There’s a subtle, mindful shift that we can make as we tackle any task, enter any project, start any conversation, move into any activity … and this small shift can make a huge difference.
The shift is a softening, a warming, an opening. And that might not sound very powerful, but it is.
Let’s say you’re about to start a difficult task, and there’s something about it that’s causing you to dislike the task and want to put it off. The task is difficult, overwhelming, full of uncertainty for you. So you either run to distraction and procrastinate, or you do it but really don’t enjoy doing it. Neither of these is helpful.
So what can we do instead of procrastinating or disliking the task? We can bring some subtle, mindful, powerful shifts to the task. And in fact, we can do this to any activity.
Try it out with one of the hardest tasks in your todo list or email inbox, something you’ve been putting off or dreading. Get ready to do the task, then try these practices:
Notice: Notice how you feel about the task as you get started. Are you tense? Dreading it? Wanting to just get it over with? Wanting to go do something else?
Curiosity: Now bring some curiosity about this sensation in your body — what does it feel like? How is it different than you imagined before you brought this beautiful curiosity to it?
Relax: Notice the tension you might feel in your body, even if it’s just microtensions in tiny muscles in your torso. Can you relax these tensed muscles a little? Notice how this might shift your feeling toward the task or activity. Rest in this relaxed state.
Warmth: See if you can warm up your feeling toward the activity. It starts in the heart area, and can come out as a sort of warm feeling in our torso. Don’t worry if you can’t do this right now, just give it a shot.
Friendliness: Instead of a feeling of dislike towards the activity, how about being friendly towards it? It’s a shift in how we relate to our experience. Are we hostile or warm and friendly? Try warm and friendly, like you would act towards a good friend in your home.
Openness: If you’re feeling closed and tight about the activity or task, try opening. It’s a relaxing not only of the muscle in your body, but of your mind. Your mind can suddenly relax into an open awareness, and suddenly you’re not so closed off in self-concern.
Gratitude: We’ve all practiced gratitude before, so you should know how to do it with this task — how can you be grateful to this task? Maybe it’s a way to serve people you love. Maybe it’s a sign that you’re pushing into the uncertainty of something meaningful. Maybe it’s a sign that you’re alive. Actually feel the gratitude in your heart.
Deep appreciation: Let this moment be a time to deeply appreciate this moment, this life. What a wonderful thing it is to be alive right now. And to get to do this task. Spend a few moments in this deep appreciation.
You don’t have to do all of these things, and certainly not at once. They’re all small shifts in how you see the task, how you relate to the activity, how you are showing up in this moment.
One of these shifts might be just what you need to transform this activity for you. It might be just the shift you need to transform this moment into one of profound appreciation, gratitude and openness.
I was talking to someone today and he said that with all the time he spends putzing around on the internet, he gets maybe 2 hours of focused time a day. I actually think that’s higher than average!
But if he does incredible work in those 2 hours a day, think of the good he could do if he doubled or even tripled that amount of focused time. His impact on the world would multiply.
It might be interesting to audit your own time, and see how much of it is focused, meaningful work. Is that a good amount for you, or would you like to increase your focused hours and impact on the world?
For me, what success I’ve had in increasing my focused time comes down to three habits:
Asking myself what meaningful, impactful work I can get done today.
Creating space for the meaningful work instead of just doing busywork or being distracted all day.
Working in fullscreen mode and diving in.
Let’s look at each of these habits.
Deciding on Your Impactful Work
Most of us just dive into our inboxes, social media, favorite online sites, and busywork to start our day. We might have some bigger tasks on our lists, but they get lost in the woods of our day.
It’s an incredible habit to take even a few moments at the beginning of your day (or the end of the day before) to give some thought to where you’d like to concentrate your attention. What is worth doing today? What is worth focusing on? What is worth spending the limited time you have in this life?
For me, the answer is whatever meaningful, impactful work I might have on my plate. If I don’t have any, then it’s time to go to an even higher level view and ask what I want to focus on this year or this quarter. What good can I do in this world?
