Are you successful? Am I? Can success be measured or quantified? To get some clarity around the word I consulted the source I’ve been relying upon since childhood - my dictionary. Here’s how the Oxford Dictionary defines success: 1) the accomplishment of an aim; a favorable outcome. 2) the attainment of wealth, fame, or position. 3) a thing or person that turns out well.
Recently, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, two American icons of success, both decided to end their lives. Despite having attained wealth, fame, position and creative fulfillment, in the final analysis, no favorable outcome worth living for remained for either of them. In a recent Time Magazine article I read that suicide rates have increased steadily across nearly every demographic over the past two decades, rising nearly 30% from 1999 to 2016. While suicide is most common among middle-aged and older adults, rates are on the rise in many age groups. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics this past May, almost twice as many children were hospitalized for thinking about or attempting suicide in 2015 as in 2008, and young women appear to be disproportionately affected by the overall increase. From 2010 to 2016 the suicide rate among girls ages 10 to 19 rose by a shocking 70%.
Suicide is the most extreme manifestation of personal hopelessness, but there are countless people not taking their own lives who muddle through their days without passion or purpose. Writer and thought leader, Hiro Boga says, “We cannot live in a fractured society without becoming fractured ourselves” and I couldn’t agree more. So here we are, many of us “successful” but feeling fractured in a world that often seems to be spinning out of control. I write this blog with the wish to put some of the pieces back into place and make stronger and more beautiful that which was once broken. If my words touch a single soul I will consider myself successful.
Though many online platforms are in place to “connect” people anywhere at any time, it seems to me that people are feeling more isolated, depressed, anxious, and disconnected than ever before. Living with constant pressure is considered perfectly normal and even desirable in our cutthroat society. On the other hand, taking time for healthy and daily pleasurable self-care is regarded as a frivolous pastime for the likes of Gwenyth Paltrow.
In our desire to be successful and productive we’ve allowed ourselves to abandon play and make so many spiritual withdrawals that our life accounts are beyond overdrawn. In this sluggish survival mode we’ve become desperate for a slice of peace - no matter how small or falsely induced, often relying on behaviors that enable us to check out temporarily. This can be dependence on or addiction to numbing substances or behaviors that ultimately create more distance between us and our bliss. Some of these dependencies are considered mainstream or even glamorous, until they extend beyond a certain point and morph directly into sloppy or tragic. Hiro Boga is spot on when she says, “Often, the price we pay for living in this fragmented way remains invisible to us, not because we’re stupid or willfully ignorant, but because we’re conditioned to believe that this is just the way things are. We don’t see the costs to ourselves and our beloveds, or the price we exact of others and of our environment, because it’s hidden under shiny skirts, or buried in the garden bed of pseudo-belonging.” No single quote could make me think more of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.
While constant and chronic stress consumes our own adult lives it’s also swallowing up our kids whole. Concerned and well-meaning parents everywhere encourage their kids to strive and compete with their peers for limited resources and opportunities. They truly believe this is the key to success. No wonder so few of us are feeling whole and happy. It might be time to redefine success and the journey we take to achieve it. Maybe if we start to believe and teach our kids that the opposite of success is not failure but fracture, we can actually begin to heal ourselves and our world. In order to put ourselves back together again we need truth, kindness, acceptance, presence, connection and love.
Recently, my family and I and a couple of friends put ourselves in the competent hands of Chris Reed, founder and principal guide of Woods Walks, for a nature-immersion experience. Our combined intention was to venture into our local forest with a sense of wonder and newness and permit ourselves simply to “be.” My teenage daughter grimaced when I told her it would be a two-hour adventure. “I just want to relax!!!!” she muttered, which is code for, “I prefer to stare at my phone like an apocalyptic zombie.” I invited her to sit this one out because I intended to experience Mother Nature without unwelcome intrusions from a world-weary teenager. A bit begrudgingly, she made the decision to join, knowing she’d have to zip her lip if she wasn’t having fun. Something deep inside her probably knew that the allure of the forest would nourish her soul in a way that social media never could.
Chris invited us to set intentions for our mindful exploration of the woods and all its creatures. We used our senses to soak up our surroundings. Rocks, trees, water, animals both living and dead, were all woven into our uniquely magical woodland tapestry on that June day. I could follow Chris’ exact set of practices another time, but my experience of the woods would be completely different because Nature, while constant in her reassuring presence, is never static.
During our forest exploration, all of us, adults and kids alike, were able to turn inward and deepen relationships with ourselves and each other. I felt sound in body, mind and spirit. Since that wandering day in the woods, I’ve realized I hunger for that same sense of peace daily and not just on special occasions or when I feel I’ve hit rock bottom. Providing ample space for tranquility, kindness and connection to myself is a deliberate ritual that nourishes and soothes me. It’s what enables me to feel whole and share myself authentically with others, so I’ve learned that it is my responsibility to nurture my soul. This is my work. No one else will do it for me. Perhaps it’s meant to be your work too.
Though I go as often as possible, I don’t make it to the woods every day. What I can do daily to nurture my soul is a simple practice that always provides a favorable outcome. It’s a loving kindness exercise known as Metta meditation. Intentionally designed to radiate good wishes, I can adapt it as I see fit and engage in it whenever and wherever I choose. It brings me a sense of calm, comfort and joy every time I practice it, and I believe its effects are not only cumulative but far-reaching as well.
Here’s what I do:
I start tuning into my breath, allowing it to become even and slow. I imagine in my mind’s eye a person for whom I’m utterly grateful...someone I can easily love with no reservations, and I offer this individual the following prayer:
May you be happy and serene.
May you be healthy and protected.
May you be surrounded by grace and sparkle with the understanding that you are deeply and unconditionally loved.
Next I call to mind an individual with whom I have a more complicated relationship - perhaps someone I feel has hurt me or whom I find irritating. I take a deep breath and offer the very same blessing. It gets easier with practice because you realize that this difficult person is likely in desperate need of kindness.
Before the meditation is finished I give myself this same gift of words and it feels like a soft blanket over my shoulders. If you have a hard time offering yourself this prayer, envision yourself as a baby or very young child and perhaps it will be easier. Eventually, I predict that you will feel enormous comfort from this practice and that it will become easier to invest time and energy into self-care routines because you’ve learned how to become your own champion. Like a true friend, you show up for yourself and you stick up for yourself. Who couldn’t use a friend like that?
At this point, I’d like to propose a revised definition of success, a key, if you will, that doesn’t involve accomplishment or attainment of any particular thing but rather the cultivation of an ability. Maybe success is the ability and desire to befriend yourself and sustain that friendship throughout your lifespan. I suggest that the key to success is about showing every aspect of your being deep and unwavering compassion, even when you’re sad or sick or angry - in fact especially at those times. It’s the ability to prioritize your needs for connection, love, rest, peace, play and pleasure even while you’re busy accomplishing and attaining. I intend to keep this key to success in my back pocket at all times and I even made a few extra copies. Perhaps it would be wise to hold onto each other’s spare keys for safekeeping. In a world filled with distractions, you know how easy it can be to misplace your keys.