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How to Reconnect with Nature

March 30, 2015

Psychotherapist Mary Pipher writes, “In most of us there is a deep hunger for contact with the natural world. Everywhere people love to garden, to work with the soil, to touch plants and make things grow.”  There is something fundamentally satisfying both in gardening and in spending time in settings that were not designed by human hands or for human purposes.  Time in nature helps you to slow back down to a human pace after time spent in the rush of the digital world.  It reconnects you with your body and also with a world older, wilder and lovelier than anything man-made.

This experience is almost certainly available to you, but it is easily overlooked.  Spectacular nature programming and vacations to dramatic and exotic locales may be marketed to you.  Walks in the woods and simple outdoor work aren’t advertised.    This article suggests some simple ways in which you can reconnect with nature.

Grow food.  The vegetables you grow and pick yourself are fresher than anything you can buy even at the farmer’s market, and the process of growing will help you understand, notice and savor the rest of your food more fully. If you have children you may find that they’re much more willing to eat vegetables once they’ve helped to tend them.  If you live in the country and have a large yard gardening is easy, but city-dwellers also have a chance.  Many cities make community garden plots available to local residents.  Even if you live in an apartment and can’t get a garden plot, you can grow a few vegetables and herbs in buckets on a balcony or in a window-box. 

Get to know a place. Choose a small corner of your yard, or of a nearby public park–just a few square meters of ground.  Go to that spot at least once a week. Sit quietly by it. Notice what plants are growing there, what animals pass through, how the light falls differently on it at different times of the day or season.  Make notes of what changes.  You’ll slow down enough to savor small details that you might otherwise overlook, like the changing colors and patterns of leaves as they bud, open, grow and die, or the delicate jaws and antennae of insects. You’ll also develop a habit of attention that will make it easier for you to see and enjoy the life unfolding around you in other places.

Volunteer at a nearby park. Many nature centers are constantly looking for volunteers to help them pick up trash and clear trails, remove invasive plants and monitor wildlife.  Park rangers and fellow volunteers can provide a wealth of information about local flora and fauna, and also about environmental concerns.

Learn about your bioregion. You know about the political regions you inhabit, and have some understanding of your leaders, your fellow citizens and the choices that you have to make together.  Do you know about your bioregion? Do you know who shares your watershed–who is directly affected by the water you consume and the things you let leach into the water; who affects you? Do you know where most of the food you consume is produced? Do you know which animals and plants are native to your region, which are invasive, which are endangered? Learning the answers to these and similar questions can help you to connect more deeply with your human and natural community.

Further Resources:

The Shelter Of Each Other and The Green Boat by Mary Pipher, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, offer many more suggestions for reconnecting with the natural world.

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How to Tap Your Creativity

March 30, 2015

Sometimes people talk about creativity as though it were a gift bestowed on a few geniuses.  In truth it’s a fundamental human quality.  Tapping into it helps us to lead full, well-rounded lives. There’s a deep and rich satisfaction in learning to create something beautiful and well-crafted, whether it’s a story, a painting, a quilt or a song. Don’t tell yourself that you aren’t talented enough. Make a commitment to take time for whatever form of creation appeals most to you.

Practice Technique

You’ll need to learn the fundamentals of your craft. This doesn’t have to happen in a class.  Many community centers offer space where people can gather to do craft work together and pool their skills.  You may have an accomplished friend or neighbor who can show you the fingering for the first chords, pass on tips and tricks for mixing colors and handling perspective, demonstrate the basic stitches in embroidery, or suggest writing exercises to help you strengthen your observation and description. There are also a plethora of books designed for beginners.  Check several books on your craft out from your library. Look for one that speaks your language and values your goals. When you find one, get your own copy.  All these things can help get you started.  Once you have the basics down you can keep learning on your own.

Take Time

Creativity requires discipline as well as inspiration.  Set aside some regular time, however small it it, that fits in realistically with your daily schedule and with your temperament.  If you work best in long uninterrupted blocks of time, you might set aside a half-day every week.  If shorter, more frequent work periods suit you better, you might take an hour or even a half-hour every day.  Keep this time unless real emergencies come up; don’t cut it out just because you’re not sure you really feel inspired or because you have a list of errands to run.    

