The Best Christmas Gift I Ever Received

Thirty-years ago, when my children were small, I dreaded the arrival of the holiday seasoncanstockphoto4559883-ascribed copy and by the time Christmas arrived I would turn into Scrooge. I hated the holiday traffic jams, the dearth of parking spaces, department stores as crowded as a sporting event, and checkout lines longer than the ones at the DMV. I loathed going to holiday parties and making small talk with inebriated people I hardly knew, and dreaded my relatives who stayed for a week. I grumbled when my wife asked me to hang the outside lights and disliked decorating the Christmas tree with the family. The holidays seemed to be nothing but stress. The way I saw it, the holidays were a month-long mania that reached a frenetic climax on Christmas day, and then collapsed into depression when the credit card bill arrived.

My wife’s attitude towards the holidays was the opposite. She loved it and devoted herself to making it as joyful as possible, especially for the children. Her mother had died when she was only six years old, and she’d experienced a number of bleak Christmases growing up. She was resolved that our children’s Christmas was going to be spectacular, and she succeeded, which meant the credit card bill was rather spectacular too. On Christmas day, as the children unwrapped one gift after another, I would grimace as I mentally did the accounting. By the time the last present was unwrapped, I was stressed about money. The only decent thing I did on Christmas day was to keep my disdain to myself, but I wasn’t much fun to be around.

Then one year, a week before Thanksgiving, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was benign but would kill me if it wasn’t removed.  My doctor outlined a number of disturbing neurological problems that the delicate surgery was likely to cause and he referred me to the best neurosurgeon in the area, who couldn’t schedule me until after the New Year.  This meant the tumor and I would have to face the holidays together.

Medically, the delay wasn’t a problem, but sitting around ruminating on how disabled I might become was terrifying. I would wake up every night at 3 o’clock in the morning and stare out the window into the dark, cold night and worry that I’d be too disabled to support my family.

Then one night a week or so after Thanksgiving, while staring out the window into the dark, I reached the point where I couldn’t take it anymore. I asked myself, which was worse? The neurological problems that might happen to me in a few weeks, or the intense fear that was happening in me every day, all day long. The answer was clear; fear was worse.  I could see that I was believing every fearful thought I was thinking, and it was painting me into a tight corner of gloom and doom. Obviously, I needed a new attitude. For the next half hour I was alert to every fearful thought my mind produced, and I practiced letting go of these thoughts simply by not believing them. Gradually, my mind grew quiet and eventually I began to feel at peace. When I looked out the window again, the cold, dark night that loomed like a black hole about to suck me in had changed.  What I now saw was the glow of moonlight shining on the trees that made the night feel sacred.

I made the decision, right then and there, to work at letting go of fear whenever it raised its ugly head and to strengthen my willingness to be at peace as I faced whatever I had to face that day. I found that choosing peace wasn’t as hard as I thought. Stress and fear were hard. Peace actually made the day easier, better.

The next day, as I was driving to work, I saw a bumper sticker that said, Peace is the Reason for the Season.  I began to think about peace and the qualities it instills, such as not condemning people or events.  I realized that I’d spent nearly every holiday judging everyone and everything, and I decided to stop. Instead, I’d practice counting my blessings and let my friends and family know how grateful I was for their love. Later that week, I was Mr. Christmas the night we decorated the tree and strung the lights on the outside of the house. I thought this might be the last time my body can perform these tasks, and I felt grateful to be able to do it.  For perhaps the first time, I noticed the happy, excited looks on the faces of my children as they watched me hang the lights, and I loved their cheers when I flipped the light switch.  I even accompanied my wife on her shopping trips and discovered she was more discerning about her spending than I had thought. It took my family a while to adjust to the “new me.” My wife was amazed at the change.  She had the stunned, happy look of a person whose wish had been granted.

Initially, I felt guilty over how much strain I’d caused everyone during previous Christmases, which got my touch with another attribute of peace: forgiveness.  I had to forgive myself for being a jerk during those times, and this opened my heart to forgiving grievances I’d been carrying about other people. I discovered that as stressful as the holidays can be, it was also one of the few times during the year when hearts were open and extending good cheer. So, I decided to be one of them. In the traffic jams and crowded stores I practiced being at peace.  When I stood in the long lines, I practiced sending compassion to all the tired souls standing in line with me.

