Life Lessons


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A while back, somebody started the #100happydays project that asked the question, ,”Can you be happy 100 days in a row?”

The idea is quite interesting as it made people appreciate life’s simple pleasures. Soon social media sites were filled with pictures of coffee and books and cats and of course…selfies.

But if you really think about it, it’s quite an unrealistic expectation; staying happy for a 100 days in a row?

Life goes in cycles. There’ll be good days, not-so-good days and outright horrible days you wish you can forget and delete from your memory. There’ll be days when the alarm will go off and all you’ll want to do is throw it across the room; when no matter how much coffee you have you can’t seem to stay awake; when you just need everyone to go away and leave you alone. And when they do, you sit and brood about why you’re so alone…

My point is, there’ll always be ups and downs. It’s not really about having a 100 happy days in a row, but rather about having a repository of little things to help buffer you from the radioactive effects of the not-so-happy days. I say radioactive because sometimes one bad incident can have a long lasting effect on you; it causes a sort of mental tumor so you don’t think the same about something anymore.

Let’s take an example. I’ve always been used to seeing bodies of water wherever I go. It could be a lake or a river or an ocean…For the longest time, the Indian Ocean was the basis of one of my anxiety-reducing techniques. I would go into details about the technique but not today. Anyhow, come 2004, and the videos of the Tsunami spread around the media….and it took me a very long time to get over these mental images. Sitting down on the fence right outside of Fort Jesus in Mombasa was no longer something I enjoyed doing. It just made me anxious to leave.

It took a while to get over it.

So I guess the take-home lesson is to focus on the happy moments more than the unhappy ones, but don’t pretend the unhappy ones don’t exist because that’s just another way of numbing your emotions and as a great writer once said, “Pain demands to be felt.
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Be grateful for your tears

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So maybe it’s true. The highest highs are intertwined with the lowest low. It’s usually the people you love so much who can hurt you the most. When you love someone so much can you get really hurt by them. In engineering terms, the magnitude doesn’t change much, but the sign does.

The topic of vulnerability has been spreading a lot since Brene Brown’s TED talk. Sarah Kay also alludes to it when she says, “Now, I know that the number one rule to being cool is to seem unfazed, to never admit that anything scares you or impresses you or excites you. Somebody once told me it’s like walking through life like this. You protect yourself from all the unexpected miseries or hurt that might show up. But I try to walk through life like this. And yes, that means catching all of those miseries and hurt, but it also means that when beautiful, amazing things just fall out of the sky, I’m ready to catch them.” 

The point she’s trying to make is that by building up fences around yourself, you’re not just shutting out the bad in the world. You’re also shutting out the good. In other words, you’re simply shutting yourself in.

People might say you’re oversensitive. Throw the word at you like it was an insult. “Stop being oversensitive. Buck up.” They make it seem as though this emotional stuff is just fluff, cotton candy that has no nutritional value. So it’s tempting, really…to just numb your emotions. Bury it all. Throw it out of sight. Sorta like the way we tidy the room before our mother walks in. Throw everything under the bed or in the closet and pretend the room is now tidy. And yet we know that’s not how it works.

We can’t go through life numbing our emotions. Let me rephrase that. We can. It’s just that we shouldn’t. It’s not healthy. Take it from a person who’s spent their whole life packing memories into these tiny boxes and burying them inside, they tend to build up, and truth be told, they never really go away. Just because they’re out of sight doesn’t mean they’re not going to spring open when you least expect it. The worse part is that when they do, they actually appear in a transformed into something so dark and ugly, it makes one wonder why they left it unattended for so long.

So how do we attend to it?

Step 1) Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Step number one to any proper treatment is a proper diagnosis. We shouldn’t live in denial. Yet denial seems to be our default M. O.  We live in an age where living a pretense is much, much easier than accepting what is true.

Step 2) Talk. Cry. Throw things around. Having your feelings manifest itself in the world takes it out of your system.

Step 3) The letter. As a writer, I’ve always loved the letter idea. It’s actually part of step (2). Write a letter to whoever caused this feeling and decide after two weeks whether it’s a good idea to send it or not. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s not. So you need to give yourself that time period to sit on it, sleep on it…whatever it takes. Just don’t send it as soon as you finish writing it. t’s all part of the process. Purge your system. Get the toxicity out.

Step 4) Finally do something about it. And there are really two things to do; change it or accept it. It’s the binary rule. There’s no third option.

My point is process it as soon as it occurs. Otherwise it will keep on bothering you for a very long time.

In generic terms, the story that made me write this is someone hurt me a couple of years ago. It was such a pivotal moment in my life, you can say it really opened my eyes to a lot of things. Of course, the thing that hurt the most was the fact that this person and I were really close. Anyhow, come last year, the perfect opportunity for revenge came to me, and I really wanted to do something about it, partly because I’m evil and partly because I wanted that person to get a taste of what they did so next time I mention the story they don’t dismiss it with a laugh like I was being oversensitive. Now the problem is that someone else shut down my whole revenge plan, and I was so frustrated because if it weren’t for person # 2….

