Why Am I So Cranky?

Have you noticed that - no matter how organized you are, no matter how far in advance you plan and do and prepare, and even if you don't participate in the religious and cultural customs and rituals of winter in the Northern Hemisphere - this time of year makes you cranky? Out of sorts? Stressed?
 
There are lots of reasons why you might feel this way – everything from being overwhelmed by holiday activity to something as serious as the onset of seasonal affective disorder. Although you can find plenty of advice on how to cope with the stress of the holidays, and you can buy light boxes to fool your brain into thinking it is still midsummer, I want to suggest an alternative, one that moves past Surface Mind solutions and addresses the needs of your Deeper Mind.*
 
When you live in a temperate climate, Deeper Mind responds to seasonal changes in ways that are easy for Surface Mind to ignore or override, even when doing so leaves you with a feeling of being out of step and out of sorts. Deeper Mind speaks in images, in symbols and signs, in dreams and in synchronistic “coincidences.” Tune in to that language and you will learn how to work with the seasons, all year round.
 
We respond to the change of seasons in ways that are rooted in our evolutionary past, when everyone (except babes in arms) contributed to meeting the needs for food, shelter, clothing, water, sleep, and play. Our ancestors’ brains evolved, and were trained as they grew from child to adult, to respond without conscious effort to seasonal changes. That included changes in the level of activity needed to find, grow, preserve, and store food; the need for more or less shelter and warmth; the need to make or mend clothing and footwear.
 
In Winter, the time of darkness and cold, our Deeper Mind craves rest. We both want and need longer periods of sleep, quiet conversations, more time to ponder and process and plan and, yes, play. Contemporary culture stands in clear opposition to this craving: we are surrounded by bright lights, noisy crowds, and insistent demands that we go out – out of our safe, warm places and into the cold and the dark. With Surface Mind handing us a list of all the things we should be doing while Deeper Mind is saying, "Stay in where it’s warm, rest, reflect, and dream. . . “ it’s no surprise we feel cranky.
 
So give yourself a break. Literally. Take some time each day to meditate or just sit quietly. Put on music that soothes you, and tell Surface Mind to pipe down. Give yourself permission to turn down party invitations in favor of staying home, or take a stay-cation. Be conscious of how fulfilling work or family obligations might contribute to your feeling less than optimal. You don’t need to renege on all of your obligations, just build in some alone time, some play, or some other way to bring yourself back into balance. 

Then, if you wish, make some use of this season of darkness and rest.

Winter is the best time to do the thoughtful, inner work related to deep or large change. (The custom of "New Year's Resolutions" is a distorted remnant of this.) If you want to develop a new line of business or research, start a new career, or find a new job, Winter is the optimal time for laying the groundwork of research and planning.

And then, as the days begin to get noticeably longer, and as Deeper Mind stirs, gently and slowly, with a longing for sunshine and the out of doors, you’ll be ready. Spring - the time for moving from planning to planting, for taking the first small steps to making what you dreamed of in Winter a reality - is just around the next turn of the year. 
 
Happy New Year to you and yours!
 
*Your Deeper Mind is variously called the unconscious, the subconscious, the intuitive brain, and the primitive brain. Deeper Mind takes care of things like breathing, digestion, body temperature, and other body functions. Deeper Mind generates your experience of the world by processing and filtering the information coming in through your senses. Deeper Mind responds to changes in your environment in ways that Surface Mind pays little attention to. The feelings you experience – the sensations in your body and the emotions that arise as you interpret those sensations – are a product of Deeper Mind. They are also messages from Deeper Mind that, as you attend and respond to them, can bring you into greater harmony and ease in your life.

Photo by Axel Antas for UnSplash

Photo by Axel Antas for UnSplash

When Was the Last Time You Just Played?

I recently rediscovered the joys of coloring books! And color pencils! And color pens! All the coloring things! Coloring has become my new favorite way to get my brain to relax and focus at the same time. It’s how I play, throughout the day.

Do you remember what it was like when you played as a child? Children at play, more often than not are in the much-touted “zone,” where time disappears, attention is relaxed and focused, and nothing else matters except the matter at hand. Even as an adult, you can use play to reach that state on a regular basis. Practice it enough, and you’ll find it easier to reach when you are not playing – when you are “working,” for example.

Here’s what makes for optimum workday playtime:

  • Do something that requires the use of your body – hands, feet, arms, legs, torso. Note: using your fingers on a keyboard, phone, or video game controller does not count.
  • Do something that requires paying attention to music, rhythm, images, pictures, or symbols. For most of us, activities that involve words or numbers lead to way too much of the kind of thinking that you are trying to escape for a short time
  • Do something that you can pick up and put down easily after 10 or 15 minutes. 

