When $1 billion isn’t enough, and one dollar is too much.

Eduardo Saverin

Eduardo Saverin

When Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin renounced his U.S. citizenship last year, with the apparent goal of saving hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes after the company’s IPO, the Brazilian native had no shortage of outraged critics.

“He has made himself the poster child for the callous class of 1 percenters who are all too happy to use national resources to enrich themselves, and then skate, or cry foul, when asked to pay their fair share,” Ilyse Hogue wrote in the Nation, to cite one example. “The story evokes the image of the marauding aliens from the movie Independence Day, who come to Earth to take what they can get before moving on to another planet.”

But for all the furious accusations, Saverin seems to have been on the cutting edge of a growing trend. “U.S. citizens ditch passports in record numbers” was the headline on a May 8, 2013 Fortune/CNN piece reporting that more than 670 U.S. passport holders gave up their citizenship (and U.S. tax bills) in the first three months of this year—more than any quarter since the IRS began publishing figures in 1998 and nearly three-quarters of the total number for all of 2012. The newly ex-patriated include Isabel Getty, daughter of jet-setting socialite Pia Getty and Getty oil heir Christopher Getty, and—last year—wealthy songwriter-socialite Denise Rich.

This got me to thinking. While I totally get the anger at Saverin and his ilk, I’m also intrigued by a larger question, implicit yet unaddressed. How much money is sufficient for any single person? Does someone like Saverin ever say “Now I have enough!” Or do you keep on pushing until you have all the money in the world?

As I turn over these questions, I also find myself thinking about another man—one who could not be more different from Eduardo Saverin. His name is Daniel Suelo, and in 2000, at the age of 39, he left his life savings ($30) in a phone booth and walked away. For more than a decade since, he has not earned, received, or spent a single dollar.

Daniel Suelo

Daniel Suelo

“Unlike the average American—wallowing in credit-card debt, clinging to a mortgage, terrified of the next downsizing at the office—he isn’t worried about the economic crisis. That’s because he figured out that the best way to stay solvent is to never be solvent in the first place,” is how a piece in Details magazine summed up Suelo’s financial non-plan.

Born into an evangelical Christian family whose beliefs he’s long since discarded, Suelo’s personal philosophy eludes easy definitions. He lives in the caves and wilderness of Utah.  He forages, dumpster dives, and eats with friends (as well as strangers). He doesn’t panhandle, collect food stamps, or accept other government support—not that he sees anything wrong with those who do, he’s quick to say—and he often works, just not for pay. He does make use of public libraries—borrowing books, checking email, and keeping his website and blog. “He wants to have the smallest ecological footprint and the largest possible impact at improving the world. His life goal since I met him is to take as little and give as much as possible,” his best friend told writer Mark Sundeen, whose compelling book about Suelo is called The Man Who Quit Money (Riverhead, 2012).

As I think about Saverin and Suelo, a study in opposites, I marvel over the vast elasticity of our concept of need. Saverin thinks he needs billions of dollars. Suelo needs to have none. Needs are not objective facts. They reflect values and choices.

I hope it goes without saying that I’m not suggesting we stop doing all we can to make the world a more just and more equitable place. What I am suggesting is that, in the meantime, we give ourselves a chance to thrive, that we have the courage of our convictions (which starts with knowing what they are).

Ken Ilgunas

Ken Ilgunas

For me, this perspective is liberating. Early retirement, single-family homes, college educations – these accoutrements of the American Dream are increasingly hard to come by. Do we simply redouble our efforts to achieve such established socially sanctioned goals? Or do we explore new paths, expand our repertoire of options? (Another terrific example of someone doing just that is Ken Ilgunas, a Duke graduate student who lived in a van to avoid going back into debt and turned his experience into the wonderful memoir Walden on Wheels (New Harvest, 2013)

Few of us are likely to follow Suelo’s example—I, for one, am not inclined to fill my dental cavities with pine pitch. What I take from his story isn’t the specifics of his journey. Rather it’s his capacity to find fulfillment while lacking things that most of us reflexively assume to be essential. If Suelo doesn’t need any money, I sometimes muse, perhaps I don’t really need [fill in the blank].

