Living Well

People often say to me, “You seem so calm, all the time. You really must have no stress in your life.” I must admit, I’m terribly flattered…and also surprised.

It’s a lovely compliment which no doubt speaks to how much I’ve learned over the years about stress management and time management.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I have not been, historically, a calm person. But I think it was the fact that I so often found myself riddled with worries and anxiety that led me to the practices that have helped me become the person I am today.

If you add to that the fact that I surround myself with positive and supportive people, I think it goes a long way toward explaining what other people perceive as a calm, stress-free life.

The changes in my life didn’t happen overnight. But as I began to make better decisions for myself, I began to experience much more peace and satisfaction in my life. And these became the foundation, the basis of a question I would ask myself, kind of a barometer for making choices: What brings me more peace and a greater sense of satisfaction in my overall life and circumstances?

It’s worth mentioning here that one definition of stress is not experiencing challenging situations in one’s life, but rather it is wanting things to be different than they are. That is what often leads to frustration and emotional turmoil.

Even if we define stress as a challenging situation or life event, the ways that we perceive that event and then respond to it are largely learned. And they can be re-learned.

It goes back to what we hold on to, and what we choose to let go of. Every day, we have the opportunity to make choices that will bring greater peace into our lives, or leave us greater ensnared in chaos and emotional drama.

How we structure our value system, and how we live those values, will largely determine not only our overall direction in life, but also whether we truly are able to live well.

On Letting Go, Part II

(See part one of this entry.)

Let’s face it: Change can be hard. But sometimes, we make it harder than it needs to be by holding on. Whether we’re holding on to a person, a job, a house, or other situation in our lives, by investing in maintaining what is, we are refusing to allow what will be to take shape. For example, by holding on to a relationship that doesn’t work, we deny ourselves the opportunity to meet the right partner.

Often the motivation to maintain the status quo in a circumstance in our lives stems from the fear that, if we let what we have go, we will have nothing. We will lose.

But in order to grow, we must first create a space, an opening, for something more, something or someone who will be a better fit. And in that space is an opportunity for healing, for clarity, and for intentionality in manifesting the next experience.

Recommended reading: Letting Go of Attachment, From A to Zen

How we see things…Part II

“We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” – Anais Nin

Many of us are attached to the idea that the reality we see is objective. But objectivity is difficult to come by. Our prior experiences, preconceptions, projections, and (often faulty) beliefs alter what we see.

Think of a funhouse mirror. Get the picture?

Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem unless we fail to realize it. In other words, if we become so invested in what we see in the mirror that we believe it’s real.

One of my favorite teachers, Swami Bodhananda, says that if we look in the mirror and see a fractured image we are only “lost” if we believe that we are actually fractured or distorted. It’s only the image that’s distorted. And the image isn’t who we are.

To take this a step further, consider, Who (or what) are we? Are we merely a collection of our thoughts and experiences? Are we our emotions? Our words and deeds? If identity is a construct, from what elements do we build it? And if we dismantle it, what do we have left?

Travel by Rail

Recently I took a trip by train to visit family. A long train trip. Several of my friends thought it sounded romantic, exciting, and fun. It wasn’t.

Thanks mostly to movies, train travel has been glorified beyond the reality of the experience. Perhaps a slightly more realistic image comes to mind when I recall the Sex and the City episode in which Carrie and Samantha take a cross country trip by train. The “deluxe sleeper car” turns out to be, well, less luxurious than expected.

One of my favorite written descriptions of train travel can be found in Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, in which he details his travels around Britain, often by rail. Of course, European trains and American trains are not at all alike, but perhaps people everywhere are the same.

Bryson, much to his chagrin, discovers that he is sitting behind “Cellphone Man.” I’m here to report that Cellphone Man is still alive and well. And multiplying. Bryson’s book was first published in 1995, but a surprising number of people still seem to feel the need to call all manner of friends, relatives, and work associates to report – “I’m on the train.” I’m pretty sure this is why text messaging was invented.

For a quirky movie about three brothers’ train shenanigans, check out The Darjeeling Limited, in which three brothers travel by train across India.

If you’re planning a trip, remember that real life isn’t quite like the movies. You may wish to consider another mode of transport.

If at first you don’t succeed…

With all the hot weather we’ve had recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time at Lake Michigan. It’s an excellent place to watch people doing, well, the things people do. On a recent visit, I watched a guy getting into a kayak.

Now, if you’ve ever kayaked, you know that it’s much easier to get into the kayak from relatively shallow water. (I used to do quite a bit of kayaking, and I did share this suggestion with him, by the way.) But rather than do that, he walked out into the lake with the kayak until the water was about 4-5 feet deep, and then proceeded to spend about 15-20 minutes attempting to get into it.

As I watched, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a turtle I saw a few weeks ago by the St. Joseph River, trying valiantly to climb onto a log to sun itself.

After more than a few unsuccessful attempts, the man, like the turtle, eventually succeeded in climbing into the kayak.

I suppose persistence pays off.

But so does learning from the experience of others, which can save you a whole lot of time and effort. (And sometimes, maybe even a little dignity.)

Even still, there are some times when we have to learn through our own experiences. It can be a slower, and perhaps at times more painful process. But the lessons we learn that way are not easily forgotten.

