The Minuteman Bikeway, where I walk and get some of my best ideas.

Trees: A Love Story

by Kim Childs

images love treeOne morning as this year’s interminable winter gave way to spring, I took myself out for a walk. Strolling though my favorite park, I was arrested by the sight of a shining silver birch that was beginning to sprout some green. An exuberant “Hi!” escaped my lips and I looked around, wondering if anyone had heard me talking to the tree.

Not that I could have stopped myself. Because trees and I, well, we go way back.

As the daughter and sister of two skilled arborists, I consider trees part of the family. In fact, you could say that they put clothes on my back, a roof over my head, and money in my college fund. Our family photo collections contain just as many pictures of trees as they do of gap-toothed kids, pets and relatives. Growing up, my brothers and I would groan as Dad repeatedly stopped the car to photograph the specimens he spotted on family road trips.

I’m pretty sure I was the only kid in my school who could identify Japanese maples, Dutch Elm Disease and gypsy moths.

During my tomboy phase I climbed trees, and sometimes I read books in their branches. Later on I built a fort in the woods where I retreated throughout my adolescence, finding comfort and solitude among my beloved trees. I think that’s also where I felt closest to the God of my understanding.

Throughout college and the years that followed, I traded the solace of nature for the excitement of cities. Years spent living in Philadelphia, London and New York found me worshiping shiny buildings, hot clubs, trendy restaurants and trendier people. By the time I was 35, that lifestyle had burned me out.

An early midlife crisis sent me running back to the natural world for healing in 1999, when I came to live and recover my spirit at the Kripalu Center amid the green, green Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. I went for walks in the deep woods and did yoga or took naps under shady trees on the lawn. My fellow volunteers and I held sharing circles under the majestic American Elm near the Annex, shedding tears and speaking truths beneath its sheltering branches.

Assembling vrikshasana, or tree pose,  took on special meaning at Kripalu as I planted my foot, raised my arms and gazed out at steady evergreens for inspiration. “Trees get everything they need without striving, and they’re never in a hurry,” my yoga teacher once said. “Trees are strong because they root down into the Earth, reach for the heavens and bend with the wind.”

And thus trees became my gurus, too.

Two years later I moved to a suburb of Boston with tree-lined streets and plenty of parks. I’m now just minutes away from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau famously found tranquility in the woods. When I walk the bike path near my home, the tall pines and maples form a cathedral that receives my prayers and secrets. The birds and squirrels offer companionship, too, reminding me of Mary Oliver’s promise that life is always calling to me, “announcing (my) place in the family of things.”

I do feel benevolently companioned by trees, and I’m proud to call myself a tree hugger. I’ve also been known to thank them and caress their bark—usually when no one is looking.

“It’s no coincidence that the most important spiritual leaders went out to nature when they were searching for the truth,” says Positive Psychology teacher and author Tal Ben-Shahar. Indeed, the Buddha himself found enlightenment under a sacred fig tree that later became known as the Bodhi tree. It makes me wonder if this great spiritual teacher was absorbing wisdom from an even greater one during those weeks of sitting in stillness under its leaves.

I once heard a news report that said we humans are spending more time with machines than we are with each other, which makes me guess that time in nature has probably dropped even further down the list. While I love my gadgets, they rarely stir my heart like the smell of spruce or musky autumn leaves, the fiery blaze of fall color or the tender green shoots and pastel blossoms on the trees outside my door.

Recently, I was excited to learn about a meditation practice called Sit Spot. It involves finding a tranquil place in nature to simply sit and observe natural rhythms and changes for about 15 minutes a day over a period of time. Now that’s my kind of spiritual practice, and I know others who’d agree.

“I go among trees and sit still,” the poet Wendell Berry wrote, “All my stirring becomes quiet around me like circles on water. My tasks lie in their places where I left them, asleep like cattle.”

May all beings, everywhere, find their own Bodhi tree.

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life,  Career and Wellness Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation.

Living Gratitude

by Kim Childs

Twenty years ago, I was driving solo along the highways of New Mexico with some books imageson tape to keep me company. The most memorable of these was Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, a self-help classic by the late Susan Jeffers. In addition to offering good ideas about managing fear, Jeffers suggested that I take time each night to write down 50 things for which I was grateful.

“Did she say 50?!” I exclaimed, rewinding the cassette. Yup, she said 50—because it’s not really about the list.

In order to create a lengthy gratitude list every night, you have to spend your days looking for things to write down. So far today, my items would include finding my favorite tea on sale at Whole Foods Market, that delightful toddler in the checkout line, the e-mail from a soul sister full of just the right words, and the delicious breeze that beckoned me outside for a walk. That’s five down, 45 to go. And so I will mentally note more to appreciate as the day goes on.

