Season of Peace: The Importance of Quiet Time

For many of us, this time of year—now through New Year’s—is very busy. There are parties, get-togethers, year-end events, concerts, receptions, and more. In my mind, there are several reasons for this December social crunch. The first is very simple: It’s fun and fulfilling to celebrate various holidays, as well as the completion of another year. From here on out, though, the reasons for our busyness get a little more complicated.

  • In our society, being busy is a badge of honor. The more booked your schedule is, the thinking goes, the more “in demand” and important you must be.
  • Many of us purposefully fill our lives with endless duties and distractions because the alternative—being alone with ourselves—isn’t attractive. We don’t want to have to think about and process our lives, and we’ve never learned to be comfortably quiet with ourselves.
  • We feel compelled to use our time constructively. For many people, sitting and doing nothing feels downright wrong because we think we can’t afford to fit that kind of indulgence into our busy lives.

I definitely understand these reasons for being and staying busy, no matter what time of year it is. There was a time in my life when I was constantly engaged in some activity or other—when being alone with no distractions was a foreign concept to me. But over the years, I’ve come to realize that “quiet time”—in other words, any sort of peaceful reflection like meditation, prayer, breathing exercises, taking a walk, etc.—isn’t something to be avoided. In fact, it’s something we should all cultivate for the sake of our mindsets, well-being, and personal development. Here are a few reasons why. Quiet time:

  • …strengthens your ability to focus and lengthens your attention span because your concentration isn’t being pulled in ten different directions.
  • …charges your creative juices. Often, you’ll have your best ideas and most imaginative thoughts during your quiet alone time.
  • …helps you connect to your innermost thoughts, intentions, desires, and values as you “converse” with yourself…without the often-distracting opinions of others.
  • …improves your attitude and puts you in better control of your life, because it gives you space and time each day to reconnect to your most important goals and dreams.
  • …can help you decompress and relax at the end of a hectic day. (And those seem to occur quite frequently this time of year!)
  • …can slow down your heart rate and even lower your blood pressure!

Throughout your life—and especially in the midst of busy seasons like the end-of-year social swirl—it’s important to proactively carve out quiet time in order to relieve stress, recenter yourself, and check in to make sure your life is reflecting your values. My best advice is to approach quiet time as though it were any other essential activity (which, in my mind, it is!): Plan ahead of time when you want to do it.

Personally, I meditate in the evenings. I find that taking 20 minutes around 7 p.m. is a wonderful way to process everything that’s happened throughout my day and to clarify my intentions about what I want to accomplish most in the future. I have also talked to many people who say that quiet time at the beginning of the day is helpful in developing a sense of deep-seated peace and a positive attitude that lasts through the day. Here are a few other ways to fit quiet time into your schedule:

  • Turn off the radio during your commute to and from work. This period of time might not be totally distraction-free, but I bet you’ll still be surprised by how peaceful the relative solitude can be.
  • Bundle up and go for a walk. If you bring your mp3 player, make sure the music you play isn’t intrusive. You’ll reap twice the benefits from this activity, because exercise is a form of physical meditation and is itself a great way to boost your brain, creativity, and mood. (In fact, some of my greatest ideas and personal revelations have occurred to me while I was exercising with no other distractions.)
  • Build in a buffer zone before you go to bed. Don’t turn the TV off and immediately crawl under the covers. Instead, dim the lights and meditate, pray, or reflect on the day for a few minutes before getting in bed and going to sleep.
  • Instead of eating in the office break room or watching TV while you down your meal, set up a lunch date with yourself. Use the time to really savor your food and think about whatever occurs to you.

I think you’ll be surprised by the impact the “sound of silence” can have on your mental, emotional, and even physical well-being. So in the midst of accepting social invitations and connecting with your friends and loved ones, set up a few distraction-less dates with yourself. A few minutes alone each day is a small price to pay for increased happiness!

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How Not to Expect the Worst: Part One

In my last post, I talked about a problem that plagues a whole lot of us: constantly expecting the worst. Instead of feeling hopeful, optimistic, or even neutral about the future, we assume that bad things are going to happen.

  • Your husband has been coming home late from work all week? He’s having an affair with a coworker!
  • Your family is preparing for a move? You just know that half of your dishes are going to get broken…and the movers will probably scratch up your antique pie safe, too.
  • Your boss is putting together a “dream team” to woo a big client? She’ll pick your showboating coworker, even though you’re better qualified.

