To continue on the theme of how what goes on in your head affects your health, today I want to discuss the subject of how you talk to yourself. Before, you start to hotly deny the completely unfounded rumors about your tenuous hold on sanity, allow me to clarify; I am not talking about the ‘out-loud discussions with people that everyone else can’t see’ kind of talking to yourself. I am referring to what is commonly referred to as “self-talk”, ie the running conversation you have with your self (or selves) in the privacy of your own mind.
I’d like to ask you to stop for a moment and attempt an objective analysis of your inner monologue. First of all, leaving aside the content, what is the tone of voice you most often use with yourself? Is it exasperated or encouraging? Is it anxious or appreciative? Critical or grateful? Does this remind you of anyone in your life? Secondly, take a piece of paper and a pen – or pull up a blank doc on your keyboard, and thinking of the past few weeks, jot down the phrases or thoughts that you have most often had about yourself.
What have you got? Is this the voice of a mentor or a meanie? Without passing any emotional judgement, let’s take a pragmatic look at this. Being the world expert on yourself, what would you consider the most effective or productive method of motivation for yourself. Do you respond best to praise, nurturing and encouragement or a drill-sergeant style of humiliation and strict discipline? You are undeniably the boss of you. So how would you rate your current management style? Would you let someone you loved be treated like this?
Thinking about your personal and professional goals for a second, doesn’t it make sense to speak to yourself in the most effective way to motivate yourself to reach them? How do you talk to yourself?
More and more, I find that I am receiving such inspiration about living from the people in my life who are dying. Many of the hospice patients I care for have end-stage Alzheimers and can no longer communicate directly, yet somehow, I am still blessed to receive the gift of their wisdom. Often, it is through talking to their loved ones. This week for example, I was met the husband of one of my patients on a visit to her at the nursing home. He was expressing how difficult it is, how much he misses his wife of over 50 years. The tragedy is how sad he is when he doesn’t see her and yet how hard it is to see her in her current condition, no longer able to recognize him.
It is hard for me to understand what it is like to slowly lose the partner with whom you have shared half a century of living. He tells me how happy they were, about how much fun they always had together throughout the years. He tells me how she would look for a chance to celebrate at every opportunity, even something small and is strikes me as such a powerfully inspiring message. This tiny bird like woman, with her beautifully braided hair, hands neatly folded into one another and eyes that see other worlds, is speaking to me today, showing me how to live in a better way.
You know what her saying was? Her husband tells me. She always used to say “Let’s go out and have a helluva good time!” Amen, sister.
In spite of the fact that many people tend to live as if their head and body are two distinct entities, there is, in fact, a great deal of kosher clinical research to back up the notion that what goes on in your head has a tangible effect on your body. Evidence continues to accumulate in favor of the idea that psychology affects biology. In other words, what you think will affect your physical state of health.
Your mental and emotional reaction to stress – and by that I mean any experience, real or imagined, that you would rather avoid, triggers an internal alarm system that activates a host of physiological events that tax the body and reduce the capacity of the immune system. Mood swings, headaches and migraines, digestive problems, trouble sleeping, more frequent episodes of illness, such as colds or flu, and lack of energy and fatigue are commonly reported among people under stress. Other adverse health effects attributed to exposure to stress include increased blood pressure, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases and accelerated aging. Chronic stress may lead to damage of the receptors of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that helps interpret whether an experience is good or bad, which has been linked to depression which has been proven to increase the risk of heart disease and other serious physical ailments.
Seems obvious that the easy answer is to immediately eliminate all stress from your life. Back on planet reality however, the good news is that in recent years, scientists have also come to the same conclusion that the yogis have known for a couple of millennia; that you have, in the space between your ears, a powerful mechanism with which you can improve not just your emotional well-being but your your physical health too. The literature on happiness, optimism, and behavioral therapy techniques designed to re-frame negative thoughts continues to grow exponentially as new discoveries are made regarding the connection between positive mental outlook and physical and emotional health.
