Trail Marker, by Carbon NYC@flickr

Your attitude is the most important factor in getting you from marker to marker in your life.

If you haven’t read part one, you might want to do that, or the rest of my analogy won’t make a lick of sense.  (Not that I’m not prone to wild flights of analogy anyway, but still…)

The deep sense of knowing that the next marker will be there is the part that allows you to let go of the marker you can see, and head toward the one you can’t quite see yet.  It’s also what keeps you from being a giant stressed-out mess when you can’t see any of the markers in your life, and may even ward off a bear or two.

If you’re not naturally a positive person, which some people aren’t, cultivating that kind of positive mental attitude that underlies so many great things in life can feel a little overwhelming.  Or unimportant.  (Though I’m betting it’s important to you, since you’re here, still reading about my brushes with bears.)  Or like trying to figure out how to play the clarinet when you were born with flippers and no lips.

A whole slew of information exists out there on the internets about cultivating a positive mental attitude.  Like, a ton.  Like, millions of google results from a search, tons.  After looking at the first million or so (possibly exaggerated a bit), there are some threads that run through almost all of the resources, which I’m happy to distill down to three big’uns that may not get you to Perky, per se, but will at least set your toes on the trail to it.

1.  Gratitude

Later on this year, I’m going to dive into gratitude pretty deeply.  Not only is it a factor for a positive attitude, but it’s also pretty key in a bunch of different areas of your life.  Even Oprah gets all hypey about gratitude.  (And I just collectively heard the “back” button by every indie kid that doesn’t like anything that’s mainstream.)

Here’s the thing about gratitude, though:  When you not only have what you want, but want what you have, you’re more likely to appreciate things around you.  And it’s not just things, either.  People.  Situations.  Advantages.  Goals.  Emotions.  If you stop every so often and take an inventory of what’s right in your life, instead of constantly cataloguing everything that’s wrong, you can’t help but be more positive.

You realize how lucky you really are, no matter what else is happening situationally.  And that’s a pretty good base on which positivity can grow.

An Action You Can Take Right Now:
Start a gratitude journal.

It’ll feel cheezy at first.  Prepare yourself.  Don’t get all fancypants or twee about it.  Just write down, somewhere you will remember it every single day, a few things for which you’re grateful.  Things that make your life better, easier, or more rich.  Small things, big things, medium-sized things…doesn’t matter.  Commit to writing down several of them every day.

I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now.  Mine’s just in a ridiculously small, plain little notebook, in fact.  No art, no pretty bits, just paper, a pen, and five things I’m grateful for on that day.

I’ll tell you this, from experience:  There comes a point, a few weeks in, when you start really noticing the little things around  you, and how they enhance your life.  Your lists go from generic (food, shelter, partner, job, whatever) to very specific.  It stops feeling weird, and starts feeling like something you’re looking forward to.

So start a journal tonight.  Now, even.  On scrap paper for today.  I’ll wait while you make your list.

2.  Mindfulness

Next week, we’re going to talk a whole lot about awareness, which is pretty much just mindfulness with another name.  Almost every single resource I’ve read, though, has mentioned “mindfulness” as a key component to baseline positivity.

Without going too in-depth before next week, suffice it to say that being mindful of what’s around you is so simple that most people are prone to overlook it…or they refuse to slow down long enough to make time for it.  A lack of mindfulness leads to tons of disconnection, which then leads to things like eating an entire box of Oreos during an episode of Grey’s Anatomy because you weren’t paying any attention to what was going on with that box-to-mouth action.

An Action You Can Take Right Now:
Set an alarm.

Two or three times a day, set your phone or computer alarm to pop up with a reminder.  For me, that reminder is “TAKE A BREATH”.  Not a literal breath, but a moment to stop whatever I’m doing, look around, and actually see what I’m doing.

Sometimes, the results are surprising.  Sometimes, the interruption is an annoyance.

And sometimes, when you go back to whatever it is that you were doing before your phone started vibrating its fool head off?  You’re aware of the details of what you’re doing, and it goes from automatic action to one where you’re paying attention.  And that’s worth the interruption.

3.  Flow

Of the big three, Flow is the hardest to take any immediate action on, but it also might be one of the most important for positivity.  (Behind “relentless optimism”, which is great, but not all that practical for someone just starting out.)

If you aren’t familiar with the term, Flow is that state you go into when you are totally engaged with something that you’re enjoying.  Y’know how, when you get in a really great conversation with a friend, or you’re working on some kind of creative pursuit or something — and time just disappears?  You’d swear you just sat down, but it’s five hours later and you’re wide awake, fully present, and could probably keep going for another five hours if your insides weren’t threatening to eat themselves since it’s an hour past dinner.

