Finding Your Way to Happy Through Flow

7585962832_IMG_2415We are afraid

The thing is, most of us are afraid.

Afraid to put ourselves ‘out there.’

Afraid to make the invite.

Afraid to fail. Afraid to succeed.

Afraid not to be liked. Afraid to love.

Afraid to say, ‘yes.’ Afraid to say, ‘no.’

Afraid to show our hearts. Afraid to see ourselves in others.

Afraid to take the leap. Afraid to sit still.

Afraid to be different. Afraid to be normal.

Afraid to be boring. Afraid to stand out.

The Box

So, we nestle ourselves comfortably within the confines of the bell curve.

We strive for ‘acceptably normal.’ We strive to ‘fit in.’

So that we’ll belong. So that we’ll be loved.

But the problem is that the more we strive to fit into the curve, the more apathetic we become, the more bored we find ourselves, the more anxiety we develop,

and the less energy and dedication we spend on what truly matters.

The more we strive to belong to something external, the less we tune into ourselves and what brings our souls to life.

And what more is there? What are we waiting for?

Permission?

A roadmap?

Someone else to do it first?

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You are your best thing.

This moment you’re living right now is life.

If not now, when?

Too often, we conform to the vision of what we should be, instead of focusing on what fills us with joy, meaning, and purpose in our lives.

We deny ourselves the delight of play, creation, and curious exploration, trading authentic expression for certainty.

What if we pressed pause on fear, just for long enough to see it for what it is? To examine thoughtfully how it holds us back? What if we thanked it, as author Elizabeth Gilbert does when she begins any new creative project, and explained patiently that for this endeavour, its services aren’t required.

What if instead of pursuing success according to someone else’s definition and consistently measuring ours in relation to theirs, we redefined it for ourselves?

What if our focus shifted to finding deep fulfilment through the expression of our truest selves?

Now, for the million dollar question…

HOW?

How can I become more fulfilled and happy?

Mihaly Csiksentmihaly is a positive psychologist, speaker, and author has made it his life’s work to find out what makes people happy and deeply fulfilled. In his 2004 TED talk, Flow, The Secret to Happiness, he asserts the research-based conclusion that material goods do not ensure happiness, and that true happiness is found when one is in flow.

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In order to measure flow, Csiksentmihaly measured people’s moods in relation to subjective perception of their own skills and perceived challenge-level of a task. Individuals were asked to identify their emotions/task/whereabouts 10 separate times per day for a set period of time. Each individual had their own set point (or baseline for emotion/skill/challenge level). He identified that flow occurs when people feel highly challenged, while simultaneously believing that they have the skills to succeed in completing the challenging task. Boredom and apathy were the two emotions that were most detrimental to creating a state of flow. It’s very similar to Vygotsky’s learning theory of the Zone of Proximal Development.

 

So, how do you find your flow? How do you even know when you’re close?

Here are the 7 signs that you’re in flow: (paraphrased from TED2004):

  1. Complete focus and concentration on a task
  2. A sense of being outside of yourself, the world, and the everyday
  3. Clarity-you know where to go intuitively
  4. You know that even through an activity is difficult, your skills are adequate enough to complete the task (difficult but possible)
  5. A sense of serenity and growth, unencumbered by the ego
  6. Time disappears
  7. Intrinsic motivation-the activity itself is the reward

We all have that thing that puts us into flow. Flow is our soul’s connection to purpose and meaning. Flow is play.

Think of the child who weaves in and out of flow so effortlessly, without the promise of an end-product.

Flow is that perfect balance when challenges are higher than average, but so is the skill set. It’s where you feel the joy of innovation and creation, while experiencing deep connection to the world and your place in it.

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Maybe it’s been a while since you experienced it. Perhaps you’ve even convinced yourself that it’s a thing of the past.  Maybe you’re waiting for the perfect moment or a permission slip from the office…

Take the leap. Just for fun. Find and explore the thing that makes you feel alive and connected.

Allow it to dissolve time.

Let it carry you away.

It may not bring you financial wealth, but it will make your soul fuller.