What this means to you, is that by learning ways to control your emotions, you can protect your physical body from the damaging effects of stress which occur when our habitual fear or anger reactions trigger the “fight or flight” response – and begins that chain reaction of chemical events.
According to studies by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, subjects studying meditation for periods of at least 8 weeks and longer in order to measure the effects of mindfulness based meditation practices on chronic pain and anxiety disorders yielded significant findings. Chronic pain subjects demonstrated a decrease in the need to use pain medications; those with anxiety disorders showed a drop in the number and severity of panic attacks, as well as a reduction in scores on depression and anxiety inventory tests up to three years after the initiation of the study. Other research, indicates that meditation reduces the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Meditation has been reported, both in scholarly journals and by word-of-mouth, as an antidote for everything from mood disorders to cardiovascular disease to a heightened sense of compassion and empathy for our fellow man. It seems that there may just be something to all that woo-woo meditation stuff after all.
So the good news is, that regardless of external stress, cultivating a way to a calmer, happier way of being lends itself to a healthier body, and meditation and positive thinking are proven ways to get there. Simple enough, right? Until you actually start to pay attention to what goes on in your un-supervised mind. Scary, isn’t it? My friend Lynnie was fond of saying to me “Stay out of your head, you’ll get mugged in there.” Left to it’s own devices, your mind will tend to fall into a few familiar ruts of repetitive, and often negative, thinking.
Once you start noticing your thoughts, try to avoid spiraling into a vicious cycle of self-criticism and despair as you realize how negative they are and how doomed you are! The good news is, that simply noticing your thoughts is 99% of the battle. This is what they call the development of a ‘witnessing consciousness’. In other words, rather than just being angry – you are able to notice that you are feeling angry.
Once you make this very simple but critical distinction, congratulate yourself! You have just given yourself an unbelievably powerful advantage: by creating the possibility of choice. In the words of Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning which he wrote about his experiences as a concentration camp inmate, it’s “The last of human freedoms – the ability to chose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”
What this means, is that with a little practice, you can develop the ability to change and control your emotions. Yes, you! You can do this, I promise; even if you hate the idea of meditation, can’t sit still and have the attention span of a gnat. I’m here to help.
Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L. and Burney, R. The Clinical Use of Mindfulness Meditation for the Self-Regulation of chronic pain. J. Behav. Med. (1985) 8:163-190.
Miller, J., Fletcher, K. and Kabat-Zinn, J. Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Gen. Hosp. Psychiatry (1995) 17:192-200.
MacLEAN, C. R. K., WALTON, K. G., WENNEBERG, S. R., LEVITSKY, D. K., MANDARINO, J. V., WAZIRI, R. and SCHNEIDER, R. H. (1994), Altered Responses of Cortisol, GH, TSH and Testosterone to Acute Stress after Four Months’ Practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM). Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 746: 381–384. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1994.tb39261.x
McClelland, D. C., Floor, E., Davidson, R. J. & Saron, C. (1980). Stressed Power Motivation, Sympathetic Activation, Immune Function, and Illness.Journal of Human Stress, 6(2), 11-19. doi:10.1080/0097840X.1980.9934531
McEwen, BS. Hatch, MM, Hatch H. The Neurobiology of Stress: From Serendipity to Clinical Relevance. Brain Res 2000 Dec 15: 886(1-2):172-189.
Mintun MA, Sheline YI, Moerlein SM, Vlassenko AG, Huang Y, Snyder AZ. Decreased hippocampal 5-HT2A receptor binding in major depressive disorder: in vivo measurement with [18F] altanseerin positron emission tomography. Biological Psychiatry, vol. 55, pp. 217-224, February 2004.
Miller, GE. Cohen, S. Ritchey, AK. Chronic Psychological Stress and the Regulation of Pro-Inflammatory Cytokines: A Glucocorticoid-Resistance Model. Health Psychology, 2002, 21 (6) 531-541.