It was a glorious Christmas, and that’s not all. The surgery was a complete success, sparing me a life of disability. Medical science attributes this outcome to the way I shifted my mental state from fear to peace. It’s called “the mind-body connection.” I call it the best Christmas gift I ever received.

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De-stressing the Holidays Couldn’t Be Simpler

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Thanksgiving through New Year’s is the time in America when we celebrate peace – at least in theory. It’s the time of year we’re encouraged to remember that peace on earth begins with peace in our own hearts. So, the cure to holiday stress is simple. Make the holidays about the opposite of stress, which is peace, which is the one thing the holidays are meant to be about. Make peace the quality you aspire to be every day this holiday season. Peace is not hard; stress is hard. Peace is incredibly simple. The more you practice peace, the easier it gets, and the easier your life becomes. Below are ten simple qualities of peace and directly below each box is a simple approach to achieving each quality. Look them over and choose the ones that speak to you and your situation, then turn it into a daily practice. Qualities and Practices for a Peaceful Holiday 1. Peace is quiet, so each morning this holiday season wake up a little earlier ahead of the rush. Start your day in quiet in a place where you won’t be disturbed.

  • Follow your breathing.
  • Imagine each breath softening your heart and opening it wider.
  • Feel appreciation for the gift of another day of life.
  • Feel appreciation for another day to be with the ones you love.
  • Set the intention to have a great day, achieving meaningful results in your work.
  • Equally, set the intention to succeed at love, peace and joy.

2. Peace is rejuvenating, so take breaks and catch your breath.

  • Every couple of hours each day, step away from the rat race.
  • Observe what the sky is doing.
  • Watch the wind blow, the sun shine, or the snow fall.
  • Allow yourself to feel connected to life.

3. Peace is grateful. So, once a week, before going to sleep, count your blessings.

  • Name three things that happened during the previous week for which you are grateful.
  • Then name three things of your life, generally, for which you feel blessed.

4. Peace is spacious. Now and then, take a time-out to open your mind a little wider.

  • Tell yourself to go a little slower, and not to be so nervous or negative.
  • Open your heart a little wider.
  • Practice thinking less and loving more.
  • Tell yourself and often that everything is going to be alright.
  • Refocus your attention on this moment, right here, right now, and allow life to surprise you.

5. Peace is forgiving. So forgive the past.

  • Forgive everyone, including yourself.
  • Forgive every bad thing that has happened, is happening now, and is sure to happen again.
  • Forgive the past so completely that you’re standing in the present facing the future with vision.

6. Peace is intelligent. It takes the middle way and stays balanced.

  • Peace doesn’t eat too much or spend too much or withhold too much.
  • Peace doesn’t argue, defend or complain.
  • It changes the things it can change, accepts the things it can’t change, and it can tell the difference between the two.
  • Peace is not co-dependent. It’s no one’s fool and no one’s doormat. It’s smart enough to walk away from dysfunction and stand out of harm’s way.

7. Peace is self-confident. It doesn’t worry.

  • So don’t worry about anything this holiday season.
  • Pracitce letting go of outcomes and trusting the process.

8. Peace is compassionate, so don’t judge.

  • Don’t judge yourself when you slip up, become stressed, or behave badly.
  • The same goes for other people’s mistakes, nonsense, and blunders.
  • Let it all go and start over, renewing your intention to be at peace.

9. Peace is flexible. It lets you into its house through the back door as well as the front door.

  • If you are not at peace, use the back door. Be at peace with your non-peace.

10. Peace has faith. It’s an attitude of faith and trust.

  • There is no degree of stress in any situation that faith cannot soften.
  • Often the problem in life is not the situation we face but the lack of faith with which we face it.

It’s a no brainer. You will have a happier, less stressful holiday if you commit to practicing even three of the above. The better angels of your nature will come out and create a holiday to remember.

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The Good Life

I’ve written two books on stress, and the latest one I boldly entitled The End of Stress.  Now when I’m out on book tours, or presenting keynotes and seminars people ask me if I’ve ended stress in my life, once and for all.

The truth is we end stress in the present moment—right here, right now—not once and for all. We either end stress by choosing to be undaunted and at peace the moment a stressor raises its head … or we don’t. Peace is the polar opposite of stress and anxiety. It instills a calmer, clearer perspective that in turn generates much better brain function.