Create and Criticize

There’s a time for letting things flow–for writing down the bones of your story, whether or not all the details work effectively, for playing right through the song and not stopping to correct errors.  While you’re doing this, set aside the critical voice whispering in your head “What a mess…That’s not right….Is this even worth doing?” Let yourself go.  If you always stop for correction you may lose your confidence and (if you’re coming up with something new) your overall vision for the work.

There’s also a time for refining your craft–for going back over the story and correcting logic holes, reading out loud and dealing with awkward sounds, fixing spelling and grammar and punctuation; for playing short pieces of the song over and over until the pitch, rhythm, tone and flow are just what you want them to be.  If you never stop for correction you may find your final creations unsatisfying. Remember, though, that the purpose of self-criticism is to make your vision come through more clearly, not to judge whether or not you are a good and talented person.

Connect with Other Creators

Some solitary time may help you find your balance and your technique.  Time with other creators is also helpful.  If you’re a writer, look for free workshops and critique circles in your neighborhood or online where you can get feedback on your works and help others get a perspective on theirs. If you’re a musician, look for jam sessions in your area where you can play along with others and share songs and ideas about fingerings. If you’re an artist, look for an area art group.  Don’t stay in a group whose members see themselves as locked in a competition.  Look for a place where beginners are welcome, where criticism is clear, courteous and constructive.

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How to Learn Independently

March 30, 2015

Lifelong learning strengthens your mind’s flexibility and focus, widens your awareness of the world and enhances your competence and confidence.  Too often people feel that, in order to learn, they must pay to take classes from expert instructors.  This makes continuing education seem unattainable to people with demanding schedules or limited means.  Formal classes can be rewarding, if you have time and money for them, but they’re far from the only ways to learn new skills and encounter new ways of thought lifelong. Here are a few low- or no-cost options:

Free Local Cultural Resources

Check in with your local public library.  Many libraries host literary discussion groups and/or free classes to local residents.  Public parks often host free concerts and plays, nature walks etc. Universities also are likely to offer free services to the surrounding community.  In the US these are often offered through the Cooperative Extension service of the land-grant colleges.  These public service organizations are usually run by people who are very glad to hear from neighbors interested in learning, though heir offerings aren’t as widely and insistently advertised as most forms of for-profit instruction.

Online Resources

Internet forums offer the opportunity to crowd-source instruction in subjects from creative writing to luthiery to gardening and woodworking.   People come together online to post questions about their work in progress or reports of their failures and successes. Some participants will be better-informed than others, and you can’t accept all forum-based advice uncritically; however, the same could be said for ‘expert’ advice.  Pay attention to what seems to be the consensus of the group.  Check how closely your situation and goals align with those of people who offer you suggestions. Gardeners in a climate like your own are more apt to suggest solutions that will work for you.  Writers who share your goal–whether that’s earning money, building a reputation, or getting a particular story told–are more apt to understand how to help you move toward that goal.  Keep your questions clear and specific and your responses clear and courteous.

Expert Mentors

Don’t be shy about approaching people with experience in the areas that interest you.  They’re often eager to connect with people who want to understand the things they care about.  When I was independently studying economics I read a newspaper review of a book which had just won the Nobel Prize in economics. I read the book and then wrote a letter to the author, asking if he had time to recommend any further reading. That was the beginning of a two-year correspondence. Start with a limited and clear question, make it clear that you understand your prospective mentor is busy and may not have time…and then see what grows from there.

Volunteering/Apprenticeship 

You can learn many skills by volunteering to do help with work in exchange for training (and, sometimes, room and board).  Most of these volunteer or apprentice programs don’t provide you with a credential, but they do provide you in-person mentoring, hands-on experience and the chance to take part in good work. Habitat for Humanity teaches building skills to volunteers who help to construct homes for needy families. WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) connects experienced organic growers with willing but inexperienced volunteers who want to learn where their food comes from and perhaps build skills to start farms of their own. Idealist.org gathers postings from a wide variety of organizations seeking short-term volunteers or long-term  apprentices to help with work related to human services. 

