Category Archives: Matters of the Mind

Exploring the power of the mind

Finding yourself in a song

Do you have certain songs that you reach for when you’re looking for support? And no, I’m not talking about slow grooves by Barry White or Marvin Gaye when you want help getting your significant other “in the mood.” (Not that I have anything against that, mind you.)

Rather, I’m talking about songs that you find helpful when you need emotional, psychological, or spiritual support—songs that lift you up, songs that make you feel like you again.

Perhaps it’s a tried-and-true hymn, something you’ve heard your entire life. Or a silly pop song that was all the rage when you were in middle school and makes you smile every time you hear it…  or start singing it in the shower. (Come on, you know you do.) Or maybe it’s “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” from Disney’s classic movie Song of the South. That’s one of my sister’s favorites.

In an earlier post, I talked about the jazz song “Start All Over Again.” Well, another song I find myself reaching for at times is Peter Cetera’s “One Clear Voice.” When I’m feeling off-balance or lost, this song’s words bring me back to knowing who I am and feeling more secure in my ability to navigate life’s sometimes tricky waters.

Of course, I’m not 100% positive what the lyricist had in mind when he wrote these words, but for me, this song is about finding one’s own inner voice. (Or maybe it would be more accurate to say uncovering that voice, as it is always there, in the same place.) Our inner voice, or our intuition, always knows the right answer, the right path to take. We need only stop all the commotion long enough so that we can hear it.

Of course, that’s not always easy. Often the hardest commotion to quiet is the chattering in our minds. That’s my experience, at least, and I’ve heard the same from many friends. You can find a quiet room somewhere, at least for a few minutes. The challenge becomes how to quiet your mind. Maybe it’s spending some time on your yoga mat, taking some conscious breaths, or just giving the right song your full attention.  Whatever works for you, find it—and use it, often. In the stillness, you will find yourself, your truth. And while the truth isn’t always easy, it will lead you down the right path and to peace of mind.

What song do you reach for when you need to find yourself?

One Clear Voice
The whole world is talking
Drowning out my voice
How can I hear myself
With all this noise
But all this confusion
Just disappears
When I find a quiet place
Where I can hear
Chorus:
One clear voice
Calling out for me to listen
One clear voice
Whispers words of wisdom
I close my eyes
‘Till I find what I’ve been missing
If I’m very still, I will hear
One clear voice
I’m always searching
For which path to take
Sometimes I’m so afraid
To make mistakes
From somewhere inside me
Stronger than my fears
Just like the sound of music
To my ears, I hear  (Chorus)

The beauty of just being you

A while back, a dear friend posted something on Facebook about appreciating the people in her life who are not afraid to just be themselves, flaws and all… for one reason, because it allows her to feel better about her own flaws.

“I appreciate the fact that as I get older I have come in contact with people who are willing to be honest about who they are, flaws and all.  Makes me like them all the more. [It] also gives me courage not to judge myself so harshly. Courage… because it is sometimes easier to just assume I should be a better person than I am.”

The very next day, I found myself thinking about my friend’s post again as I was listening to World Cafe Live on the public radio station. Brandi Carlile and the Indigo Girls were the featured artists. I found myself tearing up a little—because of the raw honesty when they spoke and when they sang. Carlile described her first songwriting experience with one of the Indigo Girls: how nervous she was to be working with someone she admired so much. She, after all, is just another person dealing with self-doubt and self-criticism. Hearing her laugh and poke a little fun at herself was refreshing. (Wow, other people—accomplished, talented people—really do have the same insecure thoughts I do!) And then the two women sang the song they had written together. Beautiful.

It occurred to me that this is what I cherish most in people and what I miss (often without realizing it) when it’s absent. When people aren’t trying to sell something or convince someone of something, when they are just themselves, there is something so utterly beautiful about that. You don’t have to like what they’re doing or saying or creating or singing, but if you can tell that it is truly from the heart or the soul, whatever you want to call it, it is magical. It is pure. And that is beautiful.

So, how about we make that our goal for the day? Just to be 100% ourselves and accept that as a beautiful thing. My guess is that other people will see the beauty too.

