Start spring cleaning now

Winter is an odd time to do spring cleaning, but last month many of us vowed to shift our agreement with reality, to reshape ourselves.

Many people resolved to slim down, bulk up, stop smoking, start exercising, to become a better parent, a better spouse, a better human being.

“The greatest human quest is to know what one must do in order to become a human being,” 17th century philosopher Immanuel Kant observed.

But in that quest, we look for what’s broken and accentuate what’s missing, how we don’t measure up to a standard that was probably set by someone else, or worse, by a TV commercial.

We’re faultfinders. We love pointing out what’s wrong – with ourselves and with other people. We chuckle over Martha’s defects because that makes us feel better about ourselves. If she’s wrong and we’re right, that means we’re OK.

Usually, we not interested in changing, instead we look for things that re-inforce our current world view, but at the beginning of the year, we often tinker with our belief system and try to change the channels of our perceptions.

But real change means growth and that’s possible only by challenging ourselves to create new thoughts and the willingness to embrace the results

Our thoughts emerge, like weeds after a rain, out of our unconsciousness and we often wonder, like the guy who just mowed his lawn and looks out and sees a tide of dandelions, just where they came from.

That forces us to root out thoughts that create a reality we don't like, or don't want. We create ourselves in our own image although we’re uncertain what that image is, or who we are.

Often, while we're waiting for the new us to sprout, we forget to weed and prune. It's a lot easier not to do the backbreaking - or mind-bending - work to pull the dandelions and censor unwanted thoughts.

But we know from a lifetime of experience that beating ourselves up when we forget, or when we’re lazy, doesn’t work. We need to be persistent, but we also must be gentle with ourselves.

We learn to treat ourselves as we would our children when they come home with a report cards with Cs and one A and while the instinct is to criticize them for the low marks we are smart enough to praise them for the one high mark.

We know criticism doesn’t work, otherwise we’d be what our parents wanted.

And isn’t it odd that we think a new year is the only time to redefine who we are when we can do that at any moment? Every moment is a crossroads.

We have the wonderful ability to see, but we don’t notice life flowing around us; we become blind to the miraculous until it becomes trivial or we don’t see it at all.

We don’t see what we take for granted.

Remember being spellbound when our children were born, but now don’t really see them in our day-to-day lives; they’re just there, part of the background?

We can still evoke that moment when Cupid’s arrow pierced our heart, but now wonder who that person is who keeps showing up every day.

We don’t need Auld Ange Syne and noisemakers to make resolutions. We can make them daily. We can decide before we get out of bed how our day will be. And if the resolve slips, we can choose at every moment to renew our commitment.

Sometimes the best choice is simply to keep our mouths shut and the scars on our tongue can be a testament to our growing wisdom, or at least our diminishing foolishness.

We know we can remake ourselves into whatever image we like, but it’s also equally valid to wonder why we feel compelled to lose 10 pounds, to get into shape or learn Spanish, why we cannot accept that we are already perfect, whole and complete, an integral part of the universe.

Science and most spiritual traditions proclaim we are all connected, that we hold hands to form the great chain of being. Maybe it isn’t hard-won resolutions we need, but an easy shift in consciousness.

“The universe in a sense guides us toward truths, because those truths are the things that govern what we see,” physicist Brian Greene told Scientific American magazine.

Maybe we simply need to accept who we are and to be receptive to what life brings. If we flow with it instead of fighting every step of the way, we just might end up becoming that which we hoped  for.

“We can’t make ourselves be a certain way,” said Zen master Joko Beck. “To imagine otherwise is one of the biggest traps in practice. But we can notice our intolerance and unkindness, our laziness and the other games we play. As we notice how we really are, things slowly begin to turn.

“Only when we give up the hope that things will get fixed can we come to the realization that things are fine as they are.”

Mythologist Joseph Campbell had similar thoughts as he was nearing the end of his life.

“In my own life, I am now looking back and I can tell you that there’s a wonderful moment that comes when you realize, ‘I’m not striving for anything.’

“What I’m doing now is not a means of achieving something later. After a certain age, there’s not a future and, suddenly, the present becomes rich and it becomes a thing in itself which you are now experiencing.”