Usually, it’s fairly obvious — I know the bigger, more meaningful tasks I need to do. I make a list of 3-4 of them to try to accomplish for the day. Now I know how I’d like to spend my focused time.
Creating Space for Focused Work
Very often we’ll push off the bigger, more meaningful tasks because they take longer, and we’re either in distracted mode or quick-task mode. We don’t have time right now to do something that takes half an hour or more!
So these impactful tasks get pushed back. The key habit here, then, is pausing to create space. Yes, I’m in quick-task, get-things-done-quickly mode. But I can shift gears. Set aside the next 20 minutes for writing, or getting moving on a big project. I don’t have to do the whole project in this time, but just the act of giving myself more space to focus is a huge shift.
This is more of a mental act than a physical one: you just tell yourself that it’s time to focus on this important task. You breathe, and say, “This is worthy of my attention and effort right now. Let’s put aside everything else and give this some space.”
It’s a physical act as well: you might shut off your phone, turn off your internet, close all the other apps on your computer, clear your workspace a little to give yourself full space. Now you’re ready to focus.
Working in Focused, Fullscreen Mode
This habit is about letting this one meaningful task become your whole universe.
Many of us have worked in fullscreen mode in an app before — it takes your entire screen, and therefore your entire focus. You aren’t distracted by notifications or switching between apps or browser tabs.
To be more focused, we should work in the same way — put ourselves in fullscreen mode. This one task is all that exists, and nothing else. There’s nothing to switch to. There are no distractions. Just this task. It’s the whole universe.
For me, this means writing in a fullscreen writing app. Or opening a browser tab in a separate window (with no other tabs showing) and putting that window in fullscreen mode. Or reading with an undistracted reading app like Instapaper.
It can also mean doing one thing at a time in offline life as well — washing a single dish while doing nothing else, or running with no music or podcast, just being present with the running. Brushing your teeth and really being there. Being fully present with whoever you’re talking with.
If something is worth creating space for in your life, it’s worth your full attention.
With these three habits, I believe we can all increase our focused time each day. It’s not about being perfect, and working in a focused way every single second of the day. It’s about not letting our attention always be distracted, and about giving ourselves the gift of meaningful work more often.
I’m far from mastering this skill, but one thing I’ve been playing around with is how important mental states are to our productivity, happiness, focus, health habits and more.
For example, if you’re tired or feeling down, there’s a good chance you’re not going to focus on your meaningful tasks, and instead will look for distractions and comfort.
If you’re feeling frenetic and in quick-task mode, you’re not likely to focus on deep work, but instead will look for easy busywork to do.
Mental states will usually affect whether we do our exercise, eat healthy, binge watch TV shows, drink alcohol, eat junk food, or are open-hearted (or rude) with the people we love.
So it’s really important to monitor mental states. It’s also an incredible skill to be able to move yourself into the proper mental state to do focused work, to create, to meditate, to exercise, or do whatever you find meaningful.
In this article, I’ll share some ways to get better at moving into the mental state you need to be in to do that meaningful work. But I’ll also share an advanced skill — being able to do what you need to do, no matter what your mental state. I think of this as an “antifragile” skill (in the terminology of Nassim Nicholas Taleb).
Getting Good at Moving Into a Mental State
Let’s say you want to do some writing (or other focused work) … and to do that, you want to be in a calm, focused, energetic, positive mental state.
But right now, you’re feeling frazzled and distracted. How do you move from one state to the other?
First, you have to recognize that you’re in the wrong mental state. It’s not likely to lead to calm focus. It will lead to you doing busywork or seeking distraction.
Second, you have to experiment to find a set of actions that can help you move into the right mental state. This is going to be different for each person, even for each different mental state that you’re in or that you want to get to. But with some experimentation, you can discover things that work for you.
