A Bigger Yes

Lately, one of my favorite Stephen Covey quotes has been on my mind. In his terrific book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he said, “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically, to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.”

The concept of a bigger yes translates for me to freedom earned through introspection to discover what really matters, awareness to recognize when something may jeopardize our priorities, focus to keep our yes in the front of our minds and self-discipline to say “no” to things that threaten what matters most.

I am at my most empowered when I honor my bigger yes.

Recently, the arena where a bigger yes has been most prominent is nutrition. For most of my life, I have lived a bigger yes when it comes to food. Because of my desire to live compassionately and my commitment to justice for all living beings, I have been vegetarian since 1982 and vegan since 2008. This was easy for me. The bigger yes was compassion. Ceasing my consumption of meat as a 12 year old required some creative maneuvering within my family, but it did not require willpower or sacrifice. I was clear that I cared more for animals than I did for eating their flesh.

For so many years, I wanted to believe that being vegetarian was enough to satisfy my ethics. I allowed myself to linger in blissful ignorance for too long after better information was readily available. It was easier not to know. Until it wasn’t. For a long time, I had told myself that chickens didn’t suffer for us to eat eggs and that milking relieved the cows of their burdens. Deep down, I feared that I was lying to myself in my ignorance. Finally, compassion and commitment to my ethics became a bigger yes than convenience. As soon as I allowed myself to learn the truth, I became vegan. Sure, it requires asking more questions and being a bit more resourceful, but the inner peace of prioritizing my bigger yes makes any inconvenience well worth it.

More recently, the nutritional bigger yes (coupled with my commitment to my ethics) is my long-term health. Toward that end, I have incorporated Dr. Michael Greger’s Daily Dozen app (See this post.) into my everyday life. That part was easy. It just meant some small modifications to my daily habits—adding beans to my morning smoothie to get a head start on my three servings; ensuring that I eat at least two servings of greens, plus a serving of cruciferous vegetables and including an eighth of a teaspoon of turmeric into my smoothies. These changes just meant eating even more of nature’s goodness. They weren’t difficult.

More challenging was recognizing that I needed to give up some of my (healthful!) extras in order truly to optimize my health and fitness and avoid gaining weight. After reading How Not to Die, by Dr. Greger, I became serious about making my long-term health and well-being my bigger yes, even more clearly and more boldly than it previously had been.

I have recognized in the past that I have had an addiction of sorts to dark chocolate and energy bars. During times of stress and anxiety, I have used these and other foods for comfort or security. Reading and internalizing Dr. Greger’s evidence-based, whole-food message, I recognized that my relationship to my comfort foods didn’t fit all that well with my nutritional objectives because of the added sugar and the processed nature of those products. Although the energy bars I ate were vegan and relatively healthful, my bigger yes is to maximize whole foods in my diet. So, I stopped a nearly daily habit of both the bars and the chocolate on January 1, when I started using the Daily Dozen app. (The date was coincidental—the day I learned about it—not by design.) In addition to added oil, which I had already largely eliminated, I also decided to avoid added sugar, even agave nectar and maple syrup, and to pay closer attention to the amount of sodium I consumed. Then, I increased my intake of some of the most healthful foods on the planet—dark, leafy greens; flax; beans and whole grains—but I kept a lot of my other little comforts.

They were nutritious additions—bonus foods—to the Daily Dozen. My son had broken our scale, so I focused on how great I felt and enjoyed the knowledge that I was putting good food into by body, without worrying about my weight. Several weeks into this cycle, I went to the doctor for an annual check-up. Stepping on the scale, I realized that even this good stuff was causing me to gain weight that would not maximize my cycling performance or optimize my long-term health.

Once again, it was time to acknowledge and honor a bigger yes. I decided to treat the Daily Dozen goals not as minimums, but as loose limits. By and large, I am consuming only the Daily Dozen now. This is not restrictive! There are so many wonderful, nourishing whole-food options. I am not automatically putting cacao nibs in with my nuts, eating nuts or nut butter several times a day or mixing vegan yogurt into my berries every single day. I still eat these things—nuts are part of the Daily Dozen—but I am eating just enough servings to meet the Daily Dozen goals, and cacao and vegan yogurt (one of the only processed foods in which I sometimes indulge) are truly occasional now. This allows me to honor my bigger yes.

I don’t feel deprived at all. Instead, I feel satisfied and peaceful because I am clear about what my priorities are, and I am living them. These are my comforts now.

