  Carter tells good stories about the research that back up the practices and how she builds productive habits in her own life. The book was born out of a challenging time in Carter’s life when she felt so overwhelmed by her responsibilities, ambition and dissatisfaction that her body shut down on her. I can relate to those kinds of feelings and appreciate a book full of direction on how to live in a way where I cultivate ambition while also experiencing deep satisfaction and joy. One of the reasons that I really love reading books like this is that I learn about current scientific research that reveal the potential for change, resilience and happiness.  It’s so inspiring.

I think that’s what the Sweet Spot is – the understanding that we really can have it all.

Ambition, Meaning and Joy.

We don’t need to trade one for the other, instead we need to practice articulating our ambitions, making meaning and cultivating joy.  I like how Christine Carter delivers these practices.

Let me know if you read the book – we can work on some of it together!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting with Wrongs is Wrong (and how to get it Right)

I’ve been doing the high holy days all wrong.  Okay, I know that holidays aren’t something we DO (except in the way they are) and that you can’t really do it WRONG. (At least I don’t believe you can.)  But, if high holy days are something we do and it IS possible to get it wrong, then I have.  The problem is that I’ve been focusing on my wrongs (and let’s be honest, others’ wrongs as well) It’s just plain wrong.

(Okay, I’m done with all the wrong word play now…more or less.)

In September, my family and friends jokingly remind each other that “the Book is open”.  We’re referring to this mystical place where God, in a Supreme Santa kind of role, is accounting for what we have done and balancing it against any repentance we’ve engaged in, when considering what our coming year will hold. (Despite this, there is no singing about being naughty and nice by any synagogue choir that I am aware of.) The story is that at the end of Yom Kippur, the Book closes and the peaks and valleys of our lives are inscribed for the next year. I don’t think most of us believe in a supernatural God or a Book. We don’t think that God will be writing up our year in the coming days and that if we do the work to account for our actions that God will provide a year for us full of joy and gladness. Yet, despite many of our atheist tendencies, we are taking on the charge of reflection and accounting as well as planning what our year might look like – so maybe we have an innate sense that we are made in a Godly image. Or maybe it’s just cultural.

It IS cultural. There’s no question about that. Millions of Jews all over the world will be attending a service or dinner over the next week where transgressions and atonement will be discussed and considered. So many of us are taking time in the coming week to think about what we did last year, make some repairs and consider what we want to be and do in the coming year.

I realized this year that I’ve been missing a step in the process. This is the step that can transform the kind of thinking that I’m doing over the holidays from brow beating, guilt rendering, demoralizing or paralyzing to the kind of thinking that will make me stronger and more capable.

How could I have missed this step?

The step is forgiveness and it has been right in front of me for years.

Selichot begins the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. I’ve been attending Selichot services for the better part of a decade. It is a series of prayers asking God to forgive us.  That’s right – starting BEFORE erev Rosh Hashanah, there is a high holy day ritual focused on forgiveness.  Forgiveness first.  Before we begin to repent. Potentially, before we’ve even begun to confess.

I’ve missed the significance of Selichot falling before Rosh Hashanah every year. Maybe I missed it because the sequence seemed incongruent. Aren’t we inclined to think about forgiveness as something that follows rather than something that leads? You apologize to me and then I contemplate whether I forgive you.

Why is Judaism guiding us to forgive before we start accounting for actions?  I’m not sure what was intended when these rituals began but here’s my theory: I believe forgiveness comes first because it focuses our thinking on learning instead of threat.  This focus on learning engages our very best thinking.  In other words, it gives us the capacity to broaden and build our lives instead of to narrow them. Barbara Fredrickson has a large body of research demonstrating how positive emotions catalyze thinking characterized by broadening and building and negative emotions drive thinking that is characteristically narrow, missing great amounts of detail. I think it’s amazing that the sequence of rituals for the holidays can guide us to maximize our physiological potential.

I’ll explain how.

Placing forgiveness first engages our problem-solving parts of our brain versus the part of our brain that experiences threat. I confess (tis the season, after all) that before this past Saturday night, I wouldn’t have made a natural connection between forgiveness and problem solving.  But, I do now.

I learned on Saturday night that forgiveness is akin to recognizing one’s humanity. Maybe not everyone’s idea of a rockin’ Saturday night (my husband stayed home and watched a movie with the kids instead). I attended a Selichot program and listened to Rabbi Micah Streiffer and producer, actress and story-teller Jen Podemski speak about forgiveness from Jewish, Ojibway and personal perspectives at Kol Ami in Thornhill. Through these perspectives, they taught me the connection between forgiveness and humanity. It resonated with me so much that it inspired this blogpost.

