Success, Redefined

“The secret of success is constancy to purpose.” Benjamin Disraeli

I have decided that constancy to purpose is also the secret to happiness and inner peace. After my wake-up call from stress-induced B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy, I realized that I needed to focus on the things that really matter to me and let go of other expectations whenever possible. There are so many obligations, options, opportunities, causes, people and ideas competing for our time and attention. Trying to keep up with all of them and stay healthy is just not feasible.

We each have to find our own best way to make a difference—to make the contributions we want to make to the world, while remaining as healthy and centered as possible. This requires focusing on our unique opportunities to be a positive force in the universe and spending our time and energy doing those activities that feel most right. These are some touchstones that I find helpful in striving for this focus:

Clear values. Compassion. Excellence. Integrity. Fitness. These are the ethical aims that drive me and the most basic characteristics for which I want to be known. When I am clear about what ideals are most important to me, they guide my decisions in the directions that reinforce and enhance those principles in my life.

A philosophy for living. It is my responsibility to use my strengths and maximize my gifts to ensure that my net contribution to the world is positive. I express my gratitude for the strengths and gifts I have been given by putting them to effective, positive use.

Awareness of my strengths.  Honesty. Love of Learning. Perseverance. Gratitude. Judgment. According to the VIA Survey, these are my top five strengths. I frequently check in with myself to determine how well I am utilizing these strengths. Focusing my energy, whenever possible, on activities that allow me to employ these strengths optimizes both my effectiveness and my ability to find personal fulfillment in what I do.

Acknowledgement of my gifts. This list could go on and on. I am aware that I have been given so many resources and gifts, ranging from a loving upbringing to robust health to a quality education to a love of cycling and a drive to be fit. As an undergraduate student doing both paid and volunteer work in the nonprofit sector, I felt guilty for having been given so much, when I regularly witnessed so much suffering around me. In the years since, I have transformed the guilt into a healthier ownership of responsibility. I strive to maximize, not squander, my gifts. To provide just one example, I celebrate and express gratitude for my good health by nurturing it through cycling; eating a whole-food, plant-based diet; parking at the far reaches of parking lots; taking the stairs—even to the tenth floor when visiting people in the hospital—and making responsible decisions to take care of myself. To do otherwise, in my opinion, would be to scoff at the universe that has given me so many wonderful resources and to neglect my responsibility to give back.

A mission. To contribute to the advancement of human evolution in the direction of compassion. Compassion is my cornerstone value. I strive to live a life of compassion and to structure my decisions and actions around this value.  I can’t magically change the world into the one I wish it were, but I can keep pushing the needle in the direction of compassion. I am encouraged by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” By living and modeling compassion, I hope that I am planting seeds that will grow and flourish in this and future generations, gradually improving the conditions of both humans and nonhumans.

Recognition of the intersection of my passions, my strengths and the needs in the world. Aristotle said, “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation,” and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I picture these ideas together as a Venn diagram that guides me to my own best way to make a difference in the world. (I created a cool Venn diagram in a Word document, but I absolutely cannot get it to paste here, so I am presenting it as an equation below.)

Passions/Gladness+Talents/Strengths/Gifts+Need=Vocation


And that leads me to where it all comes together . . .

A motto. Fitness is advocacy. This is where all of the above ideas come together in a concise, encapsulated statement that directs my actions and focuses my efforts. There are so many needs in the world, and there are so many ways to address them. We each have to find our own best ways to serve the needs that speak to us most urgently. Represented in the above Venn diagram/equation and summed up in the motto, “Fitness is advocacy,” my unique way of adding compassion to the world becomes clear. When I am fit and healthy and ride hard, while fueling my body with plants, I demonstrate that no one has to suffer or die for us to be well nourished. Being a vegan cyclist has allowed me to educate people in small towns across Kansas about eating well on plants, and it has allowed me to inspire others to try plant-based eating. I give my mind, body and spirit the freedom and movement of the open road while advocating in an upbeat, positive way for compassionate living. There are many other important ways to make a difference. I sometimes participate in other strategies, but I have become clearer and clearer that my signature style of advocacy is through the example I set in my own life. In this way, I feel balanced and at peace.

I started this post with a quote about success, and I will finish it with one of my favorite definitions of success. Mike Ditka said, “Success is measured by your discipline and inner peace.” I have come to a point where I really believe that. I am successful when I adhere to the habits, routines and strategies—the disciplines—that help me to remain consistently focused on my purpose. Deviating from that self-discipline for very long throws me off balance and disturbs my inner peace. When I keep my purpose in focus, I feel peaceful. That is my bottom-line determinant of success: Does this (way of life, relationship, job, commitment, activity, food, etc.) bring me more stress or more peace? Choosing the direction that is consistent with my purpose and nurtures inner peace is success.