There are those who attack Suelo for failing to contribute to some larger social good. (One exasperated fan finally got his detractors to shut up when she told them that she pays taxes, doesn’t use the library, and is donating her share to Suelo.)  But to my mind, his provocative life is contribution enough. His choices push us to think harder about the nature of our own. His life expands our sense of possibility. And that, to me, is priceless.

Out of helplessness

give

I started this blog late last year to explore what I’ve taken to calling the Inside of the Downturn – the psychological impact of the Great Recession and its aftermath. Lots was being written about practical strategies for regrouping – how to retool your resume, develop a brand, do an effective job search – but very little on the issue of how to hold steady in these turbulent times.

Or rather, much was being written, but little of it seemed useful. Stay optimistic! Be resilient!  Uh, sure. But how?

For answers, I turned to personal stories. That’s how I became a regular reader of writer Brett Paesel’s Last of the Bohemians. Both profoundly funny and profoundly wise, Paesel offers an object lesson in what it means to do the best you can at a time when the path ahead is anything but clear. One of the most valuable qualities for Plan B Nation is equanimity. Here, Paesel talks about finding this balance, its challenges – and its gifts.   

by Brett Paesel

I have always been drawn to philosophies and spiritual teachings that emphasize the importance of balance in our lives. Striving for personal equanimity makes perfect sense to me. We should be industrious, but also know when to relax. We should exercise our bodies as well as our minds. We should seek balance between art and science, giving and taking, our heads and our hearts. The Aristotelian ideal of finding the golden mean – the desirable middle between two extremes – is enormously compelling to me.

Because I’m lousy at it.

I can swing between moments of euphoria and total despondency within seconds. Just like my eight-year-old, Murphy. One minute he’s declaring that his new light-up YoYo is “the best invention ever” and the next he’s crumpled on the floor, the broken toy in his hand, howling, “Why? Why? Why?”

Yes, apparently I have the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old. A couple of Christmases ago, my father asked the whole family to close our eyes and hold hands around the table while we listened to a gorgeous aria that he loved. After a minute or two of reverent, head bowing around the pot roast, I got antsy and felt trapped. I started to giggle and then to sputter and cough when I tried to rein it in. Afterwards, in the kitchen, my mother said through a clenched jaw that she wasn’t surprised at my behavior: “We all know what you’re like Brett.” And she was right. Everyone who knows me knows how hopeless I am at marshalling my emotions.

So how is it that someone like me has made it through the last couple of years?

After the economic crash, my husband’s and my income has dwindled down to a quarter of what it was. Which meant that we had to drain all of our accounts. We are in the process of declaring bankruptcy, losing our health insurance, and struggling daily to create a sense of normalcy for our two sons. Last summer when the IRS put a lien on our checking account, freezing any remaining money we had, I screamed at my husband that I hated him and I wanted a divorce.

Our economic woes, by the way, are not solely his fault. We both have under-earned and mismanaged our money. But I don’t want to talk about economic foolishness right now. Even though I can. I’m an expert. What I want to talk about is helplessness – that feeling that we cannot control anything, not even the basics, and that we cannot prevent a catastrophe from slamming us into oblivion. How do you prevail over the debilitating feeling of helplessness? And if you’re someone like me, who gets knocked around by their own emotions on a regular day, how do you uncurl yourself from the metaphoric ball you have pulled yourself into under the covers?

First, you start at the bottom. Since you are there anyway. You remind yourself of what actually DOES work in your life. You’re not going to divorce your husband because despite the stress of the past few years, he still makes you laugh, is a good kisser, and loves you even though he, like your mother, “knows what you’re like.” Your kids are healthy and happy. You enjoy your work (in this case, you’re a writer) and your friends still like you even though they, too, know what you’re like.

Once you’ve remembered that some of your life has worked out pretty damned nicely, you start to make choices. Because I have come to believe that the road from feeling helpless to resourceful, even happy, is made one choice at a time.