That’s Flow.  That state.  That sense of suspended time and complete engagement.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, spending time in that state is a core element of positivity.  It allows your mind to be fully active, and puts you into a state of selflessness that engenders a receptivity to gratitude and optimistic feelings.  There’s a whole book, aptly named Flow, by Csikszentmihalyi, that goes into great detail about the actual physical responses to the state, and if you’re kind of a brain geek, you’d probably love it.  (It was largely greek to me, and I tuned out.  Psychology = not where I find my Flow.)

An Action You Can Take Right Now:
Set a date….with you.

Y es, I know lives are busy, and that there’s not a lot of time for ourselves.  Make some.

Find that thing that makes your time suspend.  Maybe that’s falling into a good book or writing a great book.  Painting or gardening or playing the piano or knitting.  Whatever it is that fully engages you and makes your time just seem to disappear — find the most obvious and the most do-able of those things.

Then pencil in some time for yourself.  Call it a meeting on your public calendar or tell the kids you have a class or something…but block out some time and make it sacrosanct.  Even an hour a week can start improving your baseline positivity.  (More, of course, is better, and Csikszentmihalyi recommends it daily, even.)

Generally speaking, we’re not so good, in today’s world, at taking care of ourselves.

It’s really not all that surprising that we’ve started missing the forest for the trees, what with increased demands on our time and attention all the time.  Whether it’s correlation or causation makes no matter:  our baseline positivity has gone down with the decreased time we have to spend on ourselves.

If we want to get that back, or grow it where we don’t think it naturally exists, we have to take the small actions that lead us not only to healthier selves, but to more positive ones, as well.

After all, the next trail marker’s just up the road. Are you ready to let go of the one you can see in order to get to the one that’s ahead?

Come on over to the forum and tell me how these are working for you.  Are you finding any challenges in working on your attitude this week/in general?  I’d love to hear what you’re doing.

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Seeing the Trees: Part One

by Elizabeth on January 4, 2012

The PCT is a trail that spans the whole of the west coast, from Mexico up to Canada.

At the time of this writing, I haven’t been able to hike the whole thing.  Largely because the trail would kill me omg.  It’s more than 1500 miles of every kind of terrain imaginable, from deserts to mountains to frozen tundras.  And it’s awesome.

(One day, I will hike the whole thing.  Yes, it will kill me.  Yes, it will take six months.  Yes, I will learn a new definition for the word “blisters” and mosquitos may actually suck all the blood from my entire body at some point. But I’m a willing participant in my own demise.)

I’ve done short day-hikes along the PCT before.  Tiny slivers of trails in Washington state, where the forests are generally thick and the trails are marked sparsely until you get to the Cascade passes.  (At which point, there are nicely-carved signs telling you that look! here’s the Pacific Crest Trail! Come! Kill yourself slowly by walking across the entire width of the country!)  It takes a special kind of person a whole lot of training to take on that special level of hell — because getting lost out there in the backcountry?  Terrifying.  With bears.  The kind that can eat you.

I got lost once, on one sliver of that trail.

Let me tell you right now:  it was wholly terrifying.  While I’d done some hiking here and there, I’d kept it largely to areas where there was a fair bit of human traffic in comparison, and a decided lack of bears.  Places where entire groups got together to groom the trails, and you didn’t have to look at a topographical map and a compass unless it was out of your own stupid curiosity.

Emboldened by my successes on these dumbed-down trails through nicely-groomed forests, I had the brilliant idea one Tuesday to go out and hike this teensy-weensy little PCT section and see if it was something I might like to do in total someday.  (I was much more fit then, by the way.  Not much smarter, mind you.  But more fit, to be sure.)

About an hour in, I started to notice that the trails weren’t looking like the ones I’d been on.  There were no more signs.  Not even the little teeny ones that you had to peer around for that told you your elevation so you could pat yourself on your back.  (A lot of climbing hikes have those in Washington.  ”Mt. Si Trail: 4.0 mi” and the like.  Things that make you feel like you’re a freakin’ machine of a human, climbing four miles straight up the side of the mountain from Twin Peaks.  This, my friends, engenders hubris.  Trust me.)

Light started to filter strangely through the trees, which told me that it was probably getting to be around four o’clock or so.  I had maybe five hours of daylight, less in the forest, and I had no idea which way was Alpental, much less the entire city of Seattle.  I was, to put it lightly, screwed.  And I probably smelled like a tasty peanut butter sandwich of human goodness to passing bears, to boot.

As you can tell, I didn’t die, since I’m writing this now.