Cycling is a bigger yes for me, too. It would be so easy to sleep in on a summer Saturday morning, but if I did, I might not get my long ride. The ride is a bigger yes than the leisurely start to the day. I know that I will feel better and happier with myself if I get up early to ride than if I don’t. Last Friday, I got up at 3 a.m. to take my mom for a medical procedure. Happily, it went well, and I was able to get her home by 1 p.m., avoiding the overnight hospital stay we had expected. When I got her settled at home, she suggested that I take a nap and then go for a bike ride (beautiful day in February!) before my son got out of school. I said, “I am going to go for a bike ride and then maybe take a nap because cycling is a higher priority.” It is not that sleep is not important; it just means that I had to make a choice, and that choice was to honor my bigger yes.

The bottom line is that there is only so much that fits into any one life. We have to make choices. When we say “yes” to one choice, it means that we are saying “no” to another. Conversely, saying “no” makes room for a “yes.” The key is being devoted to a bigger yes, so that the noisy distractions can’t overshadow it. I view this as freedom.

My biggest tormentors are my own feelings—anxiety, stress, disappointment, shame, disgust and guilt. I have found that one way of reducing the power these tormentors have over me is to honor my bigger yes in every situation. When I do that, I am free from disappointment in myself, as well as its previously mentioned conspirators. The key is to be self-aware enough to recognize the bigger yes. These questions may help us discover and honor our priorities:

  • What matters most to me in life?
  • What are my core, defining values for which I want to be known?
  • What do I most want in this situation?
  • What actions will help me to achieve my most important goals?
  • Which choice will bring me the most peace?
  • Where do I need to say “no” in order to make room for my bigger yes?

Reflection and journaling can assist in clarifying the answers to these questions. Then we must commit to the bigger yes. We must decide that we are worth the courage, effort, sacrifice or social backlash that may come with the actions necessary to honor our bigger yes.

As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said in one of my all-time favorite quotes, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” The bigger yes helps us hold on to what is most important and to resist the pull of distractions. I have often said that discipline is the reward for making a tougher choice, one that honors a bigger yes. With discipline comes freedom, which brings us closer to inner peace. The more I nurture my bigger yes, the freer and more peaceful I feel inside. That freedom is worth more to me than any taste, convenience, nap or social approval ever could be. The bigger yes often requires making the unconventional choice. That is okay. I choose integrity over convention any day. People don’t always understand or appreciate the choices we make to honor our bigger yes, but I have to live with myself one hundred percent of the time, so I choose to direct my behavior internally. As Covey said, it takes courage to do that, but the rewards are great.

Expressing Character Through Movement

“It’s so powerful to get a sense of our character as our bodies express it, as all of our senses perceive it.” Journalist and surfer Eve Fairbanks said this in reference to her experience learning to surf. Her words resonated with me because they articulate the way I often feel on my bike. I think this is the aspect of cycling—and other movement—that is most magical. Like Fairbanks, I learn more about who I really am and about the depth and quality of my character when I ride.

I think athletic endeavors, in general, can teach us so much about who we are. I have told students and clients in the past, “You are capable of more than you realize.” I know this because I have seen it borne out time and again on the bike and in other athletic events.

Biking Across Kansas offers a wide assortment of cycling conditions. Over the 17 tours I have ridden, I have enjoyed gorgeous, sunny days with tailwind; I have also slogged my way through hours of brutal headwind, miles of torrential rain and hypothermia-inducing wind, among other conditions. What I have learned through training and touring is that I am tougher and more resilient than I once would have dared to imagine.

Exercise, in general, and cycling, specifically, has allowed me to get a sense of my character in the way that Eve Fairbanks describes. In her article, “How Surfing Taught Me to Make Choices,” Fairbanks explains that she had to “decide to stay on the board.” I believe that is true for so many things in life, and she agrees. That decision to stay upright on her surfboard taught her to be more resilient and persistent in her life on land. The bike has done that for me. The more I ride, the more confident and powerful I feel—and, therefore, become. It is one of the great beauties of cycling for me. I am able to translate something I accomplished on the bike—like finishing a brutal 80+-mile day—to the self-efficacy I need to persist at other challenging tasks, whether on two wheels or two feet. I have many times said to myself, “This isn’t as hard as Satanta to Ashland or Spearville to Ellinwood.” Those are epic BAK days from years past, and they have carried me through many a tough headwind or a difficult work project.

I know that I possess the character necessary to accomplish difficult things, to stand in my power and refuse to give up, back down or shrink away. The off-season is hard for me, for a lot of reasons. One is that I have fewer opportunities to reinforce the expression of my character on the bike. Even an easy day gives me a little booster shot because of the exhilaration of the ride.

My wish is that we all find a way to allow our bodies to express our character, that we realize that we are tougher, stronger and more powerful than we know.

Board or bike, court or field, road or trail, mountain or canyon, class or machine—there are so many ways to test our bodies, which really translates to testing our minds, our inner toughness, our mental discipline. I encourage you to experiment, if you don’t already know what physical challenge allows you to express your character. There is nothing like the feeling that comes with that full expression of our deepest selves.