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How to Listen Effectively (Across Ideological Lines)

March 30, 2015

Community is an important aspect of a full life. Building community requires time, commitment, patience, courtesy, and a set of basic skills, including the ability to listen.  The rise of political polarization suggests that people with differing perspectives are decreasingly likely to listen to each other. This disconnect strains relationships between neighbors and relatives and creates a more fearful world in which it is harder to live with purpose and joy. Listening well across ideological lines is the work of a lifetime, but here are a few basic beginning points:

Focus. Turn off your cell phone, turn away from the TV, set aside your long list of plans and daydreams and worries for a little while, and pay full attention to the other person.  Without this full focus you’ll probably get the gist of what the other person is saying but you’re more apt to respond habitually, ‘off the top of your head” and less apt to notice nuances, empathize, or learn something you didn’t expect.

Start with questions.  When someone else says something that contradicts your own political or religious convictions, don’t start by arguing the point. Try saying something like, “This looks very different to me; I’d like to understand how it looks to you. What have you experienced, or what have you heard, that makes this seem true to you?”  This tends to have a disarming effect, shifting people from debate-team mode into storytelling mode. It’s likely (though not certain) that you’ll be able to relate to something in their story, even if you don’t agree with their conclusions.

Tell stories.  Talk about the experiences that have shaped your own convictions. People are less likely to argue with your experiences than with your assertions. Their responses may help you to see a new way of interpreting the stories that have shaped you.

Don’t feel that you have to agree or disagree.  Sometimes it’s important to state firmly and clearly that you see something differently.  Sometimes–especially when people are telling painful stories, even if some of the assumptions embedded in those stories don’t sit well with you–it’s more helpful to listen quietly.  The storyteller may hear what she’s just said and reconsider it if you don’t argue so that they feel the need to defend their position. Quietness often leads the other person to start asking you questions, and to be willing to hear your answers.

Use facts with caution. Debaters on both sides of controversial issues often cite studies or repeat documented anecdotes and then say, “You can’t argue with the facts.” But both sides usually have large arsenals of facts, some of which are specifically designed to demonstrate that the ‘facts’ on the other side are misleading, insignificant or false. Facts do matter, but there are usually quite a lot of them on the ground, and many of them can be arranged without falsification in ways that support different narratives. Explain why the facts you’re quoting matter to you and why you trust them to be true. “This is what I’ve observed,” or “I heard this from X, whom I trust because…” Remember that a person who disagrees with you may not trust the people whom you trust, and may cite and believe authorities whom you don’t trust.  Arguing is not likely to change that.

These disciplines can be tiring. They can also open the way into rich friendships across ideological divides and help to create a world of richer relationships and more diverse communities, a world in which it’s easier for all of us to live life to the fullest.

Further Resources:

The Living Room Conversations Project offers resources for those who wish to deliberately gather with neighbors from different perspectives to create friendships and discuss important issues frankly and respectfully. Learn more at http://www.livingroomconversations.org/

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How to Stretch Your Comfort Zone

March 30, 2015

Sometimes learning to live more fully requires you to challenge your assumptions, change your habits and step outside your comfort zone. Too many people spend all their time in the company of people who look, think and act just as they do and miss out on the delights and challenges of building relationships across cultures. Too often people give up on their dreams because they’re anxious or they want to fit in.  “I’m not really talented enough…I might fail….It’s not normal…What would people think?”  If you let these thoughts control you your life becomes constricted and you miss opportunities for skill-building, creativity and connection.

Later articles in this series will offer in-depth suggestions for cross-cultural communication, artistic creativity and continuing education.  This article describes some first steps to help you stretch your comfort zone in various ways.

Meeting “Those People”

When you think of cultural exchange you might picture foreign travel.  But people with different foods, stories and music for you to relish, with different skills for you to learn, with different perspectives to broaden and challenge your understandings, and with different questions for you to answer can be found close to home, if you’re paying attention. The digital revolution has made it easier for us to correspond with people across the world, but it has also made it easier for us to inhabit a bubble of like-minded people. We now have to make a deliberate effort to engage with neighbors–or even relatives–whose lives and assumptions are different from our own. 

