Sunday, May 20, 2018

"Gray Day...Everything is Gray," —Dr. Suess

Mara here:

There was a book I used to read to Malia when she was a baby. It's a poem by Dr. Seuss that was turned into a book called "My Many Colored Days."

When she was a baby, even before she understood words, we were always looking for books that would help Malia learn practical things like numbers and colors. The illustrations are fun. And the book was short, which is always a plus when you have a child who requests that books be read over and over in one sitting.

But the real reason the book was one of my favorites was because, like many of Dr. Seuss' books, beneath the whimsical prose were insights into human nature. There was the surface level, which was fun and beautifully colored. But underneath, if you looked for it, there was truth about feelings that weren't always as fun as they initially seemed.

The poems use the different colors of the rainbow to describe different feelings. Pink is fun, and yellow is busy. And there are days with many colors; he calls them mixed up days. I think we have all experienced mixed up days.

But the one that always stuck with me was gray. Gray was a picture of owls eyes that just stared, open and unflinching, with the words, "Gray Day....Everything is gray. I watch. But nothing moves today."

It always struck me with such sadness because, as a sufferer of depression, I often have gray days. I often find myself watching the world, but it seems as if nothing is moving. Or it seems as if everything is moving but me.

And you might wonder why I share this? I share it because I want other people who might have gray days to know they're not alone. I share this because there have been so many times when I've read self-help books and come to the end feeling discouraged because so often there seems to be a "happy ending." People who write books often seem to have unlocked something that has transformed their lives.

And I'm worried that my writing sounds like that as well.

So I just wanted to share with everyone, especially those who also experience many gray days, that I'm still struggling with things. I have learned so much about myself over my lifetime, as much as I've lived so far, and I feel like I've figured a lot of things out.

But knowing things doesn't change that there's something about myself that puts me in a funk a lot of the time. I'm depressed. And even though I'm medicated, that doesn't "cure" me.

So I've been going through some gray days lately.

And having a gray day doesn't mean that I don't know how lucky I am to have all the blessings in my life. It doesn't mean I don't appreciate things. There's not even an easy way to describe how I feel, but everything feels more difficult. Everything about life seems heavy.

And what do I do? I do what I can. I try to follow routines that I know will make me, if not feel better, at least not make me feel worse. I get up and jog. I write in my journal. I read books. I take naps.

I'm fortunate to have an understanding husband who allows me to withdraw a little when I need to.

And so far, I have yet to encounter a gray period when I didn't find myself suddenly faced with a pink (happy) day or a yellow (busy) day that knocks me out of the gray zone. Life is a force outside of my control—which is good. It keeps going.

So I just keep moving forward. I keep doing the things I do. I get up. I allow myself to feel gray when I can and when I can't be gray (like at work or a party), I do my best to pretend. I do what I have to do.

And having gone through many cycles of gray days, pink days, yellow days, mixed up days, I know that none of them lasts forever. So I just face each day as best as I can.

For today, it's a gray day. And that's ok. Tomorrow could be different.

Here are some questions I asked my mom about gray days.

Are there Buddhist teachings about the different moods and how transitory they are?

One of the Buddha's principal teachings is on impermanence and all it implies, such as unpredictability (a good word to remember when thinking about moods). People often think of impermanence in a negative way, but it can also be our friend. And so, on days when I'm in a down mood, I take solace in impermanence, knowing that it means I won't feel this way forever. As the poet Rumi said, "No feeling is final." 

The metaphor I use in my books for impermanence is the weather. I came up with what I call Weather Practice. Moods are unpredictable, like the weather. They blow in, they blow out and, at times, they blow all over the place. But, like the weather, moods are impermanent so we can learn to wait them out, being kind to ourselves as we do. A full description of Weather Practice is in chapter 4 of my book, How to Be Sick.

This constant change in the weather and in our moods is also helpful to me because it reminds me that no one can feel happy and "up" all the time, and to expect that of myself is unrealistic and unfair to myself. The other day, in fact, I realized that when I think I should be happy all the time, it makes me feel worse because it adds a burden to my life—the burden to be happy. As soon as I realized that, my mood improved because I'd dropped that burden. Every burden dropped is a good thing!

I know that you're not a person who is generally depressed, but when you have a day where you feel in a funk, are you able to recognize it?

I have plenty of days when I'm in a funk, so many that I've written a lot of pieces for Psychology Today with suggestions for what to do. I'll put the links for three of them here in case anyone wants to read them: "Six Strategies for Coping with the Blues"; "A Secret for Surviving a Rough Day"; and my latest one, "The First Step to Take When You're Having a Rough Day."

And, yes, I recognize those funky days right away. Odd though it may seem, I try to treat them as old friends, having dropped in for an uninvited visit. I find this helps me because if I treat those funky blue days with aversion, they just seem to get worse. But treating them as old friends disarms them and takes away a lot of their sting.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Attitude of Gratitude

Mara here:

"Attitude of gratitude."

