Working Out My Change Muscle

Everybody wants to be enlightened but nobody wants to change.” – Andrew Cohen

Last Monday when my mom was over, my 6-year-old daughter asked her if she wanted to get the stem out of a strawberry. Thinking that Miss O meant for her to do it, my mom grabbed a paring knife and reached for the strawberry. Then Miss O explained that she was going to show her how to do it.

Grabbing a straw, she pushed it up from the bottom of the strawberry until it popped out of the top, taking the stem with it. A pretty neat hack she learned from a You Tube video.

This makes me think of the quote from Andrew Cohen at the top of this post, “Everybody wants to be enlightened but nobody wants to change.” For me, I take that to mean at this phase of life that change is more about attitude than substance. That is to say, an openness to change is more important than what exactly it is that I will change.

I can name a half a dozen reasons why I wouldn’t stem a strawberry with a straw without even trying it. But that leaves me in a position of only trying change when I deem it to be important. How can I believe I’ll have the spiritual wherewithal to recognize and accept the one change I may need for enlightenment if I’m out of practice of changing at all?

So this week for Miss O’s school lunches, I’ve been popping the stem out with a straw all week. A change I’m not committing to stick to because I usually have knives more readily available than straws. But I consider it a workout for my flexibility.

What does change look like for you in your stage of life? Have you ever tried to stem a strawberry with a straw?

I Haven’t Tried Anything and Nothing Works

I believe you have to walk through vulnerability to get to courage.” – Brené Brown

I was talking with a friend the other day about her marriage. On the surface everything is fine but underneath one partner feels the pull towards adventure and the other partner doesn’t want anything to change. In fact as we talk through different possibilities of things that could give the relationship new ground – therapy, different types of dates, a shift in the balance of things – the answer was no to everything because it was too threatening.

It reminded me of a man I used to work with who would describe his team as running around with their hair on fire whenever there was a problem, which since it was a technology company, was often. If you asked them what they tried, he’d joke that they’d say, “I haven’t tried anything and nothing works!”

My friend’s situation also reminded me of my marriage after my husband’s infidelities were revealed and we were trying to work on it. He sat around and stoked his anger at his friend who had told me. Meanwhile I was casting about trying to find ways to heal. It felt like his check-ins consisted of asking me if I was better yet while he pursued nothing to find change and healing in himself.

While that might sound overly harsh, let me also admit that I’ve been the person in a relationship too frozen with insecurity and fear at what I might find to look under the hood. I’m thinking of a relationship I had in my 20’s where I found it too threatening to take that step towards introspection so that I preferred breaking apart rather than seeing whether we could alter our patterns and change together.

In the work scenario, I know it was our office dynamic that led to people not being willing to try anything because there was a company culture that was big on blame. Stepping your toe out to fix something could result in exposing yourself to fire. Creating an environment where it’s safe to be vulnerable seems like the best way to lead people to change, whether that be a family or a workplace.

Thinking about my friend and her marriage, I think relationships often set us up in dichotomy with each other. The adventurous one – the stalwart one. The one who wants to look – the one who wants to avert their eyes. So I silently root from the sidelines that they can cultivate a little more vulnerability to face change together.

I understand the fear that looking inside might reveal something ugly but I’ve come to learn it’s the not looking that is the real threat. If you don’t change from the inside, life will often change you from the outside. “I haven’t tried anything and nothing works” was a great company joke but it always required someone brave enough to break the trend to fix the problem.

(featured photo from Pexels)

Changing Your Mind

Your imagination is a preview of life’s coming attractions.” – Albert Einstein

My toddler told me the other day that he wanted Mac ‘n cheese for dinner. As I was boiling the water, he discovered that he liked the food I already had on the table. He turned to me and said, “I changed mine mind.”

I was amused, not expecting such introspection and courtesy from a two-year-old. But of course, kids are constantly changing their minds. They like playing with dolls until they don’t. It’s fine to carry a lovey with you everywhere – until it isn’t.

I recently heard a fascinating podcast from Ten Percent Happier with Dr. Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at UC Berkeley and expert on cognitive development. She explained why it is that babies can change their mind – because their neural pathways are much less grooved than those of adults. In an analogy she gave, she said kid’s neural pathways are a lot like the streets of old Paris, with winding, interconnected little streets. By contrast with adults, our brains look like wider, efficient boulevards that can hold much more traffic that can go faster. The result is as Dr. Gopnik said, “Young brains are also much more plastic and flexible – they change much more easily.”

