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

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.)

Human, Being

Heard the one about the MIT rats who got smarter by chilling out?

In 2006, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) placed rats in a difficult maze to see how quickly they’d find their way through. The first group of rodents, once they reached the cheese at the end of the tunnel, were forced to keep re-running the route until they knew it well and completed it quickly.

The second group of rats was given time to relax in between maze runs. Interestingly, the researchers found that this group, which took breaks and did nothing between efforts, learned the route much faster.

I heard this story from my Positive Psychology teacher Tal Ben-Shahar, who used it to illustrate the notion that all forms of learning require  time off for reflection, integration, and the fortification of new neural pathways.

A related argument comes from Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr, authors of The Power of Full Engagement, who cite research showing that between one and two hours of focused work should be followed by at least 15 minutes of recovery for optimal performance. Apparently, working really hard for more than two hours without a break can actually lead to diminished or negative results.

Deep down, I must have known these things, but only recently did I step out of my own maze to test them out.

I am an entrepreneur, which is a fancy way of saying that I’m self-employed. My income is dependent on my efforts, and this means that I often feel I should be continually marketing, packaging, selling, or delivering my services. This semester I’m also enrolled in two training programs, making my plate even fuller.

Last month, I felt myself spinning out of control with worries about my seemingly endless to-do list of present and future projects and obligations. When I did take breaks from the constant productivity, I often felt conflicted, constantly aware of that overwhelming task list. These nagging thoughts made it hard to focus on my studies, too. I wasn’t giving myself permission to be a student.

One Sunday morning, I woke up to the sound of rain outside my window and made a decision. I was going to stay off the computer, make a pot of tea, grab that novel I’d been wanting to read, and get back into bed. I wasn’t sick. I was just sick of treating myself like a worker bee.

In bed with my book, I felt like a kid again—the little girl who holed up in her princess-themed room with The Secret Garden, Harriet the Spy, or grandma’s Nancy Drew mysteries, and reveled in her own private world. It was cozy, peaceful, and very satisfying.

Later in the day, I put on some jazz and cooked a Sunday dinner full of comfort food for me and my husband. After we ate, I curled up beside him on the couch and watched football, letting go of any need to understand the rules of the game.

Not once did it cross my mind that I should be doing anything other than exactly what I was doing in each moment. As I climbed back into bed that night, I felt a sense of what can only be called contentment.

But that’s not even the best part of my experiment.

The next morning, I awoke and realized that something was missing. Gone was the nagging feeling that there was so much to do and so little time. No tasks or deadlines had been taken off my plate, yet I felt completely calm and confident that everything would get done in time.

I spent that day in a state of efficient, unhurried productivity. I was full of good ideas, checking items off the to-do list with ease and wondering what had happened to the woman who was so stressed out and worried.

Of course, she reappeared within 48 hours, which is why I need to put what I’m learning into regular practice.

This means taking breaks to stretch, call a friend, pet the cat, dance to music, take a walk, or make some tea after an hour or two at the computer. The truth is, some of my best ideas come to me, unbidden, when I’m away from the laptop and enjoying myself.

My new plan also includes scheduling work-free zones on weekends and evenings, and protecting them like a fierce mama bear. When I’m in those zones, I also need to protect myself from thoughts that I “should” be doing something more productive. That inner tyrant is the greatest enemy of inner peace.

Perhaps my best takeaway from that rainy Sunday, besides really seeing the benefits of resting and renewing, is the message that it gave me on a soul level about my inherent value as a human, just being.

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

Building Courage Muscles

As a student in Kripalu’s Certificate in Positive Psychology program, I learned about something called self-perception theory. Developed by social psychologist Daryl Bem, the theory states that we form beliefs about ourselves by watching our behaviors, just as we form beliefs about others by watching theirs. We may therefore think of ourselves as confident after we act with confidence.

I like to think about this theory in terms of courage and risk-taking. When I muster the courage to do things that scare me and see that I do, in fact, survive, it gets easier to take risks and feel brave.

Twice in my life, I’ve left the security of a full-time job to follow my heart in the direction of an uncertain but more alluring vocational path. The first time I took this leap, in my late 30s, I had many wide-eyed, stomach-churning, “What the heck am I doing?” moments in the middle of the night. By the light of day, I just kept taking steps toward what I wanted and moving away from what I didn’t, trusting my gut to guide me toward something better. And it did.

