Built for Hard Times

Built for Hard Times

by Joel Christie

Life can be really hard. Most would acknowledge that, but can our awareness of that actually help us in any way, or simply doom us to further misery? When asked what might help them deal with the fact that life so often feels overwhelming, unfair, mean, brutal, impossible or heartbreaking, I have heard many people say they'll feel better when their circumstances improve, which is certainly understandable. Circumstances impact how we feel, but they are also often largely beyond our control. So we need more reliable things to lean on. Friends and family. Life purpose. Faith. The pursuit of our dreams perhaps. And I think all of these are invaluable. All of the suggestions below pertain to your beliefs and your worldview, which means they are ultimately within your control to accept or reject as you so choose. So: what might help?

Accept that hardship is an inescapable, unavoidable part of life. Gosh, thanks for that uplifting gem? Yeah, that may have come off as grim, but I don't mean it to be fatalistic, I promise. The fact that life is often brimming with hardship does not nullify the possibility for it to also contain vaults of goodness, joy, and satisfaction. Along with this, when we accept that hardships are part of the gig, we become a little freer, strange as it sounds. We spend less time wishing that hardships wouldn't happen, pining for a world where we don't always end up getting hurt, only to end up hurt by our own impossible desires. This doesn't mean we simply discard hope. If you lived in the Game of Thrones universe, then yes, perhaps it would be best not to bother with hope. But here, hope is a wonderful compass for us when coupled with realism. It tells us what we want and what we should spend our efforts seeking. We must simply know that hardship will still accompany us along the way. This knowledge--this integral part of our beliefs--can normalize hardships, removing them from the category of "things that should not have happened," to things that have happened and will happen, and must, therefore, be faced.

Start recognizing how resilient you are. There are things in life that will grieve us no matter how strong we might be, such as the death of a loved one, the betrayal of a friend, debilitating health issues, and several others. Grief and sadness are precisely the right emotions in such situations. Yet it is critical that even in the midst of tragedy we do not completely lose sight of who and WHAT we are. Our brains are natural problem solvers. It's how we survived as a species in the past, and how we survive now. You could even say we are built to handle hardship. Certainly there are times we may not feel able to handle everything, but I think there can be a danger in allowing ourselves to accept this despair too often. I can't handle my bills. I can't stand one more of my kid's temper tantrums. I can't deal with my evil boss. My messy husband. My condescending wife. My noisy neighbors. Traffic. Politics. Society in general. Stop, and please try giving yourself a little credit. These things may all be substantial problems. But the more you are able to see yourself as a person with a brain that is highly adept at problem-solving, and the more you see yourself as durable, resourceful, and resilient, the less you will likely feel undone by anxiety and despair. And here's the cool part: you'll feel the effects of this diminished anxiety and despair even before these problems are fully resolved. If you realize that you are indeed often capable of facing the onslaught of life's tribulations it will change how you feel about the problems themselves. You will not likely suddenly come to love your problems, but you will likely feel far less dominated by them because you'll know that you are cut out to deal with them. And for those of you who think, "well, that may be nice for the lucky people who happen to have such confidence," I would invite you to dare to believe that you too possess numerous strengths and problem-solving abilities and that you are far more durable and resilient than you currently realize. After all, how many times have your bills or your boss or your toddler actually succeeded in killing you? Seriously. Consider all the stuff you've been through already. That should tell you that you're durable. Take some comfort from that.

Find things to invest yourself in that feel worth the effort. As I mentioned, our brains are wired to be problem solvers, so it comes very naturally to most of us to fixate on what's wrong. But it's critical that we also allow ourselves to strive after things that generate excitement and passion. I'm not talking so much about fun, per se, although fun is fine. But on those rough nights at the end of a brutal week, a little fun peppered in--or even a lot, with a whole big rush of dopamine and all that lovely stuff--will likely prove inadequate to buoy us indefinitely against the reality that there are always more glacier-sized hardships on the horizon. We need things that have a lasting potency to deal with that, things we can pull with us when we're feeling low, or uncertain about our future, or yes, even just bored. People tend to fair better in life both in the high seasons and low when they believe their lives matter and that they have a purpose. So invest some time in that question, because a part of your brain will likely remain hungry for answers. And the more pieces you find along your journey in this regard, the more stable your ship is likely to be as you face the many storms of life.

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The Talent Question

The Talent Question

by Bethany DuVall

As an artist, I hear it from people all the time:
"I appreciate art, but I have no talent."
"I can't even draw a stick figure."
"If only I had the talent, I would paint/draw/write..."

So I started asking people: What do you think talent is? Almost everyone had the same response: Artistic talent is the mystical unicorn that carries your ideas directly from your brain to your hand so that they flow seamlessly out from your fingers onto the canvas.
I've never met this unicorn. Here's what I know about talent and art making:

1. Getting your hand and your mind to work together is a skill that you can learn. A mechanic who's been working on cars for twenty years will usually be better at her job than a mechanic who started six months ago. This is not because of talent. It's because of practice.

