Wednesday, January 26, 2011

(73) Make Service an Integral Part of Your Life

To become a kinder, more loving individual requires action. Yet, ironically, there is nothing specific you have to do, no prescription to follow. Rather, most genuine acts of kindness and generosity seem natural; they stem from a type of thinking where service and giving have been integrated into the person's thought process.

Several teachers and philosophers that I have learned from have suggested that I begin my day by asking myself the question, "How can I be of service?" I have found this to be useful in reminding me of the multitude of ways that I can be helpful to others. When I take the time to ask this question, I find answer popping up all day long.

If one of your goals is to be of help to others, you will find the most appropriate ways. Your chances to be of service are endless. Sometimes the best way I can be of service is to offer my home to a friend (or even a stranger) in need. Other times, it's to give my seat to an elderly person on the train, help a youngster across the monkey bars, speak to a group, write a book, help out in my daughter's school, write a check to a charity, or pick up litter on the road. The key, I believe, is to remember that being of service isn't a one-time effort. It's not doing something nice for someone and then wondering why others aren't being nice too, or doing things for us.

Instead, a life of service is a lifelong process, a way of thinking about life. Does the trash need to be taken out? If so, go ahead and take it out even if it's not your turn. Is someone you know being difficult? Maybe they need a hug or someone to listen to them. Are you aware of a charity that is in trouble? Could you possibly give a little extra this month?

I have learned that the best way to be of service is often very simple - it's those little, quiet, often unnoticed acts of kindness that I can choose on a daily basis - being supportive of a new endeavor by my spouse, or simply taking the time and energy to listen. I know I have a long way to go toward my goal of being a more selfless person. However, I also know that as I have attempted to integrate service into my life, I have felt better and better about the way I choose to live.

There is an ancient saying, "Giving is its own reward." It's really true. When you give, you also receive. In fact, what you receive is directly proportional to what you give. As you give more of yourself in your own unique ways, you will experience more feelings of peace that you ever thought possible. Everyone wins, especially you.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

(72) Take Up Yoga

Like meditation, yoga is an extremely popular and effective method for becoming a more relaxed, easygoing person. For centuries, yoga has been used to clear and free the mind, giving people feelings of ease and equanimity. It's easy to do and takes only a few minutes a day. What's more, people of virtually any age and fitness level can participate. I once took a class at the health club that included both a ten-year-old boy and an eighty-seven-year-old man. Yoga is noncompetitive in nature. You and progress at your own speed and comfort level.

Although yoga is physical in nature, its benefits are both physical and emotional. On the physical side, yoga strengthens the muscles and the spine, creating flexibility and ease of motion. On the emotional side, yoga is a tremendous stress reducer. It balances the body-mind-spirit connection, giving you a feeling of ease and peace.

Yoga is practiced by engaging in a series of stretches, both gentle and challenging. The stretches are designed to open the body and lengthen the spine. The stretches focus on very specific, usually tight and constricted places - the neck, back, hips, legs, and spine. While you are stretching, you are also concentrating, focusing your attention on what you are doing.

The effects of yoga are truly amazing. After only a few minutes, you feel more alive and open, peaceful and relaxed. Your mind is clear. The rest of your day is easier and more focused. I used to believe that I was too busy to practice yoga. I felt I didn't have the time. I'm now certain that the opposite is true - I don't have time not to practice yoga. It's too important not to do. It keeps me feeling young and energized. It's also a wonderful and peaceful way to spend time with family and/or friends. Rather than watching television together, my two daughters and I often flip on a yoga video and spend a few minutes stretching together.

Like meditation, it's easy to find a local class at the community center, the YMCA, or the health club. If you prefer to learn from a book, my favorite is Richard Hittleman's Yoga Twenty-Eight-Day Exercise Plan. There are also many videos you can learn from as well as a magazine dedicated solely to yoga called the Yoga Journal.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


I've been taking way too many emotional knockdowns lately, from multiple people. My energy levels are just being drained much too quickly. My compassion is waning, my patience found wanting.

I will now withdraw from the world again, until I recharge, and come back with renewed strength.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

(71) Quiet the Mind

Pascal said, "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." I'm not sure I would go quite this far, but I am certain that a quiet mind is the foundation of inner peace. And inner peace translates into outer peace.