Sometimes the things that make my list reflect what did not happen that day, like a near miss on the highway, the car repair that wasn’t needed after all, and the medical test that came back negative. When I turn on the tap water, I’m grateful that I don’t live in a town plagued by drought or contamination. When my wheelchair-bound neighbor calls me for help, I’m reminded to appreciate my legs. And, because Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said something like “Be grateful for the non-toothache,” I often give thanks when pain or illness has disappeared.

It’s easy to be miserable when I’m suffering. I need to be thankful when I’m well.

What Jeffers was up to with her gratitude list was getting us to flip our internal script from a running monologue of criticism and complaining (and their close friends, scarcity and lack) to one of appreciation and wonder for what we have and what is always available. For years, Positive Psychology researchers have shown that a regular gratitude practice can boost mental and physical well-being. I find that it assuages loneliness, too. When I feel as if life is serving me up a bounty of blessings, I feel companioned by benevolent forces.

On the other hand, when I focus on my problems and complain about what I don’t have, it’s as if I’m wearing super-dark sunglasses. In that state, I’m unlikely to recognize my good when it does appear, and unmotivated to strive for better. It often creates a downward spiral in which my negative energy starts to attract more of the same. Think about a shaking fist versus an upturned palm. Which is more likely to attract struggle? Which is more likely to receive?

Still, I’m imperfectly human, and there are times when it’s hard to trust that life is giving me what I need when it’s not giving me what I want. That’s when I have to flip into “Maybe there’s a good reason for this delay,” or “Well, it could be worse…,” or “Is there another direction I’m meant to pursue?” I’m not saying that I move from anger to acceptance lickety-split, but I do find that life is gentler when I reach for things to appreciate in difficult times.

“What we appreciate, appreciates,” is a favorite saying of  Tal Ben-Shahar, my own Positive Psychology teacher and mentor. I used to think this meant that practicing gratitude was like practicing magic, as in, I say “Thanks, Universe!” and presto, more good stuff appears. Today I realize that expressing gratitude instantly makes me feel abundant, expansive, and connected to source, which is where the real magic happens.

Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast, who writes extensively about gratitude, says that it begins with a sense of surprise for all that is given, rather than an air of entitlement. “Gratitude is a real practice in my mind, as valid as yoga or Zen meditation or Sufi dancing,” he says. “It’s not joy that makes us grateful but gratefulness that makes us joyful.”

I no longer write a gratitude list each night because thankfulness has become a living mindfulness practice, as I pay attention throughout the day to the blessings in my life. It’s an instant mood booster and a chance to acknowledge the miracles that surround me all the time, and that makes me feel hopeful and well cared for.

I also make it a habit to voice my appreciation to others whenever possible, from my husband’s helpfulness in the kitchen to a store clerk’s cheerful assistance and funky earrings.

And who knows? I just might be giving them something to add to their own list that night.

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life and Career Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation.

(Note: This post was written for Kripalu’s Thrive and also appears here.)

Finding Our Tribes

by Kim Childs

Last mindexonth as I watched my students in The Artist’s Way bonding with each other, I grew aware of some jealousy bubbling up in me. It made me realize that, since becoming a workshop facilitator, I’d spent more time creating support circles than cultivating my own. In the last year, I’d also let my social life get a bit too “virtual” as I single-mindedly focused on becoming a certified coach and building a new business.

While my online connections are wonderful, they don’t take the place of real people in my space, and they aren’t necessarily the people I call when I really need to talk. I know what that support looks like, because I’ve had it.

In the summer of 1997, I hit bottom in my personal and professional life, and depression was setting in. In the midst of that funk, I spotted a pink flier announcing a workshop on The Artist’s Way in my town. There was one spot left in the group, and I grabbed it.

Soon I was meeting weekly with a handful of kindred spirits who wanted what I did—a more authentic life and a way to express our passions. We entrusted each other with our once secret desires to sing, write poetry, pen novels, and paint. We helped each other through dark and doubtful moments, we celebrated each other’s progress and triumphs, and we stayed connected after the course was over.

And, as often happens on the road to recovery, I also discovered parts of me that needing healing.

I found a therapist who steered me to Al-Anon, a 12-step program for those affected by addiction in others. That’s where I was astonished to hear many versions of my own life story from men and women who had walked a similarly painful path of trying to cope in relationships with alcoholics and drug addicts. My circle of support now included Al-Anon members who shared secrets, supportive phone calls and Saturday mornings with me.

As my healing and recovery journey continued, I quit my radio career and headed to the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, where I planned to volunteer all summer. In fact, I stayed for two years because I found yet another tribe there—people who were committed to growing themselves as spiritual warriors. My fellow yogis and yoginis were of different ages, races and backgrounds, but those differences melted as we chanted and danced ecstatically, held rituals, shared deep truths, drummed around the fire and practiced yoga on and off our mats.

It was a magical time.

When I left Kripalu and moved to the Boston area, I began leading others in transformational workshops. For 12 years, I’ve watched my students open up to each other in the safe space that we co-create. While they often enter the class feeling stuck and “terminally unique” with their neuroses and fears, they soon relax into the awareness that they are not alone, and that they can be authentic and connected—a powerful combination. When the workshop is over, many of them continue to meet, sharing support and inspiration for the journey ahead.

Now here I am, wanting the same thing for myself again.

My years of moving around to follow my bliss left me with lots of dear friends in faraway places. Many of my local pals have moved away in recent years, while others can be hard to pin down, and so Facebook is where we catch up. I have 600 friends on Facebook and, while they provide a warm and necessary sense of community at times, I’m more deeply nourished by face-to-face contact and rich conversation.

Psychiatrist Ned Hallowell noted in a recent interview that, while we’re all super connected electronically these days, we’re rather disconnected interpersonally. “People don’t have that sense of affiliation, of belonging, of company, of people to turn to at hand,” says Hallowell. “There’s an awful lot of unacknowledged loneliness out there—people surrounded by people, but not really connected.”

I hear this from friends and coaching clients, too, and it’s got me wondering: How can we do a better job of connecting with our flesh and blood tribes in this digital age? Positive Psychologists stress that strong social ties and relationships are crucial to our mental and physical well-being, but we’re often too busy typing, texting, surfing and posting to make a call or plan a visit.

It takes effort to maintain real relationships amid busy lives, but I know from experience that the fruits of those efforts are sweet, indeed. The other day I received an invitation to join a local women’s spirituality circle and I replied with a resounding “Yes!” I’m also creating a peer support group with fellow coaches in my area, and making plans to attend more gatherings this summer and spend time with people I love.

In my husband’s native Wolof language, there’s an odd phrase that sounds like, “Neet, neet-tay garabum.” When I asked him to translate, he told me, “People heal people.”

Yes, especially the kind you can reach out and touch.

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life and Career Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation.

The Good News About Bad News

by Kim Childs

Heard the one about the Chinese farmer? According to the Taoist story, he had a hotaorse that ran away, prompting his neighbors to remark, “Oh, that’s bad news.”

“Good news, bad news, who can say?” the farmer replied. Soon after, his horse returned with a second horse, which many labeled a stroke of luck. The farmer again withheld judgment and gave the second horse to his son—who broke his leg when the animal threw him off.

“That’s bad news,” clucked sympathetic neighbors.

“Good news, bad news, who can say?” the farmer replied.

Days later, the emperor’s soldiers entered the village to round up able-bodied young men for war. The farmer’s injured son was spared, and the neighbors congratulated his father upon hearing the “good” news.

You can guess what the farmer said, right?

Well, I’m beginning to understand the wisdom of his philosophy, at least when it comes to adversity. I’ve learned that so-called bad news can sometimes lead to good.

Things like being turned down for a job or losing one, getting dumped by a lover or left by a spouse, or experiencing a life-threatening illness or injury can sometimes lead us to more good than we ever would have imagined or engineered for ourselves. Asking “What next?” or “What can I learn from this?” in the wake of upsetting events has served me better than asking “Why me?”

Poet Mark Nepo, author of The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have, credits two bouts with cancer for setting him on the path to a more vibrant and meaningful life. He went on to write and speak about the need to be fully awake in life, no matter what comes. “Whatever opens us is not as important as what it opens,” Nepo told an interviewer last year.

It’s worth noting that, if you spell his last name backwards, you get the word “open.”

Five years ago, a rear-end collision resulted in injuries that required me to take a break from yoga teaching. Similarly, a panic attack in 1997 hastened my departure from radio news reporting—at a time when I had already stopped enjoying the work. In each case, I hadn’t allowed myself to acknowledge how badly I needed to change gears until the change was thrust upon me.

During these events, I was too shaken to envision the positive outcomes that would follow. Both incidents introduced me to some talented healers, the accident led to a financial bonus, and the panic attack sent me on a transformational journey that led me to my true calling as a coach, teacher, and writer.

