It started out like most other Covid social distance days. I woke up in that quarantine-what-day-is-it mood, did some light yoga, and had some overnight oats. I went for my daily nonnegotiable fresh air walk, coached some clients, and helped my dad. As I hung up the phone, I heard two unusual-sounding coughs. I jumped up and ran toward the sound to discover my 15-year-old cat Bella taking her last breaths. Gut punch — drop to my knees — a scream I don’t recall.
She had been sick three weeks ago with some sort of mini stroke, but was much improved on medicine and new food that was supporting her heart and kidneys. The vet told us she had a heart murmur and early heart failure, but her behavior seemed so back-to-normal that we thought we had months not weeks. In fact earlier that morning, she was lying in the sun, purring, and even jumped from the floor onto a table.
Bella and her brother Saki were adopted from a cat sanctuary in Saco Maine in 2006. The boys and I decided it was time to adopt a cat and went there after a family Cape Cod vacation. Two of us fell in love with Bella, a beautiful 1-year-old orange Maine Coon, while the others really wanted the grey double-pawed kitten. Saki was 2 months old and bouncing around like kittens do. We were told they were rescued from hurricane Katrina, and just knew we had to adopt them both! (To any of you reading this who are considering a cat adoption, getting two cats was one of the best choices we made. They always had each other as companions, especially nice when we went away for a weekend).
Saki and Bella were yin and yang: Saki the fidgety, playful rule breaker—Bella the polite and proper lady. They suited us and each other perfectly, each physically healthy with complementary dispositions. We got lucky. As they aged, we knew there would come a day when one would be without the other. But we always think we have more time with those we love than we do.
Since Bella died, I am feeling completely flattened by her loss. I just never expected it to hit this hard. Walking around in a bit of a fog, slogging back and forth in my emotional ocean, it occured to me that I’m grieving Bella, but maybe all the pandemic death too. Waves of grief are hitting with a force. Saki is wandering around equally uncertain about what doesn’t feel quite the same anymore.
The old me used to dwell too long in heavy emotions or avoid them altogether. The new me is grateful to practice emotional agility. Coined by Susan David PhD, South African psychologist and founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital of Harvard Medical School, emotional agility reminds us to learn to live with the full spectrum of our emotions as they happen, to walk with them rather than avoid them.
Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life. — Susan David, PhD
She says that emotional agility is more than only the acceptance of our emotional spectrum. The accuracy of how we label our emotions matters too. “Our emotions are data. They contain flashing lights to things that we care about. When we are open to our emotions, we are able to generate responses that are values-aligned." Rather than being swallowed up by an emotion, or trying to move away from it, be curious about the message contained in an emotional moment. Have the courage to poke around in it.
I cared deeply about Bella, perhaps more than I even realized. The absence of our loved ones ignites a special power of gratitude in us, and that healing power comingles with the pain. Maybe the grateful feeling helps to neutralize or balance the discomfort. But it does help.
Emotional agility reminds us that allowing ourselves to feel the way we feel means we get to choose. It is our choice for how long we will swim in the rising tide of our emotional discomfort. And it is up to each of us when we are ready to choose joy. Opening the heart lets the sun shine in.
TWO WEEKS AGO, I was driving to my interview for the Homeland Security Trusted Traveler Program to get my Global Entry card. I had applied last October as part of the planning for our first international trip in 12 years. Overseas news of the COVID-19 Corona virus was just beginning to seep into American mainstream consciousness, and it occurred to me that our trip could be in jeopardy. At the appointment, I was careful to open and close doors with my elbow, use a paper towel to turn the faucet knob in the public restroom, and cough in my sleeve. After they fingerprinted me, I immediately used their hand sanitizer (not my usual practice). I knew something was coming.
TWO WEEKS AGO, I was also getting ready to publish my first nonfiction book. PERSPECTIVE: Harness the Power of Your Mind to Reignite Your Spirit was a writing odyssey that began in July 2018 in response to encouragement from some of my clients and friends. The idea of writing a book was a nebulous concept for many months, entering and retreating from my mind’s eye like a hummingbird dipping in and out of a flower. I played around with an outline of chapters for quite a while. There were many months when I could barely bring myself to look at what I’d written, I thought it was such rubbish. But I kept going.
The editing and revising phase was the hardest part. Reading the same content over and over, it was hard to stay clear on messaging, voice, flow, and placement, not to mention agonizing over word choice and what content to include. If it weren’t for my supporters, I’m not sure I’d be standing here typing this post about my now published book.
