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Pondering the meaning of life is a luxury

Some philosophers, like Nietzsche, believe that life has no meaning in itself, but that one has to construct it. I generally agree with this. But I feel one has to be in a position of privilege to contemplate the question: How can I create meaning?

I arrived at this point of view after watching a scene from a Spanish film. The movie is called Vivir es fácil con los ojos cerrados (Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed) and is set in the 1960s.

A teacher, who is a Beatles enthusiast, is driving across Spain to a location where John Lennon is supposedly shooting a film. The teacher is desperate to meet his hero. I believe he has quit his job to make the trek. During his travels, on separate pit stops, he meets two adolescents in their late teens; they are hitchhiking their way to another life because their current ones don’t fit.

As these three misfits drive towards their destination, they come across a boy, around the age of 10, who’s begging by the roadside. This boy’s clothes are tattered and he is skin and bones. Suddenly, the teacher has an epiphany. You can see it on his face. It says: I know what this boy needs. He needs a soccer ball, because that’s what all boys want, don’t they? And I bet this boy doesn’t have one because he has no money.

So the teacher gets out of his car, opens his boot and pulls out a soccer ball. He hands it to the boy. The boy takes the ball, looks at it and at once his face droops downwards. What his expression cries out is: Sir, I can’t eat this ball. Can I have some money for food, please? I’m begging you.”

To me, this scene doesn’t merely strike a chord but bangs on a drum, emanating a long-lasting vibration: when one is so poor that all they can think about is where their next meal is coming from, then there is no space to contemplate anything – like playing a game of soccer just for fun – let alone the meaning of life.

Luckily, most of us in the western world are not in this situation. Not only are my basic human needs met – food, shelter, warmth, clean water – but also I have more than I could ever need. This means that my brain is free to contemplate life, since it doesn’t need to concern itself with my primal survival.

But with all this extra space, my mind can easily go down the rabbit hole of wanting more. And more. Of thinking that my life is not enough.

The scene from the Spanish film serves as an important reminder: that to be able to meditate upon my mere existence and whether I’m doing it justice is an indulgence. Because it means I’m doing ok. More than ok. It’s a reminder to move forward from a space of gratitude for all that I have – not what I lack.

Forbearance is a form of kindness

A couple of weeks ago, I was on my way home from a writers’ retreat on the big island of Hawaii. In the last leg of my flight, from Sydney to Melbourne, I heard a repetitive chant being played in a foreign language. I turned around to see a middle-aged Asian woman sitting directly behind me. She was leaning against the window with her eyes closed and a tiny portable radio wedged in the crook of her neck, between her temple and her shoulder. The volume was audible, but not loud.

“I hope that doesn’t go on for the whole flight,” I thought to myself. In my body, I began to feel hints of annoyance and panic – at the thought of having to bear this for an hour and 20 minutes. To the lady in my row, sitting in the aisle seat, I whispered, “Can you hear that?” “Yes”, she replied with a sparkle in her eyes and her eyebrows raised.

I was fishing for her opinion, so I said, “I hope it stops soon.” Smiling, she responded nonchalantly, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Just ignore it.” A pause as I thought about this, and took in her easy-going nature. “She’s probably scared of flying,” I offered. “Yeah, true. It’s probably a good thing then – her chants might protect us all,” the lady offered back.

The trait this lovely woman was displaying was forbearance – a good-natured tolerance to minor things like delay, incompetence and ignorance. In the Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin writes that forbearance is a form of generosity. I would like to posit that it’s a form of kindness, too. Generous because you know their behaviour is not about you and so you can easily forgive a fellow human being. And kind because you really don’t know what’s going on in their lives, so you give them (and yourself) the grace of not losing it.

I could take a few leaves out of my plane buddy’s book. I’m sure many of us could. The thing is we humans are great at banding together to fight against great injustices – such as domestic violence, terrorism, treatment of asylum seekers and marriage inequality – but we can become indignant about the small stuff.