I know from these and other personal experiences that the things we may label terrible can sometimes bear hidden gifts. They may force us to grow our courage and commitment, build resilience and call upon strengths that we never knew we had. They often humble us enough to admit our vulnerability, ask for help, and accept it. Other times, they catapult us out of our comfort zone and prompt us to make sorely needed changes that, left up to us, might never have happened.

In the words of Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, my teacher in Kripalu’s Certificate in Positive Psychology program, “While things don’t always happen for the best, some people are able to make the best of what happens.”

I’m not saying there’s no room for tears or tantrums when things don’t go as we’d like them to. I’ve had my share of those, and consider them healthy and human reactions to disappointment and loss. But once the anger has cooled and the sadness begins to lift, I find it more helpful to work with reality than to waste time and energy lamenting, blaming, and wallowing.

Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, says that we have a “psychological immune system” that helps us to synthesize happiness even when we don’t get what we want. He reports that our brains can assist us in finding the ultimate good in whatever happens, and that synthetic happiness is as real as the kind that comes when things go our way. Gilbert’s own story is illustrative: When he was unable to take a particular creative writing class in college, he ended up finding his passion in the study of psychology. Today he’s a famous Harvard professor and speaker…and a writer.

I stumbled upon Gilbert’s work while heading home from a trip to see my parents last summer. I encountered a horrendous traffic backup on the only road out of town and, rather than sit and stew, I turned the car around, went back to my parents’ house, ate some ice cream, and read a good book. When I got back in the car a few hours later, there was Dan Gilbert on the radio, discussing the good news about bad news.

I call that a happy accident.

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life and Career Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation.

(This post was written for Thrive, the blog of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, and also appears here.)

Morning Rituals Make Better Days

by Kim Childs

While I’ve always heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I rarely wake up with an appetite. What I do hunger for each morning is connection to what’s personally sacred and meaningful before I dive into my to do list.

I wasn’t always this intentional. Twenty years ago I started my day with resentment, a pot of coffee and National Public Radio before running out to catch the train to work. I was informed and caffeinated, but not exactly enlightened.

Then a little book called The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity found its way to me in 1997 and everything changed, starting with mornings.


Tea and Morning Pages, a winning combo

Julia Cameron, the bestselling author of The Artist’s Way, recommends that we begin our days with something called Morning Pages. They are three handwritten pages of stream of consciousness writing to help us meet and greet ourselves on paper before the day’s demands tug and pull. Cameron likens the practice to calling ourselves first thing in the morning to see how we’re doing. We should allow about 20 minutes, be radically honest and keep the pen moving with no censoring, she says, for three pages.

I gave it a try, even though it meant getting up a bit earlier, and pretty soon I was hooked, adding candles and soothing music to the practice of writing these pages. Eventually, green tea replaced coffee as I found that it made me, and my writing, less jittery. Within a few months, mornings had become my new favorite thing and I was firmly on the path to a more authentic life.

Over the years, I’ve added other rituals to my mornings, such as yoga, meditation, walking, prayer and devotional chanting. Not that I do them all at once or all the time. The routines changed along with me as I left my radio career in the late 90s, spent two years living at a yoga center and enjoyed a gypsy phase before landing in the Boston area to teach the transformational practices that had changed my life, including The Artist’s Way.

Cameron, recently interviewed in the Huffington Post, says this about her latest morning rituals, “I get up and I make myself oatmeal and coffee. Then I start my morning pages,” she reports. “After that, I write out a series of prayers, basically asking God to guard and guide me and my beloveds.”

I do something similar these days, minus the oatmeal, offering my prayers and gratitude at a homemade altar. At the end I often rub my hands in glee and assume a so-called power pose (arms overhead in victory) as I shout, “Yes!” and recite my affirmations du jour.

Yes, it’s kinda corny. And it feels so good.

The thing is, we can create any morning ritual that’s meaningful to us. Some people start with exercise or even a little dancing to get the juices and the positivity flowing. Mama Gena, the self-proclaimed Queen of Pleasure, says that’s a great way to flood our bodies with nitric oxide, an antidote to the stress hormone cortisol. “When you dance, when you move, even for 30 seconds, you take the opportunity to shift your body chemistry just enough to point your day in a better direction,” she says.

I recently added reggae dancing to my preparation of brunch on the weekends. It’s fun, and it revs up my metabolism for the calories ahead.

A few minutes of deliberate silence each morning can also boost our well-being, especially if the rest of our day is noisy. One of my coaching clients has fallen in love with sipping tea on her porch for 15 minutes before the kids and household chores consume her. When she skips this ritual, her temperament suffers. Lately my mom reports that she loves sitting quietly in her favorite chair with a cup of coffee and a book of inspirational passages before my dad wakes up. “It’s so peaceful,” she says, claiming this special time for herself.