Enough examples—you know what I’m talking about. And if you read my last post, you also know that expecting the worst is detrimental to your emotional, mental, and even physical health. Here are six ways to help yourself break this bad habit:

*Acknowledge how busy people are. When you don’t see results or receive a response from someone else in (what you think should be) a timely manner, it’s easy to get upset and jump to the worst possible conclusion. He doesn’t want to work with me. She isn’t interested in going out on another date. I didn’t get the job. And so on and so forth. But wait a second. Maybe the current radio silence doesn’t mean “no”—it might simply mean that the other person is busy.

The next time you’re waiting on a response and find yourself worrying, think through your own schedule and remind yourself how busy you often are. In this day and age, almost everybody is overscheduled and overstressed. Maybe the other person hasn’t had time to decide, your suggestion dropped off their immediate radar, or they haven’t read your email yet. No news doesn’t necessarily mean bad news—it just may mean the other person has a lot to do!

*Stay busy yourself. You can’t always control how long you have to wait on an outcome, or even what that outcome is. But you can control how you wait. As I see it, you can torture yourself by dwelling on negative possibilities…or you can distract yourself by staying focused on and engaged in other things. Preferably, occupy yourself with tasks that use your strengths and that will bolster your positive attitude and self-esteem. Whatever you do, don’t torture yourself by sitting by the phone or computer while you fret! Watching the metaphorical pot won’t make it boil any faster. All you’re accomplishing is worsening your own mood and mental state.

*Take a dose of muscle medicine…or meditate! Have you ever heard of “a runner’s high”? It’s a real feeling—and it can help you to stop expecting the worst. That’s because exercise releases endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins also decrease the amount of stress hormones—like cortisol—in your body. In fact, various studies have shown that exercise can be just as effective as taking prescription antidepressant medications…without the potential side effects. In other words, pumping iron or going on a run can literally melt away some of your apprehension.

If you’re familiar with my message, you know that I’m a longtime proponent of exercise because it makes you feel more powerful, relaxes you, and enables you to sleep better, all of which can help you to worry less. I always head to the gym whenever I can’t shake a particular worry. After my workout, I feel much more at peace, and sometimes, my unconscious mind even “solves” my problem by coming up with a new idea or a more balanced perspective while my body has been occupied with vigorous activity. If you don’t have an hour or so to devote to concentrated exercise, simply get outside and walk around the block a few times—it can still effectively change your mood.

I also recommend meditating when you’re fixated on a negative possibility. You might be surprised to learn that meditation can actually spark positive changes in your brain’s biochemistry. I used to think exercise and antidepressants were the only two things that could accomplish this! I can tell you from recent personal experience that meditation can help you deal more effectively with stress, lower your blood pressure, help you to feel content, and make you more mindful in the present moment…all of which are helpful tools when it comes to not worrying so much about the future.

*Take steps toward a solution. When you find yourself expecting a particular negative event (however likely or unlikely it might be), ask yourself if there is anything you can do to prepare for or even prevent it. In many cases, you’ll be able to take concrete steps toward a solution. Not only will you be keeping yourself busy, you’ll also be moving from helplessness to empowerment.

To use a work analogy, imagine that you’ve heard rumors that your company will be downsizing. Your worst expectation is that you’ll be laid off. Instead of fretting every day about losing your job, take steps to make yourself more valuable. Ask for feedback from your boss and incorporate her suggestions into your work. Always go the extra mile. Help your colleagues to succeed and improve. Take continuing education classes, if possible. All of these actions will distract you from worrying, and hopefully, they’ll highlight to your supervisors just how essential you are. And if you are laid off, you’ll have made yourself into a more valuable candidate for another organization to hire.

*Phone a friend. This “lifeline” can really help! The next time you catch yourself ruminating on just how bad things are going to get, pick up the phone and call someone you trust: your spouse or a friend, for example. Specifically, ask this person to help you think of several alternative outcomes (which, by definition, can’t be as bad as the worst-case scenario you were envisioning). A more neutral third party will have more perspective and will probably find it much easier to come up with not-as-bad, and even good, alternatives to help you stop thinking in extremes.

When you expect the worst, you’re essentially discounting thousands of other possibilities that could occur. In other words, you’re mentally thinking in black and white. But the truth is, life is made up of many shades of color. Asking a friend to help you see more of those shades will talk you down from the emotional ledge you’re standing on and will help to break you out of your mental rut.

