On Mindfulness

Mindfulness sketchnote by Doug Neill


How much time do you spend living in present time? Think about it. 

The syndrome of regret and fret has our minds bouncing back and forth from the past to the future like a ping pong ball. Perhaps we touch down for brief intervals in the present, The Now. More likely, however, we sail right past what’s actually happening in this moment as if The Now were the net on the pingpong table and we are the bouncing ball.

The mind does not know the difference between a real and imagined scenario. This is what makes anxiety so compelling. If you fear the plane is crashing every time it hits turbulence, and your mind supplies you with scary images, you are not only not in present time (where in fact the plane is fine, just bouncing its way through choppy air currents), but you are activating the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol. As if the plane were actually going down. How many life-or-death scenarios (that in fact weren’t life-or-death) have you actually lived through? Dreaded? What has the toll of this been on your body? Your experience of life? Your wellbeing? I can tell you right now that I have endured more calamity and duress and life-threatening scenarios in my mind than I can possibly count, and there is no question that these imagined experiences have worn  me out—at times, literally. I have let worry run down my fuel to the point where I have felt and been seriously depleted.

Likewise with the cycle of Shoulda Woulda Coulda, when your mind keeps luring you back into the past—a mistake you made, an argument, or painful experience—and you keep re-living it, your mind does not know you are not actually there again. Because as far as the mind is concerned, you are there: that is where the mind is. Perhaps it’s like Groundhog Day, and you go through the same scenario over and over again. Repeating the exact horrible mistake in your mind, re-living the shame, the remorse. Or maybe your mind trots out all the ways you could enact a Redo, things you could have said, done differently, not done at all. That one great come-back line that got away: you get to say it now, honed to perfection, delivered with just the right flourish and body language over and over again. What is the impact of this? Of spending all that time in the past (which by the way is over, long gone in fact). Does it create an obsessive thought loop? What might you be missing out on when you get caught up in this?

Having a mindfulness practice is extraordinarily simple. Simple does not necessarily mean easy – because corralling the pingpong ball of our mind to sit still, to pause, to rest against the net for a moment and notice what’s going on right here right now is akin to a feat. But the feat has a payoff, and the payoff is peace. Mindfulness weakens the chain of associations in the brain that lead to obsessive anxious thought loops. Mindfulness strengthens the ability to self-regulate, to manage behaviors in real time, which in turn enhances leadership, performance, and wellbeing. So how do we do it?

Here’s the good news: we happen to live inside of our very own mindfulness kit. Our body. One quick mindfulness practice is to tune into our five senses. Focussing on the five senses brings us back to our body–which lives right here, right now, in the present. Let’s do that now. What are three things you see, right now, right where you are? Notice them. Tune into your body, your sense of touch, what do you feel? The clothes against your skin, your finger on your face? Feel it. What do you smell? Let yourself tune into whatever aroma (or stench) is in your midst right now. How about taste? Is there a taste in your mouth? Something right near you like a piece of gum or a cup of tea that you could taste in this moment? And what about your ears: what do you hear? What sounds? Is the voice in your head louder than the sounds outside of you? If so, just notice that, as non-judgmentally as you can—which is what it means to be mindful: practicing non-judgmental awareness of what is. Then gently guide your ears to tune into the sounds outside of your head. Tuning to what is actually happening in the moment allows your body to come into present time. Which—unless your present moment happens to contain a terrifying stressor like a member of Isis right there aiming a gun at you—tends to be a lot less intense or scary or remorse-laden than where the mind goes in the Regret/Fret syndrome. Tuning into the five senses and coming into present time tends to land us in a fairly pleasant fairly safe moment, unworthy of generating undue stress hormones.

If you want to lower your anxiety and tendency to obsess, and strengthen your leadership capabilities as well as your immune system (by lowering the activation of stress hormones), do this Five Senses practice systematically, routinely.  Try setting a reminder on one of your devices to go through your five senses for thirty seconds to a minute every hour. You can do this wherever you are: in a business meeting, a traffic jam, a doctor’s office, a conflict. Becoming mindful does not impede functioning, in fact, it improves it. 