I find that it is often easier to accept myself just as I am when I am out in nature.

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Enough

Enough. It’s a funny word, especially the more you say it or write it. After working on this post for a while, I’m tempted to just spell it the way it sounds: enuff. But that’s the English language for you—definitely not WYSIWIG. Anyway, funky spelling aside, let’s ponder this word enough.

Perhaps your first thought is of how you use it with your kids—accompanied by an exclamation point and a slightly higher pitched, stress-full voice. What do you mean when you say it? You’re fed up, right? Because little Sally and somewhat less little Joey have been chasing each other around the house, screaming at the top of their lungs. Thirty seconds of it, and you smiled, quietly amused. One minute of it, and you sighed, shaking your head. Two full minutes of it, and you felt your muscles tighten, your chest constrict, and you let loose with one forceful word: Enough!

Their antics have disturbed your concentration as you were trying to work, or perhaps they interrupted what was “supposed to be” your quiet time. (We can talk further about supposed to be another time—definitely a topic worth pursuing.) So you may associate the word enough with feelings of frustration. Totally understandable. However, I’d like to discuss enough from another perspective.

What happens when you’re working on something? Let’s say you’re weeding your flower beds or painting the house or creating a presentation for your boss. You work diligently for a time, and then at some point, you think or say, “That’s good enough.” What do you do then? You stop. You’re done. You’re satisfied to accept it as is and move on.

There’s a sense of peace with enough—when you commit to it, when there are no perfectionist after-murmurings of “but I really should touch up around the windows again” or “just one more revision.” When you believe it’s enough, you’re calm. You feel free and easy—about whatever you apply it to. So what would happen if you applied the concept of enough to yourself, to whatever is important to you? What would happen if you said these things—and meant them?

I’m good enough.
I’m pretty enough.
I’m thin enough.
I’m rich enough.
I’m strong enough.
I’m secure enough.
I’m smart enough.
I’m happy enough.

No longer are you struggling to make something different than it is right now—because everything is sufficient as is for this particular moment. If you can stop the struggle in your mind regarding what is true right now (and you can), then you can approach your relationships, your job, everything in your life from a place of peace and clarity.

For example, if you believe it would be healthy for you to lose a few pounds, then you can go about making changes that will help you do that. But no longer are you beating yourself up for not already being thinner at this moment. Because at this moment, you are thin enough to survive and take the next step.

You have the ability to make changes in your life, every minute of every day. At the same time, every minute of every day, you are enough.

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Whatever you look for, you’ll find

Yoga has been, and continues to be, my teacher in many ways. One of the core tenets I’ve taken from yoga is the idea that everything, everyone, is connected. This idea that we’re all one community—and you can translate that to your family, your neighbors, the people driving next to you on the highway, the people across the globe—is a powerful concept, one that can have a significant impact on how you perceive and interact with those around you.

So how do you act within your community? When you look at the people around you, are you looking for differences, or are you looking for similarities? If you look for differences, you’ll find them. (Thus the separation begins and perhaps the criticism and resentments.) If you’re looking for similarities, you’ll find those too—perhaps many more than you would have imagined. After all, each one of us is a human being, and we struggle with similar challenges, both external and internal. Seeing the similarities, or at least realizing that they’re there, helps us connect to one another and understand one another better.

Last night, I went to a concert because of a song that communicates that very idea. A few years ago, I saw Ronnie Dunn sing the beautiful story “Believe” on television, and I was struck by the raw honesty and emotion that he is able to communicate with his flawless voice. A little earlier this year, I saw him perform the new song “Bleed Red” on the Country Music Awards, his first appearance as a solo artist after leaving the hugely successful duo Brooks & Dunn. Again, I found his singing brought tears to my eyes. And so when I saw that he was going to be at Pier Six in Baltimore, I jumped on the chance to see him live. Although he did not sing the song that prompted me to go, he certainly did not disappoint: his performance was impeccable. He definitely fits my concert-going requirement of “sounds even better live than on the recording.”

Even if you don’t usually like country music, I ask that you listen to the words of this song, as I think it offers all of us a good reminder to look for the similarities, rather than always focusing on the differences.

