Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Our Gratitude List for March. What Are You Grateful For?

Things we are grateful for in March!


—Flowers. Beautiful flowers are one of the things that always make me stop and take photos. If you follow me on Instagram, you'll notice that most of my photos are of flowers. (This is also partly because my daughter no longer allows me to take pictures of her!) I just get mesmerized by the miracle of nature that creates the colors and the variety of flowers! And we have a gorgeous crop of them this spring because of all the rain!

—Bee Specialists. So I looked out my window the other day and noticed a shocking number of bees swarming around my backyard. It looked like a cloud. I felt like I had been dropped into a bee-pocalypse. If you've never experienced a bee swarm, it's a bizarre flurry of bees that fly around and then settle into what looks like a hive. Usually they're not actually creating a hive (with wax and honey); they're just stopping to eat and rest. But they go from being this crazy swarm of bees to being a giant clump of bees that look like the hives you see in Winnie the Pooh stories. Fortunately, there are bee specialists who will come and collect the bees—alive—and relocate them to a safe place. Bees are very important and helpful...I just didn't want 1000 of them in my backyard.

—Earplugs. I'm not a great sleeper, so about 10 years ago I started sleeping with earplugs because there were too many noises in the night that would wake me up: my daughter going to the bathroom, the dog licking himself, my husband snoring, etc. Well, turns out that our lovely cat, regularly sits on our bed and meows at my husband at 3 a.m. because she wants whatever a cat wants at 3 a.m... but because of my earplugs it doesn't wake me up!! Yay earplugs!


—Everything Mara said about earplugs. Except I don't have a cat or a daughter living at home, so substitute parties in the neighborhood and squirrels scurrying around on the bedroom roof.

—My friend Dawn. She's been a steady visitor ever since I got sick even though, before that, we hadn't seen each other for many years. Imagine that. Many of my friends dropped out of my life when I got sick, but Dawn came into it. In March, I'll have seen her four times.

—Signs of spring. Mara talked about flowers. I love them too, but the most special part of spring for me is when the trees and bushes start to "blossom" with light green, soft and tender leaves. They're especially beautiful when backlit by the sun the way the crepe myrtle in my backyard sometimes is as I look at it while lying in bed. The last few days, the leaves on that crepe myrtle seem to be growing as I watch! 

What have you been grateful for this month?

Swarm of bees in Mara's backyard.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Nobody Is Paying as Much Attention to You as You Are

Mara here. I am worrier. And I am very self-conscious. I often feel as if people are watching and judging me. And even if I’m alone, I can manage to make myself unhappy by imagining what people would think if they happened to be watching me.

Not surprisingly, because of this, I am not a spur of the moment, fly by the seat of my pants kind of person. I like to plan. I like to know what I’m getting myself into. And when I find myself in a situation that I’m not comfortable with, afterward, I tend to relive it in my mind over and over until it’s hard for me to remember what actually happened versus what I think happened. Did I accidentally hurt someone’s feelings? Did I talk too much? Did I laugh in a weird way? It’s exhausting. 

As a young adult, my worrying started to make me so self-conscious that I began to have trouble socializing. I overcompensated for my anxiety by trying to be in too much control. I would plan what I would wear, what I would do, what I would say, how I would handle every possible outcome because I didn’t want other people to think negatively about me.

Of course, all my efforts simply made me even more uncomfortable, making it impossible to enjoy things because I was always worrying that I wasn't doing what I should be doing. And, as I mentioned, the discomfort of worrying didn’t end once the interactions or events were over. I'd go back and relive my interactions. I'd rewind the events in my mind and try to identify if I had done or said things that could be interpreted differently than I'd intended. I would recreate people’s reactions to my behavior, spinning whole tales of how my behavior had somehow negatively affected them.

 Then I heard something that completely changed my perspective: “Nobody is paying attention to you as much are you are paying attention to yourself.” 

I can’t remember if it was something I heard in a movie or on TV or read in a book. But it was one of those few moments that literally changed how I viewed myself.

At first, it seemed funny and slightly off-putting. Like, really? People don’t care that much about me? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how true it was. And once I realized that, I saw how freeing it was. FREEING. Yeah, maybe my ego was a little ruffled by the notion that people didn’t notice everything I did, but it was liberating to recognize that my actions weren’t being minutely examined. 

It was as if someone had just turned a light on in a dark room and suddenly things looked clearer: I was the only one scrutinizing myself. It released me from the responsibility of making sure everything I did made other people happy. It made me realize that most people aren’t affected by what I’m saying, or what I’m doing, or what I’m wearing, or if I accidentally interrupt them, or if I laugh strangely. Nobody was noticing these things as much as I noticed them. 

Ahhhhh. Even as I sit here and write about that moment of clarity, I feel almost giddy. 

And it made so much sense because I don't analyze everything about the people around me, so what made me think they were analyzing everything about me? Yes, I sometimes notice if someone is wearing something I think is strange, but do I think about it for more than two seconds? No I don't. Am I sometimes a little annoyed by things people say or do? Yes I am. Do I let it affect my whole perception of that person? No I don't. All of us are allowed to make mistakes. And all of us are allowed to be unique. Is that part of being human? Yes. Yes!