 

 

Just do a little more of that thing.

And maybe when you’re ready, you’ll share it.

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So, I Threw A Spatula…

Just last week, in a fit of quiet rage and a heightened sense of perceived injustice, I hurled a spatula across my kitchen.

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I cannot convey to you, by the way, how hard that sentence was to admit, write and publish.

Anger’s not cute

Anger is not cute. Rage…even less so. It’s not an emotion many people, women specifically, proudly tout. Lack of control, specifically expressions of anger, seems to run counter to the current culture of mindfulness and increased emotional intelligence.

I admit, I’m not proud of throwing that spatula in fury. However, I choose to share my embarrassing outburst on social media because despite being one of the least favourite emotions, anger is a human one. It’s part of the colourful rainbow of sentiments that contributes to the privilege of being human. No one is exempt or immune. Nor, should we strive to be.

Nevertheless, we rarely see examples of healthy, thriving women in their anger. Somehow, anger doesn’t fall into the parameters of what society believes a woman should exude.

As Soman Chainani, acclaimed author and filmmaker, asserts, “Social media has made it so that we are constantly judging ourselves and others. If we’re not careful, our social media feeds become a torture device, an assault of beauty and perfection designed to make you feel inadequate. It makes you intolerant of other people’s real imperfections, and it makes you start to despise the weight of real life, and invest in shallow, flimsy, two dimensional mirrors of it.”

Our growing understanding of emotional expression has somehow coincided with raised and often unrealistic expectations of how our emotions should manifest themselves, which can result in feelings of shame in moments we don’t present as calm, cool, and controlled. We can even tell ourselves the story that we’re somehow ‘defective.’

A bit of background…

I should mention, for the record, that I didn’t throw the spatula at anyone. I was standing alone in the kitchen, ruminating.

The rage had been fuelled by a recent article in Maclean’s magazine, titled I Regret Having Children. The article reported that an increased number of women across North America were expressing regret for having had children, a fact I vehemently DO NOT personally agree with.

Reading it made me angry for three reasons:

  1. Mental Load: Most mothers these days share a profound first-hand understanding of the day-to-day inner conflicts one experiences when trying to meet insatiable, constant, 24-hour needs of our little people, balance and manage a household, nurture a flourishing relationship, nail it in our ambitious careers, all the while attempting to maintain a stronghold on one’s own identity and wellness. Just look at popular posts like the recent work by cartoonist Emma, You Should Have Asked, which depicts the pressures of ‘mental load’ in a hilarious and all-too-familiar manner. It resonates. However, it doesn’t mean I REGRET the choice to have children. It breaks my heart that for a rising number of women, the only relief comes from wishing they never had children. I HATE that women feel like they need to choose some binary definition and experience of motherhood. And that a surprising number feel like they chose wrong.IMG_2650
  2. I felt set up: After finishing the article, I couldn’t help myself. I continued scrolling down to the comments section, anticipating the onslaught of inevitable traditionalist commentators. Sure enough, comments judging the “regretters” harshly, each one echoing the other, affirmed that our current cultural and family denigration is owed to women forgetting their place. Blaming and shaming women for being selfish in their pursuits. Declaring that they should only find fulfillment by filling their pre-determined roles. Where is the village? The lack of support, the sometimes-lonely nature of parenting, and the expectations of living up to some ideal make it difficult to be a mother. It’s unjust and unfair…and heartbreaking. The underlying cultural viewpoint that this is somehow a mother’s issue is infuriating. Really, this comes down to perpetuated societal injustices. This is everyone’s problem!
  3. A building sense of injustice: So, there I stood, staring at the piled-up dishes taunting me from the sink, the next day’s awaiting lunch Tupperware practically begging to be filled from the messy counter, and imagined the wet laundry impatiently admonishing me for my turtle’s pace…empathy, solidarity, heartbreak mounting. I just couldn’t help myself…

So, I threw the spatula…

We feel we should know better

As soon as it clattered against the squared edges of the basin, the heat of shame quickly replaced the rage. Shocked, I realized that in spite of regular journaling, meditation, gratitude practice, and exercise, I had experienced an uncontrolled, reactionary outburst.