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Just live

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of my brother Eric’s death. With that in mind, I am sharing the following piece, which I wrote in August 2003 for graduate school. (Since then, I have made only minor adjustments.) If death scares you, there’s no need to shy away from reading on. This piece is not about my brother’s death; instead, it is celebrating his life. I hope you get something out of it.

My brother’s life wasn’t fair. He was unable to enjoy many of the experiences that most of us take for granted. But instead of complaining about what he couldn’t do, he treasured what he had.

I started thinking about this recently after a conversation with a close friend. We were talking about my older brother Eric, who died in 1988 at the age of 21. As I said the words, “He always seemed happy,” it struck me: What in the world did he have to be happy about?

Eric had looked like a healthy, broad-shouldered man at 6 feet tall and 190 pounds, with a thick mass of dark curly hair, deep brown eyes, and a generous smile. Nothing looked wrong. But something was—dreadfully wrong. Eric had epilepsy.

Most of the time, Eric’s body functioned perfectly, except for little spells that occurred, sometimes once every few days, sometimes once every few minutes. During these “absence” seizures, Eric would go blank and lose awareness of his surroundings for a few seconds. Usually, nothing drastic happened. He might tip his breakfast spoon and get milk and Cheerios on the kitchen table—nothing a dishcloth couldn’t handle. Our family quickly learned how to stop a conversation in mid-sentence, to pick it up again when he was “back.”

And so the everyday routine continued—until a real seizure hit. A “grand mal” seizure. Actors try to recreate these on television: stiffened body parts jerking uncontrollably, mouth foaming; inevitably, someone tries to stick a spoon in the person’s mouth. The portrayals are pretty accurate, as far as they go. Sometimes my brother also lost control of his bladder. And he usually slept for seven or eight hours afterward, exhausted.

The seizures always hit without warning. To try to control them, the doctors started Eric on medication when he was just nine months old. Back then, it was one tablet, which my mother had to hide in his food to keep him from spitting it out. By the time I was old enough to be aware of the situation, Eric was taking as many as 12 pills a day. That number is according to my mother: all I remember is him popping a handful of multicolored capsules. But Eric was one of those epileptics whose seizures weren’t controlled by the drugs. Usually a grand mal seizure hit every one to two weeks; sometimes, two in one week.

As Eric’s younger sister by six years, I was usually at home with him. On edge, I listened for the crash of a fall… waiting for a seizure to hit, so I could try to jump to the rescue. Any situation was potentially dangerous, but especially those where he was operating machinery or holding something sharp, like a kitchen knife. Even when he sang in the high school chorus, I was all nerves. There he was, standing on the top riser. All he had to do was have a spell and lose his balance. But he just kept singing.

The medications had side effects. One drug made his gums swell around his teeth, so that he had to have his gums trimmed. The drugs also made him drowsy, so even though he was intelligent, he struggled with school. He did, however, manage to graduate, and he celebrated along with the rest of his class.

After graduation, Eric got a job at the local auction house, where he brought the items out for display and carried them to the highest bidders. That job didn’t last long though, after a couple of seizures and broken items. So Eric went to the Carroll County Association for Retarded Citizens (now The Arc of Carroll County), where he did menial assembly-line work, like counting 10 washers to a bag. As a 12-year-old, I found this insulting. My brother wasn’t retarded, and yet he was spending his days with people in wheelchairs who couldn’t feed themselves, people who couldn’t even talk right. It wasn’t fair! But Eric loved it. He made new friends, and he made a little money.

The association eventually found a job for Eric. And what a job it was! He worked in the kitchen at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel), washing dishes for two years. I despised riding along with my mother to pick him up after work: he reeked of the kitchen’s greasy smoke and garbage. But he didn’t complain about the smell or about the skin peeling from his hands because of the hot water and sanitizers. He was making his own money, out of the house for several hours at a time.

What did Eric have to be happy about? He didn’t own much or have a career, but he had a high school ring and a job. He couldn’t get his driver’s license, but he loved riding the lawn mower around our yard. He never had a real girlfriend, but he had a family and a church congregation who loved him.