I still worry sometimes. Ok, I still worry a lot. And I still sometimes beat myself up about things I’ve done or things I’ve said. But if I catch myself doing it, I remind myself, “Nobody cares as much you do.” And it comforts me. It takes a heavy weight of responsibility off my shoulders. And it allows me to forgive myself a little bit.

Here's how my mom answered some questions on this subject.


Is there a Buddhist practice for reminding ourselves that we are not the center of other people’s attention?

That's a tough question. I would say mindfulness. Yes, mindfulness—in or outside of meditation—you don't have to meditate to practice mindfulness. There are a couple of ways in which mindfulness can help us remember we are not the center of other people's attention. 

First, mindfulness is simply paying attention to what's going on. If you use it to pay attention to other people, you'd make an effort to become aware of what they're interested in, what they're saying, etc. If you truly do this—pay attention to other people—you'll discover that they're busy dealing with their own life with its crazy ups and down. They're not focused on yours. 

Trying to lead our own lives in a decent way is hard enough. So, if you practice mindfulness by saying, "Okay, I'm going to pay attention to other people for a bit," you'll see that they're much more interested in their own lives than yours. So that would be using mindfulness to serve as a reminder that you're not the center of other people's attention. It's even true of the people you're closest to; you might be the center of their attention now and then, but not all the time.

There's a second way mindfulness can help and it happens to be the reason I value mindfulness so highly. You can use it to watch what's going on in your own mind. And again, you don't have to be meditating to do this. If you pay attention to thoughts and emotions that arise in your mind, you'll be able to see early on whenever you're caught up in a stressful thinking or emotional pattern that has you worrying about what other people are thinking about you. 

The reason it helps to become aware of stressful thoughts and emotions as soon as possible is that you have a better chance of letting them go—of just dropping them, and this stops you from starting to spin stressful stories about whatever is bothering you, such as "She doesn't think I'm really sick" or "Everyone is thinking I should just snap out of this depression." It's amazing how we tell ourselves stories and then believe them without even questioning their validity. Almost all of those stories aren't true but they make us really unhappy nevertheless.

So, in the context of this topic, if I were to notice that I'm worrying because I'm focused on what other people might be thinking of me, once I become aware of it—that's the mindfulness part—then instead of inventing scenarios that are pretty certain not to be true, I can help myself out with a few reflections. 

First, I can reflect that have no idea what other people are thinking." This is the value of becoming aware of what's going on in your mind—once you see what you're doing, you can reflect on what the real truth is. And the truth is you have no idea what other people are thinking! 

Second, I can see that this focus on what others are thinking of me is a tremendous drain on my energy. This is especially hard for me because I'm chronically ill. And people who are depressed often don't have a lot of energy either. I think of energy as a precious commodity, and I don't want to use it up worrying about what other people might be thinking about me. 

Lastly, when we start to spin—and believe—those stressful stories about what other people are thinking about us, we're likely to get down on ourselves. We might even start questioning ourselves. That's our inner critic and we definitely don't want to give it an opening to come visit! When we're worried about what other people are thinking about us, that worry can boomerang back and lead us to be down on ourselves. And that does not feel good. 

As I said, it's amazing the stories we can spin that make us miserable. So the sooner we can become aware that we're starting to worry in that way, we can stop those stories. This is a practice that's consistent with mindfulness but comes from the work of Byron Katie—a wonderful teacher who's not a Buddhist. She has a technique for learning how to questions the validity of our stressful thoughts. I write about it in both my first and third books because it's been so tremendously helpful to me.

While I usually find comfort in this notion that other people are more wrapped up in themselves than they are in me, because of your illness, have there been times when you felt as if you wished people would notice what you were going through more?

I've been chronically ill for almost 16 years now, and for the first few years I did want people to acknowledge that was sick. I interpreted someone's lack of that acknowledgement as proof that they didn't believe I was sick or that they didn't care about me. 

As far as not caring about me, I learned I was always wrong. It's just that a lot of people don't know how to behave around illness. Until I became chronically ill, I didn't realize how many people I knew had a chronic illness (which includes chronic pain) but looked just fine. Most people who are chronically ill do look fine. So that was another example of using up precious energy spinning stories about why people weren't acknowledging I was sick. 

I finally reached the point when I stopped doing that. I said to myself, "I know I'm sick, My family and close friends know I'm sick." Because, if you're around me a lot, you see the illness. My husband knows how I'll be feeling on any given day based on how I look in the morning. My good friend Dawn can tell how I'm doing whenever she visits. I don't have to tell her. And really, what does it matter if someone doesn't believe I'm sick? I don't need everyone to believe me.

That said, there are times when I do wish people would notice my limitations. It's when I have to miss out on something really special. I think I mentioned in our social media posting from last week the family trip to Disneyland. Your brother's family, your family, my husband—everyone was there except me. 

That was an event where I have to admit it would feel great to have someone acknowledge how hard it is to have to miss something like that. Just an "I'm so sorry" would do. I don't actually remember if anyone did acknowledge it in that way, but it's an example of when it helps to have people notice the huge effects this illness has had on my life. 

It would help because it would make me feel understood. Feeling understood is what we all want whether we're healthy as can be or struggling with our health. Everyone wants to feel understood.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What Do You Google?