Take public transportation, and don’t put on your headphones, pull out your cell phone or pile your stuff on the seat next to you. Leave a space for a newcomer, and smile at people as they board. If they smile back and seem open, start a conversation. You might be amazed by what you learn.

Volunteer. Outreach projects–building homes for Habitat for Humanity, serving at a nearby soup kitchen, helping out at a CSA that donates some of its produce, picking up trash in a local park–can bring people from very different walks of life together.  Shared work builds mutual trust and creates many opportunities for story-sharing.

Trying New Skills

In this media-saturated society we tend to think of music, dance, sports etc. as performance arts practiced by exceptionally talented people.  Less digitized cultures are more apt to view these activities as basic parts of community life in which all interested people can engage. There’s value in seeing the feats of which exceptionally talented people are capable, but there’s also value in using your own body and mind fully and building your own skills and confidence.

In most of our communities there are still places where people participate in satisfying activities together rather than putting on performances.  Community sports leagues welcome people with energy, enthusiasm and courtesy, whether or not they’re star athletes. Community choruses and jam sessions welcome singers and instrumentalists at all levels of ability and create an environment where it’s easy for more practiced musicians to mentor new ones. Writers’ workshops offer a place where people who aren’t yet experienced wordsmiths can hone their skills, tell their truths and find their voices. Look for these opportunities.

Of course while you’re learning you’ll make mistakes; from time to time you’ll probably look very foolish.  That’s not the end of the world. A supportive community group will laugh with you rather than at you, offer sympathy where it’s needed and help you learn to do better next time.  When other members of the group make their own spectacular mistakes you can do the same for them.  Along the way you’ll learn somethings fully as valuable as any concrete skill set: courage, openness, resilience.

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How to Sharpen Your Focus

March 30, 2015

The fullness of your life depends not only on what you do but on how attentively you do it. In order to create richly, to work effectively, to savor experiences fully, you need to be present.  The proliferation of electronic gadgets encourages people to ‘multitask’ constantly. These devices and habits allow you to connect more and more broadly, and to pull in larger and larger amounts of information. You gain breadth, and this is valuable. But if you don’t make a conscious effort to focus you may lose depth, and that is a real loss. 

Relationships require depth in order to flourish. It’s easy to get directions or double-check a grocery list over the phone while doing something else. It’s harder to have a conversation about anything complex or emotionally challenging without giving it your full attention.  Significant pauses, important statements dropped into the midst of a flow of trivia, shades of meaning, can easily be missed when your attention is divided.

Work also suffers from constant interruption. A 2013 study by Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction lab showed a 20% decrease in reading comprehension when subjects were interrupted. Other studies have shown that human brains do not switch between tasks nearly as quickly as electronic devices do; when you try to keep up with the pace they set you’re likely to end up stressed, confused and ineffective.

Step Back from Screen Time

Create some intentional spaces in which you don’t respond to new alerts from your digital devices.  Carve out screen-free time to be with family or friends.   Author William Powers describes his family’s practice of “Internet Sabbaths”.  During the weekends they don’t check email or surf the Web. This opens time up for them to share meals and conversations with each other, talk on the phone with friends and relatives with undivided attention, and work in-depth on personal projects. Some people observe Screen-Free Week, seven days each year in which they stop spending their free time looking at screens–any screens–and take more time to connect with themselves, their neighbors and the natural world. Once Screen-Free Week ends they resume screen use, but they often have a clearer sense of the screen-free activities they value and the need to make time for them. The point of these exercises is not to devalue the right uses of technology but to clear a space in which you can experience depth and think more clearly about how you balance depth and breadth in the rest of your time. As Powers writes, “The point isn’t that the screen is bad…The point is lack of proportion, the abandonment of all else, and the strange absent-present state of mind this compulsion produces.”

