Human beings are strange creatures, often waiting until we are forced to change rather than choosing to change before we "hit the wall." We see signs--irregular sleep, discord with others, regular illness, excessive drama, acting outside of our values--but we ignore them. We don’t act or we don't act consistently. Each time we ignore a sign we place a brick in the wall we eventually hit when all those signs add up to crisis. Sine qua non is Latin for indispensable element or condition. I call it "readiness." This blog seeks to connect those who are searching for or have found the sine qua non of change. What makes you or keeps you from taking off? What keeps you from flying or helps you soar? What do you know about change that can help others?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Hail Janus!

The tradition of New Year's Resolutions began with a mythical king of early Rome, Janus, the god of beginnings and the guardian of doors and entrances lived around 153 B.C. He was depicted with two faces, one on the front of his head and one on the back, allowing him to look backward (past) and forward (future) at the same time. Janus became the ancient symbol for resolutions and because of him many Romans looked for forgiveness from their enemies and exchanged gifts before the beginning of each year.

I have made resolutions, even written them down (and occasionally accomplished them), but it hadn’t occurred to me to prepare by recapping the previous year. What Janus figured out is that humans are bound to keep making the same mistakes if we don’t spend some time thinking about how to avoid them. It’s not enough to look to the future, it’s important to learn from the past. The past can give us clues about how to be more successful, in the future.

Succeeding at resolutions:

1. “Begin with the end in mind” (Steven Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Successful People)—that is, “What do you want the future to look like (large and small)?” Here's how:

Make a Keep, Start, Stop list:

  • Ask yourself “What did I do last year that I want to “Keep” in my life because it worked really well?” Next ask, “What changes did I accomplish last year and what specific things did I do or were in place for me to make that sought-after change?”

  • Next ask “What do I want to "Start" doing in my life that I’m currently not doing?” These should be things that mean something to you, not things others “shoulded” you into.

  • Next ask “What do I want to "Stop" in my life?” These are derived from the look backward at the waning year, and should be things you are ready to change.

Analyze the steps you took in previous successes (on the Keep list) to see what supported your ability to make the change you desired. Add them as keeps or starts, e.g., if you started your regular exercise because this time you enlisted the help of a buddy, how can you use another support system to help you make the next change?

Prioritize the list in order of importance to you (1-10). Which are the heavy hitters (if accomplished would mean significant change)? Which are the deal breakers (really important to your health and well-being)? You can only make SO much change at once before you implode, so paring your list down increases your likelihood of success.

Increase success by setting S.M.A.R.T. goals. Using your pared-down list write some goals. Goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. The clearer you are with creating a picture of future success, the more likely you are to achieve the goal. Writing goals down increases your chance of achieving them. If you’ve never achieved one goal, don’t start with thirty-two. Start with one. Getting success to spur on more success is a strategic move. Some goals will be able to be SMARTer than others, "Complete a lighting class by March 1, 2010" is clearer and more measureable (thus easier to accomplish) than "Continue to work on forgiveness." That doesn't mean to leave out hard-to-nail goals, it just means you will have to monitor your progress more diligently.

2. Keep goals posted. Again, the chances of being successful are increased by keeping your vision in front of you. As with all things, they are forgotten if they are not competing for our time and attention, plus we love handling the urgent things and are likely to put important things on the back burner.

3. Be mindful of the cycle of change. My favorite change guru, Prochaska (Change for Good) has spent a life-time study people trying to change. He found that there are distinct stages of change humans experience. including a stage where we see no need for change. Most important is that going through the change cycle is predictable and spiral. We succeed, we fail. Sometimes we get discouraged and give up. We can’t give up. We have to go back to the plan and keep working it. Most everything we have to learn in this life is about how to manage ourselves.

4. Revisit, revamp, re-vitalize goals. I tack my list of goals to the bulletin board just above my computer screen in my office. I want them next to me so I can consult them in daily decisions. They are a silent partner, helping me spend my time as I intend, not as the rest of the world dictates. I recommend keeping your plan in front of you in a way that matches your lifestyle, with regular viewing and revamping required (e.g., monthly when paying bills). I look at my goals almost daily. I revamp unrealistic or unmanageable ones. I re-vitalize the process by replacing actuated goals with new ones. I am reaching more goals every year.

