First published on the website Standard Issue, 13/1/2016
New Year’s resolutions are so last year. What we need to keep us on track this year – or any year – are some simple reminders, says Andrea Mann.
I think that was Leo Tolstoy the writer, not Dave Tolstoy the painter and decorator, but either way: that old Russian dude was right. And there’s no better place to start making tiny changes than in our tiny brains.
Because if we gently, constantly remind ourselves of certain things, we have a chance of making tiny changes in the way we think – and thus the way we live our lives. Or as another wise old dude (Gandhi) put it: our beliefs become our thoughts, our thoughts become our words, and our words become our actions.
So, in the spirit of making some tiny, helpful changes, here are some of the big, helpful things I learned to remind myself of in 2015 – and which I hope to keep remembering in 2016. Hopefully you’ll find them some of them helpful, too. (If you do, I recommend writing them down and putting them somewhere you can look at them regularly. And remember: anything can look inspirational if you put it in a frame.)
1. Not everything will be OK, but most things will.
This is my favourite reminder in the delightful little tin of Simple Reminders by Department Store for the Mind. Whether you’re an eternal pessimist or a cockeyed optimist, it’s healthy to remember that life isn’t wholly good or wholly bad, but somewhere in between – and towards the ‘wholly good’ end of the spectrum. Everything may not be coming up roses (I promise this is the last musical reference), but when you think about it, most things in life are OK. And on the days when they really aren’t, I refer you to reminder number two…
2. When you’re having a tough day, remember: your record of getting through tough days is 100 per cent so far.
Thank you, Marc & Angel’s Life Hacks, for this gem. When you’re going through tough times, when things seem hopeless, remind yourself you’ve made it through bad days – maybe even worse days – before, and that this too shall pass. In Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, Susan Jeffers advises that when you’re worried about potential trials ahead, keep telling yourself: ‘I’ll handle it.’ Because you will handle it – whatever ‘it’ is. And to help yourself feel confident of that, remind yourself that, when it comes to life…
3. It’s not about trying to stop the waves from coming, but learning how to ride them.
That’s right: no matter how landlocked your current location, you can learn to be a surfer, my friend. A surfer of LIFE. Because life will have its inevitable tough times (see point 1) – so it isn’t about controlling these rough waves or trying to stop them from coming, but learning how to ride them when they do.
Try to learn to sit in discomfort – by which I mean: actually allow yourself to feel uncomfortable – rather than reach for whatever fix you usually (and often subconsciously) choose to escape from it. You will come out the other side and you will be OK. And when you go through something awful, remember:
“‘You can choose courage, or you can choose comfort. But you cannot choose both,’ advises Brené Brown – and, as ever, she’s right. As Anaïs Nin said: ‘Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.’”
4. Lives fall apart when they need to be rebuilt.
As Iyanla Vanzant noted. But when terrible things happen, as the great Pema Chödrön writes in When Things Fall Apart, “Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy.” If we don’t run, however, “we might realise that we are on the verge of something.”
“It may just be the beginning of a great adventure,” adds Chödrön. “We don’t know anything.” Indeed we don’t. Not even Einstein, who said: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Our worst times really can be our greatest teachers – about ourselves, about others, about life in general. And sometimes there’s no other way, unfortunately, to learn these lessons.
5. The most important decision you make is to be in a good mood.
So said Voltaire, allegedly, although probably in French. Similarly, Maya Angelou wisely advised (in English): “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
Trust me: if you decide to be in a good mood, if you try to wear life a little more lightly, it will have a direct influence on your day and on your interactions with other people. Remember: your happiness – and unhappiness – isn’t reliant on another person or external thing or event, it is shaped by how you choose to react to that person, thing or event. And you can choose that reaction.
6. Making time for yourself isn’t self-indulgent – it’s self-care.
And the more you care for yourself, the more you can care for other people – whether that’s your loved ones, colleagues or total strangers. Compassion for others starts with compassion for ourselves, so make time every day for something that’s nurturing, that you enjoy, and that you do alone.
Read a book, go for a walk, cook, make art, enjoy art, meditate, work out, keep a gratitude journal, keep any kind of journal… Even if it’s for just five minutes a day: do it. And if you think you don’t have time for it, remember: the Dalai Lama once said that he meditates for an hour a day, except on really busy days, when he meditates for two. (I believe he then dropped the mic.)
7. A ship in harbour is safe – but that’s not what ships are built for.
Trust me: this quote by John A Shedd is useful even if you’re not a ship builder. Because – guess what! – you’re the ship in this scenario. “You can choose courage, or you can choose comfort. But you cannot choose both,” advises Brené Brown – and, as ever, she’s right. As Anaïs Nin said: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
So if you want a bigger life, try taking bigger steps; if you want your life to be different somehow, take different steps. Stop keeping yourself small – it doesn’t serve you, and it doesn’t serve anyone else. Be brave and step out of your comfort zone, aka your harbour. And the first step for doing this? It’s…
8. Just show up.
You don’t have to do anything else. Not at first. Just take that one small step and turn up. It may be reaching out to someone; it may be sitting at your desk of a morning.
Whatever it is, don’t wait for the muse or the lightning bolt: just follow Elizabeth Gilbert’s advice and show up for your part of the deal, and the next step will become clear. And don’t wait for everything to be perfectly in place before you do so, either – because it probably never will be.