On Being Complicit



My Matt Lauer moment hardly qualifies as a #MeToo. In fact, it was so immemorable (man in power turns brief exchange into Sexual Objectification Lite) that I had forgotten about it until the recent scandals involving Said Man. This morning, I dug through my files in search of what I remembered as reportage from 2004 that exposed his letchiness. But when I found the clip from The New York Post Page Six, I thought, “Uh-oh.” I texted a photo (posted above) to a few trusted friends and colleagues, asking, “Was I complicit?”

(Complicit, incidentally, is 2017’s most searched word.)

The way the blurb reads, I gave Lauer Too Much Information about my breasts. I don’t remember hearing him actually say “TMI” and would like to think that if I had, I would have said, “I’m not the one who brought up our boobs, dude.” The comment I made felt, at the time, like I was playfully calling him out. Saying some version of: “You want to talk about our breasts? Because we’re happy to. Between the two of us moms, we’ve fed seven children with these four breasts.” We were about to go on air to discuss our auto-biographical play that confessed our worst moments as wives and mothers, sex fights with our husbands, mistakes we’d made as moms. Any aspect of (or fallout from) breastfeeding was right on topic.

But today with my 2017 eyes, I read the exchange as me playing along with Lauer. Making it okay for him to turn an attempted chat about our logo into a sideways reference to our breasts.

When I was attacked at knifepoint in Taiwan in the late 80’s and defended myself thanks what I learned in a Model Mugging course, the police told me I caused the assailant to lose face by knocking him to the ground. They said it wasn’t the man’s fault he had pinned me to the wall of a bathroom because he simply thought I was a prostitute. This is not behavior limited to Chinese cops or culture. For ages, the first question asked of a woman reporting a rape in the U.S. was, “What were you wearing?” If it was a sexy outfit, was she complicit?

I’m not saying Lauer did anything close to raping us, because he didn’t. Like I said, the exchange would have been a throw-away had it not been reported, and even then, forgettable until Lauer’s recent debacle. I am digging through not only my file cabinet but the layers of that exchange, and where I come down is: dude, we’re not the ones who made this about our breasts.  

Matt Lauer as the Today Show host had the power position, and he thrust two choices in front of us – to get offended or play along. (Remember the “how many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb” joke? Answer: “I don’t know and it’s not funny.”) I’d much rather not have to make the choice between The Heavy or The Flirt. Lauer could have had a conversation about our play, and maybe even learned something about the harried experience of over-extended moms. I love men. Many of my dearest friends are men. But it’s time for guys like Lauer to grow up a little and create more options than being complicit or not.  

On Unaccompanied Children



I lay on the kitchen floor a couple evenings ago, with Cosmo our new rescue puppy standing on my chest. I had come home after work to teach him to poop outside (an enactment he and I had also done at lunchtime), and somehow, before leaving for a dinner gathering, got detained on my back. Two paws on my clavicles, two paws on my sternum, having my face licked, I found myself having quite a bit to say to Cosmo.  I spoke to him aloud—not a few doggie phrases uttered in a pet-lover voice, but a veritable soliloquy as if he were a comprehending human. (Is this what Empty Nesters do, I wondered, having recently become one.) “You were abandoned behind a church in Georgia, and somehow you wound up here,” I told Cosmo, looking into his eyes as he nipped my nose. “You could have died, or been a wandering skinny, hungry, flea-ridden stray. But instead, here you are in a cozy house a thousand miles from there, safe, fed, having gotten all your shots. Living with people who adore you. How did that happen Cosmo?” He wagged his tail, but I got teary.  I was moved by his stroke of fate, and ours.

I had no idea how prescient my conversation with Cosmo would turn out to be.  (Is the preposition “to” when only one party is talking?  My conversation to Cosmo?)