TODAY was the day of our planned departure to Europe. Our trip has since been canceled as so much of travel has been disrupted in the interest of social distancing and protecting the vulnerable in our society. Thankfully science won out over poor politicking, and people are now heeding public health guidance. Instead of excitedly flying over the Atlantic, I am now conscientiously hunkered down and responding to messages from my readers (which is my new favorite activity). While I feel some measure of disappointment over the loss of our trip, I also feel curious. I wonder how I can be a helper during this uncertain period of collective challenge and opportunity.
TODAY readers are telling me that my book’s message couldn’t have come at a more fitting time. They are saying that shifting how they look at things is helping them navigate this unprecedented seismic shift in how we live and interact. It wasn’t in the plan to be stuck at home. It wasn’t in the plan to release my book during a global pandemic. And it wasn’t in the plan to have our lives upended. The only constant in life is change, this I know.
IN THE COMING DAYS, will my message about shifting perspective to find what's right about what's wrong, to balance human being with human doing, to practice self-care, agency, compassion, and curiosity help to carry us through?
I hope so.
Many relationships begin with a chemical cocktail of unconscious coupling, infatuation, or laser focused sexual energy. This honeymoon phase is a bubble of pure bliss. However, once that veil of intensity lifts, they shift into a space where connection, conflict and opportunity coexist.
Relationships can be the very best vehicles for human development and healing. They not only affirm our sense of self, but also challenge us to consider other perspectives. When connection is good, we feel comfortable and confident. But, as relationships ebb and flow with shifting priorities, sometimes connection breaks down, leaving us feeling confused, misunderstood, or even neglected. Learning how to ride the waves with effective navigational tools will help to prevent your boat from taking on too much water.
As we head into the shorter days and darker months of winter, many of us feel a pull to turn inward. Solitude and rest naturally replace some of the big, outward-facing actions of spring, summer, and fall. Moving more slowly and deliberately allows us time to reflect in the colder weather. As a health coach and life coach, I'm glad for this.
Tired of being a frequent flyer on the plane of self-doubt, judgment, denial, and blame? Me too. I spent far too many years of my life with a churning worry deep inside. I’m not smart enough, pretty enough, tall enough. I’m a fraud. As far back as I can remember, this anxiety festered inside, robbing me of joyful living. What was I so afraid of?
Well everything, and nothing in particular. Anxious dispositions have been shown in studies to have a genetic component, and many of our personal habits were unintentionally adopted into our self-concept long before our sense of choice. Unfortunately in America, much of our adolescent coming of age orbits around conforming, with little energy available to invest into discovery of self, other or authentic tribe. Our inherited ‘negativity bias’ - a tendency that kept early human ancestors alerted to potential threats in their environment - doesn’t help matters either. Our bodies, therefore, tend to react more intensely to negative stimuli than to positive experience, and even reinforce it. According to Rick Hanson, Ph.D., psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author “the brain is like velcro for negative experiences but teflon for positive ones. That’s why researchers have found that animals, including humans, generally learn faster from pain than pleasure.”
As a philosophy major in college, I found myself naturally drawn to life’s deep questions. Learning from great thought leaders like Aristotle, Socrates, and Thoreau, my curiosity had a place to play. Hearing the famous quote by Rene DesCartes, “Cogito ergo sum - I think therefore I am” installed an assumption into my personal ideology that my mind was my reality and therefore, who I was. I easily bought into this, as my thoughts felt essential to distinguishing me from another. Little did I know that this presumed separateness would perpetuate the fire of anxiety already smoldering inside.
As I moved through my twenties, thirties and forties, I continued to weave in and out of our largely expectant, ego-driven world, with my self-worth gradually eroding. The persistent fatigue I felt from the illusion and performance of fitting in was creating a stress-filled existence. On and on it went, until one day when I discovered mindfulness. This idea of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, opened my heart. I eagerly inhaled the wisdom of Pema Chodron, Eckhart Tolle, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Michael Singer, and Don Miguel Ruiz. I listened to Tara Brach, Shauna Shapiro, Kristin Neff, Dave Potter, David Steidl-Rast, and many others. Slowly, a theme of values alignment and ego detachment began to emerge, and together they encouraged me to invite the Curious Observer back into the captain’s chair of my life story. I started by noticing my self-talk, labeling it for what it was, and minimizing judgment. Some days I really got it - other days it eluded my grasp. I practiced mindful meditation, compassion and self-compassion. When I noticed myself complaining, I redirected myself toward tuning into what we have in common and appreciating shared experience. It felt rickety but I was trying.
