Friday, February 19, 2016

Get Your Ticket for The Happiness Express

Got you, didn't I? Who among us doesn't want that ticket? Who doesn't want to ride the ride?

Happiness is an elusive, much sought after tease. We race after it using self-help books as road maps. We listen to speakers extrapolate guidelines and flow-charts to finding joy. We talk to therapists, spiritual leaders, ministers and priests as well as friends and loved ones about uncovering what makes us truly happy. We do crazy things to find that much longed for Blissful State.

With so many people looking for it, you would think it would be easier to find. So why then does it seem to be so difficult to pin down? Under what rock does it hide? And -- here's the kicker -- should you find that Zen, Happy Place, what kind of deal with the devil do you have to make to stay there in Wonderland?

I've heard it said that Happiness is a Decision, not an Occurrence. That you choose it. That no matter what comes at you, you can decide whether to allow it to thwart your joy or strengthen your spirit. I learn that in my Yoga practice. No matter what Pose I'm faced with -- or how difficult/easy it might be, I can determine how to respond and manage the challenges it presents. I can determine my response. And I can take that off the mat every time I leave the Shelter for the World.

That said, I've also read that there's More to life than Being Happy. That it's the very pursuit of happiness that will actually thwart happiness at every turn. We should instead look for Meaning, which doesn't necessary make us happy -- or unhappy for that matter -- or stress-free and easy but does potentially increase our overall sense of well-being and enhance our self-esteem which is good too. Investing in something bigger than our own personal agenda gives us a chance to use our highest strengths and talents in a servant focused way. But ... that potentially produces depression, anxiety and worry.

Taking care of others allows us to transcend ourselves and reach beyond the present moment to affect change and serve something more significant. Sometimes it involves self-sacrifice or denying self. As Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities and Spock later quoted in Star Trek's Wrath of Kahn: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few ... or the one."

Seeking Happiness can be considered a shallow endeavor, encouraging us to choose things that make us feel good, satisfy a need or desire or bring us closer to what we truly want in our lives. We want less stress and more peace. We seek a calm ride instead of one riddled with bumps and challenges. We want our lives to Matter, sure. But we want Joy along the way too.

Is that too much to ask?

That's selfish, I guess. After all Money doesn't buy you Happiness. It may get you that outfit you want or that book you want or that house you want or the cool car or the pretty lingerie or the Pandora bead or the trip to that warm, sunny location which will make you Happy for a time but won't necessarily buy a continued Happy Happy Joy Joy.  Happiness just isn't like that. Neither is a Meaningful existence.

When we seek the Happy State, we selectively avoid elements that might rock the boat and thereby enhance our resiliency and make us better human beings. We resist, avoid, dislike and even resent those things that require us to make sacrifices and keep us from that longed for Blissful State on the couch of life. We steer clear of projects or people or things that might challenge us or cause stress. But when we seek a more Meaningful existence, we serve others and find Joy there -- perhaps relinquishing our personal Happiness for a Higher Purpose, a Greater Good or to Serve Another.

It's a vicious cycle, truly. I want Meaning. I want Happy. I find Meaning. I find Happy. Yeah! Did it, right?

Nope. Here's how I figure it works. Happy is just one aspect of your Train. It's always with you. You just have to embrace it and recognize it might look different than you expected.

While you ride, you encounter special moments of necessary respite or growth or gifts you need to support your journey at a series of Train Stations. These can offer moments of peace and rest or especially dynamic joyful times. You drive through them during your Journey, disembark for a bit. You even make longer stops at times and relish the many Blissful Benefits of that specific station. Then you climb back on the Train and continue your journey in an effort to find Meaning, making delicious memories and experiencing amazing adventures all while you grow and make your life count. Your ride gives you a chance to meet and touch the lives of others ... to do what you love to do ... to laugh and cry ... and encounter Wonderland on and off the train as you travel along.

Happiness isn't truly elusive. It's with us all the time. When bad things happen to me and I'm "unhappy," there are moments I still laugh. There are moments after a cry that I smile. There are moments of Joy in all Sadness and Struggle.

Happiness. We seek it. We find it. We settle for a bit and bask in its warm, golden glow. Then we get up and keep moving, taking that Glow with us. It empowers us to touch the lives of others as we are called to do along the way, doing the things we love to do and making the most of the other stuff too. And we shine all the brighter for the tunnels we go through on the journey.

We have a ticket on the Happiness Express, but it calls us to complete the work we are meant to do and become what we are meant to be. Whatever that is. Wherever that is. .

