what zombies have to do with self-growth

I am not a fan of the horror genre. Except for zombies. When my son became intrigued by zombies, I explored all the movies – from the very first – with him. And the more I think about zombies, the more I realize we can learn from the genre.

Recently, I came across this older article exploring why exactly our society has developed this fascination with zombies. In a nutshell, its premise is that the zombie craze “mirrors a level of cultural dissatisfaction and economic upheaval”. According to the researcher that is quoted, Sarah Lauro, “We feel like, in one way, we are dead”. This article quotes her as saying, “We are more interested in the zombie at times when we as a culture feel disempowered.”

I don’t quite agree.

Yes, zombie stories intrigue us when we face challenges of our own, but not because we feel dead. And I’m not sure that it has to do with global disempowerment, either. Rather, I believe it is more personal. The greater attraction of the zombie genre is this: survival.

These stories show us that it is possible to survive against horrific odds. They show us people who keep fighting even when we might have wanted to give up because there just doesn’t seem to be a way out. They make us believe that yes, we are able to keep going even when nothing makes sense, to be resourceful when options are limited, to be creative when everything we used to know changes, and to remain essentially human even when surrounded by monsters. They help us remember that sometimes the only power we have and actually need is that of perseverance, because it will get us through the hopelessness. That is uplifting and encouraging! Especially when life becomes challenging or the future seems bleak.

For me, it has little to do with cultural dissatisfaction or economic upheaval. It has everything to do with fighting my personal monsters. I believe this is the attraction of all successful dystopian stories: the implicit truth that even at life’s worst, we keep fighting.

However fictional they may be, they contain true empowerment because they remind us we are indomitable. We are heroes, purely for not giving up.

And that is amazing.

From the AMC show, The Walking Dead

From the AMC show, The Walking Dead

teacupping : oceaning

I found myself teacupping again the other day. You may not have ever heard this term – I made it up – but I know you will understand it immediately.

Teacupping: When you become so small that almost every experience causes a storm inside you.

You slosh over the edges. You rant and rave inside (or if it gets really wild: outwardly as well) over the little things that should not even cause a ripple on your surface.

  • The way your neighbours put out the wrong trash on the wrong day of the cycle
  • The way someone eats a doughnut – when you can see they need to eat healthier
  • The way someone at the office left sugar scattered over the entire kitchen counter
  • The way someone whines about their rich people problem
  • The inanities people post in social media or publish in the news
  • The way someone chews too loudly

Admit it, unless you are remarkably phlegmatic, you know how this is! And I am sure you can add many more examples here. All instances of storms in a teacup.

Why does this happen? And more importantly, how does one solve this problem? Because if you have ever teacupped before, you will also know that it is exhausting. There is nothing that can burn up your energy as quickly as this over-excitability in the world. Not to mention the strain on interpersonal relationships this can cause.

I have written before about the need to expand your container, and it is exactly for this reason. The larger the container of your spirit, the less disruptive your experiences. A drop of poison that falls into a teacup can be deadly. But into the ocean? It would not even be noticed. And quite frankly, I want to be the ocean.

Terry Pratchett wrote: “The big sea does not care which way the little fishes swim.”

I find that to be a profoundly powerful statement. If your container is as big as the ocean, the little fishes don’t bother you at all. They can swim in whichever direction they want to, they can jump out of the water (they will just fall back in) and they can even devour each other – it is not going to affect you.

So how do you change from teacupping to oceaning? How do you expand your container so that the little fishes don’t bother you anymore?

  • Meditate – For me, this is the easiest and best way to do it, because when you become mindful you find peace again. You enlarge from within. There are many guided meditations to help you achieve this. Compassion meditation works especially well, as does mindful breathing.
  • Walk – Or do something physical. Once you get your blood flowing, your mind is able to settle much easier, and your perspective is corrected.
  • Spend time in nature – We need big spaces to remind us that we are big, too, and that all is well. There is something mindful and rejuvenating about being outside; it can’t be duplicated by man-made spaces.
  • Pray – First for yourself. Then for whomever or whatever tips your cup.
  • Listen to music – It might be that you need loud, passionate music, or slow, gentle music. Find out what works for you to expand your consciousness again to a point where you are bigger than your challenges.
  • Get out among people – Especially if you are introverted or melancholy by nature, you might need that gentle reminder to place yourself among other human beings from time to time. Exposure to other people helps remind you that your challenging experience with one person is not all there is.
  • Practice gratitude – Remember the good things that fill your life.

