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What is beyond the known?

I’ve been afraid to even speak of the changes that seem to be coming, lest I impart some weird cosmic vibration and mess it up.

However, I’ve told some and things still seem to be on track for the most part. Much insecurity, but even my horoscope – which I mostly read for fun, and usually after the day is done just to see if it was close to being accurate – has been telling me good changes are coming for at least a month now.

I’ve been wanting to do something different with my career life for a long time. I tried my own enterprise, but I didn’t have the energy to invest. Even so, it taught me much about myself. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to “run the show”, as the case may be. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would and my choice of a positive attitude in the face of difficulty has been noticed. Long ago I decided to rethink my purpose at work, trying to make it more of a practice of selfless service than a career or job. The opportunity to serve people is there on many levels… serve a coworker in the normal course of business, serve a coworker who is in a jam, serve a friend who needs a favor, ultimately serve the customer way down the line – the one who has no idea I exist or stops to wonder how the drug they’re taking in an effort to save their life makes it into their veins, as it should be (they have bigger fish to ponder). Changing my perspective this way has made it much easier to get out of bed at 5 am every day.

I have chosen to live my life by this quote:

Peace: it does not mean to be away from noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of these things and still be calm in your heart.

So simple. So difficult.

Anyway, the opportunity has arisen to do something else for a living. A short hop away from my present role, but a huge leap in knowledge base and responsibilities, a change in the people I would serve. I’ve been told by everyone I’ve whispered it to that I’d be very good in this job. I believe that, too. It still scares the crap out of me.

Another favorite quote, this has been taped to my desk for years:

Knowledge is the antidote to fear. ~Emerson

With that quote in mind, I’ve set up a plan. People to mentor me, people to shadow. Classes to take, learn how to listen and pay attention. I can’t control headcount, and Corporate America is notorious for dangling a carrot one minute and hitting you with a stick the next. Expectations are there to be demolished and disappointed, so I shall forge ahead with my plan yet still take the tack of letting the path lead me.

Perhaps, if it’s in the cards, and I’ve made the right choices, and karma is in my favor, and the stars align… maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to make a definitive statement and not talk myself into spirals, worried that the cosmic gate will slam in my face or hit me in the ass.

I hear from friends all the time, “I have no time!”, “My to-do list is too long!”, “Why can’t I ever get everything done?”

Time is a precious commodity, as we only have so much and we have no idea how much we have. It amazes me how people give it away so freely. There are several tricks that can help you get your time management under control, but one of the best tips comes in the form of a story. I’ve seen this story attributed to various sources, so I won’t attempt to even try. You’ve probably seen this already, but if you haven’t here’s the story:

The teacher stood in front of his students and put a large, wide-mouthed jar on a table in front of him. He produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.

When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is the jar full?” Everyone in the class said, “Yes.” Then he asked, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped the gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

He asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time, the class was on to him. “Probably not,” one of them answered. “Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in, and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?”

“No!” the class shouted. Once again he said, “Good!” Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, “What is the point of this demonstration?”

One student raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your life is,  you can always fit in some more!”

“No!” the speaker replied. “That is not the point. The lesson is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

What are your big rocks? Time with family? Quiet time for yourself? A special project? A cause? Focus on your big rocks first. If it’s truly important, don’t worry, the gravel will transform into big rock all by itself when it needs to. Remember, there is a difference between “busy” and “productive”.

Be sure to prioritize your big rocks, then rest and rebalance. Otherwise, there is always way more gravel than rocks.

Do you get the munchies after exercising? I know I do. And, oddly, I’m usually in the mood for something healthy! How weird is that? I still sometimes like something sweet, so I try to keep some dried fruit on hand – sometimes to eat by itself, or sometimes to throw in a salad (craisins for salad, usually. Apricots otherwise).

I know some people crave carbs and chemicals – mostly in the form of Snickers bars and diet soda! If you really crave a sugary snack after exercising, try keeping some fruit snacks (the good, expensive kind that are made of real fruit, not those cartoon-shaped ones you feed the kids) in your gym bag.