The second time I abandoned a steady paycheck to rejoin the ranks of the self-employed, I was less frightened. I think that’s because I’d survived Leap #1 intact.

I once had a powerful dream about this (read more here).

Living on Purpose

This summer, researchers at UCLA and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that, when it comes to our genes, there’s a difference between happiness derived from feeling good and that which comes from doing good. According to the study, people whose happiness stemmed from having a sense of purpose and meaning in life had healthier gene expression patterns than those whose happiness was primarily linked to pleasure. In fact, the latter group of “feel-gooders” had a stress-related gene pattern similar to those who endure chronic adversity.

Apparently, our genes know the difference between deep and superficial happiness. It took me more than 35 years to learn that lesson.

My own pursuit of pleasure took me on lots of misadventures in my 20s, and many of them centered on food, alcohol, nightlife, men, and fun for its own sake in big, glamorous cities. As I entered my 30s, I brought some of these behaviors with me as I began to carve out a career in radio journalism. Engrossed in my work, I soon took new pleasure from the highs of hearing my stories on the air and becoming a mini celebrity.

About five years later, it all came crashing down when I had a panic attack, on the air, in the middle of a newscast.

The incident sent me on an intense healing journey as I sought to know the physical, emotional, and psychological reasons behind the panic attack, my first and only full-blown episode. I spent the following year seeing healers of all kinds, devouring self-help and spiritual literature, changing my lifestyle and planting myself in therapy and recovery groups to bring my own darkness to the light. These activities quickly became my new occupation, even as I still dutifully performed my job.

A year later, I left my radio career. Not only because I lived in fear of losing it on the air again, but because I no longer had an interest in reporting the news. In fact, I probably never had a “nose for news” so much as a desire to tell inspiring stories. I loved meeting interesting, progressive people and spreading helpful information. My favorite moments in radio were when listeners called to say that they wanted to know more about something I’d reported. Covering corruption and crime stories, on the other hand, left me cold.

Soon after taking the leap to freelance and figure out my next move, I met a man named John who called himself a psychic. We became gym buddies and, one day, John told me that he felt moved to offer me a free reading. Among other uncannily accurate things he told me during the reading, John said, “You will teach one day, in your purpose way.”

His words wouldn’t make sense to me for a few years.

Eventually, it became crystal clear that I was in the middle of a major life change, and not just a job search. I applied to be a volunteer at Kripalu for the summer, having been there as a guest and begun a yoga practice with a beloved Kripalu teacher-turned-friend.

And that’s when my quest for meaningful happiness found its expression and community.

At Kripalu I met people like me, the person I am deep down inside—yogis, spiritual seekers, peace lovers, and hippies born too late to technically be called hippies. I’d found my tribe and felt at home, staying there for two years to live, work, and breathe in this new lifestyle, which included healthy eating, ecstatic dancing, drumming, chanting, emoting, hiking, howling at the moon, and doing lots of yoga. It didn’t include alcohol, television, junk food, cruising, or partying into the wee hours—things that used to make me “happy.”

I left Kripalu a certified yoga teacher, a workshop leader, and a writer whose stories now came from the heart and from my own life. During those two years, I’d barely even looked at the news, noticing that what I needed to know usually found its way to me.

Today my thrills come from helping others who seek the kind of happiness that comes from contributing their gifts and passions to the world and doing what they love to do. My work as a teacher, coach, and writer is profoundly meaningful to me. I don’t know how my genes are doing, but my annual physicals are usually full of good news and I feel healthier and happier.

Recalling John’s cryptic message, I’ve come to realize that I lost my voice on the air all those years ago in order to find it, and use it, on purpose.

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

The Letter I Never Sent

In the field of Positive Psychology, there’s a famous happiness-boosting exercise called the Writing letter to a friend.gratitude letter. Designed by Dr. Martin Seligman, it involves writing, delivering, and reading a letter of gratitude to someone whose life enriched yours. When I heard about this exercise from Tal Ben-Shahar, my teacher in the Kripalu Center’s Certificate in Positive Psychology (CIPP) program, I immediately thought of an ideal recipient: my high-school English teacher.

I met Alice when I was a 15-year-old student in her class on the works of William Shakespeare, the literary love of her life. Alice would jump up on desks, gesticulating wildly as she acted out monologues from Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth. This tiny woman with the giant personality had contagious passion for the Bard, along with a wardrobe of distinctive belts, hats, and vests that could be called upon in a theatrical pinch.

