But it’s not how it should be!

I could tell my daughter wasn’t feeling well as soon as she sat down for breakfast.

She was less of her jumpy-goofy usual self and her eyes had that look I know well. Call it mom’s six sense, but I know it when I see it.

Kiddo was sick. It wasn’t anything horrible, just a nasty bug. It happens, not a huge tragedy.

Except we were on the fifth day of our week-long vacation.

A special vacation we had planned so my daughter could spend time with her best friend, whom she is not getting to see at camp this summer. A vacation in a warm, tropical paradise that was such a magical break from the long Boston winter. A vacation I badly needed.

“I can’t believe the universe is so cruel as to ruin our vacation,” I thought, as I settled my daughter and her friend into a shady spot under the palm trees.

“How dare the universe make her sick now, when we are supposed to be having this amazing vacation!” I kept thinking, feeling frustrated, upset, and almost angry.

“This is not how it should be!” I kept repeating in my mind. “This is not how it should be!”

My daughter’s best friend, whose family came to meet us in paradise so that the girls could spend time together, also got sick. She caught some different bug, but she didn’t feel well either.

So Instead of going off kayaking or trapezing with their “kids’ club”, the girls ended up spending the rest of our vacation chilling together in the shade, taking short swims in the ocean, napping, and generally just taking it very slow.

“So awful that the girls got sick and didn’t get their full vacation,” I said to my friend, the mom of my daughter’s friend.

She seemed to be taking it all in stride and appeared less consumed by the frustration that was, by this point, coming out of my ears.

“Doesn’t this happen to you guys every time?” she asked me, matter-of-factly.

“No, this is the first time Mia got sick on vacation,” I replied.

“Oh, you guys are lucky! One of our kids always gets sick on vacation. It’’s just how it is,” she said.

It’s just how it is.

There it was, the simple difference between how she reacted and how I reacted to the same situation, our daughters getting sick in the middle of a paradise vacation.

She didn’t need the vacation any less than I did, she didn’t anticipate it any less — for herself or her daughter — she didn’t hope to enjoy some chillaxing time away from the kids any less.

She just thought that’s how it is, kids get sick.

And I thought, that’s not how it should be, kids shouldn’t get sick on dream vacations they anticipate for months.

I can trace so much of my unhappiness, frustration, anger, suffering, and disappointment in life to “that’s not how it should be.” The delta between how it is and how I imagine it should be is like this deep valley of suffering. The more I focus on it, the greater the difference between the two is, the more suffering I feel.

This vacation is not going how I think it should be.

I can’t do my yoga pose like I should be able to.

My job isn’t working out like it should be.

This project is not as successful as it should be.

My friend is not being as kind to me as she should be.

It’s endless. I’ve probably spent a total of several years of my life in this valley of suffering, between how it is and how I think it should be.

I’m aware of it. I’m aware that I can look at any situation differently, from the point of “it’s how it is”, and suffer less. But c’mon, does that mean I have to like and be resigned to the fact that my kiddo gets sick on vacation or that a certain project I poured myself into is not going well?

“Acceptance of the present moment has nothing to do with resignation in the face of what’s happening. It simply means a clear acknowledgement that what is happening is happening. Acceptance doesn’t tell you what to do. What happens next, what you choose to do, that has to come out of your understanding of the moment.”

This quote, by John Kabat-Zinn, from his wonderful book Wherever You Go, There You Are, is written in one of my journals. As I was struck by the very different way my friend was dealing with our daughters getting sick, I remembered it.

Acceptance of “this is how it is” doesn’t mean liking how it is or not doing anything to change it. It’s simply a place to start. From there, we can choose to try to change how things are, and if we can’t, try to find something within how they are to appreciate. But it’s a way better — and more productive — starting point than “that’s not how it should be”.

That much I can very much attest to.

“I’ll tell you guys a secret,” I said to my daughter and her friend, as they laid around in the shade next to me, chatting.

“I kind of like that you’re not in kids’ club and I get to see you guys a lot more.”

They both smiled and promptly went back to making music videos on their phones. (11 year-olds, what can I expect, right?)

I did love the chance to hang out with the girls more. Within this less than ideal situation, it was truly something I felt grateful for.

And I won’t lie and tell you that I banished all thoughts of “this is not how it should be”, but I did replace many with “this is not how I’d like it to be, but it’s how it is” variety. (A mojito with fresh passion fruit helped a bit, if we’re being really honest here.)

