Experience Your Life


We recently moved our 18 year old, adult, daughter into university in Toronto.  She is only 90 kilometers away but everything has changed.  We are no longer a cohesive three person unit.  We are now two separate entities.  We have our life and she has hers.  It will never go back to the way it was when she was a child.

Needless to say, this new situation brought up lots of emotions and thoughts for me.  It took me a day or so to run through them all.  It wasn’t pleasant at times.  Lots of crap came up – every mother related fear and worry you could think of, and maybe some extras!

What I finally landed on was that this was a Fear of Life coming up again.  For every exciting thing that was happening in her new life I could come up with a dozen reasons why it wasn’t safe and she should just stay home.  Now, I’m trying to look at everything through her eyes and not through my own perceptions and preferences.  My 55-year-old self wouldn’t like sharing a room with a roommate, but her 18-year-old self loves it.

This story – Experience Your Life – from Pema Chodron’s book Comfortable with Uncertainty – 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion reminded me to relax and allow her to delight in every new moment, while I try to do the same.  I thought I would share it with you.

“A woman is running from tigers.  She runs and she runs, and the tigers are getting closer and closer.  She comes to the edge of a cliff.  She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds on to it.  Then she looks down and sees that there are tigers below her as well.  At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging.  She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass.  She looks up, she looks down, and she looks at the mouse.  Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Tigers above, tigers below.  This is the predicament we are always in.  We are born and sooner or later we die.  Each moment is just what it is.  Resentment, bitterness, and holding a grudge prevent us from seeing and hearing and tasting and delighting.  This might be the only moment of our life, this might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat.  We could feel depressed about this or we could finally appreciate it.  We could delight in the preciousness of every single moment.”



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Suffering is Optional


“Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional.”  I really didn’t get it the first time I heard that quote.  I equated the two – pain and suffering.  How can you have pain without suffering?  Pain hurts and hurting is suffering.  How can suffering be optional?

I’m starting to get it now.  Pain and suffering are two different things.  Deepak Chopra explains it,

“Many people confuse pain with suffering. We have to realize, first of all, that pain is not the same as suffering. Left to itself, the body discharges pain spontaneously, letting go of it the moment that the underlying cause is healed.  Suffering is pain that we hold on to.”

I recently had the opportunity to experience the difference first hand.  My older sister was staying with us during a visit from England.  One day she woke up very ill.  She had a high fever and could barely get out of bed.  After talking to a nurse it was decided that we needed to take her to the hospital by ambulance.  I spent the whole day in the emergency room with her.  Waiting for tests; waiting to see the doctor; waiting for more tests.  A day in the emergency room is probably not anyone’s first choice of how to spend their day.  However, I resigned myself to the reality that this was where I needed to be and the day passed without much suffering on my part.  My sister was prescribed medication for an infection and we left with her feeling much better.

Good for me.  I accepted a less than perfect reality and didn’t cause myself suffering by fighting against what was.  Buddhist teachings say that suffering is caused by wanting reality to be something other than it is.  Bryon Katie describes it well in her book Loving What Is,

“The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with what is … If you want reality to be different than it is, you might as well try to teach a cat to bark.  You can try and try, and in the end the cat will look up at you and say, “Meow.”

Fast forward three days.  My sister had gone to stay with our aunt in Scarborough.  She was starting to feel unwell again and had broken out in a nasty rash.  By the time I had picked her up and taken her back to the emergency room I had been sitting in the car for about four hours.  I was hungry and not in the mood to sit for several more hours in the emergency room.

I was in the exact same situation, the same emergency room, but with a different mindset.  The first time I was resigned to my situation, made the best of it, and did not suffer.  I accepted what was.  The second time I felt miserable the whole time we were there.  I was fighting my situation, I didn’t want to be there, and I suffered.  I forgot that suffering was optional.  I wanted my reality to be different than it was and despite my suffering that darned cat wouldn’t bark.

