A Little Bit of Mindfulness

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Last night, after years of planning, I finally went to the Insight Meditation Community of Washington’s Wednesday night meditation and talk in Bethesda.

This is actually super huge for me because I have wanted to go to this sangha and dharma talk for years – ever since we first started (sometimes) living in the DC-area in 2009.

But, in the past, it always felt like if I wanted to go I’d have to go by myself because of babysitters and weeknights and all of the stuff that makes it difficult for two parents to get away on a Wednesday evening. And I just didn’t really want to go on my own – DC driving still gets the best of me.

Finally, I found a friend to join me and we made the (relatively) short drive up to Bethesda.

This meeting was everything that I had hoped it would be. Tara Brach is an incredible speaker – her presentation was infused with equal parts seriousness and levity. She tells great stories. She’s genuine and unencumbered…as, I guess, you would assume (or hope) a practicing Buddhist would be.

And meditating with a group of a couple hundred people was such a gift. I felt so at home….which is sometimes hard when our home is always changing.

So, in light of me finally, finally getting around to something I had been wanting to do for years (yay!) and also in celebration of the release of the Kindle copy of The Expat Activity Book (Yay! Yay!), I am sharing here what is without a doubt my favorite exercise in the book.

I find this exercise – On Thoughts and Emotions – a wonderful starter for people interested in testing the waters of mindfulness. It will walk you through some very basic steps of self-observation and I find it to be a really useful one for people who like formulas and clear, structured concepts when they’re trying out new things. I’ve shared it before, but honestly I love it so much I figure it’s the perfect time to give it a boost back up to the top of the blog.

Enjoy!

Making the Most of Worry

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As we come up on the one-year anniversary of my son’s Type I Diabetes diagnosis, I am thinking a lot about worry. When we moved to Madagascar with our children ages 6, 4 and 2 months I was really worried about the lack of health care. It seemed like a silly worry though. Actually, it didn’t seem silly to me at the time, but I kind of knew it was ridiculous to worry about it. My mantra for unpredictable health issues was, “Could happen. Probably won’t.” Now, while that’s technically still true with any health-related worry, for obvious reasons I’m finding it less reliable than I once did. I mean, what could happen did indeed happen!

In this last year, I haven’t completely abandoned “Could happen. Probably won’t,” but I do find I’m moving towards something a bit more solution-focused. And that’s got me thinking – have you ever noticed how sometimes worry can lead you to be more productive and at other times it can leave you feeling completely paralyzed?

In my own vast experience with worry, I’ve come to find that productive worries are usually ones that are based on true and immediate facts. For example, I feel worried that my kids won’t be ready to start at a new school, but the reason is that I’ve done absolutely no work on their applications. In these cases, I usually get my list out and get down to business. The worry subsides.

But paralyzing worries are usually based on uncertainty, unpredictability or what I like to call “disaster thinking.” It’s the kind of worry that goes from a Point A like “My 2 year-old has hives,” to a Point B like “My 2 year-old has developed some strange nervous condition that will result in her hospitalization, my husband’s reassignment and our family’s confinement to Washington, DC…FOREVER.”

So I’ve been trying out a new little worry-test for myself. I’m no expert yet (and trust me, I’ll tell you when I’ve abandoned all worry), but I’m finding it works pretty well. I’m calling it FACT OR INVENTION.

Here’s how it works.

Let’s say you’re faced with a worry. Like this one (keeping with the Type I Diabetes theme from above), “Sam had a really active soccer day today. His blood sugar might go low over night. I should probably test him again before I go to bed. But I don’t want to test him too much. What if one day he’s angry about having Type I? What if he goes years without testing his blood sugar? What if he goes blind? What if he blames me for dragging him around the world and has no permanent home and no one to care for him…when he’s blind?”

Here’s what happens when I use the FACT or INVENTION test on this scenario.

First I ask,

What are the facts here?

  • Super-active day playing soccer
  • Lots of activity increases his chances of having low blood sugar overnight

Then I ask myself,

What am I inventing? What unnecessary burden am I creating for myself here?

  • What if some day he’s angry?
  • What if he stops testing his sugar?
  • What if he goes blind?
  • Then the big snowball – What if he hates being a TCK and that all culminates in a big TCK/Type I Diabetes Nightmare!!

