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.

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Elimination is not the same as cultivation.

I began understanding the significance of this when I read what Martin Seligman (positive psychologist at UPenn) wrote about mental wellness and illness in his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being.

He relays a lesson he learned when he first began practicing psychotherapy. Working with folks who struggled with mental illness like depression, he found that when he succeeded in treating the depression, that didn’t automatically yield a happy, mentally well patient. It yielded something more like a blank canvas. The process of eliminating depression, he concluded, is different from the process of cultivating happiness and flourishing. Hmm.

As I carried this idea with me, I started to associate directions with each of these two processes. The process of elimination, or rooting out the unwanted is a backward facing process that draws on history and “what is and has been.” The process of cultivation, or creating the wanted thing, is a forward facing process that requires imagination of “what could be.”

I noticed, too, that individually and collectively one of these is getting a lot more attention and use than the other. So often we are only looking in the direction of the unwanted thing we’d like to eliminate. It’s so pervasive that it’s easy to take for granted. Consider the following:

  • The diet industry focuses on losing weight (eliminating fat) rather than on cultivating healthy bodies. Healthy bodies aren’t often part of the conversation at all, though attractive bodies might be. This is paralleled by our healthcare system, which aims to eliminate or treat illness without similar efforts to cultivate wellness, health or enhance wellbeing.
  • Many folks are endlessly looking for ways to deal with stress rather than working with cultivating more harmony and ease.
  • When something is broken—from cars to relationships— we try to fix it (eliminate the problem). But rarely do we spend time maintaining or cultivating improved versions of things that are basically in working order. This is evidenced by the phase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, strengthening and improving things that aren’t broken, decreases the chances of them breaking in the future. Just because something functions, doesn’t mean it’s highly functioning.

You might be thinking, “These are the same thing. If you’re trying to eliminate stress, you’re trying to cultivate harmony.” To be clear, one thing suggests the other, but they are quite different. Don’ts and do’s, elimination and cultivation are two sides of the same spectrum. But just because we know what we don’t want doesn’t mean we always know what we do want. We are so well practice in the former and so lacking in the latter. Since we haven’t exercised these muscles of imagination individually or culturally, they are weak. I, for one, am ready to start working them out.

Try it now. What is your vision of an ideal life? A perfect community or world? Is it as vivid as your image of the world as you see it everyday? As the world you don’t want to see (and fear might come to pass)? Which of these do you see most clearly and feel most deeply?

If you’re at all like me (and you are ‘cause you’re human 😉 ), thinking in this way will take some practice. And I’d encourage you to practice because the shift in focus itself is incredibly powerful. Having a vision of what you do want to see (the clearer and more detailed the better) forms the foundation of inspired action. Because acting from inspiration feels good, it provides a sustainable form of motivation. The further you align with your vision, the better you feel, the more inspired you are to act, the more you align, and so on. It’s what I like to call the vivacious circle.

Contrast this with working from a place of self-discipline and self-control in an effort to root out the unwanted. While I’m all for cultivating more of both of these, it ain’t nearly as easy or motivating for the lot of us as working from a place of inspired action. And when we fail or fall off the bandwagon (as we inevitably will) it feels bad. If we feel bad and then beat ourselves up then we feel worse and so on… the more familiar vicious circle.

Beyond this, having a vision of the wanted thing helps to bridge the gap between our existing (undesired) behavior or situation to the desired one. When you’re trying to change a habit, for example, saying, “I will not eat the cookie,” not only brings your attention to eating the cookie (which, let’s face it, is delicious and wanted on some level even while being unwanted at another), it also doesn’t suggest another activity to fill the void.

Imagine anew. Fill the void. Don’t eat the cookie. Create the life you want.

Deliberate Delusion Strikes Again!

There was a job I was really stoked on a few weeks back that I applied for and didn’t get. Then an internship that seemed even more awesome and suited to me came along. I applied for that and didn’t get it either. (Now there’s another position that seems even better suited to me that I’m applying for…I’ll have to let you know how that one turns out.)

What’s been most interesting is my reaction to this series of events:
Excitement. No offer. Bummed, but not for long.
Curiosity.
New posting.
Excitement. No offer. Bummed, but not for long.
Curiosity.
New posting.
Excitement.

And I realize that the key thing that supports my optimism is harnessing the power of deliberate delusion. That is: I choose to think that better things must be in the works for me even in the absence of “evidence” that this is the case (or in the face of “evidence” that builds a contrary case, like not getting 2 positions in a row).

I think that if those past positions truly held the personal and professional lessons I need to learn at this time and allowed me to use my talents to meet the needs of other people’s projects, I’d have gotten them. Not having gotten them, I choose believe that there is a better fit, and it must be on the way.

Deliberate delusion gives me hope, optimism, wonder, and peace of mind. It means expecting the best, even in the face of what seems like the worse (or even the less than ideal). It allows me to react with curiosity instead of negativity:

Hmmm, that’s strange. I really thought that job was it. I guess not since it didn’t happen. I wonder what it is and when we’ll find each other.

Rumi says, “What you seek is seeking you.” And who can argue with a Sufi mystic?

One last thing: The lesson here isn’t about finding “truth,” it’s about finding perspective.

You might say, “But it’s true I feel pessimistic. That was the perfect job.”
And I might ask, “What is also true?” (I ask myself this a lot when in need of a shift in perspective.) And if I put you to the task of listing all the good things in your life and dwelling in those to get some good feelings rolling, might you also feel a shift? Truly?

And once you’ve gotten a good look at all the things that are true, good, bad and otherwise, I might ask you one last question: Which would you most like to grow? Because putting our attention on any thought or feeling is like watering a seed. Be deliberate about what you cultivate and what you eradicate.