Hi everyone. Mara here. The internet is a wondrous thing. However, sometimes I realize that I am using its powers for evil instead of good. Okay, not evil, but I’m clearly wasting the power of the internet just because I’m bored. Growing up, we had an old set of Encyclopedias that I used, and I felt lucky we owned a set and I didn’t have to go to the library all the time. Now we have access to what feels like all the knowledge in the world. 

I probably look things up on the internet 100 times a day. I will sit and Google things as they pop up into my brain because I like that I can. Sometimes I research interesting and important things, like how to fix my garbage disposal. But usually I’m looking up random things because I can and honestly most of the stuff I look up is goofy.  

What do you look up for fun? Comment below!

Here’s some of Mara's recent Google searches:

—How to make Taco Bell Baja Blast Freeze

—How tall was Jackie Kennedy? 

—IMDB: War Dogs

—How long does salsa last?

—Can I reuse pickle juice?

—Search for ice tongs

—Fainting goats

—Dog heads cut into cube japan

—Search for small tubes



—Santa hat glitter

—Crochet tiny french linen

—Alexa lights

—Defensive driving teen discount

—Nose irritation inside

—Front bumper camera

—26 cm inches 

—Chicken potato packet

I have no idea what some of these things mean or what I was looking for, but it was important to me at the time!

Toni here. These are some of my recent Google searches:

—Cold feet (as in their temperature)

—Is it “wax eloquent” or “wax eloquently”?

—Does svelt have an “e” on the end? (It does and so I didn’t get points in Boggle for listing it)

—Dental implant v. bridge

—When was the last February 29?

—What is a utility knife?

—Florence Dome Medicis

—Eurasian Blue Titmouse

—What is abstract expressionism?

—Coldest water safe for dog to swim in

—IMBD: Frances McDormand

—Is it “reception area” or “receptionists' area”?

—Weather in Sydney

—Are Sharpies toxic?

—IMBD: Length of Mud

—How to do the levitation trick

—Can bonsai plant be left outside if it freezes overnight?

—What is cultured marble?

—Tennis: career grand slam v. holding all four majors in a row

—Moldy thermos

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Social Media in Your Life: Are You Missing Out...or Just Worrying About Missing Out?

I love social media. And I hate social media. 

I love seeing photos. I’m mostly an introvert, so I love that I can feel like I’m staying connected to people in a quiet non-intrusive way. But there are definitely times when I find social media overwhelming. I start knowing too much about people whom I don’t want to know very well, or I start to feel too wrapped up in other people’s lives.

And, as a mother, there are times when I wish I could hit a button and pretend the internet doesn't exist, because it’s hard for kids to know what all their peers are doing all the time. Inevitably, sometimes their friends are doing things without them and this can cause so much heartache. When I was a kid, you didn’t know where all your friends were or the fun things they were doing without you. Now, almost every minute of a teenager’s life is on display in one format or another. 

Even the most balanced kids are going to feel social anxiety from time to time when they see posts of their friends doing things without them.

And this happens to adults too. Or at least it happens to me. I’m not a very social person, but even I find myself feeling stung with hurt feelings if I see that a group of my friends have gone out and didn't include me. Even if I know that I wouldn’t have wanted to go, or even if I know that it wouldn’t have been appropriate to include me…it still feels bad. And it feels even worse when it’s something I really do want to be a part of. 

And then I get irritated with myself because I know that the posts and photos on Facebook never tell the whole story—that even if I had been invited and even if I had managed to convince myself to go, it doesn’t mean I would have had fun or that I would have looked like one of the smiling people in the photos. I tell myself that the things people post on social media only tell us what they want us to know about or see. But my pep talk usually doesn’t work, and I often sulk for a bit until I remember that I don’t actually care that much.

I have purposely removed myself from social media for long periods of time because I know it’s better for me to focus on myself and not worry about what my 700 Facebook friends are doing. It’s peaceful putting myself back in a position of not knowing what everyone is doing or what they're thinking. And while I love that people's kids get awards, win prizes, or book amazing jobs, I don't need to know about these things if I'm struggling to get my kid to pick up her shoes off the kitchen floor.

I realize that this is my own issue. I don't blame social media. I don't blame people for wanting to share the things in their lives that they're proud of. I do it too. But there are times when, for my own sanity, I need to take a break. Sometimes I just don't want to know all the details about what I'm missing out on. 

So I wondered how my mom, whose main link to the outside world is through Facebook and the internet, handles feelings of missing out when she sees posts and photos about things she wishes she could be a part of. Here's my interview with her.


What do you think of social media?

You captured perfectly in your essay what a mixed bag it is. And you’re absolutely right that we only see what people want us to see. This is true of in-person interactions too, of course, but social media makes what people are doing feel bigger than life because we see it in pictures, videos, and even short pithy status updates.

The fact is, none of us really knows what goes on inside the walls of other people’s houses—or even in their minds—whether it’s an in-person interaction or an online one. People who are always bragging about their kid may be constantly fighting with that kid at home. Someone who posts a picture of chocolates that her spouse or partner gave her that makes us think, “Lucky you to have such a thoughtful and loving partner” may be well aware that it’s the first gift she’s received from that partner in years…but, of course, she’s not going to share that.

When I realized that I don’t actually know what other people’s lives are like, it helped me stop constantly comparing myself and my life to others. When I can do it—not be comparing—I’m much happier and my life is better. 

