Year in (P)review: Reflecting on This Year and the Next

A year in review, a year in preview. I’m gearing up to do this in the next couple weeks, and I hope you’ll find a chance to do so as well. The basic idea: take some time at the end of the year to reflect on the year gone by, and to set some intentions for the year to come. Maybe people do a version of this by having a New Year’s resolution, but I’m talking about a much more in-depth thing. Not just coming up with one item for a to-do list as you clink glasses on New Year’s Eve.

Instead, it’s a drawn-out process involving substantial reflection and introspection from a variety of angles. It can involve movement, meditation, long walks, bubble baths, sitting by a fire. Activities that turn us inward and allow us the opportunity to be quiet with ourselves. Sans smartphone.

I like to start with the year gone by. It can help to organize the internal conversation by asking some questions. Start simple. What happened this year? What were some of the big events? What were some of the small events that made a big impact? What was the overall feeling in the year, and how did that evolve?

Then, we can get into more substance. It helps if you went through this reflection process a year ago as well, but it’s by no means necessary. What was I hoping for this year? Did I move closer to that goal? Did I realize I needed to pivot those intentions? What worked? What didn’t? As Bob Ross said, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” No need to think of the things that didn’t work as failures. They are places for growth and learning.

But we do need to get into them. We won’t gain much from our failures unless we allow ourselves to examine them. If we repress, we lose the lesson and build up future pain. What would I have liked to have done more? Done less? What was valuable to my life as a whole? What took a lot of time, but proved not to be valuable? Again, no judgement against the self, we just recognize these things.

Asking these questions allows us to get a deeper impression of the year. We can begin to ask some less tangible questions. What brought me joy? What did I love? Who were the most important people in my life? What can I do to express that to them, to show gratitude to them? How can I show those same qualities to myself?

There are unlimited questions we could ask ourselves about the year gone by, and it is valuable to come up with a few yourself, based on what’s important to you. At a certain point it is time to transition from the year gone by to the year to come. I’ll try to take at least a day for each. Not necessarily sitting at a journal all day, but having that intention for the day. Bringing it with me to yoga class, to the coffee shop.

The year to come represents enormous opportunity. One could argue that the transition to the new year is purely theoretical and arbitrary. Sure, I agree. The solstice is Tuesday, New years is in a week and a half. There are all sorts of other landmarks around this season that can be used. But regardless of what is arbitrary or true, the idea of transition and new beginnings can be very effective for bringing in new energy to our lives.

Imagine: if you wanted to, you could change everything in your life in just a matter of the next few weeks. If you are out of shape and overweight, you could start on the path of health and fitness by exercising every day. You could make that part of your life and your routine, part of who you are. You can start a new hobby, a new craft, and eventually make that into your life’s work. Never done much art? You could start painting every day, again making that part of who you are, and by the end of the year you would have enough talent and work to begin to sell art in a real way. These things won’t necessarily be easy, but they are achievable.

Or the changes could be much more modest. You could spend substantially more time with your family, your kids. You could cut out habits, get away from screens and pocket vibrations. You could start jogging regularly or learning how to throw pottery. All these take a strong will and a set of powerful intentions. They take more than a half-hearted New Year’s resolution. But New Year’s is still a great time to do them.

As we begin to look forward, we need to keep in mind the reflection we’ve done on the past year. Frame the questions in a similar way. What do I want to do? What big events would I like to accomplish? Any travel? What are some small things I could do that might make a big difference?

And get bigger: How do I want to live? What are going to be the main focuses of my energy? Who do I want to share my life and my love with? What one thing would I do every single day, if I could? What do I want to create? How do I want to grow as a person?

If you’d like, come up with a word for the year to come. Something that embodies the values and intentions you’d like to live.

There is reason to be optimistic. We have the power to create our own lives. Even with the complications and guidelines put on us by society, we always have the opportunity to choose how we respond to the world. We can create an internal state that is resonant with our values and with the people we love.

