The Real Magic

We couldn’t have coordinated the timing of our mission better if we had tried. It’s 2:34am and the three of us are on the move.

Guard dogs lie in wait on the perimeter. Everything’s dark. We’re not supposed to be here right now.

Tiptoeing, we try to mask our excitement. The day has finally come. We’ve been waiting so long. We thought it would never get here. But it has.

First stop is the alarm system. It doesn’t always get activated on nights like this. But we want to make sure. The last thing we want is a bunch of sirens blaring and security guards arriving at the gate. No, our mission is not going to be ruined by such an oversight on our part.

I check the alarm control panel. It’s off. Not that it matters too much, since I know the password. But now there’s no need to bother.

The three of us glance at each other, smiles on our faces. It’s just a short distance now. Nothing stands in our way. We just need to stay quiet.

We round a corner.

Bam. A hundred lights hit our eyes. Some shine directly. Others glisten off the nearby glass and metal.

We freeze.

The sight is just so beautiful. The Christmas tree is pretty as it always is. But today, a pile of gifts stack beneath it – each a package of excitement and anticipation.

My brothers and I stand and watch the tree.

Eventually we’ll go over and read the note from Santa Claus – who I must admire for his remarkable ability to impersonate my dad’s handwriting. We’ll take a closer look at the gifts and whisper in wonder of what they might be. And after a time, we’ll make our way back to bed.

But for now, no one moves. No one says a word. We’re just there to take the magic in.

***

I hardly remember the gifts I received. I’m sure they were great, and I’m sure I got good use out of them. But I don’t think of them when I think of Christmas.

My memories are in the stories. They’re in the traditions – in things like sneaking out in the middle of the night to look at the Christmas tree. They’re in shared experiences with fellow human beings.

That’s where the real magic of Christmas lies.

And, as I’m starting to realize, that’s where the real magic of life lies.

***

What are some of your memories? What are your magical traditions around Christmas?

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PS: Our mission has had a good track record over the years. Though as my brother reminded me recently, there was one year stealth and silence got abandoned to the aim of playing computer games to pass the time till my parents woke up. They woke up sooner than we’d planned. Somehow, I don’t remember my mom being too happy about that plan.

PPS: A very merry Christmas to you all. May it be a magical one.

Don’t Measure Your Life On a Single Day

I try hard to get a good night of sleep each night. It provides me with the energy I need to live, connect, and work.

But there are nights where that doesn’t happen.

Maybe I’m up late hanging out with friends.

Maybe I get sucked into a good book. “Just one more chapter and then I’ll go to bed. I promise.”

Or maybe my mind is too active – worrying about the next day or spinning over some problem – and I simply can’t fall asleep.

When that happens, the next day is miserable.

I sleep in later than I normally do and throw off my morning rituals. I skip my time of meditation. I pass over my freewriting. I don’t get a block of work in before breakfast. The day starts on the wrong foot. From the very beginning, I feel like I’m behind.

I feel terrible. My head pounds like there’s a little man inside with a hammer. All I want to do is go back to bed – to hide from it all beneath the sheets.

I can’t think. And since my line of work revolves around thinking, the work day is a labor. I’m inefficient and ineffective. Simple tasks exhaust me.

But most of all, I become more pessimistic. The things that go wrong gain in significance. I worry. I get frustrated. I become hopeless. Small annoyances bug me more than they ought to.

If you were to ask me how life is going, I’d tell you about all the struggles. I’d tell you about how nothing goes right. And I wouldn’t tell you about all of the blessings I have to celebrate and be grateful for – things like family, food, community, meaningful work, sunny skies, and hot bourbon chai.

Life is full of ups and downs. Sometimes everything goes according to plan. You’re riding the top of the wave. Life is good. You’re happy. Other times though, circumstances conspire, and you’re down in a trough of challenge and difficulty.

In such days it’s tempting to measure your whole life through the lens of the struggle. But that isn’t usually helpful.

Instead, try widening your perspective. See the overarching flow of weeks, months, and even years. Yes, there is much to be thankful for. Yes, there is much to celebrate. Yes, your path is taking you closer to where you want to go and the person you want to be.

Use that broader perspective to get through the day. Use it as you move through the difficulty, as you face the individual hurdles and challenges.

And if you’re anything like me, after a few nights of great sleep, things may just start looking brighter again.

###

For When You Fail Your Practice

It’s silly to place so much attachment to a number, right?