And then there’s the problem of TMI (too much information), which you also mentioned. One of my Facebook friends posted about how many times she’d gone to the bathroom that day. I don’t need to know that!

I think social media sites are more important for people who are housebound due to illness or other reasons. I call Facebook “a port in the storm” for them. At one point, there were so many therapist at Psychology Today—where I also write—who were saying that Facebook was bad for our self-esteem, etc. that I posted a piece called “In Defense of Facebook.” Rather than repeat my defense, I hope people will read it. Nothing is ever as black and white as it seems. 

In addition, because I’m pretty much housebound, I’m mostly cut off from what’s happening in my relatively small town. By having local friends in my Facebook news feed, I can keep up with what’s going on, even why (as happened the other day) a helicopter is flying over my neighborhood!

Finally, on the plus side, although this may also be due to my books, I’ve met people from all over the world, so Facebook has made me feel like an international citizen. I get messages from people in Russian, Pakistan, even Syria.

How do you handle the feelings of missing out when you are seeing events on social media that you were not able to be a part of?

Thankfully, after 16 years of illness, for the most part, I’ve learned to accept missing out. I don’t expect to be included in social gatherings or to go traveling and the like—and it’s okay with me. That said, when everyone in our family goes somewhere together and I’m the only one missing, seeing photos on Facebook of their adventure is hard. This happened with Disneyland a couple years ago—your Dad was there along with your family and your brother’s family. On the one hand, I wanted to see all of you having fun, but it was also painful. Yet, overall, I would rather have seen the photos that were posted than not seen them. The digital age has made life so complicated!

Do you ever take “breaks” from Facebook?

To be honest, I’d like to at times but I don’t. I assume that, due to my books and the articles and other stuff I post, I have a huge following—almost 400,000 people. No one is more surprised than I am about this! Actually, I have two Facebook pages. One is a personal page for close friends and family, and I don’t post there very often. The other page is the one with the big following. I call it my “book page” although technically Facebook considers them to be “commercial pages,” like one for Nike for example—who can afford to advertise and uses its page for promotions. Yes, I do sometimes post about my books on my page, but I’m not comfortable promoting them and so I’ve turned it mostly into an art page. People tell me that they appreciate it and say they look forward every day to the photos and artwork that I post.

It is a lot of work to keep that page up, I admit, because there are rules to follow. You can’t just post a photo, for example, simply because you know the photographer’s name. You have to have his or her permission, so I only post from sites that are “free for re-use.” It can be a challenge to find high quality photos that way, but I work at it. Thankfully, on a Facebook “commercial page” you can schedule a few posts in advance that go up automatically at a specific time, so I don’t have to always be at my computer to click “Publish” when I want to put up something new.

More important than the photos and artwork I post on that page is the fact that many page members depend on me for support with their health struggles (which often lead to personal and relationship struggles).  I want to help them if I can, so I always check to see if someone is reaching out to me. They might do it in a comment to a post or it might be a private message. It’s one way I can help others, even though I can’t do it in person.

My husband considers the work I do on Facebook to be a part-time job and I suppose he’s right. It’s work…but I will say that I’ve learned a tremendous amount about flowers, birds, artists, and the difficulties people face in life.

If you were not chronically ill, do you think your relationship to social media would be different?

I don’t know—and I guess I may never know. I think I’d be on social media less, but maybe not. I see lots of people with full-time jobs outside the house who are always posting on Facebook. I do know that, lately, I’ve been making a concerted effort not to hang out online all the time. The computer screen can drain my energy stores fast.

Are you on social media sites other than Facebook? 

I am but I’m not active on them the way I am on Facebook. By this I mean that when you and I post a new piece or when I post an article I’ve written for Psychology Today, I do post them all around: Google Plus, Pinterest, Linkedin, Twitter. 

I’ve never otherwise been active on Google Plus. I did spend about six months going Pinterest-crazy a few years ago, creating lots of boards and putting up photos and articles, but I felt I had to cut back on my computer use, so I've cut way back on that. And Twitter…I don’t understand how to use it effectively and I don’t seem to want to take the time to learn, so I just have my Facebook “book page” automatically post to Twitter. 

I hope others will share their thoughts on social media. It’s a fascinating topic and it’s changed the way that most of us live.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Life's Simple Pleasures: The Little Things that Bring Us Happiness

Mara here. So apparently there is no secret to miraculous happiness in life. As amazing as a pill or magic spell would be to suddenly make everything perfect, I've discovered that little things can make me feel, at least for a moment, a little surge of joy. These little things don't solve problems or pay my electric bill or anything like that. But they do remind me that life has moments when it feels magical if I'm simply willing to look for them. 

Little things that bring me happiness:

—Waking up two minutes before my alarm goes off. Waking up ten minutes early makes me wish I’d slept ten minutes more, and waking up one minute early makes me stressed because I have to get to the clock fast before it starts blaring in my ear. But two minutes is perfect.

—When the podcast I'm listening to ends right at the end of my jog. It makes me happy when the two things coincide like that.

—When my total bill at the grocery store comes to a whole dollar amount. Feels very satisfying.

—Ice cold drinking water on a hot day.

—Finding one of my favorite movies on TV.

—That first day I feel better after I’ve had the flu.

—When a package from an online order gets delivered. (After all these years. it still feels magical that I can click a few buttons and have things arrive at my front door!) [Toni note: it's still magical to me, too, Mara.]