For example, some common actions that often help move into a better mental state:
Go for a walk
Get up and move around
Talk to someone (if you’re worried about something)
Having a cup of tea
Taking a power nap
Having a cup of coffee (differs for each person)
Getting into a quiet, uncluttered environment
Turning off your wifi router
Using full-screen writing apps
Playing calming music
Reading an inspirational quote or article
Talking to someone (including a therapist, if needed)
Bringing playfulness to the task
There are many other possibilities, of course, but you get the idea.
Another idea is to look at whether you’re feeling discouraged or encouraged. If life has conspired to discourage you from a project, a habit, doing a meaningful task … you’ll want to find ways to encourage yourself. The power of encouragement to change your mental state can’t be overstated.
This is a skill you can practice every single day. Throughout the day. Bring mindfulness to your current mental state, ask yourself what you’d like to be doing and what mental state would help you do that, and then experiment until you find a way to move into that mental state.
Practice and experiment until you get good at moving into the right mental state. Mastery will take daily practice, and constant play.
The Advanced Antifragile Skill
Once you’ve played with the ideas above, you can get a lot better at changing your mental state as needed.
However, lately I’ve been playing with what I think of as a more “advanced” skill. I think of it as advanced because I think it’s better to practice the skills mentioned above first. Then move on to this one.
Here’s the advanced skill: learn that you don’t need to change your mental state to do what you’re committed to doing.
If you need the perfect mental state and perfect set of circumstances to do your commitments, this is a fragile system. Anything that keeps you from doing the actions you need to do to get into the right mental state … throws you off and prevents you from doing your meaningful work.
An antifragile system wouldn’t require the right mental state or actions in order to get the work done. You’d just do the work, no matter the conditions.
That’s much easier said than done, of course. But I believe we can train ourselves to do it.
Here’s how I’ve been practicing:
Recognize that I’m not in the ideal mental state to do the thing I need to do. I’m tired, frazzled, distracted, sad.
Ask myself if I’m committed to this or not. If it’s not that important, I can put it off until I get into the right state. If I’m very committed, I’ll do it if at all possible (it’s not always possible depending on circumstances).
Make it happen, despite the mental state. If I’m tired, that’s OK! I don’t need to be fully rested to meditate or write or exercise. If I’m distracted, that’s OK too! I can write when I’m distracted — even if it’s not the ideal writing, I still am committed to doing it.
If I’m in a bad mood, for example, I can still do whatever needs to be done. I just need to let the bad mood inhabit the same space as my meaningful action. I can do anything in any mood, I’ve found, even if it’s not ideal.
An important caveat: self-care is still super important. I know that I need to rest, I need to take care of my body and mind, I need to stop working and have some solitude. I need these things for long-term happiness and health. But in this moment, if I need to do something I’m committed to doing, I can do it no matter what. And even, with practice, love the moment that is filled with tiredness, distractedness, frustration or sadness.
There is a part of us, in all of us, that worries that we’re not good enough. Not good enough to succeed, to handle the chaos of life, to be loved.
It’s the reason we get anxiety and stress — if we’re not good enough, what will happen when everything collapses and we can’t handle it? It’s the reason for social anxiety — if we’re not good enough, what will happen when people find out? It’s the reason for attachment to social media and constant distraction, for procrastination and unhealthy habits, and much more.
What if we trusted that we are good enough, that we don’t have to do anything to prove it, that we don’t have to worry about that anymore?
We could be at peace. Completely present with the moment in front of us. Completely focused on the task before us. Completely open to the people around us. Completely in love with the world as it is.
The way to build this trust is to meditate on our basic goodness.
The Basic Goodness in Each of Us
We each have, at our core, a goodness that we are born with, that is our basic nature. We just have learned not to trust it, and to see faults in ourselves.
Our basic nature is primordial, a nature that is before thought, free from concepts, connected to everything, pure experience. It’s easier to experience than explain, so I recommend meditation as a way to practice with it and learn to trust in it.
