Are You Always One Problem Away From Happiness?

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 Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.  Soren Kierkegaard

So many clients tell me that if only one particular thing would happen in their lives, they would be joyful and stress-free. A business owner tells me she just needs to increase her sales to make more money, a writer tells me he just needs to sell his screenplay, and a parent tells me she just needs to get her child into a good college. They all believe that if this one thing happens they will have the key that opens the door on their peace and happiness. Yet when the business owner increases her sales, some of her expenses unexpectedly also increase and there is no extra profit. The writer sells his screenplay, but so far the producers cannot raise the money to make the film. The woman’s child goes to a good college, but now she worries her son won’t find a good job when he graduates. So each of them continue to wait for his or her key to the door to happiness and success in the future when everything, fingers crossed, will finally work out.

I think many of us walk around with a concrete image of what must happen for us to be content. Yet this way of thinking only serves to keep us in the illusion of the future and disappointed in the present. On some level we believe that if we can just solve a few of our problems, then we will be happy and free of stress forever. But we forget that life keeps changing and offering us new opportunities and new challenges.  What if, by focusing on the one thing that will bring us future happiness, we are putting off the enjoyment of our lives for a day that never arrives?

So how can we find peace and joy today, wherever we stand? We can cultivate a fundamental understanding that life is not about arriving somewhere but instead is about being here right now (wherever here might be). When we give up this belief that one day it will all work out, we allow ourselves to appreciate what we have.  Does it mean we won’t still strive to make it better? Of course not. But we can give up our resistance that nags, “Things are not right” and the illusion of “If I could just get this one thing, then I would be happy.” When we start to accept life as it is, we can start to make peace with our circumstances and possibly find joy in each moment.

DON’T WORRY – with that newfound peace and joy, you won’t be giving up on your dreams or aspirations. Far from it, you will work even more effectively toward the future you’d like to create for yourself. Let’s not forget – MAYBE is always at play!


Summertime: More Bullying For Our Children?

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My friend Rachel called me yesterday and told me a story about a bullying incident that her daughter had witnessed regarding summer camp. A group of teenage girls were gathering for a “get to know each other” dinner prior to a three-week community service camp. Not all the girls going to the camp were able to go to the dinner, but quite a few were present. During the dinner one girl turned to another and said, “Let’s choose a girl to pick on for the summer.” The girl then began looking around the room for her victim.

Rachel’s daughter told Rachel about the incident. She was upset with herself that she hadn’t said anything at the time and didn’t know what to do about it. Rachel sat with her daughter in distress and uncertainty. “Maybe there’s still something you can do,” she suggested, not really sure herself what that might be. Her daughter thought for a moment and then she had an idea. “Maybe I can call the owner and let him know,” she said. Rachel smiled, promptly got the number for her and her daughter called the owner of the camp. She described the incident and, to her surprise, the camp owner’s reaction was, “Girls will be girls and most likely they were just talking about stuff that will never happen.”  After a lengthy conversation in which Rachel’s daughter forcefully convinced him otherwise, the camp owner agreed to speak with the children at the beginning of the trip. Rachel’s daughter hung up feeling much better about her upcoming summer.

I expressed admiration for Rachel’s daughter and Rachel was pleasantly surprised by her daughter’s resourcefulness. I, too, have a daughter who is going away for a few weeks this summer and this story led Rachel and I to a discussion on how we can teach our children to take care of themselves when they are away from home or have a new, challenging experience.  We agreed that most of girls around that table probably knew that it was wrong to pick a target to bully, but we were unsure how many had the strength to stand up and say that was wrong, either in the moment or afterwards.  We wondered how many would follow the bully during the summer if she decided to act on her plan of persecution.  Even if we trust camp owners or program directors, they might not see everything that goes on between certain children or their reaction could be a bit “hands-off” like the initial response of Rachel’s daughter’s camp owner.

