National Day of Unplugging

Sundown March 4th, 2011 begins the start of the National Day of Unplugging, sponsored by Reboot.  It’s odd that a group supporting the idea of unplugging is promoting their app and connecting to them via social networking; but, once you get past that oddity, you will come to see the idea that they are promoting.  Reboot is a Jewish organization though their ideas are universal.  They see the National Day of Unplugging as an opportunity for people to reclaim time, slow down their lives and reconnect with friends, family, the community and themselves.

Ultimately they hope that we’ll do this once a week, which is where the app comes in…a way to remind us to turn off.  They are not anti-technology; they are just pro disconnecting from technology on a regular basis and reconnecting with loved ones, our community and ourselves.

I am going to take their challenge and refrain from e-mail, internet surfing and watching videos/tv (which I do on my laptop).

Currently my routine, and I actually find this sort of …not embarrassing…but disappointing maybe…is:

  • Wake up and check email and overnight txts on my Android Phone.
  • Drink too much coffee while reading email, The New York Times and sometimes Facebook.  All on my laptop.
  • Work.
  • Back home.  Cook while sometimes listening to the radio or watching tv on my laptop.
  • Watch streaming movies or TV on my laptop.

In 2004, I stopped watching TV.  In 2005, while recovering from my accident, I started watching TV shows on DVD.  In 2006, I again stopped watching TV.  In 2008, I moved to NJ for my current job and probably by mid 2009, I started watching TV on my laptop.  By last summer, I was watching TV on my laptop at least 4 times a week.  I’m disappointed that I’ve let TV inch back into my daily life.

For the Day of Unplugging, I plan on getting home and cooking, maybe read or make art until bedtime.  Saturday, I’ll wake up, drink too much coffee and eat breakfast.  It is a rare weekend when my girlfriend and I don’t see each other; but, this weekend is one of those.  I had already planned on working around the house and I’m sticking to that plan.  I’m guessing it will be hard to go all day Saturday without checking email or reading the news.

What about you?  Can you disconnect from your gadgets?  How many times, on the weekend, do you check email?  Do you text, use Facebook, surf the net?  How many times do you watch TV, txt, surf the net instead of engaging with a human being?

I’m going to confess something that is hard to confess.  I don’t have any friends in Asbury Park.  I moved here over a year ago and I have a couple of acquaintances; but, no real friends.  I have plenty of excuses: too tired after work to volunteer, spend many weekends in Brooklyn with Anya, haven’t found my people.  I understand that when you move alone to a new place, it is hard to make new friends.  But,  sitting at home watching Law and Order reruns on my laptop is not helping matters.

Take the challenge with me.  I’ll be back in a few days to let you know how it went.

For further reading on this subject, check out one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Sharon Salzberg.

Zen and the Art of Criticism

by Jon Jordan via Flickr CC

Delivering and receiving criticism with grace is one of life’s biggest challenges.  Mastering this challenge has an enormous effect on your overall happiness and quality of life, both at home and at work.  And it can help you foster and maintain relationships and sustain healthy communications.

I was recently asked how I handled rejection of my ideas or direct criticism and it got me thinking about the role criticism plays in our lives. I came up with the following list of three  elements one needs to master.

  • Deliver criticism gently and in a way that gives it the highest chance of being heard.
  • Accept constructive criticism in a way that allows you to learn and grow from it and not just see it as a personal attack.
  • When criticized in way that is not constructive and could possibly be a personal attack, calmly view the criticism from any angle to see if there is any useful information in it; take what is useful and learn from it; and, most importantly, let the rest go completely.

I wish I could take credit for setting this as a goal and accomplishing it; but, I have to admit, that I was unknowingly trained in the ins and outs of criticism.  After 2 years of art school and 2 years of studying for a Masters in creative writing, which were both criticism boot camps, I became more adept at delivering criticism and thoroughly trained to hear criticism and take what I needed from it.

