If you are like I, we are all reading lots of what might be termed “self-help” guides from people we don’t know. We do this to be “happier” or “better”, but we keep finding that the sages have always had it right — happiness is paradoxically, never “out there” but is still somehow always “just out of reach”. And being “better” at something in hopes of a more fulfilling tomorrow, means we aren’t happy with whatever we might have today and that we discount whatever we were yesterday. That isn’t to say we curl up in a self-serving ball and defend our right to be ignorant or mediocre. But our goal should not be merely more happiness or simply getting better at something. Our goals in self-improvement should be wiser and deeper than that. Our goal should be, being fully, joyfully alive. Being joyfully alive means that even the things that are wrong with me, wrong with others, or wrong with the world will not stop me from gratefully, humbly, and thrillingly being myself.
I have been around this block of self-improvement many times, that is of trying to change for the better or best. I have read so many books, listened to so many speakers, attempted so many disciplines that if I were a landfill dump I would be overflowing. I have been trying to improve myself all the way back to when people could still buy books at an actual bookstore and ever since the days of I’m Okay, You’re Okay, The Dance of Anger, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Yes, that long. But I still find myself reading books and blogs, watching YouTube videos, and listening to the advice of the woman I will never see again who is drawing my blood at the Red Cross Blood Drive. (In case you are wondering, she thinks that threading is better than plucking for eyebrow maintenance.) And that is how I’d like to segue into:
Things to Do to Be Better at Being Yourself
(which I sort of suggest, if you feel like it, unless you have something better to do or read)
- Connect meaningfully with all human beings you come into contact with. This not only means your family and friends, but all human beings. There are lots of happiness studies out now that suggest that people who talk to people they don’t know or barely know, live longer and overall, enjoy happier lives. Recognizing the mere existence of others is a good start. Put the phone away. Put your fear of strangers away. Put your introverted need to protect your empathetic neuroses away. If a human being is within “hello” distance, say “hello” with a smile. If someone is helping you process your groceries, talk to them about their day and listen to their answer. Find out the names of the people who often help you at your local store. (Travis works at my Vons and Sandy works in the pet section at Target.) Walk whenever you possibly can, so you have to see other people who walk or wait for busses or parents who take their children to school in the morning. Say “Hi, have a good day”. If someone is walking on the other side of the street but catches your eye, wave. Don’t expect anything in return, just give your attention to the real, alive person that is sharing a moment in a particular space on the planet with you. Connecting with other human beings is what, well, keeps us human. And if you recognize someone else as a valid part of your species and as a fellow traveler in the world, that gives you a bit less loneliness and a bit more joy in this life-journey.
2. Hum. Hum, hum, hum. Yes, you may be mistaken for the crazy lady who talks to herself at the recycling center, but who cares, really. Humming has been shown to have not only mental and emotional calming, soothing and uplifting effects, but is scientifically proven to help your whole nervous system by stimulating the vagus nerve. And by stimulating the vagus nerve you can not only decrease depression but also perhaps, migraines, inflammation, and some say, perhaps even that most wide-spread malady of all — political-despair. I personally find that if I am humming some little tune, especially without focusing on the words, that the negative thoughts that often seem to swirl around my brain and nervous system like gnats on a hot humid day in LA, begin to swat themselves away; and I am more joyful. If that old adage is true that “whistling in the dark” can help us combat our fears, then humming can, at a minimum, help us combat our grumpies. It might even help your headache.
3. Don’t look down, look up. Instead of being upset that you can’t sleep (Again!), go outside your back door or stand at your bedroom window and look up. The stars shining in a night sky will not only enliven your imagination but will help you know that your sleeplessness (Again!) is a rather small matter in terms of the multitude of universes and suns that swirl like gnats (Again! with the swirling of gnats metaphor!) held shining in the palms of the angels. Instead of looking at the sidewalk where your sneakers pound, when you take your morning jog, look up at the impressionism of clouds in a blue sky. Or slow down enough to look — really look — at the trees, the neighbor’s gardens, the storefronts. And for goodness sake, if you only exercise in a gym — don’t. Go outside sometimes. Look up.
There is still much joy to be found in Nature. Nature gives, no matter how much we hurt Her; the least I can do is to give her my attention. Yes, we sometimes must look down to pull the weeds or pick up the trash, and I’m talking here of the weeds and trash in the planes of the human soul and psyche as well as those on the earth’s plane. But looking down and rooting out the bad is all for naught, if we don’t also look up to find the real purpose for our work and find the joy in the moment we’ve been given, even those moments in the middle of the night when we really need our sleep. You will sleep better, knowing that the stars are still in their places performing their paces and delighting centuries of human races.