She also introduced me to the idea of the local optimum, a concept from AI (artificial intelligence). It describes a situation where you can’t really tune it because any small change would make it worse, but a big change might make it better. In her words:

“One of the challenges for intelligence is how do we kick ourselves out of these local optima when we’ve become really practiced and good at doing one particular thing for example, it becomes very easy and natural to think that’s the thing to do. And just doing something that we’re not good at, doing something really different than the things we do every day can be the sort of thing that will kick you out of that local optimum and give you a sense of other alternatives.”

What We Can Learn about Happiness from Babies Podcast with Alison Gopnik

This makes me think of the example provided by the podcast host, Dan Harris. He was a journalist for ABC News for many years. After experiencing an on-air panic attack in 2004, Dan turned to meditation. After practicing for many years and continuing his day job as a weekend anchor for GMA, he wrote the book 10 Percent Happier, published in 2014.

Still working for ABC News, he started a mindfulness company and published podcast content about meditation and mindfulness. Finally in the fall of 2021, he negotiated out of his contract with ABC News to focus on his life passion: bringing meditation and mindfulness to anyone interested.

Dan Harris is a parent of a 7-year-old son. I assume that part of his slow transition is providing that solid base for his family life. But I’m so heartened to see a live example of how grown-ups can make big changes, even slowly, while raising a young family.

My son really meant it when he “changed mine mind” the other night. He no longer wanted mac ‘n cheese. Hanging around with kids, traveling, meditation are all examples provided by Dr. Gopnik of ways that grown-ups can change their minds. I can confirm that my kids help me come unstuck and imagine life from different angles every day and that, as Albert Einstein says in the quote above, widens my view of life ahead.

Happily Ever As-Is

How simple it is to see that we can only be happy now, and there will never be a time when it is not now.” – Gerald Jampolsky

This week with the COVID quarantine and life interruptions that come with it – I’ve decided that happier ever after doesn’t exist. I blame the optimist in me that snow-balled me so I didn’t realize this until age 52. The optimist is always sure that the minute, day and week are going to go as planned and the grass is going to be greener after every milestone.

To be clear, I love my life now as a mom of 2 young kids. It’s delightful – they are bright, shining examples of love, light and inspiration.

And yet… I’m also always waiting for them to change. As an example, my two-year-old son likes the home-field advantage when he poops. He’s worked out how to be at daycare all day long without a dirty diaper and not poop until he gets home. Lucky me.

And my 6-year-old daughter frequently loses it when introduced to a situation where she has to play with kids in an unstructured environment. The two years of pandemic have meant she’s missed out on a lot of practice of that negotiation of rules and expectations that come when kids are playing and no adult is leading the way.

I know that both of those things will change sooner or later. I will potty train my son and work with my daughter on role playing and she will eventually get some more practice and mature.

This leaves me in great tension. How do I love my life as it is now and also long for things to change? It’s a paradox of life. It’s also why I’ve come to believe that happily ever after doesn’t exist. Because there will always be something that isn’t ideal and I’m waiting to change. Or something that I love that will also change. Or a disruption, hurry or maybe even… a pandemic that adds extra curve balls.

The funny thing is that I’ve gotten pretty good at appreciating the surprises that come with life. I’ve come to trust the Divine hand that holds mine and reveals in change and disruption what I need to learn. It’s just taken me until now to realize that there will never be a time that doesn’t come with unexpected twists. So I’m leaning into practicing “happily ever as-is.” It has a lot fewer expectations and even more delight.

(featured photo from Pexels)

Shared Activities

Things are always in transition. Nothing ever sums itself up the way we dream about.” – Pema Chodron

On weekdays, my toddler and I have a precious half hour alone together between when I drop his sister at school and when I take him to daycare. What we do in that time is continually changing. First it was going to Starbucks and then sitting outside to eat popcorn. Next it was touring parking garages and then we had a short time where we went to a shopping plaza and rode the outdoor escalators. Currently, we go on the freeway a short distance to check on diggers and construction sites. My mom asked me how I know what a 2-year-old wants to do.

That question makes me think about how we negotiate shared activities with any friend, partner or family member. Generally speaking, don’t we watch what they like to do, check to see if it’s something we’d be willing to do and then ask? It’s why I do yard work with my mom, lunch with my friend Melinda, bike with Eric and hike with Sue.