—Taking a shower at the end of a long day.

—Seeing a perfectly shaped rose.

—Finding a parking spot right where I need one.

—Walking in the rain.

Little things that bring Toni happiness:

—The sun coming in my bedroom windows.

—Opening the front door when it’s pouring rain to watch and listen.

—Like Mara: Finding one of my favorite movies on TV.

—Eating a banana.

—One of my Psychology Today pieces taking off in cyberspace and I have no idea why or why the number of clicks on it is suddenly soaring.

—The tiny Black Phoebe who flits around my backyard like a hummingbird and has the cutest chirp.

—Seeing one on my bonsai trees sprout a new leaf.

—Finding all the socks I put in the dryer (some clichés are true).

—Eating the elegant dinners my husband cooks for me. (Many of these dinners are more than "simple pleasures"!) 

—Turning over from my nap to find myself face-to-face with my dog who immediately starts licking my face.

—Decaf mocha, no whip.

What are your simple pleasures? We'd love to hear about them; maybe we'll add them to ours!

Walking in the rain

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Is Meditation for You? Here Are Our Personal Experiences

Mara here. I’m not very good at meditating. I’m not sure when my parents started meditating, maybe when I was in junior high? But I remember suddenly there were what seemed like long periods of time when they would shut themselves in their bedroom and we would have to be quiet. They would meditate in the mornings and in the evenings, and the household fell into a routine of knowing that if my parents’ bedroom door was shut, it meant they were meditating and so questions, favors—all the stuff kids bug their parents about would have to wait.

Growing up in a small town in Northern California, there weren’t many people who meditated regularly. In fact, I didn’t know anyone else whose parents did it. It seemed kind of exotic and strange.

I remember asking them what meditation was and thinking it sounded crazy. Why would anyone want to sit and be still and quiet? How could that possibly be enjoyable? Being a kid, it sounded like torture. But as I got a little older, I began to understand the concept of being still and removing the judgment about our thoughts. 

And eventually I tried meditating. For me, it was the opposite of calming. It was pretty much exactly as I imagined it was when I thought about it as a kid. It felt awkward. It was too quiet. I was too aware of everything. My hands itched. My breathing sounded weird. Maybe it’s from years of dancing, but I had too much awareness of my body. I couldn’t stop thinking about where my hands were and if my back was straight. I stopped after about 5 minutes and didn’t try it again for a couple of years.

Meanwhile, my parents got very serious about their meditation practice. In addition to meditating twice a day for about 50 minutes each time, they started going on silent meditation retreats...spending days, even weeks, meditating. I simply could not wrap my adolescent brain around this concept. I wanted to think about things. I wanted to get answers. I wanted action, not stillness. 

But since then, meditation has become much more common—even trendy. It’s no longer something tied to Buddhism. There are now apps that help guide your meditation and millions of people are integrating it into their lives. Even my husband meditates. And every so often I try it again. But I have yet to enjoy it. It still feels uncomfortable. I have not discovered how to meditate without spending almost the entire time listening for the sound of my alarm to let me know it’s over.

Despite this, I could tell that I was yearning for something that would allow me to create some stillness in my life. Maybe not complete stillness, but enough to slow down my anxious mind that races uncontrollably most days.

What I have discovered is that I can do other things that soothe me the way I imagine meditating soothes other people. If I feel particularly anxious or worried, I’ve started doing things very slowly. Normally I like to get things done quickly. I will rush around multi-tasking, being as efficient as possible. 

But one day several years ago, I realized I didn’t have to do things quickly. I could do them slowly and take time to experience what I was doing. So now sometimes I choose to do things with no regard for how long it takes me. I take a task like doing the dishes and turn it into an experience to try and clear my mind of extraneous worry. I take time to focus on the feel of the water and the sight of the glossy surface of the soap suds. When I’m doing a task with purpose, I don’t try to rush through it to get to the next chore, I take time to really pay attention to every detail because I find that, when I do, I can’t think about anything else because I'm focused on things like the shape of the food that's stuck on the plate or the sound of the water hitting the pan. 

If I’m nervous about something—for example, a meeting or an event I’m going to—I take the 15 minutes before I leave and do something that I have to completely focus on. I'll write words on paper over and over, focusing completely on how I’m forming the words. Or if I pick a word that is meaningful, I will simply just repeat that word to myself as I write it. I will go for a walk and keep my entire focus on what I’m seeing: trees, sky, pebbles, dog. And I find that this does calm me. This stops the swirling thoughts in my head. It removes the emotional cloud I feel trapped in because I purposely choose to focus all my attention on something that has no emotion attached to it.

And I like to think of this as my own form of meditating. 

I’m sure some people will scoff and say it’s not meditating, but I guess it doesn’t matter what anyone wants to call it. Particularly because it’s a very personal thing that will be different for everyone. For me, I am looking for ways to remove some of the chaos in my mind that I create for myself. And that’s what it took all these years for me to really understand. Meditating isn’t the process itself. It’s not the sitting in a certain position. It’s not about what incense is burned or what chime is played. I’m sure that ritual and routine is very helpful for people. But mediating is not about what is done, it’s about what the result is. It’s learning how to free our minds from the burden of thinking. And there isn’t just one way to accomplish that.

And now, a few questions for my mom...


