Connecting Serendipity

Ahmed, the owner of Désert sans frontière, had agreed to guide me through the Southern Oasis route of Morocco. I was delighted to hand over the reigns to him after three days of traveling alone. The maze, the mayhem, and the men in Marrakech put me on guard, but now it seemed I could relax. After all, the owner of my guesthouse, Riad Attajmil, recommended Ahmed, a certified guide and excellent driver who grew up in a Berber village. We agreed to travel together for two-and-a-half-days before he’d drop me at a desert camp on the edge of the Sahara.dades

That was the plan, but by end of the second day, Ahmed suggested that the plan change. I don’t need to leave tonight. I want to make sure you’re safe, he proclaimed, as we pulled away from Chez Mimi in Dadès Gorge, the most romantic place I’ve ever been.

camelman2Hmmm! I felt my walls go up. Maybe I should stick to the plan? After all, Ahmed was smitten with me. I didn’t know if I could trust him, but on the other hand, I was anxious about fending for myself in the Sahara. (You know, there are snakes and tarantulas in the desert.) And, after all, he wasn’t going to charge me for the extra night, but instead, offer his services to the camp in exchange for room and board.

Go it alone in the desert or risk uncharted terrain with a man? I had fought this battle my entire life, fearing that if I’d let down my guard with another, especially a man, I’d end up hurt or disappointed. But something was very different with Ahmed. A deep connection was emerging between us despite our many differences. It didn’t matter that we were born and raised in vastly different cultures. Our connection was based on authenticity, mutual respect, and value for each others world.

It made no sense to turn him away, and thankfully I didn’t. Something special was about to occur.

(Fast-forward a few hours.) We’re milling around outside Riad Madu, waiting to hit the dunes. I turned to Ahmed who looked perplexed. See that man over there in the Moroccan djellaba, he remarked, the one standing with a woman and child. I know him, but from where? Before I had the chance to help him solve this puzzle, he had stepped away from me and veered in this man’s direction. They spoke softly. I watched intently. They embraced warmly. I smiled from ear-to-ear. Something magical was happening, but what? I couldn’t wait to find out.

After several minutes of chatter between the two of them, Ahmed returned to my side wearing a smile broader than mine. My friend, Saïd and I attended Agadir University at the same time. We both majored in French Literature and attended many classes together. It’s been 17 years since I’ve seen him. Can you believe it? 17 years! After his studies, he left Morocco and took a job teaching in France. He now lives in Amsterdam with his Dutch wife and their daughter, but returns to Morocco for a week vacation every year.

Unbelievable! I thought. If I had stuck to my plan and told Ahmed to leave, Saïd and he wouldn’t have met. They wouldn’t have had the chance to spend hours that night rekindling their friendship, and I wouldn’t have played a part in their reunion.

It was good that they were together that night. It took Ahmed’s attention off of me. That said, it was hard to say goodbye to him the next morning, for I must admit, I was smitten too. But I had a sojourn to continue in Fez and he had a family to return to in Marrakech. But serendipity–it wasn’t ready to leave.

I was sitting at a breakfast table at my guesthouse three days later, enjoying the company of a young woman from Japan. What are your plans today, Mayuko? I asked politely. I’m heading to Chefchaouen, that beautiful blue village in the Rif Mountains, she replied. Me too! I exclaimed. Come to find out, we were both leaving Fez on the 11 am bus with assigned seats next to each other. And, we both had reservations at Casa Perleta, a guesthouse with only 8 guest rooms. Serendipity! I shouted after exchanging itineraries.chaouenmtn

What is serendipity? Mayuko asked.

Serendipity is when life hands you an unplanned surprise, an unexpected happy or beneficial event.

We agreed to meet in the courtyard in 30 minutes, hail a cab together, and spend the day tooling around the “Blue Pearl.” It was a wonderful day, a joyful serendipity!

ahmed+No one knows why and how serendipity happens, but I’m certain that letting go of control is an absolute must. After these two serendipitous events, I felt like something inside me had shifted. I felt freer and less fearful, more trusting and secure.

The dunes of Morocco had opened my mind and a man from the desert had unlocked my heart.

Life Giving Love

bimba“What if everything you know about love is wrong?” asks Dr. Barbara Fredrickson. Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, and author of Love 2.0, Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, doesn’t want to rain on your Valentine’s Day parade. Nor do I. But like Fredrickson, I’d like to upgrade your definition of love, especially if you’re feeling heartbroken or lonely, discouraged or in despair.

