Tuesday, December 31, 2013

5 New Year Resolutions Worth Keeping

At the end of every year, we do the same old song and dance. Hours of TV on which celebrity did what, slept with who, went to rehab, got into a fight, married, divorced, had a kid. Who lived, who died, all smushed alongside the most memorable videos of the year. This year I'm sure will be filled with the likes of Miley Cyrus, Duck Dynasty and a host of other characters I would be embarrassed to explain if I was every abducted by aliens.

And then there's the shallow media hype of the mythical New Year's Resolution. You're supposed to wake up January 1st to a new you, start shedding those holiday pounds, quit smoking and do otherwise obviously healthy behaviors on the endless list of shoulds. Some of you will stick to your plans. Some will become sidelined and fall into the familiar embrace of guilt and shame at the end of this year, only to repeat the cycle until life hits you over the head with a sledgehammer as to why these healthy behaviors were a good idea in the first place.

Here's my advice to you on what would help all of us. Some of it has a research-base, others are just common sense I've picked up from the past 15 years of end-of-life care. It's a good idea to have these as general lifestyle choices, not just for the first few months of the year.

1) Seriously, exercise. It's the best medicine. Start out slow. Your goal should be about 20-30 minutes of moderate exercise 3-4 times a week. This is the therapeutic dose that has positive effects on your heart, mind and emotions. More is fine, less is not as good. If you don't exercise, see a doctor first to make sure you don't have cardiomyopathy or something like that. Don't wait.

2) That meditation practice you've heard and read so much about? Guess what? It really works. You'll be hearing more and more about it this year. Stick to it. Spend some time every day meditating. The therapeutic dose is about 20 minutes twice a day. Few people can do that if they haven't sat down to meditate before. You can find some guidance here on how to get started. You have time for all the stress and worry in your life, you might as well squeeze some stress management into it.

3) Say "I love you" to everyone you love more often. Say it every day. Love is powerful, way more powerful than any of our individuality. When you're in a hard emotional place, a loving companion, be it a spouse, partner, child, friend or parent can usually make it all better just by being there. If you don't have direct companionship, use social media. Reach out and get connected.

4) Listen to music. Turn on music every day. Use it in the background. It can structure times of great stress and uncertainty. If you're grieving, it's a much more wholesome way to drown out the silence of your home than the jarring sounds of television.

5) Laugh every day. Find something funny to read, watch or listen to. In all the commotion about self-care, laughter is often left out. The best way to transcend hardship sometimes is to laugh at the absurd predicament we're all in. Emotional pain isn't funny-- what's funny is the nearly comical way we go about our lives, obsessed with what turn out to be the tiniest, most insignificant details. We lose the big picture. Can't find something to laugh about? Here's a start.

The most important thing to remember about your resolutions: you're more likely to stick to them if they are about what you want to do rather than what you don't want to do.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Seven Tips from the Edge

For the past 15 years, several hours of each work day for me involves seeing the world from the perspective of someone who is dying. I don't know exactly how it is or what it is in me that chose to do this for a living, but I feel very strongly it's a big part of what I was put on this planet to do with the life I have.

It's not for everyone to do, and I don't think it makes me all that special. I can assure you that when my car makes a funny noise, I'm clueless as to what to do about it and glad that there's a mechanic who is doing what he or she was put on this planet to do, and fix my car. I can't do that. That makes the mechanic way more special to me. I need my car.

I've written elsewhere that recently for an 18 month stretch, I knew a steady stream of 2 or 3 people who died every week. I knew some of these people for days, others for years. That streak got interrupted for a few weeks, but seems to have returned in its brutal predictability.

Being in such close and regular contact with death, of having people gravely ill, dying, frozen in fear or radiating peace, them and their loved ones asking me what this whole gig we call existence is about... Roshi Joan Halifax refers to this space as an "edge state", way out on the horizon where the known and the unknown meet. I believe this horizon is what the existentialists refer to as "absurdity", the quest for relevance and meaning in an otherwise indifferent world that cares little for our individual existence.

Out on this edge of absurdity, I've had these flashes of insight lately as I go about my day that the whole gig is a giant inkblot. We see patterns where there maybe are none, we see images where they may be only empty space, we impose rules where chaos reigns, we see connection when we are really flying alone by the seat of our pants. And it's probably okay to do that.

Our intelligence and capacity for insight gives us choices in what patterns we see, what decisions we make, which rules of the game we choose to abide by. For many of us, religion saves us time and effort, offering us a template of guidance. For many of us, we find our own way.

For all of us, I think the most important facts to keep in mind are these:

1) None of us are fully in control of anything, no matter how much power, wealth, fame or status we accumulate. Pink Floyd sang it best years ago, "all the iron turns to rust, all the proud men turn to dust."
2) The whole inkblot nature of reality does not make violent or mean behavior acceptable. On the contrary, we should treat each other, and all life, lovingly, as we would lost and scared children that showed up at our door. That's really what we all are-- lost animals trying to find our way into the comfort of each other.
3) We waste a lot of energy doing stupid things to keep the crushing absurdity of being alive out of sight. Rather than focus on self-destructive vices like gambling and drugs to indulge our insatiable appetites for fleeting pleasures, we should bear mindful witness to fleeting moments of awe that surround us every day that go un-noticed. We're often too lost in our internal chatter to notice awe, to the point where we often can't dwell in awe.
4) Respect the body. See #3. Our choices should nurture our meat suits, not destroy them. We don't have our body for as long as we would like. It begins to age and fall apart just when you're getting used to it. Don't grease the wheels towards achiness.
5) Find what soothes you that is healthy, and what soothes those around you that is healthy. Create opportunities for soothing regularly. We're all lost children, we want security blankets. There's nothing wrong with that.
6) Structure the ambiguity of our absurd existence with self-disciplined progress towards goals. Exercise, meditation, healthy eating and sleep hygiene form a powerhouse of security and inner resources to ride through waves of suffering and anxiety. I've written about this extensively in my books. You actually have to do these things, though, not just read about them.
7) Live a life that others would want to grieve. This sounds strange to our pleasure driven society, but grief is often a sign that you got close to people, that people got close to you. Grief is healthy, and it's essential. Live a life that people would want to celebrate after you leave. You might not know how to do it now, but if you embrace absurdity with love, you're probably going to find out how.