A former student of mine, unable to find satisfying chunks of time on weekdays before work, created a Sunday morning ritual. “I go to a place where I can get a cup of coffee, sit down at a table and write morning pages,” he says. “While this falls short of Julia Cameron’s ideal of writing every morning, it’s a ritual I keep.”

That’s the thing about rituals – if we keep them, they begin to keep us.

And so, while mornings can be hectic, they can also improve our days if we devote some of our precious time to what we value. Even five minutes of meditation or conscious breathing is enough to shift things.

And if you’re really pressed for time, try a simple “Yes!” to the day (or “Help!” if it’s that kind of day).

Just find something that feeds your soul, each morning, and do it. Then see if you find yourself enjoying better days.

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life and Career Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation.

Romance Your Life

The way I see it, Valentine’s Day isn’t just for lovers. It’s a day Self-Lovefor remembering love in its many forms and, whether or not we are partnered, we can romance our lives all the time with simple practices that cultivate meaning, joy and a sense of abundance. Pick one or two that appeal to you, and let the love affair begin…

Create rituals – Ritual is sorely missing from most people’s lives, as the demands of modern society and electronic communications tug and distract us from inner stillness. Daily rituals can include journaling, prayer, exercise, meditation, writing a gratitude list, setting intentions, playing with pets or regularly making time to simply sit, breathe and savor the good. And don’t forget the pleasure of enjoying meals with people you love. Rituals are about consistently unplugging from the business of life to honor what is personally meaningful, sacred and valuable. Lighting candles or incense and playing soothing music can enhance your rituals, if that feels inviting…

Go play – Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, advises those who want to recover their creative gifts to take an Artist Date each week. It’s meant to be done alone, with no purpose other than to “refill the well” of inspiration, images and sensory pleasures. These self-directed play dates can include museum trips, concerts, classes, aimless neighborhood strolls, walks in nature, visits to unusual shops and florists, finger painting in the kitchen and dancing in the living room. Invite your inner child to set the agenda.

Savor the good – The growing field of Positive Psychology recommends this practice as a way to improve mood and prime the brain for more positivity. It simply involves focusing on what’s good in our lives and saturating the mind (and heart) with appreciation for 10 to 20 seconds at a time. Throughout the day, pause to savor the good in your life, including creature comforts, special people, simple joys and natural beauty. Pay attention to what life is constantly offering, even, or especially, during stressful times.

Fluff your nest – Author Cheryl Richardson uses the term “soul nourishing” to describe the kind of home that she wants to inhabit. It means living in a space that reflects what you love and value, with colors, fabrics, art and objects that delight and comfort. Clearing clutter is fundamental to the process of creating a home that feels welcoming. It fosters calm and a sense of spaciousness, while making room for new things. Start small, keep it manageable and reward yourself for letting go of what no longer serves you.

Eat with love – The practice of mindful eating is good for digestion, sleep, energy and maintaining ideal weight. It’s also good for the soul. Pick one meal a week to eat mindfully, turning off any screens and sitting in silence or with relaxing music. Give thanks for the food and the elements and people that made the meal possible, and chew each bite thoroughly before swallowing, appreciating the taste, texture and nourishment. Stop eating when you feel fullness arising and take a few moments to digest the whole experience before moving on to your next activity. Eventually, try bringing this consciousness to more meals, and even that morning cup of coffee or tea.

Pat yourself on the back – It’s easy to go through life on fast-forward, moving from one activity or achievement to the next and striving for new opportunities without pausing to acknowledge what we’ve done. While self-improvement is a worthy pursuit, it’s important to periodically note all that you’ve already accomplished in life. Try saying, “I am enough, I have enough, I do enough,” and remember to honor your strengths and talents, especially the ones that are easy to take for granted. Another powerful exercise involves writing a letter to yourself that begins with “I love you for…” and later changes to “I forgive you for…” as a way to boost self-esteem and free up energy.

Give thanks, often – Cultivating gratitude, another fundamental Positive Psychology practice, nurtures a lasting romance with life. Whether it’s writing about or reciting things you are thankful for, or remembering to give thanks for any misfortune that did not happen and what is no longer a problem, there is always something for which to be grateful. An “attitude of gratitude” can create an immediate state of abundance, and sweetness that lasts longer than a box of fancy chocolates.