At the time, I thought, I know better! What is wrong with me? What had made me react like that? More importantly, I wanted to know how could I stop it from happening again.

I believe some people turn to mindfulness as an inoculation against uncomfortable human emotions like grief, hopelessness, fear, anxiety, and anger. That somehow, there’s a perception that meditation is the answer to ridding us of these feelings.

Our current mindset seems to be that the more we know, the more we should be able to control ourselves. Ironically, I have heard friends mention that mindfulness just doesn’t “work” for them, dejected in their inability to get ahead of their unwanted emotions and the humiliating ways these feelings can sometimes express themselves. Or, some teachers impatiently lament that reflection and meditation in school doesn’t immediately cause tangible changes in behaviour. But, maybe, we’re all missing the point?

What is authentic mindfulness?

Here’s the thing, resisting negative emotions only exaggerates them. Genuine mindfulness comes from acceptance and deep observation. Observing all emotions, accepting their existence, and dropping the expectation that we should somehow be immune to negative feelings. Only through that acceptance, can we alter our, possibly inappropriate, reactions.

Simple concept, challenging to execute

As Shawn Achor, Harvard-trained happiness expert and author asserts, “common sense is not common action.” What he means is that even if we know what to do, actually doing it comes down to more than just our willpower or intellectual knowledge. That’s why experts in the field refer to mindfulness and meditation as a practice. Much like going to the gym, we can’t simply attend for a week and expect to reap it’s benefits for the rest of our lives. It’s an on-going labour of love. We win some, we lose some, and the overall trend keeps us headed in a positive, self-aware direction.

What happened on the brain-level?

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(Pic credit www.greenlightheidi.com)

In order to explain what happened, we need to talk about the two parts of our brain that duel for supremacy.

First, we have the emotional, limbic, reptilian part of the brain (amygdala). When we’re threatened, cortisol and adrenaline (neuro-chemicals) course through our veins throwing this ancient part of our brain into fight, flight or freeze. This reaction can prove tremendously helpful in protecting us from the perils of huge predators; however, it is not of particular use when employed in day-to-day stressors. Cortisol shuts down the body on a fundamental level and is only meant to be present in our bodies for short bursts. The problem is, every single time we get stressed, cortisol is released. The compounding effects of stress on the body has been linked to decreases in effectiveness of the immune system, cardio-vascular functioning, digestion, cellular growth, empathy, and increases in depression and anxiety. It’s toxic stuff!

The other part of the brain, the logical prefrontal cortex, is responsible for rational thinking. It takes into account a myriad of factors about a situation, risk-assessing as it goes along, before advising you on how to react.

It’s fair to say that after reading that article, my limbic brain hijacked my rational brain, and consequently, I jumped into fight mode.

And so, I propose, maybe it would be more useful to be calculating success in terms of our Recovery Time, as opposed to some unattainable obliteration of negative thoughts. Recovery time meaning, how quickly are we able to get to a place of authentic, self-forgiving, ego-free reflection after an emotional breakdown?  How long does it take for the rational brain to regain control?

What Now? How do we increase our recovery time after an emotional outburst, anyway?

The key is letting go of the ego-which says that if you’re not winning, you’re losing. Compromise and self-reflection are not the ego’s favourite thing to do. We have to have more patience of ourselves and others in the process, so we can move on and bounce forward. Mindfulness plays a big role in recovery time.

And, a little bit of reflection also goes a long way…

Five things you can do to increase your recovery time:

  1. Your story: Ask yourself, What story am I telling myself right now?
  2. Let it out: Find a way to express your voice through journaling or talking. Sometimes, those big feelings just need validation.
  3. List it up: Create a mental or written list of what’s inside your control and what’s outside of it.
  4. Small Steps: Create a small goal you know you can accomplish. Doing that has a way to building your confidence. The all or nothing mindset serves nothing. Small steps lead to big changes!
  5. Celebrate: Holding yourself to an unrealistic ideal, when it comes to any behavioural change is a recipe for disaster and failure. Celebrate small triumphs!