Like when someone accidentally bumps into us and doesn’t say sorry. Or when someone abruptly stops in front of us on the footpath to check their phone, or cuts us off while we are driving. We take it personally. We react impulsively. But if you think about it, this is also ‘ignorant’ behaviour. I’d like to insert a pause in between the trigger and my reaction, so I can choose how I respond.

I know that practicing forbearance can be challenging, especially if we’re tired, busy or in a hurry ourselves. Well, at least for me. But if we cultivated it – what kind of world would we live in? Perhaps there would be fewer injustices to fight against because we were kinder to each other? It’d definitely be a happier, more positive place to live in.

While the Asian woman did turn off her portable radio when we took off, I don’t know how I would’ve fared if she played it the entire flight (hopefully simply put my headphones on and listen to music).

Nevertheless, I will always remember my plane buddy – how calming and kind she was, so much so that she was able to instil the same in me at that moment – as a reminder to be more forbearing towards my fellow human beings. Because I know I would be grateful if they afforded me the same.

Make the habit the goal

I’m constantly jotting down ideas into one of my two notebooks – whichever I can reach first before the idea fades away. But while I capture many of them, they usually remain as ideas – wonderful ideas that hold meaning for me – instead of blossoming into blog posts, articles or even a book, should I dare dream.

I know why this happens: it’s a mixture of perfectionism and impatience. I worry it may not come out perfect from the get go. Or I may start writing a piece, but I’ll constantly tinker, chiselling away each sentence, rather than be in the flow of it. In this way, I take forever to finish it, or I don’t finish at all. I carry the mental weight of “I’m no good” all the time.

I’m aware of this limiting behaviour. It frustrates me. But it’s something I know that I can change, which I am determined to. So I booked myself into a writers’ retreat to hopefully overcome this irritating pattern I have myself webbed into.

I’m on that retreat right now. And in our lesson today, we shared tactics for moving forward with our work rather than getting stumped by perfectionism. I found all ideas offered valuable, but one in particular hit home for me. It was presented as this phrase: The habit is the goal. And it was an epiphany.

By reframing goals into habits, I know I can work towards overcoming my perfectionism and fear of being no good. For example, in my world, the goal would be to create a writing habit – instead of to “win a writers’ award this year” or “get x number followers to my blog” or “get published”. With these latter goals, I am seeking external validation that my writing is good. But these are outcome-based goals, and are never in my control. Only the writing is.

So my new goal could look like writing for 30 minutes first thing in the morning three times a week. That’s it – to simply show up to my practice consistently (habit). With such a habit, I’m likely to write more, and improve and share my work – whether or not I win an award or garner a following. And that is success in itself, and something that is in my power.

Now, how could you redefine a goal so that it’s more in your control and therefore achievable?

For example, if your goal is to lose 10kg over the next six months, you could reframe it to: work my way up to exercising at least four times a week over the next six months, and then maintain it so that it becomes second nature.

Whether you lose 10kg or not (you might lose more!) is not the point. The point is that you create healthy habits so you that have a healthy body – which you will because of the autopilot nature of habits.

Whatever you want to achieve make the behaviours that will help you get there consistent – regardless of the end outcome. The outcome is simply the icing on the cake. You must bake the cake first.

___

If you’re open to it, please share in the comments below a goal that you will reframe into a habit. I would love to hear about it – and I’m sure others would too!

Lesh xx

Can breaking unhealthy tech habits be this simple?

In my previous article, I talked about creating boundaries so that I can have freedom. A noble, yet challenging aspiration since it relies on one’s own discipline and will. It’s only when I watched this 10-minute Ted talk last week that I had an ah-ha moment, because I realised I was missing a key ingredient: mindfulness.

In the TED talk, Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist and addiction expert, talks about using mindfulness but with a twist, as a simple way to break a bad habit. The twist is ingenious; it employs the very method of how a habit becomes a habit – i.e. trigger, behaviour, reward – to break it.

An example of my forming a bad habit is: When I sit down to write (trigger), I usually start by checking my email (behaviour). But then I get caught up in ‘tasks’ – e.g. paying bills, replying to people, deleting spam – to empty my inbox (reward). So then I repeat this behaviour every time I start writing. Pretty soon, the behaviour is cemented.