When I found myself at my lowest point, I first had to choose to choose. You see, feeling helpless can be very comforting, even luxurious. After all, no one requires anything from someone who is truly helpless. No one asks a newborn to make dinner. There is an abdication of responsibility in adult helplessness that I found deeply attractive and kind of sexy. At times, I had felt like the French Lieutenant’s woman, staring out to sea – the wind flapping my long cape around — waiting patiently, sexily, for someone to save me.  Most of the time, however, feeling helpless was simply boring.

So, for me, there was a point when it became untenable. Unsustainable. And I didn’t have a long cape. What I did have were children who needed me and a marriage that required tending. So the first choice I made was to actually start making choices – which lead to choosing to eat better, exercise, and get more sleep. That made me feel a little more capable, but not that much more. Because nothing had fundamentally shifted. My financial situation certainly hadn’t. The only difference I could point to was being able to fit back into my skinny jeans.

It was clear that what needed to change was my mindset. Surely, if I were a happier, I would be more adept at handling life’s challenges. So I started small and simply. I decided to consciously fill my life with things that I enjoyed and I endeavored to let go of things that made me miserable. Knowing that on a pragmatic level, I couldn’t just let go of paying bills, for example. Which definitely made me miserable. But you get the point.

When I thought about what made me happy, the list was quite long and very doable. “Breathing” was at the top. I really like to breathe and so I decided to do a lot of breathing in pretty places. In fact, I decided to slow down in a number of ways. Which may sound like helplessness, but is quite the opposite. This was not inertia, but focus. It was attention.

What, I wonder, are the little joys that you could double up on? Or triple up on?

As long as it’s not vodka. It might be worth considering.

During this period of time, I also thought about joyful activities that had somehow dropped away when I was pulled into the tide of helplessness. One of those had been reading novels. Somewhere along the line, I had forgotten to read.

I also reclaimed the joy of crying. In my darkest days, I started to believe that if I cried, I might never stop. But you do stop. In fact, in my experience, you stop much faster if you fully invest. Once I started crying again, I felt better. More connected and, strangely enough, more able to feel joy. Sounds a lot like balance. (If you need more crying in your life, I highly recommend seeing bad romantic comedies in the middle of the day. Almost no one is in the theater and you can bawl your eyes out. Anything starring Drew Barrymore or Sarah Jessica Parker will do the trick.)

And while you’re in the business of choosing to fill up on activities that make you happy, you might choose to let go of some stuff too. I let go of a couple of unsupportive friendships, which was painful but necessary. But I also tried to let go of complaining and blaming. That was even harder. Because complaining can be fun and it’s a group sport.

And blaming had to go because blaming is the battle song of helplessness.

Let me pause here to say that there were days when I was more successful at making these choices than others. But on the days when I slipped up, choosing to forgive myself was awfully powerful.

And here is an almost counterintuitive choice that I made in the midst of making all kinds of choices: When I felt at my worst. When I was spent and felt that I had nothing left to give. I decided to give more.

A friend of mine is a runner and he once told me that when he feels tired and is convinced that he can’t go on, he runs harder. He runs faster. And it gives him more energy to finish his run.

I believe that it’s the same with giving. When you’ve got nothing, give more. It feels good. It connects you to the world. And you find that you have more than you thought you did. Call a friend who is having a hard time. Volunteer. Help someone carry their groceries up the steps. Giving made me feel resourceful. Which is the opposite of helpless.

Your choices might be very different than mine. I know that mine don’t tend to be pragmatic in a worldly sense. And, to that end, my outward circumstances haven’t shifted that dramatically. But I don’t feel helpless anymore. In fact, I feel quite capable. And I certainly feel more balanced than I have in the past – either in good times or in bad. Because making active choices means consciousness. It means refusing to wait passively for fate or an intemperate god to put up a roadblock or toss you a bone.

And what I have discovered is that all of my choices fall under the umbrella of the big question I ask myself every morning when I wake up.

Which is, “Am I going to keep lying here or am I going to get up and participate?”

Mary Oliver ends one of her famous poems like this:

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder

If I have made of my life something particular, and real

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened

Or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

So for me, the choice – the big choice – is always whether to continue lying on that bed or to get up and walk out the door. To be a part of the world and not just a visitor.