How to stop fighting the universe, have less fear, and feel freaking liberated (oh, and also not stress so much)

This weekend I went to one of my favorite places in this whole entire universe: Kripalu.

I’ll spare you what would surely become a super long blog post about how Kripalu is magical and why, even if you never do yoga or are allergic to the idea of doing yoga — which I was for most of my life — you should go there right this second.

Let’s just leave it at the fact that after a dear friend brought me there in the most incredible act of kindness when I was in a tough spot, I’ve made a pilgrimage to Kripalu once a year. I savor every ounce of the experience when I go and it’s something I not only look forward to every year, but a beacon to which I hold on when life inside my heart gets overwhelming or just, you know, windy.

So here I was, driving up for my 48 hours of bliss this past Friday. Silent breakfasts, stunning views, great yoga classes, the most nourishing food, long walks to the lake through the morning fog, putting away my phone for two days… I was replaying these experiences in my mind as I drove to the beautiful Berkshires. I could taste them.

In all this leaning forward I was doing, I was also trying to ignore something: I was not feeling great, at all.

I caught a really nasty cold earlier in the week and while it was getting better, I was still feeling absolutely crap. My body was achy, I was exhausted, and my headache was only getting worse.

My first reaction to becoming more aware that I still felt like total crap was to launch into this endless loop of anxiety:

How could I be sick on this weekend, when I’m going to my favorite place?!??? The whole weekend would now be totally ruined, my whole amazing experience I wait for all year is going to suck, I’m going to regret even coming! Why did I have to be such an idiot and get sick now?!

If any of this is familiar, just nod. We’ve all been there. Something is not going the way we imagine it should — a dream vacation is plagued by hurricanes, a dream date is at a restaurant that has the worst service, a dream day you’d planned to catch up on all your to-dos brings a kid who is sick and needs to stay home from school — and it’s the most maddening horrible thing. Ever. Because how could the world dare not flow the way we envision it should and the way we need, at this very moment!

My usual schedule at Kripalu includes two yoga classes a day and while they offer gentle, intermediate, and vigorous flow classes, I usually opt for the vigorous ones. But by the time I checked into my room on Friday afternoon, I knew there was no way in the universe my body could handle a strong yoga class. I spent some time being angry and frustrated, and then did the only other thing to do:

I went to gentle yoga. For the first time ever.

And it was wonderful. Easy, introspective, slow. It even helped my achy body feel a little better.

I kinda loved it, a lot.

Afterwards, I couldn’t fathom taking one of my super long walks, so instead I went on a shorter, slower one, and discovered a little trail I’d never seen before. It led me to one of the most peaceful spots on the grounds of Kripalu I’ve ever seen and my entire walk was accompanied by this beautiful sound of a little brook, flowing right along the trail path.

There was a lesson in all of this but trust me, I was completely blind to it.

Until I got into bed that night and started to read a book by Ram Dass, whom I consider one of my teachers without having ever met him. In it, he talks about this idea of working with what we’ve got, whatever it is, good, bad, difficult, awesome, anything.

What if we changed our attitude from “Oh, this is bad, this is good, I like this, I don’t like this, I wish it were like this, I wish that…” to “OK, this is what’s coming at me right now, I’m going to work with it…”?

(If this sounds like a similar message to what I wrote about in my post about surrendering to the moment, it is. Hard to not listen when the universe is essentially screaming it at me at this point.)

So I made a decision. I literally said aloud (which of course was just kinda weird, since I was alone in my room): I’m just going to accept that I feel like crap and I’m going to work with it. This is what’s coming at me right now, yes, while I am in my dream Kripalu refuge, so I’m going to work with it.

For the next two days I skipped every vigorous yoga class, taking gentle flow ones instead. I went to two meditation workshops that I’d usually skip because I’d be on one of my long walks. I learned so much to help my own meditation practice, that’s still a baby and needs all the support it can get.

I skipped the Saturday night concert and instead got into bed at 7pm to read a really great book, cover to cover. I lingered longer in bed in the morning, taking a much shorter walk than I usually do — but because I was out later than usual I got to watch the fog rise from the lake. It was stunning.

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I moved slower, I took more time at meals, I read more books, I wrote more in my journal.

My visit was so different from the ones I’d had previously. But I enjoyed every minute of it and I feel it was richer with learning and experience than before — from the different workshops I attended and from just allowing more time for thinking and writing than I would normally. I didn’t fully conquer the sicks but I was on my way. And my heart was as full as after ever visit to this magical place.