Now, let’s add Dr Brewer’s twist into the mix: curiosity.

To a captivated audience, Dr Brewer poses, “What if instead of fighting our brains, or trying to force ourselves to pay attention, we instead tapped into this natural, reward-based learning process? What if instead we just got really curious about what was happening in our momentary experience [in our minds and bodies]?”

To show what this curiosity looks like, Dr Brewer uses an example of someone wanting to quit smoking. With my email–writing example, being curious might look like this:

What did I notice in my body in the pause before I start writing and checking my email? I noticed my fear – of writing crap, of not writing the perfect piece, of the words not getting out – and I felt it in my chest (it is tight), in my shallow breathing. And I noticed the urge to check my email (it’s quick; it’s heady; it pulls my hands before my mind notices what I’m doing).

What did I notice when I tended to my email instead? I noticed that be clearing out my inbox I felt instantly ‘accomplished’. But that feeling passes almost as soon as it arrives, when I realise I haven’t done what I set out to do: the real work. My body feels heavy; it’s weighed down by disappointment. It feels yucky. It wants to flee this sensation.

‘Watching’ all this I tried to be curious rather than judge-y. If I was curious, I noticed I was kinder when I succumbed to an urge, and I almost laughed at myself – not in nasty way – because I realised my mind was a child, needing its emotions and desires carefully held and acknowledged.

Curiosity with a sense of playfulness offers validation of one’s impulses without judgement, without having to yield to it. It also helps you see the truth – i.e. what are you really gaining from your habits?

Seeing our habits for what they really are, we might not need to muster up the strength to quash the urges that propel us into the thick of it. Instead, we might find we’re not as interested anymore – because we become “disenchanted” when we realise that the ‘reward’ isn’t really isn’t a reward, that it doesn’t even feel that great. And so the trigger-behaviour-reward pattern (hopefully) breaks over time, allowing us to naturally let go of a habit.

Perhaps there’s hope yet for creating a healthy relationship with technology – if one is willing to be curious.

Overcoming online hedonism

Until recently, my friend Art did not have data on his phone – or, rather, he didn’t realise that he did because it was not switched on in his phone’s settings. But once he turned it on, all hell (aka: the world wide web) broke loose into Art’s life 24-7.

Now, instead of waiting to get home at the end of the day, where he’d have access to wifi, he was like a child in a lolly shop. At every opportunity – on the bus, in the train, on the toilet, while waiting in line – Art found himself touching base with his online world via his little device. How many likes and comments did his latest Facebook post get? Who emailed him in the last five minutes since he checked? Where was that restaurant his friend told him about…

This newfound freedom of being able to teleport into ether whenever the urge bubbled up was, in Art’s words, “utterly exhausting”. That’s because it wasn’t freedom that Art had found, it was enslavement.

Art is not an exception. Many of us will find our hands unconsciously reaching for our devices at any spare moment, at any hint of boredom or at any time we’re working on something that requires thinking and effort – like writing this article!

It’s the easier thing to do – hedonistic, even, given the instant gratification. But what price are we paying? Minutes, hours, days, years are whiled away by doing the hedonistic rather than the meaningful.

Sadly, once the online habits solidify, it takes much effort and willpower – and self-created boundaries – to help break the addiction cycle.

Alexandra Franzen, a writing teacher whom I admire for her generosity and sage advice, has a good set-up: on most days she flicks her phone to silent mode and  places it face down on the other side of her apartment; she has also deleted all her social media accounts.

Alexandra has laid these boundaries so that she can have peace and space in her life – and mind! – for all the things that make her time on the planet more meaningful – for example, like running a successful business, mentoring people who want to become better writers, giving her partner Brandon her full attention.

Similar to Alex, I have canned all my social media profiles. But when it comes to the internet, I’m more like my friend Art: I can’t resist the urge. I check my email when I’m bored, and give in to the itch of googling something that has popped up in my mind, usually when I’m in the middle of doing a task that’s taxing my brain.