 

Reflections on BAK 2016

Two weeks have already passed since Biking Across Kansas (BAK) 2016 concluded at the Missouri border, in Elwood, Kansas. I have learned so much on and through this annual ride. My experiences with BAK epitomize my major goal for this blog: celebrating my passion for cycling and the lessons and insight I glean through it. No doubt, more formidable crucibles exist, but I have found BAK to be a reliable forge for my evolving self. From my first BAK in 1999, when I was a runner-turned-novice-cyclist, accompanying my then-boyfriend (now husband), to my 18th BAK, as a seasoned veteran and BAK Board Member, I have moved through many phases of life; gained and lost animal and human companions, jobs and life directions; encountered physical and environmental challenges and felt my way through parenthood. Every BAK is different and special in its own way. These are my reflections on BAK 2016.

  • We are almost always tougher than we think—if we give ourselves the chance to find out. I think my first real inkling of this occurred when I trained for, and completed, my first marathon, the 1996 New York City Marathon. After my introductory BAK three years later, my mom asked, “How did you know you could do it?” I realized that my experience in the NYC Marathon, as well as the encouragement and example that my husband and his friends provided, allowed me to have the sense of self-efficacy necessary to attempt to ride across the state. This year, I was privileged to help my son Logan discover that he, too, is tougher than he realized. Logan has grown up around cycling and has participated in BAK every year since I hauled him into the wind and up the Blue Hills in my belly. He has accumulated some road miles for each of the last four years, but this year, on a new road bike, he smashed his previous record and greatly surpassed his goals. At one point, while he and I were riding late in the week after leaving a SAG (support stop) where he had been complimented, I said, “People are really impressed with you, and they are amazed by how well you are riding.” He giggled and said, “Yeah, me too.” The 309 miles he rode boosted his confidence and helped him to realize that he is capable of taking on challenges that some may find unreasonable or impossible. I hope that this awareness carries over into other arenas in his life as he prepares to enter middle school this fall and beyond. The confidence that I have built by accomplishing challenging cycling goals continues to be invaluable for me.
  • I felt stronger than ever. Last year, my as-yet-undiagnosed B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy were at their peak on BAK. While I enjoyed the ride, I knew something was not right, and I had thermoregulation issues that caused me a lot of discomfort and concern. I did not really tell anyone how much I was suffering at times. Once I was diagnosed and eliminated the supplements that led to the B6 toxicity, I began in earnest to make a conscious effort to minimize the negative stress in my life, manage unavoidable stress more effectively and optimize my nutrition. I was delighted to find this year that I felt strong and healthy on BAK. At one SAG in Highland, KS, a man told me, “It is just fun to watch you go up the hills. It is like your legs are just carrying you up like a little water bug.” While I appreciated the compliment, he might have retracted it if he had seen me in the hot, hilly headwind stretch that followed that SAG. However, I truly did feel strong and in control over the course of the week, perhaps stronger than on any previous BAK. It was a nice testament to the efficacy of the changes I have made in my life.
  • The wind is just wind, and the hills are just hills. As I mentioned in my introductory post about my blog’s namesake quote, there was a time when I allowed myself to become stressed and frazzled by wind. There was also a time when seeing upcoming hills could psych me out. Since my son rode with me for 309 miles on a very hilly route, I had a lot of opportunity to observe his reactions to hills and wind. When we had a cornering tailwind, he enjoyed the hills and did not worry over them. Later in the week, though, when we faced some challenging hills in strong headwind, his enthusiasm for the hills waned. I tried to share my hard-earned wisdom with him. I have learned that I will get up the hill, albeit a slow, effortful slog at times. I will also reach my destination in the headwind. That, too, can be slow and painful, but I have learned to stay calm in both those conditions, as well as to remain unruffled in crosswind. Those can be unnerving, especially in hills, because the wind currents can become unpredictable and scary. I have learned how to talk to myself to stay calm and collected and peaceful. I tried to help Logan do this, too. I think my words helped occasionally, but I realized that experience is often the most convincing coach. He will probably have to learn these lessons on his own, in order to truly internalize them. Watching him allowed me to reflect on my gratitude for these cycling lessons and to recognize how much I have used them over the past year, as I have worked to manage my stress in healthier ways and to be happier in my daily life.
  • Life is more fun if I am flexible and adaptable. There will be wind, and there will be hills, and I just need to flow with them. Biking Across Kansas provides abundant surprises and unpredictability. Will showers be warm, ice cold, a weak trickle or a needle-like spray? Where will we sleep tonight? What vegan dinner options will be available? On BAK and, I have found, in life, approaching the unknown with a sense of adventure, rather than dread, makes the ride and life much more enjoyable. If I remember the underlying truth—that there is nowhere I would rather be than BAK—I can weather minor inconveniences and irritations without allowing them to spoil the fun. The same is true when navigating the mundane realities of life.
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good. I have been called “rigid” more than once. I prefer the terms “disciplined” and “driven.” I do acknowledge that I can sometimes benefit from relaxing. My nutritional plan on BAK is a perfect example. I never waver in my veganism, but it is not always easy or even possible to meet every one of my daily nutritional objectives while cycling through rural Kansas. This year, I did not always get as many servings of beans or greens as I would have preferred. It is tough to eat exclusively whole-grain pasta or bread, like I do at home. I promised myself this year that I would relax, do the best I could and not allow myself to become stressed if my nutrition was not perfect. I controlled what I could and let go of the rest, and I was very happy and got plenty to eat.
  • Friendships formed and strengthened amidst shared challenge are unique and special. BAK provides an extraordinary medium for growing friendships. Longtime BAKers have shared memories of battling the elements together for many miles over many years. I enjoyed riding quite a few miles this year with my friend David, whose long-ago, matter-of-fact statement about the wind inspired the name of my blog. We share a special bond because of the road battles we have fought together and because of our common love of cycling. We have suffered and survived an 80-mile day with cold, torrential rain, small hail and 45-mph wind. He has stuck by me (twice) when I was slower than slow because of terrible heat cramps. He has worked on my bike roadside when I had mechanical problems. A few years ago, my friend Denise and I rode for a day with two young cross-country runners from Wamego, teaching them how to draft. Even my marriage is a result of cycling. My husband was literally on his bike when we met, and almost all of our dating and early-marriage entertainment was cycling. There is just something special about persevering together when it would be easier to quit.
  • Sometimes easier is better. Before Kenny and I got together, he was a confirmed tenter on BAK. There was no sleeping inside the schools for him. I love sleeping in a tent, so I joined him in his conviction that the tent was the place to be. Once Logan came along, managing the tent and getting on the road in the mornings became more complicated. Over the past few years, and especially now that Logan is riding, rather than sleeping in, we have both realized that sometimes it is just easier and more fun to have one less thing to handle in the mornings (or even in the evenings). There used to be a sort of pride around sleeping in the tent, no matter what. Not anymore. This matches the question that I try to use to make decisions in the rest of life these days: “Will it bring more stress or more peace to my life?” Sometimes easier is better. Kenny and I both owned that truth more fully this year than in the past. We slept inside six of the eight nights. It was easier, and that allowed us both to enjoy BAK more.

