It's that time of year again. An opportunity to consider what matters most to you as you chart your journey ahead. A time to reflect upon what kind of person you truly want to be as the year progresses. Your chance to choose what colors you want in your life.
Have you noticed that most of our new year's resolutions center around stated behaviors, action steps, goals? It certainly makes some sense - after all, we're trying to engage in actions that are important to us. But often times, we don't ask the next set of questions. What is it we're hoping those actions will help us feel? What do we truly want to feel as we go through our lives this year?
Stop and think about it. What you're really wanting when you set a goal is a certain way of feeling. Right?
We choose to engage in certain actions and behaviors (we establish goals and intentions) because we really want to feel something specific and good. Underneath every goal is a desired feeling.
For example, one of my goals is to increase my public speaking engagements this year. Why? Just to do more speaking? I do get a lot of joy and fulfillment from public speaking! But there's a deeper issue. Because I want to feel significant. I want to feel enthralled (which comes from using my strengths in a broader setting that puts me in my "zone," my wheelhouse of abilities). I want to feel like I'm making an increasingly bigger difference in the world, in people's lives.
And as it turns out, it's our feelings that are actually the most powerful drivers behind our aspirations.
The Neuroscience Behind Feelings
Here's how: the brain pathways for emotions make their way directly to the areas that generate attention (and vice versa). In other words, the way we feel - and our choices to feel certain emotions - can powerfully direct our attention. And where we direct our attention produces that outcome - our brains automatically begin developing a map ("motor maps/action plans") for how to make that happen. Attention is what brings to life our intentions.
For example, people who are anxious are more prone to identifying anxiety-provoking or fearful things than people who are not. What's the outcome?
"What I often tell people is that when they spend their lives in dread, they are writing an invitation to the feared outcome rather than preventing it." (Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear, p. 55, by Dr. Srinivasan S. Pillay, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and executive coach)
The point is, the reverse holds equally true. When you choose to focus on positive feelings, you activate your attention which in turn activates your intention. Feelings are the most powerful drivers behind our aspirations.
My Practice of Focusing on Feeling Words
So here's what I've been doing the last few years:
Step one: I look at a list of feeling words and allow any of those words to jump out at me. Which ones are speaking to me right now? Which ones seem to be calling out to me - feelings that I'm wanting to feel more deeply than others this year? I make a list of 3-5 feeling words. If your list is longer, go through that list and keep narrowing it down until you reach 3-5.
Here's the list I use: Feeling Words
Step two: I write a one-two sentence definition of each word. By specifying a definition, I'm bringing greater clarity to why this feeling word is really resonating with me. And the more clarity I have, the more targeted and powerful my attention is and therefore the more possible my intention becomes.
Questions to ask: What does this word really mean to me? What does the word feel like? What are examples of this feeling word? Why is it valuable to me? Why do I want to feel this way this year? What is it about this word that is calling out to me?
Step three: I make a list of 3-5 accomplishments (intentions) for each feeling word that I believe if I engage in them will help me feel that way. And I like to break those intentions down like this (thanks to blogger Danielle LaPorte for this idea):
Three things I will do today to generate these feelings; Three things I will do this week to generate these feelings; Three things I will do this quarter to generate these feelings.
Step four: I share my list with several trusted people a) so I can stay focused - sharing deepens impact, and b) so I can have accountability with my process as the year goes by.
What I Want to Feel More Of in 2014
Here's the way my list turned out for 2014 (in case some of this might stimulate your creativity): MY 2014 FEELING WORDS
Every time I read my list of words, my inner spirit jumps up, I feel real positive energy inside, and hope increases as I anticipate the year. It's keeping me focused on what's most important to me. And I can already tell these feelings, and my attention on them, are driving forward my intentions.
I challenge you to do this process, too. And let me know what your feeling words are for 2014.
Looking for a Speaker or Coach?