My push notifications are already all turned off.Plus, I’ve also started a ‘Do not disturb’ practice, where I switch my iPhone onto this mode during my non-working hours – i.e. evenings, Fridays and weekends. On this mode, the phone will only ring if someone in my ‘favourites’ list calls me. Usually that’s immediate family and close friends. Soon, I’ll be working on my email habits, with the aim to check it no more than twice a day.*

There is no right way. If you wish to change your relationship with technology, only you can find out what will work for you.

As for Art, I have a feeling that the novelty of being able to jump into cyberspace at a whim is wearing off. But I can’t be sure unless I ask him. So I’ll do just that when I next connect with my friend in real life, instead of sending him a text this minute – since I really don’t need to know right now, do I?

*updated 11 March 2018


Helpful articles

 

(Am I) ugly or pretty?

“You’re so pretty”, Sally had said.

I can recall the day like it was yesterday. It was our very first day of moving into the university’s halls of residence. We were both 17. And it was a warm summer’s afternoon in February 1992.

This was the first time I ever met Sally. And that was the first thing she ever said to me.

I blinked at her, stunned. Eventually, I spluttered a thank you, with my gaze held downwards, my cheeks hot.

I remember feeling confused. I had believed myself to be ugly, well, ever since I moved to Australia. You see, in year 9, aged 14, not even a full year after migrating to Melbourne, I was told as such in the girls’ bathroom while washing my hands.

“Gosh, you’re ugly,” a classmate had pronounced out of the blue, as if it were fact. Her name was Deirdre.

I recall my words getting caught in my throat. My body shrinking, as my spine slouched. I had simply wanted to disappear.

Taking Deirdre’s words as gospel, I had believed myself to be grotesque. So when three years later Sally remarked on my beauty, I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t know whether I should believe her. But a small part of me thought, what if she’s right? And a bold part of me candidly thought, “Can’t people decide whether I was pretty or ugly?

How naïve was I. As if it were someone else’s call to decide. As if someone else gets to decide.

As a society, we’ve placed external beauty on a pedestal. It’s obvious in every type of media. It can be the reason for getting snubbed or being revered. It can be the reason for getting the job, or applying for the next one because you didn’t.

And if someone hasn’t been cruel to us as bluntly as Deirdre was to me, we are cruel to ourselves. With our self-talk. With our seeking validation outside ourselves.

For example, while “Does my bum look big in this?” is the butt of many good-humoured conversations, it still gets posed on a serious note.

Heck, even I sometimes ask my husband before we head out somewhere, “How do I look?”

You know how he answers? Like this: “If you’re happy with how you look and feel, then why does it matter what someone else thinks?”

Smart man. Because what he is saying is that you don’t need my – or anyone else’s – endorsement to feel beautiful.

The thing is, people will always judge our exterior. And if we absorb someone else’s opinions about ourselves as the truth, we give away our power to be who we are.

Skin-deep beauty is fickle. So, you might as well hold on to your power, and love your own unique exquisiteness.

How? By telling yourself that you’re beautiful. With your self-talk, with your behaviour, with how you treat yourself.

No one else gets to decide. Not even Sally.

A note to self

You have a lot to give yourself and to the world.

Be kind and be patient – with yourself and others.

It’s okay if you do not know your purpose.

There’s more to life than ‘werk’ and money.

Although you do need those things to a degree in the conventional world, there are other ways to give and receive abundance.

So do not be hard on yourself, dear one.

You are nothing to be fixed.

You are whole, complete in your perfectly imperfect way.

 

The importance of noting your little successes

Yesterday I was deep in conversation with a friend. Let’s call him Art.

For the past 10 years, Art had lived and worked overseas, where he had created a name for himself and his indie performances. But a few months ago, he moved back to Australia to help his ailing dad.

Art is in his 40s. He had used up all his savings to invest in his projects, and now this unforeseen return home put him financially in the red.

Because he couldn’t afford outings or accommodation, Art found himself housebound and living with his parents – people who weren’t supportive of his work, and made his life difficult in the past for not conforming to their ideals of success.