I encourage you to give it a try. Even if it’s just an hour sitting down with a notepad for the past year and one for the next, this exercise has enormous potential. The days are nearly the shortest they’ll be all year, and this is a natural time for reflection. Treat yourself, and have some fun with it!

The Inner Self vs. The Outer Self

Yesterday I listened to a podcast while painting a bathroom. This is the great thing about podcasts — they make you want to write blog posts. This particular one was “On Being” with Krista Tippett, and for the bathroom-painting episode, she was interviewing Seth Godin, who is hugely popular in certain internet circles, especially for his ideas and writing about authentic marketing.

Seth and Krista were chatting about how to get your message out, and who to connect to, and what makes that connection meaningful. If you want to know all the details about this, I recommend listening yourself. The super boiled-down version that I took away was: it’s not about how many people you connect to. It’s much more about connecting with the right people, with your tribe, and feeling part of that community.

This is not a new idea for me. I doubt Seth invented it (if he did, bravo!), but it’s at this point it’s widely dispersed on the web, and I’ve even written around the idea before. But something clicked for me this time. An analogy, or parallel, or metaphor (oh, the power of metaphor!), that I’ve experienced personally with the disconnect between the inner self and outer self.

Basically this: so often, we do work because we’re good at it, or because we think more people will like it, or like us. I do this all the time. All the time. And on the surface, it’s useful. It makes it easier for people to like us, it makes us relatable. These are great things! They contribute to meaningful relationships. But this bending of ourselves also has negative aspects to it. Over the long-term, it wears us down. It keeps us from intimately knowing our deeper selves. It allows us to repress things we don’t think will mesh well with everybody else, and I would argue, from developing a strong sense of character.

And for me, sometimes I do feel like I lack character. I worry that I’m boring. That by being some kind of meditation/mindfulness guide, I’m not supposed to have strong opinions about things, or at least not express those feelings. I love guiding meditation and leading mindfulness workshops, but I worry that I give the impression of being chill and passive all the time. Don’t worry friends, I am not always chill and passive!

Here are some things about me that are not encompassed by this mindful/deliberate internet persona I’ve somewhat intentionally created:

  • I love long, intellectual novels. Infinite Jest is my favorite book even though everyone says it’s pretentious. Anna Karenina and War and Peace are tied as my favorite Tolstoy novels, and I think Proust is a baller.
  • I’m often pretentious and arrogant. I think I’m right about a lot of things, even though I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself I’m not right about everything.
  • I’m a huge fan of Bernie Sanders, and consider myself to be a socialist. I think capitalism is evil, and exploits humanity’s most base tendencies.
  • Sometimes I care a lot about money and capitalism.
  • I don’t meditate everyday, and sometimes I go weeks without doing it at all. I do notice a difference in my life (things aren’t as good) when I’m not meditating regularly, but that isn’t necessarily enough to get me to get back in the routine.
  • I exercise a LOT (ideally twice a day), and believe that that is the number one most important thing we can do for our mental and physical health. Way more than meditating.
  • I keep meaning to see a therapist, but keep avoiding it.
  • I like getting absorbed in board games, and I’m good at them. Some combination of being competitive and good at math.
  • I’m good at math.

As you can see, this is kind of a silly list and the things are not a big deal. I doubt any of them are going to cause me to lose my “tribe.”

So, let me pose a question. What are the things about you that you repress, or don’t like to bring into the public eye? Why is that? Is that something you want to change? It’s not necessary to do so, but I think it’s a good thing to acknowledge and be aware of. There’s the mindfulness coach talking again…

Meditating Buddha

Strategies for Dealing with Discomfort

I’ve written before about sitting with discomfort. It’s a big piece of the puzzle that is “mindfulness,” and something I think about a lot. As Americans (not to exclude everyone else, I’m sure this happens everywhere), we tend to view discomfort as this untamable beast that will destroy our picture-perfect lives if we let it show its teeth.