One hour later, I found myself at a dinner surrounded by an intimate collection of inspired adults, whose careers are devoted to helping unaccompanied children. Children whose lives differ from Cosmo’s in at least two crucial ways.  One) they are human beings, not dogs. And two) they have no adults to care for them.  

Our borders are loaded with children separated from their parents. Children who may or may not speak English. Children who need legal representation yet have no ability to broker a lawyer on their own. Children who are detained by the thousands upon thousands (a recent statistic shows upwards of 59,000 unaccompanied children apprehended at our country’s Southwest border alone). The plight of these kids is heart-breaking, considering how many are escaping situations of violence, persecution, and even trafficking in their home countries—only to find themselves separated from parents, siblings, family, and living in detention centers in the U.S..

But the work of the people I was blessed to eat dinner with moved me deeply. Socially-conscious media people, using journalism and film to bring attention to the plight of these kids. Representatives from Unicef, RefugePoint, and the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights—an organization devoted to championing the best interests of children who arrive from all over the world in the United States on their own. The Young Center employs lawyers and social workers to advocate for these kids, and trains volunteers to visit them at detention centers regularly in order to build the trust necessary to support the children in telling their stories.   

Every child deserves the love and care of a trustworthy adult.

The increasing number of children who do not have this is an epidemic in our country.   

I wish I had the bandwidth to adopt not just a rescue puppy, but children who need a home, who need and deserve the love and care of trusted adults. (It could be argued I do in fact have that bandwidth, just chose not to use it.) In the meantime, I am issuing a shout out to support the inspired organizations that support these unaccompanied children.


On Feeling Wistful

My husband on a work call in the tub with our “litter” of children, circa 1998


My house, these days, expands and contracts like an accordion. Right now, at the tail end of Thanksgiving vacation, it’s filled to the gills. I came downstairs this morning to a stash of shoes in our front hall, one pair of Vans the size of small dinghies. (A clue that somewhere in my house, an enormous Millennial lay sleeping.) Tomorrow, we will shrink back down to our Empty Nest—plus our newest member, a rescue dog that two of my daughters and my husband acquired last weekend while I was out of town teaching. (Luckily for everyone involved, when I got home I fell instantly in love with Cosmo.)

There has been a lot of chaos this vacation. Our four young adult children all home with various forms of +1’s. Two puppies underfoot: our grand-puppy (“child” of our newlywed daughter and son-in-law) plus ten-week-old Cosmo. An assortment of grown children we knew since they were pre-schoolers dropping in wearing their giant Vans. I have loved every second of it. (Actually, that’s not true: I had a puppy-poop stress attack, and a meltdown over the unresolved red tape issues that remain from having been hacked a few weeks ago. But still, all things considered, I weathered chaos with—perhaps relatively speaking—graceful aplomb.) I wish I’d known all along what I definitely know now: which is that the chaos is temporary. By dawn tomorrow, the disassembled bike in the basement will have been boxed up and en route to San Francisco with one of my daughters. By midday, the laundry room will be devoid of my son’s ripped hamper brought home from college, as well as all of its now clean contents.  By nightfall, we will be down to one puppy and two fifty-something adults. I will be able to wipe down the kitchen counter in a manner that remains wiped down for hours if not days.

People used to tell me when my kids were little—and a veritable litter, four kids born in a span of less than six years—that their childhoods would pass in the blink of an eye. That I should not worry about tidiness but should instead get down on the floor and play with my precious children whose youth was fleeting. Should listen with rapt attention to their every word, uttered in their never-again-to-exist inimitable chirps. But I couldn’t help it, I had to clean. I had to organize and fold and sweep and try to create order out of chaos because I found that soothing. Also, I snuck The New Yorker behind Barbie cars and lego towers because I craved mature language and the escape of engaging my pre-frontal cortex. I love, like, and am fascinated by the young adults my children have become—but as cliché as this sounds, I would give almost anything to go back in time for a visit. For the chance to listen their rich and quirky toddler syntax, to hang on every butchered word as I snuggle with their warm little bodies. (Would I even go so far as to forego The New Yorker?  Would dolls and lego be able to sustain my attention due to the magical evanescence of time travel?)