(Note:  My sister was diagnosed as allergic to the original medication and prescribed a new one.   She enjoyed the rest of her visit and is now back home in England.)

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90 Seconds

Zen Picture 2

How long do you think it takes to get over an emotion?  Hours, days, years?  If you had asked me before I read My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor, I probably would have said hours or days – mostly based on how long it takes me to get over being angry sometimes. 

Dr. Taylor explained that “when we experience feelings of sadness, joy, anger, frustration, or excitement, these are emotions that are generated by the cells of our limbic system.”  So, “Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain [limbic system] surges through my body and I have a physiological experience.  Within ninety seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over.”  Ninety seconds!  Emotions are “completely flushed out of our bloodstream” in 90 seconds.  If I hang on to them longer than that, like I sometimes do with anger, it is because I have mentally chosen to hang on to that feeling rather than “allowing that reaction to melt away as fleeting physiology.”

Ninety seconds!  This was a real news flash for me.  As was Dr. Taylor’s explanation that “the healthiest way I know how to move through an emotion effectively is to surrender completely to that emotion when its loop of physiology comes over me.  I simply resign to the loop and let it run its course for ninety seconds … emotions heal when they are heard and validated.”

I realized that I am not very good at validating negative emotions.  I tend to want to fix or correct them so they will go away quickly – like when we were emptying out my mother-in-law’s house which had just been sold.  I heard my husband and daughter talking in the other room.  My daughter wanted to find a small knick knack that she had given her grandmother years before so that she could give it to her again at her new retirement home.  My husband wanted to get the car loaded and get out of there quickly.  I heard him brush her off when she asked where exactly he had put the tiny trinket she was looking for.  As soon as she walked into the room I was in she burst out crying.  My immediate reaction was to say, “don’t cry”.  I didn’t even really know why she was crying, I just wanted her to stop.  I thought she was upset because her dad had been brusque with her and I wanted to fix that.  That’s my job.  Right from day one as a mother I tried to stop the crying.  We feed, we change diapers, we rock, we soothe, we love.  All to make sure our children are happy and not crying.

Now I realize that while my intentions were good, it was completely the wrong thing to say and do.  She was upset for many reasons, and like some wise person said in a movie I watched recently, “emotions need to be felt”.  I should have let her feel and express her emotions, even if they made me feel uncomfortable.  She wasn’t even really upset about her dad; she was more upset over the sale of her grandmother’s house and the fact that her grandmother had been ill.  But I didn’t know that until I gave her a moment to express her emotions. 

I am thankful for that lesson because when my mother-in-law passed away this month I was better prepared to handle the experience with my daughter.  When she cried, I didn’t tell her to stop or that everything was going to be okay.  I told her that I knew how hard and sad it was, and I held her when she needed holding, and I let her cry.  I let her have her 90 seconds (and more) knowing that our feelings and emotions are passing, they do not define us.  Knowing that she would be happy again after letting the loop run its course.  And sure enough, a few minutes later she was laughing through her tears at some funny memory of her grandmother.  Emotions need to be felt and expressed.

Thank you Joyce, we are still learning from you!

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Eye on the Ball


My daughter and I have been taking group tennis lessons.  It wasn’t until lesson 6 of 8 that I began to enjoy them.  Lesson 6 was a private lesson because my classmates were absent that evening.  I only had me to focus on – no watching my classmates, no joking with my daughter, just me and my tennis game.

My teacher also had more time to focus on me.  We were practicing volleys – where you hit the ball before it bounces – and I was consistently missing them.  He told me to keep my eye on the ball.  For some reason I had not connected “eye on the ball” to tennis – golf yes, but not tennis.  There is so much to watch in and around a tennis game – your opponent, the people playing in the next court, the people outside the court.  I realized I had been spreading my attention over all those things and not focusing on the game.