It’s not an easy lesson to learn — to work with what is coming at us without investing energy into wishing it were different, without getting annoyed or angry or frustrated. And I’ll tell you, I was in this mind space this weekend of “I don’t want to learn any lessons right now, let me just have a great weekend because I need a break!”

But if you can do it, it’s freaking liberating.

It takes away our fear of how we will deal if stuff doesn’t go our way because we stop labeling stuff as going our way or not — it’s all going our way, just in different ways. It builds this internal trust, this resilience that yeah, whatever comes, I’ll figure it out. It takes the fight out of “me vs. the universe”. And while it doesn’t remove feelings of frustration or annoyance – I was annoyed to be sick this weekend, for sure — it helps us waste less energy on them, and move the rest to a way more productive place.

Try it.

No, I’m serious, actually try doing this the next time something is not the way you wish it were. Don’t throw up your arms and hide under the covers, but take that, whatever way it is coming at you, don’t fight it inside, and just work with it the best way you can.

It might not lead to bliss, but it will bring a ton less anxiety, stress, and yes, fear.

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Does the practice of surrender make you a lazy unambitious sloth?

A reader asked an awesome question after reading my post about my adventures in surrendering: What happens to our ambition when we surrender?

Instead of replying to the comment, I promised a blog post instead — because that question has been on my mind quite a bit as well. I’m grateful that I was reminded to dive in a bit deeper on this topic and decided to use it for my first video blog in a new series called Pursuit of Happier.

I hope you enjoy it and I’d love to hear what you think. Do you find conflict between ambition and surrender? Or do you feel they live in harmony? How have you explored the idea of going with the flow of life while going after what you want to achieve?

Surrender to the call and ignore perfection

Last week in my morning yoga class I could tell we were moving towards a handstand.

I can’t do a handstand. In fact, I’ve never done a handstand in my life. I have tried, many times, to get my legs to go above my arms and land on the wall, and failed. Even a two-hour upside-down workshop didn’t get me over my fear of gaining enough momentum to get into a handstand.

So as soon as I realized where the flow sequence was heading, I felt uneasy.

About ten minutes before the end of class our teacher asked us to sit down so she could explain the next pose. She is seven months pregnant so wasn’t about to demo anything fancy, and suddenly I heard her say: “Nat, will you demo for me?”

Here’s the weird thing: I said yes before I realized I said yes.

After inhaling Michael Singer’s The Surrender Experiment (yes, it seeped so deep into my veins that this is my second blog post referencing it), I became fascinated with the idea of surrendering. Most of my life, I’ve subscribed to exactly the opposite philosophy — the idea that good things come when you run after them, work tirelessly to get them, overcome crazy obstacles and climb huge mountains to make them yours. If I didn’t dig a tunnel through the toughest rock towards something awesome, nothing awesome was ever going to come my way.

In The Surrender Experiment, the author describes surrendering as accepting things, people, and situations that come our way without judgement, without liking them or disliking them. Simply accepting that it’s what is meant to be in our path at this particular moment and doing our part to serve this moment. If we consider the fact that events unfolding in our lives were set in motion 3.9 billion years ago, when the world was created (you pick whatever method of creation you like to believe), then it’s silly to think that we can control these events to our liking. A more fulfilling and aware approach is to surrender to what comes and to consider things that are asked of us a call of something greater that’s been set in motion long before this very moment we’re in.

I found this idea so powerful that I’ve been trying to consciously practice it as often as I can. And thinking back, it’s likely why I agreed to demo a yoga pose in a class headed towards a pose I don’t know how to do. I didn’t judge being asked, I didn’t form an opinion about it, I simply surrendered to the call.

Want to know what the pose was? Here it is:

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(Yes, there are people who can do this in the middle of the room. Whoa.)

When our teacher described to me what she wanted me to demo, I started to laugh inside: There was no way in the world I could do this. This was worse than a handstand!

But I answered the call, what was I going to do now, run out of class? So I tried. Once, twice, three times, with zero success. She was standing next to me and said she was going to catch my leg on the next try, which she did. Here I was, in this upside down half stick pose, with my teacher holding up one of my legs in the air, when I heard the class clap.

People demo poses all the time. Usually they are brilliant at them. I’ve never heard anyone clap, until now. And I’m certain it had nothing to do with my finally getting into the pose with my teacher holding me up. It had everything to do with my classmates knowing that I just tried something I had no idea how to do.