This basic goodness is always there, and because of that, no matter what chaotic things are happening around us, we can count on it. We don’t need to prove it to anyone, or worry that we won’t be good enough. It’s freeing.
You can feel it right now: feel the goodness in your tender heart, as a sensation in your chest. This is just a piece of it, but you can feel it. This is present all the time, but we forget that it’s there. We become blind to it.
The answer is to wake up to it. To sit with it. To learn to trust it.
A Meditation on Basic Goodness
I’ve recorded a meditation that you can practice daily, that I believe will help you to start to see and trust in your basic goodness.
Here’s the basic process:
Start by taking your seat and dropping your awareness into your body, then your breath.
Start to notice each breath, as if it’s the first time you’ve ever felt a breath. Bring curiosity to each breath. The same kind of freshness of experience as if you smelled fresh laundry for the first time ever.
Then bring the same fresh beginner’s mind to your tender heart, that is always there, that feels the pain and sadness and stress of the world, that feels the love and joy in the world. Start to trust in this basic goodness.
Bring the same fresh, open experience to every sensation, with a wide-open awareness that is as vast and unconstrained as the blue sky.
Practice this fresh awareness throughout the day, and learn to trust in this basic goodness, this tender heart, this wide open consciousness.
Our lives naturally get busy, complicated, stressful, hectic, overwhelming. It’s the nature of things: we say yes to too much and overcommit ourselves; we fill in all the spaces with possessions, things to do, distractions; we give in to urges to do more, read more, watch more, buy more, want more.
So what can we do in the face of this overwhelming swarm of busyness?
We can simplify.
This month, I’m issuing a challenge to simplify your life — not the possessions and physical clutter, but the things you do and the clutter of your time and commitments.
I’m calling it the Simplify Your Life Challenge, and you can join my Sea Change Program to participate.
Here’s how the challenge works:
Commit to the challenge in the #simple-challenge channel in our Sea Change community on Slack.
Each week, there will be a different focus or mini-challenge to try to stick with.
Check in each week on Monday in the #simple-challenge channel to stay accountable, review how you did, and adjust how you’re doing things so that you can overcome any obstacles.
So here are the focuses for each week:
Week 1: Examine & reduce commitments. In this week, we’ll do an inventory of our work and personal commitments, and start to reduce them where possible, starting with the easy ones.
Week 2: Simplify your routine. Create a simple morning routine, keeping yourself from overloading yourself, and leaving space in your day for not being busy.
Week 3: Do one thing at a time. This week, you’ll focus on doing one thing at a time. And work on have one project or goal focus at a time.
Week 4: Reduce screen time and distractions. In this week, you’ll experiment with ways to reduce your screen time so that you can have disconnected time, and go into focus mode without distractions more often.
I’m opening up two spots for my 1-on-1 coaching service, which is aimed for those who would like to start changing their lives, shifting their patterns, and starting true transformation.
I’m looking for people who:
Are doing meaningful work: You’re creating, you’re starting a non-profit, you’re volunteering, you’re changing lives, you’re serving a team or community, you care about the people you’re serving.
Are being held back by their patterns in uncertainty: Your meaningful work is filled with uncertainty, which brings up habitual patterns … maybe you put things off, you try to control everything, you feel overwhelmed, you feel anxiety, you shrink away from public speaking or putting your work in public, you take on too much, you play a smaller game than you should, you feel resentment, you run to comfort and distraction, you don’t delegate. Maybe not all of these, but possibly a few of them.
Are ready to take action and commit to training: I’m not looking for someone who will sign up and then not actually do the training. Maybe you’ve put things off before, but if you sign up with me, I want a commitment that you’re going to make the time to do the training, show up fully for the calls and your practices, and be all in.
Are not afraid of mindfulness practices and are willing to go deeper: You’ve meditated for a little bit now, and don’t mind going deep into mindfulness practices, being vulnerable, being radically honest, and opening up to new training.