I think this is a phrase that I first heard from author Wayne Dyer. In my neverending search for explanations for why we feel the way we feel, I read a lot of self-help books. And Wayne Dyer's are among those I enjoy. I don't agree with everything he writes, but I find his general philosophy on life appealing.

And he's funny. I'm always a sucker for some self-deprecating humor.

His idea of having an attitude of gratitude resonated with me. Because for most of my life I had an attitude of "why is this happening?" I often felt like the universe was very hard on me. I think most young people feel this way. My 17-year-old daughter definitely feels this way.

So when my daughter's car was crashed into while parked in her school's parking lot, the words, "why me?" came out of her mouth several times that day.

The car was hit hard. She had stayed late after school for a study session and got a phone call from a friend saying, "your car was just totaled."

She rushed to the parking lot, and indeed, her car had been hit very hard from the back side. It was hit so hard that it was pushed into the car next to it, doing extensive damage to that car.

I won't go into how stupid it was that some teenage kid was driving recklessly in a parking lot full of high schoolers walking to their cars. If nothing else, it was a miracle that nobody got hurt.

But while the two other cars involved in the accident (the one that was at fault and the one that was hit by my daughter's car) were both drivable, my daughter's car had to be towed. The damage was pretty extensive. The entire back of the car had been destroyed and there was possible structural damage.

Was the car totaled? We don't know. It's at the repair shop and we will find out soon.

But it was shocking.

I drove out to the school (about a forty minute drive) as soon as I heard what happened. I called a tow truck on the way and about an hour later I had my daughter safely in the car next to me as we headed home.

And then the flood of emotions hit her. And she was distraught. It wasn't just her car, but being the spotlight of the spectacle had drained her emotionally. Later that evening, she had fits of anger and frustration. And she felt victimized. She felt as if the whole thing was unfair. She was worried that the car was totaled which would put into question how we would pay for a new car.

Not having ever had a car totaled, neither my husband nor I could really answer any of her questions about what would happen. The only thing I know is that insurance doesn't just replace your car.

This news angered her. Her car was her 16th birthday present. And it was exactly the kind of car she had planned for. The thought that we might somehow not be able to replace her car was too much for her already drained emotions.

She spiraled into a fit of "why me?" And when I didn't respond the way she wanted me to, she got angry at me.

I knew most of her frustration and anger was just her venting the pent up steam from the day. And I also knew that she was simply too young and inexperienced with actual hardship to have perspective.

I'm sure there are many kids who would have had a more reasonable reaction. But my daughter is, um, fiery. I don't know how else to explain it. She is passionate. And she feels very strongly about things. Right or wrong, however it is she feels, she feels it 100%.

And the fact her car was damaged and that we might have to actually partially pay to replace the car made her livid. And the fact that the whole event had not made me livid was making her even more upset.

But I just couldn't get myself worked up.

All I could feel was grateful that she hadn't been hurt. And the circumstances surrounding the whole event filled me with gratitude. I was definitely having an attitude of gratitude moment.

Is it incredibly frustrating that a kid rammed into my daughter's car and her car might be totaled while his car was relatively undamaged? Yes. Is it frustrating that the kid who was being reckless is incredibly wealthy, so there will likely be little or no consequences for him? Yes.

But there's so much for me to feel grateful for. My daughter wasn't in the car. Nobody was injured. There were school faculty and campus police quickly on site to gather witness statements and control the scene. We have AAA and insurance, so getting the car taken care of is not a hardship. When I arrived on the scene, my daughter had some wonderful friends who had stayed with her until I got there to make sure she was okay. I don't have to work, so I was home and able to get to quickly get to my daughter. I don't have to work so my car is available for my daughter to drive while her car is being fixed. If her car is not fixable, we will be able to deal with it.

And I reminded her that "bad' things happen to people all the time. A truck hit my car while I was literally not moving, waiting at a stoplight, and the insurance company wasn't able to prove it wasn't somehow partly my fault. My husband was once rear-ended twice in one day. The man who hung a door for us had his house burn down in the fires last fall.

Unfortunate things happen all the time to people.

All in all, for me, it was a reminder of how lucky we are. And it wasn't a feeling that took time to ponder. I just simply felt it when I heard she hadn't been in the car.

And, no, maybe she won't end up with the car she started with. But she will have a car. We can afford to make sure she gets something nice. And in the meantime, even though she doesn't like driving my car, she can drive it as much as she needs.

We are so lucky. I am so grateful.

Here are some questions I asked my mom about this:

I'm sure there must be Buddhist lessons that directly relate to being grateful during times that seem like a hardship.

The Buddha didn't talk directly about gratitude, but in the first noble truth, he did talk about some of the hardships we face in life, They include, aging, illness, not getting what we want, getting what we don't want, and losing what we cherish.

When I reflect on this list, I see that all of us will, indeed, have to go through these unpleasant experiences. Your family definitely did not get what you wanted when that kid hit Malia's car...and she may have lost something she cherished if it can't be fixed. 