*Retrain yourself to look for the positive. Numerous positive thinking masters and even scientists agree: The things you think about and center your attention on shape the way you experience life. In other words, if your focus is on all of the horrible, negative, crippling things that might happen to you in the future, you’ll be calling more of them into your life. How? You’re engaging in self-sabotage. Your fears will hold you back, and your low self-esteem will prevent you from developing yourself and taking risks. At the very least, you’ll be so fixated on the worst possibilities that you might miss positive opportunities that are right under your nose.

Some people call this the law of attraction. But whatever you want to call it, I know from experience that if you train yourself to look for the positive, you’ll attract more positive things into your life. You’ll be happier, friendlier, kinder, and more optimistic…and that will bring better people and better opportunities into your orbit.

One of the best ways I’ve found to help myself focus more on the positive is by developing an attitude of gratitude. (Again, if you’re familiar with me, this advice won’t come as a surprise!) When you’re actively being thankful for things in your life, it’s harder to let yourself spiral downward into negativity and have a doomsday mindset about what’s to come. Every evening, I look back on my day and identify several things I am thankful for. If something bad or disappointing happened that day—or if I’m worried about something in the future—I challenge myself to find the silver lining. For example, if I didn’t get a speaking engagement I was hoping for, I remind myself that I won’t have to spend that evening or weekend away from my family.

Without a doubt, these six tools have helped me to retrain my brain to look for the positive when I consider the future. This week, if you find yourself dwelling on a doomsday scenario—no matter how large or small it may be—try to employ one of these tactics to help yourself let go of your bad expectations and refocus yourself on the here and now. And stay tuned—to close out this topic, I’m going to share my last six how-not-to-expect-the-worst tips in my next post!

The Case for Meditation

Recently I was invited to speak at Deepak Chopra’s “Seduction of Spirit: Pathway to Happiness” retreat in Chicago, Illinois. Obviously, I was completely blown away by this incredible invitation from a true spiritual master. And soon, I also began to think about the retreat in more depth. Did I just want to give my speech…or did I want to attend the weeklong retreat and immerse myself in meditation and yoga for the first time—finally—at 47 years old?

I eventually decided to attend the whole retreat, but I’ll admit, I went in with some trepidation. Could a consummate extrovert like me take a whole week of inner reflection? My mind typically runs at a mile a minute; would I have the discipline necessary to truly meditate? I was also nervous simply because I had always thought effective meditation required “perfect” technique, and I didn’t want to fail and waste my time.

As it turns out, my apprehensions were for nothing. What I learned about meditation is turning out to be a true game-changer for me. Here is what I learned:

  • Meditation can actually spark positive changes in your brain’s biochemistry. (Previously, I’d thought that exercise and antidepressants were the only two things that could accomplish this!) Not only can meditation make you more mindful and content; it can also help you deal more effectively with stress, lower your blood pressure, and boost your immune system—and much more!
  • If you hold a certain intention in your mind and meditate on it, you’ll be more likely to attract that thing into your life. Some attribute this phenomenon to the Law of Attraction; others believe you’re simply more able to recognize opportunities when they crop up because you’ve been thinking about your ultimate goal so much. Personally, I have started meditating on reaching as many people with my message as possible.
  • You do not have to be a “perfect meditator” to still reap its benefits. In fact, it’s not about how well you meditate for 30 minutes; it’s about how that meditation impacts the other 23.5 hours of the day! As I mentioned before, meditation—even when it’s not perfect—puts you in a different place and allows you to handle conflict better, be more relaxed, live in the present, experience less stress, etc. As I once heard someone say, “It doesn’t change things for you; it changes you for things.”
  • Meditation gives your mind the “room” it needs to “stretch,” so to speak. I have always found that when I’m exercising I tend to find the answers I’m looking for, and I also have some of my greatest ideas. Meditation has the same effect. Because I’m not running errands, talking to people, and completing tasks left and right, my stream of conscious thoughts slow downs and I can consider more weighty subjects.
  • Meditation drives home how very simple things can be incredibly powerful, such as the exercise we did at the retreat: picking someone we’d never met before and simply staring into his or her eyes for 30 seconds nonstop while sending out messages of forgiveness, love, peace, and healing. Believe me, the nonverbal connections you develop in just 30 seconds are crazy-powerful. Try it sometime! Our eyes truly are our windows to the soul.

If you would like to learn more about meditation and perhaps even give it a try yourself, I truly believe that you won’t find a better teacher than Deepak Chopra. I suggest starting with his free 21-Day Meditation Challenge, which is available four times a year, and can be found here. Check to see when the next Challenge begins and mark your calendar. And remember, meditation is NOT about perfection; it’s about improving your attitude and well-being.