New Year's Resolutions, in practice, are a first quarter revamping of goals that carry over from the year before. For you proactives, hail Janus! Hail faces looking past and future. Hail an even better 2010.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Forgiveness bridges a path to change

"Forgiveness," says Mark Twain, "is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it."

If I slow down and pay attention to the angst in my life every indicator points to my need to learn to forgive. I have an elderly parent who demands too much, a stepdaughter who deplores me too much and a daughter with a boyfriend who's wronged me too much. I cannot control any of these situations or people, but my tendency (based in part on years as an understudy for Depression Era elders who grew up living in scarcity) is to be unforgiving. I want to be angry, be right, spend my waking moments (even those meant for sleep) dwelling on it--even though I understand harboring resentment is like taking poison and expecting others to die.

So let's measure this on the "doh" meter. Instead of valuable time I could spend on my own development (change) I am wasting precious moments pointing fingers at and obsessing over the transgressions of others. Transgressions that are outside my control. In most instances in the past; and each time I release the resentment toxins in my body I am endangering my own health. Doh!

So what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is letting go of the mistakes of others and our impressions of the mistakes of others (there are at least two sides to every sad story of wrong-doing) as we might hope others would let go of our mistakes. Yes, we too have done things that are unforgivable to others. Easy to say, hard to do.

How do I change my mind about something I feel so strongly about? I had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, renowned brain scientist and author of the best-selling My Stroke of Insight, as a keynote speaker. She explained complicated brain concepts in language that helped me change my thinking. She depicted our left brains as the side that "wants to be right" and the right side as the side that "wants to have fun." Great image from which I can picture myself as a nasty bitch in fatigues barking orders and demanding respect on one hand, and a loving angel with a halo riding a horse tossing rose petals on the other. Awareness is the first step-- negative feelings are harmful and futile--and I have a choice about where I focus my thoughts--left or right. I have the ability to notice bitterness every time it rears its ugly head and remind it and myself that I am no longer interested in cavorting.

If imagining the Jekyll and Hyde nature of my brain doesn't work, I can always try karma. What goes around comes around--I create my own destiny by what I think and how I act. Hmm, anger, bitterness, resentment launched from my front door in a flurry, attracting like-energy from around the world and returning nuclear on my front porch. Scary thought.

My ability to forgive can be honed using my own practice of, believe it or not, breathing. I love Yin yoga for teaching me to sit in positions that stretch muscles, fatigue fascia and release the cricks. I've learned to send breath to the pain on the inhale and let go of the tension on the exhale. This technique also works with anger and resentment, which often appears as tightness in my chest, sometimes as hyperventilating. If I use my imagination I can even inhale forgiveness to the distressed spot and exhale the bad juju. The added benefit is that resentment actually constricts breathing and lack of breath inhibits a fully functioning brain. Breathing makes me smarter and the better person I really want to be.

And it's a process. Negative thought, choice to entertain or not, breathe, release. Negative thought, choice to entertain or not, breathe, release. Repeat until cleansed.

I wonder what I can do with all that time I've spent fretting about my bitterness. I can clean out my garage or closet, write, go take photos, look up book submission guidelines, teach a kid to read, pull some ivy off the trees in the nearby forest, ride a horse. There's more room to expand and fill my life with things that make me happy, things that can change the world.

Friday, November 20, 2009

It's hard to change your tennis shoes while you're running the race

Come up for air and breathe.

Feel free to pass by this blog if you already do any of the following:

  • Practice putting on your own oxygen mask first and always take time to care for yourself no matter what else is going on.
  • Spend at least some time every day alone in silence.
  • Set time aside regularly to plan, meditate, pray or practice other centering activities that help you find clarity in the world of confusion and interference.
  • Work to find clarity on what is causing angst in your life and are working to change it.

If, on the other hand, you find yourself in a life that isn't exactly what you hoped for, or you have a sadness below the surface because something just isn't right, then this entry might be for you.