This list of the Buddha's contains hardships that come with the human condition. That being the case, it's wise to do what you did—put this particular hardship in perspective. That left you with a feeling of gratitude, mostly for all the terrible things that didn't happen (like kids getting hurt).

There's a story I tell in my book, How to Be Sick, that I think would be helpful here.

Country music singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash was being interviewed on NPR's Terry Gross. Cash had been forced to put her career on hold for several years because she had to have brain surgery for a rare but benign condition. Terry Gross asked her if she ever found herself asking "Why me?" Cash said no, that, in fact, she found herself saying, Why not me? since she had health insurance, no nine-to-five job that she might lose during her long recuperation, and a spouse who was a wonderful caregiver.

That's the story. It's helped me to stop asking "Why me?" all the time. What happened to Malia and your family could happen to anyone. Like you, I'm so grateful that no one was hurt. I'm so sorry about the hassle you have to go because of it though.

Have you had moments like mine, where on the face of it things seemed very bad, but you were able to feel gratitude regardless of the misfortune?

I've had this happen many times, especially when you and your brother were growing up and an incident such as just happened to you took place.

I work on developing this attitude of gratitude in regards to my chronic illness. I've even posted pieces where I make a list of things to be grateful for even though, if I had my choice, I wouldn't be housebound. I can be grateful that, because of being at home, I don't get stuck in traffic jams. And I'm grateful that I don't answer to an alarm clock. These are little things, but they make me feel better about the limitations in my life.

What is your advice for people, like your granddaughter, who generally default to feeling angry when they feel like things "aren't fair"?

The Rosanne Cash story from my book could just as easily have gone here as an answer to this question. 

One of the most helpful things I've learned is that life isn't always fair. Life just happens. Sometimes it feels fair to us and sometimes it doesn't. Getting angry when it doesn't isn't going to make it fair. It's only going to make us feel worse.  

Accepting that life isn't fair has relieved me of a tremendous burden—the burden to expect it to be fair. When I dropped that expectation, most of my anger went along with it. The result is that I feel so much better and so much calmer about my life.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Happiness Myth

Mara here:

"You should do whatever makes you happy."

It seems like this was the mantra for my generation. My parents generation was still saddled with traditional expectations. Some, like my parents rebelled against the mainstream. Others did what previous generations had done, which was do what their parents had expected of them.

But my generation, Generation X, was different. We were the generation being raised by hippies. We were the generation being raised by parents who had experienced Vietnam, the assassination of King and of the Kennedy brothers. We were the generation being raised by parents who lived through Watergate.

My parents didn't want to impose their expectations on their kids. My parents read books on psychology and were more open to different philosophies of life. I could be wrong, but I feel as if my generation was the first one who was told they could be anything.

It wasn't just my parents (who I firmly believe thought I could be anything I wanted), it was people on television and in books. Everyone said we shouldn't limit ourselves. We shouldn't settle for anything less that what made us happy.

We were told we shouldn't just have jobs. We should find our passion. We were told we should do whatever made us happy. We were told that we if we found that magical thing that made us happy, then it wouldn't be work—it would be a passion.

And that sounds fantastic.

It sounds so fantastic that I took it to heart. I really thought that if I worked hard enough, if I kept searching I would find something—that thing—that would make me happy.

As the years went on, I kept thinking that somehow I just hadn't found the right thing. I wasn't happy. I had moments of happiness, but it didn't seem like the kind of happy everyone talked about. 

Then I started to wonder if happiness was just not something I could achieve. It was clear that there wasn't some thing out there that was just going to make me happy. I had tried several different jobs. I had tried different hobbies. I was married to a wonderful man. We had lived in many different cities. I had worked a lot. I had had the freedom not to work.

I wasn't happy.

And I wasn't the only one. I was noticing that many of my peers weren't happy either. In fact, there seem to be a lot Gen X'ers who have struggled to find peace with their lives. Friends were following their "dreams" and opening their own businesses or succeeding in projects that they had long worked for, but they were still struggling with many of the same issues I was struggling with. They felt stressed and tired. They felt disheartened that they didn't feel fulfilled. It felt like they were feeling a lot of pressure to be happy.

For myself, I assumed it was something about me. I assumed there was something wrong with me. I assumed that I was somehow not doing something right.

But as I'm getting older, I'm wondering if it's simply that while everyone talks about happiness...nobody talks about what being happy actually is.

I think this is possibly because, much like raising children, it's a different experience for everyone. I'm not sure "happy" can be described in a universal way. And it's not constant. There are grades of happiness—from not happy to very happy. 

And really, as most books will now tell you, people who self-describe themselves as happy find their happiness in whatever circumstance they're in. It's not something external. It's internal.

Honestly though, as a parent, this is a sucky thing to have to try and explain to a child.

Most parents give the same spiel to their kids: "You can be whatever you set your mind to." And "You should do what makes you "'happy.'"

But I have trouble saying those things to my daughter. The problem is that the alternative is to say to her, "Well, you might do all these things and you might still be unhappy." It sounds like I'm the villain in a Disney movie.