See the difference? One worry is based on real and immediate facts, has a solution (an extra blood sugar test) and therefore has the potential to release me from worry. The other is based on the fear of some daunting, uncertain future, has no immediate solution and traps me in a mental tape of disaster thinking.

By asking these questions I take a step back, sort it all out and come up with the stuff that’s solvable based on fact and the stuff that is cluttering up my tenuous sense of calm and increasing my stress levels.

And get this! I’m not going to tell you to stop worrying. Sure, there are things you can do to keep worry from running amok, but a certain amount of worry is just part of being human. But – I do want to invite you to focus on what you gain by putting this FACT or INVENTION question to work for you.

Identifying the practical, fact-based worries helps you focus on solutions. Make a list, take some action, put that doubt behind you by doing what needs to be done.

But what about those pesky unproductive worries? While it’s true that unproductive worries can be paralyzing, we still learn from them. They serve as powerful reminders to reach a little deeper into our survival tool kits and rely on those things that keep us steady (a nice long run, a good book, a quiet night in, a Skype session with a friend).

And the big take-away from all of this is that as life continues to be unpredictable and worry stays a part of the normal human experience, you can focus in on what you’re telling yourself about how you face what’s in front of you, make decisions about where to go with what you learn and reapply the insight you gain again and again.

 Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength. Corrie ten Boom

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

Reminders for Tackling Life’s Challenges

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This weekend I gave my kids the Referee Bop Bag (official name per the internet) you see pictured above. It was a gift, but it’s been in the back of my closet for about 6 months waiting for the perfect day to make its appearance. Three kids, rain, cold, 800 square feet and late afternoon restlessness was all it took. This thing is awesome! Poor guy.

Who knew the entertainment factor for this thing could be so off the charts. Apparently there’s no end to the delight achievable by punching, kicking and tackling a 4-foot tall, plastic, pear-shaped dummy.

I’ve had a number of thought-provoking observations in the 24 hours the Ref has been in our lives. Like whether a free-for-all approach is preferable to taking turns. Or, the fact that my 2 year old daughter apparently has a face of steel – she’s been the victim of more than one gravity-based backlash from the dummy. But, perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve noticed is how very particular each of my kids is in the way they go about playing…or pummeling…this toy.

Bear with me here on these observations. As someone who spends a lot of time helping people figure themselves out – I never quite get away from noticing these sorts of things.

My oldest is gentle and systematic, but persistent. Single left jabs over and over and over again right between the eyes. Punch the dummy, the dummy bops back up, punch the dummy again. He’s like a metronome. Maybe he laughs or smiles a little bit. It seems therapeutic in the way knitting or coloring is therapeutic. He seems to value the consistency and the rhythm of it.

My middle child is all out, free for all, anything goes on The Ref! Laughing, singing, dancing, kicking, carrying and (once or twice) throwing. It’s like the dummy gives him permission to unleash every ounce of energy he has stored up. And he loves that thing – he said goodnight to it, checked in on it first thing in the morning. I’m sure before we know it the guy will have a name. Come to think of it…they’re the same height. At least the dummy is tolerant of this passionate play.

And then there’s my daughter. At two years old, she more or less goes for the dummy in the same way my middle child does, but since she’s smaller and the thing towers over her she tends to collapse in giggles and spend more time on the ground laughing than actually punching it. Her kicks almost always knock her over instead of the dummy. It’s hilarious.

When my kids are punching that dummy – there’s no agenda. They’re just punching away in the way that feels most natural and most satisfying for them. As long as they’re not hurting anyone, there aren’t really any rules. There’s no right and wrong.

As adults, we spend a lot of time judging others for the way they do things or judging ourselves for the ways in which we go about dealing with the challenges in our lives. To be fair, sometimes the ways in which we deal with the world around us are harmful (to ourselves and to others), but lots of times they’re not. Like the way my kids tackle the dummy, we’re faced every day with tackling life in own unique way.

I like to imagine how we can grow from taking the bop bag as a reminder of the fun, freedom and self-awareness needed to confront the challenges that we face by owning up to what works best for each of us. We benefit greatly from looking honestly at what inspires us, moves us and brings us home.

So as I sit here staring at that bop bag and knowing that come 4:00 PM the kids will be back in here punching away, I’m using him as my own reminder of the importance of taking things at my own pace – sometimes slow, sometimes hectic, always steadily on to the next day (or place).

