My own manifesto item #8: I cannot control the future. I so desperately needed to return to this idea today, and to fill it out with Buddhist thought. I cannot control the future because no one can. And accepting that means accepting as well that there are many things I cannot control, and therefore am not responsible for. Such a harsh childhood lesson, the feeling that we should somehow be responsible for things we have no control over. The helplessness hurts, yes. But worse is the inner voice telling us that we are failures because we can’t control everything. No. I deny that. We are brave because we go on hoping, wanting, trying, despite the fact that we cannot control everything. We are courageous because we face uncertainty every day–will we be loved tomorrow? Will our families be safe? Will we do or say or make something that matters (to us, if to no one else)? We don’t know. But we care anyway. Breathe. Care. Love. Ask to be loved. Hope. There is no foolishness in any of those things.
- Take 10 deep breaths. Sit up straight, tucking your shoulders back and down, pulling your chin down and elongating your neck (most of us jut our chins forward and hang our heads low). Breathe in deeply and exhale slowly. Take your time. 10 breaths. This simple technique has so many advantages: you can do it anywhere (you always have to breathe); you don’t have to believe it’ll help, because numerous scientific studies have already proven that it does, in fact, have a physiological relaxation effect that even helps with hypertension; Buddhists and other meditation practitioners have been doing it for thousands of years; and breathing is sexy. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating with that last one, though no doubt you can find studies linking deep breathing to anything.
- Send a text (or a quick email, if you don’t text) to someone, telling that person how much you appreciate her or him. Many “happiness experts” recommend some kind of gratitude practice, where you write down things you’re grateful for every day. This seems to foster happiness on a long-term basis, as does Buddhist metta practice, which involves sending good feelings out to other people during meditation. But for a single jolt of “I need to feel good right now” that takes very little time and doesn’t make you feel guilty for not doing something every day, this appreciation technique works wonders.
- Touch an animal. Dog, cat, rabbit, horse, parakeet, whatever. Again, studies show that our blood pressure is lowered by the simple activity of running our hand over a dog’s head or scratching a cat’s cheek. To make it even more effective, do it mindfully: really focus on the animal, on the feeling of its fur under your fingertips. Be present in that moment. If you need a model for being present in the moment, enjoying things without getting distracted about the future, just look to the animal! Animals aren’t worried about tomorrow or next year. They don’t think about what else they should be doing. They are present, in their bodies, in the moment, enjoying the closeness with you.
- Stretch your back. Take a tip from yoga professionals, who really know what they’re doing when it comes to stretching and the mind-body connection. This is my personal routine, which may vary for you. Experiment to see what feels best for you. Lie down on your back, on the floor (or a mat or towel on the floor) with no pillow and bend your knees. (Lying flat without bending your knees and sliding your feet towards your rear can put more stress on your lower back.) Tuck in your chin, elongate that neck, tuck the shoulders back. This doesn’t work on a bed or couch; you need a truly flat surface (I prefer a carpeted floor). Just this simple act will stretch and align your back and neck. If you carry tension in your shoulders or upper back, put your arms above your head as close to your ears as possible and let them rest on the floor. If your lower back can be a problem, pull your knees to your chest and hug them, then gently rock side to side to loosen and stretch those muscles. Note that none of this should be painful. This is a brief, non-strenuous stretch. When you’re ready to get up, roll onto one side and slowly sit up. Do not jerk your upper body forward, as this will just put stress on that lower back again. Our spines work hard for us, so the muscles associated with them need regular care.
- Meditate. I know, I said 5 minutes. The thing is, you can meditate in 5 minutes, every once in a while, when you really need it. Yes, all the books and experts tell you that you should meditate every day, you should start with X number of minutes and build up to an hour. But guess what: even just once, when you’re thinking of it, maybe a couple of times a month, will help. And it can help immediately. First, forget the idea of “clearing your mind.” There are many ways to meditate, but one of the simplest and most immediately helpful is considered mindfulness. Follow these steps: Mute your computer and put your phone on airplane mode. Set a timer on your phone for 5 minutes. Sit up straight or lie down if it’s more comfortable, and close your eyes. Now, don’t try to control what you’re thinking or feeling! Whatever you’re thinking or feeling is ok. You’re allowed. Just practice this basic skill: notice what you’re thinking and feeling. If you’re thinking, “Oh my god, I haven’t gotten those insurance forms sent in and I know if I don’t do it they’ll send stampeding rhinos to my house to punish me,” don’t panic. Just notice it. Practice thinking, “Oh, I notice I’m worrying about insurance and paperwork. I notice I have a fear of stampeding rhinos. How interesting.” Because it is interesting—it’s wildly interesting, what your mind does. But those worries are not the whole you. There is always a part of you that retains equanimity, and love, and connection to other people. Trust me, there is, even in your worst moments. Religions and philosophies and scientists have different words for that part of you. One way to access it, to remind yourself of it, is to meditate.
GENUINENESS: THE WARRIOR’S SAFETY PRECAUTION
Everything reverts back to being genuine. Whenever there’s a gap, the only way to be a warrior is to refer back to the genuineness, which is somewhat raw and so tender and painful. That is the saving grace or the safety precaution, so that the warrior never goes astray and never grows a thick skin.
For me, courage isn’t about putting aside fear, or pain, or vulnerability. Courage is about facing and feeling those things. I do not want to be invulnerable, ever. I don’t want to swaddle myself or my life in muffling cotton so I never get hurt. I want a big life–passion, risk, and choice, as well as peace, reflection, and generosity. But when I feel hurt, my instinct is to figure out ways to avoid or minimize the pain, to scheme so that I don’t have to feel it again. That instinct to be safe, to take care of myself, makes sense. I know I am the only one who can truly take care of myself.
But I’m also the only one who can know and understand my own contradictions. Whitman gives us all permission to contradict ourselves (“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large–I contain multitudes.”), and I am so grateful for that permission. Navigating my contradictions makes the “right” and “wrong” thing to do for myself difficult, however.
I like this quote because I don’t equate being my “genuine” self with being my perfect or ideal self. I equate it with being my imperfect, messy, contradictory self. I want both safety and freedom, to be held and to be thrown into the sky to fly on my own. I will not shut off one part of my genuine self so as to do or say the right thing for the other part. I will say them both. I will want them both. Living this way is not easy or simple. We are, each one of us, paradoxes.
Be your own paradox. Don’t crumble under the pressure to simplify yourself. Have courage–to be vulnerable, to be genuine, to throw your tender heart out into the world again and again. I’ll try to do it with you.