I just don't want her to grow up thinking that happiness is something that you can somehow attain by following certain steps. I can't promise if she gets all A's, goes to college, goes to graduate school, marries someone nice, and gets a great job that at the end of it all is a happy ending.

I think "happy" as a state of being is a myth. It's not a constant. I think if we could let go of the ideal of happiness, a lot of people would feel less pressure to be something that maybe doesn't exist. We would feel less like we've failed just because we don't feel happy.

And before people get all up in arms telling me they're happy, I'm not saying there's no such thing as happiness. I feel a lot of happiness in my life. If I think back, I can think of countless happy moments in my life.

But they're moments. Some moments last longer than others, but it's not like when my hair grows long and it's just long until I cut it. Happiness is not solid. It's not something that is easily measured. It ebbs and flows.

And happiness requires some effort. Happiness isn't something that's thrust upon us. For me at least, it's something I have to choose. I have to tend to it, like a flower in a garden. I need to remember to seek happiness out instead of defaulting to gloom and doom.

I suspect some people probably default to happiness. And if you're like that, you're so lucky.

When I did finally realized that happiness was something I actually had a little bit of control over, my life changed. In most ways, it changed for the better. It made me realize that I wasn't just a passive mass of skin and bones waiting for something be bestowed upon me by the universe.

Knowing that I could decide to feel positive, even if I wasn't always successful, made achieving happiness more consistently possible.

But it was a little bit like finding out there was no Santa Claus. There was not going to be one magical event that would suddenly transform my life to become "happy." Losing weight would not make me happy. Getting a cat would not make me happy. Having a beautiful baby girl would not make me happy. Buying a house would not make me happy.

I had to find happiness in what I had.

So that's what I try to tell my daughter, in the least villain-like way. I tell her that she needs to try and be happy with what she already has. That it's always good to be excited about what's to come, and if she works hard she can achieve the things she wants. But that happiness is not necessarily a reward that comes with any particular thing.

And I try to tell her that it's okay to do things, even if they don't always make you happy. I make sure she knows that whatever profession she chooses, there will be moments, days, weeks, when she doesn't enjoy whatever it is she's doing—because that's life. We aren't always happy.

And that's okay. It's nice to be happy. But it's fine if we're not happy. And in the moments when we're not feeling particularly happy, we can feel confident that the feelings of happiness will come back around.

My goal for my daughter is for her to know that happy exists, but that it's not the only goal. I want her to know that she should find a job she enjoys, but it doesn't have to be something that makes her feel like singing and dancing every day. And that she should find a man she loves, but it's fine if he sometimes irritates her. I want her to experience and recognize happiness, but not covet it. Because happiness is a shape shifter. You think you have it, so you cling to it, but it turns into something else, and then you realize you're clinging to something that doesn't make you happy anymore.

Happiness for me now is something I am grateful for when I feel it. And there are times when I feel it more, so I gravitate towards those things and people.

But I don't expect it anymore. And I don't feel like a failure anymore when I don't feel it. I feel more freedom to be happy.


Toni here. Mara was going to ask me some questions about Buddhist teachings related to happiness, but after I read this, I declined because this is the best piece on happiness I've read.

I did agree to answer this question:

When we were growing up, did it ever occur to you that we might not be happy?

No, Mara, it didn't, and the reason is that you're so much more perceptive a parent than I was!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

What Stops You in Your Tracks?

Mara here:

I was in Palm Springs a couple weeks ago. It was my first trip there and we only went because our daughter was at a music festival in the area. She and her friends stayed at a separate hotel close to where the festival was, and my husband Brad and I stayed about 20 minutes away in the center of Palm Springs—close but not too close.

Palm Springs was interesting. It wasn't at all what I expected. It was smaller and quieter than I had envisioned. For someone who had never thought very much about Palm Springs, I must have subconsciously had a definite idea of what it was like because I was surprised at how it wasn't at all what I didn't know I was expecting!

Anyway, one thing that did happen. When we were sitting at lunch one day, Brad said, "Oh look, there's a hummingbird." I immediately stopped chewing and started searching all around for it. I love hummingbirds. They seem magical.

I finally spotted it. It was just the shadow of the hummingbird reflected on the awning we were sitting under. But I watched as it flitted around, back and forth between flowers.

You would think from my reaction that I had never seen a hummingbird. But I actually see them regularly. There's a tree near our house that they love.

But still, without fail, if I happen to notice one, it stops me in my tracks. I watch it. I usually try to get a picture of it, but I have yet to get a good one. I just love watching them buzz around. Their wings beat so quickly, and they're so delicate—it seems impossible that they're real.

And again, they're a regular part of my life. It's not that I see them all the time, but I probably see one almost every week when it's warm and they always fill me with wonder. 