Although there are many techniques for quieting the mind, such as reflection, deep breathing, contemplation, and visualization, the most universally accepted and most used technique is meditation. In as little as five to ten minutes a day, you can train your mind to be still and quiet. This stillness can be incorporated into your daily life, making you less reactive and irritable, and giving you greater perspective to see things as small stuff rather than emergencies. Meditation teaches you to be calm by giving you the experience of absolute relaxation. It teaches you to be at peace.

There are many different forms and variations of meditation. Essentially, however, meditation involves emptying your mind. Usually, meditation is done alone in a quiet environment. You close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath - in and out, in and out. As thoughts enter your mind, you gently let them go and bring your attention back to your breath. Do this over and over again. Over time, you'll train yourself to keep your attention on your breath as you gently dismiss any stray thoughts.

You'll quickly discover that meditation isn't easy. You will notice that your mind will fill with thoughts the moment you attempt to keep it still. It's rare for a beginner to be able to focus attention for more than a few seconds. The trick to become an effective meditator is to be gentle on yourself and be consistent. Don't be discouraged. A few minutes each day will reap tremendous benefits, over time. Or, if you prefer, you can learn from a book, or better yet, an audiotape. (It's hard to read with your eyes closed). My favorite resource is Larry Le Shan's How to Meditate, available in both book and audio format. I don't know many people I would consider to be at peace with themselves who haven't spent at least a little time experimenting with meditation.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

(70) Remember that You Become What You Practice Most

Repeated practice is one of the most basic principles of most spiritual and meditative paths. In other words, whatever you practice most is what you will become. If you are in the habit of being uptight whenever life isn't quite right, repeatedly reacting to criticism by defending yourself, insisting on being right, allowing your thinking to snowball in response to adversity, or acting like life is an emergency, then, unfortunately, your life will be a reflection of this type of practice. You will be frustrated because, in a sense, you have practiced being frustrated.

Likewise, however, you can choose to bring forth in yourself qualities of compassion, patience, kindness, humility, and peace - again, through what you practice. I guess it's safe to say that practice makes perfect. It makes sense, then, to be careful what you practice.

This isn't to suggest that you make your entire life into a great big project where the goal is to be constantly improving yourself. Only that it's immensely helpful to become conscious of your own habits, both internal and external. Where is your attention? How do you spend your time? Are you cultivating habits that are helpful to your stated goals? Is what you say you want your life to stand for consistent with what your life really stands for? Simply asking yourself these and other important questions, and answering them honestly, helps to determine which strategies will be most useful to you. Have you always said to yourself, "I'd like to spend more time by myself," or "I've always wanted to learn how to meditate," yet somehow you've never found the time? Sadly, many people spend more time washing their car or watching reruns of television shows they don't even enjoy than they do making time for aspects of life that nurture their hearts. If you remember that what you practice you will become, you may begin choosing different types of practice.

Monday, January 17, 2011

(69) Be Happy Where You Are

Sadly, many of us continually postpone our happiness - indefinitely. It's not that we consciously set out to do so, but that we keep convincing ourselves, "Someday I'll be happy." We tell ourselves we'll be happy when our bills are paid, when we get out of school, get our first job, a promotion. We convince ourselves that life will be better after we get married, have a baby, then another. Then we are frustrated that the kids aren't old enough - we'll be more content when they are. After that, we're frustrated that we have teenagers to deal with. We will certainly be happy when they are out of that stage. We tell ourselves that our life will be complete when our spouse gets his or her act together, when we get a nicer car, are able to go on a nice vacation, when we retire. And on and on and on!

Meanwhile, life keeps moving forward. The truth is, there's not a better time to be happy than right now. If not now, then when? Your life will always be filled with challenges. It's best to admit this to yourself, and decide to be happy anyway. One of my favorite quotes come from Alfred D'Souza. He said, "For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin - real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life." This perspective has helped me to see that there's no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

(68) Be Willing to Learn from Friends and Family

One of the saddest observations I've made centers around how reluctant many of us are to learn from the people closest to us - our parents, spouses, children, and friends. Rather than being open to learning, we close ourselves off out of embarrassment, fear, stubbornness, or pride. It's almost as if we say to ourselves, "I have already learned all that I can [or want to learn] from this person; there is nothing else I can [or need to] learn."

It's sad, because often the people closest to us know us the best. They are sometimes able to see ways in which we are acting in a self-defeating manner and can offer very simple solutions. If we are too proud or stubborn to learn, we lose out on some wonderful, simple ways to improve our lives.