To begin with, let’s consider the rapture of “romantic love”. Most people I know (or see as a therapist) want to experience this exquisite kind of love. It’s understandable. Romantic love feels insanely delicious. Pleasure hormones surge when we fall head-over-heals. Dopamine pulses through our bodies, producing ecstatic feelings. Norepinephrine, like adrenaline, revs up our heart rate and makes our palms sweat.

This chemical process convinces us that we must have romance in our life to feel alive. The highs are just too good to think otherwise; at least that’s what our body says. And according to science, this makes perfect sense, given that the chemical high of love is the exact same chemical process that takes place with addiction.

But what if romantic love is just a daydream for you right now? Or what if you’re feeling brokenhearted after a break-up or in an age-old marriage that doesn’t cause your heart to melt like it did long ago? Should you turn to drugs and alcohol to get a quick fix, have an elicit affair to spice things up, or hook up on Tinder for a meaningless tryst? Hell no! You know you’re better than that. So what can you do that is emotionally healthy?

Connect with a caring person who wants to truly connect with you. Infuse your interaction with warmth and openness. Look at each other; really see each other. Feel each others’ presence and then notice the positive feelings that begin to arise.

PBcover_tiltedThis experience, what Barbara Fredrickson defines as Love 2.0, is a connection characterized by a flood of positive emotions that you share with another person – any person – friend or lover, sibling or spouse, child or parent who cares for you and you for them. Dr. Fredrickson’s research has shown that we experience “micro-moments of positivity” that ooze life-giving love hormones when we invest in each others’ well being and extend mutual care. But here’s the catch: we have to connect in person. Phone calls or Skype won’t do it; nor will Tinder or text messages. Feelings don’t compute in technology. The magic only happens when we meet face-to-face.

Grant it, Love 2.0 is less potent or alluring than rapturous kind of love, yet the chemicals that our bodies produce are exactly the same as what you get when you “fall”. So what do you have to lose by upgrading to 2.0? The whoa-is-me attitude. A burden of grief. Complaints and compromises that keep you stuck in misery. And think what you’ll gain. Happiness. Health. Vitality. And a really cool vibe that just might get you noticed by an extra-special someone who might one day be your Valentine 🙂 So give it a try, why don’t you? To learn more, check out Chapter I from Love 2.0.





Confused? Live the Questions

confusionYears ago I was burned out, living life on a treadmill, unhappy most of the time. I wanted my life to be different. But how? I didn’t know. I knew I needed to make a change, but what kind of change? What did I want? What would make me happy? I felt utterly confused.

Confusion. UGH! I hate it when I feel this way, don’t you? So unsettling! When confused, we naturally search for answers. We comb the archives of our minds, analyze our thoughts, and ask others for advice. We rehash ideas and mull things over, but if answers don’t come quickly, we often give up.

Thankfully I didn’t give up. My therapist wouldn’t let me. She suggested that I stop trying so hard to figure things out, and instead, simply allow my thoughts to come and go. Confusion always comes before clarity, she said. Be patient. Answers will come.

The great German poet, Rainier Maria Rilke, offered similar advise to a confused young poet:

Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answers…You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise you or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Be attentive to what is arising in you, and place that above everything you perceive around you.

         Go into yourself. Live the questions. Talk about confusing! Waiting for answers to “arise” is something most of us weren’t taught to do. We were taught to arrive at a solution as fast as possible. Remember those timed tests we took in school? We were taught to analyze facts, apply reason, and logically figure things — quickly. Seldom were we encouraged to pay attention to what was arising in our minds — slowly. That was called daydreaming, and daydreaming meant you weren’t paying attention to the teacher, the teacher “outside” of you.

Well, let me introduce you to another teacher, your “inner teacher.”  I believe that each of us has an inner guide, a wise-self that emanates from soul, not ego or intellect. This intuitive voice offers up subtle clues and serendipitous occurrences when we stop searching outside ourselves, and instead, start listening to our true self within. This quiet voice of soul can’t be rushed. It surfaces when times and conditions are right.

blueskyI remember a momentous day when the time was right for my inner teacher to redirect the course of my life. It was January 1, 2007. I was taking a walk on a crisp, blue-sky day, nothing to do except enjoy a quiet beginning to the New Year. All the questions I’d been asking were nowhere in mind. Interestingly, that’s when the answer appeared out of nowhere. A voice rang out, clear as a bell, Go back to school! My analytical mind immediately intruded, Graduate school at age 50. Really? But the mystical voice didn’t concede. It continued, reminding me of two friends who had gone back to school at mid-life to get their degrees in counseling. Wow! Better sleep on this, I thought. After all, it was a big commitment to make at any age, especially my age.

