20 Days of Love Stories

Norman Vincent Peale

One of the earliest books (In Western culture) written about the power of the human mind to alter what happens in the body is “The Power of Positive Thinking” (1952). Since it was written by a Methodist minister, Norman Vincent Peale, many people assumed that the focus would be Spirituality. Turns out, his book had much more to do with Peale’s un-scientific and non-religious experiment with his own cancer treatment, and his resulting belief that mental positivity can heal.

The story is that Peale, in his early 50’s, was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer. According to his doctors, his prognosis was grim. They suggested admitting him into hospital, but he refused. Instead, Peale did something that his medical team thought was totally crazy:  for 6 to 7 hours each day, in between dozing and eating light meals, Peale watched old black and white films (reel to reel copies he’d borrowed from a Hollywood friend) of Laurel and Hardy comedy sketches. Long story short, around 7 months later, Peale claimed that he had literally laughed his cancer into remission. His doctors agreed:  he was cancer-free. Peale lived another 43 years, passing away at the age of 95, from natural causes.

Laurel and Hardy. Courtesy, bottomshelfmovies

I have a good friend that I’ve kind of lost touch with. I went fast-forward into a demanding career phase, while Janelle left the work scene to care for her gravely-ill baby daughter. While the baby went to a renowned children’s hospital and lived by machines breathing for her, Janelle stayed in a dorm on the hospital’s campus. Janelle later told me that, for the 3 months her child struggled to survive, she got “hooked” on two television channels that were non-stop Love and Happiness. She craved the diversion, and her heart desperately needed a continuous loop of happy-endings.

What seemed like a year later, my friend phoned to let me know that the baby was out of the hospital and at home, though still under doctor’s care. She segued into talking about her tv “shows” and how they’d remained an ongoing part of her life. “They’re all I watch, anymore”, she said. I did a silent eye-roll, then caught myself going a little judge-y: Whatever works; who am I to criticize icky-sweet dramas that end, predictably, with happy outcomes for all?

What was most surprising was the fact that, previously, Janelle was what I’d call ‘tough’. She’d worked with hardened juvenile offenders and gangsters, and had herself grown up in a rough household of drugs and poverty. She was savvy, streetwise, and a bit cynical. How could she have ‘gone over the rainbow’ so completely? Simple answer:  her baby’s life was threatened, and Janelle needed the magic of Everything Will Always Be Ok. She’d dosed herself, the way Peale did, with the sights and sounds of joy and hope. For months. And it worked for her.

Mindless chores like dusting and folding laundry always involve Dance music and lots of it. On a particular day in early November, I decided instead to turn on the television. I didn’t check the channel, it didn’t matter; but before I knew it I’d gotten roped into a charming (and high-grossing, at the time) Rom-Com film I hadn’t seen in years. It had just started, but I had too much work to do so I recorded it to watch later that night. Which I did, until around midnight. Happy ending: check. Plenty of tears and smiles woven-together: check. Silly, simple and absurd at times:  check. Everything that I – apparently—had wanted and needed, because I nodded off in a kind of goofy stupor, sleeping better than I have in a long, long time. The next night, I found another film of the same genre and, I have to say, gave myself over to it in the same mindless way. At the end of multiple films over a number of days, I felt ridiculous — but strangely better.

Rom-Coms and funny skits don’t make The World go away, but there’s definitely something to be said for allowing our minds to take a break from so much worry, fear, angst and stress of daily living. There’s no danger of my falling into a place where I never again watch my news feed, or my favorites, Noir films; but I’ve re-discovered the amazing link between happiness-dosing and a peaceful mental state. So what if some of what we consume is cheesy (literally and figuratively)? There just might be a longer, happier life hidden in that mix. Peale called it “The Happiness Habit” and suggested that we should “cultivate it every day”. How we choose to do that might seem silly to others, but hey – if it works…?

My Workout in "The Now"

I’ve had quite a few friends who were, and still are, serious body-builders (heavy lifting, in order to get ‘definition’ or to ‘bulk up’). At one point (long ago), I trained with a friend of mine who was hoping to compete nationally. Karen did brutal short, fast repetitions with progressively heavier weights, while I (pathetically) mimicked her workout with lighter ones. I came to admire the discipline that chasing the perfect, chiseled physique requires. Not just the commitment to hours at the gym, but restrictive diets and the comprehensive mindset of the lifestyle. For me, personally, much of that lifestyle depended upon the daily (sometimes hourly) exertion of willpower, self-control, and extreme focus.