Wistful. I am wistful.

I feel life flying by, the seeming acceleration of its pace. Years accumulate so quickly that I have to do the math to figure out whether I am fifty-two or fifty-three (answer: fifty-three). While there is of course no solution, no way to change the inevitable passage of time, there does seem to be a palliative remedy. Savoring. Savor the memories. Savor the present. Savor.

On Feeling Like A Fraud

“Tar and Feathers”  by Dan Colen


I once read that 90% of Stanford University freshmen believed themselves to be an admissions mistake. Only 10% felt worthy of being accepted. This was more than thirty years ago, so I’m not sure if that percentage still holds true. But the message I gleaned definitely does: it is extremely normal to feel like a fraud.  

The problem is—at least for me (and for the hundreds of people I have coached on this grueling topic)—it does not feel normal. It does not feel like a warped view of self that 90% of an over-achieving population happens to share. It feels true. When the message “I am a fraud” grabs me by the scruff of the neck, I am no match for it.  

For one thing, it doesn’t show up with that crisp clear phrase. It arrives on the sly, as a felt sense of shame, a creepy-crawly discomfort in my own skin. My mind is held hostage, forced to watch a litany of scenarios both recent and historical where I have made a fool of myself, over-stepped, mis-stepped, been frozen in my steps, failed. The message that gets piped in is that I am a fool, a failure. That I don’t know what I am doing and will be found out. Exposed. Tarred and feathered—a method of public humiliation no longer practiced, but that lives in our cultural DNA. I cower, and descend—right down the sinkhole.   

Apparently, we humans fear public humiliation more than we fear death. We are herd animals, tribal, and the specter of being ostracized equals a survival threat—if not in actual reality, then at least to our nervous systems. And worse than death (which you get to die from), public humiliation is something you actually have to live through, carrying its scars with you for the rest of your life.There are a few things I say to clients and friends when they are descending down the Fraud Sinkhole, that I also say to myself (my toughest client):

  • One) No one is scrutinizing you the way you are; they are too busy scrutinizing themselves. (On any given day, roughly 90% might be busily scrambling out of their own Fraud Sinkholes.)
  • Two) We actually don’t know what we are doing. We have never done this before. Even if you believe in past lives, we weren’t this exact person in these exact circumstances at this exact time ever before. We are all, in essence, winging it.  
  • Three) Give yourself a break. Who cares? So you make a mistake? You fail? Meditate on the definition of success that is: falling down seven times, getting up eight. (It’s not not falling down.)

The other night I woke from a very shitty Fraud dream, viscerally shaken. In the dream, my readers of this very blog had banned together out of love to save me from the humiliation of writing, saying en masse, “We believe you are a good person, so please, for your sake, don’t do this to yourself.” The tone was protective, trying to save me from embarrassing exposure, but the kindness did nothing to dampen the feeling I had of pure shame and humiliation. It took me hours to fall back to sleep. I happened to be running a workshop that week, for people who were battling with fear of failure, people who could not validate their own successes for fear of being exposed as a loser, a fuck-up, a fraud. I confessed the short version of my dream to the group—my intention being to demonstrate the prevalence of this kind of  internal message. But immediately, the lure of the sinkhole kicked in. I started to fear I was exposing too much and they all might want their money back once they heard they were being lead by a fraud. That’s the pernicious power of this message: that if we expose our fear of being a fraud, others will agree. Are we inviting others to bring out the vat of tar, the sack of feathers? Or are we taking a risk to share our vulnerability, in a way that creates human connection?