So far, the decision has been easy. Easier than I would have thought.

Brett Paesel is the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller Mommies Who Drink and the blog Last of the Bohemians. Her work has appeared in numerous national publications including the New York Times and Salon. She also writes for television.

Note: This post first appeared on Last of the Bohemians and is republished with permission.

All the time?

I once heard a story about a woman who met with the Dalai Lama and confided that she was deeply sad about not having children. He listened intently then gently responded: “All the time?

This exchange came back to me in recent days as I continue to navigate one of my tougher stretches in Plan B Nation. The challenge of finding a new home, an unsettled work life, summer heat – such things have me swamped in discouragement, uncertainty, and stress.

That’s why I’ve been re-upping my efforts to Take in the Good – to bring a focused attention to all that is going right. This is a very different thing from denying life’s very real problems. The lemons are definitely still there. But so is the lemonade.

A few nights back, I visited a local swimming hole with my friend Becky, after which we  headed off for dinner at Ashfield’s Country Pie. I’d been hearing about this place for ages and was eager to try the pizza, but the hour-plus wait time quickly changed our plans. Grinders would be just 20 minutes. We opted for those instead. From a stash of games, I picked up a Chinese checkers board. Once we figured out how to play, we whiled away the time while waiting, and I now remember that interlude as the best part of the evening.

This morning, I once again felt the weight of the world descending, so I jumped in my car and made my way to the dreamy Montague Bookmill. That’s where I am right now, camped out at the Lady Killigrew Cafe with a bagel and coffee, listening to the rushing water below from my corner window seat.  Yes, there are things in my life that are hard, but this is also true.

There’s a reason to think this way. Focusing on the good things in life is a first-step towards correcting for the brain’s “negativity bias,” which causes us to react more strongly to a negative stimulus than to an equally strong positive one, says neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain and Just One Thing. While this bias had its evolutionary uses – it kept our ancestors from getting eaten – it also explains why we so often make ourselves needlessly unhappy by endlessly replaying our fears and failures and disregarding successes.

The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones, is how Hanson puts it. That’s why it’s so important to do our best to take in the good things that happen. “By tilting toward the good – toward that which brings more happiness and benefit to oneself and others – you merely level the playing field,” Hanson writes in Just One Thing, which includes 52 practices for enhancing well-being by changing the brain. (There’s a name for this: “experience-dependent neuroplasticity.”)

Lately, I’ve been returning to the popular Three Good Things practice – taking time at the end of each day to write down three positive experiences from the past 24 hours. Over the years that I’ve played with this exercise, I’ve had mixed results. There are times it’s left me cold and seemed like a waste of time. But these days, it feels helpful so I’m sticking with it for now. That’s the great thing about a toolkit. It gives you choices.

When I started this blog, I was committed to being honest and authentic, but the more I look at my experience, the harder it is to grasp. Within a single experience, there are many truths: Yes, life is hard right now — but not all the time.

Travels in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessons

[Bint.3♥♪♫]

Last month—April 10, to be exact—marked the third anniversary of my exit from the salaried workforce and my entry into what I’ve taken to calling Plan B Nation. After four-plus years at Harvard Law School, where I’d handled speeches and other behind-the-scenes writing for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan, she decamped for Washington, D.C., and I decamped for parts unknown at the peak of the Great Recession.

It was, to put it diplomatically, not an easy time. The economy was in free fall, plus I had no idea what to do next. Which maybe wasn’t such a bad thing because, had I known what I wanted to do, I likely couldn’t have done it. (Did I mention the Great Recession?) Floundering in spring 2009 put me in excellent company. Yes, I was freaked out and unemployed, but I certainly wasn’t alone.

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the road I’ve traveled since those anxiety-ridden days and feeling a lot of compassion for the me who so stolidly trudged through them. I’ve also been thinking about what I’ve learned and what might be worth sharing. Here are five of the biggest lessons that I still carry with me.

