Thursday, June 30, 2011

Strength of Spirit - 40 Things I've Learnt in 40 years

Just the other day, I read an email from a reader named Kathie that deeply touched me and reaffirmed my belief in the strength of the human spirit. Even though we only communicated via email, the beauty of her spirit came through, and her story put both a tear in my eye and a smile on my face. With her permission, I share her story.

Kathie was born to a mother with substance abuse problems, and witnessed her mother battered. She was herself sexually abused between the ages of 3 and 7, was a victim of arson, then separated from her siblings and put up for foster care. She was eventually adopted when she was 11. We have heard many horror stories about how people who go through such harrowing experiences at a young age turn out. Not Kathie.

She wrote to me regarding my "40 Things..." post on "Gratitude":

"...the two things that got me through these experiences are forgiveness and gratitude. Even as a child, it was in my DNA to understand that I needed to be grateful for these experiences - not only for the way in which they contributed to who I am today, but because they happened to me and not to someone who couldn't have handled them."

This still makes my eyes well up. This is not just a true story of the attitude of gratitude, but also the triumph of the human spirit. This was the story of one woman who would not let the circumstances of her life situation dictate the trajectory of her life. It is all too easy to blame our life circumstances on our parents, or our hard life, or on someone who was unwilling to help, or some element of society conspiring against our success. It takes a certain stoicism and resilience to push through all that, but it can be done. In an odd sort of way, on the other hand, it requires a peculiar vulnerability and acceptance of the situation, in the same way a reed is more likely to survive an intense storm than an oak tree is.

A little over five years ago, my life changed dramatically overnight and for a moment, I thought my life, as I knew it, was coming to an end. A few days later, after wading through the sea of my despair and confusion, and resolving to make the most of what life I had left, I had my most profound spiritual experience yet. I recall speaking to a psychologist friend and wondering whether I was okay: my exhilarating feeling of joy seemed terribly out of place in my circumstances.   I had to know I wasn't loosing my marbles! What happened was that I opened myself to peace once I stopped fighting and surrendered - hence my indescribable joy. I eventually realized that, ironically, small things get me more worked up than major life upheavals - once I discovered the strength in me. That is what brought me to this point.

Echoing what Kathie said to me in her email, if you are brought to the situation, you will be brought through the situation with the attitude of gratitude and a generous helping of forgiveness, even if it is only forgiving yourself. Like her, I have learnt that the human spirit is indomitable and incredibly elastic; bouncing back eventually and bouncing back stronger. Just like intense heat refines precious metals, intense situations refine precious spirits - yours included.

My sincere thanks to Kathie for inspiring this piece!

Once again, your comments and stories are welcome. Stay blessed.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tolerance - 40 Things I've Learnt in 40 years

Permit me to get on a soapbox today. I just watched a TV series that rubbed me the wrong way and for all the wrong reasons. There was nothing wrong the the episode I watched in anyway, except that, as art imitating life, it put into perspective one of my pet peeves.

Part of the episode included the beating of a young man by three other males because he was gay and how his four friends each reacted to the startling reminder of their vulnerability. I felt a melange of emotions so raw I surprised myself, since I am not given to particularly strong emotions. I felt deep sorrow, seething rage, utter disgust and a primal urge to scream.

Violence of any sort upsets me. Violence against any kind of minority enrages me. Regarding this TV show episode, the person who was beaten (I refuse to use the word 'victim'), was minding his own business at a gas station and made no threatening gestures; used no threatening words. So why was he attacked?

But much as we would like to wish it away as some misguided, ignorant individuals who couldn't possibly count among our circle of friends, I beg to differ. Those three men represent us in some form or fashion, to some degree. It may not be expressed as outwardly or violently, and it may not be against gay people, but we look at people who are different from us in some way, through the prism of our prejudice. And prejudice is a result of ignorance. Unfortunately, even religions adopt an 'us-versus-them' attitude.

We hurt people in subtle ways because of their skin color, hair color, height, race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation and identity, their bank accounts (or lack thereof), their size and a host of other factors. The absence of action, is, in itself, an action. You may not go around bashing people physically, but are you doing anything to make things better? Are we so insecure about ourselves that we have to bring others down to feel better about ourselves and the cocoons we have created for ourselves?