Ruminating on regrets

“Regrets, I’ve had a few, but, then again, too few to mention,” Frank Sinatra warbled in I Did It My Way, a song written by Paul Anka from the perspective of Ol’ Blue Eyes, who was about to retire.

Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out.

Anka wrote the song in one night, employing the diction and cadence that Sinatra, who talked like a Mafia “wise guy,” would use.

But whether the sentiments came from Anka or Sinatra, there is a lot of wisdom in the words and music. Most people have too many regrets and don’t spit then out. Instead, we masticate them over and over, ruminators instead of a terminators.

Rumination comes from the Latin word ruminare, which means to chew the cud, regurgitating and re-chewing partially digested food.

The mental version of rumination is much the same, although there are two parts:

  • reflection
  • brooding.

Reflection is a positive attribute; brooding its black opposite. Most of us are dilettantes at reflection, but masters at brooding, at ripping, shredding and dissecting.

Who has not obsessed over some perceived slight or injustice; something we should have done or said;  not done or said; or we plan to do or say?

We regret not going to more of our kids’ Christmas plays and summer soccer games, we feel guilty about not calling and visiting our parents more often, we deeply regret and feel guilty that we forgot our anniversary, again.

And in the upcoming festive season of peace, brotherhood and goodwill, there will be more rumination than usual as we get together with friends and family, or elbow our way through the mall, a place we haven’t ventured since last Christmas.

In a study entitled Regret Resolution, Aging, and Adapting to Loss, the authors wrote: “Both theory and empirical evidence suggest that people who have unresolved regrets experience lower levels of well-being than do those who resolve their regrets.”

One of the authors, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, then a psychology professor of psychology at Yale University, came up with response styles theory 20 years ago.

“Whereas the original response styles focuses on the relationship between rumination and depression, evidence now suggests that rumination is also associated with other psychopathologies, including anxiety, binge eating, binge drinking and self harm,” Nolen-Hoeksema and Blair E. Wisco wrote in Rethinking Rumination.

If wearing a groove into our gray matter with the same obsessive thoughts, and talking about the same negative things with friends, family and co-workers isn’t bad enough, there’s more.

“Rumination can be oddly irresistible, and can steal an hour of your attention before you even realize that you’re obsessing again,” Elisabeth Scott wrote in How Rumination Affects Your Life.

“In addition to dividing your attention, however, rumination has several negative effects: stress; negative frame of mind; less proactive behaviour; self sabotage; and hypertension.”

To be human is to obsess, starting during the morning shower, but we don’t turn it off with the water. We can have up to 50,000 thoughts a day, often the same ones we had yesterday, many revolving around a central grudge or regret, like planets circling the sun.

How do we overcome our morbid tendency to obsess about our perceived weakness, foibles and those of others? The answer is in the near legend about Carnegie Hall: A New Yorker (or in some versions Arthur Rubinstein) is approached in the street, and asked, “Pardon me sir, but how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

He replies, “Practice, practice, practice.”

If Google is any indication, both regret and guilt are popular topics; it says it has 108 million pages on guilt; 368 million about regret. There’s even one that tells us how to overcome serious regrets, and another has a survey that will compare our results with others who did the survey.

Many people recommend mindfulness as a way to stop ruminating. On Google, there are 170 million pages about mindfulness, including a session with Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

He’s one of the reigning experts and his book, Wherever You go, There You Are is great, as are two books by Eckhart Tolle: The Power of Now, and A New Earth.

It comes down to consciousness and awareness: if we don’t get lost in the endless loop of beating ourselves up for what we did and didn’t do, we can stay present for each moment of each day. And when we stray, and we will, we come back, again and again.

It’s practice, but what else do we have to do? If we’re going to be thinking, we can strive to choose what we think. Unlike Neo in the Matrix no one will offer us a pill to pull us into reality, although the pharmaceutical industry is making a large fortune selling pills that ease the anxiety that comes with guilt and regret.

If Anka had added another verse, Sinatra would have told us, in his wise guy way, that neither regret nor guilt are real; they’re states of mind, thoughts, phantoms we have created and could exorcise if we chose.

