Be Obvious. Getting unstuck by writing down the facts.

I make a deliberate effort to post only things that I feel add positivity to the world, so you may mistake me for an-always-optimistic-person. That’s the benefit of having such a curated online existence! But as an unedited human, living the day-to-day off the screen sometimes I too hit every red light, burn the toast, snap at the sales rep, or feel down for no clear reason at all.

In the early days of my interest in mindfulness and deliberate living, I thought the goal was to eliminate the down days and maximize and multiply the up days. But now I realize that the down days make the up days up and that I can experience the down as part of the beauty of the human experience with the full knowledge that I’ll get out of it.

Getting out of it, though, is something that I’m mystified and intrigued by. It eludes me a little less with this practice inspired by improvisational theater (improv).

Gary Hirsch gave an improv workshop at WDS and wrangled all 3000 of us into what may have been the world’s largest improv scene. It was awesome and Gary’s energy and enthusiasm was inspiring. If I hadn’t already signed up for an improv class having caught wind of how amazing it was from a different conference, I would have ridden the wave of inspiration and done so immediately after his 3000 person improv session. Gary was walking around in a shirt that said, “Be obvious.”

It struck me in that moment as incredibly insightful. In improv being obvious relieves the mental pressure to come up with something funny. Watching some professional improvisers do their thing the other week, one gal (or, rather, her character) completely misunderstood when her scene partner called her a “working girl.” We all understood it to mean “prostitute,” but she took it at face value. The entire scene then developed around this character’s naïveté. They just went with what was given. That’s the beauty of improv. It’s all “and” and no “but.” There’s no “you misunderstood me”; it’s all an opportunity to build something hilarious.

I started to notice the value this principle had off the stage in my daily life.

For example, I’ve recently moved to Portland, Oregon. It’s quite a transition to be in a new part of the country, to live in a city after 5 years of rural living, to be working again after 9-months off. Mostly it feels great, but as with any moment of growth (or just life), there is some pain. Some loneliness. Sometimes I feel anxious or sad or worried or irritated. So I started this practice of just listing off, in the most matter of fact way possible, the things that are happening in my life or my day. Be obvious.

In being obvious I might say something like: There’s sunshine today. You are looking out a window onto four rows of food and flowers growing out of the ground, you are sitting in your yellow room that came fully furnished in a house that feels good to be in.You’ve just moved yourself to Portland, Oregon. (And then I often marvel for a second that I actually did that, got myself here, and that everything is fine. Better than fine, even! Miracles happened…then I’m off in the vivacious circle of goodness in no time! Well, at least some of the time that happens.)

I try to start out with facts that are simple with a tinge of positivity, but nothing over-the-top optimistic or enthusiastic. I do steer a bit away from facts that give momentum to pouting, irritation, etc. And it turns out that it doesn’t take that many slightly-positively-tinged facts to start to shift my mood and my outlook.

Be obvious. What do you see in your life right now?

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Dealing with change.

Everything will change. But that doesn’t mean it will get worse. It doesn’t mean it will change back into something we’ve known before.

The Buddhist idea of impermanence—change is inevitable and that is the nature of all things—can be deep comfort to us when we are facing hard times. When things really suck, it’s a major relief if we believe that it will end. That it must end. The hard part then becomes bearing it until its inevitable end comes.

But what about when times are good? The good times are subject to this same law of nature (in Buddhist thinking). But we like the good times and we want them to stick around even when we know that difficult moments hold lessons for us and ultimately move us forward. This desire to let the good times roll on and on is called “clinging” in the Buddhist world and ultimately leads to our deep “attachment” to emotional states, to people, to things, to ourselves (ego). When the inevitable changes comes, suffering comes too.

When I sat my first 10 day Vipassana Meditation Retreat in January, we were instructed to sit in silence, be grounded in the breath, and observe the sensations happening in our body. Sitting for nearly 11 hours each day, sensations could include intense pain, pressure, pulsating, itching, tingling, numbness, etc. We weren’t just to observe or identify our sensations though, we were asked to do so with equanimity.

Equanimity can seem like an abstract idea and the nuance of my practice with it on this retreat is a little difficult to explain. The best I can say is that I sat at first with all kinds of irritation, agitation and suffering. But as I practiced more, I was able to maintain equanimity even with the burning pain in my shoulder and constant ache in my knees. I was in pain, but I wasn’t suffering.