Are ready to commit some time, effort and money into something meaningful: What is so important to you that you’re ready to commit a significant amount of time, effort and money to it?
Is that you? What is meaningful to you? Who do you care deeply about? What change do you want to create in the world?
How the Training Works
We’ll start with a free call, to get to know each other, and see if it’s the right fit. You won’t be under any obligation after the call. Then I’ll send you a proposal, and if you sign on, we’ll commit to training together.
Then we’ll meet twice a month, on video call, and dive into your patterns, what’s holding you back, what you want to create, and how you can train to shift those patterns. We’ll work flexibly, but with commitment and accountability.
I’ll give you practices/assignments to do between calls — this is where the real change takes place. You’ll log your training, and I’ll give you feedback on your log so that you can adjust the training if needed.
Here’s a testimonial from one of my recent clients:
“I had the usual goals to start with (more mindfulness, more discipline, less procrastination – you name it) which I have been aiming at – and missing – for a long time. Leo’s kind and extremely open approach made me feel safe and capable of sharing honestly my wins and failures. During our work together, Leo helped me to flank the obstacles that was resisting my futile head-on attacks. Due to the coaching experience, I am more capable of picking the right battles, distinguishing the important from irrelevant and accepting discomfort as a natural part of the journey.”
My family & I flew back to California after nine months of being in Guam, and boy are our arms tired! OK, our entire bodies are tired, and our brains — we’re suffering from jet lag and feeling tired during the day.
This isn’t necessarily a problem — jet lag is to be expected, after all — but tiredness can affect everything in your life. I find myself less able to do work, more overwhelmed when I’m behind on email and messages, less able to keep up with healthy habits, more likely to eat junk food, and in worse moods.
Being tired can have such huge effects on us. And many people are tired much of the time, from being overworked and underslept.
So what can we do? Well, there are the usual methods of trying to get better sleep, like better sleep hygiene, setting a consistent bedtime and wake time, and so forth. These are highly recommended.
But what do you do today, when you’re still tired? What can you do tomorrow if you’re tired then too?
Here’s how I try to practice in the middle of the tiredness, which is sometimes unavoidable.
Recognize that my battery is low. First I notice that I’m feeling tired, that my capacity to do things is lower than normal, that I am not as sharp or in as good a mood as I normally am (I’m normally a super dynamo, you know!). Bring awareness to my state.
Lower my expectations. Next, I bring acceptance to the fact that I’m just not going to be super productive or on top of things as much as I’d like. I recognize and accept that I just want to curl up in a ball, watch TV and eat junk food. With this acceptance of my lowered capacity, I try not to expect myself to get too much done.
Experience the tiredness. We try to eat junk food and procrastinate in order to not feel the tiredness. Instead, I try to actually feel it. That means to fully experience the tiredness, as if it’s just as delicious as any other experience. I try to bring curiosity to the experience — what is it like? How do my eyes feel behind my droopy eyelids? What does my face feel like? What about my chest? Throat? Gut? Legs? I try to feel it as an experience, not something I need to get rid of.
Give myself compassion. This might be so obvious or trite that many readers will skip this step, but I recommend that you give this a genuine shot. I pause and give myself some love — I’m feeling tired and down, so I wish for my suffering to end. It’s the same feeling if someone you loved were feeling anxious or hurt — how would you send them love? Do the same exact thing for yourself. This is a physical feeling of sending love to your tiredness, not an intellectual concept. Practice it now!
Aim for small victories. As I have a lowered capacity, I just try to get small victories when I can. Don’t have energy in the morning? Maybe I can just answer a couple of emails. Don’t have the capacity to write a blog post? Maybe I can just write two paragraphs. So I’m not entirely abdicating my responsibilities when I’m tired — I’m just trying to do a small amount. It makes a huge difference.