If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for a keynote speaker or workshop teacher for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it. And interested in strengths coaching? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This last Saturday at Second Wind we began a new series ("Applying Your Spirituality To This Week's Glocal Hot Spot") in which we're taking a very current event happening in the world and asking what the story tells us about the journey of spirituality. How does this event inform and shape our spirituality so that we develop a real-world kind of spirituality, a perspective on faith and the spiritual life that works in real life, that embraces contemporary life in a relevant way. Saturday we focused on the story unfolding in Chile with the 33 trapped miners which has already broken the record for the number of days miners have been imprisoned underground. Experts are predicting that it will be at least another 3 months before the men are able to be rescued, provided more collapses don't take place. A heartbreaking story, to say the least. Imagine if you were a family member or one of the miners. How would you be feeling? What would keep you alive and hanging on? Would you hope for a good ending, even if the possibility existed that it might not happen? Would you allow hope to set you up for a potential catastrophic disappointment? Does hope work?
The Washington Post last week reported about Jerry Linenger who was the only American on the Mir space station in 1997 when a small fire caused a crisis that left him isolated in space for four months with two Russian astronauts. Cut off from his family and facing a lot of stress, Linenger endured a period of uncertainty that provides a good parallel to what the 33 Chilean miners are facing.
The initial explosion terrified and galvanized the crew of six. After the fire, the connection between the two modules that made up the space station was cut, leaving Linenger alone with the Russians. Over the next months, the Mir lost its oxygen generator and had serious trouble with the carbon dioxide scrubber. The toilets malfunctioned, and communications broke down. But the worst aspect, Linenger said, was being led to expect something that failed to materialize.
"Expectations unmet are a horrible thing," Linenger recalled, "especially when you're already psychologically stressed. The biggest dips for me and the others is when we were told something would happen and it didn't."
Among the many examples he could point to, the one that remains raw after 13 years is when he was told he would be able to speak with his pregnant wife at a time when potentially life-threatening problems had begun to mount. "They said I could talk to her for a short time as we passed over a ground antenna near Moscow," he remembered, "and I prepared for a week. I wrote down what I would say and then crossed things off and added new ones. I was so excited. But the time came, they said she was on the line, and all I got was static. And then another emergency started and we were cut off entirely. After that, I expected nothing and was psychologically more healthy."
What do you make of Linenger's conclusion? Is it healthier to simply not hope, to not have expectations, in order to prevent disappointment?
Though I can appreciate the need to try to minimize emotional pain from loss and grief (I've gone through this many times myself), the truth is that according to recent neuroscience about brain formation and function, hope is one of the most significant brain functions to not only taking away fear but also to producing profound life transformation.
As we know, our brains were originally wired for fear responses - it was to protect humans from being gobbled up by predators - it's the basis for the fight or flight response. And according to recent research, fear is so wired into our brains that the brain actually "senses" fear-producing stimuli even at an unconscious level (before we recognize it). When something dangerous occurs outside of awareness, the conscious brain reacts to it. In other words, as experts are telling us, your brain prepares you to respond to danger faster than it does to other tasks, and it starts to respond to frightening things before you even realize they are frightening.
And unless this wiring tendency is proactively dealt with, fear always trumps everything. And when we live in fear, our stress levels stay heightened, causing us to live on increased cortisol which keeps our physical and emotional systems over-stimulated and thereby more susceptible to disease and deterioration.
I'm reading a book right now written by Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the former director of the Outpatient Anxiety Disorders Program and the Panic Disorders Research Program in the Brain Imaging Center at McLean Hospital. Dr. Pillay is writing about the recent neuroscience findings about the brain and fear and how to overcome the tendency to be paralyzed from from fear: Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear.
He says that hope is the choice to make the assumption that something is possible. Instead of allowing the facts to justify fear, we use hope to reveal new facts and remove the fears. This is precisely what people like former South African president Nelson Mandella, world-class athlete and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, and countless others have done every day. Rather than wait for their fears to disappear or for facts to back up their hope, they used hope to create new facts and reach their goals.
According to brain science discoveries, hope and fear both wander around in the unconscious parts of our brains. They both require amygdala activation, and whichever one is stronger will win the amygdala for its own use (the amgydala is the almond-shaped part of the brain, a mass of nerve cell bodies, designed to be the danger alert system, "the guard dog of the human brain." "It's so powerful and efficient that it alerts us to danger in our environment within tens of milliseconds of detecting it.").