Oh, and before I forget, if you’re interested in your very own Referee Bop Bag, it looks like you can buy him here.

That Was So Embarrassing!

My husband once asked the staff at a hotel in Guatemala if we could have more Satan paper in our room. He meant toilet paper.

Sound familiar? As expats we perhaps have the longest list imaginable of embarrassing moments. It feels at times like we’re living in a never-ending cycle of “Gotcha!” I mean, seriously, where are the hidden cameras?!

Frankly, it sucks to feel embarrassed. Your face gets all red, your palms sweat, your heart races, imagines of crawling under the covers and going back to bed loom large.

The good news is – we’ve all been there. Embarrassment is just part of the human experience and while you can try to minimize embarrassment or the effects of it, it’s fruitless to try to completely eliminate it from your life.

But, would you believe there’s even more good news? Check this out (and read the full article here):

Researchers have found that people who display embarrassment at their social transgressions are more prone to be liked, forgiven, and trusted than those who do not, and, as a result, their embarrassment saves face (Keltner and Anderson, 2000). Even teasing and flirtation, which provoke and evoke embarrassment in the targeted person, are motivated by the desire for increased liking (Keltner & Anderson, 2000). So embarrassment is a good thing, even if at the time you experienced it you wished it never happened.

Could it be that embarrassment may be one of the major keys to living a deeper more fulfilling life as an expat? I’m thinking maybe so…

Think about it this way – every time you say the wrong word in a foreign language, inadvertently commit a major cultural faux pas, wear the wrong shoes in the wrong place at the wrong time, shake hands instead of kiss, laugh instead of cry (or cry instead of laugh) or many of the millions of other things that can happen in this crazy cultural mix – you’re telling those around you – I’m Human!! You’re presenting yourself as real, authentic, natural and willing to make mistakes in the process of getting it right. How’s that for awesome!

So, go ahead and march right on out of the bathroom in your potty shoes (ooops, that may have happened to me more than once in my Japan days)! Smile, genuinely say sorry, and keep right on moving towards your much improved You!

Finding Your Inner Cheerleader

Here’s a question I’ve been thinking about lately – Do we sabotage our success at certain things by purposefully limiting our enthusiasm, our curiosity or our genuine interest? I’m thinking specifically about things like greater happiness, better diet, improved exercise or expanded faith or spirituality – although I’m sure there are others.

This has been on my mind for two reasons:

First, the topic came up in a class I’m taking. It’s an online class on the Science of Happiness and is being offered through the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. In the first week of the course, in addition to learning about the scientific research behind what makes people happy, we were encouraged to take up a week-long happiness project. The task was based on the benefits of gratitude and we were asked to write down each day, for a week, 3 good things that happened each day. As part of the instructions we were told that we would likely benefit more from the activity if we set aside any notion of it being “hokey” or “woo woo” and really got into it.

The other reason is this – I’m a pretty enthusiastic person. I get excited about things. Even things about which I’m skeptical or unsure, I’ve found I’ve always been able to rein that in a bit and remember to just go forward with a positive mindset. Recently, I expressed to my mom my thrill in finding a babysitter that would be a perfect fit for us. Her response? “Well, don’t get your hopes up.” “What?! What’s wrong with hopes up?” I thought. I mean, I’m well aware that it might not work out, but when good things happen, I kind of like to enjoy that feeling.

So, back to the sabotage. Social worker, researcher and author, Brené Brown, (kind of) covers this in her book The Gifts of Imperfection (although she doesn’t use the word sabotage). She writes,

We hustle for our worthiness by slipping on the emotional and behavioral straitjacket of cool and posturing as the tragically hip and the terminally “better than.” Being “in control” isn’t always about the desire to manipulate situations, but often it’s about the need to manage perception. We want to be able to control what other people think about us so that we can feel good enough.

She’s talking about this in the context of the ways in which shame gets in the way of what she calls wholehearted living. Regardless of why we do this, I think it’s safe to say that we do. I believe that most people are naturally curious, generous, loving, and open to possibility. But, our fear of failure, of looking stupid or even looking too smart, too goody-goody, too emotional or too cheesy makes us hold back – especially when we’re trying something new.

This is an especially challenging issue for expats, because we’re ALWAYS in new situations and faced with a decision to go for it 100% or to hold back and see how things go. And here’s where my question lies. If we were to stop holding back, would we be more successful at living our transitions in ways that are more true to ourselves? I really think so. But, what if opening up to your natural curiosity and inner-enthusiast doesn’t come easily for you? I’ve listed a few starter ideas below. Go ahead and give them a try.