But one of the main blows for Art was his projects also suffered, since he didn’t have his creative networks within reach to collaborate with, or his trusty fans to perform to.

Art was teetering on a dangerous edge, mentally.

“If I didn’t do anything about it,” he pronounced, “I knew I’d find myself spiralling into a dark, deep depression.”

Looking at At’s smiling face, I asked, “So, how did you turn things around?”

“By focusing on making each day a success and writing down every little triumph I had,” he replied.

Art doesn’t recall how he got the idea, but he says it’s what  made him get out of his funk.

By focusing on and writing down his daily, run-of-the-mill achievements, he felt worthy. Worthy enough to create, live, be who he is.

What did Art’s successes look like? “Writing,” he had recounted. “Sometimes painting, cooking, and taking a walk. The key was jotting it down.”

Art went on to get a casual job in a café – so he can afford life’s little luxuries, like enjoying a cup of coffee and eating out with a friend occasionally. He also creates his art every single day.

Hearing my friend’s story, I realised that anyone – even if their circumstances aren’t that dire – could benefit from writing down their successes daily. They don’t have to be grandiose ones either. Think caring for someone, vacuuming, fitting in some exercise, calling a friend. Heck, some days it could just be getting out of bed and having a shower.

So yesterday, at the end of the day, I took a leaf out of Art’s book and wrote down my small wins of the day:

Doing 25 minutes of yoga at home, using my favourite app.

My three-hour deep-and-meaningful chat with Art, over coffee and a nutritious bowl of goodness, all of which fed my soul.

Taking my dogs to the park, even when I was tired and didn’t feel like it (looking at their happy faces as they ran around aimlessly made me feel glad that I did).

Changing the template of my blog for a fresh start, now that the plan was to write more in 2018.

Cooking the lamb skewers we had for dinner to perfection – not chewy at all!

Reading a few pages of The Happiness Project – I have read it a couple of times, and it makes for a motivating read at the beginning of a new year.

It  was gratifying experience. It’s the little stuff, daily, that matters, that makes a life, I realised. Thank you, Art, for this invaluable life lesson.


Life is full of little victories if you choose to see them. And by writing them down, you get a boost. A pat on the back. Something we all need from time to time to keep on keeping on.

I’ll be writing my daily successes in a journal for the next few weeks to see how it makes me feel. Want to try it, too?

Lesh x

2017: my year in review

What were my goals at the beginning of 2017? To be honest, I can’t recall, as I don’t believe I formally set any. I mostly went with the flow, and felt like I floated all year and didn’t really achieve much.

yearly reflections

Upon reflection, however, I found that this wasn’t true. I had subconsciously focused on movement and deeper connections – my two-word ‘goal’ of 2013. This made me realise that how long it can take – in my case years – to build habits, and that it’s always going to be work in progress.

Movement

In the case of movement, I still walk the dogs at least five days a week for 30-50 minutes, but the number of yoga classes I attended weekly declined from three or four, to one or two. This might seem like a step backwards, but it wasn’t.

After not enjoying the yoga retreat I went to in Greece this year, I lost my yoga mojo. Asking myself why, I put it down to two things – lack of variety and the need to feel feminine. The latter because my life felt ho-hum, flat, rigid. I wanted to feel sexy, fluid again. So, I shook things up, literally.

What replaced yoga was dance. My sister had opened a dance studio at the end of 2016. So, one term saw me do Bhangra Hip Hop, and another two terms saw me do Bolly Zumba. I even ‘starred’ in a promotional video clip for the studio (I’m the one in the white top – in my defence, the other three are professional dancers and I had only learned the routine in 10 minutes!)

I also took the Flow dance course with Dee Street Studios. The course was described as “Celebrating the sassy, the sensual and the cheeky from Afro, hip hop, r&b and dancehall, Flow gives you the space to release, love yourself and feel sexy and grounded.” Booyah!

And right now, my favourite way of moving is Zumba – mostly because I’ve discovered some fun instructors who run sassy classes close to home. Convenience matters for long-term commitment, I have found.