Photo by Virginia Olson © 2012

Birds of a feather…

Earlier this week I was in the kitchen when I heard a flock of birds making loud screeching noises outside the window. When I looked out into the back yard, I saw a hawk on the ground. When I looked closer, it appeared the bird was sitting on something.

That something turned out to be a full size bluejay.

After a few seconds the hawk abandoned the frightened bluejay, and flew to a nearby tree. The apparently unharmed bird flew away, but his posse was not happy. At least a dozen other bluejays continued to surround the hawk, screeching their disapproval and virtually swarming around him.

They finally drove him out of the tree, and as I watched him flying away into the distance, I saw that one or two were still in hot pursuit.

I had no idea that bluejays would defend their own against a predator. It was a surprising and inspiring example of strength in numbers.

I think sometimes it’s easy to get caught in the illusion of powerlessness. In that respect, I think we can take a lesson from the bluejays. Individually we may be small, easy prey. But united as a group, with others who are like-minded, we are mighty.

Blueberry View

I just came back from Blueberry View Artists’ Retreat. The Retreat, located about 10 miles north of Saint Joseph, Michigan, was started in 2010 by Janet Sullivan and her partner Mark Toncray, both sculptors from the Chicago area. Its purpose is to give artists a space to create away from the distractions of everyday life.

In addition to a cozy apartment and studio space, the Retreat features lovingly tended gardens and the blueberry fields for which it is named. And of course, the inspirational beauty of nearby Lake Michigan. I stayed at the Retreat for just under two weeks, using the time to work on a book I hope to publish later this year. Not only was I amazed by the amount of work I finished during just that brief time period, but I also benefited in other ways.

Taking a break from life’s distractions – phone, internet, television, social engagements and the like – is an opportunity to focus on the things that really matter. A successful retreat, then, is not just a vacation or time away from home, but a time to reflect on values and priorities.

I think that one of the keys to living well is to know what you value, and to spend your time accordingly. In that case, it pays to ask a couple of important questions:

  • Do you know what really matters to you?
  • How much of your time do you spend on the things that really matter?

Photos by Virginia Olson © 2012




Everyday Heroes

I went to the beach earlier this week to watch the sunset over Lake Michigan. While I was there I heard a guy who was out in the water start to argue with his girlfriend. As the discussion escalated, he began cursing at her and criticizing her weight – I never heard her say a word from where I was sitting.

It was disturbing and painful to listen to. In fact, I was getting ready to leave when an older man sitting in a lawn chair called out to the young man and told him to watch his mouth.

He then actually got out of his chair and walked partway out into the water toward the younger man. He again asked him to watch his language, or leave, because there were children present. He gestured toward at least a dozen little kids playing on the beach within earshot.

I didn’t hear another word out of the younger guy the entire time I was there.

I think everyone – it was mostly women and children on the beach – breathed a sigh of relief.

And that guy in the lawn chair? He’s an everyday hero.

“Are you sad we missed it?”

I find wisdom and inspiration in unusual places. Take for example the movie Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. At the end of the movie, after the two teenagers have spent an evening trying to get to a concert by one of their favorite bands, she asks him, “Are you sad we missed it?”

His response: “We didn’t miss it. This is it.”

Sometimes we are all guilty of paying attention to the wrong things. Of making a goal so important that we neglect to see the beauty in, or experience the enjoyment of, the journey.

I wonder how many of us, at the end of our lives, will look back on our achievements or our victories with the most fondness.

When I think back, for example, on graduating from college, it’s not receiving the diploma that I remember so much, it’s the teachers and classes, and the moments of growth and discovery. I suppose the diploma represents that. In other words, it functions as a symbol, but the substance of the experience isn’t contained there.

It’s worth stopping to consider where the real moments of our lives are, so that we don’t miss them. So that we can be present enough to realize that this is it.

From a spiritual perspective each and every moment is it. Each moment is unique and can’t be repeated. In that sense, any moment we spend reliving the past or projecting into the future is a loss of what is, right here, right now.

Don’t miss it.

The Summer Solstice Experience, Part II

I just came back from Summer Solstice. (See part one of this entry.) Many people have asked how my trip was. It’s an experience that’s difficult to put into words. Probably because it’s the type of experience where the benefits are not quantifiable. And even the qualitative ones can be slow to show themselves.

It’s a difficult thing to explain, especially because we are so conditioned in our culture to want to see results now. Did you have fun? What did you do? What did you learn? None of these is easily answered.

One thing I will say is that Summer Solstice has given me a different perspective on my life. It’s taken me out of my old patterns and habits, and disrupted some of my old stories.

It’s helped me to be more mindful of the food I eat, of the thoughts I indulge in, and the company I keep. I would go so far as to say it served as an important reminder to me of my goals and priorities.

In a world where it’s so easy to lose sight of what’s really important, it’s well worth traveling to the ends of the earth for anything that helps us stay connected to the deepest part of ourselves. While those reminders can sometimes be found right where we live, it’s also valuable to get away from time to time.

Because getting away means coming back, and looking at whatever we’ve become used to seeing every day with new eyes, and new appreciation.

Photo by Virginia Olson © 2012