I had never had the clear thought that forgiveness is an acknowledgement of another’s humanity before. But it makes such sense to me.  Forgiveness is synonymous with mercy and mercy is synonymous with humanity. I think we often focus on forgiveness as something we offer in exchange or response – usually to someone’s apology. When we do that, we’re placing practicing forgiveness after atonement, but Selichot comes first. Judaism is guiding us to think about forgiveness before we have even enumerated what we have done wrong (and before others have as well). So, what is it that we are forgiving?

The idea of “forgiving” is a limiting paradigm that we need to shift. Forgiveness isn’t an exchange. It’s an acknowledgement – a guiding principle.

We are acknowledging being human. We are acknowledging that we are flawed. That is our starting point.

Acknowledging that to be human is to be flawed means that we start with being right instead of being wrong. Every human is flawed.  The ‘right’ way is to be flawed. The flaws aren’t a sign of weakness, they’re a connection between all of us. That makes them something to manage – a problem to be solved.

When I start with right and wrong, I am engaging in binary, narrow thinking. It is hard to avoid blame and fear in this thinking arena. This kind of thinking engages the more fearful areas of my brain. It naturally narrows my perspective, reducing the number of options I might consider and increasing the amount of stress hormones I’m producing, making my body tired and my stomach hurt.

If I start with forgiveness, that is, if I start by acknowledging my humanity and others’ humanity, then I engage higher level thinking.  Kristin Neff’s research has demonstrated that practicing thinking about common humanity strengthens our relationships and increases our well-being. These kinds of thoughts increase my capacity to consider the problems to be solved. I am able to see people’s actions (including my own) as challenges instead of threats.  Challenges are problems to be solved. Threats are battles to be fought. This kind of thinking will enlarge my arteries and increase my memory capacity. I will feel more capable and actually be physically healthier for thinking this way. If I start with forgiveness, I can make goals and plans for the year that are guided by rational judgement.  If I start with threat I will miss a lot of information when making my plans and minimize the potential for positive connections with the people around me.

I regularly encounter the fear (in myself and others) that accepting that we are flawed will let us off the hook. I believe the opposite is true. We’re not letting ourselves off the hook by acknowledging that we and others aren’t perfect.  We’re saying there IS a hook. We’re taking responsibility and we’re doing it in such a way that we maximize our opportunities to learn from our situation. When we account for the possibility of flaws, when we expect them or better yet, search to identify them, then we can plan and problem solve effectively. In Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull, Co-Founder of Pixar Animation and Co-President of Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, says that strong organizations are built on this very principle – that we must acknowledge and seek the flaws that exist so we can begin the problem-solving process. Cultivating problem solving will lead to our very best selves – the best individuals and the best organizations. It is a model that works everywhere because it maximizes the natural capacity of our thinking.

I want to bring this kind of thinking to as many areas as I can. These Holidays are a handy place to start practicing.

I’m going to start with forgiveness and keep returning my focus to our humanity. I believe this practice will encourage the generation of thoughtful actions that I’ll be motivated to follow through. I’m excited about the possibilities – possibilities that broaden and build rather than narrow.  That’s the kind of work I want to do for myself this coming year and the work that I want to lead – at home and in the world.

I’m grateful that I’ve entered this period of reflection with the underpinning of forgiveness. Thank you to Rabbi Micah Streiffer and Jen Podemsky for providing an inspiring message of hope, reflection and kindness this past Saturday evening. You shifted me from being wrong to being human.

 

 

 

 

Was Hillel also referring to puppies and teens?

We brought a puppy into our family almost three weeks ago.  Her name is Lily and she is as cute and sweet as a puppy can be.

IMG_0138 Her presence in my life has already radically changed my days and my thinking.  Here’s the distilled version of what I’ve learned:

Respect sits at the centre of everything.

Most of this learning has been cultivated during walks with Lily. We walk together several times a day for 20-30 minutes.  Anyone who has had the pleasure of walking through Pomona Mills in Thornhill, will understand the all-seasons appeal of the landscape.  Right now, the greenery is barely holding on and Lily is distracted by the leaves that have fallen to tempt her on every surface.

When Lily isn’t encountering potential playmates and general puppy admirers she is examining everything that we pass – usually with her nose or her mouth, until she decides to lie down and scratch herself. Or simply flop down on the grass with the air of someone planning a long rest.  Then, there is the perennial dog owner favourite, when she starts to play tug of war with her leash, barking and snarling in the spirit of fun. Thus, in addition to the ways that being with Lily helps me engage with the world in ways that I wouldn’t without her, segments of our time together knock the crap out of me. (No dog walking pun intended.)

