Life's Rules


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I The less you need, the more "discomfort" you can disregard or endure, the more situations you will find comfortable or positive. As M. Scott Peck says, "If you accept that life is hard work, then you are likely to enjoy it."
II Surrender to Life. Understand that the currents of life carry you in directions not of your choosing. It is usually better to swim downstream than to fight against the tides.
III Even though you are only a small part of the whole, in your own small arena, be a part of the repair of the world. In the microcosm of family and our community, you can, and should, make a difference.
IV If you love yourself, you are always in good company. The way to self love is to lead your life in a way that you respect and admire. Integrity, caring, doing for others, living ecologically - leaving every place a little better than you found it- all lead to self love.
V Be grateful. To notice how lucky you are—even for small things--, how lovingly others treat you, is to be aware of being nurtured. It is the source of deep well-being. Without noticing, we can be immersed in plenty, but still starve psychologically. But even the most meager environment provides great gifts to us, if we notice.
VI Joy, not excitement, is the transformative emotion. We get excited on a roller coaster. Joy resides in encountering the wonder of another person, or the wonders of nature. Joy brings us deeper into a magical awareness of the underlying abundance and beauty of life. Every moment, every person, is a treasure waiting to be enjoyed and transformed.
VII You can't run out of love or joy. The only limiting factor is TIME. Time is truly our most precious commodity. It is the only thing of value we can give that really represents a sacrifice.
VIII The most important world is the inner one. It is the only world we can control, the only one that is with us always. What you let enter is what you've got, so watch the entranceways carefully.
IX If a rule or belief makes you unhappy, change it. Good structures (and strictures) make you warm and cozy.
X Just a little more love. In the stew of our culture, there is already an excess of anger and complaint. The world needs more love. Pump out all you can.

Rule I

Learn to tolerate discomfort

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The less you feel you need, the more "discomfort" you can disregard or endure, the more situations you will find comfortable or positive.

We live in a culture which emphasizes buying ever more commodities to make us ever more comfortable. Calluses are out of style. But does this search for the easy life work? In reality, this kind of “you deserve the best of everything” thinking only creates desire for a life we will never have, and feelings of frustration when our life doesn’t turn out perfectly.

A better goal would be to escape from the circle of comfort that we create for ourselves. We tend to remain within the confines of our routines, and we avoid people, situations, ideas that are unfamiliar and might make us anxious. Instead of stretching the boundaries our world, we become more solidly imprisoned. Many of us stay in relationships that range from dull to brutal for fear of facing the unknown. We stay in jobs that are killing us for the same reason. We kill off impulses that might stretch us into new and better life. We participate in the suicide of our souls, our fullest and truest selves.

So instead of avoiding anxiety and discomfort, we should be cultivating our ability to tolerate these feelings. We should learn to crave the unfamiliar, try it out, and then decide whether to continue or drop it.

To Do:

  1. Eat something you’ve never tried before.
  2. Overcome your anxiety and start a conversation with someone who looks “different”.
  3. Borrow a tent and go camping for a day or two.
  4. Think of some entrenched part of your life that you resent. Think seriously about leaving it behind.

Rule II

Surrender to life

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Accepting that we cannot control life is difficult. For me, it began many years ago when I realized that my high blood pressure was related to my style of trying to run everything, trying to make all things work. I once did a painting of a vine strangling a tomato, and saw that it was a metaphor for the squeezing of my blood vessels. In an effort to relax, I had to surrender.

One day, when I came home to find that our plan for a picnic had deteriorated into a family disaster, instead of trying to pick up the pieces, I sat down, complained, and gave up. My 14 year old daughter then sprang into action, took charge and got us back on course. It was the first time I let myself not take over, and it worked out!

When I went swimming in the ocean that summer, instead of riding waves in to the beach masterfully, I lay down and let the waves throw me where they would, often head over heels. I survived, and after a while, it felt okay. I practiced surrendering to the way of the world. This campaign has changed me over the years. One of my daily prayers is to surrender to God’s will. It is a great comfort to relax into a power greater than mine.