A few things like that in my life stop me when I see them; they catch my breath. Here are five things that still feel magical to me:

1. Hummingbirds
2. Rainbows
3. Lightning
4. Raindrops on flowers
5. The moment the sun dips down over the horizon and all the light in the clouds turn off

These are things that, when I see them, I feel as if I've experienced a moment of magic. It reminds me that the world is filled with wonders. And even though I understand logically how they exist, they still seem like illusions. Somehow these things take me out of the rhythm of my everyday existence and remind me that there's a whole universe of amazing things out there.

And because they have that effect on me, they remind me how lucky I am to be where I am. They give me a moment to feel gratitude for the nice life I have.

So I am always grateful when I have these moments in my life.

Toni here. Here are a few things on my list of life's magical displays:

1. Hummingbirds (Yup!)
2. In spring, the sight of tender leaf buds just beginning to sprout out of bare-branched trees
3. Recognizing a constellation in the night sky
4. The sound of a gentle wind rustling the leaves 
5. The delicate-looking hermit thrush who visits my yard
6. The moon at its fullest

Mara and I would love to know what makes you stop in your tracks!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Let The Berries Fall Where They May

Mara here:

We bought our house in 2004...

When we bought it, we a) didn't think we would live in the house for more than 5 years, and b) assumed we would fix it up.

Well, almost 14 years later, we have fixed some things, but there are a lot of things we never got around to changing. There were always other things to spend the money on, or we didn't have the time or desire to deal with finding people to do the work.

We love our house. It's been an amazing little house to raise our daughter. It's never leaked, it rarely loses power, and it feels like "home" whenever I return to it.

But twice a year, I am reminded about something that was definitely one of those things we always said "we'll fix" but just never happened.

That brings me to the berries.

This is different from the other weird berry tree that grew in our front yard. That was a mystery for many years but was finally identified as a Mulberry tree.

This is a different tree.

There is a tree directly in front of the house that spreads over our roof and our driveway. We love this tree because it provides some privacy, but more importantly it provides shade from the setting sun.

It's is some sort of berry tree (or maybe another kind of fruit). We've never bothered to figure out what type of tree it is. The berries are black, maybe dark blue, and they have a pit similar to a cherry. And twice a year, they fall all over our driveway.

It's a barrage of little berry bombs that splat all over our cars, all over our driveway and then get tracked into our house with its white tiles. They stick to the bottom of shoes and leave little poop-like berry skid marks all over.

And every time it happens, we all say, "Oh the berries are back." Then I spend a couple weeks sweeping and Swiffering the house like a crazy person. Because it honestly does look a bit like someone stepped in poop and just tracked it all over. So I sweep, and Swiffer and mop and scrub (the skins of the berries stick to the tiles like stickers) over and over and over.

And then one day the berries stop. They're just gone.

And then I forget about them—until they start falling again.

For several years, the dropping berries would make me very agitated. I felt burdened by the "berry situation." I would try to sweep the driveway every day, which requires scraping the dried pits and berry sludge off the cement. It's actually a lot of work.  I felt like I constantly needed to explain why our floors looked the way they did to everyone who entered. 

And I would complain about how we never get anything done and our house is a wreck...and the whole thing would spiral into a much bigger deal that it is. The berries became a reflection of the fact that we never built the driveway cover. No, we never remodeled the front of the house and uprooted the tree. No we don't trim the tree as often as we should to minimize the number of berries dropping.

But these past couple of times the berries have arrived, I realized I don't really care about them anymore. Yes, I notice them. Yes, I still complain. (We all complain.) Yes I still clean them up. But I'm not angry at them anymore. They used to feel like such an affront to me. How dare the berries exist and make things messy.

Maybe because I'm older and more tired and have other things that feel more worrisome, but the hassle of the berries feels less and less important. Instead of feeling like a big burden, they are just an annoyance.

At some point I just decided to let the berries fall where they may.

I can't control the berries, and the reality is that at this point we aren't going to make significant changes to the house. So I have come to a mental understanding with the berries. They exist and they will fall and I will deal with them when they do.

Now it's a familiar little quirk of the house. After we've moved out of our house, I will forever remember "the berries" and will probably think about them fondly and even miss them a little when I don't have them.

I wondered if there were things about my childhood house that drove my mom crazy when I was growing up:

Our Davis house definitely needed work done. You guys have done a lot to it since I moved away. Was there anything that always drove you crazy but that you never bothered to fix?

We have our version of your berry tree! It's some kind of plum tree (with fruit that I find inedible—it's the size of a large grape). It sits toward the bottom of one side of our driveway. The fruit falls all over the driveway, on any car that's parked in the driveway, and on the sidewalk in front of the house. The fruit gets squishy and then gets crushed underfoot and then dries very hard on whatever it touches (including the soles of your shoes). Every year, I try to grab them off the sidewalk and driveway before they get squishy but I can't keep up with the task. And so everyone who walks by in the summer months gets them on their shoes. I always think we're being rude to people in the neighborhood who walk on the sidewalk at that place.

Every once in a while, I have someone cut the tree back from the driveway and the sidewalk (it's too tall for me to prune) and that works for one season. I will not miss that tree when we no longer live here!