Coloring works for me because I’m not so great at drawing, but I love to play with color. Other ways I play are: practicing my drumming, dancing around my office to an inspiring bit of music, working on a big jigsaw puzzle, and taking a walk in the park without plugging into my iPod, so that I can listen for birdsong and other nature sounds.

When I take a play break, I come back to my work refreshed, often with more energy and new ideas. Yep, it is better than coffee!

Imagine how much more we could accomplish if every workplace had a playroom, full of art supplies and coloring books and building blocks and jigsaw puzzles and puppet theaters and sand boxes. (OK, that last one might be a bit messy, but it sure would be fun!)

How do you play? What do you want in your workplace playroom?

It's That Time of Year

 

A couple of months ago, a successful business owner told me that Autumn is a time when she starts to question herself about why she is in business, and why she is doing the things she is doing. She said, “I have a hard time thinking strategically” in this season of the year.

There are lots of seemingly obvious reasons why we might feel this way in Autumn – everything from feeling overwhelmed by holiday planning to something as serious as the onset seasonal affective disorder. Although you can find plenty of advice on how to cope with the stress of the holidays, and you can buy light boxes to fool your brain into thinking it is still midsummer, I want to suggest an alternative, one that moves past Surface Mind solutions and addresses the needs of your Deeper Mind.*

When you live in a temperate climate, Deeper Mind responds to seasonal changes in ways that are easy for Surface Mind to ignore or override, even when doing so leaves with a feeling of being out of step and out of sorts. Deeper Mind speaks in images, in symbols and signs, in dreams and in synchronistic “coincidences.” Tune in to that language and you will learn how to work with the seasons, all year round.

We respond to the change of seasons in ways that are rooted in our evolutionary past, when everyone (except babes in arms) contributed to meeting the needs for food, shelter, clothing, water, sleep, and play. Our ancestors’ brains evolved, and were trained as they grew from child to adult, to respond without conscious effort to seasonal changes. That included changes in the level of activity needed to find, grow, preserve, and store food; the need for more or less shelter and warmth; the need to make or mend clothing and footwear.

It also included meeting the need for play of all kinds – music, singing, dancing, games, and the intimate play of sex. To work well, our brains need the relaxation and regeneration that play provides.

Here are some ways that Deeper Mind responds to the seasons:

The warm and sunny Summer months of the year – generally from June through mid-September in the Northern Hemisphere – are the time for peak activity. Deeper Mind longs to be outside, to be moving and sweating and productive. This time of year is best for working hard and being busy, doing the things that will pay off in future. Think of what it took to grow and gather food in the time before fertilizers, weed killers, and large-scale irrigation. The long hours of daylight also allow plenty of time for play. Summer is the perfect time for backyard gatherings; for outdoor fun; and for enjoying the evenings' cool breezes while gazing at the night sky.

Autumn - from mid-September until early November – is the time for harvesting and storing food. We begin to wind down, to slow down, to spend more time indoors. This is a great time to celebrate all of our harvests - our achievements and successes. Look back, assess, organize files and information, and do “maintenance” activities that you’ve put off all summer. Playtime might include bonfire gatherings and harvest festivals.

In Winter, the time of darkness and cold, our Deeper Mind craves rest. We both want and need longer periods of sleep, quiet conversations, more time to ponder and process and plan and, yes, play. Winter is the best time to be at home; to do the thoughtful, inner work related to deep or large change. (The custom of "New Year's Resolutions" is a distorted remnant of this.) If you want to develop a new line of business, start a new career, or find a new job, Winter is the optimal time for laying the groundwork of research and planning.

As the days begin to get noticeably longer in Spring – generally beginning around mid-February in the Northern Hemisphere – Deeper Mind stirs, gently and slowly, with a longing for sunshine and the out of doors. This is the time for moving from planning to planting, to take the first small steps to making what you dreamed of in Winter a reality. Spring emerges in buds and flowers, in newborn animals, in the nests of birds. "Spring cleaning" our living and working spaces mirrors the activity of the natural world. Playtime includes a desire for novelty and exploration - we seek out what's new, what's fresh, what refreshes. Go fly a kite!

Ah yes, in an ideal world we’d all work this way. Sadly, our culture, at times, gets it entirely backward. We take vacations from work and “take it easy” in the summer, and in Winter we travel, string up lights to banish the darkness, and throw parties. In between, in Autumn and Spring, we cram in as much “work” as we possibly can, because everyone knows nothing gets done in the Summer, and the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is a waste as well.