So how can we prepare our children to face the bullies whether they are targets themselves or are asked to go along with the crowd this summer? How can we teach our children who a bully really is and bullies are not always as strong and mighty as they seem? Maybe we can take a page out of Rachel’s daughter’s book and look for creative solutions. Maybe, too, we can continuously teach our children about real strength. This will give them courage to stand up for themselves wherever they are and, when necessary, to stand up for those around them.

Here is a set of ideas that I try to teach my children that I hope that you find useful:

  • It takes more strength to stick up for someone than to put them down.
  • It takes more strength to compromise with a friend than to force your way on someone else.
  • It takes more strength to listen to someone with whom you disagree than to ignore them, yell at them or scorn their ideas.
  • It takes more strength to understand someone that is different and try to include them instead of excluding them from an activity.
  • It takes more strength to express yourself with your words than to resort to physical force.
  • It takes more strength to be peaceful, loving and kind in the face of adversity than to yell and scream and hurt the ones around you.
  • It takes more strength to be humble in the face of triumph than to recklessly brag.
  • It takes more strength to act on what you know is right than to follow the crowd.
  • A person of real strength does not need to prove anything. True strength speaks for itself and that is real power.

Many of our children will be in new social situations this summer. My hope is that all our children come to understand their own resourcefulness, that they will appreciate true strength and that their summers will be filled with lasting memories of new friendships, kindness and good times. Maybe, too, like Rachel’s daughter, they are already stronger than we know!

What Would Buddha Do On Southwest Airlines?

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A client of mine, Jen, recently took a flight from Florida to New York on Southwest Airlines for the first time. Those of you who have flown with Southwest know there is no assigned seating, but the airline does provide the option of paying an extra fee to get on the plane before other passengers to choose your own seat. Jen chose not to take advantage of this policy, and when she boarded for her seat her choices were limited, not only because other passengers had paid the early boarding fee, but because they were saving seats for others who had not yet boarded. Apparently, one person in a group of those travelling had paid the fee and saved seats for others who had not paid. Jen was pretty annoyed by this and when she came back from her trip, she asked me what I thought about it–“From a more spiritual perspective,” she said.

Not wanting to pass a snap judgment, I paused in Maybe. Her Southwest Airlines experience reminded me of a story my friend Elizabeth shared with me one time and I told Jen the story. Elizabeth was having lunch in New York City with her good friend Sharon Saltzberg, a well-known Buddhist teacher. They were in a cafeteria-style restaurant where you wait on line to get your food and then hope to find a seat somewhere in the restaurant. When my friend Elizabeth got on line with Sharon, she saw how crowded the restaurant was. So she told Sharon what she wanted to eat, and suggested she find them seats while Sharon waited on line and ordered. Sharon replied, “If you sit down now before we get our food, where will everyone in front of us on the line sit?” Elizabeth became very quiet and realized for the first time how uncaring for others it was to sit before the people in front of her on line had a chance to find a seat. She realized that she was focusing on her own needs and not the needs of others. She thought about how society needs individuals to put others first in order to flourish.

Elizabeth is one of the nicest people that I know and she was not deliberately trying to prevent others from sitting down and enjoying a meal. She was just thinking about her lunch date with Sharon and forgot to connect with the needs of other people in the restaurant as well. Although at first glance the actions of some of the Southwest passengers are a little more aggressive than Elizabeth’s impulse, the stories are actually quite similar. Like Elizabeth, the people who were breaking the seating rules of Southwest Airlines probably didn’t think they were rude or bad people. They were simply putting their needs and desires first, believing they could save money and still sit with their friends, not thinking about how it could affect anyone else. In short, they weren’t acting in a way that fostered a more successful, loving and kind society.