 

 

 

 

Rethinking Regret: Two Stories of Forgiveness and Acceptance

Regret’s a funny thing, isn’t it? I used to believe that it served no redeemable purpose, that accumulated regret would only function to burden a person under its weight, like a sack of rocks, discomfort giving way to hopelessness and overall stuck-ness as one buckled under the heaviness of it over the years.

I remember one of my first memories as a child being steeped in regret. With my family, I had emigrated from France at the tender age of 4 ½, speaking not a single word of English. Days after having arrived in Canada, we decided to visit a museum somewhere on the East Coast. With my parents, I entered an enormous hall that housed an expansive and interactive children’s winter exhibition. I was overcome by the beauty of a massive igloo standing before me. Staring into the extended entryway of the beautiful, white, frosted structure, I suddenly became aware of the children playing inside. From the half-moon entrance, I gazed past the hallway, into the blue-white dome at the children’s exuberant and smiling faces decorated with sparkle face-paint. I remember my parents urging me to go in, but I just stood there, paralyzed.

Ironically, something about it delighted and intrigued me. I yearned for my cheeks to be adorned with frosty, magical paint, too, but my feet stood planted firmly on the concrete floor of the exhibition refusing the invitations of my perplexed parents.

Looking back, the long list of rapid-fire firsts undoubtedly had me swimming in a sea of very understandable overwhelm. My little 4-year-old heart desperately wanted to enter but my mind wouldn’t let me. I was standing at the edge of what felt like a life-changing cliff and felt unable to close my eyes, embrace the unknown, and take the leap.

I remember driving away from the exhibition, quietly heartbroken and disappointed that I had passed on the opportunity. Unable to forgive myself, whenever the uncomfortable experience came to mind, I would often push the memory away entirely.

Dramatic? Perhaps.

Minor? Seemingly.

But…perspective is relative…even to a child.

For a long time, I unconsciously adopted the ubiquitous North American bumper-sticker-slogan, “no regrets,” unequivocally rejecting the potential value of regret and denying its existence entirely. Regret is uncomfortable…why on Earth would one subject oneself to it?

Yet… I’ve recently changed my mind about regret.

Perhaps it does indeed have a purpose. That purpose, however, relies entirely on the ability of a person to harness its usefulness, while resisting the damaging effects of reliving a past one cannot change.

I have come to believe that regret operates as a guide…

reminding you to stand in your integrity,

to seek out the pursuits most connected to your ‘heart-wishes’ (the things that your ‘thinking-mind’ often prevents you from pursuing for a myriad of ‘rational’ reasons),

to have intention without hesitation and follow that intention with unapologetic purpose.

In order for regret to be useful, one has to also employ self-forgiveness.

Oh, forgiveness.

Like many people, I’ve had a challenging relationship with the general concept of forgiveness.

It’s taken me a long time to settle upon a definition that would enable me to engage in authentic forgiveness while maintaining my integrity. Here it is…

Forgiveness is the ability to accept the past and to stop wishing it were different, despite injustice, hurt, and heartbreak. It’s not about condoning. It’s about finding a way forward. Not for someone else. For yourself.

I believe that regret and forgiveness are closely tied. Regret is that inner reminder that tells you that you deviated from your values. Forgiveness allows you to move forward, becoming unstuck through your pursuit to apply your lessons learned. You can release yourself from replaying regret, accept it, apply the lesson, and live your life with the intention you have for it, in forward motion.

Nowadays, I call that inner-conflict I felt as a four-year-old in the museum winter exhibition, the “jump off the cliff” moments. Life presents you with these moments every so often, I believe, to test your character, courage, ability to step outside of your comforts. These are the moments where your heart knows what to do but the fear of uncertainty or apparent failure hold you back through hesitation, under the guise of protecting you.

I’ve had many of these moments.

We all have.

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Recently, I felt the familiar sting of regret, once again. It had been a while. It still sucked.