But that was just the beginning of my friendship with Alice, who very quickly became a lifelong “believing mirror” for me—the kind of person who affirms what we’d most like to believe about our capabilities, talents, and significance. Alice told me that I was beautiful when I felt chubby and pimply. She encouraged the writer in me when I was more interested in being popular with boys.

After high school, Alice cheered me on through college, career changes, and the adventures of being an independent woman in the big cities of London, New York, and Boston. A trip home to see my family always included a visit to Alice’s house, where a sign on the front door read, “This door only opens for expected visitors.” Upon knocking, any lucky member of that group would be greeted by a hearty, “Well, hello, darling,” as Alice reached up to give the fiercest hugs and kisses I’ve ever received.

At Christmastime we’d exchange gifts, and hers thoughtfully reflected my interests and pursuits, even when they were counter to hers. Although Alice never understood why I left a career in public radio to teach and write about “that yoga, new age stuff,” she once gave me a statue of a woman, seated in meditation, that now sits in the room where I teach “that yoga, new age stuff.”

In summertime, I’d chat with Alice in her backyard as she sipped Scotch and I drank iced tea. When Alice wasn’t listening to my tales, she was telling her own, including the one about how she met her husband during a business call, when his deep voice and charming wit compelled her to suggest that they continue the conversation “over lunch.” Thus began a passionate love affair between a four-foot-something teacher and a six-foot-something editor. Their marriage was tragically cut short by his death from cancer, and I don’t think my dear friend ever fully recovered.

Throughout the years, Alice was a loyal correspondent, sending cards full of news, musings, and encouragement that always arrived at just the right time. When my first story was published, Alice wrote to me, a then 40-year-old woman, “In my rank book, your story receives an unqualified A-plus. This is what you were born to do.” Later, she told me that she’d saved my letters so that I could “incorporate them into the novel you will one day write.”

The most memorable card appeared after the demise of a romantic relationship on which I’d hung very high hopes. I’d even brought my British beau to Alice’s for a Christmas morning visit, during which she turned on the charm like never before. When she later learned that Michael had abandoned ship, Alice wrote, “My dearest, I looked up the word ‘cad’ in the dictionary and, to my un-surprise, there was a picture of Michael. A second likeness appeared to illustrate the tenor of ‘despicable.’ If you are guilty of anything, my Kim, it is that, like Othello, you ‘loved, not wisely, but too well.’”

Once, Alice gave me a box of very small cards, each one containing a line from Shakespeare. Written on the cover were the words, “There was a star danced, and under that was I born …,” a line from Much Ado About Nothing that conveyed her deep affection and went straight to my heart.

And so I was devastated to learn of Alice’s sudden death this summer, and instantly full of regret that I never wrote my gratitude letter. When I mentioned this to a CIPP classmate she said, “You can still do it. In fact, it could be a very powerful experience.”

I had a feeling she was right.

As I sat down to write my letter to Alice, the tears began to flow. I cried for the troubled girl that I was when I met her. I cried for the 50-year-old woman who’s not sure that she’s lived up to her teacher’s expectations. I cried because I didn’t get the chance to say thanks and goodbye, and I cried because there was now one less person on Earth who loved me unconditionally.

As I finished the letter and the tears abated, I felt a deep peace come over me. A month later I shared my reflections at Alice’s memorial service, where several other former students told me that they, too, felt uniquely seen and cherished by this childless woman who adopted so many of us as her kin.

While I can never repay my beloved friend for her generous love, I can pass it on by being a believing mirror for my own students, family, and friends. I can also live, as she most certainly did, by these words from Alice’s favorite author: “To thine own self be true.”

(This essay was written for Kripalu’s blog, Thrive, and also appears here.)

What if We’re All Doing the Best We Can?

In the past year, I’ve heard from two friends who were disappointed in me because I didn’t meet their expectations or show up in the ways that they wanted me to. In one case, the friendship was already fading and I took the opportunity to own up and disengage. The other friend’s accusations were harder to hear and laced with anger, but I mustered compassion for the fact that she was going through an incredibly difficult time.

Both incidents led me to some introspection and the awareness that I do try to be there for people I care about, not to mention occasional strangers in need, even if my actions sometimes fall short.

But the lessons didn’t stop there. (Read the full post here: