Monday, September 27, 2010

The Golden Buddha - Your Golden Core

I went for a long bike ride in the countryside yesterday and I marvelled at how nature had changed since my last ride in that area. There were unmistakable signs of autumn everywhere. The summer just flew by!

There were acres after acres of corn - yellowing stalks of corn standing proud in the field, swaying gently in the wind. This scene reminded me of a corn feast I had a few weeks ago. I was at the local grocery store picking up some food for supper in a small town to the west of Ottawa when a farmer drove up to the front of the store with a truck full of freshly picked Peaches and Cream corn. They were a real bargain, eight ears of corn for $1.99. I just had to pick some up.

That night we ate our meal outside (the last picnic of the summer). Was it a combination of the beautiful scenery as the sun set over the lake, the good company, or the hearty appetite after an active day spent playing outside that made the meal so tasty? The corn was so good: crisp, juicy and sweet.The children slathered the corn with gobs of butter and ate with gusto. In my opinion, corn is one of the true joys of late summer days.

If you look at nature with a child's eyes, it is a world of wonder. Like corn. Perfect rows of creamy ivory and bright yellow kernels promising a tasty treat. A small treasure revealed underneath a husk.

Come to think of it, there are many things in nature that offer real delights under ordinary and banal exteriors. A deep red rose sprouting from a tiny non-descript seed. A baby bird emerging from a fragile shell. A pearl born from a grain of sand in an oyster shell.

What is the message? "Do not judge a book by its cover" as the saying goes. Be willing to seek for treasures lying deep inside ordinary exteriors?

This reminds me of a story that my friend Janice Parviainen included in her book Courage to Love Yourself.

In 1957, a group of Tibetan monks were informed that a highway was being built and the highway would have to go through the location where the shrine for which they were responsible was currently located. A huge clay Buddha, would have to be moved.

On the day of the move, a crane began lifting the clay Buddha. The Buddha, as it rose off of its block resting place, began to crack. It was far heavier than all the engineers had estimated. A storm was brewing so the work had to be interrupted until the next day. The statue was covered up with tarp to protect it from the elements.

During the night, the head monk awoke and decided to check on the Buddha. With a flashlight, the monk carefully checked the condition of the Buddha. As he walked around the huge clay figure shining his light on the cracks, something caught his eye. He returned to the spot on which he had just shined his light. He peered into the crack. What he saw he did not understand. He needed to see more. He went back to his quarters, found a chisel and a hammer and returned to the Buddha. He began carefully chipping at the clay around the crack. As the crack widened, he could not believe his eyes. He ran to wake the other monks and instructed each to bring a hammer and chisel.

By lantern light the monks carefully chipped all the clay from the Buddha. After hours of chiselling, the monks stepped back and stared in awe at the sight before them. There, in front of the monks, stood a solid gold Buddha. When the moving crew arrived later that morning to complete the job of moving the Buddha to its new location, there was much confusion and excitement. Where had the clay Buddha gone? From where had the Golden Buddha come?

After much research, the pieces of the story were put together. The Golden Buddha was the cherished responsibility of a group of monks several centuries earlier. These monks received word that the Burmese army was headed their way. Concerned that the invading army would loot the shrine for its Golden Buddha, the monks covered their Buddha with 8 to 12 inches of clay. When they were finished the Golden Buddha appeared to be a Buddha of clay. The invading army would surely have no interest. The monks were correct. The invading army had no interest in the Buddha. They did, however, kill all the monks before they moved on. The Golden Buddha was lost in history until 1957.

There is a Golden Buddha inside each of us. Hidden away and covered with layers and layers of clay. We start out life as a true Golden Buddha. Then life pulls us away from our true self. In an effort to fit in we start hiding our authentic self for of fear not being enough, for shame of how we might be perceived or for a misplaced desire to please.

Life's trials and tribulations compel us to superimpose layers of mud onto or inner brilliance to protect ourselves from further hurt and disappointment. We get busy creating the face we want to present to the world, smoothing the clay here, enhancing the covering there. Pretty soon we get so comfortable under those layers of mud that we lose sight of our true drive. We cannot acknowledge our golden core. And because everyone else walks around covered with mud we also forget to look beneath the muddy casing for the gifts that others might have to offer.

This is your chance to shine a flashlight onto your inner core, your authentic self. What could shine brilliantly if you aimed a light at it? If you allowed it to see the light of day? What gifts are you hiding from others...yourself even?

What are the difficult life experiences that became layers of mud onto your inner core? Name them. Those experiences belong to the past. You are no longer the person of yesterday. You are the you of the "Now", this present moment. Much wiser and much stronger for having lived through those experiences. In this moment, you can choose to keep the painful memories alive or let them go. Let the pain vanish with the memory. Uncover your golden Buddha by chiselling away the ancient mud, one sorrowful memory at a time.