But discomfort is a fact of life. It’s going to part of our experience no matter how hard we try to protect ourselves and our loved ones from it. And it goes further: discomfort is where the most of our personal growth happens. It’s not even a bad thing. If we are to expand our boundaries and comfort zones, we have to accept that discomfort is a part of life and even embrace it at times.

There are five main strategies we have for dealing with discomfort. We can either try to avoid it in the first place, ignore it and push through, sit with it and observe, deal with it ourselves, or ask for help. My experience with mindfulness is that it has shifted how I respond to discomfort from avoiding and ignoring to observing and healing.

I made this awesome pie chart to how regular contemplative practice can change our experience with dealing with discomfort. This data is 100% made up, but the colors are great and having a chart on a blog makes it look so real. SO REAL! Check it.

Discomfort Chart

Let’s take a quick look at each one.

Avoid it. Classic move. Here we don’t even get far enough to admit that the discomfort could be a possibility. We go to great lengths to avoid it, in all likelihood creating more discomfort (or else building up internal shame and repression) along the way. This is generally bad news. There are certainly some discomforts that we should avoid (Life Pro Tip: Get a good mattress. Long-term back pain is not worth the cheaper alternative.), but for small, natural discomforts, it’s better to just face them and get some good practice dealing with it. Sore from going to the gym? Learn to love it!

Ignore it. Again, this is a favorite of the success-driven world. Power through! Haven’t gotten enough sleep for a few nights (or weeks)? Drink more coffee! Energy drinks (eww)! This is a big one in relationships. We ignore the difficult conversations we need to be having, and instead opt for business-as-usual. Ignoring discomfort tends to allow it to build up until it reaches some kind of breaking point, which won’t be pretty. Sometimes we need to do this for short stretches to meet deadlines, create meaningful work, and provide for our families, but we should always be aware of what’s happening and keep in mind that it should be temporary.

Sit with it. This is the main point of the post I linked to earlier on. By sitting with discomfort and just observing it, we learn to be comfortable in more challenging situations. This allows us to grow and develop a deep sense of happiness.

Deal with it. Some discomforts aren’t good to sit with for a long time, particularly if they are related to an injury (physical or emotional) in the body. Often when I’ve been neglecting my yoga practice, my body feels discomfort in the form of tightness and aches. I’ve learned that this is a sign that I need to get back into it and deal with those discomforts. Right now I’m icing my hamstring for a minor strain. I know I’ll feel better about everything if I clean my house. Take action!

Ask for help. Oh boy, this is a hard one. Sometimes we need a good friend, and sometimes we need a professional. We can’t do everything for ourselves all the time, and we’ll run ourselves into the ground if we try. Western medicine has taken an approach of only focusing on the extreme cases where something is obviously damaged. Most of the time we’re not in this situation, but we may still need healing or help. Seeing a therapist is always a good idea, regardless of how positive we’re feeling. Acupuncture, massage, chiropractic, meditation, reiki, and whatever else you’re into, can all help us go beyond our baseline feeling of “not injured” to feeling great (they can also deal with some of those injuries!).

Once we recognize these different approaches to discomfort, our contemplative practice will begin to provide us the wisdom to know which is the most appropriate route, or combination of routes, to take at any given time.

The Four Basics Needs

Plato said that Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But in Greek. This is a friend of mine from college’s favorite quote, and I think about it fairly regularly. I’ve become more convinced of it the older I’ve gotten (my friend must have been wise beyond his years). And I hope that if you’re a regular reader, on some level you also agree with the sentiment. Introspection is key to success and happiness.

It sounds so simple, but when we really bring this idea into practice, it can get a bit hairy. Okay, so we’re supposed to examine our lives. Cool. So I guess I’ll just sit down and… think? Maybe. But, think about what? My life? Okay, that’s a lot. Maybe too much.