Doesn’t this also sound like raising children?  When I’m not completely charmed and entranced with my kids, I’m exhausted from power struggles or the sheer time and energy it takes to help keep them safe and assist in the organization of their lives. I’m happy to report that my children are seldom barking and snarling – but I am worried about what they’ll put in their mouths (even at 11, 14 and 16) and we do play tug of war on any number of issues – mostly because they don’t always want to do what I am asking them to do – so much so that sometimes they simply refuse.

These parenting challenges are not new for me (although they are taking new form as the kids get older) and I am regularly trying to “solve” them.  I’m beginning to understand that it’s all about respect.

This is not the respect that I was raised with.  This isn’t respect your manners.  Or respect your elders. Or respect the rules. The respect that I am referring to is mutual respect, but I think I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

I’m not usually thinking about the respect that I need to offer to Lily or my kids. I am usually thinking about the respect that I want them to give to me.

I’m reading one of Cesar Millan’s books about raising puppies.  Cesar gave me a great exercise to do yesterday.  He recommended that I make a list of my training expectations for Lily. Given my parallel children/puppy thinking, I decided to make a list for both puppy and kid expectations.

Here’s what I came up with:

Puppy

Come when called.

Sit when asked.

Lie down when asked.

Get up when asked.

Behave well around other people.

Behave well around other dogs.

Children

Come when called.

Sit when asked.

Lie down when asked.

Get up when asked.

Behave well around adults.

Behave well around their peers.

I confess, some of this is tongue and cheek and I originally had a different list for the kids that included generosity, kindness and compassion, but when I started listing out my puppy aspirations, I realized that I really want the same behavior from my children. Bottom line: I want the puppy and the kids to respect my authority.

Why?

Well.

That brought a realization for me. Part of the answer is their safety and laying a foundation for future success navigating their way through life with these important habits and skills.

The other part?

I don’t want to be tired out by debating with them. It’s tiring debating everything. I want the kids to do the chores – not aggravate me by arguing about the chores.  I want Lily to come when she’s called, not waste my time by sniffing around the backyard when I have other things to do. I want the kids to interact with my family at events, not be glued to their phones.

As I contemplated this I realized how I have been defining respect.

Respect = trusting that I know what’s best + taking care of my needs

There are two huge challenges with this view of respect. One is that I’m asking four beings who are invested in their own independence to follow my judgement (and ideally without questioning it, because you know, that’s tiring).  Secondly, I’m putting my self-care into the hands of children and a puppy.

You can see how problematic this is. Furthermore, it is really common thinking and acting.  Why did we need to be quiet in the lunch room in elementary school? Because we were giving the Lunch Lady a headache. Why does Lily need to move at my pace on our walks instead of hers’? Because I have work I need to get done and I didn’t allot time for her to sniff every blade of grass.

It wasn’t very compelling for me and my Grade Four peers to protect the Lunch Lady’s head (not least because her general request for us to be quiet was transmitted by telling us to “Sit down and Shut up”).  I realize this isn’t very different from me causing strain on Lily’s neck and her eardrums by pulling her away from the tantalizing beetle moving across the sidewalk. Lily didn’t learn very much (except that she can move away from an interesting object to relieve the discomfort I’m causing her) and maybe she didn’t learn anything at all if instead of giving into my pleading leash pull, she lay down on the ground. My method wasn’t very compelling for her.

It’s likely that the problem wasn’t in those moments of aggravation and power struggle. I have realized that power struggles can be transformed into learning moments.  It’s started to happen already and it feels so much better.

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, I want to make clear that it’s not that I don’t understand the loftier ideals at work.  Lily needs to understand my authority so I can keep her safe, when necessary, and in elementary school, we rambunctious students needed to learn social conduct and generate sympathy for the Lunch Lady’s physical discomfort.

Yet, I don’t believe that’s Lily is understanding my authority in those moments that are so aggravating for both of us. I don’t believe that the kids are cultivating a sense of the importance of being a contributing part of our household when I’m expressing my aggravation for them not getting their chores done.

I believe there are two issues to be resolved. The first is redefining respect. It is not blind submission and accepting responsibility for other people’s needs. Who wouldn’t rebel against that? The second is making time to practice respect – for all of us to practice it.  Most especially me.

My new understanding of respect has valuing another’s authority and autonomy at the centre.  The way to teach this kind of respect to the kids and the puppy is to model it. I’m not thinking about the occasional moments when I’m protecting the kids and the puppy from danger. It’s about all the other moments that don’t warrant much force. Don’t we all thrive when others respect our authority and autonomy to the limits possible?