"The test of courage comes when we are in the minority. The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority." - Ralph W. Sockman

As one who has lived in, and visited many countries, and as one one who has been on both sides of the minority-majority divide, I know that we all want the same things. We all want to love and be loved, whether we are the oppressors or the oppressed, yet we cannot see beyond our noses to find the inextricable bond that we share. One of my favorite songs is Colors of the Wind, from Disney's Pocahontas, and my favorite verse there goes:

"You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, 
you'll find things you never knew you never knew..."

If there is one thing I've learnt in 40 years, it is tolerance. Let's make a pact today to teach our kids to be tolerant. The world doesn't need any more hatred of any sort. In the words of Rodney King: "Can we all get along?" A difference in opinion or perspective on life is not equivalent to being an enemy. Remember the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

I will now get off my soapbox. Thank you for reading.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Smile - 40 Things I've Learnt in 40 years

Joy and pain are two feelings things that are understood just about anywhere in the world. A subset of joy is the smile - a simple facial expression that shows happiness, pleasure or amusement.

After traveling to more than twenty countries in four continents, I can confidently say that barring some cultural nuances, a smile is generally internationally understood and acknowledged. Smile, and, indeed, the world smiles with you.

A song that puts both a smile and a tear on my face is Smile, a standard that was originally recorded for Charlie Chaplin:

Smile though your heart is aching 
Smile even though it's breaking 
When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by 
If you smile through your fear and sorrow 
Smile and maybe tomorrow 
You'll see the sun come shining through for you...

I have seen how people are positively affected by a simple smile. There've been times I have flashed a smile to a surly waiter or receptionist and gotten better service. A smile announces that you bring good energy and a positive spirit.

But a smile is good for us as well. I can only speak from experience, but I'm sure many can relate. A smile puts me in a good mood if I'm able to push through what I'm feeling. I've been told by some that they find my smile attractive (I say 'thank you'). We are all attracted to people who smile, and a smile actually makes you more attractive - and that goes a long way in boosting sex appeal! Scientists also say it helps your immune system, lowers your blood pressure, relieves stress, and all sorts of other good stuff.  Now, if those aren't good enough reasons, smiling actually makes you appear more confident and successful....

So smile some more to look younger, feel younger and live longer - it couldn't hurt - and put a smile on someone else's face today!

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Attitude of Gratitude - 40 Things I've Learnt in 40 years

Sometimes when we feel like we are at the lowest points in our life, it seems impossible to be grateful for anything. How can anyone find anything good about misfortune or tragedy?

Japanese author Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki writes of a zen teacher telling the story of a monk who was being chased by a tiger and climbs over the edge of a cliff, hanging on a vine to avoid the tiger. Looking down, the monk finds a lot more tigers down below waiting to pounce on him if he landed. Caught almost literally between a rock and a hard place, he sees a strawberry on the vine, smiles and thankfully reaches out and pops the strawberry in his mouth.

What has the strawberry go to do with the danger the monk was in? Nothing and everything. What it tells us is that the monk was living in the moment. He was not so consumed by the danger that lay before or behind him that the strawberry became insignificant. He was present enough to notice the ripe juiciness of the strawberry. He didn't lose his appetite over his danger.

That's what gratitude does. Gratitude is like a pair of spectacles we wear that help us focus on what we have and blurs out what we don't have. It opens our eyes to see that there always is something to be thankful for.

I haven't always seen things that way in my times of despair, but when I have practiced having the attitude of gratitude I have seen the results in amazing ways. My problems have seemed to recede to the background and I have been able to be present and enjoy my moments.

Holding on to what's wrong in your current life situation (not your life), is like having a clenched fist. You cannot accept any goodness because you're closed. Gratitude is like letting go and opening up. In that moment you become alive, open to all the amazing sensations and nuances of your life.

From the zen teacher's perspective in Suzuki's story, "You can't be alive if you are living in fear, and if you're living in fear you can't see and experience life; the magnificence of your life that is right in front of you in each moment."