So how can we think about life in a practical way? What works, and what allows us to understand things in a way that will also allow us to improve them? There are all sorts of great ways to categorize life in this way, including the Life Pie (basically, you rate yourself on six different categories and see how that changes over time. These change depending on who makes the chart, but they are basically: Work, Friends, Love, Health, Spirituality, and Adventure) and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

The four basic needs are even simpler, and focus on our emotions. They were described by Dr. William Glasser, and this is also referred to as “Choice Theory.” These needs are the ones that are beyond our basic survival: they are our most fundamental emotional needs, and a lack of any will disrupt our whole life.

Of course, as with any psychological theory, there are criticisms and whatnot, but for all practical purposes this description is great. Way easier to think about than Maslow. I’ve used it on wilderness trips with youth, and it provides a wonderful platform for learning to talk about and understand our own emotions. In my own life, it has helped me clarify what I’m missing or needing at a certain time.

Love and Belonging

The biggest, most fundamental need we have is for love and belonging. This can include familial love, romantic love, friendships, being part of a community, the whole shebang. Humans are social creatures, and no matter how introverted we may be, we still need relationships in order to feel complete and healthy (okay, maybe excluding a few reclusive monks/hermits/gurus). Whenever we’re feeling bad, this is a great first place to look to see if there’s something we’re missing.

Am I feeling excluded? Am I feeling lonely, or separated from my people/group/family? Have I been isolated by working too much, by skipping social engagements, by being in bed sick, or anything else?

The importance of this basic need is the reason social media is so popular. Facebook, Twitter, etc, all give us a sense of being connected to each other even when, I would argue, most of those connections are superficial and don’t satisfy the true need for love and belonging.

When love and belonging are lacking, we need to make a special point to get out in the world and connect with the people who mean the most to us. This can be hard, as loneliness can create a vicious cycle of not wanting to see people and feeling more isolated.

Power and Self-Control

Power and self-control refers to having agency in one’s life, and being able in some way to direct its flow. It is connected to freedom (which is next), but it is about being empowered to make big decision happen. For most people, having power and self-control correlates to some kind of stability, perhaps through being able to support one’s self financially.

When we become disempowered, we begin to lose faith in ourselves and the systems around us. Our self-worth may be connected to our power and self-control, as society has taught us that having a good paycheck is a sign that we’re good people. This may not be true, but it can certainly feel that way.

We can also become empowered through education, and by feeling validated in the endeavors we take on in life. Much of the intention of this blog is to help us all become more empowered in our lives, and take control over the negative influences that are all around us.


In some ways, freedom can be a manifestation of empowerment, but it does deserve its own category. Someone with a high-paying job who has to work 80 hours a week may be empowered, but lack freedom. Someone who is unemployed may have the freedom to go take off on adventures every week, but lack the power (financially or emotionally) to actually go out and do it.

Freedom is about being able to explore the world and our dreams. This doesn’t necessarily mean we have to go travel abroad every year. It is about being in a place that nurtures our growth, and that allows us to have choices about which direction our lives go.

If we’re lacking freedom, we may lash out at the people or systems we feel are limiting us. Often our perception of what is limiting us is not what is truly responsible. For instance, we may build up resentment toward a partner about something that could be resolved by talking about what our needs are and how they are not being met. Better to express the need for an evening with friends once a week than to feel stifled for years without mentioning it.


This is the best one. What’s the point of life without a little fun now and then? Even with all our other needs are met, if we don’t have some fun once in a while life will seem dry and monotonous. This can take whatever form we like, but it’s important to have enjoyable experiences. Even better if they help create a sense of love and belonging, or take advantage of some freedoms we have.

With an understanding of these four basic needs, we can begin to examine our lives in a useful way. “What is lacking?” “What is strong?” “What can I do to make things better?” By framing these questions around our needs, we can create concrete plans for improving our lives and taking the next step in our own personal development.