This puts us at odds with what Deeper Mind desires, and that conflict is a source of unease and disease – stress and its attendant ills. Of course, you can’t change the culture in which you live and work overnight. What you can do is pay attention to the signals from your Deeper Mind, and find ways to acknowledge and respond to those signals. Here are some ideas:

When you notice your mood and your thoughts shifting with the seasons, shift with it rather than fighting it. This is a bit easier in Autumn, Spring, and Summer when our cultural celebrations are better attuned to the energies of the season. You'll likely find that simply paying attention to how  the time of year is reflected in your desires and your choices is enough to feel yourself in clearer harmony with the seasons. 

Winter is more of a challenge. Give yourself permission to turn down party invitations in favor of staying home in December, or take a stay-cation in January and spend the time focusing on what you will plant for yourself come Spring. Be conscious of how fulfilling work or family obligations might contribute to your feeling less than optimal. You don’t need to renege on all of your obligations, just build in some alone time, some play, or some other way to bring yourself back into balance.

Right now, take a look at your personal and business calendar and (if you keep them) to-do lists from the previous 12 months.

·       When were you most active? Least active?

·       What changes could you make to bring your calendar more in line with the seasons? What tasks or activities could you have successfully moved from Winter or Fall to Summer or Spring?

Here are some ideas for bringing your life into greater harmony with the seasons:

·       Set aside a period in the Winter for doing nothing but planning. If you can, do this for at least a week.

·       Set aside a few days in August to look at what you have accomplished, and what remains to be done before the end of the year. August and September are a great time to delete or archive old emails and computer files, clean out paper files, and generally make room for this year’s “harvest.”

·       Set aside a few days in late November to clean out what you don’t need, and “store up” what you need for the Winter. Are there people you want to reach out to, financial arrangements to make?

Change your surroundings to reflect the season.

·       Start by checking in with your Deeper Mind by “listening” to the sensations in your body, and paying attention to images and objects that catch your attention or that appear in your dreams.

·       Using your Deeper Mind connections, develop and surround yourself with your own set of images, symbols, colors, sounds, and smells for each season. Don’t rely on Pottery Barn or Bed, Bath, and Beyond to tell you how to decorate – find your own symbolic language for the seasons. No one but you gets to decide whether Spring is pastels and painted eggs, or a dozen shades of green and a basket of pea pods, or whatever else strikes your fancy. (For me, the time around the Winter Solstice is not red-and-green, it is deep midnight blue, white, and silver and it smells like juniper and wood smoke.)

Hold all of these suggestions lightly, use what appeals to you and leave the rest, and no matter what, remember to play!

*Your Deeper Mind is variously called the unconscious, the subconscious, the intuitive brain, and the primitive brain. Deeper Mind takes care of things like breathing, digestion, body temperature, and other body functions. Deeper Mind generates your experience of the world by processing and filtering the information coming in through your senses. Deeper Mind responds to changes in your environment in ways that Surface Mind pays little attention to. The feelings you experience – the sensations in your body and the emotions that arise as you interpret those sensations – are a product of Deeper Mind. They are also messages from Deeper Mind that, as you attend and respond to them, can bring you into greater harmony and ease in your life.

 

Things I Do To Keep My Cool While Bicycling in Traffic

Things I do to keep my cool when biking in traffic:
1. When a driver honks at me, I smile and wave as if they are someone I know just saying "Hello." I love the puzzled looks I get.
2. When a driver does something well (or something kind) - stays behind me until it is safe to pass, passes me with at least 3 feet between their rearview mirror and my handlebars, slows down to let me in when I signal a lane change, etc. - I let myself really feel the appreciation and wave my "thank you" to them. 
3. When a driver does something that threatens my life or safety, I wait for the adrenaline rush to wear off (and sometimes I say a few choice words out loud to help with that) and then breathe a blessing: "May you get where you are going efficiently and safely." (I do this when I drive, too.)

When possible I ask, directly, for what I want.  While sitting at intersections waiting for the light to change, I've asked the driver next to me, "OK if I move in front of you until I get around that delivery truck parked in the bike lane?" I've never had a driver say no.

And sometimes I just have to laugh. For example, once I was nearly sideswiped while being passed by a woman driving a Smartcar with a vanity license plate that said "GoGreen." I guess I was a bit too green for her at that moment. 

What do you do to keep your cool when working under pressure?

Getting Honest About Emotions

 

You can find loads of books and articles about how to “handle” emotions in the workplace. Most of them are pretty useless, because they are based on the unquestioned premise that to succeed, and to lead, we are required to pretend we don’t have emotions at work.

I have long known this to be a bad way to deal with emotions in the work place. And now I have some science to back me up.