Since I’ve been back in the “real world”, I’ve been thinking about this idea of impermanence and grappling with what it means for the good times. Then I realized my previously hidden assumption that change means “bad changes to better” and “good changes to worse.” Ah ha!

The idea that change can and will happen can stimulate comfort or fear when we begin to assume the quality of change that will occur. After all bad things do sometimes get worse (even when we think they can’t possibly!) and when we’re ecstatic and think things are the best they’ve ever been, they can get still better. Or there could be a nuance change that is basically neutral and even undetectable (this is what is happening every second with our physical bodies and aging).

It is easier to practice equanimity with the changes in our lives when we can catch ourselves assuming the quality of change that will occur or the exact impact it will have. Instead of: “Things are bad and I can’t possible see how they can get any better.“ Try: “Things are bad right now. But let’s see what happens. Who knows what will come up next?”

Instead of, “Things are so great. I hope it never ends!” Try “Things are so great. I relish these moments of happiness/joy/peace/calm/ease. Who knows what will come up next?”

**Stay tuned this week for a special guest post!**

Making friends with Unknown

Unknown and I have been friends for a while.

She was always hanging around like a kid sister, wanting attention. But she was pretty quiet about it and I didn’t really take notice of her until about five years ago.

She’s a loyal friend to me, but, to be totally honest, I’m a fair-weather friend to her.

Sometimes she’s exciting to be around. Then I’m totally on her side. She’s my bestie and together we blaze new trails up mountains and skip hand in hand down colorful neighborhoods in unexplored cities.

Sometimes, though, she’s downright scary to be around, I know it’s not her fault, but I blame her. Sometimes I lash out and cry and throw a fit. Sometimes I recoil and try to ignore her.

She just sticks around with a wise smile and waits for me to get it together.

My favorite thing about her are the surprises. Man she’s come up with some amazing surprises! I’ve been blindsided with bliss at some of the things she’s arranged for me.

One time she led me to a farm in the desert! We ate lots of chard and beets and carrots and hiked around on slickrock. There were a bunch of kindhearted people that became new friends there, too.

Another time she took me to Idaho. She pulls this kind of thing a lot.

“Idaho?!” I asked with a cocked brow. “Seriously?” I was really skeptical about this journey.

“Trust me.” She said, sweet but firm. (How does she never get irritated with me?)

So I did.

Of course more magic awaited that I never could have anticipated. (Have you been to Idaho?) She guided me to the most serene place I’ve been. It started from the outside; sitting watching those majestic Sawtooth Mountains brought me instant peace. Eventually the feeling seeped in through my pores, entered with each inhalation, and stayed with me internally.

The thing is that she’s always doing stuff like this. She loves it. It feels like a gift to me, but the truth is that it’s just how she is. She’ll do it for you, too. That’s just her thing.

Knowing her tremendous capacity to give, I’m not sure why I keep resisting her. She does get a kick out of that cocked eyebrow and all my skepticism and hesitancy. But, like all good friends, she sees the best in me.

She beckons my boldness. Whether I like it or not, she challenges me. I know she’d never lead me into something I can’t handle (even though at the time I can’t always see how). In that way she sorta knows me better than I know myself.

I learn a lot from her, too.

I admire her sense of adventure and play. She’s the kind of gal who walks smilingly through the rain and opens any unlocked door (they’re always unlocked!).

“What’s in here? What’s over here?” she asks constantly. She always wants to talk to strangers—“Just friends you haven’t met yet” she says—and try new things.

Comfortable is uncomfortable to her. When the days start looking too similar, she suggests we go on an adventure or call someone we haven’t talked to in a while.

“I know!” she’ll exclaim, “Let’s go to the library and pick a book at random to read. Maybe we’ll get to learn about covered wagons or Jewish history or bird calls!”

Again, my skeptical raised eyebrow appears. But with her by my side, I know I’ll learn something relevant—bird calls and all are just metaphors for life. She’s always pointing that kind of stuff out.

Her wonder and wisdom astound me. That’s why despite the rough patches, I think Unknown and I will be friends for life.