1.  Transitions take a long time.  

I’ve written about this before, and it’s a really important point.  In New Pas­sages, best­selling author Gail Sheehy ball­parks two years as the min­i­mum time needed to sta­bi­lize fol­low­ing a lay­off or other “life accident.”  Five to seven years is common.  A related point: Transitions tend to meander—to be less like ladders and more like the classic labyrinth, where you wind your way slowly towards the center, almost arrive, and then suddenly find yourself on the outer rim, and then, just as unpredictably, back at the center again. I often find it helpful to remind myself that this is just the nature of the beast.     

2.  Sometimes the grass is greener because it’s greener.  

I put off leaving the Boston area for more than a year on the theory that wherever you go, there you are. Could moving to another place really make me happier? I’m happy to say that the answer is an unequivocal Yes. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that moving to an area that I love is probably the single most important step I’ve taken to move my life forward.  In particular, moving to a place where I have a strong network of friends has made everything far easier—as well as a lot more fun.

3.  If you don’t know what to do for sure, start moving anyway.

Transitions, by their nature, generally involve a temporary loss of clear inner direction.  That was certainly the case for me: I was searching without really knowing what I was looking for (which, not surprisingly, made it really hard to find).

Looking back, one of the most useful things I did during this time was to take action even if nothing felt quite right—to experiment, try things out. That’s how I came (lackadaisically, glumly) to write my very first personal essay—which led to a blog on Huffington Post, which led to writing for Salon, which led to this blog, which led to writing for SecondAct (including Notes from Plan B Nation, my new monthly column), Psychology Today, and a bunch of other stuff, which, remarkably enough, actually does feel right and for which I feel really grateful.

And you don’t need to take my word for it: I’ve since come across similar advice in books by career guru Barbara Sher and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. “You won’t encounter accidental good fortune—you won’t stumble on opportunities that rocket your career forward—if you’re lying in bed,” Hoffman writes in The Start-Up of You. “When you do something you stir the pot and introduce the possibility that seemingly random ideas, people, and places will collide and form new combinations and opportunities.” I couldn’t agree more.

4.  Be kind to yourself.

We’ve all heard a lot about mindfulness by now, but this quality doesn’t really get you very far unless it’s paired with self-compassion. Psychology professor Kristin Neff is a pioneering researcher on this topic, and her book Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind is geared to a popular audience and provides an excellent roadmap for further exploration.

5.  Let yourself be surprised.

The biggest difference between lucky and unlucky people may be that lucky people are open to seeing the unexpected. (For more on this, check out this reported research.)  Expanding your peripheral vision can do a lot to expand your opportunities.  I’ve found it to be useful—as well as fun—to consciously expect the unexpected. (Most recent example: I’m about to go off to look at a potential new home that I discovered last night on Facebook.)

Strangely enough, my Plan B Nation life has turned out to suit me far better than the life I had before. I’m finally doing work that feels both meaningful and creative. I have a great community in a place where I love living. The road I’ve traveled to get here was pretty remarkably hard, but that doesn’t tell me I did something wrong. It simply tells me that I’m human.

When goals collide

scream and shout

A friend’s two-year-old once pitched a tantrum on a stairway landing between two floors of the family home.

What provoked the meltdown? Once the furious howls subsided, he choked out the following explanation: He wanted to be upstairs with his dad and downstairs with his mom. He wanted both, at the same time. He didn’t want to choose.

I don’t know about you, but I can really relate. Especially, during the past few weeks, as I’ve gotten increasingly busy.  At any given moment, I’m conflicted about what I should be doing—and doing next. There are so many things that need to be done, all vying for my attention.

Such conflicts are especially common in times of transition, at least that’s true for me. Right now, I’m juggling freelance writing with blogging, leading a writing workshop for foster kids, and looking for more paying work. I’m also trying to organize my home—a task that’s especially pressing since my lease is up in a couple of months, at which point I’ll need to move. (Speaking of which, I’ll also need to find another place to live.) Also: resolve legal matters relating to the Plan B Nation trademark, prepare my 2011 taxes, help out a friend with cat care, and pack for a trip to Boston. Plus: Be happier!

Not surprisingly, such internal conflicts are fertile breeding grounds for dissatisfaction. In her mega-bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert notes that Rumi once advised his students to write down the three things they most want in life.  If any item clashed with another, he warned them, they were destined for unhappiness.