This culture supports the view of man as master of his fate. And sometimes we are. But mostly we need to learn acceptance and to value the part of ourselves that can make way for what is. That part of us allows us to accept those we love and gives them the freedom to be who they are. It allows us to stop rebelling against life, and throw that energy into the creation of the best of what is, in fact, possible.

To Do:

  1. When you realize that your world is going in another direction, try giving in and letting it be. Notice how it feels.
  2. In a situation where you normally take charge, stand back and see if someone else comes forward and how that works out. Notice how that feels.

Rule III

Make the world a better place

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This means not seeing ourselves as victims of a dehumanized culture, but as active change agents. It means that in our families, and our communities we are creating a climate change, that we are part of the repair of the world. We are creating joy for ourselves and our neighbors.

We sometimes go hiking with my brother-in-law Ken. He carries a bag and always picks up a few items of trash. Maybe just a few, maybe just one. But his goal is to be sure that the change he makes is positive. John Spillane always shoveled out Mrs. Cook, age 80 plus, after a snow storm. George Gorman often calls people to tell them he appreciated something that they did.

Ever since my neighbor’s children were five, each of them has come with me to a homeless shelter, where a group of us cook an evening meal every month for 60-80 hungry people. When my granddaughter turned five, she joined us. They are all teenagers now, and this has become part of their life’s routine. It’s become second nature for them to realize that they are lucky, that they are among those able to help, that they can be a small part of the solution. We who cook have become a once a month family to each other.

My friend Harry was a master of the art. He rode a motorcycle, and before he hit a tool booth, he’d buy two coffees. One he drank, and the other he’d hand to the toll collector. Harry felt joy as did the surprised collector.

To Do:

  1. Practice one random act of kindness each day. Recall it at bedtime.
  2. Give someone a hug.
  3. Find a group that pushes for something you believe in. Join them.
  4. Be sure to register, and vote.

Rule IV

Live in a way you respect and admire.

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It is the path to self love. Some people think that affirmations like “I am lovable” will change our self esteem. I don't think so. Affirmations come at us from outside and quickly bounce off. Love is a deep inside matter. Self love comes when our ideal self and our real self begin to look similar; when we know ourselves to be kind, constructive, helpful. Integrity, caring, doing for others, living ecologically - leaving every place a little better than you found it- all lead to self love.

Spending time working in an inner city clinic, being in a helping profession, are big contributors to my self esteem. But there are the daily tiny battles. Do I throw the candy wrapper down on the street or keep it until I come to a trash basket? Do I arrive on time when someone expects me? Do I write that thank you note for a small favor given? These small ways of keeping my own integrity are parts of maintaining a good sense of myself.

Honesty with ourselves is perhaps the hardest. Coming to know and accept who we really are, knowing our flaws, admitting them and welcoming them is a great gift. It helps me to be a therapist, coming to know my patients, many of whom are seriously flawed. In coming to know them, I have come to love them. They want help and are willing to be honest about themselves. It’s hard to be angry at someone for feelings and behaviors that they admit and are trying to change. This openness moves both my patient and me beyond judgment into a realm of curiosity and compassion.

So in my own life, I try to be honest with myself, and I remember that being flawed is part of being lovable. This allows me to live out in the open, without hiding, without having to spend life energy defending, lying or pretending.

To Do:

  1. Live by your word. Let people count on you.
  2. Notice one thing you didn’t do right today. See if you can accept that fact.
  3. Offer three people compliments today.

Rule V

Be grateful.

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Noticing how lucky we are--even for small things--how lovingly others treat us, is to be aware of being nurtured. Gratitude is the source of deep well-being. We can be immersed in plenty, but still starve psychologically. Even the most meager environment provides great gifts to us, if we notice.

The focus of our vision determines what we see. With very little practice, we can become much more skilled at noticing the gifts and beauty that line our lives. My wife and I have gotten into the habit of looking up and seeing the sky. It is generally beautiful. Ten years ago, neither of us noticed.

Since our children were young, our family has practiced our own form of grace with each evening meal. We each get a turn to mention something that happened that day for which we are grateful. The rest of the meal might focus on the downs of the day, but we always make a special space for our gratitude.