I flashed-back to “powering through” intense and exhausting workouts as I listened to – my term, hopefully not sounding too cheeky – a Wellness Guru. As it happens, one of Deepak Chopra’s daughters. The story she shared was about her in-person interview with author Eckhart Tolle (his best-known book, “The Power of Now”). Ms. Chopra shared with her audience that she’d tried for months to gain access to Tolle (despite the ‘intro’ she had, with her father and Eckhart already being friends and colleagues). But with Tolle’s schedule (and him not being very inclined to travel), it was proving almost impossible. Then one day, when she’d almost given up on the idea, the author’s assistant called:  could Ms. Chopra meet Mr. Tolle in Stockholm?

“The Power of Now” is all about controlling The Mind. From Tolle’s perspective, there is no Past and no Future; only the Present Moment exists. We’ve heard this before, but Tolle lives this ‘mental workout’, as Chopra discovered. At first, she shared, Chopra thought the author was playing a game with her. Try as she might to get him to talk about his personal and professional journey, to each question she asked about his Past, his response re-directed her to the very moment of the experience the two of them were sharing in the interview.

Chopra said that it took her awhile to get the ‘hang’ of Tolle’s process. His assistant had allocated 2 hours for the interview, but – Chopra confided during her talk – she’d spent a frustrating ninety minutes asking (the wrong type of) questions and being rebuffed. Tolle’s focus was so consistently in the Present Moment that it seemed (to Chopra) to be almost beyond belief; almost beyond human ability and understanding.

On a slow day, I might be able to clear my mind to meditate for maybe five minutes. If I’m honest, two or three minutes are spent ‘working’ at it, which I know is not the point. On a more typical day, my tendency to plan, structure and execute whatever’s on my To-Do list seems like a much better use of my time. Often, I catch myself either Troubleshooting, via Past recall, or trying to peer-into the Future, struggling to anticipate any and all scenarios.

For the novice trying to focus on The Now, Tolle suggests a thought experiment:  Try to pinpoint where one thought ends, and the next one begins (perhaps while looking at a painting, or a flower – something simple). This space between thoughts Tolle calls The Gap. I’m paraphrasing from his book:  “When you find it, step into it and see how long you can stay there without the next conscious thought pushing you out of the Gap.”

I’ve been practicing this ‘In the Now’ exercise for awhile now; stretching my time in The Gap feels like testing already-sore mental muscles. But when I do get there (in the Gap), it’s the most amazing sense of calm imaginable; it’s just really hard to sustain. One thing I have learned through this discipline is just how strong my preoccupation with Yesterday and Tomorrow is. I have imaginary ‘arguments’ with Tolle:  “How can I possibly plan what I want for my Life without a review of my Past, and without fantasizing over my vision and hopes for my Future?”

I can still recall the day I officially gave a ‘hard pass’ to the competitive body-building workout. A friend and I went downtown, to the old-school Carnation Soda Fountain. I ordered the most decadent item on the menu:  a triple-chocolate sundae. These days, I’ve accepted the fact that whatever feels like a ‘workout’ to me probably isn’t going to work out for me, in the long run. I’ll continue trying to coax my ever-busy mind into The Gap whenever I can remind myself to. But I’m finding that balance is much more fun than perfection.

Being "Set"

I try not to consciously compare myself to others in my age group – in any major category of ‘status’ (health and well-being, financial stability, the successes of our children out in the world). But sometimes the differences smack me in the face, urging me to take a look at The Good Stuff in my life. If anyone ever asked me, I’d share that my achievements feel somewhat random and accidental:  I’ve made some big blunders along the way, and am grateful that I didn’t do more damage to myself or those I love.

Talking recently with a friend (who also lives across the street from me), added to my sense of gratitude. And wonderment. A “There, but for the grace of God” moment. We don’t know each other that well, but more than just superficially. His cancer-scare. The current downward spiral of two of his adult children. The recent death of his father – a pillar in his world, now ashes in an urn on the mantle. Over time, I’ve discovered that my friend’s outward appearance of Success (a beautiful house; a cabin in the mountains; a wide array of vehicles; four- now adult- children that had apparently never given him much concern growing up) is only a small part of his Story.