As a young girl, my grandmother Mac played a significant role in my life. Even into her eighties, I remember Mac as a smart-looking woman, immaculate glossy white permed curls, supple rosy cheeks, expertly-applied fuschia lipstick, a closet full of high-heeled YSL shoes, and charisma beaming from captivating electric eyes.

She was a petite little thing, so much so that she always drove her 1960’s Valiant perched upon a couple of opulent throw pillows, and even still, could just barely see over the steering wheel. Small as she was, one learned never to underestimate her. She was one of the most determined, brave, and stubborn women I knew. The eldest of 11 children, she had led a rebellious and adventurous life, and had learned many lessons from the school of hard knocks. Challenge and hardship were no match for her.

IMG_2361Over the years, I developed relationships with some of her siblings, my great aunts and uncles. Although we didn’t see him often, I remember visiting Roy, my great-uncle (through marriage). He was always good to us kids, bringing us gifts at Christmas. I remember one year he brought us special chocolates, a book of Christmas-edition life-savers I savoured for weeks, and a mini-bottle of Chanel N.5 I cherished throughout my middle-school years. As I grew up, attended high-school and university, I saw less and less of him, but thought of him affectionately as I looked back on those memories.

Fast forward to last year. A few months before Christmas, I learned that Roy was living in a nearby seniors housing centre and this would be the year of his 100th birthday. I tracked down his address and sent him a Christmas card, wishing him the best and expressing an interest in reuniting. A few months later, I received a response!

I told myself once my babies were a little older and it was a little easier, I would visit him.

A full year passed. It was Christmas again and I remembered my promise.

I searched out the number for the senior’s centre, called and left a message for Roy, introducing myself excitedly as his great-niece.

Two days later, I received a call from his son. Graciously, he immediately informed me of his father’s passing just a few months earlier. Expressing my sympathy and thanking him for the call, I hung up, regret weighing down upon my shoulders, once again.

In the hopes of escaping the discomfort, I quickly told myself not to worry…to forget about it.

But, the truth is, I was crushed.

I found myself reflecting upon the permanence of life and the value of every moment. I thought about the value and grace of my existing relationships. We have to cherish the relationships we have in the here and now.

Although, I can’t transport myself into the past, can’t change what has come to be, I can take this as a valuable lesson to quiet my hesitations, listen to my heart and trust my intuition to do what’s important.

“Regret is one of the most powerful emotional reminders that change and growth are necessary,” Brené Brown, author of Rising Strong, asserts. “It’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom…regret can be used constructively or destructively. ‘No regrets’ doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection. Regret is what [teaches] me that living outside of my values is not tenable.”

 

A Visit with Santa and a Generous Invitation

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It was 9:16 am, Frank Sinatra’s Christmas album was playing in the background, and both of my children, smiling faces illuminated by the late November morning sun, were bundled and strapped in the back of our vehicle as we cruised down the highway on our way to beat the crowds and meet Santa. My husband was out of town, so I had devised an itinerary jam-packed with fun-filled kid-friendly activities to get us in the holiday spirit and fight off cabin fever. Baking, crafts, checking-out Christmas book titles from the library, visits with friends, kicking back with classic family movies, and photos with Santa…it was going to be fun.

This is likely the first and only year I have ever embraced the “magic of Christmas” and all of its commercial baggage so darn early. But, considering last year’s Christmastime debacle and dashed dreams as a result of my unexpected vertigo symptoms, one can’t really blame my earnest and eager efforts to squeeze every last ounce out of the impending holiday season!

That morning, I had prepared and mentally geared-up for the usual Outfit-Resistance Routine, only to be pleasantly surprised when my 3.5 year-old-daughter not only agreed to wear the reindeer sweater I had laid out for her, but excitedly reached for it and exclaimed how much she loved it! Nonchalantly, I had slowly backed away, dressed her brother in his companion reindeer sweater, and ushered them both into the vehicle, barely saying a word so as not to draw her attention to my complete shock in case she changed her ever-loving mind.

