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I’ve read many articles and books that suggest we all put aside time to be grateful. It’s an excellent practice, I try to do it in bed before I fall asleep. I also try to make it more than the obvious thanks for health, family, etc… I try to find the subtle things I’m grateful for.

However, Leah Dieterich has got me beat. She is the Queen of gratitude! She writes a thank you every day – on pretty card stock, no less – and scans it into her blog. Check it out at http://thxthxthx.com

I think her handwriting is pretty, too.

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I have a ticket to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama speak tomorrow in NYC at the Cathedral of St. John. A few friends and I jumped at the chance to see him speak, and we’ll hopefully have enough time to eat dinner at Blossoms, a vegan restaurant.

I’ve been waiting patiently for several years to hear the Dalai Lama speak. I was disappointed to have missed him the last time he spoke in this area at Rutgers Stadium. A friend of mine went to see him there, and the experience she describes sounds incredible. Rutgers Stadium holds just over 50,000 people, and you can imagine that even with this peaceful crowd, the buzz of voices was quite loud. Kate described how as soon as he set foot on stage, the entire stadium went silent. Not quiet… silent. And the focused energy of all those people combined with his energy was enough to give you goosebumps and a chill up your spine.

From the bits of speeches I’ve heard and things I’ve read, I understand that Tenzin Gyatso is a funny man with a keen sense of humor. With his smiling eyes and peaceful manner, he reminds me of Pope John Paul II, another person I would have liked to hear speak. In fact, many of our great holy masters have been leaving us and moving on to the next part of their journeys. Because of this, I’ve been trying to hear as many of them speak as I can. I’m sorry I didn’t know about Sri Swami Satchidananda soon enough to hear him speak before he passed on in 2002. You might know him as the Swami who spoke at Woodstock, but I know him as the founder of Integral Yoga and from his translation and commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a book that has – and is continuing to – change my life. I’ve been fortunate to hear Sri Dharma Mittra speak twice, so I’ve been blessed there. I attempted to hear Reverend Jaganath Carrera, a disciple of Satchidananda, speak, but he has been suffering from an illness and unfortunately wasn’t able to attend in person. We listened to a recorded talk instead, which was very interesting and I hope to someday see him in person. I have also been blessed to hear a wonderful talk by Lama Dvora, a brilliant woman and buddhist teacher, and would like to hear her speak again someday.

To me, these people are the real deal. I can only hope that their disciples are able to fully live the teachings and pass on the message to their students in a clear and truthful way. I haven’t heard any of the newer yoga masters speak yet, and I will admit to a probably ignorant bias. The great men and women I wrote about above don’t have huge marketing machines pushing yoga mats, meditation cushions, clothes and videos. Most of them have small yoga studios, not franchises, and many speak for nothing more than a small donation (as little as $5 or $10!). They’re there to spread the dharma, not become rich. It’s my own issue and I hope to be proven wrong, but wealth and selfless service just don’t add up in my book.

So, as I’m trying to live in the present moment and not think too much about the future, I’ve gotta admit that I’m looking forward to my day tomorrow and hope that it meets or exceeds expectation. But then… whatever is meant to happen will happen and I’ll take it as it comes.

I was recently invited to give a dharma talk after a yoga class. It went pretty well, with the audience of 5 nodding along and laughing, which was encouraging. I’m grateful for the invite, it was a kick in the tushie that I needed. I had a general outline to follow, and then I tried to relax enough to go off on riffs to fill it out. We had a nice talk afterwards.  Here’s what I spoke about; leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Why do we choose what we choose?
Life is endless choices, beginning before you were even born. Your mom was thinking “Pink or blue? Or yellow?” long before you were born. As a child, your parents made choices for you… carrots or Fritos with your lunch? Public or private school?
As adults, we make thousands of decisions every day… what to wear, which parking spot, whether that snarky chick at work purposely left you out at lunch. In fact, our brain cannot process all the choices it’s faced with every day, so many of our choices are made based on habit, or completely on auto-pilot. Habits are choices our brain makes for us based on repetitive experiences.
We often find ourselves making poor choices, and they’re frequently the same poor decision over and over again. Some of the most common themes are: Diet (why can’t I keep the weight off?), Relationships (Why can’t I find a nice guy/girl?), and Money (Why am I always broke?).
These repeating themes are called samskaras in yoga, and there is a biological explanation, too. If you think about the structure of our brains, we have all these neurons – brain cells – with little lightning-bolt thoughts zapping between them. The more often we have a thought, the stronger the connection between the neurons. Just like with a habit, our brain chooses the path that it knows well.

Why? Because of all the crap in our heads.
Our heads are filled with facts, assumptions, truths, misunderstandings, stereotypes, and lots of mystery stuff! It’s put there by people we trust and admire, and people we don’t trust and admire. No matter what we think of the source, the stuff still gets in our heads. Worse, we rarely fact-check what people tell us, especially when it’s someone we trust and admire. We just BELIEVE. All our thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviors filter through all this stuff in our heads.

How does all that crap get in our heads?
There are four ways information enters our brains:

  1. Direct Perception through our senses. This is the most trusted information, because you have experienced it firsthand through your eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin.
  2. Authoritative Testimony from a reliable authority. This would be someone/something whose information has been proven reliable over time and through many people’s experience. While being an authority has to be earned, one still has to be careful believing without vetting the information in some way. For example, the information should be checked against your own direct perception or multiple authorities. And remember that sometimes with time, information changes so the authority’s opinion is no longer correct. For example, there was a time when spanking a child with a willow switch was absolutely acceptable and, in fact, encouraged. Obviously, times and culture have changed.
  3. Inference based on previously gained knowledge. This is your basic, “I saw that cow give milk, so all cows give milk” theory. This can still be incorrect, and is where stereotypes come from. “I had a bad experience with this person, so all people like him that act that way.” One has to be careful with inference.
  4. Misconception: knowledge not based on true form. In this case, we’re definitely not fact-checking before coming to a conclusion. There is an ancient story of a man who enters his dimly-lit courtyard only to see a huge snake coiled in the corner. His body and mind react with panic – speeding thoughts, increased heart rate and breathing, panic. He rushes to find a light and a weapon. Returning to his now lit courtyard, he finds no snake – only a large coiled rope. Note how the man has a complete physiological reaction to the rope due to his misconception. We do this in our own paranoid, self-conscious  lives all the time.

So now that all that crap is in there, what happens to it?
All this stuff creates filters or veils that we see our reality through. Think of them as “me-colored glasses”. Nobody has had exactly the same experiences, or reactions to those experiences, as you. So you view your world through your own brand of shades, and your reality is totally based on your perception. Perception is reality!
This creates the swirling mass of illusion that we live in. Here’s a great example of an illusion (disclosure: I didn’t come up with this, but when it was told to me it was a huge lightbulb moment): There are a couple of yellow lines painted on the street out there. These lines keep our cars on the right side of the road. What, really? A stripe of paint is going to keep my car in the correct lane? Well, yes, because our society as a group has decide to value this illusion for the sake of public safety. The yellow line doesn’t actually keep your car from doing anything, you can easily drive over it. Its power is in the illusion. Marriage is an illusion, politics is an illusion, the end of the world is an illusion (see this and this).
To make it more complicated, there are emotions tied to all the stuff, the filters, and the sources of information. Emotions are the enemy of clarity! You just can’t make clear decisions when your emotions are screaming and raging; fueled by adrenaline, fear and pain (real or perceived). How can we listen to our gut with all that ruckus going on in our heads? Remember: your Self (gut/soul/chi/energy) whispers but your Ego, Intellect, and Personality shout.

So how do we make better choices?
First, we have to realize that we’re pretty ignorant of our own triggers and why we have them. The hardest part is looking inside to discover what things set us off. What enters our perceptions, is viewed through our filters, sets off a wave of emotions and causes us to make a poor decision? What are your triggers? Sometimes it helps to have a trusted friend give you an honest assessment of your flaws. Ripping the band-aid off hurts, but it’s the only way to know what to look out for. Digging deep enough to determine why you have that trigger (discovering the root cause) gives you power over them.
Once you know what your triggers are, the solution is to catch yourself before the trigger goes off. So it usually works like this: In the beginning, you’ve made the bad decision but at least you realize it was bad. After some more practice, you can catch yourself in the moment of making the bad decision and hopefully have time to stop. After even more practice, you see the trigger coming and catch yourself before you make the bad decision, so you’re fully able to make a better one. Sometimes this practicing takes a long time, but occasionally it comes to you in a flash of insight.

Methods to try
We have lots and lots of crap in our heads, and lots of  triggers. It is often pretty easy for our buttons to be pushed. I wouldn’t recommend trying to tackle all those triggers at once; in fact, it is impossible. Its better to start with one or two really obvious ones, working down to the more subtle ones as you find yourself making better choices. Don’t feel bad falling off the wagon, just get back on. Here are some things to try, you might find one or more of them useful as you move down your path.

  • Concentration/meditation. Don’t get hung up on “meditating”. I wrote about that in this post. Sit quietly and think about a time you made a poor choice. Play it in your mind like a movie in reverse… what exactly happened? How did I feel during that? What happened just before that and what was I thinking/feeling then?
  • Journaling. Similar to meditating, write down what you were thinking and feeling the last time you made a poor choice. Don’t worry about being perfect, nobody has to see what you write. Just write whatever comes into your head, even if it’s stupid and has nothing to do with making a choice. Eventually the dam will break and the thoughts will begin to flow.
  • Work with a trusted friend. Someone who will tell it to you straight and not judge you. A life coach, therapist, or trusted clergy are other options.
  • Read scripture from whichever theology speaks to you. But be cautious – for all the truth that can be found in scripture, there is an equal amount of illusion.

I’m working on a long post about how we make decisions.
I read this in Seth Godin’s blog today, and I think it’s an excellent precursor to what I’m writing. Seth is mostly talking about marketers, but really we are open to being manipulated by anyone. As you read the bullet list, think to yourself, “Is that me?”

Who is easily manipulated?

Sometimes (and too often) marketers work to manipulate people. I define manipulation as working to spread an idea or generate an action that is not in a person’s long-term best interest.

The easiest people to manipulate are those that don’t demand a lot of information, are open to messages from authority figures and are willing to make decisions on a hunch, particularly if there’s a promise of short-term gains.

If you want to focus on the short run and sell something, get a vote or gather a mob, the easiest place to start is with populations that leave themselves open to manipulation.

There are habits and activities that leave people open to manipulation. I’m not saying they are wrong or right, just pointing out that these behaviors make you open to being manipulated… Here are a few general categories of behaviors that manipulators seek out:

  • Believing something because you heard someone say it on a news show on cable TV.
  • Being a child (or acting like one).
  • Buying penny stocks.
  • Repeating a mantra heard from a figurehead or leader of a tribe without considering whether it’s true.
  • Trying to find a short cut to lose weight, make money or achieve some other long-term goal.
  • Ignoring the scientific method and embracing unexamined traditional methods instead.
  • Focusing on (and believing) easily gamed bestseller lists or crowds.
  • Inability to tolerate fear and uncertainty.
  • Focus on now at the expense of the long term.
  • Allowing the clothes of the messenger (a uniform, a suit and tie, a hat) to influence your perception of the information he delivers (add gender, fame, age and race to this too).
  • Reliance on repetition and frequency to decide what’s true.
  • Desire to stick with previously made decisions because cognitive dissonance is strong.
  • Inability to ignore sunk costs.
  • Problem saying ‘no’ in social situations.

Interesting to note that AM radio used to be filled with ads for second mortgages. And now? Gold.

Manipulating people using modern techniques is astonishingly easy (if the marketer has few morals). You only make it easier when you permit people and organizations that want to take advantage of you to do so by allowing them to use your good nature and your natural instincts against you. It happens every day in Washington DC, online, on TV and in your local community institutions.

I started dealing with the crap in my head 10 years ago, by getting my blood tested and trying out a yoga class to see if I’d like it. I didn’t even know I had crap in my head.

I’ll be 40 this year, and I’m a totally different person. Both for  the normal growing-up things that everyone experiences, and for the ten years of walking the path of introspection that yoga started me on.

It will be interesting to see what’s going on in my life in 10 years. They say 50 is the new 25.

From Tom Peter’s website today:

The Awesome Act of Attention

“To be in the present with someone is a gift. The gift of attention is perhaps the most precious and envied of all….

“Think of someone who, while you are talking to him, is looking elsewhere, mentioning a subject that is irrelevant to what you are saying. Inattention has a disruptive, depressing aspect, which saps our vitality and robs us of our self-confidence.”
From: The Power of Kindness, by Piero Ferrucci.

Message: Pay attention to the way you pay attention today/this week.
Consider: “Paying attention” is “the most precious gift.”
Follow-up: Talk explicitly about the act of and power of paying attention. It is not only a “gift,” but it is a “tool” that pays enormous practical dividends.

Mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness! If you can remember only one thing, if you can focus on only one self-help nugget at a time: be mindful of every minute of every day. It’s hard, especially at the beginning, but the results are extraordinary. Time itself slows down, which is a wonderful feeling.

Here’s an awesome post by Anastasiya from Balance in Me. She was a guest author at Zen Habits.

5 Essential Zen Habits for Balanced Living

“Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.” – Robert Fulghum

Do you sometimes wonder whether your life is in balance? It is easy to know if you lead a balanced life because if you do then:

– you enjoy every moment and every second,
– you can cope with any difficulties,
– you can be happy without any reason to be happy,
– you can be yourself and love the person you are.

Today the world constantly tries to throw you out of balance and sometimes no matter what you do you still feel like your life is going in the wrong direction (I know I feel this way sometimes.) Balanced living might seem like one of those theoretical terms that nobody can put into practice but in fact there is nothing simpler than living a balanced life.

It might take some work at first but once you get in the flow and discover the simple ways to steer your life in your desired direction you will feel empowered. You will be inspired and energized by every day of your life. Your life will be full of amazing adventures and events that will make every day memorable. You won’t be wasting your life anymore or spending gloomy hours contemplating about the misfortunes that might have happened on your way.

Does balanced living mean that your life will be full of only positive people and events that will bring you happiness every moment of your life? Not at all.

Balanced living is when you can always offset any negative events in your life with positive ones. It is also when you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Balanced living is when you are happy working and playing equally. If you picture happiness and everything great in your life as a diamond, then any negative things that may happen are just the setting that makes this diamond shine only brighter.

If you want to live a balanced life then there are 5 essential habits that you need to develop.

  1. Awareness and mindfulness. Awareness is the key to balanced living because it lets you see every moment of your life and appreciate it. A mindful person lives in the present and does not get obsessed with the future or the past. It’s important to plan for the future and learn from your mistakes in the past, but it is even more important to appreciate who you are right now and find joy in this state.
    When you are aware of this moment you are calm and you do not make any decisions that you might regret later.
    When you are mindful you are in balance with the universe.
  2. Appreciation of your body. By “appreciation” I mean taking care of your body. If you are grateful for the very first gift that you received in your life (your body) then you must take care of it. It means making healthy choices in life, exercising and being generally active, eating a balanced and healthy diet, letting your body rest when it’s tired and pampering it every once in a while.
    Your body is the tool that lets you experience so many wonderful moments in life and you need to do your best when taking care of it.
    Clearly, balanced living is not possible without a balanced body.
  3. Creativity. Every day we face a lot of challenges and choices in life. Some of these challenges might be easy while others will be more difficult. If you approach each of your challenges with creativity then your life will be filled with adventures. Conversely, if you turn off your creativity, then your life will turn into torture.
    Creativity is a wonderful tool that lets us turn our dreams into reality, turn play into work and work into play, and enjoy life even when it seems empty.
    Creative people are the ones who can make the exquisite setting for the diamond of their life.
  4. Patience. With patience we can overcome almost anything whilst without it we can ruin almost anything.
    Patience can help us turn our dreams into reality (losing weight, starting a business or blog). It can help us be better parents, spouses, friends and even strangers (sometimes a smile from an understanding stranger can make the biggest difference when you are having a bad day). If you are patient you do not have to worry about the minutes spent in traffic or in the line at the grocery store. With patience you can see results in all your endeavors and you do not have to spend the precious time of your life getting mad or infuriated.
    Patience leads to mindfulness and mindfulness brings you in balance.
  5. Simplicity. Simplicity is probably the most important part of life balance. When you build your life around simplicity you reduce the number of out-of-balance things that can disrupt your happy living.
    In balance everything is simple. There are two opposites (like black and white) and you just have to pick something in the middle:

    • Simplify you work schedule so that you do not have to think about a hundred things at the same time.
    • Simplify your relationships by connecting with people you truly care about and getting rid of the ones you don’t.
    • Simplify your diet by choosing simple healthy ingredients that are part of balanced nutrition.
    • Simplify your social media exposure and enjoy living life and getting things done rather than wasting time online.

    Simplicity makes life balance simple.

These habits have been my lifeline for many years and I cannot imagine a balanced (and happy) life without them.