Revel in your untapped potential. Resolve to present your true self to the world. Be bold. Present your glorious golden face to the world. We will all reap the rewards.

I think that Marianne Williamson says it best in her poem "Our Deepest Fear"

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Birthdays - A Chance to Say "I Love You"

September is a busy month of celebrations for us. On the same day, September 17, we celebrate the birthday of my husband's grandfather (my adopted grandfather is now 103 years old!!!); my sister's husband Roly (who just turned 50), and my sister-in-law (who lives in Australia). Two days later, it is my nephew's birthday. (He sent us an email earlier this week asking us to come over for a birthday dinner because, as he put it "turning 12 years old is a big deal and I want to make sure all my family is there to celebrate".) A few days after that, it is my husband's birthday (who is impossible to buy for - he never needs or wants anything), my younger sister is the following day and my best friend is three days later.

This morning I was grumbling a bit. Twice this week I went out shopping for my long list of presents (almost felt like a Christmas list!) but still had not found the perfect gift for my brother-in-law. I wanted to get something extra special to commemorate his fiftieth birthday (maybe it is even more meaningful to me than most because I am just 9 months away from celebrating my 50th birthday too.) Roly, my brother-in-law loves blue herons. He has a growing collection of sculptures of herons in his home; he even has a heron tattooed on his back. During my travels in BC I saw many depictions of herons in Haida art and admired the raw energy of that type of art. I was determined to find either a Haida print or a stylized sculpture of a heron as a gift for Roly. I visited many stores but no luck. This morning I got up early and convinced my husband to have breakfast downtown as an excuse to make a special trip to Snow Goose, a store near the Parliament Building that specializes in Inuit and Native Canadian art. And there I found it, the perfect gift, a framed print of a heron perched on a Haida canoe by a BC artist. Eureka!

Now to put this little escapade to find the "perfect" gift in context, you need to know that I clocked 12-14 hour days this week working feverishly to meet ridiculously short deadlines on several projects and dealing with the many unexpected twists and turns that come from working with government departments these days. I did not have time to shop. Let alone dedicate half a day to driving downtown, search for an elusive parking spot and traipse over to this hard to get to store. But I am very happy I did. I can't wait to see Roly's reaction when he opens his gift at the big party tonight.

You see, turning 50 is a momentous occasion for Roly and because I care for him, his birthday is important to me as well. What gives significance to a birthday is not only a matter of how old you are becoming. Grandfather appreciated our visit yesterday but he did not want us to make a big fuss "I've had 103 birthdays. Too many if you ask me." Grandfather's birthday was more important to us, his family, than it was to him... On the other hand, my nephew can't wait to turn twelve. In his short life, 12 years old seems like a big milestone. Maybe it is significant because at twelve years old he can babysit for money and go to bed later than his brother and sister. Or maybe being twelve is important to my nephew because he decided that it was going to be a special year no matter what. Who knows? If it is important to him, it is important to us.

On your birthday you get to be the center of attention in your little circle of family and friends. It is the one day in the year that you can call your own. As I grow older, the ritual of marking the passing of one more year of life becomes more meaningful. It is not so much about the birthday cake and the gifts (although those are very nice), but about the opportunity a birthday provides to reflect on the year that has passed and make wishes for the year to come.

Every year on my birthday, I take the day off and spend time on my own (preferably outside, somewhere in nature) meditating on who I am becoming. I look back at the proud moments I've had during the year and the trials I have surmounted. What did I have to let go of? Limiting Ideas about myself or others? Old patterns? Personality traits that are tripping me up (see last week's post on perfectionism). Perhaps I even had to let go of dreams that had become stale or just did not fit me anymore. What do I choose to do now? Will I finally make some time to take dance lessons to bring a bit more fun and joy into my life? Will I find my way through my daughters' difficult teenage years? Will my husband and I finally book that trip to Greece we've been talking about for so many years? Will I spend more time nurturing my friendships?

I think that birthdays are the perfect time to do a bit of personal strategic planning. Where have I been? What are the values I hold dear? And where am I going? How will I unlock my potential and continue to grow?

Of course, birthdays are an ideal time to say "I love you" to your loved ones (we never say it enough) and... to say "I love you" to yourself.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

In Praise of Simple

I admit it. I am a perfectionist. I want things to be just so and I drive myself crazy trying to achieve the impossible - perfection! Perfectionism has been a lifelong curse. I can see that now.

I never have a moment's peace. There is always something more I need to do to get things just right. There is always something else I have to do to attain the next goal. Perfectionism is a cruel task master. The quest for perfection is an endless quest.

As I grow older, I can I look at myself with more objective eyes. I know intellectually that perfectionism is a choice that I keep making day after day, moment after moment. Yes, I did say it is a choice that I make. A choice implies that there are other options. I have the option of downgrading my impossible standards and accepting something that is good enough rather than perfect.