Guest Post by Lachlan Cotter, Personal Awesomeness Consultant.
I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately; I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life; To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.
Henry David Thoreau
There are few things in life more piercing than receiving a diagnosis of terminal disease. While we all know, intellectually, that our time here on this Earth is limited; we still fumble our way through it as if it were a rehearsal. As if today is not the only day we ever have.
Sadly, many realise this only to discover there are all too few tomorrows remaining.
For some, the diagnosis is a wake up call. It teaches them to let go and to overcome; and their lives are forever transformed. For others, it is the beginning of the end.
It was Bronnie’s job to care for these people in the weeks leading up to their passing. She watched as they grew through the spectrum of emotions from denial to acceptance and found renewed connection and meaning with their families. And she learned of their greatest regrets.
While each of us walks a solitary road, there are themes that echo throughout the whole of humanity. Themes that colour our lives when viewed through the lens of retrospect. And according to Bronnie, the single most common regret, expressed by the dying, is this:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
My father died of cancer when I was 22 and he was 53. His battle with the disease was neither graceful nor accepting.
I like to think he found some sense of peace before the end. But if he did it can only have been in a morphine induced delirium, or the deep stasis of coma. Outwardly, he resisted and struggled against it until fate overtook him and he no longer had the strength or lucidity to fight it anymore.
He eventually became so emaciated and feeble that he was unable to carry himself from his bed to the bathroom; and required assistance to perform the most basic of bodily functions. His entire universe shrank to the size of a single room.
I can only imagine the heartbreak he must have endured. How resentful one must be at a life that promises so much and then cruelly snatches it away.
His anger and frustration and defeat… so bitter.
He stayed positive as best he could and put on a brave face for our benefit; but inside I think he must have been wrestling with some terrible fear and regret.
That he spent the majority of his adult years in a job he didn’t like to support a life that was less than he deserved.
His passions relegated to a weekend diversion.
His grand plans forever a distant dream.
Regret that his 25 year research project—his life’s greatest work—would never be completed.
That his dreams of artistic freedom and independent business would never be realised.
That he would reach the end, a humble, college teacher. Loved by those dear to him; but in many ways a stranger to them none the less.
He didn’t tell me this. He couldn’t. He was an intensely private man; not the sort that coped well with such difficult emotions or the vulnerability that such stark honesty tends to engender. So much of his inner world remained hidden away to the end; he took it to the hereafter.
As a younger man, he was an adventurer. Intrepid, overland traveller, philosopher, artist. But the man my mother fell in love with, I never really knew.
By the time I had the maturity to understand who he used to be he had become a shadow of his former self. Worn down by the burdens of responsibility and routine.
He had the courage to endure and to be selfless and to provide for the needs of a family through hard times. But, alas for him, he could not find the courage to give his own dreams the urgent attention they so richly deserved.
And so they never happened.
They died inside of him.
And when he was gone the thing I wept for most sorrowfully was not the loss of him, but the loss of every moment when I could have showed him more kindness or compassion or gratitude.
To watch a loved one waste away is agonising.
Yet the wasting of dreams is far, far worse.
Things my dad never got to do
- Wake up to a day totally free of worry and obligation
- Say what he was feeling
- Be his own man
- Indulge in his passions
- Go where the wind blew him
- Be selfish
- Taste the sweet air of a fresh beginning
- Watch his boys grow into men
- Hear the innocent laughter of his granddaughter
- If you can read this sentence, it’s not too late
“Today is the first day of the rest of your life”
What’s become of your grand designs? The image of the life you once imagined? Do you keep it at the center of your life? Are you moving towards it every day? Or has your purpose become subordinate to routine and survival?
Come closer, dear friend; I want to ask you a question.
What are you waiting for?