The next day I proceeded to get back to business, and as always, the first thing I did was check my email. OMG! In the mix of mostly junk, two significant emails appeared — one from each woman who had come to mind the day before. I was blown away. You see, I hadn’t communicated with either in over three months. But on Jan 2nd, their emails affirmed that it was time for me to go back to school.

Amazing, yes, but not at all surprising. I had started my masters in counseling at 25-years old, but abandoned my dream to start a career in business. I had told myself then that I could return to school later in life, and later was apparently now.

Just as Rilke had advised, I had lived the question, patiently. Life had prepared me to be a psychotherapist in ways academia never could. Confusion was gone. My answer had arrived at the perfect time.

A Sensational Summer Ending

Why in the hell did we leave the game at the top of the 9th?  Damn it!  I shook my head in disbelief, staring at the TV as Chipper Jones knocked one out of the park to win it, 8-7. What a sensational ending. And we missed it!  I whined to my friend. Despite being down 5-0, then 7-2, the Braves never gave up. They weathered some bad breaks, but in the end, they overcame a miserable start.

I could definitely relate. My summer started out miserably. I committed an error in May, taking a part time job at a psychiatric hospital for fear I couldn’t pay my bills. The unit was located in a dreary basement. No windows. Drab walls. Florescent lighting. Ugh! How in the hell could patients heal in this god-awful place. Working there literally made me sick. I had to quit. I tendered my resignation before I even finished training. Score a run for me.

In an attempt to make the best of a bad situation, I decided to use my paycheck to fund a vacation to Tybee Island in June. I imagined a glorious time on a sun-drenched beach, nurturing myself in a charming historic hotel. But I struck out in early innings. It rained the whole time. My cold got worse. Damn it!  There’s got to be brighter days ahead, I told myself. After all, it is summer! The sun IS supposed to shine.

Quit whining, a voice within me uttered. Vacation isn’t over. This was true. I still had two days left, so I decided to make the best of things and head down the coast to visit a beautiful barrier island. Maybe the sun will be shining there?  And, it was. Fantastic! I cheered. I felt like I hit a triple when I discovered a dockside restaurant with a cool vibe, fresh seafood, and an excellent band. I was happy again.

As I gathered my things to head toward the pier, I realized that my cell phone was missing. What the f***!  I desperately retraced my steps, searching frantically to find it, but despite my best efforts, I failed. Stranded on base, miserable again, I played the part well, the pitiful one, all weepy—eyed , convincing myself that the best thing to do was to call it quits, head back up the coast, and check into a dive motel  before driving home in the morning.

Dive motel or divine night on the docks? my wise voice whispered. Vacation isn’t over! What good will it do to wallow in self-pity? It’s only a phone, and you wanted a new phone anyway.  

In that moment, something shifted inside of me. Self-pity climbed into the back seat to make room for a woman who had the confidence to hit it out of the park. Quit and go home. No way! I thought. The game wasn’t over. Right then and there, in a parking lot on Jekyll Island, my sensational summer began. I got out of my car and strutted toward the pier. I ordered a great meal, danced to soul-satisfying music, and laughed and joked with wonderful new friends. Phone, what phone? Who needs a phone when you’re on vacation?

After filling up on life that night, I drove back up the coast, the sun melting into the horizon, magenta and turquoise sky. A spectacular ending to what started out as a miserable day. I checked into a “nice” motel, dialed up wireless, and chuckled to myself after discovering an email from my emergency contact friend. It read…”Phone found. At entry gate at Jekyll.”  Too late, I smiled a wicked smile. The game was over. I won.

My summer just kept getting better. July was fantastic. I was invited to stay with friends in Montana, all expenses paid. We hiked Glacier National Park, spied a grizzly near the path, mountain goat and long horn sheep at the continental divide. The 4th of July was stellar! Cheered on my 70-year old, “never-say-quit” friend as she finished the Peachtree Road Race; ate one of the best burgers ever at an iconic Atlanta pub before concluding the day with a grand fireworks display.  Mid-month I started dating again—and oh boy! I forgot how much fun it is to kiss under a blanket of stars on a sultry summer night.