A concentrated week spent focused on the bike really illuminates the lessons I learn from cycling. I made a conscious effort this year to enjoy every moment and to avoid dreading my return to real life. Although I would head back out to the Colorado border right now to ride BAK again, I have been fairly successful at cherishing the experiences I had on BAK 2016 and allowing them to enrich my daily life, rather than to look back only with sad nostalgia, wishing my real life were different, as has sometimes been the case in the past.

My goal now is to carry what I have learned from BAK 2016 with me on my training rides at home and in my daily activities as a mom, a wife, an academic advisor, a vegan advocate, a blogger and my assorted other roles. Doing so is evidence that I have truly internalized and incorporated into my being the gifts of the ride.

LoganFirstFullDayBAK2016

Reflections on the First 100 Days of 2016

When I completed my #100HAPPYDAYS challenge with the turn of the new year, I committed to myself to undertake two new 100-day practices. Last Saturday marked the 100th day of 2016. As I was on my bike that morning, I reflected on the first 100 days and my progress toward the goals I set for myself.

First, because I finished Michael Greger’s How Not to Die at the same time the new year was dawning, I committed to myself to use, and strive to complete each day, the goals in his wonderful Daily Dozen app. Although I wasn’t perfect in my completion of the nutrition and exercise goals set by the app, I am very satisfied with my success in this aspect of my first 100 days. Eating according to the Daily Dozen goals has become an engrained habit that has improved my physical, mental and emotional well-being. I am confident that this will remain a daily part of my life.

In addition to striving to eat each component of the Daily Dozen (like three servings of beans, one serving of cruciferous vegetables and two more servings of greens daily), I also internalized the practice of thoroughly maximizing the consumption of green-light (whole, plant-based) foods and minimizing the consumption of yellow- or red-light foods. I was close to this in a lot of areas anyway, but there were a couple of types of food that consistently had a hold on me.

At times I ate a high-volume of (reasonably healthful, always vegan) energy bars. In these early days of 2016, I have not consumed an energy bar. There are certainly worse things I could eat, but the added sugar (even less-refined sugars like agave nectar and brown rice syrup) had a tighter grasp on me that I acknowledged for years. The bars I ate were comfort foods, often consumed in stressful times throughout the day. Replacing these admittedly convenient snacks with fruit, vegetables, whole grains or nuts has been easier than I expected, and I find that I am often less hungry throughout the day than when I was eating one, two, three or even sometimes four of these highly caloric bars throughout a work day.

Additionally, vegan dark chocolate held me in its sway. At one point, when my son was two and we had recently moved, I realized to my horror that I was completely addicted to chocolate. I awoke thinking about how to get it, and I would panic if my supply ran low. I cut myself off from any form of chocolate for three years. Then, I thought I was safe to return to eating it. Sometimes I was. But sometimes stress got the better of me, and I would eat much more than I planned. A dependence crept back in, if somewhat moderated from the dark period years prior.

With Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen, I am striving toward nutritional ideals, not running from fear and controlled by dependence on comfort foods, and I have found that this has healed my relationship with food. Many might be surprised (at least I think) to learn that I have often had a fairly disordered relationship with food. It was not an eating disorder exactly, but an unhealthy expectation for food to comfort, soothe and fix me. There have been periods (especially in recent years) when I felt guilty every time I ate. I constantly disappointed myself by not living up to my expectations around eating. The first 100 days of 2016 helped me to release my disordered thinking, like my body better (although I still have room for improvement) and feel truly good about almost everything I am putting into my body. Food should nourish me. Period. It can’t fulfill any other emotional need or fill a void. The habits I cultivated over the first 100 days have put me on the path of true nutrition and healthy, guilt-free enjoyment of nature’s abundance.

My second goal for the first 100 days was to make writing progress every day. That goal has proven to be more elusive, but, as I reflected on my bike on the 100th day a week ago, I think it has evolved into something bigger and arguably more valuable. What I have realized is that not everything fits into my life every day. That is the bottom line. I have to make choices, and I have to give myself room to breathe. In my ideal world, I would ride, read and write to my heart’s content daily. But, I have to pay the bills, so work consumes my time and my mental energy more often than I would like. And, I am mom to an 11 year old who is increasingly involved in activities (but nothing like some kids). And I am a wife and part of an extended family. And I have to sleep. Nourishing my body takes time and planning. So, some days I get to make progress on my writing. Other days, I think about it and wish I could do more, but have to make a choice.

My encounter with B6 toxicity and small fiber peripheral neuropathy last year was a wake-up call. At base, it was the result of poor stress management and feeling like I had to find a way to fit everything into my life. I tried to do that through over-supplementation, and it had negative results for my body. It scared me because I realized that my attempts to mask my stress had led to something that could have done permanent damage. So, I had to make changes. And make choices. My mantra and my guiding beacon has been Elizabeth Gilbert’s quote, “You do what you can do as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then you let it go.”

Those words have been such comfort and salvation for me. They remain posted above my computer at work, and I continue to get better at living them. I have had to adjust my expectations at work, as I have in my writing and the rest of my life. I no longer demand of myself that I get through all my email daily. I already give up almost every single lunch period, eating and working at my desk most days of most months. I finally gave myself permission to go home even if I had many unopened emails in my inbox. When I am booked with appointments, back to back, all day, every day, for months, it is simply not possible to fit everything else into the serendipitous minutes when I finish an appointment early or a student runs late or (jump for joy!) no-shows. I enjoy my job, but I have had to adjust my expectations, and I have made it a practice to manage students’ expectations. I let them know that it may take me a couple days to get back with them when they contact me, but I assure them that I will respond, and I do. Ideally, I would get to everybody every day. But I can’t and remain healthy.

Writing is the same. I make it enough of a priority when I can that I keep up a semi-regular practice of progress, but I have released the guilt of not accomplishing my stated goal every day. That outcome of my 100 days has probably been more significant than the prolific production of written content would have been. I have learned (and am still learning) better balance and patience with myself.

I have had to apply Gilbert’s words and the internalization of them to other aspects of my life as well. I fall prey to worry that dear friends may feel hurt that I can’t make it to all the events and activities I would like. I have to push aside concerns that I may be perceived as neglecting causes that are deeply important to me. Ultimately, I have to do what fits. I have to prioritize inner peace over constant activity. I have to know my introverted self and how much stimulation and interaction I can handle until downtime is a must.

There was a long period in my life when one of my biggest fears was “settling” in any arena. That concern still arises from time to time. Have I sold myself short in terms of my temporal and financial investment in my education? Do others think so? Am I limiting my success because I am afraid to take risks or to make sacrifices? Have I been inconsistent? Indecisive? A disappointment to myself or others? There are times when those questions and concerns still seep through the cracks in the walls I have erected to shield myself from them. Ultimately, though, my 100 days and last year’s health scare have made it clear that I simply have to take care of myself. Trusting my instincts regarding personal limits is a vital aspect of that self-care.

I feel good about my first 100 (now +7) days of 2016, and I feel ready to move forward in a way that maximizes my nutrition and allows me to find a measure of satisfaction with my writing progress and the expectations I have for it in my life. Additionally, the lessons I have learned through the 100 days practices will continue to nurture me in every component of my life. I am grateful for the #100HAPPYDAYS challenge and for the habits and method it has instilled. I fully intend to move forward with those lessons in my toolbox for personal growth.

My Happiness Strategies

I am excited to share some of the strategies I am using to boost my happiness and manage stress in a healthier, more life-affirming way, but I am writing this post as much for myself as anyone because I feel the need to collect my strategies in one place. My progress on this journey feels a bit tenuous—like a setback could make me forget everything I am learning about living a more mentally healthy life. If you read my last post, you know that I had been internalizing stress to the point that I felt desperate enough to overdo B6 supplementation, resulting in self-induced B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy.