Dr. Pillay's point is this: "To be processed by the amygdala, emotions have to stand in a queue, with their order determined by their strength - the strongest soldier gets to the front of the line. If fear is strongest, then it will grab the amygdala's power and dominate all the other soldiers in the line. If hope is stronger, then it will be preferentially processed over fear ... So we have to develop a strategy to help hope 'bulk up' and have an intelligence that supersedes the intelligence of fear. This isn't easy because, as we've learned, our brains are structured so that the amygdala processes fear first in order to protect us from danger." (p. 52-3)
This certainly explains why it's easier for us to give in to the impulse of fear instead of building hope. But it also explains why it's so important for us to choose hope, to give intentional attention to hope and what it is we're hoping for. Regularly imagining the state of life that hope is directed to. Those specific activities build up our hope response. And when we hope, says Dr. Pillay, we stimulate out brain center (amygdala) to use its mass of nerve pathways to empower our bodies to act in harmony with that hope instead of short-circuiting it with fear.
Hope isn't a naive, feel-good fantasy approach to life. It's central to using our brain structure to facilitate positive, profound life transformation. We do need fear, too. We need to feel fear to keep us from dangerous situations - we need the fight or flight response for survival. But we can't live there - we end up destroying our systems if we do. So we must "bulk up" hope. We must choose to imagine what we truly want our lives to become. We must spend time directing our attention to that picture. We must allow our emotional, rational, physiological systems to mobilize us toward that preferred future.
No wonder many of the sacred scriptures of the great faith traditions talk about hope and setting our minds and hearts on the object of our hope. "Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see." (Hebrews 11:1) Confidence. Assurance. And the rest of that chapter describes how those qualities lead to dramatic and transforming action. Maintaining that kind of hope is what empowers us to take necessary steps to bring it into reality.
It's significant that all the families of the 33 trapped Chilean miners are staying on the mining site in a tent village that they're calling Camp Hope. They are choosing to stay focused and to embrace hope. Like Elizabeth Segovia, the wife of one of the trapped miners (reported by CNN). The day before the tragic mine collapse, she received a piece of great news - she was pregnant with a girl - an ultrasound had confirmed it. The next day, her world collapsed. She cried and cried. As the weeks went by, she found herself talking to her baby girl inside her, "Daddy's okay? Daddy's okay! It's going to be alright!"
Last Thursday, Segovia got a handwritten letter from her husband Ticona proposing they name their daughter Esperanza Elizabeth -- esperanza is Spanish for hope. "First, because we never lost hope," she said, and "second, because it's the name of the camp where the families are living; and third, because the 33 miners never lost hope either."
With her daughter due to arrive in less than two weeks, and her husband due to arrive in perhaps four months, Segovia plans to make a video of the birth to ensure he doesn't miss it altogether. "We have to record the birth in great detail, as well as everything that happens to my baby day by day so we can show him," she said.
What do you need to hope for in your life? What is your preferred future? What do you need to hang on to in order to stimulate your brain center into powerful action? Where are you most fearful? Is your fear paralyzing you? Can renewed hope in you create new facts to bolster that hope and bring transformation? Esperanza. Hope. Best to hang on to it!
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[If you're here at this Blog for the first time, click back and read Part 1 of this topic: "Can Holiness Invade Your Office and Your Kitchen?" It will fill out this post more meaningfully.] As I noted in my last blog post (see "Can Holiness Invade Your Office and Your Kitchen? Part 1"), Dr. Susan Smalley, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, talks about the importance of developing a pervasive spirituality, where the sacred is seen and experienced as inherent to daily life. She has discovered that this kind of spirituality has great impact on minimizing individual self-centeredness and increasing a deeper sense of personal well-being and compassion for others.
I love the way Brian McLaren, in his book Finding Our Way Again, describes the process of developing a pervasive spirituality. He says that rather than simply trying so hard to practice our faith (which ends up only adding to our already over-filled To Do lists), we could be “Faithing our practices” - "embuing our normal [everyday] practices with meaning derived from faith.” It's about learning how to see Holiness in every part of our ordinary days.