But my personal surrender experiment didn’t end there.

Ten minutes later, it was time for the handstand. Surprisingly, my teacher asked me to demo again. I don’t know if she knew I couldn’t do it or she thought I could — it didn’t matter. I was too far down the path of surrendering to the call so I went to the wall, put my hands down, and tried to get my legs to swing above my head.

Once.

Twice.

Three times.

I felt my legs gently tap the wall, straightened my arms, and I was in a handstand. Just like that. For the first time in my life.

After class many people came up to thank me for demoing. I felt this warm kingship from them, this shared experience of going for something without any idea about how it will turn out. I took on a bit of their own fear in putting mine aside and it didn’t go unnoticed.

This experience has stayed with me for days since the class. It was the first time that I felt the power of simply surrendering to the call, putting aside my like or dislike of what was being asked of me, and going for it, ignoring perfection or any type of desired outcome. I tell anyone who will listen the story I just recounted here. It shifted something big inside me, in the simplest way, but one that I feel is revolutionary.

What else can happen if I surrender to the calls that come my way more often, putting aside my like or dislike of them, and not worrying about how exactly it will all turn out? How will my life change if I re-focus on serving the moment that is presented in the best way I can instead of trying to make every moment into something that fits my vision of what it should be?

I’ve lived most of my life in the fake safety of making lots of plans and to-do lists — can I achieve more, experience deeper, live fuller if instead, I chill the heck out and stop trying to control what’s in my path?

My newly acquired handstand practice is quietly but firmly saying yes.

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The practice of acceptance (or how I am trying to end my fight with the weather)

Every morning my daughter plays meteorologist by checking the weather and announcing it to the family. When we’re in for a warm and sunny day, I feel joy. If it’s cold or snowy — or worse, both — I feel a mix of dread, sadness, and anger. But the common ingredient is the strength of emotions I feel about the weather: INTENSE. My like or dislike of the weather is anything but subtle.

In the summer, when most of my weather feelings are joyful, this is less of an issue. But when the first fall chill arrives, I start to live with dreadful anticipation of THE WINTER. I prepare for the dread of the winter way before it arrives, thereby not really enjoying the beauty of fall other than in rare moments. I constantly catch myself thinking about how it will feel when my walk in the morning is a lot colder come December, even as I walk on a beautiful October morning when the temperature is perfectly comfortable, the sun is shining, and the leaves color my world in incredible hues.

As I write this now it sounds a bit ridiculous. And I am fully aware that the degree of my emotional involvement with the weather is at best, silly, and at worst, a huge drag on my life. But I’ve recently developed a different perspective on it, and perhaps one that can help me learn to let it go.

For the past several months I’ve tried to live by a simple mantra from Ram Dass, whom I consider one of my spiritual teachers: Be. Here. Now. It’s incredibly simple and yet profound — not to lean forward into the future, not to get stuck in the past, and instead, be fully awake in the present moment, whatever the moment is. It’s a practice that seems easy and yet is one of the most challenging and emotionally difficult ones I’ve undertaken. (And I imagine one that it will always remain a practice without a perfect outcome.)

My dread of the winter is the definition of not being here now, it’s all about leaning emotionally into the future. And in that, it’s not just an annoying habit but an obstacle on my spiritual journey to become more awake to the life I am living at this very moment.

Last week I was in Florida for a speaking gig and picked up a book to take with me on the flight: The Surrender Experiment. It’s beautifully written and if you’re at all curious about living with less struggle and constant pushing, fighting, forcing, you’ll enjoy it. In one of the chapters, the author, Michael Singer, talks about practicing acceptance of whatever came his way. He describes it as surrendering to what life puts in your path and not judging it — not expressing your like or dislike of it, not wishing it were different or that you might have more of it, just accepting it as something that is exactly how it should be. 

I was reading this chapter while sitting on the balcony outside my hotel room, in the middle of a sunny and hot Florida day. It got me thinking about my attachment to weather and the degree to which I allow it to affect how I feel. Could I practice acceptance and surrender to whatever weather greets me every day, without experiencing feelings of joy or dread about it? Can I simply accept it as it is?