Fast forward to last November, when I experienced a breakthrough trifecta of crises. Three Tuesdays in a row, I was knocked over by an unexpected wind gust of deep-seated fear, disappointment, and rejection. For months, I cycled through anger, shame, and hopelessness, a seemingly unstoppable parade of vulnerable emotional states. “Get me off this ride” was my mind’s recurrent playlist. Constant overthinking - projecting worry into the future or ruminating over the past - became a dizzying loop of negative outcomes.
Eventually, I got tired of hiding, running in place and feeling stuck. It was time to find the lesson. I registered for Rick Hanson’s Positive Neuroplasticity Training class and started learning how to refocus my mind’s energy on “installing the good.” He reminded me that “neurons that fire together wire together and passing mental states become lasting neural traits.” What kind of steward had I been playing in the movie of my own unhappiness?
Hanson says that the 100 billion neurons in the average human brain make 5 thousand synaptic connections each with other neurons. This internal world-wide-web furnishes us with several hundred trillion little microprocessors. Learning occurs when these neurons, firing 5 to 10 times per second in synchronized patterns of activation (brainwave rhythm), begin to associate with one another. This system offers us countless opportunities to influence how our neural net is groomed.
Research shows that simply labeling with a single word a negative state of mind - pain, anxiety, irritation, disappointment - calms activity in the amygdala (the alarm bell of the brain), and increases activity in the prefrontal cortex. By intentionally registering beneficial experience again and again, we can actually slant our amygdalas in a new direction, orienting our nervous system toward holding the positive rather than simply avoiding the negative. And the nervous system becomes more receptive to beneficial experiences, and more efficient at turning them into lasting changes in neural structure and function. With repeated practice, we can gradually resensitize our brains to the good. Hanson says “You can develop, over time, a joyful amygdala.” In this way, we choose to motivate ourselves to lean more into who and how we want to be.
I am learning so much from Dr. Hanson’s kind, hope-filled philosophy. Awareness of our inherited negativity bias, holding negative experience in mindful spacious awareness (to pull out of being glued to the movie), as well as our capacity to 'install' positive experiences simply by staying with them longer, has the potential to be life-enhancing for so many of us.
As I continue taking steps along this uncertain human path, I can feel myself recalibrating my brain's negative tendencies, growing inner resources, and expanding and connecting with our shared potential. More often than before, I choose to install the GOOD. And, that simply feels better.
Brother David Steidl-Rast on Happiness and Gratefulness
Brother David Steidl-Rast on a "Good Day"
The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger | Shauna Shapiro | TEDxWashingtonSquare
Hardwiring Happiness - Dr. Rick Hanson - TEDxMarin 2013
We all do it. When someone is speaking to us, part of our attention is diverted to our agenda - what we may have been thinking about before, what we could be doing instead, and most often, how we can volley back with our cleverly crafted retort to the anticipated storyline.
It’s human nature to jump ahead of another speaker in our minds and prepare to reply. And unquestionably, some amount of this is needed to successfully dialogue back and forth. However, we often miss much content and intended meaning when we allow our minds to wander too far away from the present moment.
I was a newly-minted college grad working for a health insurer in Kendall Square, Cambridge when my boss called me into his office. It was time for my annual review, and I was ready to hear his positive feedback for all my hard work. As Joe began to share his impressions with me, I was already two steps ahead of him, readying to impress with my quick, intelligent comeback. So, when he suddenly stopped speaking and leaned back in his chair, I catapulted into my rift of cleverly articulated response. For the next uncomfortably protracted minutes, he did not speak. Hmm, now he had my attention. I wondered what he was thinking, and asked. He leaned forward with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Sheryl, do you think you hear me when I talk?”
In a swift gust, the air was sucked out of my sails and my heart sank. Hurt, defensive and embarrassed, I could no longer speak. Joe went on to explain how I was smart but spent too much time talking and not enough time really listening when he spoke. Ouch! No one had ever said something so blunt and unexpected to me at work. I spent the next few weeks wandering around in a fog, feeling unappreciated, betrayed and insulted, and the next many years learning the endless value of his question.