More often than not, becoming stress-free is a correction we make to be at peace, after we’ve allowed a stressor to grow into a mental storm, like I did one Saturday morning cleaning the house. The way I was going about my chores was stressful to the point of making me edgy and negative. I started out fighting with a broken appliance I had to fix and feeling irritated with one of the screws that wouldn’t unscrew. It was as if a trickster god was tightening the screw as I was trying to loosen it.

Next, I was annoyed at having to unload the dishwasher. As I went about cleaning the rooms, it seemed there was ten times more work than usual. I felt victimized that there was no one to help me, and I was wishing I had the money to afford a housekeeper, the lack of which intensified my bad mood.

Then, mercifully, I caught myself in the middle of an unhappy string of self-pitying, resentful thoughts. I stopped with the chores for a moment and practiced not believing any of the thoughts my bad mood was thinking. I managed to let go of thinking altogether, and gave my mind the chance to quiet down. I made the conscious choice to be at peace with whatever chores I had left. As I made this commitment, lines I’d memorized years ago from a poem by D. H. Lawrence came to mind:

As we live, we are transmitters of life.
And when we fail to transmit life, life fails to flow through us.
Give, and it shall be given unto you
is still the truth about life. . . .
It means kindling the life-quality where it was not,
even if it’s only in the whiteness of a washed pocket-handkerchief.

As I recited the lines, my attitude shifted. At that very moment, a cloud blocking the sun passed and the sunlight poured through the windows and lit up the room. All at once, everything was OK. I was calm and my mind was much happier. I felt alive and awake, as bright as the sunlight. It surprised me, as it always does when I rediscover how vibrant inner peace actually makes a human being. Peace is not just a sweet sentiment on a holiday card; it’s the quality that makes the mind dynamic and expansive (the complete opposite of what stress does to the mind).

I looked around to see what chores still remained, and set upon them. Work flowed like a dance. As I was raking the last of the leaves in front of the house, a bird flying by caught my eye, and I watched it land in the Japanese maple tree across the street.

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It was autumn and the maple leaves had all turned scarlet red. Some of the leaves had shed, creating a velvet blanket of red on the sidewalk.  I looked down the street and noticed that the sycamores had shed half of their leaves. Their network of dull gray branches were now exposed that the autumn light turned silver in places. From where I stood, the street gradually sloped down to the avenue, and across the avenue was a large field covered in brown decaying grass with shoots of new green grass emerging from the decay. Overhead a falcon, fluttering in midair, scanned the field for prey. And above this small but beautiful corner of the world was a pale blue autumn sky. For a moment, I felt at one with the world.

As I turned to go back inside the house, I thought if I hadn’t shifted my attitude, I would never have experienced that moment of splendor. I thought of Carl Rogers, the great American psychologist, and his idea of the good life, by which he simply meant being well, then doing well on your way to flourishing. For Rogers, the good life emanated first and foremost from “being well.” This is what the research on happiness shows. Only 10% of what makes us happy is attributable to our circumstances. A positive, peaceful attitude is four times more likely to achieve the good life. It’s has a bigger impact on our quality of life than making more money, getting a better job, or, as in my case that day, being able to afford a housekeeper.

The more we make the correction to peace, the more it becomes our attitude, and the better our life goes. The good life is not so much a set of circumstances or even a fixed state of mind as it is the direction in which our attitude is pointed. To quote Ernest Holmes:

“If everyday things are a little better, a little more harmonious, a little more health giving and joyous; if each day we are expressing more life, then we are going in the right direction.”

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Quieting the Voice that Shames You

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from my article in the Huffington Post

Imagine making a mistake that holds the threat of negative consequences for your family or your work. As you sit there alone, aware that it’s your mistake, and it must be disclosed, what is your internal dialogue? What are the words you’re likely to call yourself?

If you’re like most people, the words you’ll direct at yourself will be condemning. These harsh words spring from shame, which is the moral condemnation that guilt becomes when you believe something you did wrong means something is wrong with you.

Shame is at the bottom of that critical voice in your head that follows you everywhere, waiting for the chance to berate, criticize, and blame you, whispering its insults in your ear or shouting them in your face. This voice grows out of all the times when the people who were supposed to love and encourage you, or teach and mentor you, admonished your efforts instead.

But don’t despair; there’s a cure to shame and it’s simpler than you might think.

I’ll get to the cure in a moment, but first let’s briefly look at the problem.