So what is good enough? I did a bit of research and was surprised that there are actual theories out there about "good enough" such as:
  • Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule): the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
  • KISS principle: KISS is an acronym for the design principle "Keep it simple, Stupid". Other variations include "keep it short and simple" or keep it simple and straightforward. The KISS principle states that simplicity should be a key goal in and that unnecessary complexity should be avoided.
  • Occam's Razor principle: The popular interpretation of this principle is that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Simplest is not defined by the time or number of words it takes to express the theory; "simplest is really referring to the theory with the fewest new assumptions."
How can I apply these principles in my life? How can I learn to let go? How can I accept something that is less than perfect in my eyes for my own good and... for my own sanity.

For me, I think the easiest way to get to "good enough" is through simplicity. Simplicity is easy and effortless. In the name of simplicity, I might be more willing to let go of the long list of "shoulds" I impose on myself to realize the unattainable image of perfection I carry in my mind. Rather than channelling Martha Stewart for my next dinner party, maybe I could take a page from Jamie Oliver's, the Naked Chef, song book (or should I say "recipe" book!).

Some of my best dinner parties were impromptu get together with friends and neighbours, eating take-out pizza and a quick salad I concocted with the veggies we had in the fridge. The fun did not depend on crisp linen table clothes, fresh bouquet of flowers, my good china and sparkling cutlery. I had fun because I had no time to think about what perfection would look like if I was to orchestrate it so I just went with the flow.

And while we are on the topic of food, I have to put in a good word for Dairy Queen and grocery store bakeries. As my daughters were growing up, one the highlights of their birthday party was the birthday cake of course. Every year I would try to outdo myself. Cutting and icing the cake in the shape of Barney the purple dinosaur, a Barbie doll, or a Disney princess. As they grew older, they started requesting grocery store cakes with garish blue and purple icing and little toys stuck in the cake. Now that they are teens, they politely decline my offer to make a cake and ask that I pick up and ice cream cake at Dairy Queen instead. One less thing to do on my perfect birthday party "to do" list. Much easier that way.

This summer when we travelled to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, we rented a cottage by the beach for a few days. While we were there, I had us running from one activity to another like a tour guide on Red Bull. I wanted our vacation to be perfect so I made sure that we didn't miss out on anything that the region had to offer: sea kayaking, hiking, biking, souvenir shopping and sea food sampling. As it turns out, one of my favourite memories of that trip was on the day we were leaving the cottage. I got up early in the morning, made some coffee and sat the balcony looking out at the ocean. My husband came to join me. We just sat there quietly enjoying the sun warming our faces and listening to the waves. I was content doing nothing...not a thing!

The little black dress is another ode to simplicity. More than once I have stressed over what to wear for a special occasion. I have spent countless hours shopping for just the right outfit, the right shoes, the right stockings, and the right jewellery just to have last minute doubts as I am dressing an hour before the event. That is why every woman needs a flattering "go everywhere" little black dress in her closet. A dress you can slip on in the spur of the moment and feel beautiful. No agonizing over fashion do's and dont's. Just put the dress on and go.

Dinner parties, vacation and fashion are one thing but seeking simplicity at work is another thing altogether for a staunch perfectionist. However, to my surprise, I actually can think of examples when simplicity gave better results than attempts at perfection.

The first strategic planning session I ever facilitated was a daunting task. The group was working towards getting ISO certified and had three recent failed attempts at getting consensus on a mission statement. They called me in to help. I felt unnerved, how could I possibly get them to consensus when they had failed to do so three times already?

So I did what the facilitation books say you should do in these situations: prepare, prepare and prepare. I spent a lot of time fact-finding, researching, planning, designing and redesigning, and came up with what I thought was a good process. But then the voice of doubt crept into my head "These people are all scientists, they will expect you to be logical, analytical and serious. They will expect you to have fancy overheads with bar graphs and pie charts. Your design is not good enough. You need to work harder at it." Thankfully reason prevailed in the end. I didn’t give a theoretical presentation of the organizational benefits of having a Strategic Plan and I did not rely on stats and graphs to make my point. Instead, I decided to be myself.

I came up with a design that would deliver the goods but also allowed me to be me: use of metaphors, storytelling, humour and lots of dialogue. My approach worked beautifully. People laughed, they started to relax with each other and we built enough trust in the group to hold frank and somewhat contentious conversations. Once every one had a chance to be heard, we were able to draft a mission statement that everyone could support.

I think that sometimes perfectionism masks a fear of not being enough. I hold a deep seated belief that if I just myself, it simply won't be good enough. So I throw myself into preparation, planning and doing in hope that I will not disappoint...others and myself!

Maybe the real answer to what is enough is "just be yourself." No artifice. No pretence. Just being. It is pretty simple after all.