It seems to be a badge of courage to move quickly, pack a lot in and have so many distractions that really important things are optional. The work, social and extra-curricular schedule of most families, where eating dinner at the same time and table is a rarity, has become the norm even when we believe we highly value our family connection. Quiet time where one can think is impossible if we are always on the run, or plugged in to music or the whim of the next text message. We are so encumbered we don't have time to slow down and examine how we're living to see if it's what we really want. Maybe that's the point. If we stay busy we can run faster than the dissatisfaction that haunts us.

Anyone who wishes to exercise more, eat healthier, spend more time with family and friends, paint, read a book, or anything they want to do but aren't MUST slow down the velocity of their life. It is impossible to get clarity about what's bugging us, let alone find a new direction if our time is so full we don't have space for new thoughts.

Because I work for myself I am fortunate to have the discretion to create some "time to change" by merely refusing work, or scheduling in a way that leaves pockets of time to explore. This down time I systematically put in my days has been pivotal in clarifying things that were out of balance, things that were unnecessary, and things that were more appealing. It took me time to take an early morning walk and really hear the birds to remind me how necessary it is to my being. It took me time to follow my bliss to acquaint me with what makes me happy.

Even if you don't work for yourself, and have lots of responsibilities, you still have control over your own time with choice points. You have the power to choose what you put in and what you leave out of your schedule. You have the right to say no to auto pilot and status quo.

Artist Kathleen Powers has a beautiful illustration to inspire your quest for down time in "The Blue Sleep" and it depicts artistically what I fall short with words to say. Note that the bird is alone in the distance, away from the maddening crowd (this can be the park or a room in your house). Note too that the creature is protected by an entanglement of branches that keeps others at a distance (a simple request for uninterrupted time behind a closed door can serve as protection). But best of all, respite is guaranteed by blocking out external interruption with the lovely blue cloth, "if I can't see you then you can't see me." What a great reminder of the permission we blindly give when we make ourselves forever available to the whims of others.

Go ahead, come up for air and breathe. Find some time and make some change.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Change requires the support of a certain kind of friend

Brain research tells us that people are more likely to learn and change behavior in a community where they can hear themselves and others talk about their experiences and feel safe to try out new skills. There's a reason counselors conduct group work, right?

Not everyone has the luxury of having a group of people at the flip of a switch, but even two people can make a community. Which got me thinking about who we have to help us when we are trying to make change. Many times people in our immediate circle are invested in us just the way we are and making change is threatening to them. Which brought me to speculate about what I see as our potential support, one of two very different kinds of friends.

Friend number one is our "kiss ass" friend. They laugh with us and cry with us and mostly just think we're adorable. They love us unconditionally, go along with every stupid decision we make and always approve. Picture the love of a Golden Retriever.

Friend number two is our "kick ass" friend, the in-your-face one who always has an opinion about what we should do, is brutally honest and loves to give us advice. My experience is that this is usually a life-time friend you've stuck with even though your family wonders why, and because they've been around so long they most resemble your older brother or sister, always questioning your sanity, judgment and hair style.

I don't think either kind of friend is much help when we need support to make change. The first will put up with us when we procrastinate, "You'll make that change when you're ready, don't worry." The second will make us defensive with sarcasm or the envitable, "You know what you need to do is . . ." Now I'm not a boxing fan, but I can see the benefit of that trainer guy in the corner, waiting until the sweaty boxer stumbles to sit down, comforting him with water and an ice pack, maybe some smelling salts, then giving a few words of encouragement and pushing him back out into the ring. Yes, we all need a kiss/kick-ass friend, one who unconditionally regards us and the change we believe we need to make in our lives, supports us when we're down without rescuing us or giving advice, and asks good questions to help us learn our lessons and have the will to keep on fighting. Oh, and did I say patient for all the times we fall short of our goal? Making change is a battlefield. Don't go it alone. But choose your friends wisely.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Two parts fun to one part change

It's not a new concept (remember pedal-powered TVs that required you to exercise in order to watch your favorite show), but there are innovators who have resurrected the concept of fun as the stimulus to get people to make change (believe it or not VW is behind the idea The site itself is "dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better."