Think back on you life of 10 years ago. Does it seem like a distant memory? Or does it seem like the blink of an eye? Probably both at once. Funny how time does that. What you need to realise is: one day soon, today is going to look remarkably similar.
It took me a long time to realise what wise people had been saying my whole life: if it’s not happening now, it’s not happening. The path you’re on doesn’t lead to the life of your dreams unless you’re taking steps towards it today.
So why do you continue to stand in your own way?
What excuses are you using to justify your postponement of living?
What could be more important than living the life you were born for?
I thought so.
So put the most important things in life at the center of your life; not on the sidelines. Don’t make them things to get to someday, or to fit in around your routine obligations. Don’t think you have to follow the blueprint that was handed to you by someone else. Construct your life around what really matters.
Make a list of things that are most important to you.
Start at the top.
Orient your life towards the realisation of your dream.
How to create a bucket list that really lights your fire
Here’s what I’ve discovered.
It’s not actually having a bucket list that’s important. It’s making one. Yup. You heard right. If you’ve made your list properly you could throw it away and you’d still be well on the path to living the life of your dreams. In fact, making your list is really half the fun.
I don’t mean just going through the motions of writing down a bunch of fanciful, pie-in-the-sky dreams that you never intend to realise; paying lip-service to passion without actually feeling any. That’s not making a bucket list. That’s just another fidget.
No. To really make your list you need to go on an emotional journey. You need to feel the feelings you associate with living your dream for real. You need to feel it because that’s where real life actually happens—in your emotional world.
It’s in that moment of intense focus and intention that powerful dreams are birthed. The kind of dreams that will actually call you forward toward them and take over your life instead of becoming a death bed regret.
If your mental exertion is not palpable, you’re probably not in the zone.
When I created my list, I lived every moment. I used my feelings as the sole criteria in working out exactly what should go on it. And, I kept in short because I actually intend to do everything on it, starting yesterday.
Getting real about what you want
Who are you trying to impress?
Is your vision of a great life really your own? or did you inherit it from someone else?
Paul Graham wrote a great essay about doing what you love. In it he warns of the tendency young people have to be seduced away from their passions by the lures of money and prestige. He advises:
If you admire two kinds of work equally, but one is more prestigious, you should probably choose the other. Your opinions about what’s admirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige, so if the two seem equal to you, you probably have more genuine admiration for the less prestigious one.
Paul is one of those too-cleaver-for-his-own-good types. There’s wisdom here. But actually, you don’t have to resort to this kind of intellectual second guessing to work out what the right choices are: just listen to your heart.
Prestige is just another word for the approval of others. And when making your bucket list—or any decision for that matter—that needs to be the furthest thing from your mind.
I see so many lists that look like this:
- Earn a PhD.
- Learn seven languages.
- Bench press 100 Kg.
- Run a marathon.
- Sell a company for $1 million.
And other such variations on impressive or respectable personal achievements. I can understand why people do this. I was a prime offender. But if your list has items like this on it, I implore you to ask yourself why. Is it because you’re genuinely inspired by the experience? or are you doing it for the prestige? For the label?
When you’re creating your list, be selfish but not egotistical.
Write down the things that you really want.
Not the thing you think you should want.
Not the things that society says are best.
Not the things you want for somebody else.
Not the things you justify in terms of prestige or legacy.
The things that you really want for the intrinsic value of the experience. For the shear, childish fun of it.
Most importantly: write down actual experiences, not accolades or accomplishments. A bucket list is supposed to enthrall you in the rapture of living. Not be another to-do list. Another set of things to check off before you reach the deadline.
So long as your doing something for a future pay-off rather than the intrinsic reward, you’re not sucking the marrow out of life—you’re still postponing living.
Now… if the experience you want is discovering something that no other human being has thought before… if the experience you want is to emerse yourself in other cultures… if the experience you want is transcendence of your physical limitations… if the experience you want is to see the world through the eyes of God, then all power to you. But get to the heart of it, and be honest.