A friend and colleague Nancy Jo Harrison developed a treatment for depression. Clients are assigned the task of thanking God daily for a series of blessings:

Lord, I thank you for all your gifts to me:
I thank you for_____________________________________.
( a food that is delicious)
I thank you for_____________________________________
(a form of relaxation)
I thank you for_____________________________
(a gracious act shown me by another)
I thank you for_____________________________________
(a conversation that stimulated or made contact)
I thank you for_____________________________________
(a place of beauty I observed today)
I thank you for_____________________________________
(a change -large or small- which signifies growth)

By the end of a month, most respond with a renewed excitement and appreciation of life. Our sense of well-being is highly subjective, and developing the habit of gratitude will maximize our contentment.

To Do:

  1. Practice saying “thank you”. It can be thanking your wife, your friend, or God, but say it at least three times every day.

Rule VI

Joy, not excitement, is what counts.

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Excitement is like cotton candy, it tastes good but is quickly gone leaving us with lots of calories and empty stomachs. We live in a culture that craves excitement: the rush that comes from watching another TV murder, another celebrity scandal, or buying another expensive toy. This adrenaline rush is as addictive as cocaine. Many of us feel bored and empty whenever its demand for greater and greater stimulation isn’t satisfied.

Joy goes deeper and stays longer in the belly. Joy resides in encountering the wonder of another person, or the wonders of nature. Every moment, every person, is a treasure waiting to be enjoyed and remembered.

It is only in relating deeply that we fill up from the center. The kindness and love of family and dear friends settles in the heart. We register the beauty that is revealed through deep and honest talk. As we inhale the mossy air of the forest, we awaken our deep recesses. Real nourishment comes from these experiences. To take all this in requires an empty space, an openness of heart and mind.

To Do:

  1. Tonight, lie down outside and look up at the stars for fifteen minutes.
  2. Practice asking a friend questions like “What are your dreams?”, “What makes you most happy?” and really listen to the answers.

Rule VII

Treasure the gift of your time

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Time is truly our most precious commodity. It is the only thing of value we can give that really represents a sacrifice. We are born, we die, and during our lifetime we are given only a limited number of hours to spend. Sleeping, working, watching TV, eat up these hours. Most of us lead extremely stressful lives. We are too busy, too worried, too hassled. In order to live well we need to slow down, on one hand, and to begin to include more nourishing experiences on the other. We need to think carefully about how we spend our time.

We need to be aware that there is a relationship between the money we spend and the hours of work needed to earn it. Each dollar represents a number of minutes of work, a portion of our life energy. With each purchase we need to ask, “Is the price worth the hours it took me to earn it?”. To be rich, we need only to spend less than we earn.

We may love our children madly, but if our only priority is working late and watching TV to “recover”, that passion has little meaning. Each choice opens some doors and closes others. As I write this, I am not spending time with my wife or playing chess with my grandson Danny.

Love and joy are limitless and renewable. The gift of our time represents a real choice and a real sacrifice. We can love in thousands of directions at once, but we can only pursue these loves one at a time. Unfortunately, the loves not chosen fade. We should be aware of the significance of these minute by minute choices, and make them consciously.

To Do:

  1. Turn off the TV for a week.
  2. Spend some of the time doing something special with a loved one.
  3. Do one of those things you’ve always wanted to do.


Watch what you take in.

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This world is full of toxins, from the air we breathe to the messages we get on TV. TV is rapid fire (leads to attention deficit disorder), is full of murder and sadism (correlates with violent behavior in kids) and cheap sex (leads to premature sexuality and promiscuity). Talk radio breeds cynicism, contempt and anger. If we immerse ourselves in this stream of pollution, we need to realize this will dominate our inner world. And this inner world is the one that is always with us, every minute. If we can keep our inner mind clear, we are much more likely to bring optimism and faith into our lives.

As a psychiatrist at an inner city clinic, it’s hard to not stress the impact of movies like Friday the Thirteenth, “reality” TV and sensationalized news on our children. Their minds and their play are full of the sadism and the fears that our media presents. This blossoms out into their behavior and creates on our streets the same world that the media pushes at us.

To Do:

  1. Cut down on TV. And watch out for what we let our kids see. Just as vegetables and fruit are better for the body than junk food, so conversation, a walk in the park, or a bedtime story are better for the mind and soul than TV and talk radio.
  2. Buy along the outer circle in the supermarkets - the veggies and meat- avoiding the sugar, salt and additives that attack our bodies.

