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 YOU’LL 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.