Yet this particular number meant a lot to me. It represented my practice. And not just any practice, but one of the most powerful practices I have – freewriting.

Back when I started my freewriting practice, I used a game to create the habit. I kept track of how many days in a row I’d written. Every day I wrote, my count increased. And the higher it grew, the more determined I became not to miss a day. I didn’t want my streak to go back to zero.

The game worked. I wrote consistently.

Some days I’d remember my writing moments before drifting off to sleep. Despite wanting to just sleep, I’d get up and write. Some days I’d put up with the terrible keyboard of a hotel computer. Some days I’d get up a half hour earlier to fit my writing in ahead of a busy schedule. I did everything I could to maintain the perfection of the unbroken streak.

My streak kept growing.

Until, one day, I forgot to write. I woke up the day after and realized I’d missed a day. My streak came crashing down to zero.

All my effort had been undone. I’d failed. I’d failed my practice and failed myself.

Or had I?

With almost any practice – be it writing, meditation, exercise, love, or anything else – it’s easy to get caught up in all the extras that go along with it. We count how often we keep the habit or the number of times we fall short.

Yet the most important thing about practice is the activity itself. The transformation comes not from being perfect, but in making the practice more and more a part of our identity over time.

With my freewriting, it wasn’t really about the streak. It was about the writing. Writing helped me reflect on life, experiment with ideas, and learn about myself. Through writing I gained a tool for making difficult decisions and a place to find peace amid challenging circumstances.

We can strive for perfection. But we will fall short of that standard. It happens.

What matters is not the perfection, but what happens after you go off track. The strength of a practice is its resilience. Can it take the disruption?

Do you walk away from it after that failure, or do you pick yourself up?

Do you have the awareness to realize you’ve fallen off the rails? That your practice has become enough apart of your way of living that when you strayed from it, something felt off. You caught yourself.

Do you have the presence of mind to stop walking in the opposite direction of your practice? Do you stop the unhelpful behavior?

Do you have the ability to recommit to your practice? To say, yes, this is important to me. I want to continue on this path. I’m not willing to give up.

Do you have the mindset of learning and curiosity? To look at what happened, and what caused you to get sidetracked. To study the situation and circumstances and make adjustments and create plans for how to deal with them in the future.

Do you have the strength to return to the practice? To dust yourself off and continue again on the path you’d been walking.

The day after my streak went crashing to zero, I stared at the blank screen before me. The choice was mine. I could walk away from it all, or I could refuse to let failure break my practice.

I began to type. Twenty minutes later, my streak hit one.

How to Love Everyone… Eventually

How do you love the man sitting two seats away from you on the subway who’s blasting music through his earphones? All you hear is static and the broken beats to a song you don’t even like. It’s just so annoying. You want to sit back in peace – and concentrate your on the book you’re reading. But the music is too loud.

How do you love the security officer at the airport, who for as far as you can tell was only put on this earth to make your travel more unpleasant? Surely, his bad mood is directed only at you. He makes you wait in a line a moment longer. He complains because you didn’t take your belt off before going through the x-ray. He “randomly” selects you for additional screening.

How do you love the woman smoking a cigarette on the street-corner, who asked you for the fifth time in two weeks if she could have a bit of change? Her clothes are worn and smell funny. She’s always there. No matter what you give her, she’d most likely be back on that corner the next day. And the next.

How do you love the woman sitting nearby at the coffee shop, who, from the fragments you hear of her loud conversation on the phone, appears to have nothing in common with you. Not only do her beliefs not line up with yours, they run completely in the face of what’s most important to you. Nothing she believes makes any logical sense. She’s crazy. You’re sure of it.

How do you love your significant other after you misunderstand the intent behind their words and assume they’re attacking, berating, and disrespecting you. You get into an argument. The last thing you want to do is show love to the one you love.

How to love yourself when after failing again and again – never managing to achieve what you’re aiming to do? You call yourself a failure. You say you’re worthless and unlovable. You look so inferior in comparison to the perfect looking outer shells of everyone else.

There’s more to the old words, “love your enemies,” than appears at first glance. It’s easy to think of enemy in vague or distant terms. I imagine someone who does some great and terrible crime to me – someone so full of hatred and anger. And in that fantasy, it’s not so hard to love that person. It’s not personal. It’s not real.

But then there’s everyday life.