And what might be more interesting is how we change what we do with people when it no longer suits us. Do we say it directly? Or just make what feels old impossible? Or do we listen to all that isn’t said and somehow negotiate a different pattern?

I answered my mom that I’ve changed up what I do with my son based on the clues he gives me. Sometimes it’s a word, he points at something, gives me a “no” or expresses curiosity. And it’s filtered through what I feel is reasonable and doable.

Every once in a while I feel a shudder of fear for what I’ll do when the thing we are doing doesn’t work any longer. But I get over it when I realize that we are infinitely creative and will work something else out. Once I accept that it will change, I’m much more open to listening to the clues of what we should transition to.

It feels to me like the fertile ground we negotiate with everyone in our lives. It works best when we create a space that interests and engages both parties and that leaves some space for change.

The Conditions for Change

A careful inventory of all your past experiences may disclose the startling fact that everything has happened for the best.” – unknown

I heard a story about a woman complaining about her ex-husband. When they were married he drank heavily but once divorced, he stopped drinking, remarried and turned his life around. His ex-wife said, “Why couldn’t he quit when he was married to ME?” and the punch line of the story was “People change, but not when and how we want them to.”

When I was married, I refused to have children. I had an instinct based on raising a dog with my now ex-husband. It was difficult enough that I didn’t want to extend that experience to kids. My husband would ask and I would say, “I don’t want to have kids.” But in my head, I knew the whole sentence was “I don’t want to have kids with you.”

My ex was not a bad guy. But he had a difficult childhood where he was both beaten and neglected. Before we were together, he’d raised a puppy with a previous partner. He told me he’d hit it with a newspaper if it peed on the floor. Only by experience did he find out that made the dog afraid of him and he stopped hitting it. To his credit, he then learned so that when we got a puppy together, he didn’t hit it.

But every step of the way was my husband having to learn a lesson directly before it sank in. He wouldn’t take my suggestion for how something needed to be done, he couldn’t trust an experts work for what might be best, he had to do the cause and effect himself. I didn’t want to raise kids with someone who had to experiment with them to find out what did, or more painfully, didn’t work.

I imagine that it’s pretty obvious now that I’ve had two kids on my own, that the whole sentence was “I don’t want to have kids with you.” But fortunately I’ve never had to say that sentence directly to him. We are on fine terms with each other but he’s moved away and gotten remarried to someone who has grown children so we rarely interact.

More than that, I am grateful for that divorce because it turned me to meditation, strengthened my faith and set me on the path that I’m on. The bigger issues of my marriage such as his infidelities and the things we valued created a relationship that was not meant to survive. But it still gives me rich ground to learn from.

People change, but not when and how we want them to. I think of that now that my life is so different than when I was married. We can’t control how others change but as I watch my children change every day, I see that we can control the conditions that help change to happen. Curiosity, openness and support work like the seed, soil and sunshine with which people grow.

I see as I create the conditions for my kids to change, I also create the curiosity, openness and support for myself to change. As I grow, I realize that even I don’t know when and how I’ll change but in these rich conditions, I trust it’ll be towards something good.

Building Trust

Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.” – Lao Tzu

I come by conflict avoidance honestly. By that I mean it’s deeply steeped in my family history. I never heard my parents argue when I was growing up. Assuming that they did instead of just avoid all conflict, they must have done it entirely behind closed doors. As a Presbyterian pastor, my dear dad was so good being with people suffering crisis and loss but when it came to conflict, he also had a gift for just not responding.

I remember when I was in college, I took the car I had to him because it was overheating. He was refilling the radiator from the garden hose as I trailed around behind him. At one point I said, “Dad, I think there is a better way to do that.” He didn’t respond. He didn’t argue that he had been around cars a lot longer than I had or point out that I brought the car to him, he just simply didn’t say anything until it was refilled. Then he looked up with a big, bright smile and said, “There, it’s done!”

Read the rest of this post that I posted here at the Pointless Overthinking blog

Say More

You can never really live anyone else’s life, not even your child’s. The influence you exert is through your own life and what you’ve become yourself.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

The other day I was having a conversation with an acquaintance that I know professionally. She was sharing her concerns for her younger son who is starting his freshman year of college 3,000 miles away. Trying to find the balance between listening well and not prying, I remembered a prompt that I’d picked up from a Brene Brown podcast, “Say more.”