Setting aside uninterrupted time can help with individual projects as well.  Some office managers and employers have begun to carve out focus time for their employees when they aren’t expected to check email or attend meetings, when they can give their undivided attention to their own work.  If you’re trying to write a book or troubleshoot an invention in your spare time, try setting aside some time in which you don’t let yourself be distracted or interrupted–even to research a new idea on the Internet or text a friend and ask for feedback.  Notice any discomfort this restraint causes you. Notice, also, what happens to the work you’re doing.

Opt Out of Being Busy

“I’m so busy” has become a standard greeting, simultaneously an excuse for failings and a boast of importance. But constant busyness doesn’t help us to work with passion and vision and doesn’t allow us to rest and be glad.  Practice not being busy.  When you have a few minutes between tasks, don’t rush to fill them. Let yourself be where you are, at rest. You’ll probably feel less harried, and when you do return to work you’ll have better energy and clearer focus.

Further Resources

William Powers’ book Hamlet’s BlackBerry explores technological changes, the tradeoff between breadth and depth and the possibility of keeping both in balance.

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How to Choose Mindfully

March 30, 2015

Living fully requires you to choose boldly, to shape your life according to your own values, goals and dreams instead of letting yourself be pushed along by outside forces. It also requires you to choose realistically. You probably can’t fit all the things you want into your life. There’s an old proverb–Spanish or Persian, depending who you believe–which says “Take what you want, says God; take it, and pay for it.”  When you choose what matters most and accept the cost of that choice you set yourself free from pressure and confusion, and you open yourself to meaning and gratitude.

Sales Resistance

Psychologist Mary Pipher writes, “If we just let the culture happen to us we end up rushed, stressed, addicted, unhealthy and broke.” You’re constantly bombarded by ads and media messages telling you what to do: Stay tuned! Don’t miss it! Treat yourself! Buy now and save! You read one vaguely interesting story, notice an eye-catching sidebar and click on that, leave a comment, notice a link in someone else’s comment…. and before you know it the evening, or the weekend, is gone. You go to the restaurant because they have such nice publicity, order the new gadget because everyone else is getting it… and you end up locked into a job that pays enough so you can keep getting things you don’t really want. The alternative to this drifting isn’t a stingy and joyless life. It’s conscious choice.

Value Check

Ask yourself: What brings the most joy into your life? What are you most proud of? What do you most wish to cherish, foster or protect in the world outside you? (This could be a great global cause, or the sense of community in your neighborhood, or the health of a nearby stream, or bluegrass music, or math instruction for kids…) What would you most like to add to your life if only you had time and money for it?  Take a moment to write your answers down.

Reality Check (1)

Now ask yourself: Would an outsider be able to guess your answers to the questions above by observing how you spend your time and money?

If the answer isn’t clear, try keeping track of that spending for a week. Don’t try to change your habits. Just follow your normal routine, and make notes of how you spend each dollar and each half-hour.  (You may do this with all your time and money, or only with your free time and your discretionary spending. In the second case, look closely at which purchases you consider ‘necessary’.)

Look back at your record of what you want and value. Consider whether you’re spending your time and money–your life–on those things. If not, think about ways to close the gap. This doesn’t have to be a huge dramatic step.  Maybe you can forgo texting and social networking for one evening each week and read to your child, walk in the woods or practice your cello.  Start with small changes and see what brings you satisfaction.

Reality Check (2)

Whatever your life goals are, if you have a toddler, or a relative who is sick or elderly and frail, much of your time and energy may be demanded whether you like it or not. In these circumstances it is both harder and more important to spend whatever free time you do have in a way that is truly satisfying.

Further Resources

Your Money Or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin discusses mindful financial choices, large and small. The Shelter Of Each Other by Mary Pipher discusses the deliberate setting of family priorities in the midst of a confusing and overwhelming culture.

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How to Rewrite Your Story

March 30, 2015

The fullness of our lives is determined not only by what we do and experience but by how we understand it. We’re constantly narrating the stories of our lives, making assumptions, finding or creating patterns. True stories can help us to avoid pitfalls, celebrate triumphs, relate to other people and create meaning. False stories can set us up for repeated disappointments or keep us living narrowly for fear of being disappointed. 

