“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”
I was sitting in a cab the other day en route between meetings – maybe you know the feeling of cross town gridlock, and not a darn thing you can do about it. In the midst of heart palpitations over the conversations that would be delayed due to the traffic and feeling the techno-junkie urge to grab my phone out of my bag to attend to the emails I knew were awaiting response, some voice inside of me insistently but gently said to stop and look around.
All around was a gray day filled with tides of human movement. Around me were sidewalks crowded by the rhythms of people advancing against the wind, against the march of time, and against their own challenges. Out of the many beings moving along, in and out of stores and along the concrete, for no reason in particular I focused upon a 50-something man, swaddled in coat and scarf against the cold. He massaged his furrowed brow as he waited for the crossing signal, and I remembered a practice I learned long ago called Just Like Me. In a moment that could have been pixel filled and “productive” in the energetic bubble of the taxicab, all became still and precious as my heart opened.
Just Like Me is a compassion practice that literally allows you to acknowledge the common beauty and suffering we all share as human beings. It works like this: as you observe someone you remind yourself of the following…
Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in his/her life.
Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.
Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.
Just like me, this person is seeking to fulfill his/her needs.
Just like me, this person is learning about life.
I have shared this practice with corporate CEOs and among 9/11 survivors, the NYPD and youth at risk. I have practiced it myself observing strangers in parks, at the bank and even with folks I share a lifetime of history with at family gatherings. The best thing about it: you can do it in seconds. You can do it whether or not you made it to the gym, regardless of if you have learned to meditate yet, or you have just eaten too much at the last holiday party. You can do it and keep it absolutely 100% to yourself.
A few things: simply deciding to do the practice already shifts your inner state beautifully. When you soften your eyes and really breathe into each statement you make mentally, you not only remember their humanity but allow graceful recognition of your own. Also, once you really get the feeling for the practice, the particulars of the actual statements aren’t as important as the cultivation of a sense of compassion towards whatever you see.
Roll through the final week of the year with a touch more grace. Just Like Me is a great way to use the tendency towards franticness to remind you to become present to the real reasons for the holiday season. Whatever HOLIday you celebrate throughout the year, the holiness of our shared experience is what we celebrate – our suffering and triumphs, our ability to persevere and find delight. I bow in honor of yours.
Although I cringe to post about the holidays — after all it seems so predictable — what I’m about to tell you about is anything but typical. My friend Oliver Ryan started this cool site a few years ago called Social Workout. The concept is to provide a place where people who want to stay on track with their fitness goals can connect with each other, be virtual workout buddies and support each other’s progress. Pretty cool.
I’ve watched it evolve over the years and have been inspired by his willingness to take a need he felt himself (and of course saw plenty of need for among other people) and turn it into a little side business that does so much good for so many people. This holiday season, they’ve launched a really awesome challenge: HolidayAsana . “Asana” means the physical yoga practice, and the HolidayAsana challenge goes way beyond just physical yoga.
Here’s what you have to do to meet the challenge over the 31 days, check it out:
- Practice yoga 20 times
- Eat 25 super healthy “green” meals (they define this as “meal that include at least one fresh, local ingredient. Think leafy greens, lots of vegetables, whole grains, and only organic meats and fish. Not too much, or too little. Best if you cook for yourself!”)
- Volunteer for one hour
- Use ZERO plastic bags
What I love about the challenge is that even though Oliver and his sponsors are based in NYC, anyone can do this ? With the Holidayasana challenge, even if you don’t do yoga you could take the challenge — what IS a form of challenging movement you can commit to doing 20 times over 31 days? I’m psyched about the challenge because really, it’s not limited to what Oliver came up with. You can add your own challenge elements: is drinking more water a goal you need to set for yourself? Sleeping more/less? Meditating however many times for however long throughout the month?
By deciding to take on a challenge, you draw a line in the sand and ask yourself to step up to the plate, or in this case step up to a healthier one. I did this over the summer by going on what I called my “cardio and carb-free cuarenta” which meant basically I committed to 30 minutes of cardio a day and no junky carbs for 40 days. My body and energy have been higher ever since. And although I don’t adhere to it rigidly now, I have continued to keep junky carbs at a minimum and integrate cardio into my week at least three times per week ever since.
Whether you use his site or his idea, modify it with your own challenges or create an online group with some friends and take a challenge or even just make it a quiet little commitment that you do for yourself by yourself — the invitation is to use YOUR LIFE to take action in support of the life within you that IS you.
A few weeks ago I chucked it all and headed to Esalen, a well-established retreat center on California’s pacific coast. I went on a meditation retreat to sit with Sally Kempton, a renowned master for over 40 years. Esalen isn’t a fancy wellness resort like Canyon Ranch or Miraval by any stretch of the imagination. No 500-count sheets. Shared bathrooms are the norm. Truth be told, it feels a little more like summer camp than the Four Seasons, what with the bonfires at night, the serve-yourself line at the cafeteria, oh, and the herb and vegetable garden that is the source of much of what is later served up in the cafeteria.