If I ever get back to Finland, I’m going to look up Lauri Nummenmaa just to shake her hand and thank her for doing the work she does. Dr. Nummenmaa is a neuroscientist who does research at Aalto University, and she and her collaborators use brain imaging tools to figure out what happens when we experience emotion. 

Two of her recent papers speak directly to this issue of emotions and the futility of pretending we don’t have them. In case you want to check them out yourself, here are the titles and URLs: 

“Bodily maps of emotions”

http://www.pnas.org/content/111/2/646.full.pdf

“Emotions promote social interaction by synchronizing brain activity across individuals.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/05/22/1206095109.full.pdf

Dr. Nummenmaa and her research colleagues figured out a way to measure something that many who work in behavior and psychology have know for a long time: that what we call “emotions” are sets or packages of bodily sensations that we have learned to label anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and so on.

You can‘t make yourself not have emotions, they just show up, like the tide. And, like the tide, the ebb and flow, wax and wane. And although we think we can hide our emotions from those around us, we give ourselves away in myriad ways, from small changes in our facial expression or tone of voice, to changes in the way we smell.

Dr. Nummenmaa also found that when people sharing an emotional state, their brain activity synchronizes in a way that enhances our ability to predict and understand each other’s actions. By attempting to suppress our emotions in the workplace out of some belief that having emotions at work is “inappropriate,” we are cutting ourselves off from one of the ways our brains make it easier for us to get along and work together.

Since you can’t avoid having emotions, ask yourself, what are you doing with them? Are you storing them up? Building a case out of them? Making yourself sick pretending you don‘t have them? Or are you feeling them, letting them move through you, and speaking your mind when necessary, to get over yourself?

I used to brag that I had a strong temper but a long fuse. What was really going on is that I would suppress anger so quickly I wasn’t even aware of it until much later when it emerged rather explosively – or it oozed out indirectly, as gossip, or nagging, or wanting to avoid someone. I eventually learned that the most frequent sensation I feel when I get angry is tightness in my chest and stomach. I’ve learned that when I notice that sensation, I need to check in to find out what I’m making myself angry about, and then deal with it in a way that I get over being angry, rather than just squelching it.

The challenge is that we are all taught, from the time we are small children, to suppress the emotions our cultures regard as “negative” – particularly anger and its derivatives such as frustration, fear, and sadness or its milder cousin, disappointment. We also learn to keep a lid on our joy, in part because the physical sensations that accompany anger (which we learn to suppress and become uncomfortable around) are similar to those that we feel when we are joyful.

Of course as little, immature human beings we do have a lot to learn how to coexist with other little (and big) human beings. We had to learn how to live with our emotions without causing harm to others or ourselves. 

Now, as healthy adults, we are capable of fully experiencing and expressing our emotions without causing damage, physical or otherwise, to ourselves and others. To do that, we have to unlearn what we learned as kids.

We have to be willing to fully experience our emotions, acknowledge and take responsibility for them as self-generated, and express our emotions in ways that lets them move up and out, rather than hanging on to them.

To tell the truth about emotions, to fully express them, we have to start by noticing we have them. We have to be willing to own them as ours, and to express them in the moment, in ways that are congruent with the power of the emotion in the moment.

With practice, you can get so good at this that, most of the time, you’ll be able to notice, express, and get over emotions when they are still small, before they pile up and build up to explosive levels. Not just anger, sadness, and fear but also happiness, joy, and appreciation.

I got a lot of help in learning how to do this from Brad Blanton, author of Radical Honesty and Practicing Radical Honesty and from my amazing life coach and co-author of The Book of How, Raven Dana. Read those books. Do the practices.

Learn how to express your emotions, at work and everywhere else you go. That’s how to manage emotions.

 

You Can't Police Your Own Thoughts

Beware of equating "mindfulness" with "policing your own thoughts." Being mindful is simple and straightforward - as one of my mentors is fond of saying, being mindful is about becoming as dumb as a stick. You just notice. Notice what you think, notice what you feel in your body, notice what is going on around you. Not easy to do when your inner chatterbox is busy tossing judgments, assessments and interpretations around like the expert juggler s/he is. And yet it is possible to just notice that, too.  Notice how quickly you leap to conclusions, make assumptions, issue verdicts, pile up adjectives.

Policing and controlling your own thoughts is an exercise in futility. The best you can hope for is to identify the patterns of thought and behavior that don’t serve you, interrupt those pattern, and choose  to do something else. If you do that often enough, eventually your thoughts will change. It works, it just takes practice.

The key, of course, is you have to notice the patterns before you can interrupt them, which brings you right back to mindfulness – to noticing.