Flash forward to 2008 when I took my first coach training. There were many fascinating classes as part of our program, but the one that stuck to me like glue was called Reflective Listening. An entire class devoted to the art of listening to another. It was during these 12 weeks that I became immersed in the methods of being fully present to a person’s unfolding story. I learned to be an active listener - not someone preoccupied with preparing a comeback but actively paying undivided attention to the speaker.
Active listening is a slowly acquired skill set that can take years of practice and patience to master. Concentrating one’s attention on what is being said instead of passively hearing can be a game changer to compassionate communication. Active listening involves all the senses and conveys to the speaker, through eye contact, verbal, facial and postural cues, mirrored body language, cadence, pauses and short periods of silence, that attention is being shown. Here are a few ideas for an active listener to keep top of mind:
Being Present is Hard
Whether in a business meeting, writing an article, or speaking with a friend, our attention is often easily hijacked when our mind wanders. And in today’s fast-paced world of constant emails, texts, calls, and social media messages, staying focused can feel downright impossible.
Given all the demands on our time, it’s no surprise that we are not always present with the people in front of us. It takes time and effort to refocus after an interruption, and multitasking can have adverse effects on our productivity and cognitive capacity. However, the more we practice returning our wandering mind back to the present, the better we become at connecting with and truly listening to others.
To find common ground, communication involves the exchange of sometimes opposing viewpoints and opening our minds to another’s perspective. Cultivating the habit of listening with curiosity and attention improves connection and mutual understanding, and offers us valuable input to enrich the conversation and relationship.
So, the next time someone is speaking, notice: are you busy interrupting or considering your rebuttal? Or, are you staying open to another person’s perspective? The world around us provides ample distraction on which to blame our lack of presence. But, if we practice pressing the pause button in our minds and focus on the speaker’s words and intentions, we just might hear that insightful bit we’d otherwise have missed.
And, to Joe twenty years later - thanks for that candid moment of honesty. Your willingness to hold up a mirror has turned into an unexpected, lifelong gift that still illuminates my path.
Active listening is the opportunity in any relationship. Take a moment to lean in and invest your full attention.
One of my very favorite mentors, Tara Brach, did a lovely talk this year on chasing happiness titled Getting Off the Hamster-Wheel of "Never Enough". Listening to it reminded me how easy it can be to slip back into unhealthy mental habits when we are constantly surrounded by external triggers that hijack our contentment: daunting to-do lists, political unease, challenging coworkers, climate change ignorance, social media aggrandizing, or ads that implore us to buy stuff we mostly don't need. The list seems never-ending.
Tara sums it up well: "We live in an innocent misunderstanding of what will bring us happiness. We latch onto substitutes, false refuges. We're in the habit of latching onto them." This if-only thinking is common in our modern culture. From a young age, we are sold this notion that achievement will bring us admiration, satisfaction, promotions, money, or success. "If-only ___, I would be happy," is the tune we replay in our minds. This is not to say that setting goals and attaining them isn't important. It is for sure. But, attaching our inner contentment to their achievement is where many of us can get stuck. Approval seeking and busyness are such traps to true happiness.
I am grateful for Tara's reminder question: "What would have to happen for you to be enough?" How would you know that?
What happens to us when we're perpetually focused on filling up our worthiness buckets? Our energy certainly becomes depleted. And our bucket? An unstoppable slow leak. But, most of all, self-worth attached to accomplishment or some future event prevents us from feeling the innate worthiness with which we are born. It sidetracks us down a path of misery and dissatisfaction instead of contentment.
So, today I invite you to join me in both allowing achievement of positive life goals, AND also welcoming happiness that burns deeper, like a pilot light glowing beneath the surface of all that we do, and all that we are. I suspect this practice will gift us the freedom we could all use a bit more of these days.
As necessary as air and water, hope is an essential element to a healthy life. As a member of our human family, these past 6 months have taught me much about hope. Perhaps you’ve been learning, too.
So, why does it matter? In simple terms, hope is a positive attitude connected to a desired expectation. It supports a healthy outlook that enables us to achieve our goals. Enough hope buoys our mindset and our personal and collective vision, but a hope deficiency undermines our mental, physical and emotional well-being. While human wellness requires an assortment of qualities - effort, self-efficacy, and conscientiousness among them - one could argue that none of these is possible without first having hope.