Although many friends shudder to imagine a weekend without their Fios network, Wii, or anything else going blip or beep, what seems to be the deal breaker is when I tell them how much time we spend in SILENCE. And not just the kind of silence you experience in the absence of communication gizmos, but the kind of silence that happens when you have to stop talking. No sound at all.
What happens when you get silent like that is first your thoughts get really really noisy. The thoughts that arise seem so loud, so unignorable, very quickly some urgency will arise that you mistaken as being real and therefor necessary to be conveyed. It’s almost like someone has crept into your brain and turned on a full-blast stream of constant, jumbledy talk radio broadcasting pre-game and post game analysis of every aspect of your life that has ever or could ever happen. One friend self described the feeling as being like a “talk junkie in desperate need of a fix”. It’s pretty dreadful, and the exact reason why so many of us say, “I can’t meditate, my brain is too busy”, and exactly why we absolutely need to learn to meditate. This is a big moment for lots of folks. Getting through this moment oftentimes will define whether or not the rest of the time in silence really happens.
But what happens over the course of the seconds, minutes, hours and days unfolding is sublime. Sure, thoughts do come up that you might feel the urge to share with someone. Instances happen when you have to somehow convey “please pass the napkins” . But the voluntary surrender of any excess words, any unnecessary expenditure of energy in talking in favor of just having the experience of being, suddenly your nervous system calms down a bit. Over time, your awareness stops scanning your surroundings for ways to entertain or amuse folks around you, you give up the need to prove your validity or existence by amusing or otherwise provoking others and you simply start to BE.
The moments of just being are pure delight. Think of a moment when you’ve felt completely peaceful, maybe in nature, cooking, playing tennis, doing something you absolutely love that absorbs you completely. Wade through the briars of all that thought, the “I couldas….I shouldas…I wannas….”, the endless urges to seek love/attention/approval from others around you, and most of all, the very common-held conviction that for some reason you just aren’t wired the same as others so therefore the peace of meditation can’t possibly work for you. If you can do that, and keep doing that no matter how long, deep or thorny the thoughts might get, if you keep wandering your awareness back to the steady flow of your breath and your own state of well being, you’ll find yourself steadier, calmer and more alive in your own skin than you’ve ever imagined being.
But maybe a week away isn’t in the cards for you right now. Even for me with a profession that requires I do these things, it can be tough to get away annually, if at all. But if something in this post or other discussions on meditation resonates with you, look around your local community at your community centers, your YMCA, your public library and even local book stores. I’ve even seen local spas that offer weekly community meditation classes. If you can’t find anything in person, check out the many free meditations offered online on YouTube and countless other sites.
It’s not going to feel natural at first, and why would it? After all, you’ve spent decades of effort manipulating yourself into being whatever you thought the world wanted you to be at any given moment. But try it, and do so with the conscious thought — “I’m just going to have this experience” for better or for worse, no expectations and definitely don’t expect to feel like some enlightened soul. Then try it again, and again. Talk to others about your experience and try another form/offering/teacher and another. Keep at it until you connect with something that leaves you feeling so much better after the session, you can’t imagine not having it. That’s exactly the moment of pure being — well worth every effort invested in getting there.
“Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and then the next day is Christmas Eve, and that night is New Year’s and then we have three days off before Valentine’s Day, right?”
So beloved NYC yogini and senior teacher Susan “Lip” Orem (“Lippy”) reminded me and she’s right: that time flies is for certain. How ironic then that minutes, hours, days, ( heck for some of us years and decades) can slip away so easily and almost without notice, yet with unconscious skill (habit?) we find the energy to feel tortured in the face of holiday stressors.
If you experience holiday stress, you’re neither alone nor unjustified. You don’t have to read a study to know there are perfectly good reasons to stress. But what the heck, here’s a top line from one recent study that’s pretty representative of many out there: cited as “multiple stressors” in the American Psychological Association research on holiday stress are lack of time (up to 69%), lack of money (up to 69%), and pressure to give or get gifts (up to 51%). And while you can rationalize that it’s all in your mind, chances are you’re really feeling it. Men and women who experience elevated levels of stress rate their psychological and physical health lower than those who are not experiencing stress — and are more likely to experience a range of health ailments and symptoms such as sadness (59%), sleep problems (56%), and lack of energy (55%).
It’s in our minds, but it’s not JUST in our minds. When FDR said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, he was way before his time in what we now understand about the relationship between fear and disease. WebMD experts acknowledge that stress can be a root cause of disease — what’s being determined still is exactly how it happens. So it IS in your mind, and YOU are the only person who can do anything about it. Working from a perspective of the physical body, the narrative mind and energy or spirit, you’ve got three powerful interconnected entry points into shifting your state of being, i.e., making one much happier YOU.
Are you honoring your body’s physical needs? Last I checked, we are still physically embodied during this time of year and your physical container needs attentive care now more than ever. We traditionally treat this time of year as some sort of “get out of jail free” card, shrugging off the need for focused physical movement; healthy, nutrient rich food; and “normal” sleep between 7-9 hours.
- Food: Rather than using holiday time to catch up on empty calories, saturated fat or sodium, use this time to learn how to make more healthful meals. Do a web search for “healthy holiday meals” and see what find — you might pick up ideas that work for you throughout the year.