Know Your Story

As Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz writes in You Are Not Your Brain, “You cannot change what you are not aware of.” The first step is to become conscious of what you are telling yourself. It ‘s easiest to notice this when you find yourself upset in a way that seems disproportionate–when you respond with tears, anger, or a frozen sense of helplessness to a minor setback in your work or a casual remark by someone you love.  Remember that feeling when you have time and space to deal with it. Try answering these questions:

What happened? Describe it clearly and succinctly.

How did you feel? Be specific.

When do you remember feeling that way before? Is this something that happens repeatedly? Can you see any pattern in the things that trigger that feeling in you?

What is your earliest memory of feeling like that?  Picture yourself as a child; remember what things looked like when you were closer to the ground, how your body felt when it was still growing fast.  Then think of the feeling you’re trying to track down. See if any specific memory surfaces.

What did you tell yourself when you felt this way before? Often a repeated feeling of distress comes from a story we’re repeating to ourselves, a lesson we think we learned from the things that hurt us early on. “I have to be perfect or no one will love me.” “However hard I try, I will fail.” “I can’t trust anyone.”

Rewrite Your Story

You can’t change what has happened, but you can look at it in a new way. Don’t ignore reality. Look  clearly at the events you’re remembering and see if they could be explained by a story that is more deeply true and more conducive to joy and growth.  The events that might inspire someone to conclude “I have to be perfect or no one will love me” might also fit into a story like “Sometimes I waste my energy trying desperately to win the approval of people who don’t really care about me.  There are better uses for my life,” or “Sometimes I frustrate people. Sometimes they frustrate me. We can love each other even though we sometimes let each other down.”   These stories suggest possibilities for growth and change.

Practice Your New Story

You’ve probably been telling yourself some distorted stories for years. It will take time and practice to work the new stories deeply into your mind.

Tell them to yourself repeatedly. Think of them when you first get up, or as you’re falling asleep, or while you commute to work.

Notice when you’re telling yourself the old stories. Don’t berate yourself; just think “I’ve decided to change that story,” and consciously tell yourself the new story you wrote. This can be tiring at first. Eventually it becomes habitual.

Stay Open

Keep on revisiting the stories you tell yourself. As you learn and grow you may find that the stories that worked earlier need to be revised. That’s not a problem. You can learn a lot from the process of rewriting.

Further Resources

Staying OK by Amy Harris and Thomas Harris and You Are Not Your Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding give in-depth descriptions of techniques for rewriting your story.

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How to Practice Gratitude

March 30, 2015

You might imagine that a fully lived life must be packed with adventures and accomplishments.  Advertisements keep telling you “buy this product, purchase this experience, and your life will be rich, satisfying and meaningful.” But you can’t find joy or meaning by grasping at more and more things and experiences, or by frantically accumulating good deeds. Begin by slowing down, recognizing and enjoying what you already have; by practicing gratitude.

South African bishop and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu writes, “The practices of goodness–noticing, savoring, thinking, enjoying and being thankful–are not hard disciplines to learn. But they are disciplines, and they take practice.”

Here are a few ways in which you can practice gratitude:

Slow down and notice what’s around you. When you’re walking from place to place, don’t rush to call or text someone. Keep your eyes and ears open. Notice the play of light and shadow around you. Listen to the sounds–whether you’re out in the country hearing birdsong and wind in the grass, or in the city hearing people talking, laughing, singing. Notice your breath and the beating of your heart.

Take time for gratitude at the end of the day. Before you fall asleep, remember all the things that brought you joy, helped you in your work or taught you something over the course of the day. If on some days you can’t think of much, don’t berate yourself, and don’t jump to the conclusion that you have a wretched life. Just think about the good things you do remember. Over time this practice will shift your focus; you’ll get in the habit of looking for and appreciating goodness wherever it appears.

Be honest. Trying to pretend that you feel nothing but gratitude is likely to exhaust you and make it harder for you to notice and be grateful for what really is good. Acknowledge your frustration, resentment, anger, disappointment and grief. Don’t hide them, Don’t let them take you over.  Recognize that they’re there, and remember that they don’t negate the good things in your life.