So I opened my journal and I wrote a stern letter to myself. I practically screamed at myself. It went something like, “YOU REALLY NEED TO GET OVER IT!”

I realized I can’t keep on carrying this baggage with me forever. And if I’m going to be honest with myself, I needed that moment in my life because it really changed a lot of things for me. As much as it hurt, it was important. So come last week, for the first time, I actually thought about it and was able to dismiss it myself, and I realized that it really works to process everything as soon as it happens so it wouldn’t last forever.

In other words, be grateful for your tears. They really make you stronger. But to be grateful for your tears, you need to first let them out.

Best Mindfulness Teacher…

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In a previous post, I spoke about being present and living in the now as a means to fix feelings of frustration. Sometimes it’s not easy to do that because the whole goal of frustration is to rattle you enough to make you forget all the things you know in theory you should be doing. Like being present. And mindful.

Ellen Langer is a professor of psychology who spent her lifetime studying the benefits of mindfulness, which she defines as an active state of mind where you’re intentionally noticing things. It’s what blogger Neil Pasricha (the guy behind 1000 awesome things) did to come up with his awesome blog posts – he continuously noticed things. He spoke about the three A’s of awesome; the second one of which was awareness. He says, “I love hanging out with three year-olds. I love the way that they see the world, because they’re seeing the world for the first time. Having a sense of awareness is just about embracing your inner three year-old...”

We’re definitely losing that sense of engagement with the world around us as we explore the world at our fingertips. So it’s good to have mementos and reminders to reinforce the idea that we need to slow down, engage with the world around us and take things one step at a time. While others might write down statements on post-it notes and hang them around the house, my favorite anchoring technique is a video I took last October in Mombasa.

Here’s the trick. You must watch it until the end. Do not skip it. Do not forward it. Just keep on watching.

So how did that make you feel? The first time I saw that hippopotamus emerge from the water, I was filled with awe. Its slow walk towards the feeding area made it seem as though it had all the time in the world. It seemed to poke fun at all those people who walked around with pocket watches crying out, “I’m late. I’m late. I’m late.”

And if there’s nothing else it taught me; it taught me to live in the moment, engage with life and just be present.

So yeah, I hope this is a good reminder to slow down your pace in life if your life is very hectic. Remember.

One. Step. At. A. Time.

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Feeling frustrated or helpless?

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Recently, I wrote about the importance of tuning into your emotions. What if the most rampant emotion you’ve been experiencing lately is that of frustration and hopelessness? Maybe you want to do something – anything – to change something in your reality but you can’t. How do you deal with that?
1) Go on vacation.

It sounds counterintuitive. You’re obviously having a life crisis, and you’re trying to fix it. Dropping everything and going on vacation looks like you’re running away, and it’s easy to imagine there’s no point since everything’s just going to be the same once you’re back. But here’s the thing. Yes, maybe everything would be the same, but you won’t. In response to a similar situation, I remember someone telling me, “You’re feeling this way because you’re in the middle of storm. When you get out of the storm your perspective changes and you’ll think differently about it.” Taking a break from your daily life and unplugging from your routine not only gives you a time-out from whatever it is that is troubling you, but it could even expand your horizon and hand you a possible solution.

2) Think it through. Ok, you’re feeling frustrated about something, and you want to stop feeling frustrated. You wish you can go on a vacation but a break just can’t be caught. Think your feelings through. Are you truly helpless? Is there really nothing you can do about whatever it is that’s frustrating you? Discuss it with someone you trust and get a different opinion.

Alternatively, write it down. A friend of mine asked about journaling. Don’t you see it as a waste of time? They asked.

I told them, “You know what’s a waste of time? Keeping everything in my head, because I know I can really obsess over things for a long time.” It sometimes feels like my brain is inside a blender that’s continuously on. Until I write about it, that is. But I told them journaling isn’t for everybody. Some people talk through whatever bothers them. It’s just that because they tend to ramble, they really need a patient friend to listen to every idea that crosses their minds. My friend said they can’t always talk about stuff, and they didn’t have the patience for writing. I ended up introducing them to mindmapping and that seems to be working for moments when they need to take their brain out of the blender.

3) Accept that some things are within your control and other things aren’t.  Define the boundary between your circle of influence(things you can control) and circle of concern (things that matter to you but you can’t control)[ as was made famous by Steven Covey in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People]. Once you define your boundary, you need to accept that there are some things that will frustrate you but you can’t do anything about them, and that’s just the way the world works. Or as they say in urdu, dunya dari.


4) Do laundry with gusto. Turn your frustration to positive energy. Since you’re helpless about that big annoying thing you can’t do anything about, focus on the small stuff. Decluttering. Spring Cleaning. Do something, even if it is mindless.

5) Be present. Stimulate your senses. Live in the now. A lot of your frustrations happen when you’re inside your head too much. But the moment you start engaging with the world through your senses, it’s easier to let go of your worries. Listen to a baby laugh, have a tasty meal and savor the flavor, hug a teddy bear, walk through a Bath& Body Works store or as cliched as it might sound, wake up and smell the flowers.