How to get out of bed

Day 7

Morn­ings have been hard for me lately. I’m not exactly sure why. My life hasn’t really changed much. The same things are dif­fi­cult. The same things are good. If any­thing, some of the good things have got­ten a bit more good. So why have I been wak­ing up in a state of despon­dent gloom? And, more to the point, what can I do to make things a lit­tle bit lighter?

Mulling over these ques­tions the last few days, it hit me that I’d failed to note per­haps the most salient clue: The fact that, how­ever I feel, I am indeed get­ting up!

What is it, I won­dered, that gets me mov­ing on days I could eas­ily bur­row in? Could the answer be to fig­ure that out—and then do more of it?

In that spirit, I asked myself: “Self? What gets you out of bed on those morn­ings when noth­ing seems worth the effort?”

The answer came imme­di­ately. “I get up for the coffee.”

A year or so back, I received a fancy cof­fee maker as a gift, and it’s this primo coffee—not just any coffee—that’s been mak­ing all the dif­fer­ence. Some­times I con­tem­plate return­ing to my pre­vi­ous caf­feine habits. The cap­sules for the new machine are pricey, and I’m try­ing to con­serve. But for now, the expense is worth it. The cof­fee is some­thing I look for­ward to, and that means a lot.

And right then, it hit me. I was onto some­thing. This idea of “look­ing for­ward to”—what role did it have in my life? It occurred to me that per­haps I’ve grown looking-forward-to deprived.

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Life in Plan B Nation tends to be focused on get­ting things done, on keep­ing the nose to the prover­bial grind­stone, on being respon­si­ble, plug­ging ahead, and keep­ing emo­tions in check. It’s easy to feel that we don’t deserve spe­cial rewards and treats—not when we’re so far behind where think we ought to be.

The prob­lem with this approach: We. Get. Tired. The fact that suc­cess is in short sup­ply doesn’t mean we haven’t been work­ing, often way harder than we did when our careers were thriving.

Which got me to think­ing about Bud­dhist teacher Cheri Huber’s spot-on descrip­tion of how exact­ing we tend to be with ourselves—and because it’s so great and because I have the book right here, I might as well share it with you:

You go along in life and you do what you’re sup­posed to do. And every time you do some­thing you’re sup­posed to do, you put a dol­lar in the bank. Okay. Every time you’re kind, patient, or you do the thing you’re sup­posed to do—whatever it is (you know what those things are for your)—every time you put a dol­lar in the bank, a dol­lar in the bank, a dol­lar in the bank .…

Finally, you feel like you’re just kind of worn out. You feel like you need a lit­tle plea­sure in your life, a lit­tle time on the beach or some­thing. And so you think “I’m going to go to the bank, and I’m going to take out some money, and I’m going to do some­thing nice for myself.”

So you go to the bank and you say, “Here I am. I want to take out some of the money I’ve saved so that I can do some­thing nice for myself.”

And the response is, “Oh no. You haven’t earned nearly enough to get any­thing for your­self. Oh, you have to work much harder—you have to put much, much more money in before you can get any­thing for yourself.”

And, of course, if this were First National you were deal­ing with, you would say, “No, this is not the way this is going to work. This is my money. You can’t tell me when and where and how I can spend it.” And yet, with this sys­tem of self-hate that’s exactly what’s going on!

She con­cludes: “THERE’S NO MYSTERY IN THIS FOLKS! … [T]he per­son at the bank DOES NOT LIKE YOU! *It’s impor­tant to get that*.… THIS PERSON IS NEVER GOING TO GIVE YOU A DIME! YOU WILL WORK YOURSELF TO DEATH, AND YOULL NEVER GET A THING FOR IT. IT IS REALLY IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND THAT!”

So.

Here is what I am going to do: First, I am going to incline my mind (as the Bud­dhists say) towards things on the hori­zon to which I’m look­ing for­ward. The work­shop for fos­ter kids that I’m co-facilitating. Watch­ing a TV show I refuse to name with my friend Wendy.  Hot­dogs and a movie at Pop­corn Noir in East­hamp­ton (not to be con­fused with East Hampton).

Next: I am going to give some thought to other things I might look for­ward to and how I can make them hap­pen. Tango lessons? A day trip? The specifics are up for grabs.  And while I don’t know what I’ll come up with, I look for­ward to find­ing out.

Note: The quoted pas­sage is taken from Cheri Huber’s There Is Noth­ing Wrong with You (Keep It Sim­ple Books, 1993). It also has pic­tures that will make you smile.

Preschool wisdom (or what a 3-year-old could teach Joan Didion)

By Day 2 of the Snow­to­ber power out­age, we were all feel­ing a lit­tle ragged, and appar­ently the three-year-old Bask­inette had taken note.

Amy Gut­man, lis­ten to me” she said author­i­ta­tively. “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”

It was close to the most bril­liant thing I’d ever heard, and I was a lit­tle bit stunned. Who are you and where did you come from? I remem­ber thinking.