Only then do we stop our Pursuit ...
                                                                                      -- Jenni

Saturday, February 6, 2016

What's Next?

Today in Yoga, my instructor (and friend) Suzanne called to attention a very common human habit ... looking beyond the now for what is next.

Throughout our lives, we do this. We are impatient creatures. We want a glimpse around the corner into our future. We want to know if Something Is Coming and what that Something might be!

What's next dangles before us like a carrot ... luring us on with its potential to be better or more exciting or just a release from the boredom, mundane day to day, stress or perhaps sadness we are experiencing in this current moment. But as we look around the corner, we neglect the opportunity to make the most of and learn from what is currently before us -- be it good or bad, challenging or smooth sailing.

This happens more often when situations are challenging. We want to get past the difficult or uncomfortable moments into the fun and happy. Into the easy.

In Yoga class today, Suzanne brought this up when we moved into our first Chair pose. Well, I bruised my tailbone last week ice skating and have been a bit stiff since, so I wasn't at all sure how my body would react. Once settled in, I felt a strong desire to get to the next pose. And though I could blame my initial concern on my injury, my longing to move had nothing to do with a bruised tailbone and Everything to due with the difficulty of the pose. It was hard. My muscles were shaking. I wanted to move desperately.

Of course, Suzanne knew that. Heck no one is ever "comfortable" in Chair pose. But she encouraged us to stay there ... to focus on that moment and maintain our calm and focus ... to breathe through whatever discomfort we might be experiencing. To find strength in the shaking and in ourselves.

Last night, I participated in a CycleBar challenge that raised money for a Scholarship Fund. Good cause and amazing, healthy activity too. We rode for 45 minutes, increasing speed, using weights and adjusting the bike's tension based on the directive of the instructor. Music played. Videos flashed. The instructor encouraged and challenged us constantly during the ride.

There were many times in that 45 minutes that I wanted to stop. That I wanted to know that after a certain amount of time we would do something else -- something easier. But, I didn't have the instruction manual. I didn't know what was next. All I could do was draw on my own inner strength and keep pedaling. Keep breathing.

So when Suzanne brought up this idea in yoga today, it hit me. This is a philosophy that extends outside of yoga -- or the CycleBar -- into daily life. When faced with difficult times or struggles or dissatisfaction with wherever we are, our instinct urges us to get out of that moment. To seek what is next. We want out of the pain or sadness. We want excitement or a new challenge. We hurt so we want the next pose or the next project, job, opportunity, relationship, play etc etc. We just want what's next.

And, what do we do with instinctual urge?  Sadly, it's not always good.

When the "now" struggle begins to take its toll, we tend to seek a quick fix. Instead of breathing and staying calm, we self-medicate with pills and alcohol in an effort to cope with anxiety, stress, or emotional pain. We bolt away from relationships and isolate ourselves. We escape into television programs to lose ourselves. We regret and practice self-judgement. We shop and buy "stuff" to make us happy. We overeat. We run away and lack conviction to confront and deal with our inner dialogue and struggles. We look ahead instead of settling into where we are and allowing whatever transformation has begun to complete the process.

We want what's next. What's next is inevitably better than what we are in now ... or we think it will be.

In Slow Flow yoga, there are many common poses. However, the order differs with every class and every instructor. When we begin, I don't know what's next. And, after side one is over, I do my best to forget and allow myself to be guided to whatever is next. I let go. And it feels so good and so affirming when I make it through challenging poses. When I truly let go and flow.

I shake. I even fall sometimes. And there is a temptation to crave what's next. But I keep breathing. And that's really all that matters because when I can do that, I can keep my calm even when I don't know what is coming my way. I hope one day I can truly bring this technique outside of class.

Me, I am a planner. I like control. It's soothing to know what's next. Organizing and lists are daily tools. But when I look back over my life so far, what I expected and what happened next, well, they weren't necessarily what I had on the list. But, the good, the bad and the ugly have made me the woman I am today. I'm honestly not sure I would have wanted to know all this in advance. It might have impeded my adventure.

What's Next? I don't know. Life has a way of throwing curve balls and putting a wrench into the most idyllic of plans. When it happens that way, it IS still a Grand Adventure despite bumps in the ice that cause you to take a tumble or two. Sometimes what you find when you slip on the ice is strength to get back up and keep moving. Sometimes you laugh at yourself and find new joy. Sometimes you meet a fellow adventurer who becomes a life-changing presence in your life, whether around for a few years or a lifetime friend. But, if you knew you were going to get hurt, might you have avoided the ice altogether? And thus, might you have missed out on something truly amazing?