Try it and watch the goodness come flowing in.

Do you have any gratitude stories? Don't keep them to yourself! Share them here.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

5 Ways to Beat the Monday Morning Blues

It's time for another Monday - it signals the end of an all-too-short weekend and the start of a grueling week ahead. The dread of Mondays usually begins at the end of Sunday, but there are ways to minimize those Monday morning blues.

Plan Ahead
It is very tempting to dash out of the office at the first opportunity on Friday to get a head start on the weekend, but try to avoid leaving without  clearing your desk. The fewer loose ends you come in to on Monday, the easier your day will be. Before you leave on Friday, organize all the things you need to do the next week and pick out the ones you need to do on Monday. Hopefully, you can choose tasks that you actually like to do for Monday. Your to-do list is done and you will be able to actually enjoy your weekend.

Plan Your Weekend
After the work week, the weekend presents us with opportunities to participate in activities that are fun, enjoyable or relaxing. We look forward to spending time with family, friends or even ourselves. Many times, we cram more in a weekend than we should and are frustrated as Sunday rolls to a close and haven't been able to do everything we hoped to do. Be realistic about your weekend plans.

Wind down
Come Sunday, begin to wind down your weekend and mentally prepare yourself for Monday, gradually eliminating any overactive stimuli and easing into a state of relaxation. It doesn't imply getting yourself into catatonia, but just slowing down the pace with the things you do. Go to bed earlier if you can and wake up 15 minutes later.

Start Monday Early
Instead of waking up on Monday and whipping yourself into a manic state because of all the stuff you have to do - making lunch, making breakfast, deciding what to wear, and the host of other things you have to do - do them on Sunday before you go to bed. You'll be much more relaxed on Monday. And you might even be able to leave home for work early, beat the traffic and actually get settled in at work and productive before the rest of the crew come in.

Snap Out of It
If you wake up on Monday and you still feel like cursing because its just another manic Monday, you need to snap out of it. Don't linger under the sheets - you're only prolonging the inevitable and stretching your time in purgatory. Jump out of bed and head straight for the shower: Start cold if you need that jolt to wake you up. Open the blinds and the sunlight in: the daylight will tell your body it's time to get going. If you need caffeine, well go ahead then - knock yourself out.

Well, there's a sixth thing that will help your Monday go better: You remember the to-do list you made on Friday? Yeah, remember to cross off the things you've completed as you go along. It will make you feel much better about yourself and your day. A great way to start the week....

Happy Monday, y'all!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Hangover Remedies

It's another Friday, and with it comes the tingling sensation of unwinding and having some fun. For the non-teetotallers, having drinks with the guys or gals may be in the cards. Sometimes happy hours stretch into the bewitching hours, and, the next day, those happy hours result in some not-so-happy-hours. Otherwise called The Hangover.
I'd like to say I'm familiar with the symptoms of a hangover, but I honestly couldn't, but many people have experienced it - the throbbing headache, nausea, vomiting and general malaise. What happens is, the body converts the alcohol into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde, which causes those symptoms. 

 Dr. John Emsley of London's Royal Society of Chemistry and author of the Consumer's Good Chemical Guide has a simple hangover remedy: toast with honey or golden syrup and lots of fluid. The toast and honey provides the body with the sodium, potassium, and fructose it needs to adjust the balance. If you need more alcohol, or 'the hair of the dog' to make you feel better, that may be a sign of an alcohol problem....

Now, if you're like me and prefer to avoid the experience altogether, Dr. Emsley has four tips for you:

  • Drink a glass of milk first. It slows down the absorption of alcohol.
  • Stick to clear alcohol like gin or vodka. You want to avoid the effect of the chemicals in dark alcohol...
  • Punctuate your drinking with soft drinks or water. This slows down you alcohol intake. Fructose isn't bad either.
  • Drink a lot of water before you go to bed. Alcohol dehydrates the body (remember the frequent bathroom visits?) and that can make your hangover worse.
Thank goodness it's Friday! Drink responsibly and have a fabulous weekend!

Click here for the original article.