Emphasizing valuing another’s authority and autonomy is important. Value. Not submit. I believe that relationships that are spent (puppy and children alike) investing in mutual respect produce higher levels of compliance in the moments that I have been finding trying.  Valuing is the same as appreciating.  Appreciating takes time and effort.

These are the philosophical thoughts that I’ve had while pulling Lily back from diving head first into bushes of burrs; discouraging the consumption of goose poop or occasionally begging her to get up from the ground to walk the extra 10 feet to our driveway. Okay, I’m not having those thoughts in the actual moments that I’m struggling with Lily. My thoughts are more often turned to what the people who are walking by are thinking about my substandard puppy training. Other times I’m wondering if she’ll ever get up off the ground and what I will be forced to do if she doesn’t.  Yesterday, I wondered how much goose poop it might take to make her sick and if her consumption was going to have a negative impact on her health and my sleep. Mostly, I’m thinking that this isn’t a good time and I have other things to do.

I have the same kind of thoughts when my kids are texting at family events. Or refusing to shower and/or change out of the shirt they have worn for going on 36 hours.

My methods for both puppies and children so far have sometimes been sharp “No”s, sometimes followed by desperate pleading, often followed by aggravated sulkiness.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I have limited success with these methods.

Yesterday, Cesar instructed me that the puppy and I should be enjoying our training sessions. Am I enjoying my “training sessions” with the puppy and the kids? I believe I could be more and that if I do, then the enjoyment will extend to the kids’ and puppy’s experiences too.

It’s not that the puppy and kids don’t need to hear “No”.  They do.  It’s not even that I don’t want Lily and the kids to respect me and my authority. I really do. It’s that I’ve learned that if I want this to happen that I need to offer it to the kids and Lily.   I don’t think it’s possible to do all the time, but I think it’s possible to do it much, more and that the more I give the kids respect, the more likely it is that I will have receive it from them.

Easier said than done, right?

I believe I know the way how.  It requires practicing three things: patience, rest and play.

If I am to offer respect then I need to be patient. There needs to be room for error.  Room for trying methods that don’t work. Room for frustration, aggravation and rebellion. We’re all learning and very flawed.  Learning takes time.

It’s also so important to play. I feel good when I play with them.  They feel good when they play with me. We all need play time. Whatever it looks like – sometimes it’s playful words, sometimes a card game, sometimes throwing the Frisbee.  Playing is the best and builds up a tremendous amount of good will for everyone involved.

Here’s the challenge: exercising patience and engaging in play, take a ton of physical resources (although less physical resources than engaging in endless power struggles and feeling miserable about not getting needs met).

I need to have rest. Without rest, I don’t have the physical resources to be patient. Rest doesn’t just mean sleep. It also means time away from the puppy and the kids. Thoughtful time when I’m taking care of my needs. If I take care of my needs then I’m not relying on a puppy, two teenagers and an eleven-year-old to take care of my needs. Seems like a safer bet.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think this is easy and I don’t think it’s new. It is the essence of what Hillel said over two thousand years ago, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” (Pirkei Avot).  I’ve simply decided to start extending this principle to puppies and children.

Stopping to Smell the Roses (or What I did this Summer)

 

Do you remember returning to school from summer break? The first question on everyone’s tongues was, “What did you do this summer?” Years of following that ritual have hard wired the habit in my brain. Last week, as I prepared for the summer to end, I automatically asked myself what I did this summer. The short answer is: I practiced mindfulness and that practice has transformed me – but short answers don’t make for much of a blog post.

I’m going to digress briefly, because I had a wonderful experience as I walked to Starbucks to write. I’m grateful to report that my walk to Starbucks always contains something lovely. I live in an old neighborhood and walk through a beautiful cemetery that could be set in Avonlea.  The path is framed by tall, stately trees and weatherworn headstones that tell many stories. In all seasons, it is an engaging walk – whether I am taken with the scenery or exchanging pleasantries with other walkers and their dogs. Today, as I was leaving the cemetery, I noticed a woman who I had seen a few days ago.  When I encountered her over the weekend, I saw her bending over the roses at the entrance. It seemed like she was retrieving a jacket or a sweater from the bushes and I wondered why she had stored it there.  It reminded me of the winters that I stashed my shoes on the side of the house in defiance of my mother decreeing that I must wear winter boots.

This time, I was closer to my mystery woman as she bent down so I learned what she was doing. She was stopping to smell the roses. I’m still smiling about it. Maybe she is too.