It works like a can opener! I’m a pretty good listener but since I think the art of listening always can be improved, I’m always trying to expand two things to make me better: curiosity and space.

My acquaintance was telling me that her son got a nose ring and was trying out partying. Her story had two threads. One was a little bit of a mother’s grief because she thought she knew who her son was and thought that he did too. And who he was, a smart geek, didn’t match with his freshman year antics.

The second was her effort to be open supportive of her son as he grew and changed. As he texts her updates about what he’s doing, she is trying to find the right balance of how to respond. In many ways, she said she wished he wasn’t telling her because she was having to walk the line of condoning what he was doing.

Curiosity and space. It’s what her son is experiencing in these first months of college. It’s what my friend is trying to give her son. It was what I was trying to give her so that she could vocalize her story. Two gifts that allow us to change and to still say more.

(featured image from Pexels)

Taking Off the Hats

Don’t go through life, grow through life.” – Eric Butterworth

In my daughter’s first grade class they fill in a mood meter for each day that tells how they feel and why. For example, last Tuesday she marked sleepy and proud and said she was proud because she made it in without being scared. Which is huge for my 6-year-old.

School has been in session for a month now. A month of adjustment to early mornings, pickups and drop-offs, new faces and routines for my kids, a quiet house during the day for me. It’s a lot and it’s taken the entire month to adapt.

The thing I’ve noticed most for me is the slow unwinding of some of the pandemic trauma that came from the necessity of being involved in everything in my kids’ lives. It’s like relaxing a spine that I had to hold stiff or I’d crumble. I was wearing so many hats – teaching assistant, school janitor, lunch lady, principal entertainer, class clown, mom, chief encouragement officer – that I’ve gotten to take off some of them and ease the strain. There is an intentionality to this restarting of activity that feels rich and treasured in a way that I took for granted before.

What I’ve uncovered is that I’m a way better parent when I don’t have to do it all. Which sounds so obvious but in crisis mode, I couldn’t gage the impact. Now when my 2-year-old son comes home and doesn’t want to have his diaper changed, I have the energy to fly him around the room pretending he’s an airplane on the way to the changing table. I’m listening better and I’m more playful when not having to run my engine all out to get everything done.

The uncertainty is still with us but I feel like I have a fuller tank to deal with it.

And the most delicious thing is that I miss my kids. I gather them up on Friday afternoon and can’t wait to spend a whole weekend playing together. I’m so incredibly impressed by how they’ve handled this transition. It hasn’t been without tears but we’ve faced these big moments talking to and understanding each other.

My mood meter is proud and grateful!

Pass On the Sugar Please

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” – Amelia Earhart

When a friend recently complimented on pulling off two birthday parties for my daughter in one weekend (trying to keep numbers low), she said, “I don’t know how you do it.” And I thought to myself “I know how – a whole lot of sugar!”

I have a serious sugar addiction. When my meditation teacher did a really restrictive purge of sugar a few years back, I wondered why in the heck would a person want to do that. Because it’s just sugar. It doesn’t make me irresponsible, impair my ability to operate any machinery, or steal in order to afford it. Right? I was so proud that I’d gotten off the dangerous train of drinking too much wine that I thought there was no way I’d start limiting my sugar.

But I’m 52 years old, have had two c-sections in the last 6 years, my knees and my hips hurt and I want to live longer enough to see my kids have kids – unless they wait as long as I did to have kids and then I have no prayer of that!. And not only do I want to live that long, I want to do it being as active and comfortable as possible. I’m not likely to climb any big mountains soon but I’d like to rock climb, hike, bike and run around with my kids!

So for the past 2 weeks I’ve stopped eating foods with added sugar and also given up Diet Coke. Initially I had a persistent headache that wouldn’t stop until I drank enough water to make it through. But I’ve also slept better, had more consistent energy, and been less achy. I love candy and I feel like Diet Coke is the drink of gods. But when I crash after having either, I’m starting to recognize it’s not worth it.

There’s a little voice inside me that whispers, “You are going to give up something else?” It’s that self-indulgent, whiny presence that wants to frame change as if I am losing something and when I listen to it, I stay stuck. But when I listen to the centered voice that rings of Truth, I find the wisdom that with change comes the gift of freedom.

Now I’m finally understanding why my meditation teacher did the sugar purge. Because if I’m going to sit and listen deeply, I also need to pay attention to the signals my body is sending me. Sometimes I hate awareness but it always gets me somewhere worth going…