Summer’s come and gone, baseball season nearly over. But wait. The Boys of Summer know that a sensational ending is NOT out of reach. The playoffs are right around the corner. To win in the game of baseball, just like in life, you’ve got to keep moving ahead in the face of adversity. And you’ve got to stick around ‘till the very end. This, I will never forget.

I turned to my friend after gawking at the TV, “We will never again leave a baseball game before the final out. Never ever again!”

Choose Happiness

The third regret of the nearly departed, according Bronnie Ware, author of The Five Regrets of the Dying, is not choosing to live a happier life. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the end of life, that the dying people Ware cared for realized that the fear of change kept them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content. They settled for the “so-called” comfort of familiarity, and in doing so, they remained stuck in old patterns and habits. Pretense trumped happiness.

Thankfully, happiness is becoming a hot topic these days, not only in the popular press, but more surprisingly, with policy makers around the world. Just last month, the United Nations published the first ever World Happiness Report and Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio shared the stage at an international symposium with a Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, who has been dubbed the “happiest person in the world.”  Even though Ryan and Ricard spend the majority of their time in vastly different worlds, Washington vs. Tibet, both men share a common reality that holds the promise of increasing happiness for people all over the globe.

According to Ricard, right-hand man for the Dalai Lama, and author of Happiness, A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, achieving durable happiness is a skill that requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities such as inner peace, mindfulness, and altruistic love. Ryan, in his recently published book, A Mindful Nation, writes about the key elements needed to take on the challenges we face in our country—inner strength, resilience, and awareness of who we really are.  These two men share a similar philosophy and practice a skill that has contributed to human happiness throughout the ages—mindfulness meditation.

Neuroscience is proving that mindfulness plays a key role in creating well-being and reducing negativity, not only in individuals, but in society at large.  Now you may be thinking, I’d be happier having more cash in the bank and a new car in the garage. Mindfulness! How in the world will this make me happy?  Just hear me out.

The pursuit of happiness, a key principle of our democracy, has come under increased scrutiny since the economic meltdown–and rightly so. Many of us have fallen into a state of depression or grown anxious over how to pay our bills. I understand completely, and I empathize. But I also know that happiness isn’t simply achieved by making more money. Research shows a weak correlation between income and global happiness.

Personal wealth definitely impacts our level of “life satisfaction,” a subjective measure used in Hedonic Psychology, but it has little or no impact on our “eudaimonism,” a state of well-being that results from living in accordance with our daimon, or true self. This ideal may sound New Age-y, but it’s not. It’s older than dirt, a philosophy birthed by Aristotle.

Eudaimonic well-being occurs when people’s life activities mesh with deeply held values; when people are fully engaged and feel intensively alive and authentic. Maybe that’s why Ricard, a monk who lives in a monastery and donates his book profits to charity, is considered the happiest man in the world. His brain, like that of other long-term practitioners of meditation, has developed the capacity to disengage from mental confusion and self-centered afflictions. Research now proves that meditating strengthens the centers of the brain that contribute to good feelings and compassion.

Food for thought, or “non-thought”, don’t you think? Yesterday, Congressman Ryan encouraged a generation of future leaders at UC-Berkeley on the merits of mindfulness meditation. He’s advocating that schools across America teach the skill of mindfulness to our kids. I never could have imagined that the U.N. would produce a report that contained the word   “happiness” in its title during my lifetime. Nor would I have thought that U.S. economists would be questioning the merits of GDP and considering GNH—Gross National Happiness— following the lead of Bhutan, a nation whose Gross National Income is 18,491 times smaller than ours.

I’m happy to be living at a time when the world is breaking old patterns; I’m grateful to be witnessing the vision of mindful leaders taking root before my eyes.

“Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” –Robert F. Kennedy

Forget Work, Regret Less

This past Sunday I decided to work on my blog post for this week. A bit ironic, since I was continuing the series “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” and the second regret identified by a former palliative care worker was, “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” Oh my, do I ever know this one!

I finally stopped surfing the web at 11:00 p.m. Thankfully, a gem appeared on my screen not long after my quest began. “Voila! No need to hunt and peck for updated research,” I thought. I found the perfect article in the day’s Washington Times –“A Nation Overworked: Abandoning Happiness & Health for Paychecks.” Bingo!

Now you’ve got me trapped. Since I put in extra hours on Sunday, I’d say it’s time to call it a day. No need for me to put my spin on this well written article. After all, I need to be a role model and put my happiness and health first. Time to take a walk.

Come on! It’s quitting time;)