I see these happiness strategies as dynamic lifelines. Their comparative value may fluctuate as I move through life. They are presented in no hard and fast order. All have value to me, and all are making a difference.

  1. Mantras: I have mentioned previously my love of quotes. My mantras derive from my quote collection in most cases. Usually, a quote inspires me to personalize the words into an affirmation or reminder for myself. Some mantras remain constant for years. Others are more fleeting, serving me well for a time, until I seem to outgrow them or to move into a different phase in my life. I repeat these to myself, usually in my head, sometimes aloud, often many times a day. Here are the mantras that are currently serving me most effectively:
    1. I do what I can do, as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then I let it go. Derived from an Elizabeth Gilbert quote, this mantra is arguably my most important mental lifeline right now. I am in an intensely busy phase at work. There is really no way to get everything done that I would like to get done “within a reasonable time frame.” In order to sustain myself through this intensity, avoid burning out and resist a spiral back into unmanaged stress, I had to redefine what constituted a reasonable time frame and adjust my expectations. This is difficult for me because excellence is one of my core values. But, I cannot sustain excellence if I am so stressed that I am damaging my health. So, I have Gilbert’s quote posted above my computer at work, and I repeat the personalized mantra countless times throughout the day to calm myself and to remember that I am only one person, trying hard to do good work, in a limited amount of time, with multiple responsibilities pulling me various directions.
    2. I am deeply fulfilled by, and grateful for, all that I do. This mantra is a balm to counter resentment at the bureaucracy, the mundaneness and the minutiae of life that can wear me down and leave me feeling discouraged. Louise Hay deserves credit for this mantra, because it was inspired by her words, “Find a way to be deeply fulfilled by, and grateful for, all that you do.” (Also posted above my work computer.) “Finding a way” is a crucial aspect of the effectiveness of this mantra. When I repeat this mantra to myself, I challenge myself to identify meaning in my activities of the day or even the moment. How does what I am doing right now (or what I did today) fulfill me? What meaning have I created? What value have I added? It is a useful mental exercise that helps me to keep or regain perspective, when I feel the threat or reality of being swept up in the tide of constant appointments and/or obligations. When I challenge myself to identify and acknowledge the meaning in what I do, I feel calmer and, truly, more fulfilled.
    3. My thoughts shape my perceptions, determine my actions and behavior and create the world I envision. This mantra has been part of my daily self-talk for years, and I often use it to ward off fear and to remind myself how powerfully I shape my own reality by the way I approach life. Although I don’t fully subscribe to the Law of Attraction, I do believe that how I choose to define myself and my circumstances influences how I experience life. I find myself repeating this quote while cycling as I approach an area where I have had problems with a dog. It gives me strength and feels a bit like a talisman. Whether or not it actually wards off chasing canines, I can’t say for sure, but it allows me to feel more powerful and more capable and it reminds me to expect the best and to do as much as I can to help myself.
    4. I am happy. I am healthy. I am peaceful. I am free. This is an adaptation of the Loving-Kindness Meditation. These words calm me and induce gratitude. I enhance the benefits when I extend the meditation to friends and family, those who don’t understand me and all beings. (e.g., May all beings be happy. May they be healthy. May they be peaceful. May they be free.) My heart expands when I take the time and make the mental effort to extend these wishes to others. I feel more generous, more peaceful and happier.
    5. I choose happiness. I use this to shove unproductive thoughts out of my head. Sometimes I couple this with an emphatic, often audible, “This is my time!” I do this especially on my bike. Processing emotions and issues is one thing; allowing myself to haul the baggage someone else (or a situation) creates is another. I shed the baggage by remembering that I choose happiness, not the weight of victimhood.
  2. Three things that went well today: I mentioned this practice in a previous post. Each night before I go to bed, I write in my journal three things that went well during the day and why. I have done this practice, recommended by Martin Seligman, for several years, and I treasure it as a way to center, reflect on the day and focus on the positive. Even on very difficult days, I challenge myself to find three good things to record. Sometimes they are profound; sometimes they are mundane, but the practice makes a big difference to my overall outlook. I practice on a miniature, mental scale throughout the day. If I leave work feeling stressed, I recall three good things from the day as I walk to my car or drive home. Sometimes, I use a variation of this in the morning. If I feel draggy and reluctant as my alarm sounds, I find three things to which I can look forward that day.
  3. Does it/will it bring me more peace or more stress? This question is a very important strategy for me. I ask myself variations of it many times throughout the day, particularly when I am at a decision point. Will eating this chocolate bring me more stress or more peace? Which item on my task list is causing me the most stress? Once I identify it, completing it becomes top priority. If I attend this function, will it bring me more stress or more peace? To the extent that it is possible, the choice that adds peace and/or minimizes stress is what I select.
  4. “I have three criteria to apply to any item trying to make its way onto my to-do list: Is the activity fun, meaningful, or absolutely necessary?” – Amy Tiemann: When I read this in Amy Tiemann’s Mojo Mom, several years ago, I was struck by its wisdom. There are so many obligations and options competing for our time; it made sense to have some criteria with which to choose those most worthy of my precious minutes. I try to ask myself these questions before accepting a responsibility, taking on a task or attending a function. Of course, these are subjective criteria, but they promote awareness and conscious decision making. They minimize the risk that I will agree to do something solely out of guilt, thus lessening the chance of resentment.
  5. Year-round cycling: Cycling is such an important part of my life. Its value cannot be overstated. I am unquestionably a nicer, healthier, higher-functioning person because I have cycling in my life. I am a proponent of exercise, in general, and I look for ways to add movement to my day. But, cycling is special. I cherish the time I am on my bike, even on rides like yesterday morning’s, when I was battered by a raw north wind for most of my 50 miles. I have typically declared the end of daylight savings time in November until it begins again in March to be my off-season. This year, acknowledging how hard fall and winter are for me, I have decided that I will maintain some level of cycling throughout the year. I will still have an off-season, in that my rides will be relegated mostly to short (15-20 miles) weekend rides. I will need to invest in more cold-weather cycling gear, but I think it will make the winter months easier to bear and will allow me small doses of the mood boost I get from cycling throughout the year.
  6. Reading: Like cycling, reading is invaluable to me. I am always reading a book (99.9% nonfiction), and I always have books waiting for me on my Kindle and in a stack. Having a book with me wherever I go serves as a security blanket. I grow so much through reading and through processing many of the ideas I encounter in books while I am on the bike. I have been focusing heavily on positive psychology and happiness literature recently (currently reading Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home), but I read many other types of books, too. I read whenever and wherever I can. While an undergraduate, working full time during the day and going to school at night, I got into the habit of reading while brushing my teeth, getting dressed, folding laundry, etc. I still do that. I can read while washing dishes by using my elbow to change the pages of my Kindle. I love to learn, and reading is one way I can take control of my lifelong education and personal development. As I drive home from work, a joy often pops into my mind: “I will have opportunities to read!”