Indeed, once you do get to the heart of it, you’ll be able to come up with a much more compelling description of what you want to create.
Live it emotionally, and all will be clear.
The difference between a Bucket List and an Awesome List
A bucket list is for sucking the marrow out of life.
An awesome list is for pushing out the edges of the universe.
Marrow-sucking is important. A life lived fully is lived deeply. It is lived in the moment, and in the heart. And that is paramount. But when I created my list, I had some additional criteria:
I want to be more than I have been.
I want to expand my potential.
I don’t regard my list as a bunch of experiences I’d like to have before my time runs out. I regard it as a compelling statement of who I want to be. That’s why, in addition to being tremendous fun, I recommend you choose adventures which actually scare you. Things that are outside the boundaries of what you think you can accomplish.
They must be things you’re actually afraid of wanting because you’re not sure you could handle the getting of them.
Hence, the awesome list forces you to grow.
And when you grow, the potential for marrow-sucking is exponential to that growth. That’s why of all the thrilling adventures there are to choose among, I give highest priority to this select group which will force me to be more than I am. That’s how you change your world.
Some totally awesome bucket listers
If you’re looking for some inspiration in imagining a life less ordinary, check out this short list of adventurers. They are certified fire-lighters.
Jodi just might have the best darn bucket list I’ve ever seen. She certainly is a girl with a healthy disregard for the impossible; and it’s not just wishful thinking. She lives and breathes adventure. If you need a hand to give your dreams a kick-start, I recommend her Adventure Sessions.
There’s only one word I can think of to describe Jenny: holy-fucking-wow. She’s the only person I know to have stood on an exploding volcano and lived to tell the tale (other than Frodo and Sam—but they had those giant Eagles). Anyway, I think if Jenny did go toe-to-toe with Sauron, she would totally kick his ass. Read more about her awesome, globetrotting adventures. Her bucket list is here.
When I grow up, I want to be just like Cody: hanging out with billionaires or kicking back with a bevy of Swedish beauties on some tropical beach. Cody’s a guy who decided to live life his way. His blog, Thrilling Heroics is packed with resources to help you do the same; awesome stuff. Here’s Cody’s amazing bucket list.
Joel’s list is primarily focused around finding ever more gruelling ways to push the limits of his cardiovascular system. But, beneath his tough, Tim-Ferriss-looking exterior, he’s one of the nicest guys you’re ever likely to meet. Check out his Impossible List if you’re into tests of physical endurance. And keep an eye out for Joel—some day you might see him in an ad for Lynx.
Celine’s 30 Before 30 list runs the gamut from world travel to burlesque dancing. What I love about Celine’s project is that it’s not a someday-list. It’s a right-now list. I’m hanging out for her to do her epic bungee jump from the Macau Tower.
Tyler kind of reminds me of Thoreau, what with that crazy moustache and his passionate damnation of the status quo. He’s on a mission to join the 1% Club, by doing the things that few people ever do. He writes about risk taking, uncertainty and freedom of mind on his popular blog, Advanced Riskology.
Think it’s time to make a bucket list of your own? Mirabai can help you with that.
Thanks to the Awesome Lachlan Cotter for this incredibly inspiring post – check him out here at The Art of Audacity.
This week, I’m mourning the death of one of my hospice patients. When I lose someone, I always try to reflect on what I have learned from knowing and loving that person and resolve to honor their memory by seeking to incorporate the qualities or values I admired in them into my own life. M’s greatest gifts that I observed in the short time I knew her, were the sweet grace of her open heart which seemed to bring out the best in everybody and her dazzlingly sunny disposition. I was talking to a family member about these qualities which were such a gift to everyone who met her and he pointed out to me that with M, it wasn’t even a case of finding the glass half-full rather than half-empty. For M, it was always full, anything else simply means you just have the wrong-sized glass. May you always find the right sized glass.