What's Next? I don't know. On the mountains and in the ravines, there is always change, You never stay in the same place. In yoga, Chair Pose is temporary as are the difficulties, challenges, and even joyful moments we experience every single day of our lives.

My advice is to listen to Suzanne. Just keep breathing and stay present ...
                                                                                                     -- Jenni

Friday, January 22, 2016

Graceful Words: Inspired by Jane & Judy

With 2016 arrived #ClassicsChallenge2016. Thanks to Ron Bernas once again for tossing out the gauntlet. But this year's challenge began with a gentler tone, an aspect I seek to incorporate into myself in an effort to settle an intense spirit and become just a bit more graceful and quiet.

Many years ago, I opened the pages of my first classic novel at the behest of one Judy Lebryk of Valparaiso High School. I was a Junior at the time and Ms. Lebryk was the terror of many an English student for her fierce love of classic literature and her intolerance of grammatical ignorance.

In Judy Lebryk's class, two or more spelling or grammar errors on a paper would result in an F. At that time in our education in this Honors English curriculum, we were to know our stuff ... or else.

While some may have cursed Ms. Lebryk's adherence to these exceptionally high standards, I feel nothing but gratitude for her work in assuring I knew HOW to articulate my written thoughts well. And I credit her for guiding me to a passion for Classic Literature.

I also credit her for my introduction to the works of Jane Austen, a simple woman who penned stories in bound notebooks and nurtured a deep desire to write all her life. And her gift with dialect, word choice and descriptive elements was artful and remains enjoyable to read to this day.

Now, I didn't begin as many do, with the popular and much dramatized Pride & Prejudice. Oh, I've read that book many, many times. However, it wasn't my first Austen. My first Austen was the more critically reviewed Mansfield Park. And the first heroine I came to admire was Fanny Price.

Oh, I'm probably more an Elizabeth Bennett from P & P. Independent. Content on my own. Quick to feel -- and perhaps too quick to judge. Romantic. Intense and outspoken for my station. Restless and passionate. Impatient at times. Intolerant when people are careless with the feelings of others. Protective of those I love. Like Elizabeth, I enter a room with a vibrant rush of energy and spirit. Yes, Elizabeth and I are alike in our passionate natures. Our intensity.

Perhaps that is why I admire Fanny Price so much. Such a quiet, gentle spirit was Fanny. Perhaps that is why when Ron directed me to re-read a classic from high school, I immediately sought Mansfield Park and re-acquainted myself with Fanny. Perhaps Fanny could fix, help or inspire a transformation in me.

Mansfield Park introduces us to three sisters. One marries above her station to a wealthy baronet named Thomas Bertram and has four children. One (the busybody, childless aunt) marries a clergyman named Norris. And the last, Fanny's mother, marries a naval lieutenant named Price who gets injured and is useless. This sister pops out children with abandon and can't handle the burden. That said, the novel commences with busybody Aunt Norris urging the wealthy family to foster the oldest daughter ... Fanny. And mom is thrilled to get rid of one kid. Pretty sad but there you have it.

Fanny is raised by the Bertrams, but always reminded by her Aunt Norris and her class-conscious cousins Maria and Julie that she is beneath them. She finds a friend though in her cousin Edmund, They are much alike and it is Edmund who Fanny cares most for. He is her closest friend and her confidant ... in all but one thing. (Guess what that is?)

A few years pass. Fanny is 17 and (drum roll, please) Enter the protagonists ... Henry Crawford and his sister Mary. Henry is a careless flirt, vain and arrogant but charming in his manners and style. Mary is pretty and captivating but her character is shallow and mercenary, inconsistent and self-absorbed. Henry hatches a plot to make Fanny fall in love with him, after toying with both her cousins' emotions. But Henry is foiled in that Fanny sees through him. And, when he realizes he is genuinely falling for Fanny, she rejects his proposal -- despite all who try to force them together.

Fanny is a complex personality but she's criticized often by readers for her meekness. Consider this though, she's alone and thrust into a world that constantly reminds her that she doesn't belong, yet she maintains her ideals and kindness. She is shy and sensitive, yet intelligent with good sense and perception. And she is strong enough to reject obedience in favor of following her instincts and conscience.

Many have a love/hate relationship with this character. But I admire how Fanny loves, how she lives gently, and how she is willing to let go of things that don't belong to her. In short, I wish I was less of an Elizabeth and more of a Fanny. But, at least she and I are long-time friends.