Once I started keeping my eye on the ball and ignoring everything else going on around me it made a huge difference.  It wasn’t until that one comment that it became clear how distracted I had been.  I also realized that I hadn’t been really enjoying the lessons because I wasn’t making any progress.  I wasn’t improving because I wasn’t focusing.  I read a book recently that said if you are not focusing you will “get half as much done in twice the time with quadruple the stress”.  I was just showing up and it wasn’t working for me.

The experience made me think about other areas in my life where I may be just showing up – not focusing on the goal or the task at hand.  Marianne Williamson describes it well in her book A Return to Love when she speaks of an acting teacher she once had, “By teaching us the truth about acting, he taught us the truth about life.  Once you know: 1. Leave your personal problems at the stage door; 2. Treat the material with honesty, dignity and without embellishment; 3. Show up fully no matter how many people are in the audience, then you know everything you need to know in order to have a powerful professional career.  To know the real truth about anything is to know the truth about everything.”

Hopefully my discovery of the real truth in tennis, keep your eye on the ball, will help me fully show up fully in everything I do.  If I choose to play tennis, I will focus on playing tennis.  If I choose to work, I will focus on work and the task at hand.  Not only will I get more done, hopefully I will enjoy the process and the results more.  Eye on the ball!

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No More Decisions


How many times have you stressed over a decision – unsure of the right course of action to bring about the outcome you want?  Decisions can feel big, life altering, permanent!  A lot of thought and planning goes into them – a lot of agonizing over making the right decision.  That’s why I am no longer making decisions.  It’s too stressful.

I was at a talk by Sharon Lewis where she encouraged us to stop making decisions.  Instead she suggested we make choices and that we change them every 10 seconds if need be.  Choices are lighter, smaller, and easier.  If you don’t like the direction your choice is taking you, make another choice.  How freeing is that?

I’m a bit of a control freak, so I like to plan things out.  Many times I’ll get stressed trying to decide things that really don’t need to be decided at all, or sometimes can’t be decided.  For instance, my husband and I have been in a bit of a transition.  He was transitioning to autonomy from a 30 year career in government.  His transition prompted me to start thinking about my career future and what that would look like.  I thought I needed to make decisions, finalize my plan, and announce it to the world.

However, forcing myself to make decisions about my future was causing me stress.  It felt like I had to decide NOW, even though I didn’t know the best course of action.  I finally realized that I didn’t have to make any big decisions.  No one was pressuring me, except me!  I didn’t have to decide to wind down my business on a certain date.  I didn’t have to make a proclamation and set my plan in stone.  It could just evolve naturally, one right choice at a time.  I could focus on doing what I want, what I have energy for, without ever having to stress over a big decision.  The pressure to decide was causing me grief rather than the contentment I thought it would bring.

I don’t need to make a firm decision about my career future right now.  Decisions are big.  Choices are smaller.  So, rather than forcing myself to decide – NOW – life or death; I am stepping back and making it smaller – what is the next right choice?  Not a forever decision, but a present moment choice.  If that choice doesn’t work out the way I hoped it would, I will choose again in 10 seconds, or tomorrow, or next year.

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Fear of Life


What’s the worst that could happen?  Isn’t that what we’re supposed to ask ourselves when we’re afraid to make the speech, accept the job offer, or make the dreaded cold call?  Sometimes it helps and we realize the worst is that the other person will say no or we will stumble over a few words.  But other times the worst case scenario is that we could die or be physically hurt.  Actually, if we drill down, the real reason we avoid many things is fear of death or injury.  I know this.  I have a 17 year-old daughter who went on a March break road trip to Montreal with her friends.  All my fears about her trip revolved around death or injury – long hours of driving on highways, driving in very busy cities, crime, making bad decisions.  We live in a fairly small city and I worried how four teenage girls would fare in the big city of Montreal.

Every motherly fibre in my body said no – don’t go – not safe.  Stay here where there are fewer unknowns and dangers.  It’s the same instinct that still has me reaching for her hand when we cross the road even though she is nearly an adult who drives a car and is a certified lifeguard.  It’s a hard one to let go of.  My job is to keep her safe.  I can’t do that if I am in Guelph and she is in Montreal with no adult supervision.