Although epilepsy finally caused my brother’s death, it never claimed his life. While I was so angry about how unfair it was, my brother just lived. And he seemed to enjoy every minute of it.

As an update, I’d like to add that several years after I wrote this, my family found a short letter my brother had written to God, asking God to take away his epilepsy, should that be acceptable in God’s big plan. So my brother did indeed struggle with the circumstances he was given. But I don’t remember seeing that frustration very often at all. He seemed to understand that life wasn’t always fair, and he made the most of his life. And I think that’s a lesson we can all put into action.

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Being alert at the helm

Like the ocean, life never stops or even slows down; it just keeps moving. And when we’re not paying attention, life has a way of carrying us along, like an ocean carries a ship with a captain frozen at the wheel. Some days may be smooth sailing; but inevitably, storms will arise with life’s attempts to teach us the lessons that we need to learn. If we’re not staying alert and aware of our life’s big picture, we’re betting on luck to keep us safe. And, to me, that doesn’t seem a safe bet.

Until we shake ourselves out of our stupor and try to steer our ship, life will continue to have its way with us and throw us about. And as long as we remain paralyzed by our fear of being tossed on the waves and remain unaware of the lessons and opportunities that are right there in front of us—to help us—we will be victim to the storm, likely to repeat the same mistakes, to go down difficult routes that can look astonishingly similar to those we’ve traveled before.

Sometimes we get angry and blame external factors in our lives for causing us unhappiness and pain. After all, it’s not our fault if a big storm comes up, right? But here’s the thing: no one said life would be easy; no one said it would be fair. Blaming someone or something else never makes anything better. As Clint Eastwood’s character said in Unforgiven, when the other character said he didn’t deserve what he was about to get (a fatal bullet), “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” But somewhere along the way, we started to expect life to give us what we think we deserve. We began to expect only days full of sunshine and smooth sailing. That’s what really causes us unhappiness and discontent: the fact that things don’t go the way we think they should.

Well, life goes as it does; there’s no “should” about it. Getting swallowed up in our discontent or our fear prevents us from seeing what we may be able to learn from our experiences. It keeps us from being able to react quickly and intelligently, to be able to navigate those storms. As writer Ellen Glasgow said, “What happens is not as important as how you react to what happens.” And as I said in my post about starting over, we always have a choice… a choice in how we respond to a situation, in what we make our next step. That, my friends, is power. We all have an amazing power in determining our own life’s journey.

Of course, sometimes even when we are paying close attention, life still takes us in directions we don’t want to go. Storms still occur. And, yes, we may still get frightened. But when we’re alert and willing to be aware of and accept the storm’s role in our life’s big picture, we can respond intelligently, in a much more peaceful way, a way that’s healthier for us, a way that allows us to grow stronger… a way that may allow us to shorten that painful detour and steer ourselves closer to the direction we want to go—perhaps even in a direction we had not yet imagined for ourselves, to a destination even more wonderful than we had ever dreamed.

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Not what I wanted to write about

This past weekend, I went to see David Crosby and Graham Nash perform. And I am just dying to write about the experience! But, as timing would have it, I have a work deadline that is keeping me from doing that just yet. Writing, you see, takes quite a bit more time than many people realize, especially when you want to write well—and I’d like to write something eloquent and moving about the concert if I can, as it certainly deserves that kind of attention.

So, I had intended to not write a blog post today. Fortunately, reading takes a lot less time than writing, and as I was eating my lunch—I still am, actually—I clicked through the Facebook updates and stumbled across a blog. And I just had to share it with you.

The writer’s name is Dr. Kristin Shepherd, and the blog that I stumbled across is the one she’s writing for Yoga Journal’s website: “Beginner’s Mind.” But she also has a blog on her own website, which I highly recommend checking out.

Here are a few of the tidbits that spoke to me from her latest post, Everything I Need to Know I Learn from Theatre:

1. Truth is gorgeous. Trust that your truth is enough. Stop faking anything in the hopes that it’ll make you more substantial, more interesting, more charming, more successful. It doesn’t work.

