Sunday, September 16, 2007

Have you been upgraded to the Valley Wing (and not realize it)?

When I was checking into the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore a couple of weeks ago, I asked the front-desk person, “Is it possible to get a room with one king-size bed rather than two double beds?” I get kind of creeped out sleeping by myself in rooms with two beds.

He looked doubtful. But then after clicking on his computer for a few minutes, he announced that he could comply with my request and that I’d been upgraded to the Valley Wing.

“That’s nice,” I said, though the phrase “Valley Wing” meant nothing to me. Still, you gotta love the word “upgrade.”

My room in the Valley Wing was really nice. Extremely spacious and sort of classic-looking but brand new at the same time. The bathroom was divine. There were many interesting things to investigate, like the automatic blackout curtains and shoeshine kit.

Since I was spending a relatively large percentage of my earnings upgrading my airfare and hotel, I decided that economizing was in order. So, the next morning I made coffee in my room with the free coffee provided, and deferred eating until later. Internet access was free in the lobby, so I hung out for some time in the lovely gilded Valley Wing lobby checking up on things. Several times I was asked by the exquisitely coiffed lobby hostesses if I would like a coffee, cappuccino or tea, but I smilingly resisted their blandishments. I didn’t want to spend seven bucks for a cup of coffee after spending three hundred dollars a night on my room.

The second morning I splurged on the breakfast buffet, since felt it important to be well-nourished in order to perform several hours of workshops. I’ve seen a lot of breakfast buffets in my time, but nothing like what the Shangri-La provided. It really defies description. There were a lot of food choices, very artfully provided. It cost about forty bucks, but I felt it was a reasonable investment.

The fourth morning, as I checked email in the lobby, I was again asked if I would like something. My workshops done, I decided to treat myself with a cappuccino. The cappuccino came in a little Wedgwood cup, with a glass of water and a cookie on the side. Yummy! Afterwards, I asked for whatever I needed to sign.

“No, sir, there’s nothing to sign.” It turned out beverages were free in the lobby of the Valley Wing.

The fifth and final morning, since I was flying later in the day, I again went to the breakfast buffet. However, I wanted to be intentional about my spending. After the waiter asked for my room number, I asked, “Do you have an a la carte menu?”

“We do have an a la carte menu,” the elegantly dressed waiter said. “But you are staying in the Valley Wing and your breakfast is included. So you can have the buffet if you want. Either way.”

So there you have it. All week I had been resisting the offers and entreaties of the Shangri-La. “Not for me,” I’d thought, marveling at my self-control and financial focus. “I’m spending three hundred dollars a night and not a penny more!” Yet all along, the free, lovingly made beverages and buffets were mine for the taking. It just never occurred to me that such things were possible.

It’s easy to think that we are only going to get things in life if we struggle for them, and that the outside world is our opponent rather than our collaborator. But what if it’s more complex than that? What if we’ve already been upgraded to the Valley Wing? What if the world is waiting, in some way, to help and support us. Can we let ourselves see it?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

What I learned from Madeleine L'Engle

Here’s what I learned from reading the obituary of Madeline L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, who recently passed away at age 88: she didn’t write this massively bestselling book until after she was 40. In fact, in her thirties her writing career was going so badly that she thought she might give it up. The novel itself was rejected 26 times before finding a publisher. How’s that for inspiration?

If you haven’t read A Wrinkle in Time, you have missed out on one of the great experiences of childhood. It is practically the awesomest book ever. So go out and get a copy!

I can still remember how I felt in fourth grade when Mrs. Thacher read our class a chapter each afternoon after lunch to help us cool down. (This was at Navajo Elementary in Scottsdale, Arizona; given the midday temperatures lunch recess resulted in my daily entering a state of heat exhaustion and borderline mental illness). As she read the novel, I was transported.