On Gratitude


morning glory are blooming in the outdoor


A miracle happened. As miracles do. My twelve-year-old daughter came to after being unconscious for more than two days, opening her eyes and TALKING IN HER VERY OWN VOICE, SEEMING EXACTLY LIKE HERSELF. I went instantly from a protracted state of clenched anxiety to elated gratitude. And although I suffered from post-traumatic stress, the state of gratitude I inhabited was rich, prolonged, and over-the-top.

It’s true that for months after Téa was hit by a car, whenever I heard the sound of a siren, I felt like dry-heaving. And also true that whenever Téa’s twin brother approached her in their typical rough-housing bear-cub style, I intervened like a ferocious mama bear. Her brain state was fragile, and I was strung out. In other words, I was not gliding around like Good Witch Glenda in a perma-state of gratitude. But in spite of frequent stress spikes, I felt as close to enlightenment as I ever have. And the key emotion of that near-enlightened state was gratitude. I was so thankful. So organically, consistently, magically grateful. For Téa’s miraculous recovery. For the friends who showered us in love. For the way the morning glories on my deck opened their delicate blue faces to the light. For swimming in the refreshing water of Walden Pond. For pink Himalayan sea salt. For the ice cubes that tumbled down out of the automatic dispenser on my refrigerator door. I experienced awe and wonder like a child.  

It felt like a drug. And in fact it was.  

The brain’s response to gratitude is to activate a reward center: meaning, we crave more. (Sound at all like drug addiction?) When we feel grateful, we are programmed to seek out more experiences or things to be grateful for, more ways to feel that high. Our brain secretes dopamine, and oxytocin, the bonding hormone. 2009 series of studies using brain MRI’s showed that the limbic system in general — which includes the hypothalamus — is activated whenever we feel gratitude. The hypothalamus regulates a wide range of our bodily functions, like hunger, sleep, temperature, and metabolism, and feeling the emotion of gratitude actually stimulates the hypothalamus to perform better. The gratitude high has our whole system humming.  

One of my colleagues says that while she is not a neuroscientist, she has the equivalent of a Girl Scout Badge on the subject. By comparison, I’d rate myself a Brownie. So let me just, as a neuro-science Brownie, say one more thing about the brain and gratitude. Our brains (and I’m sure you’ve noticed this in yourselves and others) are highly susceptible to the confirmation bias: we seek out evidence to prove what our brain already believes to be true. The good news here is that if you develop a gratitude practice (such as writing down five things every day for which you are grateful, ranging from simple facts like having gas in your car, clean water to drink, or comfy socks, to higher voltage items like getting to snuggle with a beloved pet or hang out with a dear friend or family member), your brain automatically starts seeking out—and finding—more things to be grateful for. Your favorite cereal on sale at the market. A stranger smiling at you. No line at Starbucks. An incredible movie on Netflix. The aroma of bath salts. The sound of someone’s laugh. Flowers. A hug just when you need one. And on and on, your brain keeps right on pumping out this fabulous drug called gratitude.

On Brain Rest

hilary final i hope
With Téa, during our summer of Cognitive Brain Rest.


Even though this photo shows her on my back, the truth is, I piggy-backed on my daughter’s two months of cognitive brain rest.  And what I got out of that delicious summer of CBR with Téa was life-changing.  

First of all, I needed it.  My twelve-year-old daughter had been unconscious for fifty-six hours in the hospital, and the bedside vigil for us, her parents, was like being put in a rapid aging machine.  When we were leaving the hospital following her miraculous recovery—five days after she arrived by Life Flight and we did not know whether she would live or die, be permanently brain damaged or recover—I saw a cute elderly couple across from us in the parking garage elevator.  I thought they looked a little banged-up by life, but like whatever they’d weathered together had clearly created a bond. Then the elevator doors opened, and the couple vanished. Because it turned out they were a reflection. Of us: of me and my husband. We were forty-six years old.  (This may be obvious, but I was sleep deprived, in an altered state, susceptible to mirage.)