Note from Toni: I could talk for an hour about meditation—my ups and downs with it, all the different techniques, etc. I'll try to keep my answers short though!

When did you start meditating?

I started with Buddhist meditation in 1991, but many years before that I learned a technique called Transcendental Meditation (although it wasn't transcendent for me...just relaxing, maybe because it was only for 20 minutes!). I did that for a few years but stopped because I had a toddler and always felt too busy and distracted.

There are dozens of meditation techniques, even within Buddhism, partly because there are so many different schools of Buddhism. For example, Tibetan Buddhist meditation often involves visualization and mantras. Zen meditation can be very simple: just sitting (called shikantaza) and seeing what happens, or it can be quite challenging: sitting and repeating a koan over and over, such as "Who Am I? In my own tradition (Theravada) there are also several different techniques.

And Mara, what you describe as slowing down and giving all your attention to whatever you're doing at the moment is, in my view, as valuable a practice as formal meditation. I write about this type of mindfulness practice in all of my books and I wrote about it in a shorter piece that's turned out to be a very popular at Psychology Today: "Six Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness Outside of Meditation."

And I love your 15 minute practice for calming yourself before doing something you're nervous about. Brilliant! I'm going to call it "meditation outside of meditation."

How long did it take for meditation to feel comfortable for you?

It's been over 25 years since I've practiced Buddhist meditation, and it's still not always comfortable. People assume that meditation makes you peaceful. Well, not always. The reason is obvious if you think about it: You may have arranged to be in the most quiet environment possible for meditating, but you know what's not usually quiet? Your mind!

When I used to go on silent retreats, people would ask me afterward, "Are you all calm and peaceful now?" Sometimes I was, but other times the retreat had been tumultuous for me. One time I went on a silent 10-day retreat right after I'd had an interaction with my boss (the dean at the law school) that left me concerned that he thought I wasn't carrying my fair share of teaching responsibilities. I spent the entire retreat fretting and worrying about it. I was anything but calm. As soon as I got home, I called the dean. It turned out he'd meant the very opposite—he was concerned I was carrying too heavy a load. At least, that retreat experience taught me how my mind can make me miserable for no good reason, and that inspired me to continue working on "taming it" (an expression one of my teachers used to use).

What I am comfortable with is technique. In other words, I know what I'm doing when I sit to meditate (although these days, I do it lying down). I actually have three different Buddhist meditation techniques I use, depending on which one I feel like doing or which one I think would be the best for me at the moment. One of the techniques is called "choiceness awareness," which I describe in my book How to Wake Up. And I describe some other techniques ("mindfulness of breathing," "the body scan") in my latest book How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness. I also practice a meditation technique called jhana, which is a concentration and insight practice that's best learned on a retreat with a teacher who is knowledgeable about it.

What advice would you give to someone interested in trying meditation for the first time?

Well, even though I've said there are dozens of different meditation techniques—Buddhist and otherwise—my advice is to find one that suits you best and stick with it for several years. There's a tendency for people to flit from one meditation technique to another, always thinking that the next one will bring peace and contentment. But none of them contain that magic pill. At first, it's important to settle on one technique and let it deepen. That's when you begin to see the benefits.

How has meditation helped you?

Meditation has benefitted me in lots of ways. Mainly, it tunes me into what's going on in my body and in my mind. With my body, meditating might let me know that I need to slow down—that I'm not taking proper care of myself. 

With my mind, meditation provides an environment for deepening my understanding of how the mind works so I can respond more skillfully when I'm not meditating. For me, this is the main reason I value meditation. That said, it took several years for this to bear fruit. What I mean by bearing fruit is that I'm now more able to take what I learn inside of meditation to my life outside of meditation. 

And what have I learned? Well, for one thing, I've learned that my mind is almost always out of control. I don't control what thoughts pop into it. I don't control what emotions arise. Meditation has shown me that it's possible to watch the mind "do its thing" and not identify with thoughts or emotions because I see their impermanence—how they arise and they pass, arise and pass. 

This insight enables me to hold thoughts and emotions more lightly inside or outside of meditation, and this brings with it a measure of peace and calm. This is the peace and calm of equanimity that I write about so much—developing a mind that responds to life's ups and downs with an ease-filled balance. (Most of those "downs" center around  either not getting what we want or getting what we don't want—what I call "want/don't want mind.")

I have one more thing I want to add. Many of you know of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. In the January 2012 issue of Shambhala Sun, he was asked what he would say to someone who finds meditation painful and difficult. His answer: "Don't do it anymore." I admit that I was shocked when I read this. But he went on to say: "In life, there's a lot of suffering. Why do you have to suffer more practicing Buddhism? You practice Buddhism in order to suffer less, right?" 

Perhaps not all meditation teachers would agree with his comments, but I offer them as words from one of the most beloved and respected Buddhist teachers on the planet today.

Finally, I'd be happy to answer any questions people have about meditation. If you leave a comment on the blog, I'll be sure to see it.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Vast Array of Jobs We've Had!

Sometimes when we look at people we believe are successful, we don’t realize that they had a lot of unglamourous jobs along the way. Movie stars aren’t born movie stars, and my mom wasn’t an author until later in life. So I thought it would be fun to take a look at all the different jobs my mom and I have had. I’m only including jobs that we earned money for.