Perhaps someday her gentle spirit will soften my passionate nature and I will learn to adjust more gracefully to life as it happens. I certainly learned from Ms. Lebryk how to write eloquent papers and express my ideas without grammatical or spelling issues.

So, perhaps there is hope for me ...
                                                                                         -- Jenni

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Before The Kick-Off

The other day, I was watching a football game. I don't watch a lot of football, I must admit. I grew up in a state that was all about basketball. But it was one of those playoff games where both teams had stellar seasons so the pre-game chat projected a compelling competition. And, well, my husband was watching so I thought I'd hang out, knit and see how it all shook out.

Energy was high as the clock ticked down the minutes before that important first play of the game: the Kick-Off. Even I felt the tension through the television set.

It's exciting in those moments before the kick-off. The records of the season are top of mind. All the great plays and accomplishments rank them at the pinnacle of their leagues. Sports fans wait for the match-up and anticipate a great game. There's so much Hope and Potential. The air is ripe with Possibility and Promise. Expectation.

Before the Kick-Off, anything is possible.

With the first snap and the kick, the ball sailed through the air. It was beautiful. And then, it was caught. And the next thing I knew, the ball had made it all the way back down the field and the officials declared a touch-down.

There was silence for a moment. And then one set of fans exploded into triumph. The other sat, shocked at what they had just witnessed.

I hung around for a little longer. These kind of games make me really tense. I feel for both sides. They've worked so hard for such a long time. They've put their heart and a lot of hard work into getting this far in a competitive, physical game. I want to see both do well. But that was not the case. For after that returned kick resulted in a touchdown, the game shifted and was a one-sided domination.

Bad luck? Better team? I honestly couldn't say. But that Kick-Off -- that one play in the initial minutes of the game -- changed everything and the tide turned quickly. The mood in the stadium did too.

Got me thinking about New Years Resolutions and Hopes. At the stroke of midnight, armed with a glass of Chateau Chantal Celebrate and my New Years Intentions, all is possible. But then, the morning dawns, stuff happens, and old habits and actions damper the hopes and dreams of accomplishment, improvement, happiness and growth ... or, perhaps, less growth and a few fewer pounds.

It doesn't matter the Resolution or Intention you set. It's easy to get off course ... to allow the other team's Kick Return to throw you.  To allow that unexpected play and its implications undermine your confidence in your plans, or what you hope to do or accomplish.  It's much safer to stick with the status quo and surrender your dreams or goals or hopes to change and improve your body, spirit or mind, relationships, career ... etc. Heck, ya can't fail if you don't put yourself out there. Isn't it just simpler to go with the flow and what you know? To keep out of the fray and accept that the die is cast and what is ... is.

But, no matter how the game ended and who went on into the next phase of the Superbowl playoffs, both teams put themselves out there. And no matter the score at the end of the game and the discouragement as the one sided game continued, the players didn't walk off the field and give up. They kept playing and doing all they could do until the final whistle.

I don't know if you make New Year's Resolutions. I set Intentions, myself. And I do what I can to keep the focus. I don't always meet the goal. I get off course and discouraged at times. I lose and fail. And there are moments in which I feel the failure more acutely.

But there's something that pushes me along after even a messy Kick Off. Every moment is a new opportunity. I can't fail unless I give up and stop trying. I may not win. I may not get what I want or achieve my fondest wish. I may lose things and people along the way. BUT I'm going to fight a good fight and finish the race. I'm going to keep the faith in myself, in my "intentions" and aspirations whatever they might be, and in the people racing beside me -- whether they've fallen behind, advanced beyond me or walked off the track and away from me. Think Paul suggested that  ... And it gave him a sense of peace in the moments before his execution.

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." 
2 Timothy 4:7

Or, if you prefer a simpler, more popular mantra, remember Dory's words of Wisdom in Disney's Finding Nemo and "Just keep Swimming."

We're a few weeks into the 2016 Kick-Off. You may have scored a goal or two. You may be facing a tough challenge and waiting for your break. You may be in a Time Out, seeking strength and perspective. But you can't win if you stay off the field. It's comes down to Endurance, I guess.

So, whatever your "game," don't allow a rough start or a few tears or a week where you just didn't get to the gym and instead consumed a box of Oreos or a difficult meeting or unexpected loss keep you off the field.

You don't know what you'll discover unless you pick yourself up, offer your best and let go of the rest. That's really all you have to offer ... the best of who you are in this moment and what you know and can do now.

Find the Joy in that ... Shake it off ... and Just Keep Swimming. Before the Kick-off gets all the hype. But it's how you play the game that defines you.
Happy New Year.
                                                                                                      -- Jenni