Living in balance is easy and very rewarding because your life becomes the one of joy, happiness and serenity. If you put some time and effort into turning your life into a balanced direction then you too will live a truly Zen life.

Fear. Fear is our greatest motivator, we do a lot of things because of fear. And everyone’s a little different in the fear department: what is no big deal for me, can be utterly terrifying to someone else. I’m not interested in having a spider for a pet, but I can’t say I fear them. Yet a friend of mine totally despises spiders and calls for her husband (aka “Arachnid Man” da-da-da-dum!) any time one of them dare take up residence in her home. There are some big fears, too, ones that are pretty common to all of us. In fact, the insurance industry counts on it. Fear of death or dying, fear of being unable to support our families, fear of illness. In fact, all our fears really boil down to one thing: loss. Fear of losing something, whatever that something might be.

But, I digress. I’m here today to tell you about a fear that I have that is, so far, totally irrational. What I mean is: I have no idea why I have this fear, it stops me from doing things I want to do, I can’t seem to overcome it, people don’t understand it, and it embarrasses me. My fear is the fear of being lost.

Of course, my fear of being lost directly ties to loss of security, which is a fear many people have. But my fear presents itself in a way that I can’t seem to tie back to a root cause. Let’s start with this: I like to travel. I despise traveling alone – by car, train, bus, plane, it doesn’t matter although the fear grows in proportion to my giving up control, and distance from home. Getting lost in a strange city after a flight is much more terrifying than driving in my home state. But this rears up even when I’m walking with a friend in their neighborhood… OMG, what if this person should need medical attention! I don’t even know where I am! Crazy, right?

The only cause I’ve been able to tie this fear to is the fact that when I was about 6 or 7, I was on a trip with my summer camp to a mall (to see a movie). I remember getting distracted by a display, looking up and not seeing any other campers in matching blue t-shirts. But that’s the end of the memory… I have no idea how they found me/I found them, or how long I was lost. My mom has no recollection of this event, so it must not have been very earth-shattering to the adults around me. Or perhaps this time at the mall is totally in my mind, imagined. Using the theory of reincarnation, in one of my past lives I might have gotten tragically lost and the energy is so strong, it followed me into this birth. I just don’t know.

Guided by one of my favorite quotes (“Knowledge is the antidote to fear.” ~Emerson), I’ve come up with a few coping mechanisms:

  • Paying attention while others are in control of the navigation (but I find this difficult, as I tend to relax when I’m with someone else)
  • Taking the route in advance (this usually only works with driving)
  • GPS (sometimes this makes things worse)
  • Mapquest, Yahoo Maps, directions from humans (often all three)
  • Playing stupid and asking someone else to let me follow them or, (feeling like a dog) if they’d drive/come with me.

My famously lousy sense of direction doesn’t help. I have been known to have perfectly good directions, driving along in minimal traffic on a highway with clear, legible signage, and I still get on the Northbound side when I know darn well I need the Southbound lanes.

While I sometimes wuss out, I’ve tried to conquer this fear. I’ve driven all over the state, and occasionally into adjoining states. When I lived in Philadelphia I used the mass transit system. I’ve also flown by myself twice even though both times I had friends meet me at my destination airport, as the thought of renting a car in a strange city makes my knees weak. In fact, this fear presents itself with a wide array of symptoms and not always in direct proportion to the scariness of the situation. It can range from mild concern, through butterflies in my tummy and cold sweats, all the way to full-blown nausea. I’ve mostly avoided it, but I know this fear has the potential to hold me back at work, and it affects my social life too. And, for me, it just seems so dumb! I mean, what is the worst that can happen? (Ok, that is a rhetorical question, no comments on that please!)

Do you have any irrational fears? Something that seems to be unique to you, or perhaps to your situation (like a fear of the ocean when you’ve always lived in the middle of New Mexico).  What have you tried, if anything, to overcome it? Leave a comment.

A couple of months ago I wrote a short piece about how “the end of the world” is anytime a circumstance arises that changes your life in a fundamental way, and how people’s worlds end every day in all kinds of ways. Well, today’s Non Sequitur strip hits the concept with laser precision:

Just in case you can’t read it, it shows a bewildered, bearded man holding a sign that reads, “The World Will End Today!”, and St. Peter replying, “Well, lets just say that, on a very local level, you were right.”

Credits to Non Sequitur artist Wiley Miller. This is one of my favorite strips!

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