Have a Party! 40 Things I've Learnt in 40 years

Photo courtesy:

As one who loves to entertain, I often detach myself from my duties as host and watch my guests interact, and laugh and have a good time. Yes, the cleanup is always a drag, but the headiness of a pleasure filled gathering always brings me back for more.

It is fascinating to watch how our lives are inextricably linked, one to another and there is great joy and reward in bringing people together. At social gatherings, people share many things, and relationships are strengthened and new ones are made.

I have learnt that I can facilitate positive change in peoples lives in my one-on-one interactions with them as well as by creating a safe a welcoming space where people come to share joy that they can go share with others in turn. It's a gift that keeps on giving.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Love and Fear - 40 Things I've Learnt in 40 years

I often tell people that almost every action we take can be boiled down to one of two emotions: love or fear. After moving to the United States, I began to notice how much people's lives were dictated by fear. The news is filled with stories on some harm that someone has carried out against another; natural disasters and  threats of impending disasters; new medical information that shows how we're all going to die prematurely, and new-fangled elixirs purporting to be the fountain of youth. Indeed, to watch the news dispassionately, one would come to the conclusion that we were all going to hell in a hand-basket one way or another.

We live our lives looking out for burglars, pedophiles and sexual predators, backstabbing colleagues, envious friends, ruthless bosses, manipulative spouses, unfaithful partners, greedy corporations, and...I'm out of breath!

I've learnt that if you look for negatives, you will find them. If you look for evil, it will find you. This is not to say evil does not exist. I am not so naive as to suppose bad people do not exist. Indeed, they are everywhere. But I also believe people are innately good and people relate to us based on a host of non-physical, non-observable factors.

If you think of yourself as a radio, you will get the programming available on the particular frequency you choose. I choose to tune in to positive frequencies and minimize the static on my channel. I think it is courageous to make an informed decision to trust people until given a reason not to. Many times I have had to remind myself how good it feels to trust that I am safe and I will be fine. Life is good.

As a leader, I'd rather be respected and trusted than feared. Leading by fear is a reflection of the leaders own fear. If I put out positive energy, I make my little light shine to make the world a better place and reduce the stress in my life. Love works better than fear.

This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine,
This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine....

That little light is the beauty that comes from within. Try it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Clothes Make the Man (or Woman) - 40 Things I've Learnt in 40 years

In our somewhat warped way of thinking, we tend to get a feel of other people - especially people we don't know - based on their outward appearances. On the one hand, this might seem subjective, but our brains have to have a way of filtering the information we receive in order to protect us. So we put new people we meet into various categories and file them in the cavernous storage systems of our mind. As a result we have a host of idioms that point to that, such as: "Clothes make the man", and "You only have one chance to make a good first impression".

Fifteen years ago (when I was obviously younger), as a very hands-on event producer/director, I would be in the trenches with the crew and various vendors, dressed in old jeans, sneakers and t-shirt. I asked an employee of one of the vendors I had contracted if I could borrow his ladder for a moment and I got a rude retort from him. Some time later, I saw the manager of the vending company and recounted the story to her and she was terribly embarrassed and furious, "Does he know who you are?" she fumed. Apparently not, but that isn't the point. The point is that I did not fit into his category of what a director should look like. I was dressed like the rest of them, was too young, wasn't shouting orders, didn't elicit any fear from the crew and didn't approach him with a sense of entitlement. I thought it quite funny when I later got a rather sheepish apology from him because I understood what had happened.

But watching what you wear is not just about making an impression for other peoples' benefit. What you wear has an effect on how you feel about yourself and even how you move. The way I carry myself in a suit is quite different from the way I carry myself in shorts and flip-flops. On days I'm not feeling too hot, dressing extra dapper than usual with a splash of color usually does the trick. It really is a two-pronged effect: I feel better about myself and people respond more warmly to me, which makes me feel even better!

So Mum was right: press your shirts, polish your shoes, tuck your shirt in, brush you hair...and the world is a better and more beautiful place.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Experience the New - 40 Things I've Learnt in 40 Years

I've heard people say you should try something new everyday. I've never been good at keeping track of that, or, more importantly, making that happen. I do, however, try to have a totally new experience every month. This month, I want to learn scuba diving - thank goodness for options like Groupon and LivingSocial. Last month, I went parasailing. Again. I'd love to go swimming with sharks.