I promise I know that OF COURSE Téa was the one who really needed cognitive brain rest, not me. Severely concussed, injured internally and externally, she had a lot to recover from. She was required to follow the CBR regime for two full months, July and August, avoiding anything that could strain the brain. No reading. No devices. Television limited only to half an hour a day of non-violent, non-plot-driven shows like Animal Planet, and cartoons for pre-schoolers (which we watched, cuddled on the sofa, and actually enjoyed.)  Plenty of rest. And plenty of crafts—which were soothing, engaging, but in a non-cognitively demanding way. Téa’s brain needed this. And she needed someone to enforce the CBR protocol, to monitor her, and to be there in case she bumped her head or got jostled in any way—which would have put her severely concussed brain at risk. So I hired myself. I took a leave from my work, as well as a financial hit from having no income—which was made worse by my excessive spending on crafts supplies. Gimp. Shrinky dinks. Clay. All manner of paints, papers, glues, glitters. Beads. String. Clasps. Make-a-plate kits. Rainbow sharpies to sign Téa’s waterproof cast.    

I am not what you’d call a loll-around kind of person. (Except when I have Seasonal Affective Disorder. In the dark winter months, I only want to get out of bed for a few spoonfuls of almond butter, then slither back under the covers.) Before Téa’s accident, I had been careening around in a minivan from home to office to soccer field. From orthodontist to piano recital to office again. From school play to vet to grocery store to dance recital then back to the grocery store because I realized I’d left a full bag of groceries in the cart in the parking lot. Periodically leaving town to visit my parents who were going through a crisis due to my father’s own medical calamity. In short, I was your basic semi-strung-out working-part-time mother in the sandwich generation.

But that summer of brain rest, I learned to slow down. Really slow down. We floated. Literally. Téa was not allowed the exertion of swimming, so we floated on swimming noodles and rafts, in pools and in ponds. We watched clouds. I am getting teary as I write this because the experience was so precious. So sacred, to be granted not only the miracle of my daughter being alive and fully her same hilarious companionable self again. But also, the gift of living from my relax-and-respond parasympathetic nervous system for a sustained period of time. I wish we could all have this — not the emergency-induced part, but the chance to reset our nervous systems, our experience of moving through the world. It changed me. Not that I don’t still whip around like an over-extended maniac operating out of my sympathetic nervous system from time to time.  But I had the privilege of sinking so deeply down into my parasympathetic nervous system that it beckons me, always, to return.

On Being An Unreliable Narrator



The first friend I met in college I remember as wearing a bowtie. He was fresh out of Utah Mormon country, and stood out to me as exceptionally clean cut—as well as earnest, dry-witted, and able to see the world with unique perspicacity. “I’ve never worn a bow tie, Hil,” he says, to this day, “never even owned one.” But my mind tells a different story. Circa 1982, John is standing there in the unfortunate fluorescent lighting of a Freshman dorm dining hall, blue eyes dancing, wearing a bowtie.

As a girl, in school, I got in trouble quite a few times for insisting something happened that in fact did not. I wasn’t lying. I was clinging to the images in my mind that I experienced as true. Even though, it turned out more than once, they were not.  The most egregious of these examples was the time in fourth grade that I told my classmates my uncle had come to our house and was crazily trying to bite off the heads of our pet chickens. (We lived on what was called a “gentleman’s farm,” meaning we had a surfeit of pets, some of them true barnyard animals like goats and lambs, but we were not farmers. In fact, we were overwhelmed. At least, I was. It was the ‘70’s and my parents were winging it with the permissive parenting approach that their own parents had not used in the late-40’s-early-50’s, letting me Go For It with pet acquisition.) The tale of my unhinged uncle disturbed my classmates, which made its way to the teachers, who promptly sent me down the hall on a route I knew well to the school psychologist. Who picked up the phone and called my mother.