But while this may be a sound observation, it doesn’t tell us how to deal with such conflicts when they arise in the course of daily life.  How do we best move forward while engaged in an internal tug of war?

While I don’t have a magic bullet (sorry!), I do have a few strategies that have helped me in the past, and to which I’m now resorting.  As is so often the case with this blog, I’m sharing what I need to remember.

1. There’s no “right” decision

Consider the situation. Decide on next steps. Once you’ve made an informed decision, do your best to ignore that voice that’s second-guessing you. That nagging sense that whatever you’re doing isn’t the “right” thing? It’s just not true.

2. Keep moving forwards

Some years back, at a similar point of overwhelm, I remarked to a wildly efficient friend that I was tempted to give in and simply do nothing at all.  He gave me a horrified look: “No, no,” he said. “That way lies madness!”  Which made me laugh, which is always a good thing. And besides, the point’s a good one.  A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, as the old saying goes.  For me, tracking progress is an essential strategy here.

3. Exercise

Sadly, I’m not one of those people who enjoys the actual experience of exercise, so I often let this one slide.  That being said, I always feel so much better after I’ve gotten moving that I’m determined to do better in making it a regular part of my life. In the meantime, as they say in 12-step programs: “Take my advice. I’m not using it.”

4. Say No

This is no time to add to your to-do list. Be ruthless (or as ruthless as you can be) about saying No. Need help? Read this.

5. Self-compassion

Simply put, give yourself a break. Recent research suggests that self-compassion is more effective than self-esteem in fostering contentment. Recognize that you’re in a tough situation and doing the best you can.  If you need some help in figuring out how to go about this, Buddhist teacher and psychologist Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance is a great starting point.

As I look ahead to the rest of the day, I still have that anxious feeling. Then I remind myself I’ve written this post. And that’s, at least, a start.

Awakening Joy in Plan B Nation

Joyful Runway

Much has been written about the psychological costs of job loss and other fall-out of the Great Recession, but far less ink has been spilled over how we can best address them.

“The worst things in life start showing up when people experience extended unemployment,” asserts Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton in his chilling manifesto The Coming Jobs War, which paints a dire picture of a global job shortage. “Those wounded will probably never fully recover.”

In a similar vein, Atlantic journalist Don Peck cites a troubling litany of consequences stemming from long-term joblessness, including “growing isolation, warping of family dynamics, and a slow separation from mainstream society,” as he further details in Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It.

My reaction to such observations is mixed.

On the one hand, I welcome the acknowledgment that the Great Recession has exerted unprecedented stress on millions of Americans. It strikes me as a much-needed antidote to the view that the jobless, foreclosed-upons, and other casualties of these new hard times just need to buck up, to opt for the sort of relentless cheer skewered by cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.

On the other hand, it strikes me as unnecessarily disempowering to simply give in, to believe that there’s nothing we can do to change our relationship to the bad things that come our way.

It’s in this spirit that I’m embarking on meditation teacher James Baraz’s 10-month online class Awakening Joy. I first heard about the program from some like-minded friends (read: friends not prone to the aforementioned relentless positive thinking) and decided to give it a try. My initial skepticism largely faded when I learned that no one is turned away for financial reasons. (I myself opted to pay a small fraction of the total cost.)

Baraz—a founding teacher at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California—draws heavily on the Buddhist tradition, but as he makes clear in the first class, the program is in no way limited to any particular religious faith.

So is it possible to “awaken joy” when we’re facing huge challenges?  Baraz says Yes. Where his approach differs significantly from many other proponents of positive thinking is that he—like the Buddha—is focused on the practical strategies that allow us to do this.  Rather than saying  “just do it,” his focus is on how to do it.

The first step? Simply cultivating the intention to be happy. To this end, Baraz and his teaching team provide a number of exercises and practices, including the act of reminding ourselves again and again of our intention. Another suggestion: Making a conscious decision to recognize and relish moments of well-being. (Positive psychology acolytes refer to this as “savoring.”) The theory is that where we choose to place our mind goes far to  determine how happy we are.