Got your own self-love suggestion? If so, I’d love to hear about it, below…

Kindness is a Strength

Back when I waDChitwood_NoActOfKindnesss single, I created a few personal profiles for online dating sites. When asked to name my religion, I wrote “Kindness.” While it sounded kind of flirty, it’s also what I truly believe in and try to practice.

Kindness touches the soul, transcends language, and connects us on a primal level. Growing up in a Catholic family, I heard a lot about the Golden Rule—treating others as we’d have them treat us. And who doesn’t want to be treated with kindness and compassion? The hard part is doling it out on a regular basis when we’re feeling stressed, hurried, defensive, or judgmental.

And that’s why I’m a sucker for people who go out of their way to be kind.

I used to struggle with depression in my life and, while it no longer overtakes me, I’m still what they call a highly sensitive person on the planet. Some days, I just feel things very deeply and inhabit a tender place, emotionally. Sharp words, like sharp objects, feel wounding on those days, and being dismissed can hurt.

When someone takes the time to be kind to me, it feels like a big deal and pierces through the emotional haze like Cupid’s arrow. It might be the barista who compliments my earrings while making my latte, the driver who lets me cut into the long line of traffic, the woman with the umbrella who escorts me to my car in the driving rain, or the gas station attendant, smiling and wishing me a great day when all he needed to say was “Thanks.”

There’s a popular saying that goes something like, “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.” These days I see kindness as a strength, and those who consistently practice it as my role models.

When my husband moved to the United States from Senegal, he arrived with a duffel bag and a knapsack. He’d given nearly everything away to friends and family before emigrating, but among his few possessions were a pair of slightly tight work boots given to him by a caring friend.

As his funds were limited, my husband took the boots to a shoe repair shop for stretching. The Ugandan man behind the counter welcomed him to America with a 1,000-watt smile, unlike some of the strangers he’d already encountered in Boston. “I have something for you, my African brother,” the cobbler said, handing my husband a snazzy pair of shoes that another customer had abandoned. It was a memorable gesture of kindness during a time of traumatic change.

One day, I dialed the yoga center where I sometimes teach and left a message. Moments later, I got a call back from a man in New York with a nearly identical phone number. “Namaste from Brooklyn,” he said into my voicemail. “You dialed the wrong number and I didn’t want you to think that no one returned your call.”

Namaste, indeed, I thought, for being considerate enough to let me know that my call had misfired.

A real king of kindness in my mind is Narayanan Krishnan, a talented chef turned social worker who started feeding the homeless and destitute in his Indian hometown. The astonishing part is not the gourmet meals that Krishnan delivers, but the love that he feeds to his people—cutting their hair and bathing and hugging them, even though his caste rules forbid it. As Krishnan says, “We all have 5.5 liters of blood,” no matter our race, class, or bank account balance.

Choosing to be kind isn’t easy when others seem unkind. That’s when I have to remember that I can’t really know what pain lies in the heart or mind of another person. That guy who cut me off at the rotary may have just lost his job. The woman who let the door shut in my face may be worried about a sick child. “If you’re gonna make up a story, make up a good one,” a friend of mine used to say when I’d get all twisted up about a perceived slight from someone.

And so I try, and fail, and try again to be kind to those around me. It helps when I remember to start with myself, because practicing self-compassion makes it easier to feel loving-kindness toward others.

I like to think that practicing kindness creates ripples of goodwill that extend far beyond the original gesture, but perhaps the most motivating reason to be kind is how good it can make us feel. In the words of Swami Kripalu: “By making others happy, you make yourself happy. The key to your heart lies hidden in the heart of another.

 (Note: this essay was written for Thrive, the blog of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, and also appears here).

Could You Just Listen?

Each spring and fall, I lead support groups designed to help people recover and express their passions and creativity via The Artist’s Way. The process involves a fair amount of listenpersonal disclosure, as students identify their desires and explore what’s in the way of living them.

In the first session, I distribute a handout called “Could You Just Listen?” to set the tone for our interactions. It begins, “When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving me advice, you have not done what I asked. When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings.”

That may sound harsh to those of us who’ve occasionally dispensed unsolicited advice and tried to talk people out of their feelings. The author of this passage (who remains anonymous) goes on to say, “When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem, you have failed me, strange as that may seem.”

Hmmm. I had to roll that one around in my brain several times when I first read it. After all, it’s hard to listen to someone who’s struggling and not want to help, right?

But listening is helping, as the author explains, because, “…when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel, no matter how irrational, then I can quit trying to convince you and get about the business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling.”