Lives and Lifelines

As it often does when I am moving in some way, my mind wandered when I was walking home from my son’s basketball game a couple weeks ago. I don’t recall the specific stream of consciousness that led me to the thought that it often seems like I have lived several different lives. As that thought occurred to me, I wondered if I was the only one who often feels that way and if most people experience life as one coherent path.

I find that it is often easier not to allow my thoughts to linger too long on past phases of life. Pain, disappointment, shame and regret stain some of those memories. There is happiness, too, but when I think about life this way—in compartmentalized lives—the negative emotions are the ones that push my thoughts quickly from one to the next.

Anatole France explained this phenomenon well. “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

Reading his words, I realized that at least some other people must feel the same way.

For me, the melancholy is not nostalgia or wanting to “go back” to some previous stage of life, although there may be certain individuals or feelings that I miss.

It is more that I have needed to let go of a phase—to die to one life—in order to move into the next.  Frequently, the past lives that I tend to push out of my mind are those that ended with at least some degree of involuntariness—deaths of animals and humans I loved, disappointments in jobs, hard decisions that had to be made because of life circumstances.

Sometimes I have died so completely to a life that, as far as I know, people who have more recently come into my life have no knowledge of something that once may have been a huge aspect of my identity or fact of my life. Often, that is because I want it that way. It is easier than getting into details of the past and less painful than bringing up a topic that still has a lot of heartache around it.

I wonder—does this make me less than honest? Or does it mean that I am living in the present? Is it healthy to die to the past lives, or is it just a way of repressing pain and other negative feelings? Maybe it is a little bit of all these things, and the fact is that we are so overloaded with information in the present that there is rarely room for ventures back in time.

There is a ritual in the Unitarian Universalist tradition (and some others) called the Burning Bowl Ceremony. It is usually done at the beginning of a new year, but my son and I performed our own ceremony at the 2015 winter solstice. In a Burning Bowl ceremony, people write down things they would like to leave behind, place them in a bowl and burn them as a symbolic release of habits, relationships, ideas, problems, worries and other things that may be dragging them down. I certainly haven’t done that for every phase in my life, but in our 2015 ceremony, I included generic categories of shame and regret because I had felt myself too often dwelling there in the past year. It felt cleansing and has been largely effective.

Maybe that is why I am noticing the phenomenon described by Anatole France more acutely than I have in the past. Maybe the release of certain “lives” is more complete and conscious than it has been in the past.

I think it is sometimes necessary to shed some excess baggage in order to move forward to the next phase. Maybe this is intrapersonal evolution, although not all changes feel that way in the moment. Perhaps they are all part of the spiritual, emotional and intellectual growth that is part of gaining wisdom, although it sometimes feels more like cynicism, I notice.

In any case, France’s words resonated with me and validated the ideas that had been going through my head.

I am reminded of Maya Angelou’s words from Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now:

“Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction. If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment, we must be ready to change that as well.”

Maybe that is what it is all about—having the resilience to move with some grace from one phase of life to the next, and the only way to do that is to die to one life, to put down the baggage that adds unnecessary weight.

Maybe those lives have already done their work to shape us. I believe we retain the growth. Even if our minds don’t go back, the changes that those lives and even the loss of those lives effected in us are part of us now and forever, part of that journey that Maya Angelou recognized as an indelible aspect of her identity.

Writing about this does induce—or maybe arise from—a sense of melancholy. Again, it is not nostalgia, not a desire to return, but a recognition of having come through an important leg of the lifelong journey—like turning out of a long stretch of headwind on the bike. It may have worn us out in the short term, but in the long run, we will grow from it.

Just as important as moving forward on our journeys without carrying undue burdens from the past are the people, activities and values that have seen us through many or all of the phases of our lives. Those are the threads that connect all the different lives—the ones that have died, the one we are currently living and the ones that we will live in the future. They are the constants, integral to our identities.

Cycling has been a constant for me. Although I didn’t start cycling seriously and passionately until I was 28, the avocation became so much more and attached itself to my personal value system. The attachment has grown tighter—indeed has been a lifeline—as I have lost dogs, people, career paths, identities, dreams. I am grateful that, while I can let go of what weighs me down, I have aspects of my life that allow me to continue to find my way and remember who I am at my core as I push forward.

I think France and Angelou understood that the journey is all about learning what we need to learn in a phase of life, dying to it when circumstances dictate and holding tightly to the threads that form the lifeline to connect one life to the next. Recognizing that the lifeline is there even alleviates some of the melancholy associated with the serial dying that we must do in order to keep on living.