I have tried to remain open to the suggestions of my friends and family. In fact, I have gone so far as to ask certain members of my family and a few of my friends, "What are some of my blind-spots?" Not only does this make the person you are asking feel wanted and special, but you end up getting some terrific advice. It's such a simple shortcut for growth, yet almost no one uses it.

All it takes is a little courage, and humility, and the ability to let go of your ego. This is especially true if you are in the habit of ignoring suggestions, taking them as criticism, or tuning out certain members of your family. Imagine how shocked they will be when you ask them, sincerely, for their advice.

Pick something that you feel the person you are asking is qualified to answer. For example, I often ask my father for advice on business. Even if he happens to give me a bit of a lecture, it's well worth it. The advice he gives usually prevents me from having to learn something the hard way.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

(67) Practice Ignoring Your Negative Thoughts

It has been estimated that the average human being has around 50,000 thoughts per day. That's a lot of thoughts. Some of these thoughts are going to be positive and productive. Unfortunately, however, many of them are also going to be negative - angry, fearful, pessimistic, worrisome. In deed, the important question in terms of becoming more peaceful isn't whether or not you're going to have negative thoughts - you are - it's what you choose to do with the ones you have.

In a practical sense, you really have only two options when it comes to dealing with negative thoughts. You can analyze your thoughts - ponder, think through, study, think some more - or you can learn to ignore them - dismiss, pay less attention to, not take so seriously. This later option, learning to take your negative thoughts less seriously, is infinitely more effective in terms of learning to be more peaceful.

When you have a thought - any thought - that's all it is, a thought! It can't hurt you without your consent. For example, if you have a thought from your past, "I'm upset because my parents didn't do a very good job," you can get into it, as many do, which will create inner turmoil for you. You can give the thought significance in your mind, and you'll convince yourself that you should indeed be unhappy. Or, you can recognize that your mind is about to create a mental snowball, and you can choose to dismiss the thought. This doesn't mean your childhood wasn't difficult - it may very well have been - but in this present moment, you have a choice of which thoughts to pay attention to.

The same mental dynamic applies to thoughts of this morning, even five minutes ago. An argument that happened while you were walking out the door on your way to work is no longer an actual argument, it's a thought in your mind. This dynamic also applies to future oriented thoughts of this evening, next year, or ten years down the road. You'll find, in all cases, that if you ignore or dismiss a negative thought that fills your mind, a more peaceful feeling is only a moment away. And, in a more peaceful state of mind, your wisdom and common sense will tell you what to do. This strategy takes practice, but is well worth the effort.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

(66) Think of What You Have Instead of What You Want

In over a dozen years as a stress consultant, one of the most pervasive and destructive mental tendencies I've seen is that of focusing on what we want instead of what we have. It doesn't seem to make any difference how much we have; we just keep expanding our list of desires, which guarantees we will remain dissatisfied. The mind-set that says, "I'll be happy when this desire is fulfilled" is the same mind-set that will repeat itself once that desire is met.

A friend of ours closed escrow on his new home on Sunday. The very next we saw him he was talking about his next house that was going to be even bigger! He isn't alone. Most of us do the very same thing. We want this or that. If we don't get what we want we keep thinking about all that we don't have - and we remain dissatisfied. If we do get what we want, we simply re-create the same thinking in our new circumstances. So, despite getting what we want, we still remain unhappy. Happiness can't be found when we are yearning for new desires.

Luckily, there is a way to be happy. It involves changing the emphasis of our thinking from what we want to what we have. Rather than wishing your spouse were different, try thinking about her wonderful qualities. Instead of complaining about your salary, be grateful that you have a job. Rather than wishing you were able to take a vacation to Hawaii, think of how much fun you have had close to home.

The list of possibilities is endless! Each time you notice yourself falling into the "I wish life were different" trap, back off and start over. Take a breath and remember all that you have to be grateful for. When you focus not on what you want, but on what you have, you end up getting more of what you want anyway. If you focus on the good qualities of your spouse, she'll be more loving. If you are grateful for your job rather than complaining about it, you'll do a better job, be more productive, and probably end up getting a raise anyway. If you focus on ways to enjoy yourself around home rather than waiting to enjoy yourself in Hawaii, you'll end up having more fun. If you ever do get to Hawaii, you'll be in the habit of enjoying yourself. And, if by some chance you don't, you'll have a great life anyway.

Make a note to yourself to start thinking more about what you have than what you want. If you do, your life will start appearing much better than before. For perhaps the first time in your life, you'll know what it means to feel satisfied.