I can give you a really easy tip for significantly increasing your level of happiness, and doing so very quickly: shrink your business.
Look at the whole of what you conceive of as “your business,” all the things you have an opinion about, work on, intervene into and are concerned with.
Reduce it by 85%. Choose the 15% that is essential to your wellbeing and to your soul’s contribution to the world and focus your attention there. If you are like most people, this will actually involve reducing your business by even more than 85%, because most of us aren’t currently doing the stuff that is essential to our wellbeing and to our contribution to the world. So, suffice to say, I am talking about dramatically shrinking what you now consider “your business” – letting go of most of it.
I don’t mean tuning out the world or becoming selfish, I mean another kind of focus and carefree-ness that I’ll attempt to describe here.
I share this from personal experience. I used to have a kind of dependency on food. I turned to eating when I was stressed, afraid, uncomfortable, bored, tired, or overwhelmed. I became addicted to sugar and other refined carbohydrates.
I hit rock bottom with that dependency, thank God and adopted a structured food plan that didn’t leave any room for turning to food for emotional comfort. Three meals a day, nothing in between, measured portions. No sugar or wheat or any of my usual comfort foods. That sounds strict to a normal eater, but for me at that time clear boundaries were really helpful.
To stick with my new food plan, I was going to have to learn how to live life without the crutch of food. I was also aware that I could easily go out and pick up a new compulsion -a shopping or caffeine addiction or go to my secondary coping mechanism, workaholism. I was careful not to let myself do that. I wanted to do life itself, without any substance as a distraction, as a companion.
When I took away the food, just my life was left. Food had muted emotions and distracted me with a focus on my weight and dieting. Without it, the places where my life was out of whack stared at me, plain as day.
For example, the day I started my food plan was the day I started to take real breaks and rest. I suddenly could see I was going to the food for an energy rush because I was overworked and sleep deprived. More sleep and less work was an important part of my early lifestyle readjustment.
More significantly, I discovered that to live life whole and in balance, I needed to significantly shrink my business. A metaphor came strongly into mind. I saw myself at a table. “My part,” my business in life, was just about the size of a placemat, the placemat squarely in front of my seat. What was going on everyone else’s placemat really wasn’t any of my business.
The things on my placemat were:
- My vision for my life and the work I needed to do to actualize it
- My perspective on and conduct in response to my day to day life
- My reaction to the needs and tragedies in my community and the world
What’s not on my placemat
- How anything or anyone outside of me “should” be
- Other people’s paths and choices
- Trying to change or control other people
The primary symptoms of going outside my placemat were: 1) thinking or endeavoring to change another person 2) opining about how things should be different 3) negative, judgmental or complaining thinking about things outside of myself. Feelings of stress and loneliness usually accompany all of these.
I needed let go of the stuff outside my placemat, for a couple of pressing reasons:
1) By being in business that wasn’t mine, I was creating a lot of stress in my life, and that stress fueled my need to overeat. (For yourself, please replace “overeat” with “abuse x other substance, lose my temper, feel anxious, get stuck in my life,” etc. – whatever it is for you)
2) I didn’t have the time for the stuff off my placemat. Staying rested, aware, present, organized, and in touch with myself gave me plenty to do, especially in the beginning, when these were new habits I was adopting. They didn’t leave me much time for being off in other people’s business.
3) Once I started doing those things, I found I also had big goals to pursue, areas of my past to clean up, and a full life to create and nurture. Now I really didn’t have time (or patience) for things outside of my business.
I found that a lot of trails my mind goes wandering down are better left abandoned: what’s wrong with those people at work in that other department at work, the crazy behavior of so and so in our social circle, various events in our sensationalistic news. Spending time thinking about this stuff or wanting it to be different steals my time and energy and gets in the way of my making progress on the priorities in my life. It is now a habit for me to just let those thoughts pass right out of my mind.
Of course, sometimes something was going on out there in the world really did impact me. Someone lost their temper at me and hurt me, our landlord was cheating us, or there was something going on in the political landscape that was deeply disturbing to me.
I learned that I needed to focus on my part and my choices-the stuff not about them, but about me. This means no blaming, complaining, gossiping, trying to change, trying to control, but instead, swiftly accepting the truth and asking myself, “What do I want to do in reaction to this?” (Note: since I’m not an enlightened being, I might give myself five minutes to complain to myself or someone I am close to, always protecting the subject’s identity – no gossip, no ego defense, just catharsis. Five minutes, one time only, then move on to my part.)
My part is 1) determining how I want to react 2) taking action in line with that and 3) reflecting and learning from my results. My placemat contains my choices, boundaries, and focus, in response to everything going on around me.
So, a couple examples:
If I run into a liar or rude or emotionally unavailable person, my part is not to try and change the person, to tell him or her how she is, or even spend time thinking or talking about this. My job is simply to determine: Do I want to work with you or not? How will I manage this relationship for myself? Given my values, goals, and commitment to my own wellbeing, how do I wish to respond to you? Then I need to try to put my answers to these questions into action.
If war is raging in the world, my job is not to judge the people perpetrating it, to squander time complaining or railing or wailing about it. My job is to swiftly accept the reality and then decide who I will be and what I will do in a world that pursues war. That part is my business, the rest is not. Which frame of mind do you think is more likely to lead to action that will create peace?
I can’t tell you the positive ripple effects that shrinking my business has had in my life. It is definitely what allows me to succeed in a complex workplace where hundreds of personalities and relationships play out. Its what allows me to accept friends and family as they are, to set boundaries, and truly enjoy my relationships. How many of us have watched co-workers or friends get caught in the swamp of blame, gossip, complaining, holding an unrealistic agenda or an unproductive grudge? We can get really stuck in other people’s business.
When I shrunk my grandiose sense of being able to change things or people that were not ready or desiring to change (or that just didn’t need to change), I remembered about all of the wonderful things I could do to impact others and the world that were on my placemat–the tangible, small actions I could take -a kind gesture, giving attention, using words to influence others. I am reminded of a wonderful quote by David Hawkins that my friend Amy shared with me, in her publication, A Resonant Note: ” We change the world not by what we say or do but as a consequence of what we have become.” That’s all about placemats.
Shrinking my business also leaves me with the time and energy to care for myself and nurture my life. It results in meaningful civic and philanthropic action. And since I always focus on where I am at choice, I don’t have many resentments, because I really don’t feel limited by other people or external events.
But most of all, life is a lot lighter, a lot more fun. That’s in part because there is enough time and attention being paid to self-care and self-nurturing. But it is not just that. Life is lighter when we stand with the truth instead of fighting against it. Shrinking your does not entail passivity or apathy, but swift and total acceptance of reality followed by focusing on one’s own part – where we are each fully empowered and at choice.
Where are you leaning across the table over onto someone else’s placemat? Your parent’s, your friend’s, your child’s, or your co-workers’? What’s waiting for you on your placemat, while you are busy elsewhere?