Freud defined shame as the fear of loss of love,[1] which leads to being controlled by what others think and say about you. “[It’s] the fear of disconnection,” says Dr. Brené Brown, “… of being perceived as flawed and unworthy of acceptance or belonging.”[2]

And it’s very stressful. Margaret Kemeny’s research found that “stress caused by how others view you is extremely powerful, as much or more so than [that] caused from . . . working too hard.” [3] Her research found that “acute threats to our social self increase stress hormones and proinflammatory cytokine activity occurring in concert with shame.” [4]

In short, shame is a condition that can seriously compromise the brain function that enables you to succeed and  the immune function that keeps you healthy.

Albert Ellis, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, found that there are two shame-based sentences that people tell themselves.

(1) The first sentence is I made a mistake; I made an error, and I got it wrong. This may invoke feelings of guilt or frustration, but if we were to stop here, the crisis would only represent an error to correct or a lesson to learn, extending the opportunity to grow or advance.

(2) The second sentence is This mistake I made . . . This event that turned out badly . . . This thing I got wrong . . . This way I behaved . . . it means that there’s something wrong with me. This is guilt or frustration becoming shame. It has us saying to ourselves I’m not good enough; I’m not smart enough; I’m not worthy enough; all of which calcify into the belief that I deserve whatever punishment is coming. And it’s this sentence – this belief – that does the damage.” [5]

Shame is psychologically painful, which makes us afraid to make a mistake, more because of the emotional punishment we inflict on ourselves than for anything the world might do to us. Eventually, a shame-based mind represses its mistakes to avoid feeling bad, preventing the possibility of learning from a mistake, which only increases the likelihood of repeating the blunder. Thus, mistakes can’t teach us anything. We become afraid to take risks, which limits our growth.

The problem with repression is that it isn’t selective. We can’t numb ourselves to difficult feelings, such as shame, without numbing ourselves to empowering feelings, like joy, passion, and peace, and this lessens our sense of self. We form facades and pretenses to compensate, which of course makes us feel even more inauthentic. As a result, we can’t see what’s right or true about us, and a narrow view of our strengths, talents, and contributions take hold. As a result, we can’t see what’s right or true about us, and a narrow view of our strengths, talents, and contributions take hold. Research shows that people struggle at naming a few good points about themselves, but easily fill two pages of things they perceive as faults. [6]

So, here’s the cure.

The cure is found in the words of Carl Rogers, arguably one of America’s greatest psychologists.  Rogers said, “What you are is good enough if you would only be it openly.” Does that sound too simple and too small to effect something as large as shame.

Becoming good enough begins with the simple step of accepting yourself exactly as you are, which is not easy, at least at first. It entails closing the gap between “I am” and “I should be;” which is the gap between the authentic you that’s true and realizable, and the ideal self that’s illusion. The ideal self is the image of the person you think you should be that is always out of reach, imposing an unrealistic  standard you can never meet. It becomes a measuring stick that says you’re failing in some way, even when you’re doing well.

Transcending the ideal self begins with awareness. It’s being mindful of facades and pretenses your ideal self fabricates, so you can let them go. It’s being mindful of facades and pretenses, so you can let them go. It’s understanding that it doesn’t help to act one way on the outside when you actually feel another way inside. It doesn’t help to pretend to know the answer when you don’t.

It’s being open to your experience, listening to yourself with acceptance. It’s learning to identify clearly what you’re feeling. The more you’re able to experience all of your feelings, the less you’re afraid of any of your feelings, including shame.

This facilitates the courage to accept that you’re not perfect or infallible; that you make mistakes, that you don’t always function in the best way or always achieve the best result. No one does. Ironically, the courage to be imperfect opens the way to experiencing the whole of you. The critical voice of shame no longer negates the better angels of your nature or blocks your strengths and talent. This quality of undefended openness is what leads to the realization that what you are is good enough.

In this way, your experience gradually becomes your authority. Other people’s ideas, judgments, and perceptions, while considered, cease to over-rule or control you. By definition, that’s personal power. Your relationships also become more meaningful and alive because your deepening sense of connection with yourself increases your regard and empathy for others.