If I give in to temptation, really be present with it. If I decide to go for the pizza or ice cream, that’s nothing to feel guilty about. But for goodness sake, don’t do it mindlessly! If I’m going to eat ice cream, I want to be entirely present with the sensation of the sweetness on my tongue, the coldness in my mouth, going down my throat. Savor it. Experience it entirely.
That’s my mindful method, and I am imperfect at it. I violate every single one of these. But I try to practice, and when I do, it’s always wonderful.
We’re in the middle of a big move back to California from Guam, and things are in great flux. Saying goodby to everyone, packing and shipping stuff, not having a home yet, traveling with kids on a couple long flights, moving our old stuff from storage in a U-Haul, finding our way in a new city.
Life is turbulent right now — though if we think about it, it almost always is.
I’m not a surfer, but I imagine that I can let myself be overwhelmed and crushed by the turbulence … or I can ride it like a surfer might ride a wave. You don’t control the wave or know how it will turn out, you just have to navigate it moment to moment.
If we can learn to ride the rolling uncertainty of our lives like a wave, staying open each moment to what unfolds, we can live without as much stress and anxiety, and just be present to what is happening. Maybe even enjoy ourselves in the middle of it.
So what would that be like?
For me, it seems to be staying present with the feelings of uncertainty that come up for me, instead of trying to ignore them or get away from them. That means allowing myself to feel the turbulence, not constantly staying distracted.
It seems to be trying to be curious about what is unfolding, about what this particular moment is like, without needing to know what comes next exactly. Without needing it to be any certain way. And if I do expect it to be a certain way, being present with my feelings of frustration or stress when it doesn’t turn out to be that way.
It seems to be about surrendering, a bit, as I relax my constant need for control. I don’t have all the information I need to perfectly plan out my life — there’s so much uncertainty about everything, that I can’t possibly know how things should go, what I should do exactly, what will come next. So should I try to plan for every possible outcome, be incredibly prepared for any possible scenario, when I can’t know what might happen? Or can I relax and surrender, trusting that I can deal with whatever does come up. So far, that’s always been true.
It seems to be about dealing with what’s right in front of me, in the moment. I can’t deal with every possible scenario that might come in the future, but I can be fully open to what’s happening right now. I can be as present as I can with this situation, and figure out what needs to be done right now.
It also seems to be about learning to love this moment, as it unfolds, as it is. I don’t know what will come next, but what’s happening now is completely new, a beautiful surprise. Instead of worrying so much about what is still to come, I can open my eyes to what’s right here.
And then fall in love with it.
Walking into the unknown can be scary … but at the same time, it can also be a time of discovering love for a fresh experience. It can be a time of walking into pure joy at the miracle of life that’s just emerging in this moment.
Eva and I and our two younger kids are in the process of moving back to California from Guam, where we’ve been living with family for the last 9 months. As we pack our stuff, get some stuff ready to ship to California, and donate other things to charity … it is a great time to reflect.
Why do people have so much stuff?
Even though we have relatively little compared to most, we’ve still managed to accumulate too much, from getting gifts from other people to buying necessities (and non-necessities) along the way. Stuff just piles up over time — that’s the nature of stuff.
But most of it is not necessary. Most of our stuff, we buy because of one feeling: the feeling of uncertainty. This is the underlying groundlessness, shakiness, insecurity we feel about the future and the present moment. It’s the uncertainty we feel all day long, every day, to varying degrees. It’s what causes us to feel fear, stress, anxiety, worry, even anger. It’s what causes us to procrastinate and put off our healthy and productive habits.
The feeling of uncertainty is the root of our buying too much stuff.
Think about these examples:
You are going on a trip, and you’re feeling a bit nervous about it, so you do research and buy a bunch of stuff to take with you to help you feel more secure, prepared, certain.
You’re going to attend a conference, and it brings up some anxiety, so you get some gear to help you feel more prepared.
You get into a new hobby, and don’t know what you’re doing so feel a lot of uncertainty, and do a ton of research for days, buying everything you can possibly think of to be fully prepared.