  7. Quotes: Beyond personalizing quotes into mantras, I refer to my five volumes of collected quotes multiple times throughout the day while at home, randomly selecting words of wisdom through a ritual I have used for years. One change in recent months is that I give myself permission to select another random quote if the first (or subsequent) one doesn’t speak to me in the moment. I then ponder these quotes, especially in situations where I won’t have the opportunity to read or will have the opportunity to think (before turning off my book light to go to sleep, before leaving in the car, before getting on my bike, before getting into the shower, etc.). This practice calms me or sometimes excites and inspires me. Even quotes I recorded years ago suddenly may be particularly resonant.
  8. Blog: This blog arose out of my personal quest for happiness. Writing is one of the ways I center and process, plus, I have found myself with an urge to share the lessons I learn through cycling and reflection. I have a loose vision for the future of this blog, but, for now, it is a creative outlet that I hope others find helpful. However, its value to me is not dependent on whether or not it benefits others. Writing it is an end in itself. Taking the time to do so feels like a luxury. It would be easy to say that I can’t afford the time, but I think the truth is that I can’t afford not to take it.
  9. #100HAPPYDAYS: When I saw a post about this project on Facebook, I knew that I was ripe to participate. Having recently learned the cause of my neurological symptoms and being struck by the reality that stress, anxiety and depression contributed to them, I was committed to enhancing my own happiness. #100HAPPYDAYS extends beyond “three things that went well today” because it forces a more active pursuit of happy moments. Since I have to take a photo to post some symbol of happiness that occurred during the day, it is not enough to retrospectively reflect and choose good things; I have to look for them actively and capture them with my camera. This turns my focus more often to the positive.
  10. Push myself: For me, this mostly involves cycling. I find that I am more energized if I ride on the other side of comfortable several times a week. I feel good about my gains, and my body benefits from the endorphins released by the vigorous exercise.
  11. Vocation: I owe my renewed appreciation for the word and the concept of vocation to Elizabeth Gilbert. In Big Magic, her discussion of vocation helped me to recognize an often-missed coherence to my daily life and to my lifelong personal and professional journey. At this point in my life, “vocation” is a more useful construct than “mission” or “purpose.” My vocation encompasses both the way I live my life and the work I do. I see the value that each leg of my journey has brought to the whole of my vocation. I find peace and comfort in this view. My blog, my paid work, my veganism, my cycling—all are components of my vocation.
  12. Devaluing “busyness”: I recognize that, for several years, busyness has been my signature state. When people asked how I was, I often responded, “Busy.” I equated commitment to busyness, excellence to busyness and responsibility to busyness. Now, I can see where that got me, and I want to put busyness in its appropriate place. Yes, my calendar is still full—very often fuller than I would like or fuller than my introversion would choose—but I have pushed busyness off its pedestal and recognize that whatever benefits wearing that label may have given me, the costs were greater. I have changed my language so that I try to refer to my schedule as “full,” rather than busy. The difference may be semantic, but “full” connotes abundance to me, while “busy” connotes stress.
  13. Redefining success: As someone who has always pursued straight A’s and high academic achievement, I have too often felt shame at my nonlinear career and income trajectories. It is easy to say to myself that someone with two master’s degrees should be making more money than I do. But, have I ever really chosen my work for the salary? That has always been a secondary or even tertiary or lower criterion, probably to my fiscal detriment, but integrity and, yes, vocation, have always been more important. I can acknowledge that the financial return on my academic investment is probably lower than I would have hoped or than most people would expect, but I do feel like the work I have chosen to do throughout my career has generally made positive differences in people’s lives and to the world, albeit in incremental ways. A quote I found in UU World magazine several years ago (I believe this is a paraphrase of a quote by Mother Teresa.) said, “Every action makes a ripple. The ripples change the world.” I hope that I will make enough positive ripples that there will be more compassion and less suffering, more excellence and less complacency, more integrity and less insincerity and more fitness and less squandering of potential in the world. If I accomplish those things, then I will have been successful.
  14. Limiting exposure: Sometimes the world can feel so heavy. As an ethical vegan, the suffering experienced by nonhumans and humans alike can be seriously depressing. I have found that I simply must limit my exposure to the sad stuff. Compassion fatigue is real, and I have a strong tendency toward it. I am aware that there is a line between burying my head in the sand and overdosing on vicarious suffering, sadness and bad news, and I try to stay reasonably balanced between the two. My veganism provides an example. I have been vegetarian for over 33 years and became vegan over seven years ago. For the intervening 26 years, I wanted to believe that being vegetarian was enough. Finally, I knew that, in order to live my values with integrity, I needed to educate myself more thoroughly about the suffering of animals in the dairy or egg industries. As soon as I allowed myself to learn the truth, I became vegan. I continued to learn more, but reached a saturation point, especially after the heartbreaking loss of my special dog Andy in 2011. I realize that, in so many ways, Andy’s death was a crucial turning point in my life, representing far more than the pain of that loss. I am a committed vegan. There is no turning back for me, so there is no point in continuing to torture myself by reading or watching animal suffering. It is more productive to focus on what I can do to contribute positively to the world, rather than to become unbearably weighted down with the sadness of the world.
  15. Adjusting my expectations: This is related to the first mantra I discussed in this post. Living this mantra means that I have to adjust my expectations, but I am careful to distinguish between that and lowering my standards. Instead of demanding that I address every email before I leave work, I use my “more peace or more stress?” strategy to determine my highest priorities for the following day, and I move on “in a reasonable time frame.” It makes a difference. Another area where I have adjusted my expectations is this blog. Initially, I committed to posting at least once a week. I have found that life doesn’t always allow that without undue stress. Since Just Wind is one of my happiness strategies, pushing myself to produce substandard work, just for the sake of staying on an arbitrary and unrealistic schedule, makes no sense. I will emphasize quality over frequency.
  16. Strengths: Related to being fulfilled by what I do and finding meaning in my daily life, I focus on identifying the ways that I am using my strengths—those character traits and talents that most empower me to make a difference—to contribute to the greater good in the world. I know that life feels more rewarding when I am putting my strengths to good use.
  17. Adding movement: A practice I started several years ago (and resurrected after a brief hiatus when I changed jobs) is to add a little movement to my work day by taking the long way to or from the restroom every time I get up for a bathroom break. This takes only a minute or so, but it helps me to get a tiny burst of physical activity and clears my head for a moment.