If you need the mouth sensation of eating a cookie, avoid the fattening cookies and try for one that’s not so bad. You can have 8 Nilla wafers for 140 calories, as opposed to only 2 Double Stuffed Oreos for the same calorie hit. When it comes to a sugar crave, eight is way better than two.

Sometimes best intentions get off track. Due to 40% schedule issues, 40% late nights at work, and 20% laziness, I’m off my Jazzercise schedule and am feeling like quite the fat cow. I’ve made an effort to get there at least once a week, because I learned the hard way that skipping whole weeks drops my endurance level back to zero and I’d rather not have a coronary in the middle of a ballroom surrounded by sweaty women in yoga pants.

Screwy schedule/work issues can’t always be mitigated, and often snowball into continued poor choices: take-out dinners, late night chores, submitting to exhaustion instead of attempting some meditation, reading, or even just sitting quietly. Eh, I’m human… forgive oneself and get back on the path.

Looks like I can get home on-time tonight, and thanks to my exercise buddy I will get there tonight – my last chance for this week. Now if my stuff-my-face Chinese food lunch digests by then, I’ll be all good!

I decided in January to push the crap about exercise out of my head and get on with it. Exercising isn’t my favorite thing in the world, in fact it rates somewhere between having my teeth drilled and scrubbing the tub. However, I know it’s good for me, I’m not getting any younger, yadda, yadda, yadda.

I’ve been going to Jazzercise class regularly since January. I’m giving it my all… sweating, breathing, managing to not pass out. I’ve even been doing a pretty good job of watching what I eat. But I have to admit, I’ve been more and more disappointed.  Because as much as I know I’m doing it for my overall health, I’ve been really bummed that the scale has barely moved. Yeah, I’m feeling less jiggly, but there is something about a bathroom scale that validates our efforts. And my bathroom scale is a stubborn jerk.

Yesterday I went to the cardiologist for my 6-month checkup (I take two medications for my cholesterol, plus he’s monitoring another issue). Lo and behold! My good lipids went up, my bad lipids are down! Right where they ought to be!  Still triglyceride problems, but those are so diet-sensitive and while I’ve been good, I’m not that good.  Blood pressure, liver function, and sugar are all perfect. The only difference since my last checkup is the exercise. Well, I’ll be damned, sneaky exercise is working on the inside! And all the while, my mental modification of looking on the outside has been creeping back. Ugh, it takes sooo looong to get rid of the crap!

Needless to say, I was much more motivated to get to class yesterday. I’ll still check my weight periodically. However, now I can tell myself that even if I’m not different from a gravitational point of view, I have clinical proof that my body is happier and healthier. Hey, every little bit of motivation helps!

Thank you, Universe, for yet another lesson.

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.

Our new ride

Well, instead of that “new car smell”, it has that “dealer detailed” smell which isn’t as good but still represents a level of clean that this car will probably never see again!

Here’s the update to my post about needing to get a new car before the hamster-driven Chevy Tracker finally gave up the ghost. I went into the dreaded car buying experience trying to make clear choices. I knew I wanted to stay with Toyota because, recent issues aside, they have a fantastic track record. I also like the local dealership and service department. I was hoping they would be willing to deal because I am already a Toyota owner (see my “eggmobile” Yaris in the photo) and because Toyota has offered great deals lately.

Even so, I did my research and found to no great surprise that Toyota’s SUV’s are top-rated vehicles both in safety and customer satisfaction. They’re larger than the Tracker, so Hubby will have no problem toting his gear from gig to gig. I also kept my eye out in the blogosphere for good car-buying tips, and wasn’t disappointed. WiseBread is a great resource.

We headed out to the dealer not sure if we were going to buy or just look, but I did bring our down payment and the Tracker’s title with me, just in case. We had already checked with our financial advisor who agreed that if we didn’t want to refi the house (we don’t, not yet), then taking $5000 out of our savings for a down payment would be a wise move.