Rule IX

If a rule or belief makes you unhappy, change it.

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Many of us believe that in order to be happy, we need to earn more money, have more friends, gain admission to some club, have children, get affirmed by our parents or our boss. Or that it's wrong to buy an expensive coat. Or that children require harsh discipline, even if we suffer when we provide it for them. Or we might believe we can't change.

I used to believe I needed 8 hours of sleep. I would get miserable at the prospect of staying up late, no matter what was happening. About age forty I went to a one week camp where we were up half the night, and started each day at 6 AM. It was exciting and surprising. I was never tired! I realized that that if my body needs sleep, it will get it. Some nights I sleep 4 hours and get up to do some writing. When I’m really tired, my body drags me to bed early and I sleep for eight or nine hours.

Years ago, I knew I couldn’t do electricity, so when our living room light switch stopped working, I yearned for an electrician. But it was Sunday. Breaking free from my conviction I was incompetent, I decided to try. I took off the plate and was surprised to find that not only could I pull out the switch, but it had only two wires. I could make sense of it! If I bought another switch, I could just connect those wires, and we’d be fixed. So I did, and it worked. Since then, I’ve fixed our dryer, endless leaky facets, our lawnmower, the lock on our car door, and lots of others. The essential thing was to imagine that if I just looked into it, it would make sense. After that most repairs are pretty easy.

Some beliefs are harder to recognize and change. Four years ago, on Father’s Day, my oldest daughter Laura came up to me at church and asked what she could do for her husband for Father’s Day. We discussed it reasonably, and then I went home and sulked. She never wished ME happy father’s day. No card, no present! My younger daughter remembered, but that didn’t count. I took to my bed. By one o’clock I was in a deep sulk. After all I had done for them! No one loved me. No one had ever loved me. I was into those feelings of invisibility and neglect that had flourished in my childhood. I always knew no one loved me. By two o’clock I was furious. A little voice told me to listen to the answering machine but I was too busy sulking. At three the phone rang. It was Laura. “Did you listen to my message?” “Did you get the present I left for you?”

I thought it over. What surprised me was that I hadn’t checked the answering machine, even though I knew I should have. I had to realize that what I really wanted at that time was to feel that familiar sense of being neglected. While I was sulking, it was more important to confirm what I’d always known was true- even if it meant feeling unloved. What an encounter with myself! I’m glad to say that after catching myself in this craziness, I haven’t done it again. I’ve really given up the belief that no one loves me.

But, like me, lots of us are attached to finding any evidence to support our old beliefs. We hang on to them like old friends, even if they are choking us.

If we decide to change such beliefs, we may have to work at it, but the reward will be greater happiness and inner peace.

A good set of beliefs will make us warm and cozy. Some of them may liberate us, like a bird freed from a cage. Some may constrict--like tightly tucked blankets that hold us in the night. A good belief is simply one which works for us and makes us feel good.

To Do:

  1. Try doing something you know you can’t do.
  2. Call someone today whose beliefs you admire. Ask him to meet and talk about how he thinks.

Rule X

Just a little more love

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Often, on finishing up treatment with a family, I ask them why Johnny got better. I am secretly waiting to hear which of my brilliant, subtle interventions ended his tantrums and sulking. (After all, I learn all the latest techniques from all my sharpest colleagues.) The mother tells me she realized he needed love and began hugging him all the time. I’m sure she’s right. If she’s specially nice, she’ll tell me I suggested it. I don’t think I did.

But we do live in a cold competitive culture, and many of us believe that to praise a child, or an employee, or even our spouse, will make them too self satisfied and less eager to work hard. I have often supervised outstanding therapists, and when I tell them how much I love them and their work, they are stunned. No one has ever said that before! Most of us are starving for love and affirmation. It is a too scarce commodity, even though it is free, and so much fun to offer up.

To Do:

  1. So my last suggestion is to turn up the love. No matter what the situation, whoever the person is, try to find that big heart inside, let it break through your reserve and find the words and the behavior to offer love. Once every day. Maybe twice. Or ten times.


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