Hopelessness is the absence of optimism, which severely undermines our capacity to project our sense of reality in a forward direction. So, in this sense, hope acts as a bridge. Through imagining and anticipation, it joins where we have been to where we are headed. Hope also acts as a lifeline between ego and consciousness by highlighting our life force. A vital energy that drives us forward and gives us something to live for, hope is an essential element of problem solving and sustaining resilience in the face of adversity. Even a glimmer of hope can keep us afloat.
Hope fuels our growth mindset for success and well-being. It improves creativity, performance and learning. Skills and abilities can help you achieve your goals but alone are not enough. Research suggests that psychological vehicles are the foundational drivers for wellness.
According to positive psychologist Charles R. Snyder and his colleagues’ Hope Theory, hope consists of agency (goal-directed determination) and pathways (planning of ways to meet goals). In other words, having hope provides us with both the will and the strategies to reach our goals.
Achievement of our goals is a primary contributor to our level of hope, providing a sense of validation and support, which instills hope to set new goals. One could say that hope fuels goal achievement and goal achievement replenishes hope, a remarkable feedback loop. While many of our hopes are unique to us as individuals, some are tied to the hopes and actions of others. So what can we expect when our hopes are composite, when they are a part of community or global hope?
It's been hard to digest the news recently and not feel a sinking sense of dread. Bearing witness to the devaluing of much we hold dear - civil rights, environmental and health protections, freedom from gun violence, international peacekeeping and refugee alliance, trustworthy government and diplomacy - elicits a visceral reaction. It’s a landslide of overwhelm that could push anyone into crippling fear or anger, self-protective denial, or giving up hope.
Like many since November, I have spent a good deal of time struggling with an off-balance sense of vandalized hope. Weeks of disbelief turned into months of accumulated pain. How could our societal values be hijacked at a time when we have not a moment or dollar to waste? The daily task of coming to terms with how best to respond to our new reality could easily erode the hopefulness each of us counts on to point our compass. The doomsday gloom can be a compelling elixir.
Yet, while many of us find ourselves floating through stages of grief, there also seems to be a growing surge of hope in acknowledging the lessons our predicament contains. Our collective angst is slowly being replaced by an evolving understanding that a forward-swinging pendulum is often preceded by a backward swing. We are beginning to see the gift hidden in our cultural malignancy, much the way a person facing a serious or life-threatening illness may discover a new awareness or sense of gratitude. Perhaps these seismic tremors ripple through us in a way that impels each of us to improve our stewardship of consciousness. If ever there were a true test of being fully present with another, surely it is now.
Hope gets us through tough times because we believe that we can heal, that goodness will prevail, and that we have the power within us to create a peaceful future. Hope inspires us to take action – to problem-solve in collaboration with others, even those with whom we may not agree - over staying stuck in anger and fear. If we stay focused on the obstacles, we can’t possibly see the solutions.
In order to meet the challenge of our hope dilemma, focus on our own self-care is paramount. First, create a purposeful pause and recognize any feelings of hopelessness. Next, find someone you trust to process your emotions. Give yourself full permission to explore thoughts and feelings. Notice what's right about what's wrong. And, finally, remind yourself of our common humanity. Celebrate small personal or community victories. Laugh, sing, dance, smile, get involved and seek common ground. Meditate, hydrate, refuel wisely, get your daily dose of fresh air, remember to boost your dopamine and go hug a neighbor, a stranger, a tree. Replenish your cup of hope and pass it on!
“Hope will never be silent.” – Harvey Milk
Pema Chodron seems to find me and my shenpa when I need her most. "Vulnerability comes in many guises. We may feel off balance, as if we don’t know what’s going on. We may feel lonely or depressed or angry. Most of us want to avoid emotions that make us feel vulnerable... But if instead of thinking of these feelings as bad, we could think of them as road signs or barometers, then we would see the feelings for what they really are: an open doorway to freedom from suffering, the path to our deepest well-being and joy. We have a choice."
"So the challenge is to notice the emotional tug of shenpa when it arises and to stay with it for one and a half minutes without the storyline. Can you do this once a day, or many times throughout the day, as the feeling arises? This is the challenge. This is the process of unmasking, letting go, opening the mind and heart." How will you practice being the Curious Observer in your own life?
Certified Health and Lifestyle Coach, Sheryl Melanson, partners with people to transform limiting habits into mindful choices that express their values, create action plans and recalibrate their lifestyle to optimal well-being.