Then there are a few things we fixed that have never quite worked right, like our sprinkler system. We installed one underground and put an automatic timer inside the house so I can set it to water overnight at four different "stations" (which makes our house sound big...but it isn't). But...I can't get that automatic system to work even though I've replaced the device twice. Once I set it to automatic, on the nights it goes on, it stays on, recycling the stations over and over. I wake up in the morning with the front gutters flooded. I finally gave up and turned off the automatic setting. Now I run it once manually before I go to bed.

Your Dad and I are not the best house repairers or fixer-uppers. I think we're happier as tenants than as homeowners. But I love our little house. 

Is there anything that you did fix, that with hindsight you kind of miss?

I've had to think long and hard about this...and the answer is "no." I don't miss anything that's gone (like the ugly bathroom sink you always hated that was in the bathroom you and your brother shared). 

The big fix was when we put in central heat and air. Unfortunately for you and your brother, it was after you'd both moved out (which I'm sure you're well aware of and have never forgiven us for!). Before then our only cooling from the blazing Central Valley heat in summer was a pretty lame swamp cooler in the hallway. I remember how you used to sleep under it on the hottest nights. 

And so that's another thing I do not miss: that swamp cooler!

Berries on Mara's driveway

Sunday, April 15, 2018

How to Find the Right Balance in Life

Mara here:

My husband would describe me as "extreme."

I'm all or nothing.

It has taken me most of my life to realize there can be a middle ground and that sometimes how you feel about something can change.

I tend to get into ruts. Not just ruts like other people probably think of ruts. I will do things repeatedly for days, months, years, and then I'll stop cold turkey. I'll exercise rigorously or not exercise at all. My emotions and opinions can swing from one extreme to another.

When I was younger, things seemed so much simpler. Even when my behavior was extreme, I felt secure in my feelings about whether things were right or wrong. I loved things or I hated them. I always knew what I wanted. I always had a goal. And I felt confident in my opinions.

But as I've gotten older, everything has become more ambiguous. The lines between right and wrong, good and bad, have become blurry. It's almost to the point where I almost never feel strongly about anything.

In many ways, it has made life calmer. I am less volatile. I am less judgmental and more understanding and sympathetic about other people's lives. I guess that having more experience and more knowledge has made me more sympathetic.

There have been times when my daughter has gotten frustrated with me because, just like I felt when I was her age, she wants there to be answers about everything. She wants me to have a definite opinion about things.

But usually I don't. 

Don't get me wrong, I certainly have preferences. There are things I like more and things I like less, but I no longer feel as if there's an actual "right" or "wrong" when making most decisions. Because, as we've discussed in previous blogs, you can't always know how life will unfold. Things that seem "bad" might end up being positive. And something that, on the surface, felt amazing, might end up negatively as time passes.

It makes my daughter mad because she thinks I'm too passive. She thinks I just can't be bothered to care enough to have an opinion.

So I've been wondering, is she right? Have I gone too far the other way? Am I too passive?

I do think that being more flexible in my thinking is a good thing. But maybe I have mistaken not being opinionated for apathy. Maybe I purposely don't throw my hat in the ring because I don't want to have to have a stake in the game. It's been interesting to realize that what I assumed was a positive change in my behavior might not be as positive as I thought it was.

How do we find the right balance? 

I've been thinking these past years that I was being more reasonable because most of the time it's not good when I am passionate about something because it becomes all consuming. But maybe I'm still following my behavioral pattern of extremism because maybe I've simply replaced caring too much for not caring at all—about anything. 

It's obviously not that cut and dry. I clearly still care about things. But I do have trouble making decisions. I have trouble giving advice because my mind second guesses itself. After all, experience has shown that we do not know what the future holds. And just because I don't like something or someone, doesn't mean that other people should feel the same way.

Going along with the current makes things easier. It's certainly easier to let exterior events or people make choices for me. But I need to remember there has to be balance. Understanding how to find that balance will be more difficult. 

So I asked my mom about how she finds balance in her life.

1. Are there Buddhist teachings that help you find balance in your life?

Wow. There are so many. In fact, finding balance is one of my principal attractions to the Buddha's teaching. I'm not interested in "transcendent" states that people think of as nirvana. I'm interested in finding exactly what you write about: the right balance. This is because it's only when I'm balanced that I don't feel tossed about by what happens in life, like a ship on a stormy sea. Balance brings with it a sense of peace in my life.

I'll describe a few teachings...and then maybe mention others in my response to your other questions. 

The first teaching I rely on is the Buddha's four noble truths. I don't have time to discuss this in full. I can only refer people to my books for that. Basically, in the first noble truth, the Buddha set forth a list of the tough things we'll all encounter in life—from illness to aging, to not getting what we want to getting what we don't want, to losing what we cherish. It's a daunting list. 