As I’m learning in Kripalu’s Certificate in Positive Psychology program, good listening can benefit relationships of all kinds, workplace dynamics, and even physical health. Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers cites active listening as a growth experience for both listeners and speakers. “When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and to go on,” Rogers says. “It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens, how confusions that seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.”

I know that some of the most healing moments in my own life were spent with people who sat quietly beside me, opening their hearts to receive what mine had to share.

Eager to be a better listener, I once joined a book group to study The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction, by speech pathologist Rebecca Shafir. We met weekly to discuss obstacles to listening, which typically include our judgments about a speaker, our impatient desire to respond, and, of course, our incessant internal chatter. Sometimes, even when we appear to be listening (maintaining eye contact, nodding our head), we may actually be composing our to-do list, formulating our reply, or thinking about anything but what the speaker is saying.

I fully admit that I can be an impatient listener, especially when someone is spinning tales or talking circles around a subject. “Cut to the chase,” I’m often thinking in such moments (and, unfortunately, sometimes saying with body language). In these instances, Shafir might tell me to imagine that the speaker is a fascinating movie character. I’ve tried that, with mixed results…

On the other hand, when someone is sharing deep truths and heartfelt emotion with me, I’m hooked through the final credits.

These days, I’m keenly aware of how often people talk at each other rather than with each other. I frequently feel rushed in conversations and hear myself saying to chronic interrupters, “What I’m trying to say is …” I’ve actually stopped greeting people with “How are you?” if I don’t have time to hear the answer. “Good to see you!” feels more authentic.

Ironically, I think I’ve gotten so used to people not listening attentively that I sometimes feel uncomfortable when they do. I find that kind of … sad.

Deep, empathic listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give someone, and one of the greatest gifts we can receive. It’s an opportunity for greater intimacy and connection, and aren’t we all hungering for that?

Could it be that that our attention spans have shrunk in proportion to the number of screens and smartphones out there? We’re expressing all over the place, but is anyone really listening? Tweets, texts, sound bites, and instant messages fuel our desire for instant gratification, but they leave little room for cultivating the inner stillness that’s required of a good listener.

It’s still my intention to get better at listening, and so I will keep practicing. I believe it will make me a calmer person, which can only help, well, everything. And if I want to be deeply heard, which I believe I do, it’s only right that I give others the same opportunity.

(Note: This post was written for The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and also appears here.)

Moving Into Happiness

walking-featureIt’s embarrassing to admit this, but I’m a yoga teacher who dislikes exercise. To be more precise, it’s the thought of exercise that turns me off, because I usually do feel better afterward. I’ve long considered exercise a chore that takes time away from other things that I need or want to be doing. What I’m starting to know in my bones, however, is that moving my body is essential to uplifting my mind.

Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, says that exercise is the “single best thing” we can do for our brains to boost memory, learning, and mood. “It works on anxiety, on panic disorder, and on stress in general, which has a lot to do with depression,” Ratey says. “And it generates the release of neurotransmitters—norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine—that are very similar to our most important psychiatric medicines.”

Obviously, I need to reframe my view of exercise if I want to thrive. Or maybe I just need to have more fun with it.

Last spring, I arrived at Kripalu’s Certificate in Positive Psychology (CIPP) immersion week and saw that Let Your Yoga Dance classes were on the daily program schedule. For three days, I resisted, claiming fatigue or preferring to meet friends for lunch. Finally, I decided to give it a try.

During the one-hour class, instructor Megha Nancy Buttenheim led us in dancing, prancing, swaying, singing, and celebrating our bodies—and each other—with glee. When the class ended, I was glistening with sweat and delirious with joy. Every part of me was buzzing and I was in love with the world. I asked Megha why I felt so good.

“By moving through the energy centers of the body, you were experiencing a lot of things at the same time,” she told me. “You had an aerobic experience, which is good for cardiovascular health, and your brain was firing because I was teaching steps that you had to follow and words that you had to sing. When people are sitting in programs for most of the day, it’s exhausting on many levels. So the class was a huge wake-up call for your body and brain.”

That’s a wake-up call I could use more often.

Megha, who has developed a “healing through joy” curriculum, says that many CIPP students have cited her classes as essential to “landing” the teachings of the course through the body. “If it’s happiness we’re seeking, the body needs to be included,” she says. “My desire is for the entire Positive Psychology movement to include movement, because it’s not an adjunct component. It’s a crucial one. After all, the brain is the body.”

Among the thousands of books that offer Positive Psychology practices for greater happiness, almost none focus on the body, notes CIPP course director Megan McDonough. This is an oversight, she says, because well-being must include the whole person. “The physical is there, whether you acknowledge it or not,” she says. “We’ve heard how, when we feel depressed, our body will fold in. We’re now looking at the opposite with researchers like Amy Cuddy showing us how the way we hold our bodies can affect our emotional well-being.”