While I hope this (admittedly long) post will add value for my readers, my primary objective is to create a collection of my most useful happiness strategies, as a reference for myself.

Please share your happiness strategies in the “Comments” section. (If you tried to comment on previous posts and couldn’t, I think I have fixed the problem.) I would love to learn from fresh perspectives. We can all contribute to the happiness in the world by pooling our accumulating and evolving wisdom. It is one of the ways we make ripples.

A Cautionary Tale

On a long bike ride at the end of May, I noticed a strange sensation on my shins and knuckles. The breeze felt much colder than it should for the actual temperature. I had never felt anything like it and even wondered if I was imagining it. Over the next few days, though, it became apparent that I was not imagining the sensations. Washing my hands in cold tap water felt like I was dipping them in ice water. Pulling frozen fruit or vegetables out of the freezer was painful, causing my fingers to sting for several minutes, like I had just come in from playing in the snow. The sun felt absolutely blazingly hot, inordinately so, like the breeze that was too cool for the true weather conditions. For some reason I had become hypersensitive to temperature.

I also noticed that a little bump or scratch was disproportionately painful and that itches were “itchier” than usual. Other neurological symptoms developed. Over the next several weeks, which included Biking Across Kansas 2015, the symptoms became more pronounced. I didn’t tell anyone at first, but after we returned home from BAK, I made a doctor’s appointment, which led to referrals to a neurologist and a hematologist and to several unpleasant tests. Blood work at the neurologist’s office revealed that my B6 level was high, and the doctor told me to stop immediately all supplements containing B6. Another test indicated probable borderline small fiber peripheral neuropathy (SFN). After extensive testing, the best explanation for the SFN is B6 toxicity.