There are people who annoy me. There are people I disagree with. There are people I’m close to who hurt me, and I find it nearly impossible to show love to them in the moment. There’s myself. How do I show to love to everyone, even when it’s personal – especially when it’s personal? Is it even possible?

Yes.

With practice.

It’s easy to look at the difficulty and challenge and say that such love is impossible. We set ourselves up for the task of going from no love to complete love in an instant. We expect a miraculous transformation.

Yet like almost anything else that’s worth attaining, learning to love people takes practice. We get better at showing love by showing love in everyday circumstances.

Sometimes that practice is offering a brief prayer of compassion to that stranger on the subway. You wish that he’ll enjoy his music – that it will be a source of pleasure and happiness. You wish him a wonderful day.

Sometimes that practice is shifting from disparagement and judgement to curiosity. You start to wonder why the person acts the way they do and believes the things they do. You explore. You ask questions. You try to learn from them. And you discover that once you cut through the layers, you both have more in common than you’d initially thought.

Sometimes that practice is showing a small kindness despite your frustration. You let your actions initiate the feelings. If the person is deserving of your attention, then surely they can’t be a terrible person. Then surely they are lovable.

Sometimes that practice is breathing for a few seconds – pausing long enough to recenter yourself.

Sometimes that practice is remembering a time when you felt similar to the other person. You remember what it’s like to feel lonely, afraid, or unwanted. You see how deep down, their pain and struggle isn’t that different than yours. Everyone wants love – to be seen as human.

Sometimes that practice is remembering that the other person matters more than the argument you have with them – that it’s better to be be happy than to be right.

Sometimes that practice is showing an extra measure of grace. Yes you’ve failed, but it’s OK. That’s in the past. You can move on. You can create a different story for yourself.

The practice doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be all-encompassing. We learn to show love in small ways. But step by step the lens we see people through begins to shift. Love becomes a bigger and bigger part of our identity.

And given enough time, maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to love anyone.

###

Just a Little Longer

I’m deep into my meditation practice and a thought arises. Nothing unnatural in that, but this particular thought is one that comes up almost every single day…

“How much time is left on the timer?”

I use a basic timer on my phone when I sit down to meditate. I choose a duration, and then sit until the timer sounds – no need to check on the clock to see if it’s time to get up yet.

Except after sitting for awhile, I start getting restless.

It’s time to get on with my day. There’s stuff to do, people to connect with, and problems to deal with.

Plus, this meditation practice is challenging. It forces me to be still and demands I connect with myself – including those parts of me I don’t like so much.

I’m reaching beyond the edge of what’s comfortable.

On some days I have given into the temptation. I’ve picked up my phone and checked the timer. Without fail, it almost always reads about 20 seconds. Just 20 seconds remained. “Really?” I’d wonder to myself, “Surely I could have waited those few moments longer.”

***

Life has a way of pushing us into moments of discomfort. Often, we don’t even have to go looking for it. It happens whether we want it to or not…

You find yourself in a conversation with that person whose belief fundamentally goes against almost everything you believe in. Both of you know it. Being with this person is the last thing you want to do right now – let alone try to talk to them.

You practice learning a new skill, and you get stuck. The skill is hard. You just can’t seem to get it right. All you want to do is stop practicing and go do something easier.

It’s easy to give in – to soothe the discomfort. But if you do, you’ll miss out.

Growth happens not in the times when things are easy, familiar, and comfortable. It happens when you remain with your discomfort. Instead of giving into the obstacle, you use it as fuel for becoming stronger, braver, and more compassionate.

Stay with that discomfort. Tell yourself to hold out for just a moment longer. You may find a breakthrough…

You keep talking to that person you disagree with only to find you have more in common than you thought. Maybe it’s a shared suffering or pain that moves you to compassion. Perhaps it’s a common hobby or interest that breaks through the barriers between you. You begin to see the person as human.

You keep practicing that skill. Suddenly everything clicks together in your mind. You can do it now. You were way closer to figuring it out than you had thought.

Remaining in that discomfort may pay off.

***

This time, I choose to ignore the temptation to look at the timer. “I can wait a moment more,” I tell myself. I decide to build my tolerance to discomfort and make my practice stronger.

And as if on cue, the timer sounds.

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Make It Ridiculously Easy

You probably don’t have this problem. I bet you’re way more organized and on top of things than I am.

From time to time, I’ll have a big spread of dishes on the counter – waiting to be done.