We’ve all heard and read about Glass Half Full, and Glass Half Empty people. Even though Pop-Psych tends to rely on super-simplistic ways of organizing complex human stories, sometimes it does ‘nail’ it. What I recently learned, however, is that the human heart can actually talk itself into either perspective. So, my friend/neighbor (calling him Dan, here) and I were discussing the stage in life – so adverts, articles and even greeting cards would have us believe – where ‘carefree living’ is finally accessible. I call it, being “set”. Money in the bank; work that you love; vacay when you choose; a comfortable home space; and of course, health and well-being.

But the unspoken truth is that being “set” is really more about the heart than the head. You might think that you have all of the trappings of it, but then something or someone ‘tanks’ your happiness in a way that causes a re-think. So it was, with Dan. It wasn’t his own personal situation gone awry, but the decisions and actions of one of his adult children that suddenly put Dan into a tailspin. When he put his angst into words, it came out like this:  “This isn’t how it’s supposed to go! At this stage of Life, my children are supposed to be a comfort, not a worry!” (I couldn’t help but think – Wow:  did I miss the Memo guaranteeing ‘Golden Years’?)

Turns out, Dan’s 30-something son appeared to be “set”, then did a 180 and nose-dived into personal and financial crisis. The (married, with children) son had boomeranged back home, needing all sorts of emotional and material care. Dan stepped-up, as he felt he needed to do as Papa, and took-charge. But then, once he’d taken charge, he resented having his Peace obliterated by an adult who had the emotional power to pluck heart strings.

Trying not to feel smug – that always provokes a humbling ‘poke’ from The Universe – I listened to a perspective (Dan’s) that reinforced what I’ve learned along the way. Being “set” isn’t what media, especially social media, would have us think it is. It’s like the difference between ‘doing’ and ‘feeling’:  the former producing something; the latter being fluid and kind of ephemeral. Turns out, whatever feels like it should be ‘in stone’ seldom is. Careers, love affairs, seemingly ‘successful’ (whatever that means) adult children, friendships; and, stages in life that we’re led to believe will be ‘carefree’.

Over this past weekend I traveled to California’s beautiful Central Coast and watched – for a long while – the surfers enjoying what appeared to be very decent waves. Wet-suited (our Pacific being notoriously cold), tenacious (no matter how many times they were tossed under Winter’s gray-blue waves they popped up like corks) and exuberant as they deftly (and not so deftly) tried to stay poised and balanced for The Best Ride.

When You Just 'Know'

When it comes to my personal toolkit – the knowledge and experience that keeps me from going off the rails in Life (always an option, no matter how ‘together’ I feel) – I’m continually on the prowl for new perspectives on complicated issues and topics. But to grab my attention, whatever wisdom is on offer has to come from someone who’s been doing, feeling, living, and surviving pretty significant challenges. Even better, whatever lessons have been learned through navigating Life’s choppier moments hasn’t caused permanent bitterness, wariness and self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. It’s pretty clear to me that the wisdom I’m chasing comes from the Wounded Heart; now even more open in its suffering; more determined to not only survive, but to flourish. More receptive and, ultimately, more loving.

There’s a global celebrity who’s parlayed her traumatic childhood and young adult years into what I call a Syndicate of Wellbeing. Her media presence and brand is instantly recognizable, credible, and obviously hugely helpful to people around the world. Especially women who’ve survived abuse. Although I don’t track this mega-star like I used to, there’s a meme — always featured in the first pages of her monthly magazine – that resonates with me daily. The meme’s actually more of a mindset: a gentle invitation to come closer; to settle-in comfortably with the intimate friend who knows you so well, whispering, “What I Know For Sure”. Her revelations about Life –  always unassuming, transparent, inclusive, and offered sincerely – encourage and reassure at the same time.