You are hosting a social gathering and this is giving you some stress, so you buy a bunch of things to make sure the party goes as well as you can hope for.
You are feeling a lot of disruption and uncertainty in your life, and find yourself procrastinating on things while doing a lot of online shopping.
You are feeling uncertainty about yourself, about your looks. To help with that, you buy a lot of nice clothes and gear to make you feel better about yourself.
I could go on with endless examples, but you get the idea. Uncertainty brings with it an urge to get certainty, control, preparedness, security. And so we buy stuff to try to get that feeling.
The Futility of Shopping to Deal with Uncertainty
We don’t like the feeling of uncertainty and insecurity – we try to get rid of it as soon as we can, get away from it, push it away. We have lots of habitual patterns we’ve built up over the years to deal with this uncertainty and insecurity … and buying things is one of the most common, other than procrastination.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t actually give us any certainty or security. We buy things and we’re not really more prepared, in control, or secure. We hope we will be, and yet the feelings of uncertainty and insecurity are still there. So we have to buy some more stuff.
We’re looking for the magical answer to give us control and security, but it doesn’t exist. Life is uncertain. Always. It’s the defining feature of life. Read the quote from Pema Chodron at the top — it says it all, we have to accept the uncertainty of life.
And in fact, this is the answer to our drive to buy too much stuff — if we lean into the uncertainty, embrace it, learn to become comfortable with it, we can stop buying so much.
We can learn to live with little, sitting with the uncertainty of it all.
The Practice of Opening to Uncertainty, to Live with Little
Imagine owning very little, living in a spare room, eating simple whole food, not being involved in social media, just working, reading, walking, spending time with loved ones. Meditating, drinking tea.
It’s a life of very little, and is beautiful in its simplicity.
But then uncertainty comes up, as it inevitably does. You have a trip, you have to go to a party, you have a new kind of project to take on, you are starting a new venture. You’re feeling insecurity and uncertainty.
Here’s how to practice with it instead of buying something:
Notice you have the urge to buy something (or procrastinate, get control of everything, etc.).
Notice that underlying the urge is a feeling of uncertainty, that you don’t want.
Instead of rushing to follow your urge to buy something, pause and just sit with the uncertainty for a minute or two.
Turn your attention to the physical feeling of uncertainty in your body. Where is it located? What does it feel like?
Stay with the feeling and get really curious about it.
Relax around the feeling. Be generous with it, giving it compassion, openness, gratitude, love.
Notice that this is just a sensation, just an experience, nothing you need to run from, hate, or push away. You can be with it, even open up to it.
With this practice, you don’t need to fill your life with more stuff. This is my practice right now, as I see the effects of too much stuff that’s come into my family’s life. Sit with the uncertainty, embrace it, and fall in love with the groundlessness of my life.
On my 46th birthday recently, my (mostly adult) kids wrote out a list of lessons I’d taught each of them in their lives so far. Each wrote their own list, and my wife Eva sweetly put them together in a notebook.
As I read through them, I felt like crying. It’s so incredibly touching that they appreciate what I’ve been trying to pass on to them, things I’ve been learning and want them to understand.
As a father, there are few things more meaningful than to see how you’ve helped your kids through your example and talks over the years. We have a mixed family of 6 kids, aging from 13 years old to 26 years, and all of them are wonderful human beings.
It turns out, there were some lessons that all or most of the kids put on their list, which I’m going to share with you here. These lessons they had in common made me wonder if these were the more powerful lessons, or if they were simply the ones I talked about the most. :)
So here they are, roughly ordered in how frequently they showed up on my kids’ lists:
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and it’s okay to fail. This was tied (with the next one) as the most common lesson on their lists — it made all their lists, I think. I really love that this lesson hit home with them.
Have empathy & try to see things from others’ perspectives. This was the other lesson on all their lists, and again, it’s beautiful that they all took this to heart. I’ve tried to show them this through my actions, though of course I’m not at all perfect.