“I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything,” Hugh Laurie once said. “There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.” He’s right. (He’s Hugh Laurie. Of course he’s right.)
9. It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.
Confucius said this in a Simple Reminders email to me one day (and I highly recommend signing up to their daily newsletter, especially if you like Chinese wisdom and pictures of beaches). Forget the idea of god-given talent, which is only part of the picture: it’s those who keep going who make it.
So once you’ve done point 8 and just shown up, just keep on keeping on – for however long it takes and at whatever speed suits you. (Side note/reminder: try not to compare yourself to others along the way – someone else’s journey is not your own.)
As Winston Churchill put it: “Continuous effort, not strength or intelligence, is the key to unlocking our potential.” And as Ray Bradbury put it: “You fail only if you stop writing.” That said…
10. Failing isn’t just OK – it’s necessary.
“Do not fear mistakes,” said Miles Davis. “There are none.” He was right, of course, especially when it comes to jazz. But whatever the ball game – jazz, life or an actual ball game – we learn by doing: and failing is part of doing. It’s part of growing, learning, and a by-product of stepping out of our comfort zone (see point 7).
So if you’re one of those people whose ‘failures’ are accompanied by feelings of self-admonishment or loathing rather than fleeting disappointment, remind yourself that to err is human, to forgive yourself divine. And if all else fails (sorry): remember that some of the best cooks in the country have failed publicly, over and over again. We watched them do it. And we didn’t think any less of them.
“Not only are many things we fret over probably not true, but plenty of them haven’t even happened, may never happen, or happened in the past.”
11. Just because you think it, doesn’t mean it’s true.
This reminder, from the wonderful Tara Brach, is one of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever heard – not least because most of us are susceptible to unhelpful thoughts throughout the average day.
What Brach is saying is that when you feel hurt, angry or afraid, your feelings are real, but the story you’re believing – about yourself, the other person or the situation – might not be (and – spoiler alert! – probably isn’t). So take a moment to check in with yourself if you’re feeling any of those things, and remind yourself of the phrase above. And also remember: it applies to other people, too. Just because someone thinks something, about you, themselves or a situation, doesn’t mean it’s true. Or at least: true for you.
12. How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours.
Yes, yes, I’ve used the word ‘karma’. But in my defence, this observation by the late, great Wayne Dyer is spot-on, and basically just a variation on the idea that ‘we see the world not as it is, but as we are’.
How people behave is determined by their experience and their ‘stuff’ – and that includes ourselves and our own ‘stuff’. So when you’re in a tricky situation or dealing with a tricky person, recognise that both your and their karma-slash-stuff is present in the way you’re treating each other – and concentrate on your own response, because that’s the only ‘stuff’ you can do anything about. Another person may attack you – but as Eleanor Roosevelt wisely noted, they can’t make you feel inferior without your permission.
13. Most of the things you’re worried about are either things that have already happened or things you’re afraid might happen.
That’s right. Not only are many things we fret over probably not true (see point 11), but plenty of them haven’t even happened, may never happen, or happened in the past. Which surely makes this the greatest argument for mindfulness and the idea of ‘being in the moment’ – because when you’re really in the present, any worries about the past or future disappear.
Of course, if in the current moment a situation is causing you great pain, anxiety, stress or depression, it’s worth holding on to this reminder, too: “Don’t be afraid to switch horses in the middle of a stream if the horse you’re on is going under, and taking you with it.” Sadly I can’t remember where I read this, but I’ve found it hugely helpful advice, and I don’t even ride.
CS Lewis said this, and it’s a particularly useful reminder to any of us who are older than X Factor winner Louisa Johnson. Seventeen-year-old Johnson worked 10 years (“my whole life!”) towards her goal, and good for her.
The rest of us may not have a) had her supportive parents and/or b) realised our goal at the tender age of seven, but so what? Let’s all start working towards our goals now, and if it takes 10 years, so be it. Remember what Hugh Laurie said about now being as good a time as any? (I hope you do. It was only point 8).
15. Every single moment is a chance to start again.
Every year, every month, every week, every day (you see where I’m going with this)… Yes, every second is a fresh start, a chance to do better, to do differently – to have what I believe is called in modern parlance ‘a do-over’.
“If you want to succeed in your life, remember this phrase: That past does not equal the future,” says Anthony Robbins. “Because you failed yesterday; or all day today; or a moment ago; or for the last six months; the last 16 years; or the last 50 years of life, doesn’t mean anything… All that matters is: What are you going to do, right now?” Well, right now, you’re going to read the final point, I hope. Which is…
16. Do your best.
“And now you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good,” John Steinbeck reminds us. And what a relief that is. We don’t have to be perfect – we’re not perfect, nobody is perfect – we just have to be ourselves, which is absolutely good enough.
So whatever the circumstance: just show up, don’t aim to be perfect, just do your best. (And trust me: your real, authentic self – free of your ego and your fears –wants to do its best, by both you and other people.)
Yes, it can be hard – very hard, sometimes. But if you want just one wonderful upside of attempting it, it’s this, as articulated by Don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements: “If you always do your best, there is no way you can judge yourself. And if you don’t judge yourself there is no way you are going to suffer from guilt, blame and self-punishment.” And doesn’t that sound like a great tiny change to aim for in 2016 – or any year?