Her dad wasn’t particularly worried about the driving or the predators.  He wanted her to be aware of all the potential issues and dangers, be prepared, and to go and have a good time.  After hearing me out he simply said, “I want her to have an exciting life.”  So do I!  I want her to be safe and have an exciting life.  That’s when I realized my fear of death and injury was really a fear of life.

I’ve been re-reading Pema Chodron’s Comfortable with Uncertainty – 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion.  She explains that by “always trying to create safety zones” we are effectively “preferring death to life.”  I get it.  I could lock my daughter in a room to keep her safe.  Good intentions, sure, but I would be denying her a full life.

The irony is that even if she stays home I can’t keep her safe.  I have no control over anything really.  We are all going to die.  We know this.  We don’t know when or how, but we know we all will eventually.  Most of us do what we can to prolong that eventuality and many of these things are great – eating well, staying active, wearing a seat belt.  However, hiding from life in order to be safe is not so great.  I may think that I am keeping my daughter safe by keeping her close but I am really just keeping her from living.

As Pema Chodron says, “The essence of life is fleeting.  Life might be over in the next instant! … It’s okay to let it scare you.”  What’s not okay is to avoid life because I am afraid of death.  Maybe it’s time to look more closely at what I’m not doing in order to keep myself safe.   As Pema says, “We become habituated to reaching for something to ease the edginess of the moment.  Thus we become less and less able to reside with even the most fleeting uneasiness or discomfort … This is our way of trying to make life predictable.”  However, life is not predictable and no amount of saying no and living small will guarantee safety.

And my daughter … she and her friends not only survived their trip to Montreal, they had a great time and had an experience that contributed to the exciting life that we all want.

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How to Be More Confident


How confident are you?  What does confidence mean to you?  I used to think that people either had confidence or they didn’t.  Some people just exude confidence – they appear to be sure of themselves and very comfortable in their own skin.  I assumed they were born that way – that they were naturally good at things and they knew it.  I didn’t include myself in the ranks of the confident.

I was at a networking meeting last year and the question put to the room of women was, “What is holding you back from doing all you want in life and business?”  Confidence was the main thing these businesswomen said held them back.  It was enlightening for me to realize that confidence is not the default for most people.

It was even more enlightening for me when the speaker, Sharon Lewis, asked us what it feels like to be confident.  My initial reaction was I don’t know – I’m not one of those naturally self-confident people.   Then she gave us her description of confidence.  It’s not something we are born with.  It is simply what we are sure of.  To be confident is to know something – to be certain of the outcome.  That’s when I began to more clearly understand that self-confidence is how we view our abilities.  For example, I am confident in my ability to drive an automatic transmission car.  I have done it many times before and I know that I am capable of doing it again.  That’s what it feels like to be confident.  Cool!

So how do I develop that kind of confidence, that kind of certainty, in other areas of my life?  When I choose to drive my car, my brain very quickly scans past patterns and sends the message to go ahead – I know how to do this, I’ve done this before, all systems go.  However, I realized that my default reaction or brain pattern to new or challenging situations is to think “this looks hard and I may not be able to do it”, so my brain sends the message to stop.  I want to reprogram that mindset.

This type of default thinking is what Dr. Carol S. Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, calls a Fixed Mindset.  As kids, many of us were only praised or measured on our abilities.  That kind of ability-praise creates a fixed mindset.  You get good grades in school so you must be smart.  Or, you don’t get good grades in school so you must be dumb.  Dr. Dweck’s studies of students showed that kids with a fixed mindset would reject attempting a challenging new task that they could learn from because they didn’t want to do anything that “could expose their flaws and call into question their talent”.