I feel fortunate because there are many scary things that could cause SFN, and I don’t have them. However, I also initially felt deeply disappointed in myself because I realized that I caused the SFN.

Over the past few years, stress management has been an increasingly difficult struggle for me. I think hormonal changes, job demands, parenting challenges, overstimulation of my introvert sensibilities, grief over the loss of beloved animal companions and perceived relational support circumstances are among the contributing factors. My stress is not extraordinary, and I am well aware that countless people face far tougher challenges, but, for whatever reason, management of my stressors has been a bigger problem in the last several years. I share all this, in part, to progress along the road to recovery that I am paving, but also because I think there is important information in this story that may be able to help others.

During a particularly stressful time in 2013, I Googled “mood support” one evening. I think I was looking for online support, but the natural supplement NOW Foods Mood Support popped up. I saw right away that it was a vegan product and thought, “It’s meant to be!” The product contains St. John’s Wort, Valerian root and B vitamins. I take full responsibility for what happened, but I did clear it with my primary care provider, who deemed it completely safe and encouraged me to take even more, which is a good reminder that we all need to be informed patients and consumers who think for ourselves and listen to our wise instincts. I was also taking a multivitamin at the time, as well as a B12 supplement that contained B6. In addition, I frequently included nutritional yeast, supplemented with B12 and B6, in my smoothies. In the spring of 2015, feeling really overwhelmed and stressed, I doubled my dosage of Mood Support. After my neurological symptoms appeared, I stopped my multivitamin and went back to a regular dose of Mood Support. Although I never suspected B6 as the culprit, I think I had a gut feeling that Mood Support might be involved in some way. I continued to take the regular dose, along with the B12/B6 supplement until the neurologist told me to stop. In retrospect, I can recognize that each reduction in B6 dosage has improved my symptoms. In fact, they are almost gone now. Many types of neuropathy are not reversible, but my internet research indicates that SFN caused by B6 toxicity may be. I go back to the neurologist in December and am encouraged that I will have a complete recovery. I am thankful to have had good medical care that got to the root of the problem before permanent, serious damage had been done.

This is not a condemnation of Mood Support, but a cautionary tale of what can happen when we function from a place of desperation, rather than a place of good sense, reason and compassion for ourselves.

I aspire to translate my level of attentiveness to bodily and environmental cues on the bike to the rest of my life. When the wind conditions change or an obstacle in the road appears, I make adjustments to my body position, level of effort or bike handling. When I plan a fast ride, but the wind is blowing 35 miles per hour, I adjust my expectations. I often remind myself to “take what the road will give me.” That doesn’t mean I am always entirely satisfied with my performance on the bike, but I find that I am satisfied, even quite pleased, more and more often because I have learned from my years of cycling, and I have implemented those lessons to improve my performance—and happiness—on the bike. My challenge is to apply this same strategy to the rest of life, in order to manage my stress more holistically, rather than trying to cover up or wipe out the ramifications of the stress, while simply pressing forward and feeling increasingly overwhelmed.

I take such care to eat a nutritious, compassionate diet, yet I took supplements with abandon because my emotions felt out of control. It is my responsibility to practice the same compassion with myself that I try to practice with all human and nonhuman others. This means knowing when to set and implement boundaries and creating time and space to recharge when I feel overloaded. As an introvert, I need more quiet (even if active, on the bike) downtime than extraverts may need. This is not a character flaw; it is just who I am.

I haven’t solved all my stress management issues, but I am trying hard to pay close attention to my needs and to use my bike, journaling, mantras, quotes, reframing and positive psychology to manage my stress instead of pressing blindly ahead and covering it up. Riding and reading are my two major lifelines to mental and emotional health. Right now, I am immersing myself in positive psychology and happiness literature, and I am feeling the benefits of that. I process much of what I read while I am on my bike.

I wanted to share this experience because I know we are all under stress, and the temptation exists to look for a quick fix so that we can keep plowing forward. I have prided myself on not doing that; however, retrospectively, I recognize that my excessive supplementation was just that.

As my paid work enters a particularly intense period again, while the rest of life keeps on coming, I plan to keep these words from Elizabeth Gilbert visible in the physical spaces I inhabit and in a prominent and readily accessible place in my mind:

You do what you can do, as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then you let it go.

Like a bike ride.

I ride as well as I can while I am on the bike, and then that ride is finished. I move on, let go of any disappointments or frustrations and start fresh on the next ride. I owe the world nothing more than that in the rest of my life. I am one person, trying to do the best I can to make positive contributions where I live and work. I choose to view this experience with SFN and B6 toxicity as a gift and a wake-up call. I refuse to let stress, anxiety or depression suck the life out of my life. I will listen to my body and to my heart and do my best to adjust, based on the cues I receive when I pay attention to how I am feeling and what those feelings may mean.