I’ve loved, I've laughed and cried
I've had my fill, my share of losing
And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing
To think I did all that
And may I say, not in a shy way,
Oh, no, oh, no, not me, I did it my way.

Is your wallet a black hole?

These are the times that try men’s souls.

Thomas Paine wrote that in 1776, but any time can try our souls, our principles, our concepts about self.

Most of the time, we don’t think about it, we’re too busy paying the bills or watching TV, but the lead up to Christmas tries our souls, our patience and our wallets.

Now that the Halloween ornaments have come down, the Christmas ones will soon go up, commercials will start and over cocktails at Christmas parties, a favourite topic will be the commercialization of Christmas and how society needs to return to old values that didn’t come wrapped in tinsel and packaged in plastic.

Both may be true, but irrelevant if we don’t allow this time to over-power our generosity of spirit. Charities are always concerned that a poor economy will turn our wallets into black holes. Yet, no matter what the law of gravity proclaims, we will overspend on our family.

We might not spend as much as last year, but we will overheat the Visa card to get stuff we don’t need.

Will that generosity extend beyond the immediate family? Are we willing to forgo a little less stuff so we can get essentials for others, for people we don’t know and will never meet.

Many people spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on the Christmas experience — gifts, alcohol, dinners, partying — and that could save thousands of lives:

UNICEF says $31 can buy 4,832 water purification pills; $11, three bed nets; $50, 51 polio vaccines, 51 tetanus vaccines, 54 measles vaccines; and $276 can buy a school in a box — enough supplies to teach a class of 40 children.  (Check https://shop.unicef.ca/all-gifts)

We can’t give up our life and joy to save all the world, but we can spend a little less on ourselves to save some — even when, or especially when, times are tough.

Life demands courage, commitment and enthusiasm, and a willingness to share, and serve. What goes around comes around. We get what we give — whether money, time or love.

“I believe that all humans know in a deep, ineffable way exactly what is required of us — even down to being called to do very specific things,” Brian Swimme, a mathematical cosmologist and author, told Shift magazine. “We don’t get a printout or specific instruction, but we do know what gives us a deep sense of joy — and that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”

We’ve helped others enough to know that it feels good. Experiments have proved endorphin levels of the people helping, the people being helped and the people watching rise when we’re altruistic.

Even if we’re unsure what to do, we feel a need to do something, to help when the situation calls for it. The question we have to answer is whether we’re our brother’s — and sister’s — keeper? Do we help even when it hurts?

“There comes a time in each of our lives when we have the opportunity to reach out and turn the switch that will change darkness into light,” singer Willie Nelson writes in The Tao of Willie. “All we have to do is slow down, remember who we are and who we would like to be.”

Those are the big questions. Who are we? And who do we want to be?

“Paul and I have been partners for 26 years and I have come to know his passion, humour and, above all, his generosity. Not just economic generosity, but generosity of spirit,” Chicago businessman Carl Haas, Paul Newman’s partner in Newman-Haas CART racing team, said after the actor died.

Do we have that same generosity of spirit, or do we give for the tax receipt, and only give when the economic indicators point up?

We could have the generosity of spirit that the Salvation Army has. It helps thousands in the Okanagan every year and if we don’t have money to donate, we can give our time; volunteers are always needed to man the kettles.

We could have the generosity of spirit that our military exhibited when they volunteered to fight — and die — for a greater good.

The motto for Remembrance Day is Lest we forget. And every Nov. 11 these words are intoned and no matter who says them, they a have a sombre majesty: “at the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.”

And we should, and follow their example; if they were willing to make the supreme sacrifice for people they would never meet, for generations not yet born, the least we can do is help our neighbour.

Most of us paused during the long Thanksgiving weekend last month to parrot a few words about being grateful, and recognized that good luck, good genes, happenstance or divine thought put us here and not there.

Instead of living in one of the best places anywhere, we could be victims of poverty, war, rape, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and sundry kinds of disasters that seem to afflict other parts of the world.

While we’re not completely immune to them, we did get some sort of cosmic inoculation before birth that reduces those afflictions and maladies.

Yes, there are marginalized people in Canada, thousands living below the poverty line and on the street, but overall we have much more than even we seem to realize.