Dr. Dweck gave a group of kids a fairly easy test on which they did well.  They were praised for their ability – you did well, you must be smart.  Next they were given a much more challenging test on which many of them didn’t do well.  This one poor performance was enough to make the ability-praised students lose faith in their abilities.  When given the easier tests again, they didn’t do as well as when they started.  The fixed mindset kids had let the tests define them, “If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb.  That’s the fixed mindset.”

One of my current goals is to develop a Growth Mindset, the opposite of a fixed mindset.  People with a growth mindset believe that if they do poorly on something it doesn’t mean they are dumb, it just means they need to work harder and learn how to do it better.  They don’t let failure define them.  I want to change my default brain pattern from this looks hard, I’m not doing it because I may fail and look stupid, to this looks hard but I am doing it because I know if I work hard I can eventually figure it out.

So to build confidence, I need to change what I am sure of.  However, like strengthening a muscle, it isn’t a one shot deal.  Like Dr. Dweck says, “change isn’t like surgery.  Even when you change, the old beliefs aren’t just removed like a worn-out hip or knee and replaced with better ones.  Instead, the new beliefs take their place alongside the old ones, and as they become stronger, they give you a different way to think, feel, and act.”

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Savour Life


I went through a very busy period last year.  I was quickly moving from one task to the next, always rushing and often trying to do more than one thing at once.  It was stressful and tiring but I kept telling myself that it was only temporary and soon I’d have time to relax and do some fun things.

Then one day I was forced out of my office by the noise and fumes from a neighbour’s gas wood chipper.  I had to get some fresh air, so I went for a walk.  It was a beautiful summer day and all I was thinking about was how I needed to get back to work.  That’s when it dawned on me that I was wasting a big part of my life!

I was trying to rush through a walk on a lovely day so I could get back to work and then rush through that so I could get to the next thing.  How much of my life had I wasted on mindlessly powering through tasks – working, washing dishes, making dinner…?  It occurred to me that these are not just tasks I have to do before I can get to my life.  They are my life.

So I chose right then to be fully present for the rest of my walk and enjoy it, not just endure it until I could get back to work.  I walked past a grove of Japanese Katsura trees and paused to breathe in the aroma.  At certain times of the year they smell like cotton candy.  I stopped for a few minutes and sat on a bench with a lovely view of the arboretum.  I was feeling much more relaxed.  I enjoyed the walk because I was both physically and mentally present.  I wasn’t walking while mentally already home and working.

I leisurely walked on through the trees, thinking I had it figured out.  Everything I do, every task, is a part of life to be savoured.  Life was going to be so much better with my new attitude.  Then I got to the end of the tranquil forest and began walking through busy city streets on my way home.  I started to speed up my pace, thinking that the nice part of my walk was over – the part in nature – and now I just wanted to get home.  Fortunately, I realized fairly quickly that my new attitude had just flown the coup and I was right back to my old “I just have to get through this” attitude.   Every time I started to veer off into ‘get home quickly’ auto-pilot mode, I reminded myself to savour walking outside on a beautiful sunny day.

So this year I am trying to find pleasure in everything I do, not just the fun things.  When I sit down at my desk to work, I am trying to be fully there and savour working.  When I stop working to make lunch, I try to leave work behind and savour the experience of making lunch.  I’m trying to really be there for everything I do and live in the moment.  After all, there are no guarantees about how many moments we get in this life.  If making lunch is the last thing I get to do in this life, I sure hope I savoured every minute of it and didn’t just mindlessly move through it so I could get on to the next thing …

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Fake It Until You Make It


My mother was never really heavy, but she was often dissatisfied with her weight and the way she looked.  When I had my own daughter I decided that I didn’t want to pass on that legacy.  Every time I looked in a mirror, even though I usually didn’t feel it, I would say out loud “I look great!”  If my daughter was standing beside me, I would say “We look great!”  I wanted her to grow up believing that what she saw in the mirror was okay.

Year after year, I said it out loud for my daughter’s benefit, but I never truly believed it.  I still felt fat and frumpy.  My words may have been benefiting my daughter but they weren’t doing anything for me.  It wasn’t until I chose to believe the words that I gradually lost the extra weight.