  1. Find an enthusiasm buddy. Know someone that seems to get excited about things? Tell them about a change you’re wanting to make, a new activity you’re hoping to try or a dream you’re ready to pursue and see if he or she will cheer you on.
  2. Try it out in private. Love to sing, but feel self-conscious? Listen – that’s what the shower and the car are for…right? Take advantage of privacy to get comfortable with your enthusiasm. Working on giving it your all when you don’t have an audience, can free you up to let that enthusiasm trickle out to other places.
  3. Get enthusiastic about the little things. Found a dollar bill in your pocket? Yay!! Did you manage to get the kids out of the house with only one small meltdown (yours or theirs – doesn’t matter)? Yee-haw!! You rock! No accomplishment is too small for you to celebrate when you’re working on an enthusiasm boost.
  4. Celebrate someone else’s success. Sometimes being enthusiastic for other people can be easier than admitting to ourselves that we’ve got something to be excited about. This doesn’t need to be fancy. Simply saying, “Wow! Good for you!” can be enough. If you can manage to cultivate excitement and interest in someone else’s accomplishments, you’re teaching yourself how to get excited about what you have in store.
  5. Write down 3 things you love and totally, absolutely and completely admit it. Personally, I think there are few things more attractive in a person than someone who can admit that they love something that’s traditionally seen as nerdy, uncool, strange or silly. And my husband grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons so you can trust me on this one.

Still curious? Wanna’ boost your natural enthusiast? Check out my FREE pdf of this activity on accessing your curiosity from The Expat Activity Book. It’s sure to help you focus in on raising your enthusiasm and might just help you find success in a new endeavor!

emerson quote - enthusiasm

 

Getting the Most Out of Your Expanded Comfort Zone

I remember, with an incredible degree of detail, stepping on the plane for my first, true international adventure. It was 1997, and I was in my sophomore year of college.

As I found my seat on the plane, I looked around at the other students who were also flying out of JFK that day – headed to study abroad programs in Spain. They all looked much, much cooler than me…or at least they looked much, much cooler than I felt.

They all had large travel backpacks. I had a hand-me-down suitcase from my mom. Most of them were smoking. I stifled coughs and gags and burning eyes as the cabin filled with second-hand smoke. Most of the students didn’t speak a word of Spanish…and apparently didn’t intend to learn any. I not only spoke a fair amount, I thought we were actually going to Spain to learn more.

As a rather extroverted Texan from a small town – I suffered a crisis of comfort zone. I felt completely out of my element. I feared I wouldn’t fit in or find friends and that I’d end up on a big (and scary) solo adventure. I suddenly realized I’d lived a very, very sheltered life.

I remember thinking at one point, “Well, I’m just going to have to do this on my own.” Then, little by little, I began to find the people with whom I connected. I made friends. I improved my Spanish. I traveled. At each step, I was stretching to the outer limits of what felt comfortable to me and to my surprise it felt really good.

As is the case with most expats – with time (and miles), the process has become easier for me. For all expats, it’s second nature for us to expand our definitions of comfort. We take on broader and broader views of what feels right and we become experts in things that once seemed unfamiliar. The gap between fork and chopstick, English and Arabic, handshakes and kisses on the cheek narrows. This is good for us, I think.

But, it’s also important to remember that this is just a start. Knowing that you’re comfortable in lots of different situations is one thing – understanding how the experience is affecting you is completely another. This is, in my opinion, one of those wonderful things about being an expat – the opportunities for personal development and growth are built into the lifestyle. And, while it can take time to find your own style (be it journaling, meditation, reflection or just plain talking it out with a friend), there are so many options for making an expanded comfort zone a true learning opportunity. Gets you thinking doesn’t it?

Are you interested in the idea of getting the most out of your expanded comfort zone? Do you want to take the strengths you’ve gained living abroad to the next level, but you’re not sure where to start? To get a better sense of what your expanded comfort zone really means for you – try this activity. It’s a FREE sample of one of the exercises from my new book The Expat Activity Book: 20 Personal Development Exercises for Gaining Insight and Maximizing Your Potential Wherever You Are. The complete book is also available on Amazon, Amazon.uk and Amazon.eu.