YouTube is the perfect venue to show the results of experiments where fun was added to some mundane task to get people to change in spite of themselves. Piano stairs is an experiment to simulate a piano keyboard next to an escalator in attempt to get people to climb instead of ride. World's deepest garbage bin tries to get passersby to use a bin that makes a plunging sound when they toss their trash. Bottle bank arcade adds a video gamesque identity to a returnable bottle receptacle to increase recycling. In all instances these masterminds increased the use of their target by adding an element of fun.

What fun can you add to the change you are trying to make? Of course, fun is in the eye of the beholder, but just think of the possibilities that might meet your fun quotient.
  • Can you have that tough conversation you've been putting off for years with your significant other by conducting it on a swing set? Can you both dress up in clown costumes before you talk?

  • Can you encourage yourself to exercise by adding a buddy to your routine, commit to dancing or laughter yoga to get the endorphins moving and establish a habit?

  • Can you coax yourself to work on your creative projects by decorating the space with balloons and crepe paper? Can you have your children paint the walls to add an element of fun?

  • Can you get yourself to eat healthier by setting up your meals in rainbow colors?

Go ahead, be silly, make some change.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Set a date, make a change

I didn't know this about her, but my oldest, dearest and wisest friend divulged to me last night over dinner that fall is clean-up time for her. That is, she uses the change of seasons to make big changes in her life. She began the practice more than 30 years ago when she relinquished her loyalty for an unfilling marriage and called it quits. It took her ten years. She's recognized her greatest asset and liability is that she stays, like a dog on a bone, trying to be faithful to her commitments and obligations, no matter how difficult. Sometimes to her own detriment. The latest purge is a woman friend with whom she shared a daily walk. She was loyal to this woman who reluctantly moved out of the neighborhood, up the hill, even though over time my friend compromised and made the trip up the hill at 5:40 am because the woman just couldn't find it in her to make a trip down the hill. She stayed even though her broad mindedness was challenged increasingly by the other woman's narrow mindedness. She believed she was making a difference by adding to the woman's perspective, and learning some things along the way. It took her five years to sweep away this relationship in a fall clean-up.

In contrast I also spent time yesterday with a colleague I've known for years who, with her current boyfriend, selected the "nuclear option" when boyfriend fell down the stairs drunk, and because of his brush with death and disability finally quit drinking. I also talked with an old colleague and friend who has retired and loving her leisure, but is quite perturbed with the daily morning visit from one of her husband's friends who comes for coffee. Neither of them want the guy there, but neither has the incliniation or ability to change the situation. They just hate it and keep on going. Every day.

I am struck by the commitment of my old friend to live authentically, use her assets--change before drama necessitates it, change instead of enduring daily distaste, change each fall. I am intrigued by the simplicity of setting a date to call it quits when asset become liability, and the courage to pull the plug needs a boost.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

You are where you’re supposed to be: using gratitude to surrender and change

Though I cannot find a source for the quote, “You are where you’re supposed to be,” a google search produces more than 260,000 entries, and every blogger and pundit seems to have a slant or rant about the concept. Pardon me for the late entry. Next month I am hosting a holiday potluck with a gratitude theme. I’m planning this in my pjs because I’m on day 6 of the crud that is causing football teams to forfeit and schools to close. So I’m listing questions that will go on a handout between sneezes and blowing my nose on the 5th handkerchief of the day:

  • What talents and gifts are you grateful for?
  • What have others done for you in the past year that you are grateful for?
  • What have you done for yourself in the past year that you are grateful for?

And last, this is the clincher . . .

  • What has happened to upset you lately (that if you dug deep), you could find a reason to be grateful for?

Isn’t that the BIG question related to being where you are supposed to be: What isn’t going your way (that may be awful) that has been put in your path to help you learn and grow? When we are upset it is because our status quo is challenged, cheated, even stolen. We see it as a problem and resist--a change of plan, a change in direction, change of mind, change in control, change that you really don’t want to make.