Simplicity is freeing. Simplicity is the road out of the perfectionism jungle. Simplicity will bring me more happiness.

My mission for the next few months (before I officially enter my 50th year) is to seek simplicity anywhere and everywhere I go as I banish the perfectionist monster from my life.

Can you help me? How do you simplify your life?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

What Kind of Fun Are You Having?

"Maman! Maman! Guess what I am doing with my new friends this Friday. We are going to dress in our favourite Manga characters and go the shopping centre!" said my daughter Maya excitedly one late afternoon when she came back from school. This week was her first week back to school, officially starting secondary in grade 9. On the first day of school, the city bus that is hired to take the kids to a downtown school didn't show (I was told by the School Board that it was a pressure tactic from the union of bus drivers who are upset with the current contract negotiations - can you believe it?). Maya was stranded at the transit station having to make her way to school using the regular bus routes. That is when she met her new friend; Jan. Maya had noticed Jan right away when she got on the bus that took them to the transit station because she was wearing Manga / Anime themed clothes and accessories. (Maya is obsessed with Manga: she watches Manga on the Internet, she draws the characters,her room is papered with Manga posters and her shelves are stuffed with Manga books and toys.) As it turns out, Jan goes to the same school as Maya and is a bit older than her. She took Maya under a wing and they made it school (although they had to transfer buses three times and did quite a bit of walking).

That chance encounter in a tricky situation was serendipity. Maya looked forward to going to school every day to spend lunch time and recess with her new friend and Jan's group of friends...all obsessed about Manga. This led to their grand plan to do Cosplay at the local shopping centre on a Friday night. Cosplay is short for "costume play". It is a type of performance art in which participants don costumes and accessories to represent a specific character from popular fiction in Japan such as Manga and Anime.

Given that all these girls go to a special school for the arts and have a natural knack for performance, I guess it makes sense that parading in cartoon character costumes in public places (when it is not even Halloween) is their idea of fun. Personally, Cosplay is not my idea of fun, but as a parent who is trying to "grow" with her children and expand my horizons, the least I can do is encourage my daughter to dare doing what appeals to her heart.

I am good at encouraging other to have fun but not so good at allowing me to have fun (see last week's blog about "play".)

Gretchen Rubin, who wrote the book The Happiness Project, says that "fun" falls into three categories: challenging fun; accommodating fun and relaxing fun. I like her descriptions of fun. They resonate with me.

Challenging fun is the most rewarding but also the most demanding. It takes time and energy to organize these types of fun activities and often requires running errands. Examples of challenging fun activities are organizing a baby shower for your best friend; coordinating the United Way campaign fund raising activities for your office; putting together a vacation memories binder with photos, maps and ticket stubs; or learning a new skill like playing a musical instrument.

Accommodating fun is less challenging but still requires a bit of effort. It is the kind of fun that you do to build relationships. Some examples of accommodating fun might be going to a family holiday dinner; spending a day at the Amusement Park with the kids; or going to the neighbour's 50th birthday party. For the longest time I felt guilty to admit publicly that building sand castles in the sand box with my young daughters was not something I had particularly enjoyed. Yes, it was pleasant, but I did it mostly because my daughters liked it. Now I can fess up and say that I was having some "accommodating fun" to strengthen my relationship with my daughter's and to create good memories.

Relaxing fun is the easiest kind of fun. You do not have to improve skills or even take action. There is no need to coordinate with other people or to prepare anything. Relaxing fun is passive. Relaxing fun is the art of just being. The most popular form of relaxing fun is watching TV. For me, reading a book; watching the waves of the ocean crash on the beach; stargazing or biking in the countryside are way more fun than watching TV.

Research shows that
challenging fun and accommodating fun bring the most happiness over the long run because tap into what makes people the happiest: strong personal bonds, mastery and personal growth.

Yesterday, I had some
relaxing fun just sitting on the porch of my mother's cottage overlooking a lake. I felt the warm breeze on my face, listened to the leaves of the trees dancing in the wind, watched the waves on the water. I had some challenging fun working on a PowerPoint presentation for a client using the Wizard of Oz as a backdrop to talk about leadership. I finished my day of fun with a bit of accommodating fun when I treated my daughter's friends to an impromptu pizza supper after they got drenched in the rain and had to stop their Cosplay adventure prematurely.

Recognizing that there are different types of fun - some that require time and effort and others that require that you put the needs of others ahead of yours - helps me get a healthy perspective on fun. Fun is not just fun and games. (Ha!) Fun is not necessarily effortless. Sometimes, having fun requires a bit of energy and dedication. Maybe there is hope for me yet. I already know how to work hard so maybe I can work not so hard and have fun in the process.

Can you come up with your own list of types of fun? I would love it if you could inspire me to have fun by sharing with me your own list of fun things to do. At this stage, learning about fun is still challenging fun for me...