I realized recently that I’ve incorporated this meme or mindset into my daily ‘process’, as a way of self-checking my own authenticity. Am I being honest with myself and others, especially when it’s super-hard and even painful to do so? Am I being true to Who I Really Am, and to the kind of life I want to live? It’s so easy – too easy – to stumble around in relationships and decision-making without truly participating in the effort. Realizing and accepting that every single thought I have and every single action I take comes from my accumulated ‘baggage’ takes an unwavering willingness to not only look, but to see.

Why did the relationship end? Why didn’t I get the job? Why do some opportunities that I thought were so ‘killer’ turn out to be disappointments? Looking at Life from the perspective of “I got myself onto this particular stage; the other people here with me are really just bystanders” is a tough reality-check. It requires ownership. It means accepting that most of Life evolves from how we think, what we do, and how we do it. The act of living comes together as a whole string of teachable moments and lessons-learned (or not).

Distilling Life’s Lessons down to “What I Know For Sure” is a way of acknowledging that, at the end of the day, it’s up to me – and me alone – to chart my own journey; not rely on anyone else’s compass or coordinates for Bliss. I get to decide what my heart wants, and whether or not I have the courage to go after my deepest desires. It also means that, no matter how black and unbearable in the moment heartache and suffering may be, in the morning I’ll have added new knowledge to my personal toolkit. The journey may feel a little lonely at times, and the new information hard-won, but the ‘knowing’ comes from my own inner being, so it’s mine forever.

On Feeling Alone

Here in the Western hemisphere, days are growing shorter, darker and colder. I can feel my seasonal urges for soup-making, and bringing out the plushest blankets I can find in my closet, kicking-in. I live in California – far from blizzards and true bitter-cold. Still, my tendency to indulge in more decadent eating and just lounging-about this time of year always makes me feel like an animal ready to hibernate. That’s how I justify my need for more comfort foods, and way more sleep, anyway.

Fall and winter also bring a kind of wistfulness. While the natural world is slowing-down, changing into reds and golds and getting ready for sleep, the frenzy of The Holidays, and other people’s ideas about what that means, seems to clash with the quiet peacefulness of Nature, with her soft prelude into deep rest.

Darker, colder days and reminders that The Holidays are supposed to glitter with love and contentment can also be a time of great loneliness for many people. Everyone else’s lives seem to be illuminated by a light and warmth that we don’t share. Today as I was listening to someone who I normally find spot-on with her observations and recommendations for living life fully and happily, I found her ideas about Holiday ‘blues’ uninspired.

This practitioner spoke directly, for a few moments, to “all the people who are alone; without family and perhaps even without friends”. Her recommendation was to “take initiative”, “have a party and invite your neighbors”. I knew what she was getting-at, what she was trying to say, even though my mind immediately registered her suggestions as totally absurd.

What I wanted her to say, longed for her to say, is what every person who’s ever spent a festive season alone needs to hear:  Whatever you’re feeling, it’s OK to just ‘be’ with that, in whatever way you choose. I also wanted the speaker to mention (total wishful thinking on my part) that a lot of the smiling faces on people that seem to be in bliss this time of year aren’t always Feeling the Love, on deep and meaningful levels. They’re just caught up in the frenzy, like everyone else.

There might be something to the expression, Fake It ‘til You Make It:  trying to jolly yourself into a certain mood or spirit. But there are other ways to “survive the holidays” (that sentiment alone, heard in frequent adverts, is enough reason for me to get creative).

What the practitioner I listened to this morning failed (perhaps there just wasn’t time in the podcast) to mention, is that ‘Alone’ can be a choice, or a circumstance. Either way, being, or feeling alone during the holidays doesn’t have to feel like one of the worst of Life’s struggles. Also, fulfillment through companionship – whenever its wanted and needed — is not solely found through other people. It can be through pets, and books, and music, or walks in nature. ‘Company’ can be felt through travel, cooking, mediation, writing, and personal rituals that honor Just Being. Even if a lonely heart feels that none other than a lover or true friend will do, the above options are often pathways to people.

It’s good to remember, I think – especially during festive seasons — that ‘alone’ isn’t always defined as loneliness, or, by a lack of family or friends. Some of the loneliest people I know are married, with children, and a gaggle of people they call ‘friends’. Our choices and decisions about how we exist are always our very own, regardless of the seasons, as long as we live and breathe. That’s something worth celebrating, even after the decorations come down and the party hats are put away.

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