And here I am in my pjs. I’ve missed work. I’ve missed a couple of important events. If I wanted to be upset, body aches, burr in my nose and screaming headache are enough to bring it on. Being sick isn’t in my plan and it's awful—unless I surrender to being right where I am—where I am supposed to be. That doesn't mean that everything feels good. There's always good news with the bad and bad news with the good. Thomas Moore reminds us in Care of the Soul about the beautiful wedding that is inevitably contrasted by the mother of the groom breaking her leg at the rehearsal dinner. Change/learning/growth happens in the melancholy, in the discomfort, not in the happy place. Here are the things I am grateful for that were delivered by my change of plan:

  • I have had the gift of time. When you’re running around doing, you hardly have time to think, and especially when you are a creative or an inward type, you gotta have it.
  • I have had time to complete a draft of a website and a book submission, something that has been on the back burner for years. Just having the downtime allowed me to focus on the work that needed to be done—there’s a reason companies have their R&D group away from their operations, so the blue sky thinkers don’t get sucked into the daily grind!
  • I have had time just to sit with my cat. He needs love and attention and to snuggle with me instead of always looking up my nose from below. He is in heaven lounging with me on the bed and it supports my value for the earth and its creatures.
  • I have had time to nap. I’ve heard that sleep is for the body and naps are for the soul. I can’t remember the last time I indulged myself in a nap.
  • I have allowed myself to be a receiver instead of a giver and let my sweetie be my hero (he even made me handmade soup).
  • I have surrendered. I love letting go and being the river, finding the good in what's in front of me. It makes me feel alive and awake. It prepares me for future surrender. And for that I am grateful.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ready, set, change

I asked one of my icons of change about the transformation she’s made in her life in the past couple of years. She was a project manager for IT projects in a government agency when I met her four years ago. She is now a graduate student working on an MFA in film studies. Her films are making their way through festivals and she was tapped to teach a beginning film class as a second-year student. I asked her what it takes to be “ready” to make change in ones life. This was her answer.

“I think readiness to do the work comes from the awareness that you actually can have something different than status quo. My realization came from listening to others who have made choices to change, listening to others who were flat out miserable with the status quo, and listening to others who were miserable but hadn’t quite realized it yet. Once that revelation was made--that I actually could change--there was no turning back. It was simply not possible to go back to status quo. The only direction was one away from that life toward something new.”

I’m reminded of the photographs of water crystals (brought into the spotlight by the movie “What the Bleep?” made famous by Dr. Masaru Emoto. What Dr. Emoto found is that clean water and water exposed to loving words (either verbally or with written labels) show brilliant and colorful snowflake patterns while polluted water or water exposed to negative thoughts form incomplete, asymmetrical patterns and dull colors. The implications are huge because the world and our bodies are composed, in large part, of water.

I’m not here to debate the efficacy of Dr. Emoto’s research methods or the positive intention movement. But it’s not too big a stretch to believe that water is transformed by its environment. If your thoughts are old tapes saying things like, “You never follow through,” or “This is too hard,” or “You’re not worthy,” you can almost picture droopy faced water molecules sloshing in your body. If, on the other hand, your thoughts are new tapes like, “Imagine,” or “This might be fun,” or “This is my life and I want something different,” you might envision happy, dancing molecules rushing around impatient to make something happen.

It was Henry Ford who said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” So, today I’m thinking about affirmations, your affirmations for why making a change rocks. Out loud, song-like, with post-it notes on the mirror as reminders. Or maybe a t-shirt that says, “Celebrate with me, I’m making some change.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

On being aware

I heard a story on NPR prior to the peace agreement in Northern Ireland several years ago, but it still rattles around in my head each time I engage with someone who's trying to make change. The sociologist they interviewed had observed warring societies, and after years of research made a simple but brilliant assertion. It's difficult to change the prediliction to war if war is the only thing people know how to do.