I’m going to leave the first one for another post and tackle the second two because learning how to receive criticism with skill can have a dramatic improvement on your work life.  It can help change your experience from negative to positive and help you succeed in a work world where developing emotional intelligence is more and more becoming a pathway to success.  It also gives you control over how painful an experience it is.

Accept constructive criticism in a way that allows you to learn and grow from it and not just see it as a personal attack.

I think it might be human nature, when faced with criticism, to immediately begin thinking defensive thoughts and many folks don’t just think them; they verbalize these thoughts thereby starting a cycle that is hard to break and usually results in no one being heard.  The first rule of receiving criticism is:  Say nothing.  Just listen.

When you refrain from responding immediately and focus on hearing what is being said, a funny thing happens.  Your initial defensive thoughts that were clouding up your brain begin to dissipate and it becomes easier to hear what is being said.  Then the constructive part starts because you can start zeroing in on the parts of the criticism that are helpful.

The second rule of receiving criticism is to back away from the personal.  You’ll want to take it personally, after all, someone is expressing disappointment with something you did.  Even if it requires a Herculean effort on your part to wrangle your brain past the personal, do it.  Nothing will be accomplished if you are taking criticism personally.  Ask yourself this:  if this was not about my performance, what would I think about this criticism.  If this is not a personal attack, what is this person trying to say?

The third rule is to filter out what you need.  I’d have to say that most people are not the greatest at delivering criticism.  So, when you receive criticism, you frequently have to weed through extraneous details, nervous chatter, and commentary that is just irrelevant.  If you imagine a sky filled with stars, there are always a few that twinkle and shine a bit brighter than the others.  I think of it like that.  Let the useful information shine brighter than the filler.

When criticized in way that is not constructive and could possibly be a personal attack, calmly view the criticism from any angle to see if there is any useful information in it; take what is useful and learn from it; and, most importantly, let the rest go completely.

There are people who are motivated by personal reasons to criticize.  They even sometimes take pleasure in it.  I think these people are rare.  Most people feel uncomfortable delivering criticism and would rather avoid it.  It is still your job to listen, pull out any bit of information that is useful and just let the rest go.  You need to follow the first rule above and say nothing.  When a person is motivated to personally attack you, there is no point in engaging in a discussion with them; but, there is also no point in not learning something from it.  It might be that the thing you learn is how to deal with a toxic coworker.  Or you might learn how a boss handles stress, failure or pressure from their own boss.  You are the master of you.  A coworker may push every one of your buttons; but, you get to choose how you react.

A few years ago, a friend made me make a list of the qualities I was looking for in a romantic partner and near the very top of my list was the following:  someone who receives criticism maturely and delivers it gently.  I think the same could be said about any of the people who pass through my life in a significant way including bosses and coworkers.  It is an essential life skill that when mastered will change the quality of your work and personal life quite dramatically.

Fakin’ It

photo: mmlolek via flickr cc

I recently had an awesome experience.

At our library, we are starting up a wellness team to think up and plan health and wellness programs for staff. Our township does not provide any health and wellness activities so we thought it would be a good idea to start some in-house.

At our Annual Staff Day, I got to introduce the idea of having a wellness team, some of the initial ideas we had, conduct a survey to see what staff actually want and I taught a class on 2 different meditation techniques. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed sharing some of the things I’ve learned over the years about meditation. The theme of the day was “Civility” and I took that idea and applied it to my meditation class by choosing to teach them Loving kindness Meditation. I was a bit nervous at first because I understand that people sometimes don’t like activities which they perceive as touchy–feely. I asked them to open their hearts to the technique and give it a try and I asked them to give me the space to talk about love and kindness openly.

The class went well and there was a lively discussion. One of the things that kept coming up for people is that it is hard to do loving kindness meditation for someone who is their “less than favorable” person. One person asked me point blank how I do it for someone who has angered or hurt me. That it is impossible to be sincere. What do I do?