Share your gratitude with someone. Choose a gratitude partner and call or write them regularly. Pick someone with whom this will feel like mutual support, not a competition.  Or have your family gather to talk about the things for which you’re grateful and the things that discourage you. If the discouragements arise from something you can change, talk about how to do that. If they’re just the inevitable difficulties of living, write them down on cheap paper and burn them.  Write your gratitudes down in a book you can look back at when you’re celebrating or when you need encouragement.

Thank people–and accept thanks. It’s easy to get caught up in an endless stream of tasks and fail to notice and acknowledge others’ kindnesses. Take time to thank the people who serve you–bus drivers, waiters, store clerks, janitors. Let your family and friends know what you appreciate about them.  And when you are thanked, enjoy it. Don’t brush it aside and get embarrassed. Savor the fact that you have been able to make someone else’s life a little better. Be grateful that you’ve had that opportunity.

At first these practices may feel artificial and tiresome. Stick with them for a while. In time they make help you to see and savor the goodness within you and around you.

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How to Give Back

September 16, 2014

People are most likely to feel satisfied and empowered when they know that they have something to give.  Author and activist Bill McKibben writes, “Think about your own life: which moments mattered most? Didn’t most of them entail being involved in something larger than yourself? Either out in the hugeness of the natural world, or working together with those around you for some common end, often for no material gain?”  There are many ways of reaching out, enriching your own life and the lives of other people.  Some are large-scale and formal.  Others are very small and embedded in the everyday moments of your life.

Everyone Can Help

Volunteering isn’t only for well-to-do people with excellent mental and physical help.  Don’t believe that you have nothing to offer.  Think about your skills, about your qualities of character, and about the needs that tug at your heart.  There will be a way to bring these things together.

I once volunteered at an afterschool program. One of my fellow volunteers was an elderly woman with many health issues. She also had an incisive mind and great patience.  She worked one-on-one with a troubled and demanding student. That student had exhausted and resisted with several other volunteers, but he calmed down in her presence.  He didn’t have grandparents to take an interest in what he did, and he craved her attention; he also understood that she had difficulties of her own and needed his consideration, which prompted him to be considerate rather than defiant.

As you volunteer, remember that the people you wish to serve also wish to serve. I know a mentor who worked with a Big Brothers/Big Sisters-type program, spending time with children from a poor and rough neighborhood and helping them fix their bicycles.  The children were glad to have working bikes again, but what they really wanted was to help fix bikes for someone else.

Formal Volunteer Programs

There are many structured service opportunities. Worldwide Workers On Organic Farms (http://wwoofinternational.org/) , Idealist (http://www.idealist.org/)  and Habitat for Humanity (http://www.habitat.org/getinv/volunteer_programs.aspx)  were described in the article on independent learning. Many religious organizations offer a wide range of domestic and international volunteer opportunities; so does the secular organization Service Civil International (http://www.sciint.org/)

When volunteering through any of these programs, communicate as clearly as possible ahead of time; understand what is expected of you and let your project partners know what you are expecting.  This can save a great deal of tension and confusion. Remember, also, that even with clear communication you and your hosts or fellow workers will sometimes have radically different assumptions.  Be prepared to work through that.

Local Outreach

There are many opportunities to be of service in your local community.  Check with your public library about whether they know people who need help learning to read, learn a language or use computers. Ask if your local park could use help with maintaining its grounds or welcoming members of the public.  Inquire at your place of worship about opportunities to help neighbors; people often turn to religious groups in times of unexpected need. Keep asking. Be open to requests for types of help you didn’t initially expect. Be willing to say no when asked to do something that seems unhelpful to you or that really doesn’t suit your own limits and gifts.

Everyday Presence

You can live each day in a way that makes you more available to those who need your help.  If you’re always busy and in a hurry, people are less likely to approach you.  If you listen intently to people without checking your watch or your phone messages, they’re more likely to be open with you.  They may just need a listening ear.  They may need something else which you can provide.