Religion, metaphysics, philosophy, even science preach the unity of all things; that beneath the duality and separateness so seemingly obvious, is a oneness. There is not one person on this planet above four who we have not exchanged atoms with. Part of us is in almost seven billion people.

Hubble telescope pictures of galaxies merging show a stream flowing between the two that can be seen across 35 million lights years. If we could get a Hubble shot of humanity, we would see that same atomic jet stream flowing among us all.

“We are one, after all, you and I. Together we suffer, together exist, and forever will recreate each other,” said Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest.


Losing at the blame game

If Quora can be believed, shooting green pigs with a slingshot is one of the most popular pastimes in the world.

But others claim that Minecraft, LOL, League of Legends or Fortnite are more popular than Angry Birds.

As popular as video gaming is, there is one game that’s even more popular; it doesn’t need equipment or training, other than that which our parents gave us.

We’re all-stars, a combination of Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods at the blame game. And we’re good because we practise diligently.

When we were little, we learned to blame our friends, our siblings, the dog, our invisible playmate, when we wanted to avoid responsibility or punishment. And now that we’re older, we’re still perfecting our technique.

“A blamer who projects the responsibility for his or her reactions never grows up,” John Powell and Loretta Brady write in Will The Real Me Please Stand Up?

“The life of such a person is a perpetual exercise in projection and rationalization. It is a life of pretence that is never penetrated by reality. Blamers insist that someone else is pulling their strings. So they never really get to know the inner reality of themselves.”

Even after we left home, unless we consciously changed how we behave, we still play the blame game by the rules we learned early.

In The Mother Factor: How Your Mother’s Emotional Legacy Impacts Your Life, Los Angeles psychologist Stephan Poulter wrote there are five kinds of mothers:

  • the perfectionist mother
  • the unpredictable mother
  • the me-first mother
  • the best friend
  • the complete mother.

In some form, the patterns of their thinking and behaviour affect us always.

“From day one, both boys and girls pick up assumptions from their mother that can end up as blind spots about the way they communicate, relate to other people, handle stress and resolve conflicts throughout their lives,” he said.

As we went the way of life — university, job, marriage, kids — we replaced the voice of mom and dad with the Voice of Judgment. That Frankensteinian creation in our head — like a demon-possessed, horror-show parent — chastises and complains constantly.

There’s nothing too small, too mundane, too trivial that the VOJ doesn’t delight in pointing out how we should have, could have done it better.

That voice makes us second guess ourselves and if we listen to it long enough, it erodes our confidence, but it’s not the voice of our childhood.

Mothers, whatever their child-rearing philosophy and method, have the best intentions and greatest hope for their offspring. They did their best, just as we did when we became parents. We are all, as author Louise Hay said, the victims of victims.

When we feel disgruntled and distressed, when we don’t do as well as we hoped, when the presentation bombs, when we don’t get the promotion, most choose to blame others.

When we’re in a bad mood, we blame our spouse; when we drag ourselves through the day, we blame the neighbour’s dog, or our kids because they came home late and woke us or they didn’t come home and worry kept us from sleeping.

And then, in a flash of intuition, we realize everything happens inside us and we can’t blame others.

“You are the one who decides what your life will be,” Paul Ferrini writes in Illuminations On The Road to Nowhere. “You breathe life into every relationship and every circumstance which comes your way. Lest you give it life, breath, meaning, purpose, it would have none. None of this exists outside of or apart from you.

“You think it does, the “you” you know is an effect, not a cause. This “you” identifies with outside things and defines itself in relationship to them. And so you are lifted up and dragged down, exalted and humiliated by all the myriad permutations of thought, emotion and experience.

"The “you” you know is affirmed by these identifications and injured by their perpetual rupture.”

We have to make that shift to have any chance of reaching the potential mom assured us we would; we have to figure out what’s preventing us from being who the VOJ says we can’t be and decide if we have the courage, strength and stamina to reach that goal. Or whether we’re content being where we are.

No blame, no game.

“You may have a beautiful philosophy, you may have lofty ideals, but what you will do with your philosophy and ideals is dependent entirely upon what you are inside yourself,” said author Ervin Seale.

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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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