So what would Buddha do on Southwest Airlines? He probably wouldn’t ask a friend to pay a fee so he could get a better seat for free. I suspect he would wait his turn, be kind to the people in line in front of and behind him, and be grateful he had a plane ride home to see his family. I doubt he would worry much about the location of his seat. He would probably even bless the passengers who saved the seats for their friends. Maybe he would meditate on the idea that one day all passengers could realize there were enough seats for everyone and learn to share or take their rightful turns. The Buddha would know that if everyone chose love over the fear of not having something, they would truly feel the joy of being alive. He would understand that this joy was better than the joy of getting a better seat than a fellow human being.

How do these examples apply to all of us? Most of us take our turn when we merge in traffic, hold the elevator door for our neighbors and wait patiently in a line at the bank or post office. We may be thinking we’d never act like some of the Southwest passengers who tried to bend the rules for their own gain. But my friend Elizabeth once thought the same thing of herself. Sometimes the way we tend to put ourselves first is invisible to us. But Maybe we can make the invisible visible to ourselves, and in so doing contribute to a more caring and compassionate society.

Maybe we can stretch ourselves to look at areas in our lives where we move so quickly and are only thinking about what we need to do and where we need to go.  Maybe we can find an opportunity to be more kind and considerate to the ones around us. On reflection, I realize that, while I would never literally take someone else’s seat on a plane or in a restaurant, I do tend to grab a seat with a friend before I order us coffee at my favorite café. Also, I sometimes talk on my cell phone when I am walking outside and am less considerate than I want to be to the ones around me. I see, too, that when I am busy, I am less likely to stop and ask my neighbors how they are doing. These are simply some examples from my own life, but I am sure we can all identify areas in our lives where we can slow down and be kinder to those around us. Maybe it’s just a matter of being more aware that we are all in this “line” or “plane” as the case may be…together.

How Can We Stop Our Stress and Worry About What Will Happen Tomorrow?

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My client Joan came in the other day, sat down across from me, and immediately said, “What’s so great about the idea of Maybe? I’m miserable. My son is having problems in school, my knee hurts all the time and I’m having financial problems. You want to tell me Maybe this good?” I took a deep breath, studying the worry lines on her forehead. I asked her to tell me exactly what was going on. I listened for about ten minutes until she was able to fully express her feelings. I wasn’t sure she had a full grasp of the idea of Maybe, so we started to discuss the philosophy.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the Philosophy of Maybe, it simply states that for every situation we face there are numerous possibilities of resolution, and within those possibilities exists a hope that “it could be good,” “it could get better,” or we could find a way to accept the situation we are facing and still be all right.  The mindset of Maybe does not judge the moment we are in, but simply recognizes that life keeps changing and within that change exist new possibilities that we could not possibly know in the present.  Maybe does not deny that life can have hardships, but instead reminds us that the road of life has more than one lane.

When we embrace Maybe, we realize that some of our suffering in the moment stems from our own projection of what will be in the future. What if my client chose to believe that Maybe her child would improve, Maybe her knee would heal and Maybe she would be financially sound in a year. Would she still suffer to the extent she was suffering today? When we are able shift our negative thoughts about the future to the idea of Maybe, our minds become present and filled with hope.  We alleviate so much stress and worry with the realization that things might not turn out as bad as we are projecting.

When I was done explaining the idea of Maybe to Joan she just smiled. She said, “You know, it’s true that a lot of my misery comes from believing that my current circumstances will never change, that my son will always have problems, my knee will always hurt and I’ll always struggle financially. When I think about life changing and Maybe getting better, I feel lighter and more hopeful. The moment doesn’t feel so harsh and unbearable. And even if I have to accept certain things in my life, Maybe I can find some joy and everything can still be okay.”

When Joan was done speaking, she started to cry a little. I asked her, “What’s wrong?” She said, “Nothing. Those were Maybe tears. I just feel so relieved not to feel stuck. I feel hopeful again.”

We smiled at each other across the desk. Even the worry lines in her forehead seemed relieved.

If you would like to use Maybe to bring a little hope into your own life, here is a post that contains a great exercise to engage in the mindset of Maybe.