If that list (in the new edition of How to Be Sick, I call it "The Buddha's List") were all he provided us with, we might fall into the unbalanced extreme of despair. In fact, some people say that Buddhism is pessimistic but that's because they don't understand that by providing us with this list, the Buddha was simply setting forth a realistic view of life, so that we'd know what to expect and won't be thrown to extremes when they happen. And, he doesn't just stop at that list. He goes on to help us learn how to keep balanced in the face of these tough life experiences.

There are many aspects to keeping balanced. The first is to acknowledge that life inevitably will be tough at times and to give up the fruitless—and often compulsive—desire to never encounter these unpleasant experiences. That desire serves only to make things worse for us since it's a desire that can never be fulfilled. So, acknowledging and accepting that unpleasant experiences are part of life helps me keep balanced because I don't expect things to be otherwise. This is not a passive stance. On the contrary, I think of it as engaging life as it truly is.

A second way I keep balanced is to remind myself that life is a mixture of joys and sorrows. The Buddha's List enumerates those sorrows, but there's joy too. In the subtitle to my second book, I refer to "navigating joys and sorrows." I touched above how to navigate sorrow, but why do we need to navigate joy? The answer is that we need to have a balanced attitude toward joy when it's present because it doesn't last forever. And so, if we cling to it, that's going to an extreme because we're setting ourselves up for a big fall when that joy passes. And so, for me, the key to finding balance in life is to embrace joy when we feel it but not cling to it and to not feel aversion when sorrow shows up (that list again), but to accept it as part of the human condition.

I am not saying that it is easy to do either of the things in that previous sentence but I've discovered that when I'm able to do them, equanimity arises (it being one of the "sublime states" in Buddhism). Equanimity is that calm and balanced state of mind that allows us to feel at peace with life. In my view, true equanimity is nirvana...and it's what I work on every day. 

For me, when I'm resting in equanimity, I know I've found the right balance in my life. It's not a passive state but one that engages life's joys and sorrows—it's up and downs—with wisdom and with compassion.

2. Are there times when you catch yourself being extreme in your behavior? How do you walk yourself back?

Good question. Depending on the situation, I'd say I do one of two things to walk myself back from extremes. 

First, I keep what Zen teacher Seung Sahn called a "Don't-Know Mind" (something I also write about in my books). I may feel 100% sure that my opinions are right or that such and such a person is right or wrong, but do I really know? Almost always the answer is "no." Thich Nhat Hanh had a different way of expressing this. He said we should ask ourselves "Am I Sure?" before speaking or acting. I have many examples of when that "Am I Sure?" kept me from going to extremes.

That said, there are a few things I am sure of based on my commitment not to speak or act in a way that will be unkind or harmful to myself or others. In Buddhist terms, we'd say that I'm checking to see if what I'm about to say or do will help alleviate suffering as opposed to intensifying it (which come under "wise speech" and "wise action" on the Buddha's Eightfold Path).

There are some opinions I am sure are right and so I don't keep a Don't-Know Mind about them. For example, one is in my unshakeable belief that racism is wrong. You could say that this means I am extreme in my view, but I see nothing but suffering coming out of holding racist views or speaking and acting based on those views.

A second way I walk myself back when I catch myself being extreme in my behavior is to go straight to self-compassion. These past 10 days have been terrible for me because our dog Scout did something that set off cramps and muscle spasms in her left leg. The vet could find nothing wrong, but the episodes were painful to watch and when she wasn't in a spasm, she lay on her bed and wouldn't get up. (We experimented with some medications, particularly an anti-spasm drug, and she's finally recovered). 

But for 10 days, we had no idea how to keep her from being in pain and we had no idea how long it would go on or whether we'd have to admit her to the vet hospital in town (she's horribly afraid of cages due to mistreatment as a puppy). 

As the week progressed, I became more and more "extreme" in my worrying and fretting. I spent hours and hours on the internet trying to figure out what was wrong. I couldn't sleep well because I knew she was on her bed next to mine and could cry out in pain any moment. 

The way I walked myself back from my extreme worry and stress was through self-compassion. Like equanimity, compassion is one of the "sublime states" in Buddhism (and is highly valued in most religious and humanitarian traditions). This is both compassion for others and compassion for ourselves. 

Here's how I evoked it when I felt overcome with extreme emotional distress over Scout. As I lay in bed, I'd stroke one arm with the hand of the other and silently speak soothing words to myself: "This is really stressful. No wonder you feel extra sick right now. This is hard, really hard. You're taking the best care of her you can." And that walked me back.

3. Do you find that because of your illness, since you have less exposure to life outside your house, your tendency to feel strongly about things has become more extreme or less extreme?

Well, the internet gives me almost as much exposure to life outside the house as I'd get if I were physically going out! And yet, being mostly housebound has helped me be less extreme. For one thing, emotions are felt in the body and my body needs as much quiet as it can get. So emotional extremes (which are anything but "quiet") are very hard on me physically, which is one reason I actively look for ways to avoid them—the ways I talked about above. Sometimes I'm more successful than other times...I didn't do so well with Scout this past week...but, hopefully, I learned from the experience and will do better when the next crisis arises.


Mara and I would love to know what your strategies are for finding the right balance in life.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

If I Had a Million Dollars...

