Over the past couple of weeks, I've been talking to patients and friends about how the past year went for them. Almost without exception, I have heard how tough a year it has been, and not surprisingly; the economy is anemic, the natural world is in increasing disarray, the presidential race has illuminated a vast and perhaps unbridgeable cultural rift in our country, and the media has managed to scare the bejeezus out of everybody with terrorist ghost stories. For a lot of people, it's not a pretty world out there, and the future isn't terribly bright. But here's the secret. You can change things. Not just internally, though that is part of the process. But your will is part of what makes the world. Collectively, mankind creates the reality we live in, not only through shared values and beliefs, but also through our intent. We can create a bountiful, beautiful world, or we can create one marred by anger, fear and want. Each individual contributes to the collective reality, some to a greater degree than others, simply because they understand how to exert their will in a way that creates a large impact. Most of us, frankly, do not have that strength of intent. But we all have the ability to alter the environment immediately around us, using the raw material of the collective gestalt.
There are seven concrete acts that you can do that will change the world around you. Do these consistently, and watch the results.
Meditation is a sure-fire way of harnessing the wild and often wasted power that exists within all of us. In the past two years, there has been a tremendous amount of research on meditation and the changes it creates, and it is the most powerful behaviour modification tool that exists. Even within a few weeks of beginning a daily meditation practice, beneficial neurological changes begin to appear. After a year or more, these changes become quite profound.
Even better, there are endless ways to meditate. Every religion in existence has some form of meditation, and engaging your spiritual side can amplify the results of your meditative practice. If you are atheist or do not adhere to any specific metaphysical tradition, mindfulness meditation has positive, powerful results.
The down side, if there is one, is that it needs to be practiced virtually every day. Once you've instilled it as a habit, this won't seem so daunting.
Exercise is the pill for almost every ill. There are few conditions that exercise doesn't improve, and there is nobody that can achieve true health without it. And there are no excuses for not exercising. Over the years, I've gotten patients with every chronic disease under the sun to exercise, and all of them have improved from it.
You don't need a gym membership, either. A terrific cardio workout is no further away than the street out your front door. Want to lift weights? Do a bodyweight routine that uses leverage against gravity to build muscle. No time? No way. Get off Facebook.
Exercise also creates neurological as well as physiological changes that are beneficial for meeting the challenges that life throws at us. I, for one, appreciate the feeling of power and strength in my body when I am about to undertake something arduous, whether it is a long, busy day at work or a difficult meeting. My outer strength feeds my inner strength, and if you want to be powerful in this world, the power starts in your arms, legs, heart and hands.
Goalsetting: Do it right
Most people don't reach their goals, not because their goals are too difficult, but because they set the wrong kind of goals. Goals should be process-oriented, not object-oriented. For example, instead of setting a goal of, say, getting a new job this year, your goal should be talking to 10 people every week who can help you find the job you want. Instead of setting a goal of buying a new car, set a goal of putting aside $XX every week.
Process goals have the advantage of giving you frequent, positive feedback. You get that warm fuzzy feeling of looking at your growing bank account at the end of each week and realizing that you've met your goal, rather than slogging along at a goal that looks far, far away. We're designed to respond to instant, positive feedback. It's hardwired into us. Make use of that.
Additionally, process goals are more flexible than object goals. If, somewhere along the way, you decide you would much rather get that awesome commuting bike rather than a new car (a very wise decision, I might add), you don't have to change your goals at all.
Process goals will get you where you want to go, even if the end result is hidden in the far-off mists.
Look, I'm not going to mince words here. You're going to die, sooner rather than later, and you really don't have a day to waste, except for those days you choose to waste. But make time wasting a conscious choice, not a default behaviour,
Some spiritual traditions (I'm looking at you, Zen) encourage you to ignore the past and the future, and concentrate only on the present as the only time that exists. That is all well and good for focusing your attention on important matters, but it really puts the damper on long-term planning, which is not a good thing. The argument goes that if you take care of today, tomorrow will take care of itself, but that's not always true. Our environment changes constantly, and those who are not looking at the changes coming their way are the ones who will be injured by the surprise of their arrival.
Here's the thing: Buy a 50-cent notebook, steal one of the free pens from my office, and write down everything that you need or want to do. Don't worry about time, date, or priority. Just write it down, and make sure to cross them off when you've finished a task (that warm fuzzy feeling again). You'll be surprised at how much that you thought you couldn't get done that you are suddenly accomplishing.
Also, keep the notebooks. They, as much as a daily journal, will give you a point of reflection of your life over the course of the years.
Keep it clean
Energy (and that, after all, is what we're talking about, the accumulation, control, and direction of energy) is attenuated by chaos and strengthened by order. If you're one of those people who says "Oh, my (desk, room, office) is messy, but I still know where everything is," give it up. Give it up right now. I used to be one of you, and what I sadly discovered that all the tightly focused concentration and intent and willpower would get dissipated into a steamy mess when it hit the clutter of my desk.
You want your willpower to do something for you? Don't make it march through a swamp to get to where it can do you some good.
In fact, write "clean it up" as the first entry in your new 50 cent time manager. And when you finish the first page, write it on the top of the next. And the next...
Seek the wisdom of others
Face it, you don't know everything, even if you, like I, think you do. Find mentors to help you walk your chosen paths. Find friends who will feed you when your pack is getting empty. Find assistants who are really, really good at the things you do poorly, and treat them like the gods and goddesses they are.
I often say that I am grateful to my patients, because they have taught me most of what I know as a doctor. And I know, it sounds like some cheesy marketing pablum, but it's true, dammit. I cannot tell you the number of times I have walked in the exam room to greet a new patient, and to their surprise, rather easily fixed their problem. But that's only because I had a patient last week that had the same problem, wasn't responding to the normal approach, and kept me up nights thinking about what I wasn't doing to get them better.
So, invite others into the reality you are creating and, to the extent that they are willing and able, allow them to help you create your world with you.
Wash, rinse, repeat
The common thread with everything I've said is that you can't do it once. You've got to do it frequently, often daily. Which initially sounds like a huge grind.
But the fact of the matter is, it only takes six weeks to create any new habit, good or bad. How long have you been practicing the habit of eating Doritos and watching sitcoms? Years, right? So take these six activities, do them for six weeks, and then email me and let me know what happened.
I'd say good luck, but you won't need it. Follow these guidelines, and you'll be making your own luck.