After looking at a few different models including the Sienna (too big), we decided on the Rav 4. Of course our friendly salesperson (who latched onto us within 5 minutes of parking) thought we should drive the 2010 Limited version. Aaahhh… new car smell, plus it was loaded: bluetooth, seat warmers, cruise control, built-in Sirius radio, sunroof. It was sweet and the emotional pull of a brand-spankin’ new car was very strong. They also had a 2009 that was just turned in with only 10,000 miles on it. Lots of the same features as the 2010 and very clean, so we head inside to talk.

We discuss various discounts and financing available and have them run the numbers on both. The monthly payments were within $100 of each other, and totally out of the range I want to pay. Emotional pull or not, I had to be firm and let go of those butt-warmer seats. Now Mr. Owner comes by to see if he can help. We talk about how these two cars are too much, maybe we need a base model. Hmmm… he’s not sure he has anything on the lot. In the course of conversation he finds out that Hubby does work for the local minor league baseball team. Well his dealership is their major sponsor, doncha know, so they know the same people. Whoa! Well, now that’s another story! We’re all buddies now!  And wouldn’t you know it, there is a red Rav 4 parked just outside the window that he thinks will work for us!

It’s a 2007, 25,000 miles with some nice features and it drives well. A couple of  chips and a little wear inside; it’s listed for $19,500ish. Mr. Owner brings us to his office to finish the deal. Because we’re now pals and loyal Toyota owners, we get the price down to $17,900ish. Maybe a wheeler-dealer could do better, but I’m pretty satisfied with that.

As an aside, I find it hilarious all the things car salesmen happen to have in common with the people who buy their cars. In the course of the three hours it took to buy this car, topics of conversation included: Howard Stern/Artie Lange/Sirius satellite radio, the NY Mets/Yankees/Giants, baseball in general, football in general, hockey in general, Frank Sinatra, famous people we have met, New Jersey politics, the state of the US car industry, Toyota’s recent issues, living in Florida, working in Vegas, spouses, cell phones, dumb bank rules, the weather, kids, and how fascinating our jobs are (to them).

I try to push back on some of the things I don’t think we should have to pay for, such as that window-etching thing and extras like door trim, and I’m told that they’ll drop the charge (door trim) or it’s mandatory for this dealership (window etching – I probably should have pushed harder). We also got a huge push from Mr. Finance on the extended service contract which I turned down flat-out without even asking how much it cost. Apparently this surprised him. I’ll gamble that I won’t have a major repair issue within 5 years/75,000 miles, isn’t that why I’m buying a Toyota? Don’t you make really great cars? Plus, I think it’s a ripoff to tell me its a 7 year/100,000 mile warranty when that warranty started the day the very first owner drove it off the lot.

The bummer is with all the taxes, fees, and mandatory add-ons, we end up having to finance about $15,000. With my really good credit rating (thanks to our financial advisor!), I get good interest rates even for longer-term loans, so we go with 71 months at 5.99%. This gives me the smallest hit to my monthly budget knowing that we will work to get that paid off early, penalty-free.

I think we did well, and with both cars being 2007 models, I’m hoping we don’t have to do this again for a looong time!

I’ve been slowly trying to make our home more green for a couple of years now. It’s about time to add another green thing to my list, so when I saw this post by FreeSpirit Writer I knew I’d get some great ideas. Elastagirl also wrote about it here.

Like any change you want to make in your life, it’s a matter of establishing new habits. And the best way to start a new habit is to do one thing for a month. Once that habit is established, add another one for a month. FreeSpirit Writer has seven great ideas that you can start doing today. In fact, I’m already doing four of them! Recycling is easy – many towns have recycling policies that allow you to mix cans, glass and plastic – this is way easier than when you had to separate everything. But even if you do have to separate, it’s not a big deal and worth the effort. Having reusable water bottles is also easier than ever – they sell them everywhere now, even my local food store has them. I keep them filled in the fridge all the time, and it encourages me to drink more water. Speaking of my local food store, they may chuckle when I walk in with 12 reusable shopping bags, but those bags hold more and the straps don’t cut off my circulation while I’m carrying them into the house. Using CFL bulbs (yeah, those funny spiral ones) has definitely made a difference in my house. With old-fashioned bulbs, it seemed we were changing one at least once a week. The CFL bulbs are a little more expensive but I’ve got bulbs that I haven’t changed in years. I invested in a case from the local home improvement store and I just kept using those every time an incandescent one blew out. Except for a closet, I think we’re totally CFL now.