Fake it. That was my answer and I think it was a pretty good one. Repetition breeds habit. I also said that I sometimes need to try it on, to think about WHAT it would really feel like to have these wishes and love and compassion for this person. I think faking it is also part of that process. But what about the insincerity of it? If the intention is sincere, the motivation behind the practice is sincere, then I think faking it is just practice. Practice that eventually leads to meaning and sincere feelings. Even if you are thinking of the worst, violently abusive person, you can wish them health and happiness. Why? Why would you? Because if their suffering is lessened what would their impact on the world be?

Plus, I think faking it, practicing it, leads to a softening of your heart and that benefits you and lessens your suffering.

I think this technique is particularly useful in the workplace. If you do loving kindness meditation for a toxic coworker and your heart softens towards them, you are helping to heal the workplace and that is always good. I guarantee that there are NO negative side effects to loving kindness meditation!

Yesterday, one of my coworkers called me on the phone to tell me that she was thinking about the empty boat story and that it was hard but she was going to help me carry the torch.  This is win/win all the way around.  She will have less suffering. She will provide better customer service.  She will spread joy to other people.  I feel inspired by her.

Cultivating Compassion Takes Practice not Magic

I think there is a belief that a person is either “nice” or not.  There is a belief that people don’t change.

This is not true.  People do and can change.  If you want to be a nicer, kinder, calmer person there are things you can do to cultivate that.  Years ago, I met a man who told me that I was one thought away from changing my life and in some ways he was right.  Maybe the thought is:  it doesn’t have to be this way.  Or maybe the thought is:  I really hate when I get angry and say things I end up regretting.

Compassion requires the ability to let go of preconceived ideas and perceptions.  It requires you to open your heart and to see another person’s suffering.  You can cultivate compassion through a sustained effort, a practice of focus on other and a practice of seeing other as you.

Ode Magazine in 2007 published an article on cultivating compassion that included the following exercise:

Practising compassion

Compassion can be practised anywhere: at airports, on beaches or in shops, whenever we are together with other people. Try this five-step exercise around friends and strangers. Do it discreetly and try to do all the steps with the same person.

With your attention geared to the other person, tell yourself:

Step 1: “Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in his/her life.”

Step 2: “Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.”

Step 3: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.”

Step 4: “Just like me, this person is seeking to fill his/her needs.”

Step 5: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.”


I really love the simplicity of this exercise.  I think it an excellent practice to begin cultivating compassion.  You can use it with strangers and you can use it with coworkers who are toxic and with family members who are annoying.  In my previous post, I called for some compassion for the two college students who bullied Tyler Clementi.  Let’s try using Mr. Ravi in our exercise:

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is seeking happiness in his life.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is trying to avoid suffering in his life.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi has known sadness, loneliness and despair.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is seeking to fill his needs.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is learning about life.

I think the last one particularly resonates with me in this case.  I think that he is learning very hard lessons about life right now.

There is no magic in developing compassion.  There are no secrets, no special skills, no barriers outside your control.  All that you need to develop compassion is within you.  Start your practice today.  The pay off is enormous, as described in this well known quote of the Dalai Lama:

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”


Simple Steps to Happy

Kate in the garden where she found "flow."

I’ve recently read two articles, one at Lifehacker, Three Steps to Happiness and one in Bicycling magazine, Happily Evie After.

The Three Steps described by Lifehacker and attributed to Joe Gebbia are as follows:

Step 1: Identify one thing you do that makes you unhappy. Write it down.

Step 2: Look at what you wrote down. Replace it with something that makes you happy.

Step 3: Repeat one week from now.

That is super simplistic and actually inspired some comments from people complaining about not having enough money, hating a job but needing it for money and a variety of other snarky posts some just jokey and some clearly offended by the idea that being happy is simple.

I find it curious that many people get angry when encountering an article or a radio or television show that suggest that finding happiness is not as hard as one might think.  Angry.  Defensive.  People attach their happiness to goals like buying a house, having kids, making X number of dollars.  I think I can safely say reaching these goals do not necessarily make you happy.  If your pipes burst an hour after your closing, are you still happy?  All of the defensive answers are obstacles.

