What Are You Saying Yes To?

“Your priorities aren’t what you say they are. They are revealed by how you live.” (Anon.)

In recent days, I’ve been working with a nonprofit board on strategic planning. It’s always an enjoyable and enlightening process—especially when a board of directors is both committed and receptive to new ways of looking at their world.

One of the things I found myself saying to the group is something I say to nearly every planning group I work with: “Be very intentional about what you say ‘yes’ to, because everything you say yes to means you have to say ‘no’ to something else.”

It’s not rocket science. I’ve never met a nonprofit that was so flush with cash that it didn’t need to make hard decisions and be strategic about how it invests its resources (money, time, and people). When I remind them about saying yes and saying no, I often see a light come on. They realize strategic planning is not about coming up with as many things to do as they can possibly think of, but rather about identifying the few, mission-critical actions that will move them forward, that will really make a difference. That awareness leads to a practical and dynamic plan, and a cohesive group committed to accomplishing important objectives that will serve their constituency.

Sometimes I have to stop and ask myself if I am following my own advice—because it’s true for individuals as well as for organizations. Continue reading

The Heart of Gratitude

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

attribution: Donna CameronIn the United States, we talk about gratitude a lot during November. We celebrate our Thanksgiving holiday, often spending it with family, friends, and food—lots of food.

It’s lovely to have a day specifically designated for giving thanks, but ideally that would be only one of many days we pause to express our thanks. It seems churlish and small-minded to discard gratitude as merely a quaint holiday tradition. Gratitude, like kindness, is not a weakness to be dismissed or derided, but a strength to be claimed and exercised. Plus, there’s a cornucopia of scientifically-based reasons why gratitude is good for you.

…keep reading…

The Vanishing Art of Paying Attention

“Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” (Jose Ortega y Gasset)

Attribution: Donna CameronWhat do you pay attention to? I know a woman—an artist—who notices color and texture and light everywhere she goes. And she thinks about capturing it on canvas, or fabric, or even just memory. Another person—a devoted animal lover—has her radar out for dogs: big ones, little ones, quiet ones, yappy ones, puppies . . .  she adores them all and it makes her quite a canine magnet. And then there’s my acquaintance who is always on the lookout for slights, for people who disagree with him, for comments he can interpret as disrespectful or confrontational. With his detector tuned to these encounters, he tends to find offense everywhere. He lives in a perpetual state of raised hackles.

There’s even a world leader who purportedly only pays attention when the news or information he’s viewing is sprinkled generously with his own name.

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about fear as one of the biggest barriers to kindness—both to our extending kindness and our receiving it. In the comments, Janis, of the delightful Retirementally Challenged blog, observed that for her the biggest obstacle to kindness is “not being in the moment,” and thus unaware that kindness may be needed. She notes that opportunities are lost if we fail so see what’s happening around us.

Janis is right. Our own obliviousness is one of the biggest barriers to kindness. If we’re absorbed in our own private world, or our technology, we simply don’t notice that the person right in front of us needs help, or that a child may need comforting, or that a kind word could lift someone’s day. We fail to see when one person goes out of their way to help another. On the receiving end, our obliviousness prevents us from noticing a stranger’s smile, acknowledging someone who held a door for us, or even recognizing our own need for self-compassion.

Since I started thinking about, writing about, and trying to live a life of kindness, I am ever so much more aware of it—of opportunities for me to extend kindness, of kindnesses extended my way, and of kindnesses—big and small—all around me. I still miss a lot, though. I tend to spend a lot of time in my own head, and, as my husband kindly points out, I can be oblivious not just to kindness, but also to clutter, dust, thirsty houseplants, and sometimes speed limits. Paying attention requires practice.

Technology is one of the things that gets in the way of our being attentive to our surroundings and the people around us. According to a 2016 study, most of us spend about two-and-a-half hours on our smartphones daily. Heavy users—the top ten percent of phone users—spend closer to four hours, or one-quarter of their waking time, on their phones. These heavy smartphone users click, tap, or swipe their phones an average of 5,427 times a day, while the rest of us clock in at a mere 2,617 times daily. It would be interesting to find a study that further breaks down phone time into work and non-work usage. Since my own average is probably about five touches a day, and perhaps five minutes—if that—I am clearly not holding up my end of this devil’s bargain.

I recognize that to decry technology is to declare myself a Luddite or at least a very old fogey. I don’t believe I’m either. But I am mindful of something that I tell strategic planning clients with some frequency: Everything we say “yes” to means we must say “no” to something else, so we need to think long and hard about what is most important to us and whether that’s where we’re putting our time, attention, resources, and energy. What are we saying no to as we say yes to a five-inch screen and perpetual connectivity?

There are good reasons to stay connected to our devices, but it’s worth asking occasionally if we are making a conscious choice or simply succumbing to addiction.

What we choose to pay attention to creates the world we live in. If our radar is focused on dogs, we will live in a world of laughing golden labs, cuddly collies, and frolicking puppies. If we look for slights and reasons to be angry, our world will be rife with insult and offense. If we pay attention to gratitude, we will find ourselves surrounded by things to be grateful for. And, if our attention is on kindness, there will be no end to our opportunities to experience or extend kindness.

I believe there are several “secrets” to living a good life. High on that list is the simple—though not necessarily easy—habit of paying attention. It all begins with choosing to be present and choosing what we will pay attention to.

“We become what we love.  Whatever you are giving your time and attention to, day after day, is the kind of person you will eventually become.” (Wayne Muller)

Let’s Pause for a Moment of Kindness

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” (Victor Frankl)

attribution: Donna CameronA lot has happened since I embarked on this journey to explore, experience, and express kindness. January of 2015 might as well be another era—and maybe even another planet—given how much the world has changed. When my year of living kindly started, the 2016 presidential campaign was embryonic. There were few candidates and they had yet to commence behaving like spoiled children and slinging mud or lies. Societal expressions of bullying and bigotry—while always present—had yet to become a badge of honor, proof of manliness, and source of pride for so many.

By the end of 2015, denigration, name-calling, and lies for the sake of expedience were rampant. My feeble attempt to shine a light on kindness was no match for incendiary politics or blatant socio-economic oppression. But the need for kindness was greater than ever and I saw that living kindly was not something one does for a year and moves on (“How about a year of learning to vacuum and close cupboard doors,” my husband suggested hopefully, knowing all the while that I could grasp neither concept). Living kindly was both path and destination, so one year stretched to two, and now two-and-a-half.

I’m called to revisit earlier explorations—to see if two years later I see things any differently. What did I get right, what did I miss?

The Power of the Pause

For me, one of the biggest lessons of kindness was the power of the pause. Recognizing that a knee-jerk response to perceived slights or bad behavior is neither necessary nor wise was a life-changing insight. Such impulsive reactions are not always an expression of my best self. A pause gives me an opportunity to consider:

  • Did that person mean for their words to come out this way? Might there be a kinder interpretation?
  • Even if their words were intended to hurt or belittle, why must I react in kind? Is my aim to create more conflict or improve the situation?
  • If I say something snarky, will I feel good about it later?
  • What is the kind response here?
  • Is a response even needed or is silence golden?
  • Why am I reacting as I am?

Pausing is a lesson I learned, but also one that continues to challenge me. Since last November’s election, I have needed to relearn—and re-examine—the pause. When I am provoked, I endeavor to pause; sometimes I stay silent and sometimes I speak my heart. There are still occasions when I mutter phrases like “incredible moron” or “clueless Neanderthal,” but I say them privately or to the television. I try to weigh whether or not my response to someone’s political commentary will move the needle—and in which direction. Pausing is a lesson politicians and pundits would do well to learn.

Since learning to pause, I find I am much quieter overall. I don’t need to be right—or righteous—and I don’t need to point out someone else’s foibles. If my husband leaves the lights on right after chiding me for doing the same, I turn the lights off without comment (okay, maybe not every time!). The more I choose to be silent, the easier it is to choose silence. Ultimately, the pause leads me toward peace.

What I learned about pausing two years ago remains true, and the connection between pausing and kindness is unmistakable. In fact, the pause is even more essential to kindness than I originally thought.

I have come to see even more benefits from the simple pause. In addition to forestalling reflexive reactions and allowing me to choose the kind response, the pause is one of the best strategies I have found for self-care. Recognizing when I need to experience quiet or take a few deep breaths—and then doing so—is an ultimate act of kindness to self. And kindness must begin with self.

A pause offers a moment to experience gratitude, to feel joy, to appreciate beauty, to recognize kindness.

In today’s world, every day brings something to be angry or frustrated about: political corruption, injustice, discrimination, the ever-widening gap between those with privilege and those without, threats to our environment, and the acceptance and proliferation of incivility. There are letters to be written, calls to be made, petitions to be signed, conversations to be initiated, and waters to be tested.

The issues that anger me and push all my buttons may not be the ones that rile you. But for each of us there are provocations that elicit our anger and trigger our activism. Thank goodness for that. Yet we also need to recognize when our responses are damaging to our spirits, our bodies, our psyches, or our relationships. As much as we need to be active and vigilant—now more than ever—we also need to give ourselves permission to rest, to say no . . . to pause. And we need to be able to claim that pause for ourselves without guilt or self-reproach.

Whether we are responding to outer stimuli or to inner angst, the ultimate expression of kindness may start with a pause . . . or end with a pause. A pause is not an empty space. It’s a space that is rich with potential. It’s where we choose who we will be and how we will live.

“Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.” (Rollo May)

 

Where Is Your Querencia?

“There is a way to live that makes the angels cry out in rapture. There is a way to live that makes each cell a star.” (from “Clearing,” Morgan Farley)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Harmony Hill

In recent days, I’ve seen a number of writers and bloggers declare that they chose a single word to be their theme or focal point for 2017. In place of traditional resolutions, they selected words like joy, trust, focus, even kindness, to be their inspiration for the year. I started thinking about what word I might choose. Of course, kindness is my raison d’etre. It’s more than just a word—to me it’s a way of living. It’s at the heart of everything. I looked for another word that might speak to the journey ahead.

The one that sprang to mind is a word I encountered some years ago, in one of my favorite books, Kitchen Table Wisdom. Author Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, introduced the concept of querencia, It is a word that has many meanings—none of them especially clear, and that very imprecision contributes to its allure.

Dr. Remen describes how her cat, Charles, finds querencia in certain favorite places in the house they share—behind the drapes, under the stairs, even in one particular spot in plain sight on the living room rug. There, Charles is fearless, he is calm and relaxed. He casts off his usual wariness and basks in serenity. Remen herself finds querencia walking through Muir Woods in early morning before the tourists arrive. She also describes how when the cancer patients she works with find their querencia it begets in them a new strength and peace.

What is this marvelous and magical place?

Most commonly, querencia is used to describe the place in a bull ring (“corrida”) where the bull goes to feel safe and to gather his strength. For each bull it is a different place, so it is the job of the matador to recognize where querencia is for each bull, and keep him out of that spot. I find the idea of bull-fighting abhorrent, but the concept of finding our individual place of safety and sanctuary—while a force tries to keep us away from it—that is compelling … and certainly timely.

As I researched the word online, I found other definitions for querencia:

From Wikipedia: In Spanish, querencia describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home.

John Jeremiah Sullivan defines querencia as “an untranslatable Spanish word that means something like ‘the place where you are your most authentic self’.”

Other definitions:

  • A place in which we know exactly who we are; the place from which we speak our deepest beliefs
  • A safe haven, lair, or sanctuary

If I were a teacher, I would introduce my students to this word. I would put it on spelling tests and ask students to write papers describing their querencia. If I were a parent, I would talk to my child about querencia and encourage them to become familiar with their own place of safety and strength.

How wonderful it would have been at age 8 or 18 to know such a word, to know that there is a place of security and refuge that is ours alone, a place to go to gather strength and be exactly who we are, with no pressure to conform to norms or expectations imposed by others. No matter how idyllic one’s childhood may be, there are always times when we look for safe haven, or when we seek the confidence to speak from the depths of our heart, or when we recognize the place where we come face-to-face with our most authentic self and know that we have found something precious.

Querencia can be a physical place: at the foot of a favorite tree, a cozy window seat, a forest path. Or it can be a place inside us where we breathe into our own strength and feel our own certainty, a certainty that we don’t need to share with anyone else or proselytize to others to convince ourselves. Querencia might be the sense of transport we feel when we read a book, knowing as we do so that it is changing our life. And it might be that sense of oneness with nature that occurs when a place takes our breath away and replaces it—if only for an instant—with its own essence. Or it might be what we feel when we listen to a symphony by Sibelius. For each of us it will be different.

There are places I go to for querencia: the deck of our cabin facing Mt. Pilchuck and the Cascade Range, the labyrinth I built a few summers ago and walk every chance I get, certain books or passages from books that resonate to the thrum of my heart. In my memory, I go to a tiny, secluded cove near a condo my husband and I stayed in years ago on the island of St. John. It was a place of perfect peace, warm water, and star-studded night skies.

As I get older and shed some of the excesses from my life, I see that my inner querencia is much less elusive than it once was. I have cleared a space for it. That matador whose job it has been to keep me away from my querencia has also become less vigilant—perhaps she, too, recognizes the importance of having that place of personal sanctuary.

Something tells me querencia will be a much-needed refuge for many of us in the coming year. It will be a place to retreat to when we see and hear things that denigrate our values, when we are worn down by the effort of standing up to injustice, and when we need to replenish our souls in order to continue standing up.

I didn’t know the word as a child, but I know it now, and I think it’s a fine word to be my companion for 2017. Feel free to adopt it as your own. There is querencia for each of us. Where’s yours?

“Within you there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” (Hermann Hesse)