5. Joy comes from committing to your choices, not from endlessly assessing the merit of those choices with your squirrelly mind, which will never be satisfied and which doesn’t know the first thing about joy.

7. Not knowing is all right. Often preferable.

8. You’ll be an idiot to yourself and others some days. Practice instant forgiveness.

But the previous entry—Who Are You?—was the one that pushed me to share the blog with you, my friends. The message, which brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my heart, is presented in a way that is amusing and fresh and rings with a resounding truth, at least with me.

So, while this is not what I wanted to write about today, it is definitely what I feel compelled to share.

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Love, life, and non-country country music

Today’s post is prompted by my friend—I’ll call her S—who “isn’t a fan of country music” but is generous enough to take her sister to an upcoming Keith Urban concert. Mind you, this is after she saw him on TV. Emphasis on the “saw” (not “heard”). That had to be a difficult purchase to make. 🙂

I thought this video would be a great example for her of Keith’s infectious smile and non-country style when he performs live. (Actually, things get much hotter at his concerts, screaming guitars and all, as I had the pleasure of witnessing back in 2009: evidence below.) Plus, the video’s quite artistic in several ways, which I’m hoping artsy S will appreciate. But if not, she gets to look at Keith, so I’m sure there will be no complaining.

I hope this upbeat song and video can bring a smile to your day too.

Keith Urban’s “Once in a Lifetime” on YouTube

A couple of musings about the lyrics: Do I think love—the romantic love this song talks about—comes along only once in a lifetime? Absolutely not. But perhaps it comes only one time when we’re actually ready for it to be a healthy, long-term experience. I don’t know; it’s just a thought.

What I do believe wholeheartedly is that the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is fear (and hate stems from fear). When you’re full of love, you are your best self; you feel expansive; you are generous and compassionate. When you’re full of fear, you contract into yourself; you are unable to live up to your potential or make true connections with others. Over the last few years, I have heard a number of very different people—including Jon Bon Jovi and k.d. lang at their concerts—talk about decision-making, about evaluating choices as to whether they are based in love or fear.  I believe you can never feel bad about a decision based in love. Just imagine what could happen if everyone made every decision acting out of love.

As Keith’s song says, “The best is yet to come… Don’t fear it now…. It’s a leap of faith.” Have faith and go for it! Life is what you make of it. Make it fabulous.

Keith Urban concert photo
Seventh row at the Keith Urban concert! (August 2009)

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Waiting (im)patiently

Earlier this week, I found myself in a situation that has become quite familiar over the past few years: waiting to deplane.

I was returning home from a business trip. After a full-day meeting and then waiting in the airport for my delayed flight, I used the two-hour flight to relax, reading a book and writing a little, not paying much attention to the time passing or the people around me. But as soon as we arrived at BWI, I noticed how antsy people got. It’s always the same. All of a sudden, everyone is absolutely desperate to get off that plane. It doesn’t matter if the flight is 90 minutes or five hours: the urgency doesn’t appear to set in until the wheels have touched ground. I started grinning. It’s possible the people around me thought I was insane, but that’s OK with me.

But really. It does seem a little ridiculous, doesn’t it? We can be patient for hours, for however long the flight takes—I assume because we know there’s nothing we can do about the length of time in the air. We know, after all, that we can’t flap our arms to make the plane go any faster. But once we’re back on solid ground, we seem to think we should be able to speed up the process. What’s taking so long to open the door? Can’t those people get their bags out of the overhead bin any faster? Come on! I need to get off this plane, now!

People get so frustrated in those few minutes there on the tarmac. I totally understand it. I’ve felt the same impatience myself. But once you realize how ludicrous it is, how the process is still completely out of your control, then the scene can become a source of amusement rather than frustration.

About a year ago, while on vacation, I bought a book called The Power of Patience. Considering myself a Type A perfectionist, I thought the book may be able to offer me some helpful ways to cope with my Type A-ness. And in case you’re thinking, “Yeah, I’m just not a patient person,” here’s a quotation from the book for you:

“The most important thing to know is that patience is something you do, not something you have or don’t have. It’s like a muscle. We all have muscles, but some people are stronger than others because they work out.”

