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.