Push out of your comfort zone. This is another one I’ve tried to teach by example, from running several marathons and an ultramarathon to doing things that scare me, like speaking on stage or writing books. This lesson is so important to me that
Don’t spend more than you have. This is such a simple idea, but one that is rarely followed. I’m glad my kids are starting out with this mindset — live within your means, save as much as you can.
Appreciate what you have & enjoy where you are right now. I love this one. It’s something that I try to embody, but also remind them when they are thinking about what they don’t have. Each time we’re stuck in complaint, it’s an opportunity to wake up to the beauty that’s in front of us.
Sadness is a part of life, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling it. Despite what I said in the previous item, it’s OK to feel sadness, pain, grief, frustration, anxiety, anger. In fact, most of us never want to feel those things, so we’ll do whatever we can to ignore them or get away from the feelings. Instead, I try to actually feel those things, as an experience. It teaches me about struggle — if we’re not willing to face our own struggles, how can we be there for others when they struggle?
Don’t give up just because something gets hard. As new adults, our four oldest kids are facing various struggles in new ways. This is part of growth, of course, but struggles never feel good. My job as dad has been to encourage them not to give up just because it’s hard — to keep going, and to use the struggle to grow.
But don’t overwork yourself. That said, I’m not a fan of overwork. I believe the brain doesn’t function well if you keep studying or working past the point of exhaustion, so I try to teach them about taking breaks, resting, going outside and moving.
It’s okay to be weird in public. Have fun. I’m not sure why several of them had this on the list — they must have learned to be weird from someone else? OK, in truth, they might have gotten it from my tendency to dance and skip with them while we’re out walking around in a city, or to encourage us all to do weird things as a group, no matter what other people might think.
Your reality is a reflection of the narrative you tell yourself. This is something I learned late in life, and I’m glad my kids are learning this. The good news is that you can learn to drop that narrative, if it leads to suffering. What would this moment be like without a narrative? Beautiful and free.
Make people laugh. It makes their day brighter. I’m so happy they picked up this important lesson from me! With my kids, I’m mostly always joking, except for when I get (too) serious about teaching them an important lesson. The rest of the time, I try to take a lighthearted approach.
I love my kids with all my heart, and it has been a privilege to be their dad. I take 10% of the credit and give the rest to their moms, grandparents, and themselves.
Also … from them, I’ve learned some lessons that are just as important:
Kids deserve to be heard, to be listened to, to be respected. I started out as a dad with the idea that what I say goes, and they just need to listen to me! But over the years, I’ve learned to listen to them, and treat them as I’d want to be treated.
Kids have tender hearts that hurt when you aren’t kind to them. As a young dad, my frustrations and insecurities led me to angry bursts of scolding, yelling, spanking. I’ve grown since then, but more importantly, I’ve learned to see the tenderness of their hearts, and how it hurts to be yelled at by someone they trust and love so much. I am much more gentle with those hearts these days.
I should relax and not take myself so seriously. Whenever I think too much of myself, my kids humble me. Whenever I get too serious, my kids laugh at me. I love that playful reminder to loosen up.
Dads are goofy, dorky, uncool. And that’s how we should be. I sometimes harbor the notion that I can be a “cool” dad. When I try to break out newish slang or reference a meme, my kids will tease me about it. When I break out a joke or pun that I think is hilarious, they’ll laugh while rolling their eyes and calling it a “dad joke.” So I’ve learned just to embrace my uncoolness, and be myself with them.
All they need is love. There are lots of things to stress out about as parents, and nowadays we tend to obsess about getting everything right with our kids. But really, we’re stressing about it too much. All the details are just details — there’s only one thing that really matters. They want you to love them. And to receive their love. That’s all. Feed them, clothe them, shelter them, educate them, sure … but beyond that, they just want you to love them. Drop everything that gets in the way of that and let it come out as simply and clearly as you can.