I don’t know the answer but I excitedly decided to give it a try. I see this practice of acceptance as a close soulmate to the practice of gratitude. We can’t be grateful for something unless we are fully awake to it and we accept it exactly how it is, without judging it or wishing it were different. Can I be grateful for snow and freezing rain? How about wind and rain on a morning walk? Can I learn to live every day of this beautiful fall without the constant “This is nice but soon it’s going to get really nasty outside and then I am going to be really unhappy…” soundtrack running through my mind?

Surrendering and accepting aren’t exactly words that have had a lot of use in my vocabulary for most of my life, nor do we live in a culture where they are celebrated. I know I made the mistake for a long time of thinking that accepting something meant being complacent about it.

But it’s not at all, actually. Being awake to things as they are in our lives, accepting them without judging with our likes or dislikes, allows us to see them clearly and from that point of clarity make better decisions about what we want to do at that moment — with “nothing” being a viable option. (Like put on an extra warm jacket and huge scarf when the weather gets freezing in Boston.)

Is there something in your life which is draining your emotional energy? Can you find a way to practice acceptance and surrender to that reality, to tame your dislike of it, your judgement of how you wish it were? From my early experiments with practicing acceptance of the weather, I can say it’s worth a serious try.

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I’m a crazed, busy startup CEO — here are 5 of my favorite habits to stay sane and be happier.

Let’s get this out of the way first:

Just because I run a company called Happier doesn’t mean I’m naturally, without any effort, happy. Not at all. Running an early-stage startup and juggling that with being a mom, wife, daughter, grand-daughter, friend and well, a woman who also wants to have more than a second of time to herself, is freaking hard. I stress a lot, I have totally off days when I just want to go hide under the covers, and there are many days when I am not sure how to get it all done.

But I am lucky: I’ve spent the last few years living and breathing research on happiness and I get to be part of the amazing Happier community every day. I have learned a LOT about being more positive and optimistic, managing my stress, and yes, being happier, and I want to share some of my favorite happiness habits with you. (I don’t think you need to be a crazed start-up CEO to find these useful but if you are, I think you will.)

  1. Write down at least 3 things every day that I am grateful for. OK, I don’t write them down, I capture my happy moments in our Happier app, but it’s the same idea. Mountains of research shows that practicing gratitude has incredible benefits for our overall well-being — from helping us be more positive, joyful and optimistic, to feeling less stress and anxiety. And you do have to actually practice it by writing down what you’re grateful for; just thinking it is not enough. I have two types of days: On some I share my happy moments throughout the day; on others, I share them at night, in “bulk”, before I go to bed. Both work, just depends on how much running around I am doing.
  2. Go for an early morning walk. I get up at 6am every day and go for a 3+ mile walk. I do it in the sun, rain, freezing wind, and even snow (I think I skipped a few huge snow storm days, but that’s it). There are days when I think I’m half-asleep when I start walking but my body just goes. For me this is like my daily meditation. I listen to music — not news — I move, I breathe. I travel a lot and try to get a walk in on business trips as well, although this is more challenging. Having this one daily ritual that doesn’t shift due to schedules, that’s just there, always, is incredibly helpful. It anchors my day and gets me started on the right foot. (Plus getting your heart pumping and getting fresh air have been shown to lead to less stress and more positive thinking.)
  3. Get one thing done before I check my email. This is a hard one but makes a huge difference. I try to get something done on my to-do list before I open my email — which also means no mindless email checking in the car or while getting stuff done with my family in the morning. Research says being productive makes us happier and I can absolutely attest that days when I stick to doing this are better and less crazy stressed.
  4. Have small fun family traditions to anchor the week. I work a lot. My husband works a lot. Our awesome nine year-old kiddo has a lot of activities. So our week is pretty nuts. I realized a while back that having rituals — even really small ones — that we can all look forward to, helps a ton. For example, on Friday nights we do sushi and a movie together. On Tuesdays I get home for dinner with our daughter and it’s quesadilla night. Every morning I put a small note with a sticker into her lunchbox — it’s 30 seconds during which I smile and think about her day and 30 seconds when she opens her lunchbox and smiles. Our family traditions aren’t complicated, but they are huge for keeping us all saner and happier.
  5. Always have one thing on the calendar I’m looking forward to.  I try to schedule a lunch or dinner with a friend, catch up with my parents, or have a plan for something fun with my husband and kiddo at least once a week. Having it there is a great pick-me-up if I’m having a rough day and it’s just fun to look forward to. (Which science says is actually a thing — looking forward to good experiences makes us happier. When you plan a vacation, for example, the anticipation and the planning make you as happy – or sometimes happier – than going on it.)