2. Coming up with images and ideas for creative projects, appreciating beauty in all its forms, and connecting your experience with creative expression – this is talent. We all have it to some degree. A mechanic with the intuitive ability to understand engines as a whole will pick up the skills faster than one who does not, but both will pick up the skills with practice.
Even if you have both the creativity and the skill set, it is very unlikely that you will ever produce an image that is exactly like the one you imagine. In 23 years of painting, I never have. In fact, accepting this has had such a profound impact on my work that I remember the exact moment of that epiphany.

In 1997, I was alone in my college dorm painting. I was working on a piece I'd tried twice before and had wasted miserable amounts of acrylic and canvas on these failed attempts. But I couldn't get the picture out of my head. It was Father Gregory from the movie The Mission. He sat on a rock in the middle of the rain forest playing a primitive recorder while native tribesmen stood among the trees, weapons raised, ready to strike. As he'd played his haunting melody, the tribesmen cautiously lowered their weapons and came out to listen. Father Gregory's voice came over the music: With an orchestra, we could have charmed them all.
I'd seen the movie only once, about four years earlier, but Father Gregory's comment on this moment had stuck with me. I kept trying to capture it, and kept failing.

But this time, it was working, sort of. Father Gregory's face under my brush was correctly proportioned, but the features and pigment were off. The trees around him were taking on a washy, haunted look. This was not how I remembered it. I remembered beauty and peace. There was a quiet violence in the painting before me.

I considered gessoing over it – the artist's version of erasing the whole thing. But something was right about the painting, even if it wasn't what I was going for. I sat back and stared at it. I'm not sure for how long because the scene started stirring into different things in my head. In the movie, this scene was a triumph. But I was old enough now that I knew more about the devastation that European colonization and missions created in the Americas. I began to see that forcing the painting into my preconceived direction would be telling a story that wasn't true. I began to understand that however well-intentioned, this moment was an assault on a way of life.
I gave in to the direction the piece wanted to go. I let the musician become a native man holding the same recorder Father Gregory had played, and imagined the way the music would change in his hands. The trees became the faces of the listeners. They were screaming silent screams. It was disturbing and beautiful and true, and the best work I had done to that point.

You can learn skills. If you can't draw a stick figure, that's a good place to start. If you have ideas for artwork, or even just an appreciation for beauty, that is reason enough to learn the skills. The artwork has things to teach you. Our job is to meet the images in our heads with the best of our abilities and grow from there. And if you ever meet that unicorn, don't send it my way. I have too much fun learning from my mistakes.

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Mindful Eating

Mindful Eating

by Simanto Khandaker

3 steps to having a more mindful eating experience:
Preparation (Remove distractions)
Observation (Utilize all senses while eating)
Reflection (Bringing awareness to how the body & mind processes the experience)

Preparation: The goal is to minimize distractions and maximize opportunities to be present. For example, finding a secluded location, turning off the phone/tv/computer, washing dishes, removing disruption by informing others about your intentions eating mindfully.

Example: When i'm eating with a group of people, I usually take a few minutes to set my food, and put my phone face down, on silent, and about an arms length away from me. Usually, in front of my food, where I have to reach across my food to get the phone. It allows me to be conscious about my reaction to the phone's vibration (ringing).

Example: When I'm eating alone, I put my distractions (phone, reading material, computer, to do list, etc.) in another room, set my table, wash dishes used to prepare my meal before eating. This allows me to minimize the to do list before moving onto the next step.

Observation: This is the big one! The goal is to use all the senses while eating: taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight. Observation can be more impactful if the first step, preparation, is done to the best of our ability. Minimal distraction allows us to focus on the experience.

Example: Eating a peanut butter sandwich: I look at the bread, the ratio of peanut butter, how it flows, the grains and patterns of the bread, the crust and other characteristics that I see. When I pick up the sandwich, I feel the texture of the bread, the temperature, the peanut butter, etc. As it approaches my mouth, I smell the sandwich, and after every bite I try to find another aroma. I observe how it impacts my taste buds, and listen to my chewing or other sounds. I give myself 5 - 10 minutes before moving on to the second half and reflect on my experience.

Reflection: The goal is to create an open connection with our body and mind. For example, I observe my thoughts, feelings, body posture, stress, etc... Taking an inventory of myself.

Example: When I have a peanut butter sandwich, my mind usually goes back to when I was in college. My roommates and I used to make, hot pressed, peanut butter sandwiches. The bread was toasted, the peanut butter melting, the jelly combined with the peanut butter and bread. It was something we did when we didn't want to cook and were too tired to go out. It was quick and delicious. At this time, my body is relaxed, eyes are closed, and I feel happy to have gone through the experience.

Reminder: Give yourself permission to be present and accept that sometimes it will be challenging. Each attempt is a step closer to having a more mindful eating experience.