There are more ways in which to ocean, to expand your container. Some of them may be unique to you, to what works for you. That’s the point: find out what clicks for you, what keeps your container as wide and expansive as the ocean, and as freely and abundantly giving, without any concern for which way the little fishes swim.

Art by the amazing Pascal Campion

Art by the amazing Pascal Campion

9 tips to commute like you mean it {productivity}

What do you do with the time it takes you to travel between home and work? Or going into town? For most people it is simply a means of getting from point A to point B, and little thought or productivity goes into it.

Yet it is by now well-known that your commuting time offers a vast treasure of opportunities for your day to pack more punch. Your choice: you can zone out in traffic – whether you use a car or public transport – or you can engage in a meaningful way.

For me, public transport is fortunately a fantastic option – and a welcome one! – and I prefer it because it frees me up to focus on other things while getting to my destination. These suggestions work best for that. Many of them can still be adapted for using your own transport as well – always of course bearing in mind that safety and alertness come first.

  1. Educate yourself: Read a book (if you use public transport and are one of those lucky folk who can read in a moving vehicle) or listen to an audio book. Those minutes add up when you use them to educate yourself! If you spend an hour on the road five days of the week, can you imagine how much you will have empowered yourself by the end of a year!?
  2. Plan & review: Use the time to plan your day if you are going into the office, or review your day when you go home. The advantage of this is that you walk into the office knowing what you want to achieve that day, and you walk into your home having already processed the stresses of the work day. Make a voice recording for yourself if you need to.
  3. Pray: Use your commute for prayer time. Yes, you can’t go as deeply into intercession as you would have if you were in your inner room, and this is not meant to replace that private time. As an addition to that time of worship on your knees, though, commuting prayer time offers marvellous scope for bringing the concerns of all your loved ones and the world to God. Or simply talking to Him, the way your kids used to talk to you when they were small and sitting in the back of the car. When I was driving more regularly, prayer time was one of the two things which kept me from road rage.
  4. Listen to music: I mean, really listen. This is the other thing which kept me calm in traffic. For me, spiritual music worked most especially well. But there are days you really just need that immersion into classical music or some good 80s music or the Beach Boys. Whatever you can immerse yourself in and which touches your spirit. If you want to make a challenge out of it, then set yourself the goal to listen to everything Chopin has ever composed, or Nickelback, or Hans Zimmer … whatever floats your boat!
  5. Create: If you are creatively minded, your commute can even be a time in which you work on stories or blog posts or Toastmasters speeches. Even if you can’t take notes, running through a first or second draft in your mind will mean that once you are at your desk, it will flow so much easier out of your pen.
  6. Memorize: This goes for practising that Toastmasters speech or work presentation you have to give, and also for learning a language or Scripture verse. Whether you are doing it out loud alone in your car or sotto voce on the train, this is one of the best stretches of dedicated time you are going to find to hone your skills. Why not make use of it instead of having to fit it into your day later?
  7. Meditate: Using public transport, this is one of the times I know I can dedicate to a short 20 or 30 minute meditation. There are so many guided meditation apps for Android and iPhone that it is the easiest thing in the world to pop in your head phones, close your eyes, and just become mindful and fall back into yourself.
  8. Notice: Remember when you used to play I Spy With My Little Eye on those long holiday trips as a kid? Have you ever set yourself the goal to notice something new on your trip to the store or to the office every day?
  9. Relax: Sometimes you need to create a little bit of space in your day, too, and the greatest gift you can give yourself is to not follow any of these suggestions, but simply relax, simply BE.

How do you use all the time you spend travelling?

Art by the wonderful Pascal Campion

Art by the wonderful Pascal Campion

piggybacking {productivity}

Last week I wrote about viewing tasks as full cycles.

Once you have that skill under your belt, there is an additional way in which this can benefit you: by expanding the cycle.

Adding an additional small task into a cycle is one of the easiest ways to build good habits. It is called piggybacking. You take something you want to make into a habit and piggyback it onto an already established habit.