Dr. Bruce Lipton, a cell biologist, says, “When we shift the mind’s interpretation … to positive belief, the brain responds biochemically, the blood changes the body’s cell culture, and the cells change on a biological level.” (Rankin)  I think this happened to me.  I consistently shifted my interpretation of what I saw in the mirror from fat to slim and started a process that changed the neural pathways in my brain that led to physical changes in my body.

It took awhile for my new interpretation to become a habit.  I would look in the mirror and as soon as I caught myself going back to my old, yuck response, I would smile and switch to my new, slim and trim response.  The smiling part is important.  Studies have shown that the physical act of smiling, even a fake smile, can induce positive emotions (Scientific American).  I wasn’t just telling myself I was slim and looking great, I had to feel that way as well and smiling helped create those positive feelings.

My physical changes didn’t happen quickly.  It took a few years.  I didn’t change my diet or lifestyle.  I changed how I thought and felt and that eventually changed how I looked.   I know it may sound like delusional thinking, but as Dr. Joe Dispenza says, “The latest research supports the notion that we have a natural ability to change the brain and body by thought alone, so that it looks biologically like some future event has already happened.”   It’s not delusion, it’s creating the future you want and that’s a legacy I want to pass on to my daughter.

Selected References: 

Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One and Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind by Joe Dispenza, D.C. 

Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself by Lissa Rankin, M.D.

Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman


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Change Your Reality


I changed outfits three times before going to a recent networking dinner.  I was working on a project that had some glitches and didn’t get ready to go out until the last minute.  Not only didn’t I finish the project, I had to scramble to find something to wear before my friend arrived to drive me to the meeting.  I ended up running out of the house in a top I borrowed from my daughter and fastening my shoes and cleaning my glasses in the car, where I remembered, too late, that I forgot to brush my hair.

As you can imagine, I was feeling at loose ends, both mentally and physically, when I arrived at the meeting.  I felt rushed and stressed and was sure I looked that way too.  The first words I heard at the meeting were from Marilyn who said, “Lisa you are looking very … very ….” and as she was searching for the word, my mind was racing to all the ways I was feeling – rushed, frazzled, a mess.  Just as I said to her, “You really are going to have to finish that sentence”, she found the words and said “put together and confident.”  I laughed out loud, both from relief and at the irony.  I couldn’t have felt any less put together and confident at that moment.

The topic of the speaker that night was Mirror, Mirror – Do You Trust What You See?  How appropriate!  I saw one thing and Marilyn saw another – our realities were very different until Marilyn changed my reality with her comment.  All of a sudden I was no longer a dishevelled mess.  I was put together and confident.  Cool!

Reality is really perception and perspective.  I assumed that I looked on the outside the same way that I felt on the inside.  I forgot that I can only see from my own limited perspective, which doesn’t always include all the information required to get an accurate picture.  It reminded me of the time I took a drawing class and only had the back view of what appeared to be a male mannequin.  However, when I walked around to the other side of the room, I saw very clearly that the front view revealed a large busted female mannequin.  Different perspective, different reality!

Other people don’t see all our inner turmoil.  Mentally I hadn’t moved on from scrambling to find something decent to wear.  Physically I had found a nice outfit, fastened my shoes, cleaned my glasses, and tidied up my hair on my way into the meeting.  The story I was telling myself was different from my actual physical reality.

So how could I have done for myself what Marilyn did for me that night?  I could have taken a moment to stop and breathe before going into the meeting.  I could have looked in the mirror and reminded myself that I was right where I was supposed to be – that all was well in this moment.  I could have left the stress of getting ready back where it belonged, in the past.  Just like the mannequin, if I had taken the time to look at my situation from another angle I would have seen what was actually there – the finished product, not the chaos it took to get there.  Think differently, feel differently.  Change your mind, change your reality.

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