As it happens, I ran into a grizzled, smelly man who was actually a through-hiker on the PCT.  (And trust me, through-hikers are almost always grizzled and smelly.  It’s a badge of honor, and rightfully so.)  While there was no way I could keep up with him, and he was racing the summer to get through the last bit of the trail before the snows started falling up north, he showed me how this particular section of the trail was actually marked:  Every so often, in the line of sight, there’d be a fluorescent X on one of the trees, up high so that anyone crazy enough to be out there in the winter could still see them, even if the snows got ten or more feet deep (as they do, sometimes out there).

No matter where you went, you should just lose sight of one by the time the next one comes into view.  (Or within a minute or two, for us slow folks.)  All you had to do was watch the trees, and have faith that the next X would be just ahead.

I didn’t become a bear snack that day, no.  But I can tell you that I’ve never been so happy to see my car as I was that day.  Best. Sight. Ever.  And if I ever run into the grizzly smelly guy again, I will full-on kiss him on the mouth.  With tongue.  He literally saved my life that day.

(And reminded me that, perhaps, a bit more backcountry training might be advisable before traversing so much as a city park without a map and a GPS.)

 Yeah, Yeah, I can hear you thinking, But what does your brush with doom have to do with a positive attitude?

Glad you asked.

Here’s the deal:

Most of our lives, we wander around aimlessly.  Maybe we’re one of the few who have actual written-down goals and ambitions and we know where we want to go, but really?  We’re still bumbling around on a trail we’ve never really been on before, trying to figure out if we’ve got enough sunlight to get there before the creepy bears start eating our bones.  We take decisive actions, we pretend we’re not just lost on the trail, and we really, really hope we don’t smell like peanut butter.

A positive attitude gets us to the fluorescent X’s on the trees, though.  Even in those few minutes when we can’t see where we’re going, the knowledge that that next marker is going to be on a tree just ahead, and we’ll find our way back to civilization.  If every semi-lost (or, in my case, totally lost and vaguely hysterical) day hiker thought they were doomed every time they lost sight of an X, there’d be a whole lot more of a need for Alpine rescue teams.  That positive attitude of yours helps you rescue yourself.

Having one means that you can look ahead to the next X, the next goal, the next step, and still take time to look around at the stunning beauty of a near-pristine wilderness.  That you can focus on your walking, your breathing, and the smell of the earthy greenery, instead of constantly panicking that you’ll end up a pile of unmarked bones.

People who know without a shadow of a doubt that the next thing is coming and that it’s going to be awesome are more likely to take risks that lead them to the next thing.  It’s SAFE.  You’re safe.  And the trees will lead you home.

 Tomorrow, we’ll look at a few practical things I’m doing to help myself achieve and maintain a positive mental attitude.

None of them, by the way, require a GPS, a can of fluorescent pink spray paint, or a grizzled, smelly hiker.

Bears, however, are fair game.





Those Leaves? They’re Inevitable.

by Elizabeth on January 3, 2012


Let’s pretend we’re all seeds for a second.

We’re all buried in the ground and can’t see anything except our own root-bit-thingies and our shells.  It’s dark, and it’s safe for the most part, and even though some of the other seeds are all I heard that if we reach out, there’s this thing called the SUN and it’s AWESOME, we’re kinda just happy where we are.  It’s safer here.  Who knows?  Maybe that sun’s got some kind of laser cannon that it’s just waiting to aim at us.

So we stay where we are, even when those stupid perky seeds are putting out roots and shoots and growing and stuff.  We’re seeds, dammit, and if we stop being seeds then what are we, anyway?  Better to just sit here in the nice dark dirt and rest a bit and dream about something nice and secure.

After a while, we notice that we’re kind of putting out roots anyway, because, really, change is kind of inevitable.  And the whole time we’re reaching for the surface, we’re probably griping about how much it hurts to have to stretch out like this.  How our shell split, and now we’ve got this stuff that looks like….what is that?….green leaves and stuff all over the place, and this is SO not what we signed up for.

And after a bit, we get to the surface, and the sun starts shining and there’s all this rain and air and it’s kind of awesome.  We’re not really seeds anymore, but we’re something else and that something else  kind of kicks serious ass, and all the perky seeds (who are by now probably perky plants with some kind of budding tomatoes or something all over them) are all WE TOTALLY TOLD YOU SO,  and if you weren’t a plant, you’d kick them very hard in the shins, but that sun feels too good to make the effort.

All my analogies are transparent.

Just to be clear.  I’m bad at occlusion of intent.  It’s a peril of saying what you mean.  So bear with my transparency.

We’re already seeds, you and me.  Some of us are just deciding not to stay in the shell anymore.

And if you cultivate an attitude of knowing that what’s coming down the pike is going to be ZOMGAWESOME, chances are, that’s exactly what you’re going to find.  It’s the same principle that Henry Ford was referencing when he said, “Whether you think you can do something or you think you can’t…you’re right.”