Let’s use making a cup of tea as an example of what a full cycle plus piggyback add-on would look like:

  • Fill kettle, put teabag, sugar and spoon into cup
  • Boil water 
  • Pour water, steep
  • Remove teabag, add milk
  • Place milk back into fridge, spoon into sink, throw teabag away
  • Enjoy tea
  • Rinse cup and put into dishwasher

That is what constitutes a full cycle for tea-making, for me. The diamonds mark the two opportunities in this cycle to add something into it if you want to build a stronger habit. While the water is boiling, you have a few minutes at your disposal where you are probably just hanging around in the kitchen. This is the ideal window for a piggyback addition to the cycle. It could be wiping a counter, decluttering a shelf in the fridge, doing 10 wall push-ups, memorizing a verse of Scripture or a new word in a language you are learning. Or perhaps this is the time you take to connect with someone via a short note from your phone or tablet. The options are as varied as your imagination, needs and goals.

And likewise, while the tea is steeping, you have another small window of opportunity to piggyback a bonus habit onto the cycle. Taking vitamins, taking out the trash, taking something out of the freezer for dinner, updating your shopping list, whatever you can fit into that small window that needs to become a habit.

If you continue focusing on this, soon it will become completely natural for you to make that part of the tea cycle. Or wherever you see the opportunity to creatively make your day and your life easier. I find it easier to keep the bathroom clean since I have resolved to clean something small whenever I go in there. Instead of spending a dedicated amount of time on bathroom cleaning, whenever I visit the restroom I do one small thing: brushing the toilet, wiping the mirror, wiping the counters or windowsill. It means that the bathroom always stays under control and because the whole cleaning routine is broken up into small, widely distributed tasks, it does a lot to keep me free from overwhelm.

Need another example of this skill? Resolve to never leave your car without removing trash or (whatever does not belong there) from it. And when you have nothing left that needs removing, there is still the option to quickly wipe a rag over your dashboard or one of your windows at a time. I even do this while waiting at the stop light. This constitutes a major victory for someone who used to have a car that needed to be hidden from everybody I knew because it was such a dump!

Once you mind starts working in this way, the world opens up to you: you find ways and means to make so much of your day easier and more productive. And that, to me, is just one of the greatest joys possible!

What can you piggyback onto an existing full cycle habit?

Artist unknown

Artist: Leonard Leslie Brooke

full cycle {productivity}

Recently I encountered a stellar piece of advice that has transformed my productivity in exponential leaps and bounds:

Determine the full cycle of a task and don’t stop until you’ve completed it.

It is that simple! Often we don’t have a clear image in our mind of what the complete task actually should be. Let me give a few examples of how this works:

  • Laundry: The full cycle of laundry is only completed once those clean clothes have all been put away. You’re not done when the washing machine is done. Or the dryer. Or the clothes are all (clean) in a hamper. You’re done when everything has been put away.
  • Writing a report: The full cycle needs to include research, typing, editing and proofreading (yes, folks, that’s an important part of it!), and submission before the deadline. It’s not done before that.
  • Travelling: The full cycle is only completed once you have unpacked and put away your luggage and your clothes are in the dirty hamper. For the more organized among us this may go even further and include putting together a packing list for the next journey.
  • That empty toilet roll: No, you can’t just leave it like that. If you used the last square of paper, you have already activated the cycle and you need to complete it. And that doesn’t mean you can just put a new roll on top of the bathroom counter. You are only done when you have put the new roll into the toilet paper holder and disposed of the cardboard core. (This is applicable to anything you finish: the paper in the office photocopier or printer, the milk in the fridge, a light bulb that has gone out, fuel in your car – once something is finished, the cycle has been activated and needs to be completed.)
  • Going to the doctor: The full cycle only ends once you have paid the doctor, gotten the medication from the pharmacy, paid the pharmacist, and – if need be – put reminders in your phone or calendar for when to actually take the medication.
  • Using equipment: Whether you are mowing the lawn, crafting, putting up a picture, taking photographs, making dinner, the rule is the same: the cycle is only completed once you have put away everything again.

Almost everything we touch in our lives consists of cycles. And the beautiful thing is that, as we grow, those cycles grow, too. You can start with a short cycle, and as you become more au fait in this, add on to it.

It has been truly empowering for me to realize this, especially since I can get a bit distracted sometimes, touching and going, and forgetting what I had been busy with. Or just not plain thinking. But I can tell you from the toilet paper situation in my and friends’ homes that clearly I am not the only one who needs this epiphany.

Viewing tasks in terms of full cycles brings with it the immense reward of a feeling of freedom and completeness. There is deep satisfaction in knowing you’re done with this one thing. It has been taken care of, all the loose ends have been tied up, you are free to move on to the next step.