As I later discovered—and if you have kids or teach them, you prob­a­bly already know this—the say­ing is a stan­dard part of the preschool reper­toire. But I instantly knew that it needed to be a stan­dard part of mine. (The 16-year-old Bask­inette kindly tran­scribed it, and it now has a promi­nent place on my refrigerator.)

Of course, there’s noth­ing new in the basic idea—we’ve all heard it zil­lions of times in zil­lions of dif­fer­ent forms: Want what you have. It is what it is. Take life on life’s terms. And my all-time favorite for­mu­la­tion from 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.”

More­over, such insights are backed up by hard data. Research sug­gests that peo­ple who want what they have are actu­ally hap­pier than oth­ers.

And yet—like so many obvi­ous truths—it’s one many of us seem to have a hard time grasp­ing. This crossed my mind the other day as I lis­tened to a friend angst­ing over a sin­gle less-than-perfect devel­op­ment in a pretty ter­rific life. I found myself thinking—in the nicest pos­si­ble way—“You really need to grow up.”

Now it’s just pos­si­ble there was a tiny bit of envy and resent­ment there. From where I sat—more than two years into a job search with its atten­dant finan­cial pressures—my friend’s wor­ries seemed pretty minor.

But I also think my reac­tion spoke to a larger point. Some­thing hap­pened to us here in the United States over the past few decades—at least to those of us who began with win­ning num­bers in life’s lot­tery: We started to believe that we were enti­tled to per­fect lives.

This thought came back to me again while read­ing Joan Didion’s mem­oir Blue Nights, which deals with the stun­ning after­math of her daugh­ter Quin­tana Roo’s death. There’s no doubt about it: Did­ion endured an unimag­in­ably painful stretch of loss, with her daughter’s death com­ing shortly after the death of her beloved hus­band, writer John Gre­gory Dunne (itself the sub­ject of her best-selling The Year of Mag­i­cal Think­ing). Still, for all the very real tragedy, I was jarred by her recur­ring refrain that this was never sup­posed to hap­pen.

Make no mis­take, Didion’s baf­fled out­rage isn’t lim­ited to the deaths of her hus­band and daughter—it’s pretty uni­ver­sal, extend­ing to the fact of her own aging, includ­ing a frus­trat­ing inabil­ity to con­tinue wear­ing (at age 75) her favorite red suede san­dals with four-inch heels. In Didion’s world­view, these things were (appar­ently) not sup­posed to hap­pen to some­one who could look back and write: “There had been cars, a swim­ming pool, a gar­den … There had been Eng­lish chintzes, chi­nois­erie toile. There had been a Bou­vier des Flan­dres motion­less on the stair.…”

In sum, Did­ion devotes her con­sid­er­able gifts to mar­veling over the shock­ing fact that she, like the rest of us, is vul­ner­a­ble to life.

What struck me as odd wasn’t the aware­ness itself but rather how it seemed to come as an unex­pected blow. It seemed so, well, child­like—this notion of a per­sonal exemp­tion, cou­pled with the implicit expec­ta­tion that we read­ers would share her aston­ish­ment and cha­grin. (Which may go to a sep­a­rate, if related, point. In her mes­mer­iz­ing piece on Did­ion in the cur­rent issue of “The Atlantic,” Caitlin Flana­gan quotes one critic describ­ing Did­ion and Dunne as hav­ing pos­sessed “a per­fectly com­ple­men­tary nar­cis­sis­tic per­son­al­ity dis­or­der that was shared beau­ti­fully between two people.”)

Tellingly, it’s a per­spec­tive that has long been mined for dark humor. “You know, funer­als always make me think about my own mor­tal­ity and how I’m actu­ally going to die some­day. Me, dead. Imag­ine that,” Elaine Benes mar­vels in one of my favorite “Sein­feld” episodes. More recently, Sarah Miller made the same point in her witty and insight­ful send-up of the New York Times’ much-ballyhooed mag­a­zine story about the dan­gers of yoga. “You can’t expect the Sort of Peo­ple Who Tend to Read The Times to freak out about Amber Alerts and Child Moles­ters,” she writes in “The Awl.” “About the only thing that will get upper-middle-class coast dwellers into a frenzy is the idea—the word ‘fact’ is so black and white, n’est-ce pas?—that Some Day They Are Going To Fuck­ing Die.”

Indeed.

At sev­eral points in Blue Nights, Did­ion seems to rec­og­nize she’s at risk of los­ing her read­ers. Her response is defi­ant. She resists the notion that she (with her 13 home tele­phones, none within reach when she took a fall) and her daugh­ter (with her 60 baby dresses) lived lives encased in priv­i­lege. “‘Priv­i­lege’ is a judg­ment. ‘Priv­i­lege’ is an opin­ion. ‘Priv­i­lege’ is an accu­sa­tion,” she writes.

But priv­i­lege is also some­thing else: An obser­va­tion, a state­ment of fact. And because we are all human and mor­tal, it is also always temporary.

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.