4. Read world news. Try reading, not watching. Reading is a better way to find your own conversation with truth and reality than you can ever find by listening to a group of talking heads interpret it for you. You will feel better about yourself if you are involved in The Conversation. The Conversation is what our species can do that other species cannot. It involves the present reality and also the history of mankind and womankind relating, conversing, arguing, and seeking Big Truth, little truths, practical truths, and metaphysical truths, with and for each other. Reading about what is going on in the whole world, not just our little bit of it, is now something all of us can do, and should do, in order to better understand the truths of our present time. Local news is good because it makes us feel we have enough smarts and maybe abilities and power to change things. World news is good because it lets us know that basically all human beings have the same problems, dreams, and molecular make-up, no matter our culture, language, or color. World news reminds us that if we don’t work alongside each other, share our stuff with others, get to know people, learn about other nations and cultures and people-groups, accept other people with some degree of humility, and play nicely with others, then nothing ever does change. And while that can be discouraging at times, it also can give us hope and happiness because we can read and see that things do change and can change and have changed — maybe not for me today in my part of the world, but for someone, somewhere. And change somewhere for someone, means that possibly, tomorrow or the next day or in the next generation, things might change where I have made my home. Well done, World! Cheers, Shalom, Felicidades, and Hongera, everyone!
World news gives us a sense of proportion and while it often has led me to despair that the whole world is falling apart, it has equally often led me to hope. And while we are at it, we should read history. Try A World Lit on Fire by William Manchester or 1491 by Charles Mann. The “New York Times Magazine” has a vitally important read on America’s history recently published and entitled “The 1619 Project”. If you are not a reader, try documentaries like “The Civil War” or that old chestnut, “Roots” or “Hiroshima”. And if history served up straight is too strong for you, try imbibing it through historical fiction. Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities is still one of the most interesting reads on the consequences of imperialism and revolution and Steinbeck and Updike and Orwell are incredibly important to re-read in light of today’s world events. Read “good stuff”. Read “important” stuff. There is joy in increasingly honing one’s knowledge about the world before taking a well-deserved commercial break with some fluffy television show or Lit-Lite.
5. Don’t take any one’s advice too seriously. Including of course, this list. We are all trying so hard to self-improve that we have stopped living. Instead of a new blurb or blog or podcast on self-improvement or diet or mindfulness or spiritual improvement or work-days or relationships, etc, etc, etc — just sit, or stand, or lie on your back, just being with yourself. Just for a moment. Don’t practice any kind of breathing, except your kind. Don’t think about anything. If you find yourself unable to stop thinking, hum. (See #2 above.) Maybe just look at the freckles on your arms or the little side-bulge in your waist or the stain on the ceiling. Listen to how quiet your house is or how loud the neighbor’s kid is or how chirpy the chirpy chirping birds outside are. Smell the coffee as you pour it or the frying onions as you stir them or the basil as you pluck it or the sweat in your armpits as you lie on the grass. Feel the cool pillow behind your neck, or touch the well-earned callouses on your fingertips, or rub your thigh against the mattress as you launch yourself into space in the morning or when someone hugs you, really take it in. And for a moment, just relish the fact that you are you and no one else. You can see! You can hear! You can smell! You can touch! You are alive! For one more moment, you are alive.
There is much to do. There is much to think. But there is actually only a very little bit to be. All I can be is little ‘ole me. We all work too hard. We all play too hard. We all think too hard. We all feel too hard. And with the very best intentions, we all try too hard to improve ourselves. While I am thrilled to live in a world with so much information and the means to do better, think better, live better, I have found that while I will never stop encouraging myself and others to self-improve and improve the world, that there are days I need to improve on being myself using what I already have, know, think, feel, and do. And that means that I need to take the things I know or the things I want to try or just the “who” that I am, and I need to take some time to practice doing them, and rest in being them, until I am them.
Practicing “being me”, means that at least for right now, for just this moment — I will not keep searching for more or better self-improvement plans, which promise like metaphysical math-problems to make me better either by adding or subtracting things to my life. I will keep seeking, oh yes, because seeking truth and betterment is also what makes us human. But for now, I need to practice doing what I have learned and practice being who I have already become. I need to practice doing those things that I can do that lead me and hopefully, someone else, to a wiser, deeper sense of joy in life’s journey.
I will not think happiness is just waiting for me up around the bend of the next TED Talks or in my daily devotional, even though I will continue to learn from them. Instead, I will accept with gratitude and hope, that there is just enough joy and love of living within me for now. And also, just enough joy and love to share with others. There is just enough of me in this moment, for being with my spouse, my boss, my child, my dog, Sandy at Target, the stars, the mint in my garden, the woman who never waves back at me even though we walk and pass each other at the same time each morning, the blueberries on my muesli and the honey in my tea, the freckles on my arm and the smell of mustiness I really need to clean in my bathroom, and there is thankfully, joyfully, enough for the guy on the corner who asks me for spare change or the person somewhere in the world today who will receive my donated blood.
I will practice being myself for now. I will involve myself with being present with my utter and absolute joy in being alive. Tomorrow there will be plenty of guides and gurus and geniuses I can listen to, in order to improve myself and the world. For now, I think I will go smell some mint leaves in my garden and then maybe walk to the grocery to pick up some peaches and say “hello” to Travis.
Jane-Out (while humming)