Knock on Wood…

Last week, my husband and I left the kids with my mom for a couple of hours and went to pick up a few things at Ikea. We had told her we would try to be back by noon. I was surprised to find at around 11:45 that we were already in line and ready to make our purchases. I turned to my husband and said, “Wow, we really will be home by noon. Yay!” Then I immediately began looking for a piece of wood to touch.

This habit – not really believing in any future certainty – has become a standard feature of my expat life. Before we started moving around the world, I don’t think I ever really thought about whether or not we’d make it to that party next week or that vacation in 6 months. I had a stronger sense that what we planned for would work out and I really didn’t think much further than that.

Now, after planes missed, vacations cancelled, unexpected earthquakes and sicknesses that have disrupted our normal flow of life – I’ve come to find it harder to feel convinced that anything is set in stone. I often begin sentences with things like, “Assuming everything goes as planned…” or “We’re hoping to…” I tend to laugh it off, but often when I find myself making a statement of certainty about the future and then qualifying it somehow with one of these phrases, I feel the unpredictability of life wash over me. I wouldn’t describe it as scary, but I would say it’s a regular reminder of how easily and quickly things can change.

But, if living this lifestyle has taught me anything, it’s the importance of moving on to our next big adventure regardless of the uncertainties that lie ahead. It’s not really bravery or even necessarily fatalism. It’s simply the knowledge that living life now, in the moment, is the only real option we have. And, despite the fact that the unpredictability can be difficult, I find that it’s also one of the greatest blessings of the expat life. We get to wake up everyday to the fact that we’re here, right now, with the option to live life to the fullest. There are fewer opportunities to sleep on the job. And, you know what? Even though it’s challenging at times, I think most of us wouldn’t have it any other way.

On Thoughts vs. Emotions

I had a great conversation with a client the other day on the difference between thoughts and emotions. While the differences might seem obvious, the surprising truth is that we often fail to take time to notice the nuances of what we’re thinking and what we’re feeling.

As a coach, I love supporting people in the process of taking more time to observe the experiences of both the heart and the brain. I have repeatedly found that the simple process of noticing what is happening when we think and feel goes a long way to moving towards personal insight and creating a more fulfilling space to reach your dreams or goals.

In just a few short weeks, my new book The Expat Activity Book: 20 Personal Development Exercises for Gaining Insight and Maximizing Your Potential Wherever You Are will be available for purchase on Amazon. One of my favorite exercises in the book is focused on helping individuals begin the process of looking at thoughts versus emotions. I’ve include it here as a sneak peak to the book and as a guide for those of you interested in bringing new insight into your life. I happily and enthusiastically accept emails for guidance or questions. If you’re interested in coaching on this topic, see my Work with Me section for details on how to schedule a FREE initial interview.

Enjoy!

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Changing the Way We Change

Still.
Still.

Here’s a place we’ve all been at one time or another – confronting the feeling of, “I can’t do this anymore. Something’s gotta’ give!” Whether it’s too much work, school, parenting, partnering, loving, caring, hating or even having fun – too much (or, frankly, too little) of anything can send us reeling toward change. Reeling, flailing, careening, spinning…kicking and screaming?

I think sometimes we have the common collective knowledge that discomfort brings about change. It’s that whole idea of hitting rock bottom. You have to get to the most miserable place in order to climb your way out and regain your sense of freedom and happiness.

But I’ve been thinking lately about how we sometimes skip a very important place in the middle. When we get to the point where we know we need to make a change, that change is often born out of the spinning of our brains. In a sense, it’s like we’re drowning and looking for anything to hang on to. Maybe this is the answer! Or this! Or, I could do that!

At some point we just end up choosing something. Sometimes it’s the right thing – the world rebalances and we’re on our way. Other times we quickly find ourselves right back where we started – in the whirlpool, grasping for driftwood.

Why? The answer may be different for each of us, but in my own life this has often been that I’ve missed an important step – stillness. When change is upon us we often go into fight or flight mode. We’re in it for survival and, instinctively, that means – RUN! But, often there’s a part of us that just needs to slow down, stop, watch and wait.

When we slow down and listen we can discover that change isn’t something we control, it’s something we go along with for a time so that, upon arrival, we’re more clear-headed and openhearted about which paths most suit us next.

So next time, before flailing (or after just a little bit of it), try being still. You never know – perhaps good things really do come to those who wait.