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Entries from September 2008

How to Beautify the New York Subway

September 24th, 2008 · No Comments

Unless you’re a bazillionairre, if you live in New York City, you ride the subway. Suzanne, New Yorker I coach, absolutely despised her commute.  She complained bitterly about the griminess, the overcrowding, the behavior of the other riders.  It was absolutely intolerable, she told me.

Her commute took 45 minutes each way.  That’s more than 32 hours every month, a long stretch of misery in a life. She considered moving closer to work, even changing jobs, but couldn’t come up with a practical solution to the problem.

I had an idea.  “Begin looking for beauty on the subway,” I suggested.  Suzanne laughed cynically and patiently explained to me—a non-New Yorker—what was patently obvious to anyone with two eyes, a nose, and a brain: the New York subway is a human cesspool during weekday rush hour.  It was impossible to appreciate anything about it, and there was certainly no beauty to be found there, she assured me.

But I insisted. “Send me an email every day, telling me of the glorious, beautiful, amazing things you find on the subway.”  Suzanne left our session muttering that I’d given her an impossible assignment.

But she gamely began looking.  With Suzanne’s permission, here are some of the things she found in the next few days:

“We went over the Manhattan Bridge, over the East River. Out in the distance,  beyond the Brooklyn Bridge, three aircraft were buzzing around each other in the air. They were blimps, and they looked like giant honeybees drunk on pollen, bobbling to and fro over the water.”

“A kid had a little glass jar between his feet. It was strangely shaped, like it had contained an exotic food item purchased at an ethnic market in Brooklyn. It was filled with beautiful, thick, cloudy pink juice. Guava? Papaya-passion fruit?”

“The woman across the train had enormous boobs and beautiful deep black skin. The whites of her eyes were so bright in comparison to her skin they looked like keyholes of light in the door of a dark room.”

“This morning I couldn’t count the people wearing shades on the train! I guess when you’re cool you’ve always got the sun in your face.”

“A garish McDonald’s ad greets me and encourages me to ‘Think Good Thoughts….’”

“Ikea’s yellow flags wave in the distance on the waterfront. I bought a carpet there on Saturday night, and the water this morning is the exact same color of that carpet, gorgeous peacock blue.”

“There is a comfy, casual feeling on the train this morning… many wearing their Friday office attire. One woman looks so comfortable in her outfit I want her to take it off and let me put it on!”

“The faces of buildings and all of the bridges, walls, boats, water, cable lines, roads, signs are layered upon each other like a box of toys thrown around a room during a child’s tantrum.”

“Without anyone speaking, I know I am in the midst of various exotic tongues; Spanish, Polish, Korean, Russian, Israeli, Vietnamese, Czech, Yiddish, Mandarin, Hebrew.…”

“What a gift to be able to look at humanity up close and personal, to look at all of our differences, beauty, ethnicities, blemishes, scars… where else would I be able to notice the super-fine quality of a stranger’s hair follicles, the way his hair grows out of his head in the same direction, the tone of the skin on his scalp, eight inches from my face on this packed train?”

Within two weeks, the subway had transformed.  Suzanne no longer rides in a cesspool teeming with the worst examples of humanity.  Her last email about the subway ended with these words, “Everywhere I turn, there is opportunity for joy.”

As  Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes.”

How about you?  Is there anything ugly, disgusting, intolerable in your life?  Can you see it with new eyes?

Tags: creating your reality · happiness

Can You Be Smart AND Happy?

September 18th, 2008 · No Comments

This morning, I was coaching very smart client.  She’s an academic at a renowned university, and feeling a little sheepish about the possibility that she could actually be happy.  She has a brilliant, highly-trained mind, and like so many in academia, tends to be suspicious of mooshy concepts like joy and happiness.  Especially her personal joy and happiness.

Another client, a genius with two PhDs, spent years as an academic.  For a while, he resisted some of the more imaginative exercises I gave him.  Even when they helped him stop procrastinating, the issue he’d been paralyzed by and sought coaching for, he feared that, without empirical proof that the techniques worked, he was somehow being stupid for relying on them.   It seemed better to hang onto his dysfunction than to risk doing something that was potentially hocus-pocus. Better to be a brilliant procrastinator than a productive dupe, I guess.

I’ve done my own time in academia, as a law professor, which carries not only the general fear of academia (the worst fate in life is that others will find out I’m not smart), but also the pessimism of legal thinking (if something can go wrong, it probably will, so I have to be prepared for every possible negative contingency).  I spent a long time rejecting the possibility that I could be happy, even when I began to feel happy. I felt sheepish about it.  It seemed so, well, unlikely and foolish.

Ultimately, I got over it.  With practice and a bit of self-compassion my client can, too.

With The Joy Diet Group Dieting Adventure telecourse coming up, I’m thinking a lot about happiness and our resistance to it.  Isn’t is crazy?  A smart person can  justify staying miserable or dysfunctional, because if others find out we’re happy, they might think we’re not so smart.  Sometimes the smartest people do the silliest things, in the name of intelligence.

Tags: happiness · joy diet