go ahead, improve your life (just know why you want to)

Take a moment to consider these questions: What drives you to improve your life ? And how do you treat yourself when you’re trying to improve your life ?

Pema Chodron writes: “We are never encouraged to see clearly what is, with gentleness. Instead, there’s a kind of basic misunderstanding that we should try to be better than we already are, that we should try to improve ourselves, that we should try to get away from painful things, and that if we could just learn how to get away from the painful things, then we would be happy. That is the innocent, naive misunderstanding that we all share which keeps us unhappy.” (The Wisdom of No Escape)

When it comes to improving our lives, many of us are caught between the extremes of total avoidance, or lashing the whip. We’re either checking out, or we’re going into perfectionism over-drive. We rarely occupy a middle ground of being willing to give ourselves acceptance and compassion when we’re trying to change and grow.

(Some people chafe at the word “improve,” by the way. I figure, let’s just call it what it is, which is trying to improve your life beyond the conditions it was in yesterday or the year before. We can undertake this without it necessarily meaning that we don’t like ourselves).

We can choose to accept that the painful things do happen and to see, gently and clearly, that all of the energy we put into resisting them is wasted effort. We can know that we want things to be better, without also making ourselves bad or wrong. That’s the point that I’m trying to get at, here, and that I think Pema Chodron is making. We can desire something more, without necessarily negating the good that is there.

The desire to “improve,” like anything else, can be born from either love or from fear.

The real core of anything we want to shift is not in the “improving,” or the attachment to outcome that that can so easily breed from that place, but in seeing ourselves more clearly. When we see ourselves more clearly, we start seeing the people we love more clearly and then seeing the world more clearly, as well.

So go ahead, and improve your life . Just know why it is that you want to improve your life, and watch how you treat yourself in the process.

just want to quit everything ? Yep, I hear ya.

It’s possible to get so ensnared in the inertia of output that it feels impossible to stop. Everything in life is snowballing. It feels as if there’s no time or money or resources for anything that might help or might feel good. Letting go of one ball feels like dropping them all. Not moving at 100 mph feels like completely giving up on being remarkable.

It is a tempting fantasy at such times to just want to quit everything . Sell off everything you own, pack up a bag, and disappear from your day-to-day life, for awhile. It’s not that you’re suicidal (and if you are and that’s how you found your way to this particular post, please carefully review all of these resources, because your life does matter and it’s only the sadness talking–lying to you–convincing you otherwise).

No, in this post I’m talking about those times where the keeping-on just gets exhausting. You look around, you think, “Wait. I’m not ‘depressed’ exactly but when did life become…this work-work-work thing? Or when did I stop feeling adventurous and spontaneous? Is this really all there is?”

The impulse to stop and just quit everything is a strong one. It’s a child-like desire to just wipe the decks clean and start anew (as if our pasts aren’t going to come with us).

But then, there’s this:

“Never underestimate the inclination to bolt.” –Pema Chodron

Because when we are ready to just sell off all of our material positions and quit everything, the underlying desire is to bolt. And that inclination to bolt might have something to teach us.

What if there was a way that you could just quit everything …without exactly quitting everything?


Just Stop

I think that most of us need to look at our inclinations to bolt as a sign to just stop. Quite literally: stop. Lay down. Lay down on the floor, stop the activity, stop pursuing the to-do list, stop.

But I’m not talking about hiding out from the world or checking out. I’m talking about stopping…and getting deeply, deeply curious.

This is scary to do. That’s why it’s courageous to do it.

When one just stops in the midst of all of that flurry, you’re likely to experience an actual physical sensation of fear. Ego knows something’s up. It’s the fear mechanism kicking in, going, “Whoa–you are handling this differently. You’re not doing all the things you normally do when life feels intense, like disconnecting and numbing out. You’re…paying attention and getting present and very-very still. What’s going on?”

So…you stare into space. That’s it. I used to do it by turning off all the lights and watching a lone candle flicker against the wall while listening to music. You could also just sit in your car in a parking lot and watch people. Or you could go to a church and sit in an empty pew. Or you could sit on your porch. Or you could lay on your floor and stare at the ceiling.

You stop. You drop. You just get still.

The next thing that’s likely to happen is some voice will say, “Hey, did you remember to…?” and it’ll be something you’ve forgotten to do five times already, so you tell yourself, “I’ll get up now, because if I don’t I won’t remember that later.”

Don’t get up. Just lay there.

Watch and observe yourself. Stay with your thoughts. Just be with what you notice.

The next thing that might happen is you start rehashing an argument in your head. Then you’re likely to feel sad. Lay there. Cry. Get up only if the snot situation gets out of hand. Then blow your nose and lay back down and keep staying curious.