____________________________________________

[1] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: Norton, 2005), 123–24.
[2] Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough,” (New York: Gotham Books, 2007), Kindle edition, Kindle location: 638–39.
[3] Amy Maxmen, “Secret Shame: Do You Fear What Others Think of You? How Shame Can Hurt Your Health,” Psychology Today, October 26, 2007, http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200710/secret-shame
[4] S. Dickerson, T. Gruenewald, and M. Kemeny, “Shame, Physiology, and Health,” Journal of Personality 72, no. 6 (December 2004): 1191–1210.
[5] “Albert Ellis—On Guilt and Shame—RARE 1960 recording, part 2,” uploaded by ProfessorMystic to YouTube, June 4, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuNWeI_l0F4.
[6] Herbert Arthur Otto, A Guide to Developing Your Potential (North Hollywood, CA: Wilshire Book Co., 1977), 172.

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One Simple Thing that Makes You a Star

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from my article in the Huffington Post

There is one very simple thing you can start doing right away that will sustain you at the top of your game, day-in, day-out. It will also provide you with higher energy and the steady flow of creative insights that solve problems and inspire you with new ideas. And if that weren’t enough, they tell you that this very simple thing is an essential step in achieving mastery in your chosen profession.

It’s taking a 20-minute break every 90 minutes.  It’s simply stepping away from your computer, leaving your smart phone behind, and going for a peaceful walk; preferably outside amongst the birds and trees and sky, allowing your mind to relax and your brain to refuel (I’ll explain the refueling part in a moment.)

The science that has established this fact is not theoretical; it’s definitive. Yet when I lay out the science for people in corporate seminars about the powerful benefits achieved by taking a break every 90 minutes, many of them say, “I can’t possibly stop every 90 minutes.” Moreover, they can’t imagine that a 20-minute break is actually the key to becoming a star performer.

It’s all about the brain and a biological cycle called the basic rest-activity cycle (BRAC,) [1] which recycles every 90 minutes. During the first phase of BRAC, brain waves oscillate at a fast rate making you feel wide-awake and able to focus your attention. Your mind is humming. Ideas flow more easily and faster. The ideas your brain produces during this phase of BRAC are usually better, and you tend to have more of them. Your memory is also better and your brain generates what is called “memory consolidation,” which is essential for envisioning something novel or learning something new.

But in the second phase of the cycle, brain waves gradually start to slow down until, in the last few minutes of BRAC, you begin to feel tired and somewhat fuzzy.[2]  The ideas dry up and it’s harder for you to connect the dots.  You start to experience minor but annoying memory lapses, such as looking for something and momentarily forgetting what it was you were looking for. These are telltale signs of brain waves slowing down.

During the fast brain wave phase, brain cells use sodium and potassium ions to generate electrical signals. These fast brain waves burn through these ions, which means your brain requires a period of rest to recharge with new ions. The restoration process requires twenty minutes of rest, after which your brain has the fuel to run fast brain waves once again.

Related research also found that the 90/20 cycle was how musicians achieved mastery. This research focused on young violinists who had mastered the instrument. It was discovered that these virtuosos universally limited the rigors of practice to ninety-minute sessions, systematically distributed over the day, followed by a leisurely break, and sometimes even an afternoon nap.[3]

People don’t take breaks partly because of guilt, partly because they are afraid it will cause them to fall behind, but mainly it’s because we’ve been conditioned to keep our nose to the grindstone.

It’s time we change our mindset and embrace fifty years of research which shows that working non-stop is an unproductive way of getting things done, and a hopeless approach to excelling, innovating, or achieving mastery.

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So, monitor your mental energy and before it hits bottom, take a break (usually around 90 minutes of sustained effort). Here’s how to do it; it couldn’t be simpler:

  • Step away from your work. Leave your smart phone behind.
  •  Go for a stroll outside or simply look out a window. Gaze at the sky. Watch the wind blow. Smell the roses.  Look at the people you pass with non-judgmental eyes.
  • Let your mind and brain relax completely.
  • While on a break, keep your mind open just enough to catch a creative insight that might emerge.

 If you can’t imagine taking a break every 90 minutes, start out with a break mid-morning and another mid-afternoon. Do this for a couple of weeks and the tangible increase in brain function you’ll experience will motivate you to add more breaks to your day.

Notes

[1] “Basic Rest and Activity Cycles,” Polyphasic Society, http://www.polyphasic society.com/polyphasic-sleep/science/brac/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Psychological Review 100, no. 3 (1993): 363–406.

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