Mara's jobs:


—House Cleaner

—Telemarketer [Note from Toni: I had no idea! Note from Mara: The Davis Enterprise in ninth or tenth grade, I think.]

—Light Designer


—Actress (multiple times different projects)

—Dancer (multiple times different projects) [Note from Toni: Mara sings and dances beautifully, and is a great choreographer.]

—Dance Teacher (multiple times different studios)

—Farmer’s Market Worker for a bakery (I gained at least10 pounds that summer)

—Political Campaign Staffer

—Event Planner

—Professional Jump Roper 

—Jump Rope Instructor/Aerobics Teacher

—Production Coordinator

—Dance Studio Owner (never actually earned a paycheck, but it was a full-time job!)

—Political Fundraising Aide

Toni’s jobs: (starting with my very first one—and, no, I never babysat for money!)

—Gift Wrapper during the holidays at my father’s store on Hollywood Blvd. (the most fun job I ever had even though it ended when I was nine-years old)

—Political Campaign Staffer (many times over the years, starting in my teens)

—Cashier at my undergrad university's main eatery (University of California, Riverside) 

—Ticket Seller and Usher at the university's theater

—Fast Food Worker at a Tastee Freeze in Riverside (the worst job I ever had)

—Copying numbers from one piece of paper to another at Wells Fargo headquarters in San Francisco (the most boring job I ever had)

—Staffer at U.C. Davis’ main library, typing out 3 x 5 cards and filing them in the card catalogue (this is all computerized now)

—Researcher for a sociology professor who was studying health care workers’ attitudes toward the visibly disabled

—Clerk at Discoveries, a fancy gift store [Note from Mara: They were known for their beautiful gift-wrapping and my mom is a fantastic gift wrapper.]

—Clerk at a health food store (two different times, years apart) [Note from Mara: My mom used to make me carob chip cookies instead of chocolate chip ones. I am still very bitter about this.]

—House Painter, both the insides and outsides of houses

—House Cleaner (I see that Mara and I have both done this)

—Worker in drying sheds during the hot HOT days of summer. The job: cut an apricot in half; dig the pit out; lay the apricot on a tray to dry; repeat for nine hours; make ten bucks a day (the most physically demanding job I ever had) [Note from Mara: I love that my mom had this job.]

—Ticket Puncher. The job: walk through peach orchards and punch tickets of pickers when they show me they've filled a crate with peaches (this was a promotion from the drying sheds)

—Teaching Assistant while in law school

—Legal Intern for a local family law attorney

—Researcher for a law professor on his California discovery law treatise

—Researcher for a law professor on a water law project

—Legal Intern for a firm representing plaintiffs in a class action suit against Stringfellow Acid Pits, a toxic waste dump in Riverside

—Legal Intern for an attorney who was suing General Motors for defective brakes on his client’s car

—Faculty member at U.C. Davis School of Law

—Dean of Students at the same school (the hardest job I ever had)

—Teacher of law exam prep courses (my moonlight job to help pay for college for my kids) [Note from Mara: "BarBri" is seared into my brain forever.]

—Writer for Psychology Today online

—Author of books (the most satisfying job I've ever had)

Whew. That's a lot of jobs between the two of us (16 for Mara and 25 for me). Let us know your strangest or most interesting job!
Apricots on trays, ready to dry

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Mother Interviews Her Daughter About Raising Her Own Child

I’ve always been interested in my daughter Mara’s child-raising practices. She has one child, my granddaughter Malia. Mara is much stricter with Malia than I was with Mara, but I'm not complaining because Malia has developed into an incredible young adult (she's 16). In addition, I see (and hear about from my husband) that there's a tremendous amount of affection between Mara and Malia. They're very close.

I thought I’d interview her about raising a child, particularly in Los Angeles.

How is raising a child different from what you expected?

I didn’t expect there to be so much fighting. (Haha. I’m kidding—kind of.) Actually, what I wasn’t expecting was that my child would be so different from me. I knew in concept that kids are their own people, but Malia sometimes feels like she dropped into my lap from another planet. She has had a very distinct personality from birth. She's always had her own wants and her own needs. She started telling me from a very young age—around two or three: “My mind is not your mind!” And those words have pretty much been her anthem ever since.

What’s the best part of raising Malia?

It’s hard to describe. Aside from what a great human she is, from a personal standpoint, she brings out the best and the worst in me. Having to be a parent has been the most wonderful experience, but also incredibly hard. There's the initial physical exhaustion of being sleep deprived and caring for someone who cannot take care of herself. Then as she got older, the mental exhaustion of making sure that I was being strong when she needed—even when it made her unhappy—was in many ways more difficult. And even though sometimes as a parent I have to make decisions or make sacrifices that almost feel as if pieces of myself are being ripped away, I do it for her willingly because that’s how much I love her. Without her, I don’t know if I would have ever known I was capable of giving that kind of love. 

I also love that she has a very strong sense of who she is. She has always fought for what she believes in. She always makes sure to point out that her feelings are valid and important. I feel like that alone means we did something right as parents.

How do you decide what battles to fight and what issues to let slide?

I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m as consistent as I would like to be. I would love to say that it has to do with some sort of scale of morality, but I think it ultimately comes down to this: will my letting her do x, y, or z make her life harder in the long run? If it won’t, then maybe I’ll let her win the battle. If it will, then I stick to my position because ultimately I need to win the war. My main goal is to give her as many tools as possible to be able to live a full and happy life.