You’ve probably seen such piles before – at your friends’ houses, of course. You peak into the kitchen and there’s no sign of the countertop. It’s buried beneath a jumbled pile of dirty dishes. Cups stack upon bowls, and bowls stack upon plates. If you were to breathe hard enough, the whole pile might collapse like a noisy house of cards.

Silverware hides in and among the cups, cutting boards, and plastic containers. Remnants of the last meal, and the meal before last, cover everything. A feast of hardened crumbs and sauces stick to plates, which really ought to have been rinsed a long time ago.

And that’s not even mentioning the sink, which overflows with a set of pots and pans left there “to soak.”

At least, that’s how my imagination perceives the situation.

When this happens, I find myself avoiding the kitchen. Like a child covering their eyes, if I can’t see it, then it’s not there. I’ll put off the task forever – or at least until we run out of spoons.

Thankfully, I’ve found a small tactic to tackle such daunting jobs. I give myself permission to not do most of it.

“I don’t have to wash a single dish.” I tell myself. “Just put everything into neat piles for now.”

So I do that little step. When that’s finished, I’m allowed to stop if I want. Sometimes I do. I’ll walk away satisfied that I got things started.

But most of the time what happens is I’ll look over my work. It doesn’t look so bad now – just a little stack of bowls, a pile of silverware, a cutting board, a set of cups, and a couple pots. Surveying the counter, I’ll think to myself, “I bet I could knock out the silverware in just a few minutes. Why don’t I go ahead and do that too.”

So I do. Since all the silverware is consolidated at one place on the counter, the job goes by pretty quickly. Again, I have permission to stop. Sometimes I do.

Yet often, I’ll say to myself, “Well, I’m already started. I’ve got a nice soapy sponge in hand. Maybe I’ll take care of that little stack of bowls too.”

Before I know it, the dishes are done.

***

There’s value in trying to accomplish massive tasks.

But sometimes that big target can be so intimidating, so scary, and so daunting that you don’t take action. You become paralyzed by the scope and scale of all that you have to do.

Give yourself permission to do only a single small step. Make that step so ridiculously easy that you can’t come up with a proper excuse for not doing it. Then take that step.

Once you’ve done that, you’ve got forward motion. Even if you were to stop after that, you’re further than you were to a moment ago. Or you may keep going, finding another tiny step to do.

Step by step. One thing at a time. Oh look, you’re done.

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Yes, But…

Have you ever said something like this:

“Yes, I’d love to get at least seven and a half hours of sleep a night, but…”

“Yes, there’s lots of research showing the benefits of a meditation practice, but…”

“Yes, I spend too much of my day reacting to other people’s priorities, but…”

“Yes, I’d love to find more interesting work, but…”

“Yes, I ought to just pick up the phone and call that friend I haven’t talked to in years, but…”

“Yes, I need to apologize for my comments to her, but…”

“Yes, you could use help cleaning up after the party, but…”

“Yes, I know you’re hungry and need a few dollars for a meal, but…”

“Yes, there’s a pile of dishes that need to be done, but…”

We respond as though we would really, really, really love to do the action. Except we dismiss the idea with an excuse. We don’t allow the space in our minds to consider the suggestion.

The phrase, “Yes, but…” is sneaky. It lets us pretend we’re considering an idea – and maintain our self-perception that we’re open-minded individuals – without considering the idea at all.

So we end up saying no to countless opportunities to serve others – and ourselves – without any meaningful evaluation. We kill beneficial changes in our lives before they have a chance to take root.

But what if we rephrased such statements? Instead of saying, “Yes, but,” what if we tried to say, “Yes, and.”

You could say, for example, “Yes, there’s lots of research showing the benefits of a meditation practice, and I don’t have the time.” Both statements remain valid. Your lack of time doesn’t exclude the value of meditation.

Rather than disqualifying the idea with prejudgment, “yes and” lets you examine the possibility. “Yes, I don’t have time. Though would meditation be something worth doing if I did? Probably. It would help me more present and effective in what I do. Plus, do I really not have the time? It doesn’t take much to get started – just a few minutes a day. Hmmm… I bet I could fit it in first thing in the morning.”

You can look at the idea without hurting or diminishing your excuse. And after that consideration, you might decide the excuse isn’t strong enough. Or you may still decide it is. Only now, you’ve genuinely considered it.

Give it a try. For the next week, every time you’re tempted to say “Yes, but,” try to say “Yes, and,” instead.

You may find yourself open to a whole new world of possibility.

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