Low on love and belonging? We can call up some friends. Lacking power and self-control? It might be a good time to take a look at our job or living routine. Missing freedom? We can create small acts of spontaneity even in a busy schedule. Not having any fun? Let’s go play some games, pick up an old hobby, or try out a new activity. It’s a great way to frame the question, and leaves out the philosophical angst of trying to figure out how to live an examined life.

Getting Into a Rut, and Breaking Out of It

You know the feeling when life is a little bit less exciting than it should be? When everything feels hard to do, and nothing is paying off? When the clouds are extra dark and you can’t quite remember what the sun looks like (this happens a lot in the Northwest)? Do you feel like you might be in, I almost cringe to write it, a rut? Everything is crashing down! Things are all wrong! They will never be right again!

Whoa. We’re okay. It happens all the time. This is totally normal. It sucks, but it’s okay.

I know how it feels to be in a rut. I’ve been there before, a lot. A rut can be especially devastating if we’re working on our own projects and lack external support or structure. It’s a natural part of the growth cycle, and sometimes we just have to accept that things are going to seem shoddy for a bit. Here’s my strategy for dealing with the dreaded “RUT.” 


This can be the hardest part of the whole thing. If we aren’t able to recognize that we’re in a rut, or that we’re sad, it is easy to think that the world really has gone wrong. It is easy to blame our feelings on external circumstances and things that are outside of our control, and to let those feelings wallow and dwell inside us.

The first step is saying to ourselves, “I’m in a rut.” Or, “I’m sad.” By owning our feelings, we can better understand what it is that we’re missing or needing at the moment. As long as we blame the outside world, we’ll never be empowered to make the changes we need.

For example, if everything feels like it is going wrong and I blame it on the economy, then I am completely disempowering myself to make things right or better until the economy improves. Here’s there secret: the economy has no bearing on our present-moment happiness, or on how we interact with the day. It can feel like it does, but that is because we are giving away our power to external influencers.

Accept Our Feelings

Once we recognize how we’re feeling, we need to accept that and remind ourselves that it’s okay. We’re allowed to feel feelings! Even if they are tough ones. There is nothing wrong with feeling sad or in a rut. That is part of being human. Once we tell ourselves “I’m in a rut,” the next things we should say is, “and that’s okay.”

Even when we’re not feeling great, it is important to remember that we are not any less loved or valued. It may feel like the world is against us, but it’s not really. A few negative interactions or hard conversations can bring us way down, but if we can remain compassionate toward ourselves and others, all of that is bound to buoy up again. Which brings us to:

Push Through

Every rut ends. Feelings of sadness pass. Everything changes, the good as well as the bad. It might take a day, or a week, or a month, or even a year, but be certain: it will change. In the Vipassana meditation tradition, the word for this is anicca (from Pali, pronounced a-nee-cha). This is also translated as “impermanence.” Everything, literally everything, changes. Even the laws of physics change, if we look back far enough. Our bodies are constantly changing, our moods and emotions. The economy changes, our social values change, technology changes.

When we’re down low, we can be sure that we will be up high again later. When we’re up high, we also know that there will be times when we’re low again. This is how it works. We will be best off if we do not become attached to either of these feelings, the highs or the lows. For the most part, we cycle around a baseline level of happiness, which is independent of external events (but can be increased by changing our world-view and through meditation). When we’re feeling bad, we lose sight of this and feel like things will never get better. They will.

And so we must try to push through. Things will get better with positivity, but it might take a while. Sometimes an external event will snap us out of a rut, but most often we just kind of get over it. It’s important to continue the projects we’ve decided are important to us, to keep exercising, to keep visiting with people at least somewhat regularly. Those are all things that can be hard to keep up, but that will help us out of the rut, if we let them.

And most importantly, we need to remember that being in a rut is not the end of the world. It’s not a sign that everything we’ve been working on is wrong, or that we should stop creating. We need not cut off ties with the world, or do anything drastic at all.

Instead, finding ourselves in a rut is a sign that we should take care of ourselves, take deep breaths, and go for a run.

We’re okay.