There are a few ideas in the post that I’m not doing, and while I don’t think I’m going to start composting any time soon I do think I can switch to cloth napkins fairly easily, and I’ll try to figure a way to easily unplug appliances we’re not using (I already do this with any appliance that generates heat – I learned that from a fireman.Yah.).

Here are a couple other painless things I’ve been doing:
Wash your clothes in cold water, use far less detergent than the label says, and use a clothesline. Aside from sheets and towels (which I wash in warm with a cold rinse), all your clothes can be washed in cold water. Trust me, they come out perfectly clean and the cold water is actually more gentle (ok, if you have a job that gets you really grimy this probably doesn’t work for you). I recently learned that we only need half the detergent that the detergent companies say we do, and to test this you should try washing some clean towels with no detergent. Check it mid-wash cycle. If you see suds you’re using  too much detergent. A clothesline… well, that is self-explanatory. Chalk it up to one more thing that Grandma knew best.
I have used vinegar to clean my house for a couple of years now. The day I almost passed out choking on chemical fumes while cleaning my bathroom, I knew there had to be a better way. There are lots of products out there that are non-toxic and “green”, but they cost a fortune. A quick Google search proved that you can clean anything in your house with vinegar, baking soda, and lemon. And guess what? The vinegar smell dissipates faster than the chemical smell.
Organics – and not just food. While organic food is definitely better for you, it’s really expensive. Some foods are worth it, like if the skin is thin (tomato) while some are not (bananas). Check the internet for a list of which foods are worth the cost. Organic cotton feels great on your skin and is better for the environment than bleached, processed cotton, but it’s not so great for your wallet. I’ve been selective – I have one set of organic sheets, and a t-shirt.

Kermit said, “It’s not easy being green”.  Maybe that was true in 1972, but it’s pretty easy to be a greenie in 2010.

I was just reading a blog post by Hazel at In Her Closet, and while her blog isn’t specifically about self-improvement, she seems to be going through some tough times and I give her props for putting it out there for all to read. Doing that will often help to clarify your emotions and focus yourself on moving forward.

Anyway, Hazel writes about how “the rain won’t last forever”. That is a great line! When life is pouring down, one thing after another, it’s easy to feel like you’re drowning. Another friend of mine likes to say, “This too shall pass.” Same concept: the world is all about balance, so for as much as you might be down now, there will be a time when you’re up.

Change is the only thing that doesn’t change! Which is why it’s great to remember the rain won’t last forever.

There are lots of people living in your head.

Don’t believe me? Try turning off the radio in the car and listen to all the people chattering in there! Lets see who is my head right now: Well, there’s good ‘ol Ego, always worried about me-me-me. Intellect is yapping away, always thinking she’s so smart. The Basher is in there, but she’s no fun – telling me I’m fat, lazy, and stupid. Rude and obnoxious BossLady can’t understand why everyone wants it their way instead of my way, while Ms. Confident knows that whatever we attempt will work out just fine. Those are a few of the people in my head; I guarantee you have your various personality traits chattering away in yours.

When you really stop to listen, there is more talk happening up there than in prime time on Fox. Some voices shout, some whisper. Some are helpful, like Ms. Confident, while others are definitely destructive like The Basher whose specialty is self-inflicted mental violence. And, unfortunately, because they’re all living in our head, we believe they are all speaking the truth. It doesn’t make life easier when The Basher is the loudest voice and we believe every word.

Here is the challenge: For a week, listen to what is going on up there. Whenever you are in a quiet place – the car, a waiting room, late in the evening when the kids are in bed – pay attention to what is said. Do you hear positive thoughts or negative ones? Sounds of contentment, or voices of discontent? Why?

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