The Jews do this with what they call "the blessing." By giving a blessing for everything they encounter during the day, they are reminded of the sacredness of all of life because a Blessing isn't something that embues what is being blessed with goodness or God's presence. A blessing is simply a tangible, intentional act of acknowledging the inherent Sacredness and Goodness in those things as gifts from God. “The purpose of the ancient way and the ancient practices is not to make us more religious. It is to make us more alive to God ... alive to [God’s whole world].” (McLaren)
The Hebrews in scripture also built altars of remembrances out of stones at places where they encountered the Sacred and Divine in meaningful ways. Why put ordinary rocks on top of each other on the side of busy thoroughfares and even in out of the way places? The point was that every time they saw them they could be reminded of God's activity in their lives. They could tell each other the story of their encounter with God and remember that life is sacred and blessed. Stone altars to help holiness pervade ordinary life.
I wear a ring that has a cross on it on the middle finger of my right hand. It was a gift from my wife. It's there as a constant reminder of my calling and life purpose. Throughout the day, I'll feel it and look down and notice the cross and remember: I am loved; I have a divine purpose; my life is a calling to live for God. It's amazing how that thought, generated by a tangible symbol, suddenly transforms that moment into a sacred moment, a divine encounter, an embracing of God's continuing and pervasive presence in my life.
Last Saturday, at my Second Wind spiritual community, in the middle of our discussion on this topic, we engaged in what is called prayerwalking. We all went outside and individually walked around the neighborhood community with the goal of intentionally noticing what captured our attention. We were to do several things: 1) What did we notice? 2) Offer a blessing on it. 3) Consider how it reflected God to us? How was the Sacred revealed to us through it? And 4) pause and be in the moment. Then when we all returned to the room, we tried to capture our experience by jotting thoughts/reflections on paper, staying silent, staying in that Sacred Space.
When we debriefed the experience, it was astounding how much all of us described paying attention to life around us in new and meaningful ways. There was a sense of sacredness we expressed feeling as we each walked around the blocks in such an intentional frame of mind. The activity reminded us how something as simple as walking around with a different intention (an open, more "enlightened," purposeful mind) could contribute to a more meaningful spiritual experience and a greater receptiveness to life around us. When you begin seeing all of life as sacred and spiritual, you look at it all very differently.
What symbols, reminders, tangible ways do you have to remember the Sacred and the Divine all through your day? How are you decompartmentalizing your spirituality so that all of life is experienced as holy and sacred and thus more meaningful and purposeful?
I love the way Carrie Newcomer describes this in one of her songs, "Holy As A Day Is Spent":
holy is the dish and the drain the soap and sink, and the cup and plate and the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile showerheads and good dry towels and frying eggs sound like psalms with bits of salt measured in my palm it’s all a part of a sacrament as holy as a day is spent
holy is the busy street and cars that boom with passion’s beat and the check out girl, counting change and the hands that shook my hands today and hymns of geese fly overhead and spread their wings like their parents did blessed by the dog, that runs in her sleep to chase some wild and elusive thing holy is the familiar room and quiet moments in the afternoon and folding sheets like folding hands to pray as only laundry can i’m letting go of all my fear like autumn leaves made of earth and air for the summer came and the summer went as holy as a day is spent
holy is the place i stand to give whatever small good i can and the empty page, and the open book redemption everywhere i look unknowingly we slow our pace in the shade of unexpected grace and with grateful smiles and sad lament as holy as a day is spent
and morning light sings “providence” as holy as a day is spent
Perhaps every day life could be filled with a deeper sense of well-being and meaning if we intentionally saw the holiness in all of it? Maybe we could close the HPI (Happy Planet Index) gap here in the States if we allowed our spirituality to pervade all of life, including our offices, our kitchens, and even the baby's play pen? Want to join me in experimenting with this?