For me, that means there is one less process that is open in my brain, slowing down my processing speed. I can use that released space for something more important. And next time I come into the bathroom and see the toilet paper, I think: ‘Yep! Nailed it!’

It’s the little things that make the biggest difference!

10 ways to conquer depression

It is a source of continual amazement and delight to me, the way we manage to find the light.

How do you help yourself feel better when darkness strikes? How do you lift yourself out of the mire?

I have received the grace of, by this time in my life, discovering many ways to navigate through darkness back to the light. Many of these ways overlap or are very closely related to each other. Sometimes one simply needs that slight variance for it to click into your brain and work, to really speak to you and do the trick.

  1. The 10% rule: A friend once taught me to ask: What can you do right now that will make you feel 10% better? It can be something as simple as listening to a song, or gaining back a sense of control by doing the dishes, or making a gratitude list, or going for a walk. There are billions of little things you can do right now to feel 10% better. And then 10% more…and 10% more, until you have bootstrapped yourself out of the pit. It is often easier to sneak your way into feeling better than to aim for an all-or-nothing victory. Conquer the darkness by stealth!
  2. The smile rule: Moving the facial muscles into a smile is the most direct way to affect the brain. You can enhance your brain chemistry by smiling. Or by walking. Or by meditating where you focus on cultivating an inner smile: smiling with your eyes, the inside of your mouth, your heart … until you smile with your entire chest, opening up to the world … and on, and on, and on. Softening your whole body into a smile … I know of few other things that can so quickly bring as profound a sense of contentment as this.
  3. The enlarged container rule: There are times when all we need is to be taken out of ourselves for a while. We get so wound up and tied into knots dealing with a problem that it can overpower our entire existence. It is good to sometimes do something that will completely distract us from the war. And I’m not referring here to the numbing things we are so good at, like eating or watching television or over-working. I am talking about things that will enlarge our container so that we can view the world with perspective again. Visiting friends, going out into the world, walking or exercise, listening to a sermon, podcast or TED Talk, doing something deliberately engaging or delightful. Whatever it is, just do it to show your brain that there is more to life than this current challenge.
  4. The bottom rule: Sometimes it helps to stop fighting the darkness and simply accept it, stop thrashing about as you fall into the pit and quietly settle to the bottom where you know you can’t go any deeper. It sounds immensely counter-intuitive but it’s not. There is incredible relief in knowing you can’t fall any deeper – this is as bad as it’s going to get. From this point onwards, the only way is up. Just this quiet acceptance, this falling, can help conserve vital energy you need for climbing back out instead of burning it up through resistance. Saying to yourself, ‘Okay, here I am. It’s that time of darkness again. I have dealt with it before. I can deal with it again.’
  5. The observer rule: Step outside yourself and observe the darkness as if it were a completely separate person. Look into yourself with compassion and childlike curiosity. Treat it as if this were a story and the main character – you – has just been required by the author to undergo a serious spurt of character growth. How would she grow through this challenge the author threw at her? How would he become the hero in his story, however reluctantly and falteringly? Because take my word for it: we are all the heroes in our stories. And the good stories are the ones in which challenges are overcome. We have such immense worth that we are never written into boring stories! Of course we are going to face challenges! Lift yourself out of this immediate experience and look down onto your life as a compassionate observer. Lovingly, always lovingly. And curious, always curious. Whispering to yourself, ‘Oh, how fascinating! I do wonder what is going to happen next?’
  6. The therapist rule: Healing from depression might be as straightforward as finding a good therapist and talking things out. I have immense respect for my therapist – because she knows what questions to ask. And I don’t always know. People say they can figure out their own minds; they don’t need to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for someone else to peer into their lives. And that might be so, but only if you know what questions to ask. Only if you stand back far enough to see the patterns. And it doesn’t happen easily or automatically. You have to search. It took me hitting two blanks before I was the third time lucky and came to someone who just opened up my mind like a flower. Words can’t describe my gratitude for how much she has helped me this past year, how much she has empowered me.
  7. The inner therapist rule: And then there is this almost opposite approach: be your own therapist. If you were your own patient and in need of help, what advice would you give you in this situation? We carry an amazing treasury of wisdom within. If only we will become still and ask and listen. It can be a small thing, an inner knowing that what you really need right now to get out of this hole is simply the security of a dependable bedtime, as if you are a child that is loved and put to bed at 21:00 every night by parents that know she will be less cranky in the morning if she sleeps enough. Or your inner therapist can tell you to this week go do one thing that will make you feel treated, that will remind you that you are cherished. What advice would you give yourself? What homework for inner healing? What support?
  8. The purpose rule: When you accept that nothing happens without a purpose, life starts to make more sense. And as Viktor Frankl and many others point out, knowing this gives meaning to suffering. If you know that – no matter how senseless this suffering feels right now – a day will come when you will see the purpose in it, and will use it for good, then you can get through it. Imagine how you can one day help someone else who wrestles with the black dog. Or how your example may save a life one day. Imagine what rock solid tested-by-experience advice you can one day give to a fellow human being in need, because you went through something similar. And you may very well be the only person who can help them because of your unique experience. Why is this strategy so powerful? Because it changes us from victims into leaders. It empowers us. And I believe when we realize that we are leaders and that we have something to give, it imparts a true sense of nobility to us that enables us to move mountains.
  9. The wheel rule: This is the first bit of advice that ever helped me navigate depression. I read it as Burt Reynolds quoting Clint Eastwood, who said: ‘The wheel always turns again.’ Meaning that sooner or later, the wheel will turn you out of darkness into light, out of misery into joy. And after that, it will turn you out of light back into darkness again. And once more back into the light. All you have to do is trust the process. Stay on the wheel. Whatever this is, it will pass. Depression can pass through you. You can pass through depression. There is always something greater up ahead. If only you will stay the course. Knowing this helps me navigate through the challenges of life a lot more evenly because it diminishes the darkness (which, let’s face it, can be quite egotistical in its belief that it is absolute – a lie!) and it expands the light. What a comfort!
  10. The true name rule: The word is powerful. Name it like it is. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, to know the true name of a thing or a person is to have power over it or them. That is how magic works in that fictional realm, but it is not far-fetched even in real life. Our words have power. These days ‘depression’ has become such a huge blanket-word that even children use it (!) But often it does not serve us well. When I say I am depressed, it brings with it an immediate and overpowering sense of helplessness. I suspect in you, too. But what if we are wrong? What if we could be more specific in identifying what ails us? Test this for yourself and see if it does not make a world of a difference! Change ‘I am depressed,’ into ‘I am sad,’ ‘I am too tired,’ ‘I am disappointed,’ ‘I feel insecure.’ Finding the true name of what we’re dealing with empowers us! I can deal with sadness, with disappointment, with not knowing what to do in a difficult situation … far, far better than with depression! Don’t let the darkness fool you into using that word unless it is the absolute truth. I would even go as far as to say that you have the power to not use that word at all – that there is always a better, healthier choice!