How are you raising her different from how we raised you?

You are much nicer people than I am. I’m laughing, but it’s true. You and dad are just very open-hearted, touchy-feely people. I’m more structured and, to me, structure is good. I think I got away with things that ultimately made life more difficult for me as an adult because, looking back, it would have been helpful for me to have learned to cope, when I was younger, with some of the tough things about life.

And I think you and dad did a great job with showing me that you'd support me and be there for me always. You have shown Malia that same love and openness. But for me, I think I didn’t quite realize that the whole world wouldn’t be like that. So with Malia, I want her to know that I am here for her, but also that the world is going to expect her to take care of herself. And on a practical level, I want her to learn that I am going to expect her to take care of herself. I’m not talking about emotional support, but day-to-day problem solving and being responsible.

Do you think it’s harder to raise a child in Los Angeles than in Davis?

I don’t think it’s harder. It’s just very different. Davis was more like growing up in Elementary School for 18 years. Los Angeles is more like growing up in High School. It's bigger. There are more people. It feels more complex. 

There’s also the unique aspect in L.A. that lots of kids work in the entertainment industry. Actor kids are still just regular kids, but their lives are very different because they have real jobs—jobs where sometimes they make more money than most adults. They also have to shoulder the responsibility that working adults do. 

Specifically for Malia and me, because she was regularly working as an actress for a few years in different states and countries, we spent a lot of time together sharing hotel rooms. Because of that experience, I feel as if we know each other better than we would otherwise. I became for her in many ways a single parent, companion, and manager all in one. 

I think the harder thing about raising kids right now—which is applicable no matter where you live—is growing up with social media. I think social media makes adolescence very difficult for kids. Don’t get me wrong, I love social media and I’ve never limited Malia's access to it. But it adds a million more ways to make kids and teenagers feel self-conscious at a time when many of them feel pretty insecure about themselves to begin with.

How has your approach to child raising changed as Malia turned from a young girl to a teenager?

I don’t know that it’s changed that much. I'm not really a baby person. I never treated her the way lots of adults treat kids. I’ve always been very straightforward with her and that can be hard for her. Parenting today seems to be mostly about treating your kids like babies for their whole lives. It’s as if parents don’t want kids to ever find out that life is hard. So it’s frustrating for Malia that I am very realistic with her. I don’t tell her she’s the best at everything. I don’t pretend to like everything she does or touches or says. 

Overall, she understands that it’s a better approach—but it’s hard for her when she sees her friends' parents still doing all their laundry and making their lunches and treating them like toddlers. I haven’t made a school lunch for Malia since the 5th grade and she’s done her own laundry since she was 12. 

She doesn’t hide things from me. She doesn’t have to lie to me about the fact that she’s growing up. She can ask me questions about pretty much anything. She knows that when I give her a compliment it's because I mean it. And she knows that I am her parent first—above everything. I’m not her best friend, and I’m not just her gate-keeper. I’m sure I have made a lot of mistakes. I’m looking forward to the time we can laugh about how much we fought when she was teenager.

Mara and Malia

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Some of our Favorite Quotations. We'd Love to Hear Yours

I often write down quotes that I’ve heard that move me. I will scribble them down on scrap paper or email them to myself. I think it’s because it’s comforting to know that other people feel the way I do. And I am in awe of people who are so skilled with words that they can express their feelings in a way that can truly make other people understand them.

Some of Mara’s favorite quotes:

I am heading towards the light because I understand that I am following the shadows and only light casts a shadow. 
—Sharon Stone

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. 
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Which was Born in a Night to Perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light. 
—William Blake

Even the least among you can do all that I have done, and greater things.
—John, 14:12

We dance round in a ring and suppose, 
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows. 
—Robert Frost

In every seed is the promise of a thousand forests. 
—Eiko Romero

No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path. 

Listen to many, speak to a few. 
—William Shakespeare

The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.
—Elie Wiesel

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.
—Albert Einstein

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today will often be forgotten. Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.

—Mother Teresa


Toni here. Like Mara, I write quotes down on a scrap of paper or email them to myself. One beautifully crafted thought can inspire me for days. 

Some of Toni's favorite quotes:

Beware of wandering into your head alone. It’s a dangerous neighborhood. 
—Gary Snyder

Feeling certain, of course, is no guarantee of being right. 
—Zen teacher Barry Magid

Be gentle first with yourself if you wish to be gentle with others. 
—Lama Yeshe

Let no one deceive another or despise any being in any state; let none by anger or hatred wish harm upon another. 
—The Buddha, Metta Sutta

Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. 
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

And Jesus wept. 
—John 11:35

The heart that breaks can contain the whole universe. 
—Joanna Macy

The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven. 
—John Milton

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. 
—Carl Jung

Attention is the purest form of generosity. 
—Simone Weil

Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself.
I am large, I contain multitudes.
—Walt Whitman

And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good. 
—John Steinbeck

The whole life of a man is but a point in time. Let us enjoy it. 

I know but one freedom and that is the freedom of the mind
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the Earth are never alone or weary of life. 
—Rachel Carson

Breathe. Pay Attention. Be Kind. Stop Grabbing. 
—Anne Lamott

Dr. King