People generally go to meditation retreats to get clarity on the direction of their lives. In the quiet of nature and away from the chaos of daily stresses, they often find a path where they previously saw none. Some even move to the Himalayas to seek wisdom from the monks. In looking inwards, they hope to clear the obstacles that cloud their judgment and keep them stuck.
My moment of insight came about in the chaotic basement of my brother’s downtown DC home, in the company of 5 children under the age of ten. My personal yogi was his little one year-old son.
My brother needed help with his little one while both he and his wife travelled for work, and I willingly agreed to do baby duty. It was a time in my life where I felt stuck and was desperate for change, even if it was to do with diapers and milk bottles all over again.
It’s strange how the answers we seek in earnest can appear from the most unexpected places. Sitting in that basement, I would watch my little nephew struggle to get off his knees and onto his feet. Some days he only took a couple of steps—most days, bumps and falls. And yet he persevered intently. I delighted in his infectious glee at his little advances and comforted him for the major knocks. He would find solace in my embrace and return to the mission heartened. Not once did he shake his head at his failures, nor beat down upon himself for the wobbly stride. And in those moments, I began to realize that in the pursuit of my own goals, I had been driving with the brakes on. No wonder I felt stuck.
I decided to unload myself of the sensory and emotional distractors that were holding me back. I decided to follow the simple steps of my little yogi in the basement. And I found enough evidence for his wisdom in the latest scientific research.
Define a Clear Purpose
The influences on our lives, and especially those of consumerism, feed a psychological self that is becoming largely disconnected from who we really are. Understanding our strengths and passions, our values and challenges, and the relationships that give our life meaning, allows us to create a clear direction that pulls us towards our goals.
Be Kind to Yourself
We have all inherited a personal tormentor—our negative self-talk— that lives in our heads and pounces upon us when we fail to measure up to the unreasonable societal expectations of perfection. Add to that our biological makeup that places us within an architecture of other people, some of whom will undoubtedly be better than us, and voila, the perfect recipe for self- criticism and giving up. By practicing self-compassion, we provide ourselves with the kind voice and warm embrace we need in difficult times so that we courageously do the right thing.
Nurture a Growth Mindset
Advances in neuroscience have shown us that the brain is always changing. This is great news for those of us who get stuck because of feelings of incompetence. Carol Dweck of Stanford University differentiates between a growth mindset that believes in the possibility for change, and a fixed mindset that believes that our capabilities are written in stone. Understanding that our present state does not reflect our final one, allows us to appreciate our growth and focus on the steps needed to get to our goals.
Simplify Your Life
We live in an age of chaos and information overload. Studies show that we are bombarded with way too much information—the equivalent of 174 newspapers a day! This naturally creates overwhelm and initiates the fight or flight response that shuts off our mental capacities. When we prioritize instead of multi-task, differentiate between what is important and what is simply enticing, and foster powerful habits, we free up our mental capacities to pursue our goals with energy and ease.
Relish Those Baby Steps
The pace of life in the 21st century is one that we could not have foreseen a decade ago. We have little patience for organic growth and seek out quick-fix solutions. But nothing worth achieving was ever achieved overnight. Breaking larger goals into manageable chunks not only calms overwhelm, it also creates momentum towards our goals. So does rewarding ourselves along the way. Something as minor as ticking off our smaller goals from our to-do list gives us a dopamine kick almost as powerful as one we would get from an expensive purchase.
Reach Out to Others
We are the most social of all species on the planet. We have an amazing capacity to befriend, love and even sacrifice for people who are complete strangers to begin with. It is this ultra-sociality that is the secret to our rise to the top of the food chain. When we feel stuck, the presence, understanding and advice of others builds our resilience and propels us towards continued growth.
Look After Your Body
In the mindless pursuit of perfection and the mad rush of our lives, we have lost connection with our bodies and often abuse them with little regard. And yet, we are embodied creatures. Adequate rest and frequent breaks, good wholesome food and fresh air remain the foundations of vibrant physical health that provides the fuel for our higher pursuits.
By the time I was ready to leave, my little nephew had mastered a steady trot. I watched him pursue his 2-legged race all day, delighting in his new found freedom, and could not help but smile at the wonders of childish innocence. Perhaps it is this innocence that we need to nurture, that lifts us above the sticky tendrils of limiting societal pressures and connects us to the abundant flow of life.