I really think that happiness is a place and once you’re there you do the things necessary to return again and again.  You can’t possibly be happy every moment of your life.  Sad things happen, stressful things happen and sometimes life brings patches of boredom that result in unhappiness.  I think we find happiness in experience not things.

My ex, Kate, would frequently, on a nice day, head outside to “weed a little” or “pick up sticks from the yard” and she’d disappear for hours.  Of course, I wouldn’t notice because I’d would be making art or reading or do something that I enjoyed.  When I got hungry or otherwise distracted from my activity, I’d go to the backyard and check on her and sure enough she’d be out there sitting in the sun, weeding or pulling up more grass to make the garden bigger.  She was completely unaware of how much time had passed.    Mihaly Csikszentmihalvi called it flow in his book, Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. She was happy.

We used to joke that I had the patience of a Saint because we couldn’t ever leave the house without her noticing something in the yard that needed adjusting, or the birdbath needing water or a variety of other little “this will just take a minute” chores.  These things made her happy and I quickly learned not to rush her and to just let her be.  I actually found joy in her joy.  I loved watching her race around the side of the house to get a bucket of water for the birdbath or pick up sticks on the way to the car.  Since we split, I have found myself drawn to people who are putterers and that has taught me something about myself.  It might be odd; but, I have discovered that I enjoy watching a person I care about, putter around, attending to things.  I think I must be charmed with the way her brain works.

When you find something that brings you flow it will not be a thing or a person; it will be you doing; you experiencing.  You are active in this, even if you are not moving a muscle and listening to piece of music that brings you to that place.  You are active:  listening, feeling, experiencing.  This is what brings us happiness.  I know some grandparents who find this place watching their grandkids play.  Maybe it’s woodworking or knitting or walking, rowing, surfing or maybe it’s just doing the dishes.  I have found flow in a sink full of dishes.  Maybe it’s playing an instrument, organizing your closet, painting a fence, meditating, making love, watching people walk past, or mowing the lawn.

In the Bicycling magazine article, this idea is supported in the story of Evie Stevens, a once slick Wall Streeter whose encounter with a bicycle changed her life in ways that no one could have imagined or scripted, even Hollywood.  On a vacation visiting her sister, an avid cyclist, she found joy on a bicycle riding up steep hills and despite never having ridden a bicycle even half seriously, she kept up.  When she returned home, she bought a bike knowing nothing about bikes, and started riding when she could.  She entered a race, then two and training in her living room while watching television and she started to post times that seemed unbelievable, especially when you consider that she was riding an entry level bicycle and had only been riding a few months.  A normal person would be content with that life:  making money on Wall Street and being a weekend warrior at races.  That’s a nice life right?  That’s having a career and enjoying a hobby, finding balance between personal and professional.  Except, Evie really, really, really liked, no loved, riding that bike.  So, she quit her job on Wall Street and is now a pro racer.

I know.  I know.  We can’t all be pro racers or authors or professional gardeners or knitters or whatever brings you flow.  But, we can make those things a priority in life.  When was the last time you did something that brought you to that place:  in the zone, unaware of time passing, completely and happily immersed in DOING something?

One of the things that brought me a tremendous amount of joy was riding my scooter.  I used to joke, though it was true, that all I had to do was sit on my scooter and I felt happier.  I loved my scooter; but, I could have been on any crappy scooter and been happy riding.  Pure joy.  I can’t do that now and I take seriously the responsibility for finding other avenues to the place my scooter took me.  I haven’t quite found it yet; but, I have enjoyed the experimenting!

In two minutes, I’m going to do something that brings me some happiness:  I’m going to walk down to the beach and do a circuit I like to do.  This time I think on the way back, I’ll stop, get a coffee and watch the surfers.  Who knows when I’ll get home.

Go DO something that makes you happy and if your not sure what that is, start experimenting today.