When you are still for long enough, a question you’ve felt really stuck on will arise and the answer will be right there, completely obvious and completely okay. Or you’ll have an insight about your life that feels really true and resonant.

When you start to feel like maybe the world isn’t so bad, and you’re going to make it after all, it’s time to get up. Bring the curiosity with you. And any time it starts to feel like too much and you just want to quit everything , again, return to that courageous stillness.

The Tricky Part

The Tricky Part of all of this is convincing oneself to actually do it–to sit, get still, and wait, and not get tossed off by the next idea or plan that comes to you.

I was always amazed by how many ideas would come to me when I was sitting zazen regularly with a Zen Buddhist community. I don’t mean that those ideas came to me, later–I mean that I was sitting there, trying to concentrate on my breath and instead suddenly all the ideas in the world would flood their way in. It was just distraction; the ideas worth savoring would occur to me off the cushion, as well.

Sometimes when I’m really busy, or one of my coaching clients is really busy, I’ll offer the practice of asking: What is all of the busy stuff covering up or hiding?

I’ll offer that question to you, now, because there is such enormous benefit in getting still with ourselves and seeing where we’re putting energy into covering up or hiding, especially because sometimes what we’re hiding is our best and brightest selves, the selves who have more patience, compassion, joy, pleasure, passion for living.

Sometimes “doing” isn’t the thing that needs to happen next for us to live big, bold, bright lives. Sometimes–oftentimes–what is needed is getting quiet and still, in whatever way you can.

courageous stillness

Stillness (n.) 1.) silence; quiet; hush, 2.) the absence of motion. Courageous stillness ? That’s the courage it requires to get…into the silence, the quiet, the hush amid our busy-busy-go-go world.

Most of us have had enough of the exhortations for me to “be remarkable” or “connect” or “test my limits” or “expand.” I used to think that I was weak when I hit these places; didn’t I need to work harder? To be remarkable, connect, test the limits, expand? Isn’t that what life is all about?

But in truth, our lives are comprised of a series of inputs and outputs. In the same way that it’s impossible to breathe without both the inhale and the exhale, we need both input and output. Even when it comes to personal development, we need time to push ourselves beyond our resistance and past the point of everything we ever thought we were capable of…and we need time to be utterly, decadently, “lazy” and still, without trying to change a damned thing.

Input/Output Theory

So here’s my theory: In any given day, we do things that are input (rejuvenating, fulfilling, uplifting, restful), or output (giving, being of service, doing work that is about input for someone or something else).

The challenge arises when the things that would normally be rejuvenating, input kind of activities, end up becoming output, just disguised. So, for instance, meditation (normally an “input” kind of activity) becomes this thing you “have to” do (output). It becomes part of striving to be better. “I need to meditate,” we say. “I need to do more yoga…take a vacation…get more present…study Italian…spend more time with my partner…take time for coffee…”

All of that might be true–maybe you do need those things–but when they stop providing any rejuvenating, lasting relief, you can be sure that input has turned into output, something striving and exhausting that you have to do-do-do.

Other signs:

  • The meditation practice becomes more about identifying as “A good person who meditates” than it is about presence in daily life.
  • The yoga becomes about being able to say “I went to yoga, today!”
  • The vacation becomes a series of micromanaging each day, or outputting in the form of fretting–because you “can’t relax” or “should be more relaxed.”
  • Getting more present becomes needing to read a book on getting present (which is a task, a to-do list item).

Shifting into Courageous Stillness

Shifting into courageous stillness is, in essence, all about how we carry it. The Story that “this needs to be done” often automatically puts things into the land of “output,” even if it’s traditionally an “input” type of activity. For example, telling yourself “I’ve got to meditate or I’ll feel like a bad person!” is a great way to make meditation into a chore rather than something that makes you feel better during periods of stress (!).

Also, when we’re overloaded with long to-do lists, in general, we’re going to feel sucked into that going-going-going energy and it’s hard not to inadvertently apply it to the things designed to help us relax and recover from periods of activity.

And last, shifting into courageous stillness means reckoning with this fact: the more we deplete ourselves, the more it will take to come back to some kind of equilibrium. If you go deeply into financial debt due to over-spending and your accounts are overdrawn, it takes a lot more work to pay off debts and get your accounts back in order, than it would to stop over-spending.

Many of us are “over-spending” so badly with the energy reserves that we have, that it’s no wonder that the things we try to do to fill our well again just don’t “seem to work, anymore.”

Returning to courageous stillness starts with recognizing how we input/output, and where our internal reserves have become overdrawn. Access the body to see where it is that you’ve noticed yourself feeling depleted, and addressing those areas, first. Stop over-committing and be willing to take a look at the bigger picture of your life and your choices.