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Questions about Purpose

Questions about Purpose

by Joel Christie

At one time or another, most of us have had wondered "What's the purpose of my life?" or "Do I matter?" These are not just midlife crisis questions. No, these kinds of questions will likely tug at us over and over throughout our lives. Even in this era of constant entertainment and distraction, the brain and the emotions it generates tend to return to such questions. I might enjoy watching Downton Abbey or The Walking Dead, but eventually I'll need a break. Something else. Something more. Same goes for riding roller coasters, or playing Monopoly, or sitting in that massage chair in the mall. Not that there is anything wrong with pleasure and fun, of course. But activities we place in the "fun" category may fail to satisfy that part of our brain that's asking questions about purpose. Unless, for example, I happen to love movies, and also happen to be a movie critic, wherein I perceive part of my purpose being to inform the good citizens around me of what's worth seeing, and what's putrid garbage, thereby striving to increase the overall artistic threshold of society. Or some blather along those lines. Whatever. It doesn't have to make sense to you. The important thing is that it satisfies that part of my own brain. That tugging insistence that I matter in some way.

It's hard to predict when this "tugging" will happen. Sometimes it's when we're feeling driven and strong. Sometimes it's when we're feeling low or unsuccessful. (And indeed, it is very hard to conceive of "success" at all without acknowledging we want things to end up a certain way, which quickly leads back to the concept of purpose.) People have mulled over these questions for eons. And as you have likely noticed, we have arrived at many different conclusions. Some are eager to tell you they've solved this dilemma. Some say it's different for everyone, or that it changes over time. Others have concluded that such questions are ultimately unanswerable, or else that the answer is "There is no purpose to life: not to mine, yours, or anyone else's."And yet, we find that throughout humankind, from one society to the next, people report that these kinds of questions circulate through their minds, sometimes subtly (such as vague feelings of depression or anxiety), other times with obnoxious persistence (like a guy who sits down to write an article on the subject).
So why does the brain do this? Why does the brain expend energy thinking about whether or not I, as an individual being that presently exists here in the year 2015, has purpose, and, perhaps more significantly, whether or not I am satisfactorily connecting with this purpose? Let's follow this existential rabbit hole a little further:

Maybe we find comfort in the notion that my life is bigger than just me. Maybe these questions are an attempt to make death less scary. Maybe having purpose is just a great antidote to boredom. Or perhaps it's just something that societies have propagated to keep people busy. But of course that only leads to other questions, like why it should matter to me whether other people in my society are busy or not, so long as they aren't trying to steal my sheep or burn down my grain fields, right? Regardless, the concept of purpose certainly is integrated into our societies, right from childhood. We could translate, "What do you want to be when you grow up" to be a kid friendly version of "What significance do you hope your life will someday take on?" or "Why do you think you matter, O young one?" Then again, maybe the subconscious reason we ask kids purpose-minded questions is so that they'll take care of us when we're old, bringing us all the way back around to basic needs again. Sheesh.

Okay, let's settle on this: there are lots of possible answers to the question, "What is the purpose of my life?" (And there are perhaps just as many possible answers for "Why does my brain care about whether my life has purpose or not?") The part that seems easier to clarify is that these purpose related questions are there. Some part of me wants an assurance that I matter. So what do I do with that?
Start exploring!

If you find yourself happily resolved on this matter, congratulations! But for those of you still pondering questions of purpose and meaning, I encourage you to take measures to explore them in greater depth. Anxiety and depression are likely byproducts when the brain is confronted by something it perceives as a significant problem, and the fear that your life doesn't matter or lacks purpose would qualify as significant for most people. Facing the issue will lead to not only greater understanding but also a reduction in fear (eventually) and an increased sense of empowerment, self worth, and lasting durable happiness that is not so dependent on whether or not you happen to currently be hang gliding or drinking your favorite beer.

"My life matters because..." can be a potential place to start this journey. What can you come up with? And if you're not satisfied, then feel free to seek ways to change this. Maybe help out at an after school reading program. Or patent that invention you've been tinkering with for the last decade. Or talk to your boss about taking on some different projects that match more closely with your passions. Write a novel (or an article on purpose). Go on a spiritual retreat. Whatever you decide to do, connect it back to that question you began with: "My life matters because..."

You're the one who needs to be satisfied by the answers you come up with. But even spending time considering this question should generate some measure of hope and satisfaction, particularly as you pursue the pathways that open up in response to the questions you're allowing yourself to experience. We don't have to "solve" a problem to start to feel more empowered. We just need to know that we are making progress on our journey. And if these purpose questions are indeed ruminating in your thoughts, perhaps it's because some part of you is eager to progress further along your own journey of discovery. If that's true, then you probably won't find the satisfaction you're seeking watching Downton Abbey or riding roller coasters. Not in the long run. Because your mind is hungry to better understand your purpose. So go explore. And when you find pieces of your purpose, grab hold of them with vigor.

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