In time, those bouts of blackness lose their grip on you. They cease to be the nightmarish monsters that completely paralyze you with fear. Because you know from experience that they are not as big and scary as they make themselves out to be. They are simply a natural part of this life for those of us who are sensitive to light and dark. They are real, yes, but the light is real, too! And that is the perspective that empowers you.

Art by Silver Saaremäel

Art by Silver Saaremäel

it’s good and natural

Photographer unknown

Photographer unknown

I was touched reading this article in the New York Times: Getting grief right.

Why? Because to me it highlights one of the key things we tend to nowadays forget about losing a loved one: it is good and natural to feel sad.

You have permission to grieve.

The fact that you are sad does not necessarily mean that you are depressed – it means that you loved that person well. And that is good!

Instead of accepting that, we labour under the lie that we should get back to coping as soon as possible, show the world that we’ve put the grieving process behind us. So we put on a mask for the world and push the sadness down. And we think we are doing a good thing. We are not!

Let me tell you this from my own experience and everything I’ve seen in other people: forcing emotions to go undercover does not take care of them – they will grow in the hidden darkness, and they will demand attention. It may not happen now, but sooner or later they will exact the respect you did not give them.

Because that is what it boils down to: respecting our emotions and accepting them, whatever they are. There rests immense freedom in the ability to do that!

Be honest with yourself about how you feel.

And then, when you’ve been honest, accept it with compassion. There is no way you have to feel, and no way you are not allowed to feel. There are no shoulds.

There is only the truth of what is. Be tender with yourself, accept it lovingly, and respectfully allow grief to work its intended healing.