Also in the theme of movement, I bought myself a stand-up desk earlier in the year, since I have a desk-based profession. I usually have Latin dance music playing (influenced by Zumba) as I work, which sees me swaying my hips – thank goodness I mostly work from home!

Deeper connection

Moving on to deeper connection, this year I learned that by not regularly expressing myself in writing, I lost a part of me. I dabbled in a couple watercolour painting classes to reconnect to my core, and while it was fun (and daunting at times, for I was a true beginner), words, I realised, are my medium.

I also focused on making more time for people who make me feel positive and alive. To work out who they are, I observed my thoughts, feelings and behaviour patterns while in the company of people.

To make more time, I took the initiative – rather than waiting for them to get in touch – by messaging, calling, catching up with them (if they are based in Melbourne, too), and consuming their material if they are artists.

Other realisations

As I reflected on 2017, I realised I also did a healthy amount of travel.

It was my husband’s dream to see the Northern Lights, and exactly this time last year, from the 1st to 5th of January 2017, we braced -40°C in Ivalo, Finland, and crossed our fingers in hope that we got to see one of nature’s greatest spectacles.

Luckily, the gods blessed us two nights in a row. The lights danced in the pitch-black sky, and we watched in awe, momentarily forgetting our frozen faces.

northern lights ivalo finland

The lure of the lights wasn’t enough, though. I had brokered a deal with hubby before we booked the trip: If I was going to freeze my butt for his bucket-list item, we had to tag a place on the way home that was considerably warmer – and I chose Morocco. I hadn’t realised that at this time of year north of West Africa is also chilly. But I suppose 9°C is considerably warmer than -40°C.

For me, Morocco didn’t hold a candle to the experience I had in Finland, but it did satisfy my curiosity about a place I’ve always wanted to visit.

In May, the Greek island of Hydra called me for a yoga retreat. As soon as the yoga studio I had been a member at advertised this retreat in 2016, I jumped onto it. The idea of yoga on a Greek island with cobblestone streets, traditional tavernas, brightly coloured doors, a crescent-shaped harbour, and no cars (just donkeys!) held me in such a strong magnetic pull, that I just had to book in.

What I had learned is that I let romanticising get the better of me. Yes, I did want to visit the island, but not while on a yoga retreat (too much yoga for me) with a group of people who weren’t really my people.

While the above trips were pre-planned at least a year in advance, my husband proposed a question to me, out of the blue, in July 2017 – would I like to accompany him to New York in November when he runs the world’s biggest marathon? “Yes”, I sad, without a moment’s hesitation. It has been one of my best holidays yet.

The last significant realisation I had in 2017 is related to work.

In my 20+ years of earning an income, I’ve career-hopped enough times to have learned a few secrets about work. One of the keys ones is that jobs are like relationships. For relationships to have a hope of working, both parties need to be a good fit for each other. And by a good fit, and I don’t mean a person’s experience to the job description, but a person’s nature and working style to that of their boss’s and of the organisation’s. And if the relationship doesn’t work, it’s time to move on. Nothing personal.

I came to this realisation because of two things: years of trying to be myself in cultures that weren’t a good fit (and experiencing anguish and heartache for too long as a result), and finally finding one that did.

In October 2016, I wrote in my journal what I wanted out of a workplace at this point in my life:

Kind, compassionate, encouraging boss who sees my potential. Equally, I’m kind, flexible, encouraging and can appreciate the developmental opportunities my work offers me. The work is in the field of lifestyle health and wellbeing, and preventive health. I am able to work from home and it is fun!

It astounds me that only two months later, in December 2016, I landed a job that, after being in it for all of 2017, I can say wholeheartedly satisfies all the above, and is a close match to my core values.


Putting 2017 into words gave me greater insight about myself, made me realise what a phenomenal year it was for me and gave me clarity for where I’d to go from here.

If you’re feeling that 2017 flew by without your accomplishing much, you may like to, like I have, jot down all the great things you remember about 2017, and what you learned about yourself from the positive and the not-so-great stuff.

~ Lesh x