I've walked alongside student after student who is either trying to move from old and obsolete habits, or make huge changes in their life and have thought time and time again that they are dealing with the same struggle of not knowing what to do or who to be once they leave their old patterns and life behind. I've watched my aging mother, who by the way worked until she was 77, struggle to find a new identify even though the small world she's created for herself in her grief over the the loss of the old, makes her miserable. The "who am I now" dilemma as I've come to call it is likely to be affecting you if you are working on making some important change in your life.

I received a great illustration for the "who am I now" dilemma in my inbox the other day, what the writers call an "Awareness Test" that is posted on youtube ( I was reminded that our current lives are composed of the things we allow into our awareness, and there are an infinite number of things outside of our current scope waiting for our attention. Making change requires us to slow down the velocity and come to the moment at hand, and then open up our awareness beyond the things we've always seen. If we are unable to do that we continue walking through life counting passes (the old awareness) and aren't even aware of the dancing bears in our path (the possibiltiies of a new awareness).

The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I mourn for you

I cry because someone important once degraded you, carved a mark on your soul that colors your lens, distorts your thinking. I ache because your head has built a wall around your heart that protects you from people you long to know. I grieve because you serve others, settle for less than you want, sit with that lump in your throat and ache in your heart that leaks tears when you speak. I mourn for the signs you saw and ignored, parasites sucking you dry of money and emotions, of goodwill and compassion until you cannot put a sentence together any more than you can repair your life because you are clueless about where to start.

Awareness before change

Awareness November 2008

“I was hoping to come back and join you in bed,” my sweetie said clearly disappointed as he walked past me on his way to the bedroom after spending the night in the guest room where his back finds respite. “Too late,” I retorted, fully clothed, brewing a cup of coffee and unfolding my buttermilk pancake recipe. He continued to our bed, surely hoping I would change my mind. Standing my ground meant we missed out on the irreplaceable morning “spoon”—a defiance way beyond the occasion and very much out of character.

I had nothing to say on this Pancake Sunday--a ritual we started to bring the family back to the fold once a week, even after Mom arrived; even when my sweetie tried to get me to leave my post at the grill to come see the critters converged on the deck enjoying the morning’s banquet of seeds and suet. I ignored him. “I’ve got pancakes to turn,” I growled under my breath.

I could feel myself slipping over the edge as Mom poured syrup and detailed the lives of her neighbors and their little girl whom she cannot forgive for going without underpants, and the impending birth of twins, and the small house they live in, and the Mom’s favorite coffee and their latest conversation encased in a “Then I said,” and “Then she said,” recalling every word. “I don’t care,” I thought, through my blank stare.

That was the first time I realized my heart hurt. Not the “I’m-having-a-heart-attack” kind of hurt, but an ache in the anterior. I breathed deep into the pain and sighed.

Luckily only Mom had joined us on this Sunday after Thanksgiving. Instead of the usual group of friends and optimistic chit-chat, we ate with an uncomfortable quiet. It didn’t take long for her to pack up and go home after breakfast, leaving me alone to dwell on the status of my relationship, the recent and untimely death of a friend, my floundering career. My heart hurt. I breathed deep and sighed and relieved it for a moment more.

Awareness October 2009

Darkness had not yet dissolved on the Saturday morning I awoke anxious and sad and inconsolable. The contrast was stark to the usual song in my head. The frenzy prevented me from turning and breathing and willing myself back to sleep. What? I wondered.

The channels flipped on my internal tube, exposing trailers of unfinished business, the chasm I feared growing between me and my daughter, the class the previous day that produced two negative evaluations, conversation with the neighbors at dinner the night before where we talked about elders and our turn, Thanksgiving plans upended again in a phone call.

I paused and hit replay. Decades of chaotic Thanksgiving scenes montaged through; my Dad’s death on the holiday when I was 5, yelling and swats with the hair brush over dresses and curls, a major riff in the family where half split off to celebrate elsewhere, Mom insisting on celebrating one place or another creating the necessity to “pick sides,” my daughter throwing up to avoid choosing, the ache in my heart the year before. Years of chaos and drama created by ancient sadness and suffering disguised itself as current reality and visited me there in my bed to me to remind me to move on.