Ever wondered why as you grow older, time seems to go faster and faster? A very interesting correlation has been found between having new experiences - or the lack thereof - and one's perception of the passage of time. When you surround yourself with the familiar and remain within your comfort zone, the brain doesn't need to do much work. It quickly processes the information and moves on. When new information is received, it has to process the new information, which slows it down - and slows down your perception of time. A quote from David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who studies the effects of the brain's perception of time summarizes it well:
"The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass. "Time is this rubbery stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,' it shrinks up."

(I recommend Adam Dachis' post: Why New Experiences Are Important and How They Positively Affect Your Perception of Time for a short read, but if you have time you will find The Possibilian, a profile of David Eagleman extremely fascinating.)

A new experience doesn't have to be some dramatic new event that shakes your world in ways you never thought possible. It could be driving down a road in a direction you've never explored before; trying a cuisine that you haven't thought to try before; attending a class to learn something new, trying a crossword puzzle, or walking on the treadmill backwards! Actually, a simple action like walking backwards can help improve your memory skills...go figure.

So go on and try something new and get grip on the reins of time. And while you're at it, remember to enjoy the experience. Go ahead!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Breathe! 40 Things I've Learnt in 40 years

I was surprised to find out in a yoga class how much I was NOT breathing. Of course, I breathe, thought I - I don't even have to think about it. But that was the problem, I realized. I was so consumed with everyday living that I failed to notice that my breathing had become more shallow over the years.

If you watch a baby breathing, they take deep breaths and fill their lungs with air and release. As humans, we are hard-wired to have a fight or flight reaction to any stressors and our breathing becomes more shallow as a result. As we grow older, and with more stressors, our breathing gets less and less relaxed. This means less oxygen to the blood and the body has to work harder, putting even more stress on it and we get ill as a result. A lot of heart diseases could be averted with proper breathing techniques. Deep breathing increases the oxygen intake and slows down the heart rate.
Baby Sleeping
But this is not just about the action of breathing. It really is about slowing down. We live in such an 'instamatic' world that everything needs to be done better and faster. We are moving through this world at dizzying speeds with nary a pause for a swig of water or a tire change. We work longer days than we did 50 years ago; we are bombarded by a myriad stimuli every waking moment and because everything moves so much faster, we try to get in in a lot more each day.

I've learnt that sometimes we all need to renew our spirit. Take time to really breathe; smell the roses; meditate - whatever name you choose to call it. The opening line of Max Ehrmann's Desiderata - one of the most succinct guides for living - says: "Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence..."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

40 Things I've Learnt in 40 years - Introduction

Works in Progress
Today, I begin the countdown to my 40th birthday. I believe I have been celebrating this all year, and will continue to do so after my birthday - but I thought I'd share my thoughts with you as I go through this journey. I encourage you to send me feedback - whether it's your own experiences, your thoughts on what I have to say, and if you disagree with anything, I'd love to hear that too!

I have on many occasions taken stock of my life and it has helped me recalibrate my direction in life. My overriding desire is to live the life I love and love the life I live. I have always been inspired by beauty, design, experiences and even a sense of fantasy. It is also a great joy to be able to bring people together to share this beauty and joy, because I believe we are all connected in some way on some spiritual level, regardless of our personal religious or spiritual beliefs.

So what does it mean to me to be turning 40?

  • Like wine, I think I've gotten better with age. Now I know better.
  • I'm actually quite happy to be turning 40. Surprisingly.
  • It feels great to be 40 and not feel old.
  • When people tell me I look good for my age (thank you very much, by the way), I think that's the way people should look at 40!
  • I would have liked to have kids, but look at it this way: I can borrow kids and send them back when I'm tired of them! Ha!

Whatever your age, I hope you will be able to connect with my experiences in some way and share it with others too. I've been 40 years in the making and I am delighted that I am a work in progress, so I look forward to hearing from you as well. This could be much fun!

Watch this space for my updates. The first installment begins tomorrow.

Let the countdown begin.