What’s that mean? It means anyone can be patient, with practice.

So why should we practice patience? There are a lot of reasons: lower blood pressure, a more contented life, better relationships. As the book says, “Patience gives us self-control, the capacity to stop and be in the present moment.”  The book is loaded with very real examples of the role patience (or impatience) plays in everyday life, as well as in less ordinary circumstances, such as Nelson Mandela’s 27-year confinement. And so it is quite practical—easy to apply (or at least try to apply) to your life. There’s even a chapter with “twenty simple patience boosters.”

But being that I’m a person driven by logic almost as much as by emotion, understanding the “why” of something is often critical to my really “getting” it. And so one of the most significant tidbits I took from this book is this underlying idea: We get impatient when we wait—whether it’s in line at the grocery store or in the coach section of an airplane—primarily because at some point we decided that we shouldn’t have to wait for anything. Blame it on the invention of the automobile or the computer. Regardless, there’s no question that the speed of life has increased dramatically over the last century. But just because the things around you may usually be moving quickly doesn’t mean your happiness depends on that pace continuing, unhindered and uninterrupted.

A simple change of perception can make all the difference. When you realize that waiting is a normal—and, yes, even necessary—part of life, it takes on a whole new light. No longer is it this awful thing that you must endure, that makes you fume and grit your teeth. You may actually be grateful that you’re getting a break from all the hustle and bustle.

Ryan, M. J. (2003). The Power of Patience. New York: MJF Books.

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Starting over

In a post earlier this week, I mentioned the idea of starting over. Nature does it every year, when springtime bursts with new growth, replacing a tired-looking world with one of exuberance and promise.

But it can be easy to forget that starting over is possible for us as individuals, especially during the cold down-cycle of winter. That winter may be the actual one of the physical world, or it may be a metaphorical one. Maybe it’s a divorce or the loss of a job. Or perhaps it’s just the rut of doing the same thing day after day and not finding any joy in it. We all have periods in our lives when we feel we’re in some kind of holding pattern and periods when we feel we’re caught in a cyclone.

During those times, it’s natural to think it’s all beyond our control. In many ways, it is. But here’s the thing: we aren’t supposed to control everything around us.  And thinking that we should be able to only stresses us out (because we usually fail). What we can control is our thoughts, our perceptions about what is happening.

Sometime over the last few years, I read something that stuck with me. It was that everything we do is a choice. We are never forced to do anything; there is always an alternative. For example, do you really “have” to get up and go to work? No, you could stay in bed.  But then you could lose your job, your house, etc. So instead of thinking you “have” to go to work, you may want to think about it as you “get” to go to work. You “get” to be a good provider for your family. And just like that—it’s a privilege, not a sentence. Simply changing that one word in your thoughts can make a significant difference in your mood and subsequently the mood of those around you. And changing moods and attitudes can, and I believe usually does, change the course of what happens.

The options we’re offered may not always be the ones we’d like, but there are always options. So we make a choice. And then—and I think this is critical—we need to take ownership of that choice and its consequences. We can’t blame anyone else for what happens to us when we are the ones who made the choices that led us there. That can seem like a lot of pressure, I know. But the saving grace is knowing that life continuously changes; we will always be making another choice and then another and another. So we’re never stuck … unless we think we are.

We won’t always know the right choices to make or the right roads to take, but that’s kind of the point, I think. Life is a journey, not a race.  There is no prize for getting to a certain destination earlier than anyone else. And, as illustrated in a movie I enjoyed recently (“The Switch” with Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston), reality is usually messy.  The important thing is to make another choice, to continue the journey, being as honest as possible. Maybe when you feel lost from time to time, you’ll want to sit in the middle of the road and cry. That’s fine. Just remember to get back up and keep going. Don’t feel bad about not knowing what you’re doing; we all feel that way. It’s all a lovely mess, just the way it should be. And every day, every moment even, is an opportunity to make another choice and start on a new path.

This beautiful song talks about the influence of our thoughts and our ability to always start over. Listen to the words carefully. I find it a good reminder, and I hope you enjoy it too.

Start All Over Again, by Dave Koz and Dana Glover

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