You can do this.

Insert whatever it is that you’re trying to do, no matter how hard and how much it might change you, for “this”.  Because you can.  You can find a way to dig deeper into life, however you see that manifesting, and you can turn your seed into something that makes gallons of salsa at the end of the season.

You’re the one in charge.

You just need to know it…and make the choice to grow.

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A Slingshot, Some Coffee, and a Junk-Punching Demon

by Elizabeth on January 2, 2012

positive mental attitude

Make fun of the Sunny Side all you want.

All it takes is a few minutes of listening on a Monday morning at the office to find out what kind of negative connotations we put on positivity.  The morning people (who are usually morning people both by biology and choice, by the way) are quietly snarled at, and the folks who really just wish Mondays would be governmentally banned are off by the coffee machine, putting in the intravenous driplines, grumbling and wondering what fresh hell this week’s going to bring them.

If any of the coffee-swilling zombie set are questioned about this particular attitude of doom, there’s either a lot of backpedalling or an assertation that they’re not being negative, they’re being realistic, as if reality is somehow full of Doom Demons just lurking behind the computer monitor, waiting to attack them with giant rain clouds and missed deadlines.  And possibly to punch them in the junk.

Here’s the deal, though:  Reality just IS.

It’s not negative.  It’s not positive.  It merely is.

It’s how we look at it that makes things positive or negative.

And I’m fairly sure that there aren’t any junk-punching demons behind the monitor, even on Monday mornings.

The difference is huge, but the shift is subtle and ongoing, and is by choice.

If you ever went to sunday school as a kid, you know the story of David and Goliath.  Great big giant hulk of a man, terrorizing a village.  Little tiny man with a slingshot and a can-do attitude.  (While the rest of the terrified villagers were all “OMG he’s WAY to big to hit!”, David rolled his eyes and told them that the dude was way too big NOT to hit.  Like, duh.  Broad side of a barn, there.)

And with his little peashooter slingshot of doom, David went all gladiator and took him down, saving his village.  (I’m simplifying.  Don’t send me hate mail.)

Every Monday morning, we’re all villagers, folks.  We just have to decide:  are we going to man up and strap on the peashooters with an attitude that gets us from point A to point B, or are we going to cower around the coffeepeddlers and hope like hell that someone else brought the rocks?

This week, I’m making a very conscious choice to invest in my own (mental) slingshot.

Every rock I put in that thing is going to have a giant smileyface painted on it, too.

See, there’s this whole branch of psychology, first summed up in 1998 by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  (type that five times fast…), called, aptly, positive psychology.  (You can find more about it on wikipedia.  I’ll link it at the end.)  The gist of it is that instead of just treating disorder, it nurtures ways to make normal life more fulfilling.

In other words, it’s all about finding the science behind what makes some people awesome and satisfied and happy, versus being miserable, cranky bastards.  It’s actually pretty complex, with three different levels of the Happy — the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life.  And in all three, attitude plays a stupefyingly large role.  The more positive you can train your thinking to be, the better you are at solving problems (looking for solutions rather than just bitching about the computer demons, for instance), and the more likely you are to focus on what you CAN do, versus what you CAN’T.

It’s like suddenly having the world be limitless.

It’s not just about being perky and happy, by the way.

Scientists who are way smarter than me have linked a positive mental attitude with some crazy findings.  Things like being physically healthier, achieving more goals faster than similarly-situation-ed pessimists, and being surrounded with more friendships.

Positive people tend to attract other positive people.  Which, as you can imagine, breeds more positivity.  (Ironically, often, negative people are also attracted to the relentlessly positive, too, who are often too nice to tell them to put up or shut up.)

It all starts with an attitude.  And attitude’s a choice.

Yeah, you can’t help what happens to you.  Into every life some rain must fall, blah blah blah.  But like I said above:  reality is.  What we do with that reality, how we see that reality — that’s up to us.  Every minute of every day, we make that choice  or we let other people make it for us.

So tell me:  Do you want to make your own choices?

Watch how you’re talking to yourself.  Watch how you’re talking to other people.  Observe your own attitude and your own reactions.

And then work to remember that all of those things are entirely in your control.  Find the positive in every situation, even when it’s hard, or when people are banging on your hot buttons like they’re mashing a game controller.

If you know you’re limitless and that life is a deep reservoir of experiences, then Monday morning’s going to have to take a number if it’s trying to get all Goliath on your mental village.  You’ve got a slingshot that shoots lasers.

Go, you.

Check out the stuff about positive psychology on Wikipedia, here.  And feel free to hop on over to the forums to tell us how you stay positive, even when Monday seems like it’s out to get you.