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I read recently about a person who discovered that he should drink 16 glasses of water a day. The next morning he brought to his office a large pitcher filled with water. Throughout the day that pitcher on his desk frequently reminded him of his need, and he'd pour another glass and drink. Overall, it was a positive experience—other than having to go to the bathroom 27 times in a period of eight hours. Remaining hydrated, he learned from that experience, requires intentionality. He had to stop periodically in the midst of his busyness, become aware of his body's need for liquid, and take a few moments to drink a glass of water. It was amazing how helpful having that pitcher of water in front of him all day was to his intention of drinking more water. Intentionality is a huge piece of what makes people effective and successful - setting intentions and then determining a specific course of action to accomplish those intentions. It applies to every area of life, right? We intentionalize what we desire, what we can and what we have control over, and then hold it all with an open hand, recognizing that sometimes the best things that happen do happen as surprises. However, intentionality is an important value. And what helps our intentions become reality are the tangible reminders we put in front of ourselves regularly of what we're trying and wanting to do - finding ways to integrate our intentions with the rest of our lives.
Dr. Susan Smalley, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, posted an article in the Huffington Post last week in which she tries to understand some of the reasons India ranks so much higher than the United States on the Happiness Index (especially considering the comparative massive economic disparity and rampant poverty in India). The Happy Planet Index (whose most recent compilation came out in July 2009) strips the view of the economy back to its absolute basics: what we put in (resources), and what comes out (human lives of different length and happiness). Its the first ever index "to combine environmental impact with well-being to measure the environmental efficiency with which country by country, people live sustainable, long and happy/meaningful lives." That's the way they define it. The resulting global index of the 143 nations reveals some interesting comparisons.
So after just returning from her first trip to India, she reflects on her experience of its culture and posits a significant observation. First of all, she defines spirituality as "a sense of connection to something larger than oneself." And then, recognizing recent research that shows that spirituality positively impacts health and well-being, she describes her experience in India:
"In India this attention to spirituality is pervasive. It is evident in every aspect of the culture - there is constant integration of reminders that we are part of something larger than the self ... in the shrines present on every street corner, sides of houses, roadside stops, hilltops, alleyways, back of tractor trailers, and beyond. Shrines are big, small, colorful, bland, dedicated to Shiva, Ganesh, Hanuman, or thousands of other manifestations of our shared nature, to Hindus the manifestations of a Oneness or God or an Ultimate Reality. It is evident in the pervasive Namaste - a greeting with hand folded in a prayer position accompanied by a bow that means something like 'I see the Oneness in you.' It is evident in the pervasive 'bindi,' the smudge of color between the eyebrow - a reminder that we are part of something larger than the self - visible by a 'third eye' if you will … I am so impressed with the complete integration of spiritual development into daily life. Being surrounded by constant reminders of our connectedness and dependent nature make emotions and actions stemming from self-centeredness more difficult to come by."
In contrast here in the West, we tend to compartmentalize our time for spiritual practice if we engage in any at all - once a week in spiritual gatherings, or a specific meditation time each day, or at religious Holidays, or prayer at meals. Other than these moments, the rest of our lives is rarely surrounded by spiritual reminders or awareness. Our passion to separate Church from State, our carefulness to maintain distinction and distance between the spiritual and the secular, has led to an overly heightened sense of individuality and independence and self-importance. Our worldviews have gradually narrowed through the decades from cosmos to planet to nation to city to neighborhood to self, with whatever happening to self carrying the ultimate significance and importance.
This reality, suggests Dr. Smalley, helps to explain some of the difference between India and the U.S. on the Happiness Index - it's about how pervasive spirituality is in everyday life.
The point is, the journey of spirituality (and a corresponding sense of well-being and happiness) don't simply happen by chance. It takes intentionality and thought and discipline. It takes structuring our lives around tangible reminders of our connection "to something larger than ourselves." It takes decompartmentalizing our lives and integrating spirituality into the flow of daily existence. It means allowing the divine to incarnate itself into the fiber and fabric of our lives. It means engaging in specific activities, tangible reminders, intentional words, visual - auditory - kinesthetic experiences.
So what would it look like to make spirituality a way of life for me? What intentional ways do I build into my day to be reminded of transcendence? How intentional are I about living life deeply and with greater awareness and enlightenment?
STAY TUNED TO PART 2: What are some tangible ways to facilitate a more pervasive spirituality?
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