Mara here:

"If I Had a Million Dollars" is the title of a song by a band called The Barenaked Ladies. It's one of Brad's favorite bands, or at least it was early on in our relationship, so I remembering repeatedly hearing the song. It's not a serious song. As I recall, it's sort of a love song about all the goofy things a guy would buy a girl he loved.

I've been thinking a lot about money lately. I think it's because my daughter is about to apply to colleges and, for a variety of reasons, we never set up a college fund for her. So we are now faced with trying to figure out how we are going to pay for college, which is daunting. 

It's been hard to have to tell our daughter that she can't necessarily go to whatever school she wants to because we simply can't afford to pay most private university tuition. And yes, I know that having your parents pay for college is a luxury. I know lots of kids pay their own way through school or go to community college. But both Brad and I had parents who paid for our college education, and we have always assumed we would do the same for our daughter. She has worked really hard to get good grades and has challenged herself with a difficult curriculum.

I hate that money might be the determining factor of what school she eventually ends up attending.

So we've had various conversations about money. We've had serious conversations about money—which are not fun. And we've had some less serious conversations about money—which can be entertaining. What would I do if I suddenly found myself with a huge sum of money? Of course, all the practical things immediately come to mind: set up a college fund (number one priority at this point), pay off our house, pay off our cars, give money to charity, etc.

If I really wanted to go crazy, if I somehow found myself multi-millions of dollars, here's, in order, what I would do:

1) Set up a charitable foundation. I'm not sure what type of foundation, but it would probably be something to do with education, or possibly providing housing to families. My number one dream is to have enough money to be able to give enough money away to someone that would actually be meaningful. Of course, I donate what I can now, but it's $25 here and $25 there. I know it adds up. I know it makes a difference. But I would love to be able to set up a foundation that would make a noticeable difference in the lives of the people it helped.

2) Set up a trust fund for our daughter, which would of course include paying for any college that she wanted to attend.

3) Pay off the mortgages of everyone in my family. I would love to be able to just allow everyone I love not to worry about paying their mortgages.

4) Set up education trust funds for nieces and nephews.

5) Randomly give out $100 bills to strangers on the street. (It's this weird fantasy I have.)

But let's get real. What's the likelihood that I will ever get my hands on that kind of money?

So then I thought, well what would I do with just a little bit more money? Let's say I was suddenly given $500 dollars a month that I could only spend on things for myself. (Because, let's be real, I'm a mom so if someone hands me money, 90% of the time I buy something for my daughter.) So, if someone said, here's a trust fund of $500 a month and you can only spend it on things for yourself, here are some things I would spend it on:

1) Books. I love books. I love reading books, and I love buying books. I like knowing I have them. But I have to stop myself from buying them because I can buy ten books without thinking about it, and it's money we need for other things. So books would definitely get purchased.

2) Theater tickets. I love live theater but it has gotten so expensive. Honestly, I don't know how people afford to go regularly. I know there are smaller venues and community shows, but my favorites are the big Broadway-style shows. Right now, it's just not what we spend our money on. So if I could, I would definitely see more theater.

3) Martial Arts. I've always regretted not getting my black belt when I was younger. I got about halfway and stopped. But if I had more money that I spent on myself, I would go back and get my black belt. Don't get me wrong; I could spend the money now to do this, but I don't. Somehow in the pecking order of what I spend money on, this just isn't high enough toward the top. But it's something I would definitely do if money wasn't an issue.

4) Sushi. I would eat more sushi.

5) Rescue pets. I would have more pets. I don't know if that would technically be spending money on myself, but I think it would qualify because I love animals. I want a petting zoo. I want goats and pigs and mini-horses and squirrels...and I want to rescue all the cats and dogs. But animals are expensive to maintain.

I'm sure money would get spent on other things such as gadgets, clothes, and food. But those aren't things I feel like I'm missing from my life. I have enough of those. In fact, I really have pretty much everything I need now.

When I wish for more money these days, it's usually because I wish that my daughter could have everything she wants. I spent many years feeling as if money would "fix" my problems. Of course, it doesn't. On a practical level you do have to have a certain amount of money to live comfortably, i.e. have a place to live, buy food to eat. But beyond the basics, money doesn't translate into happiness.

However, it does make things easier and it can make things nicer. But it took me 30 years to realize that having more money doesn't make you happy. Spending money doesn't actually fix anything. But my 17 year old daughter hasn't had that realization yet, and I can hardly expect her to understand. Some people never figure this out.

So I give her my spiel about how wanting more is endless and that you will never feel as if you have enough, blah blah blah. I am trying to teach her that appreciating what she has will ultimately provide her with more happiness than getting more will ever provide. I am trying to explain that the feeling of "wanting" never ends.

But the mom in me really wishes I could just give her everything she wants. The girl in me, who remembers wishing she had more, wants to be able to give her daughter everything.

But I can't. It is fun to sometimes fantasize about it though.

So what would you do if you had a million dollars?