My mother, to her credit, came to the school and helped sort things out. Luckily, she was in graduate school becoming a family systems psycho-therapist, so she could translate what the eff I was saying to my friends. “Okay,” said my mom, in her Merimekko Minidress and long dark That Girl! hair. “Hilary’s uncle hasn’t tried to hurt any of our animals, but he is going something quite dramatic right now that has us all concerned.” She explained that the adults were talking fairly constantly behind closed doors about what was going on with my uncle, and how I on my own must have tried to connect the dots by creating my farfetched story. “So even though the facts are all wrong,” Mom told the school psychologist, “what Hilary is saying is emotionally true.”

I exhale deeply as I write this, forty-plus years later—feeling so grateful to my mom, not only for bailing me out in the shrink’s office, but helping me to understand myself.  

Memories are strange subjective animals.  How many times have you heard or said, “That is not how it happened.” “I never said that.”  “That’s not what she did.” Or something along those lines. “That big family meltdown did not take place on vacation! It happened in our kitchen!  At home!”  Or how about the good ole back and forth that goes: “I did not.” “Yes you did.” Or, “He did not.” “Yes he most certainly did.” There is an expression, posed as an inquiry: Do you want to be right, or do you want to be in relationship?

Even though I know there is emotional truth to my memories—to the exaggerations and hyperboles I experience as true—I am also aware that it is highly likely my renditions do not line up with consensus reality. In experiments, run by both psychologists and teachers of memoir writing, groups of people asked to describe the exact same scenario witnessed en masse, describe it differently. The order of events varies from account to account, lines of dialogue alter, details such as hair color and clothing may swap from one person to another. There has to be such a thing as consensus reality, stuff we can all agree on, but the emotional margins are subject to personal interpretation—to emotional truth, which is different for each of us.     

I’d like to think my inaccuracies are fairly benign: an added accessory here, a few punched up lines of dialogue there. My brother refers to my style as X+1, and I’ve learned to take responsibility for the +1 and be willing to jettison it when challenged. To be honest, though, I may go a round or two defending my memory. “Okay okay okay, so maybe that woman yelling at us in CVS didn’t—in fact—have a yapping dog in her purse with ribbons on its ears. But don’t you think she may as well have?” I try to defend the emotional truth of my brain’s symbolic additions. “Just grant me this: if that woman were a dog, she’d live in a purse with ribbons on her ears, right?” 

On Laughing Your Head Off

My mom laughing sometime in the 1980s.


One thing my family of origin did really well was—and is—laugh. Growing up, our family system had all kinds of garden variety dysfunction, and perhaps some incidents of our wanton laughter even qualify as dysfunctional, but I don’t care. Because I love it.

One time, my little brother brought a super ball to church. Christopher drove a hard bargain to come with us as a family to Trinity Church, where one of our closest friends was the first ordained female minister in New Jersey. (Meaning, attending her services as a family was important.) This particular day, the conciliation from negotiating with my parents was that Christopher got to bring his neon green super ball.  But my dad, a lawyer, imposed specific conditions: Christopher was to handle the super ball discreetly, and only in our pew. You can guess what happened. Synthetic rubber against marble floor caused too zealous a bounce, and the super ball banked off a Book of Common Prayer, zinging into the aisle. My memory of what happened next is most likely inaccurate, because I see the neon green ball ricocheting all the way up to the pulpit, landing in the basket of communion wafers—which is probably too slapstick to be true. But what did happen, for sure, is the ball escaped our pew and took on a life of its own, as super balls tend to do, gathering momentum. Our family was laughing so hard that snorts emitted from my parents’ noses, which they pretended were coughing fits, and we were all stifling giggles so vigorous that our pew was squeaking.

I love that. I loved it then and love it now. And I am thankful, because I think laughing is a skill, in fact, that has saved me from certain aspects of my personality that could otherwise get the better of me.