“More than 2,000 people have tested it, so it’s not some airy-fairy idea,” Baraz said of the class, in a 2008 O magazine interview. “I’ve learned that it’s possible to change, no matter what your history or the limiting beliefs you’ve held on to. If you have the intention to be happy and you do the practices, if you give it your best shot and are very patient, it works.”

That being said, the Buddha told his students to not take anything on faith—rather to “see for yourself.” That’s exactly what I’ll be doing, and I’m curious to explore what happens. Interested in joining me? Click here for sign-up information.

Coming home to contentment: 3 simple steps

This afternoon, my mind took a sudden wrong turn, and before I knew it, I was lost in the story of Why Things Should Be Different.

It was such a familiar experience that at first I barely noticed. Then, as the thoughts kept coming like cars in a freeway pile-up, I finally managed to catch myself—to take a step back from my spinning mind and tap into a deeper well.

The ability to move between these two states of being—wishing things were different and being with them as they are—is hugely important in Plan B Nation. With so many things beyond our control—jobs, the economy, other people—it’s easy and natural to start feeling embattled and exhausted.

But while it may be easy and natural, it’s also decidedly not helpful.  In the words of Buddhist teacher Cheri Huber, “[T]he alternate reality in which everything is exactly as you think it should be exists only in your mind, and it exists primarily to torture you.”

Over the years, I’ve experimented with various ways of working with this challenging state of mind (with which, in fairness, I was well-acquainted long before my Plan B Nation foray).  What’s worked best for me can be summed up in the following three simple steps:

1. Stop

As soon as I realize that my mind is spinning an unwelcome storyline, I try to simply stop. Often, that’s easier said than done, so it’s good to have strategies.

One of my favorites comes from Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein, whom I once heard describe his own tactic for dealing with intrusive thoughts. As soon as he realizes what’s happening, Goldstein said he thinks: “Dead End.” For some reason, this sort of cracked me up, and probably in part because of that, it’s been a useful technique.

Another strategy—also from Goldstein—is identifying the mind’s favorite stories and dubbing them The Greatest Hits as in “Oh! There it is again! My-father-never-really-loved me! Greatest Hit #5!” Again, this probably works in part because it’s sort of funny.  It’s hard to take your own mind’s Top Forty entirely seriously.

 2.   Make a different choice

I often think of my mind as making “moves”—from point A to point B to point C, and so on. Just as we watch our footing when crossing a river using stepping stones, we need to be attentive to where we place our minds.

That being said, figuring out what works for us is a very personal thing. The field of cognitive-behavioral therapy offers a slew of exercises designed to change the way we feel by changing the way we think. But for all the research proving the effectiveness of these techniques, they’ve never worked so well for me. Whether that’s because I haven’t stuck with them long enough or because (as I suspect) it’s simply not my way, I can’t say for sure. All I can say is that they haven’t helped much while other things have.

Another popular antidote—especially if you spend any time hanging out with Buddhists—is lovingkindness or “metta” meditation.  But again, while I’ve spent a good bit of time working with this practice, it’s never really clicked for me in the way it has for friends.

What does work for me—and it’s been a process of trial and error—is perhaps best summed up in the words of the Late Medieval Catholic monk Thomas à Kempis: “Those things that cause you inward peace, think upon deeply.”

I love this quote. Simply repeating it to myself often helps to steer me back to a state of calm wonder. I also like reflecting on the question of what brings me inward peace. It varies from week to week, and sometimes it’s surprising. A promising new friendship. Stringing small white lights around my living room windows. My friend Allegra’s spiritually infused Innovation Abbey consulting firm (with which I’m honored to be affiliated.) These are a few of the things that have recently lifted my spirits.

3. Do it

Once you feel a shift, let yourself relax into it.  Stay with it for a while. Think about how you might continue to cultivate this way of being.

Buddhism talks of the Blessed Abodes—also known as the brahma viharas—states of mind that lead to love and awareness and away from suffering. These, according to dharma teachings, are our true home.  While it doesn’t always feel this way, I believe this is true. And I know that my life is always better when I remember the way back.