Cuddy’s popular TED talk focuses on how certain “power poses” (e.g., mountain pose with arms raised) can change the body’s biochemistry and affect our emotions. Standing in postures of confidence, even when we feel insecure, can alter testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain and prime us for intimidating situations like job interviews, presentations, and confrontations.

Martin Seligman, a cognitive psychologist and pioneer in the modern Positive Psychology movement, has stated that psychology has traditionally had a limited, “neck-up” perspective on mental health. After seeing the compelling research on exercise and brain health, Seligman and his team at the University of Pennsylvania’s Masters in Applied Positive Psychology program added physical exercise to their lives and course curriculum.

With all these voices in my head, and volumes of research proving the ability of exercise to boost health, mood, learning, self-esteem, and creative thinking, I need no more reasons to exercise. I just need to overcome my resistance to doing what’s good for me.

Right now I’m going to stand up, move away from the computer, stretch, and go for a long, brisk walk. It’s my preferred form of exercise because it puts me in nature, connects me to my community, and lets me listen to podcasts.

And, nine times out of 10, it makes me quite happy.

(Note: this post was written for Thrive, the blog of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, and also appears here.)

Presence Over Presents

In recent years, I’ve become a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to holiday gifts. It’s not that I don’t want to give to the people I love, I just dislike the whole shopping scene and the enforced buying of things that I’m not sure they’ll even like.Gift

Lately, I’ve been trying something else: If I don’t find a truly meaningful present for someone, I give them my presence. I’m offering brunch, lunch, movie, and other kinds of dates to family members and friends at birthdays and holidays, inviting them to cash in when it suits them. So far, it’s a lot more fun and memorable.

A plan like this might fail when it comes to kids, who look forward to unwrapping packages and creating passionate wish lists every December. But I can only remember a handful of the gifts that I received as a child, and one of my best holiday memories has nothing to do with presents.

When I was eight years old, my father moved our family from New Jersey to Cape Cod, to start his own business in the place where he’d grown up. Initially, my brothers and I were unhappy about the move because it meant tearing us away from our friends and schools. The relocation was especially hard on my mom, as it placed her hours away from her mother and sisters for the first time in her life, during a difficult time in her marriage.

Once landed, my brothers and I occupied ourselves with new friends, schoolwork, and cousins that we’d never met. Mom had a harder time, having no school or neighborhood games to facilitate social connection. On top of that, we were short on funds while my dad worked to launch his business. As fall approached winter and money remained elusive, gifts were not in the budget and Mom’s spirits grew as grey as the skies. Not helping much was the fact that nearly all of our Christmas tree ornaments had broken during the move.

One mild day in early December, I came home from school to find my mother in the backyard, assembling an impromptu crafts station on the picnic table. “We lost our Christmas ornaments,” she proclaimed, “so we’re going to make our own this year.” Mom had spray paint, sequins, and glitter all ready to adorn the unlikeliest of decorations: soup can lids. She’d spent the morning removing the lids, and waited for us kids to arrive before cutting them with tin snips into stars, bells, angels, and trees.

My brothers and I got to choose our shapes and decorate them as we laughed, sang carols, told tales about our teachers and classmates, and basked in Mom’s renewed cheer. That December afternoon at the picnic table was more memorable than most Christmas mornings.

To this day, my brothers and I speak fondly of our “tin can Christmas” as we point out the few surviving ornaments on our parents’ tree. Primitive, yet crafted with love and hope, they are more precious than some of the shiny new ones.

I recall that ornament-making party as a glowing example of my mother’s creativity, resilience, and ability to bring love and light to our days no matter how dark her own were. Struggling with three kids, persistent migraines, various part-time jobs, and a business to co-manage, Mom didn’t have space to explore her passions during my childhood. But she was usually up for fun, and she could turn soup cans into angels and stars.

As a student of Positive Psychology this year, I’ve learned that money spent on experiences tends to make people happier than money spent on things. That’s because trips and adventures create memories that last a lot longer than the thrill of items found at the mall. Special times, especially when shared with people we love, can yield a lot more of what my teacher, Tal Ben-Shahar, calls “the ultimate currency”—namely, happiness.

That’s why I choose presence over presents whenever I get the chance. It’s much more fun than shopping, it removes a layer of “to dos” and it leaves me less stressed and more fun to be around. And isn’t that really what the holidays are all about?

(Note: This post was written for Kripalu’s Thrive and also appears here.)