Do you remember Norman Cousins’ experiment in 1964 that made the news? Diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis and given a matter of months to live, he rejected the verdict and checked himself into a hotel instead of the hospital, watching funny movie after funny movie, following his intuition that laughter would be his cure. Which, along with high doses of Vitamin C, it was. Subsequent studies on laughter have shown that laughing lowers stress hormones, increases infection-fighting antibodies, and boosts overall immune function. Laughing releases endorphins, thereby increasing one’s sense of wellbeing, which, along with the fact that laughter relaxes the musculature of the body, in many instances can temporarily relieve pain. It’s good for the heart, too, because laughing increases blood flow, improving blood vessel function. And in addition to helping the cardio-vascular functions of the physical heart, laughter heals the emotional heart as well. Studies show that nothing diffuses the toxic burden of stored-up anger more than laughter.  And sharing a laugh with someone—particularly someone with whom you’re in conflict—is some of the best medicine around.

When was the last time you laughed your head off? And would it be possible to make belly-laughing a daily practice?  

On Armageddon

Guernica by Pablo Picasso


Apparently, every era believes it marks the end of humankind. Nostradamus predicted the end of the world. The Aztecs did, too, and the Mayans. Eclipses were considered a sign the world was ending. In the 1950’s, people were on edge about the push of a single button annihilating our species if not the entire planet. And in the 1980’s, remember Ehrlich’s population bomb theory, predicting “The Great Die Off” that never happened?  

These days, people flock to my office wanting coaching on how to handle what so vividly appears to be Armageddon. Disease and pestilence are rampant. Cancers, autoimmune disorders, tick-born illnesses. (Here in New England, my layperson estimate is that roughly half the people I know either currently have or have had Lyme’s Disease). The climate change that is purportedly not real meanwhile wreaks havoc on so many parts of our globe. I hold the intention of not getting political in these writings. So let me try to do this next part without naming names. I have the sense, often, while listening to my clients, my friends, my family and myself, that we are all like powerless children trapped in a minivan with a madman at the wheel, let’s call him a reckless daddy, most likely hammered, waving a gun out the window aimed at North Korea and shouting racial slurs. So we, clustered in this minivan called the U.S. of A., are a little freaked out. I recognize I am not speaking for all of us. I know many find this wacky daddy fun. But this minivan image comes to me often as I listen to people’s fears about what is currently going on in our country.  

There is a lot we can do to combat modern-day Armageddon. Getting involved in Black Lives Matter. In the Climate movement. Protesting the travel ban, the Affordable Care Act repeal, and any other decisions that we may find unfair. Writing to our congresswoman or man regularly about our objections and concerns. Et cetera… In spite of feeling powerless over the bigger picture, we can, and ought to, do whatever we hope might make a difference. (Even in the back of the screeching minivan, we can buckle our seat belts and take action from our hand-held devices.)  

There is something else we can—and must—do. Let me draw our attention to the common understanding of the Hippocratic Oath. “First, do no harm.” (I say common understanding because apparently that phrase is not in the original doctrine of Hippocrates—although if we want to split hairs, the Latin translation of the ancient Greek contains Primum non noncore, which means: First, do no harm.) Doctors take this oath—and I believe we all should, too, right now, during these anxious times.  What can we do to not cause harm?  Not contribute to the mayhem?  Not join with the dysfunction and fear?

I say: self-regulate. Do whatever you can to regulate your nervous system. Meditate. Practice 1:2 breathing. Pray. Exercise. Doodle. Write in your journal. Dance. Sing.  Whatever it takes to get yourself back to your center, back into your compassionate heart, so you don’t go out there and spread more anxiety into this already anxious system of our minivan— aka our great nation. If you’re an overachiever, and I hope you are in this case, you can take it one step further. Now that you’re not contributing to the rampant anxiety spreading like wildfire through our culture, and you are a regulated organism, spread peace. Do good deeds. Open doors for people. Smile at them. Teach someone to read. See how many people you can grace with your kindness.

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