A Wrinkle in Time is a book that’s both intense and easy to read. It’s about a girl named Meg who steps through a tesseract – a wrinkle in time – to a parallel universe in order to find her missing father, who despite his PhD can’t save himself. Meg is accompanied on this journey by her eerie genius 6-year old brother Charles Wallace. They meet characters named Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which, and find a planet run by an evil force where all the children creepily bounce balls with exactly the same rhythm. Lots of other stuff happens.

Now that I think about it, Meg’s journey is sort of a metaphor for career growth and transition. She’s plunged into uncertainty and weirdness, her parents can’t really help her, and she gradually discovers that she has talents she’s never really seen or valued. The whole journey is scary and dangerous but far better than living on the planet of people who bounce balls with exactly the same rhythm!

When asked in an interview how she came up with the idea for A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle said, “I think that fantasy must possess the author and simply use him.” She then added, “I cannot possibly tell you how I came to write it. It was simply a book I had to write. I had no choice.”

When reading this quote I thought of myself. I thought of the time I have spent wondering why I’ve made the decisions I have, both in work and love – basically why am me, as I am, rather than a different version of me.

What if we thought about the ways life possesses us rather than always thinking about how we are supposed to possess it? In other words, what is sometimes life is in charge rather than us?

Focusing on what we can do in our lives – as they are now -- rather than endlessly wondering why we are here, or why we’re not somewhere else – opens up possibilities. Maybe you can write a book that goes into (literally) 69 printings. Or maybe you can just bounce your ball to your own personal rhythm.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

How jet lag can improve your life

I’ve popped over to Singapore to do some workshops for the National University of Singapore business school. With a 12-hour time difference, you can’t really fight jet lag – you just have to give into it. But jet lag isn’t all bad.

The mindful pleasures of ironing

What do you do when you are fully awake at 4:30 am, before all the lovely amenities of the Shangri-La Hotel have opened? I ironed my clothes. Slowly and carefully, since I had a lot of time to kill. First my suit and tie; then all my dress shirts; then my jeans. I lovingly attended to every ironing detail. And you know what? I felt really happy.

Mindfulness is being in the moment. “Now I am ironing,” the mindful mind observes. “Now I am turning the sleeves inside out because I once heard that’s what you are supposed to do. Now I am attending to the collar. I am doing these things rather than thinking about global warming, or whether I will forget my passport when I check out.”

Buddhism holds that the monkey mind is always part of ourselves—the monkey mind being the voice that constantly judges and raises points of dissatisfaction. The way to freedom is not to talk ourselves out of vexing questions, but to rise above them by attending to the moment. In this case, ironing.

New frontiers of exercise and community

After a big travel stint last year, I ended up with back pain, weird sleep patterns, and, let’s be honest, constipation. So I decided to go to a Bikram Yoga class since there is a Bikram studio in Singapore.

Normally when I think about going to a hot sweaty 90 minute yoga class, I mentally seesaw for several hours asking myself should I go, will I like it, is there enough time. But with jet lag, I had a lot of time as well as great urgency to do something constructive.

So I went, and it was awesome. “Say hello to Michael from New York, everybody,” the peppy instructor said. I sweated through my bad airplane juju energy, and felt great.

Time to be and time to plan

When your body clock is off, you don’t automatically fall into the normal work, socialize, check email routine of our lives. You have a fair number of hours when you are just hanging out.

So after a lapse of several months, I returned to journaling my Artist Way-inspired “morning pages.” I also spent a fair amount of time planning and replanning my day, to make sure I could do all the cool things that Singapore has to offer – taking advantage of delicious street food (which, in Singapore, is arranged in nice clean indoor food courts) and planning my trip to the Singapore Zoo’s night safari. Plus getting ready for my workshops. The end result was that I felt ready for my days, because I’d taken time just to reflect and anticipate, rather than just to jump in and bounce from activity to activity.

Jet lag can make you gorgeous!

You can curse jet lag or you can cheer it. Notwithstanding the great street food, I haven’t been all that hungry so I’ve eaten lightly. Plus I went to Bikram Yoga three times. So I’ve lost like five pounds. So now I’m coming back confident and trim rather than bloated and regretful. Hooray for jet lag!