That’s what I did this summer. I stopped to smell the roses. I stopped to smell the roses for six days a week, at least 30 minutes a day, for eight weeks straight. I got so much out of it, that in a thirst for more, I attended a day-long silent mindful meditation retreat. Silent. Can you imagine? I might need to share this event with my Grade Eight teacher, Mrs. Harris.  She’ll be astounded. She used to beg me to at least stop taking for “O Canada”. I rarely complied. Mrs. Harris would support the notion that that choosing an all-day silent retreat represents a radical departure from my previous behviour.

My mindful practice was guided and partially inspired by the 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course.  I say inspired, because it was the research that Jon Kabat-Zinn designed and started evaluating over thirty years ago at the University Massachusetts Medical Centre that has been catching my attention for years. Both Kabat-Zinn’s research and the studies that Judson Brewer references in “The Craving Mind” build a compelling case for the benefits of mindfulness meditation practice.  It’s used for pain management; treatment of anxiety and depression; addiction treatment; insomnia relief and managing a host of other health conditions. From a positive psychology perspective, mindfulness meditation research is showing that practicing mindful meditation leads to higher levels of well-being all around. This means that as a result of practicing mindfulness meditation people often experience greater productivity, more happiness and an increase in satisfying meaningful moments. Seems appealing, right?

It was sufficient motivational fuel for me to commit to the eight week MBSR program. (If there are any Bourne addicts out there, you might now be thinking, “Will you commit to the program?” Or it might just be Pascal.  If so, this aside is just for him.)

I fully committed to prioritizing the 8-week program.  It was a big commitment. I needed to find at least 30-40 minutes, 6 days a week, for two months. I am always amazed at how easy it is to find the time to something once I feel firmly committed.

I finished up my 8th week on Sunday. Here’s my Top Five list of how the MBSR course transformed my world. After the list, I’ll explain my theory about the magic behind the curtain.

  1. I am no longer addicted to my phone. It’s not that I don’t use it anymore. It’s not that I’ve stopped texting. The difference is how much I put it down now. So much, that I have been accidentally leaving my phone at home. That can only mean that it’s not in my hand all the time anymore.
  2. I haven’t been as hard on myself. The judging, aggravated, frustrated or disappointed voice isn’t showing up as often. When it does, I often think, “Wow, I’m so hard on myself”. Side note: this hasn’t hindered my productivity in the slightest. I’ve had so much more energy and an increased ability to focus on individual tasks for extended periods of time.
  3. I haven’t been as critical/judgmental with others. Others include my husband, my children, my friends, person driving slowly in front of me; quickly behind me or the person who didn’t pick up after their dog. Instead of judging, I’m wondering what is distracting them, causing them to act the way they are, or I’m focused on something entirely different.
  4. I have been appreciating nature in a way feels new and yet also familiar, but out of practice. It feels like a child-like curiosity. I’m entranced by the movement of the trees with the wind. I get hypnotized looking at the different shades of green in my backyard. I enjoy taking the time to listen to the symphony of birds, squirrels and who knows what else, outside my bedroom window as I wake up in the morning. I feel like I’ve developed bionic senses.
  5. The realm of the possible has enlarged significantly. Instead of thinking that I can’t do something, I wonder what might be required to do it – whatever it is – learning something new, travelling somewhere, taking my business in new directions, making time for a new interest. I feel more courageous.

So, what is the magic behind all of this change?

I think it is this: what you practice in one area of your life automatically extends to the other areas of our lives. If you build biceps in the gym, those biceps will help lift many objects outside of the gym. Practicing thinking is like that too.  We practice in one place and then take that new strength into the world. The process is reinforcing, because practicing becomes easier with more practice and the better we get, we increase our sense of self-efficacy, so we enjoy the practice more. It’s no mistake that the last phrase referred to “practice” three times. I think practice sits at the centre of change. Mindfulness practice really maximizes our infrastructure because it encourages growth (through practice, of course) in the areas that align with key measures of wellness: curiosity, openness, patience and kindness.

The 8 weeks that I spent practicing curiosity; non-judgmental thinking; discipline and gentleness transformed my day to day (often hour to hour) experience by boosting my thinking capabilities. The regular practice increased my ability to observe with an open mind, judge less (or at least be aware when I am), focus for sustained periods of time and be kind to myself. I can only dream of what I will reap as I continue to sow the seeds of mindful meditation in the days to come.

I am so grateful for Jon Kabat-Zinn and the researchers at University of Massachusetts Medical Centre; Judson Brewer’s lab; Dave Potter and the Palouse Mindfulness community; Kristin Neff’s and Shawna Shapiro’s labs.  I’m inspired by the research and evaluation of mindfulness practicing that these researchers are delivering to us. I think they’re making the world is better for it. They’re motivating people to stop and smell the flowers, one person, one moment at a time.

 

 

 

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