We finally pulled into the already bustling Mayfair Mall parking lot and quickly found a spot. It turns out “beat the lines” was everyone’s mantra that morning. The mall had barely opened its doors and already streams of coordinated children, dressed in green, red, metallics, and stark whites, poured into the building, eyes gleaming with excitement, little hands tugging and urging their parents along. You could see some children jockeying to be the first ones in the doors, some of them literally pushing past families to do so. My heart skipped a beat. Maybe this was a mistake. I paused, gazed at the scene, and deeply inhaled the fresh, crisp air. Then, I turned to haul the double-stroller out of my trunk, a must-have fall-back when you have two small children under three-and-a-half years of age.

We reached the entrance of the mall and bee-lined for Santa. I immediately became aware of two little girls, sisters around 10 years of age, flanking either side of my stroller. They were dressed in the most stunning coordinated red and green plaid dresses, golden ballet flats, and white knit capped-sleeve sweaters. I realized quickly that these girls meant business. Their straight brown hair swung from side to side as they pumped their elbows to propel themselves past the stroller as Santa’s workshop came into view. I resisted the childish urge to pick up my pace. However, I couldn’t counteract the sinking feeling that ensued as we rounded the corner and spotted the snaking line-up, 20 people deep. Santa wouldn’t arrive for another 20 minutes. Again, I thought of the memories, sighed, and resigned myself to whatever misery would meet us in that line-up. We joined in, coming in second behind the coordinated sisters.

I should mention, before I had children, I made grandiose declarations about the “kind of parent” I would be. Technology, unhealthy treats, unnecessary negotiations, and kid-centric food would NOT be employed in our house. As a new teacher, I would sometimes find myself lamenting a romanticised historical time when children demonstrated the fine art of waiting patiently with little more than a verbal reminder. Cue the enormous eye-roll. How ignorant was I to the perils and unrelenting marathon that is parenting!?

Fast-forward to the present, I am humbled by the experience of motherhood. It has been an incredibly beautiful, challenging journey. Parenting my children has been the most humanizing, reflective experience in my life. In many ways, entering the world of parenthood has forced me to evaluate the, sometimes, unrealistic expectations I have not only of myself, but of my children.

So, I forgive my imperfections.

I employ the use of occasional unhealthy treats.

Sometimes, I make empty threats.

I use my best negotiation tactics on an almost-daily basis.

Most days, our meals consist of a predictable rotation of kid-centric food.

And technology makes appearances at least once-a-day.

And, in that Santa line-up…I used every last trick in my arsenal.

I had to laugh at the irony, as my son was back-arching, I was plying both children with “special treats” usually only reserved for the potty, and my daughter was plugged into Charlie Brown Christmas (I know, I’m pretty sure it’s single-handedly responsible for teaching preschoolers the word “stupid”), I made eye-contact with a past parent and student I had taught.

Oh…terrific.

There’s something sort of acceptable about feeling like a gong-show parenting failure in public when you feel anonymous, but the overwhelm reaches a whole new level when you actually know those around you, professionally. I smiled apologetically. She and her daughter gave a big friendly wave in our direction.

Forty minutes later, my parent-teacher ego a little bruised, we eventually arrived. We were second in line and could finally spot the big man, himself, between the photo set’s enormous sparkling trees. My daughter was star-struck, a smile spread across her face as she and her brother peered through the branches.

In that moment, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around. The two sisters stood in front of us smiling and invited us to go in front of them. I’m not sure if it was guilt for having beat us in the race to greet Santa, outright pity, or the giving spirit, but I appreciated the genuinely thoughtful gesture, nonetheless. Instinctively, I started to refuse, but remembered how magnificent it feels when someone graciously accepts your kindness. Their generosity made a big impact on me. It allowed me to practice the art of receiving. It also reminded me to search for ways to make those around me feel supported by and connected to humanity, especially throughout the busyness and chaos of the holidays.

Genuinely, I thanked the girls and their parents, and watched as my children greeted Santa, my son tentatively and reluctantly, my daughter enthusiastically.

It had been worth it, after all.