- Drink: Two things: 1.) your body needs water and 2.) alcohol is a depressant. Period. What else do you need to know? If you wanna drink booze, you better drink lots of water. And you better drink lots of water anyway. Most of us are dehydrated and confuse thirst for hunger.
- Fitness: Want to give your body a great gift? Treat yourself to a full hour of exercise every day through the holiday season. Sound insane? Sure, maybe because you’re already stressed. But if you even do this for one day, your endorphins will kick in and when you feel that high, remind yourself, “hey self, I should do this again tomorrow”. Then do it again. And again. Being endorphin rich may be the most powerful form of affluence.
- Sleep: Since most of us are sleep deprived, falling into 14 hour sleep fests is tempting, but snoozer beware. Experts say you can’t “make up” for a sleep deficit other than through regular 7-9 hour nights of sleep, and that nap addiction can be a form of escapism…from STRESS! Although a quick nap in the afternoon can be rejuvenating, research shows that too much sleep can backfire, with irregular sleep patterns leading to insomnia at night and sluggishness just about any time. The next time you feel sleepy midday, rather than hitting the pillow, reach for your sneakers and go take a walk, take care of the garden, engage in vigorous play with your dog, friends or kids.
Ever ask yourself what the word stress really means? It comes from the latin root “districtia” which means to be torn asunder. Yikes. Can you imagine? Bloody images aside, there’s something to be addressed here that needs no further research on dictionary.com. It’s a little four-letter word that is as powerful as we let it be: fear. Most of us will admit that feeling fear does feel like being torn asunder, and fear is what makes us feel stress. While the scientists study how stress functions within the entire human species, your study has to begin immediately on your own micro-level: what are you afraid of and how are you going to address it?
- Look your enemy in the eye. If most holiday stress has to do with fears, what are yours? Allowing the causes of your stress to remain vague is to succumb to their ravages. Respect your own state of being enough to attentively assess what’s literally bringing you down or pumping you into a high state of anxiety — name your poison. Be careful here: it’s said that fear is like a cockroach
- Pick Your Battles. Some fears call for being addressed directly, some require greater understanding, and some require a higher level of wisdom. Worried about time — lovingly cancel a portion of your commitments. Yes, the world might feel like it’s coming to an end if you miss this event or that party. But if you decide that time to breathe is more important and that you do not owe ANYONE the debt of being superhuman, you’ll be better off for it. Worried about gift expectations/money — tell people you’re having a homemade holiday season. For things that cannot be addressed, is there something you can learn about managing the problem or challenge? And for things for which you already have the facts, can you imagine watching the story as a movie and see a higher wisdom being revealed at the end of the story? The holidays in every culture tend to have some story of overcoming hardship, getting through seemingly impossible situations. How can you allow the wisdom of these timeless teachings to allow grace into your heart?
- Feed Your Mind. Once you’ve looked your fears in the eye and addressed them, it’s time to put the nattering aside. Your brain gets addicted to narratives, so like any addiction you have to give yourself a new drug. Instead of obsessing endlessly over your situation, hook yourself up to some inspiration. This could be a Hollywood blockbuster with an inspiring message, a documentary about others surviving extremes, or a book on how Matt Groenig became Matt Groenig (is there such a book?) — whatever is going to engage, invigorate and inspire you is worthy of being part of your mental diet.If consumption of media is out of the question, decide that in your conversations with others you are going to ask them about things they’ve accomplished. How your neighbor learned to put in his own deck, how your cousin managed a career change, all of this expands what could be small talk into big meaning.
The best remedy I can think of for feeling poor in spirit is meaningfully connecting with self and others. Just writing that sentence felt so good, I hope it feels as good to read it. Read it again.
Connecting with self
- Write the narrative of your year so far. For each thing that has happened in your story, note some higher form of wisdom that came from the experience. By this I don’t mean “and then I learned that so-and-so is really a jerk”. I mean more the type of wisdom that allows you to hold the year with compassion, courage, and a sense of lifelong learning. Maybe so-and-so was a jerk to you. I know I’ve had my share. Rather than stopping at the judgment of that person, what did you learn about yourself in your interactions? How can you value the experience as enriching?
- Gratitude. You knew that was going to show up somewhere in this post, right? We all get reminded constantly that the practice of gratitude allows us to see that no matter how empty the cup seems sometimes, it’s a really beautiful cup and ready to be filled. Gratitude connects you to what IS present in your life rather than dwelling upon what you lack. It fills your heart – and voila, cup not empty, right? Do it — whether verbally with others, written in a journal or on a cocktail napkin (yes, I mean it — between cocktails and waters), or while taking a run or walk and get a double endorphin rush. People will think you just came from a really rockin’ holiday party.
- Bragging. Oh yes. You have to brag. You must. This has a different energy than wisdom or gratitude. This is a high-five for the soul, a moment to let your inner Rocky Balboa roar. Whether in the last hour, day, month or year, you have accomplished some MIGHTY feats. Remembering, honoring and invoking that inner prize-fighter within you conjures an I CAN energy within yourself. Come on, you haven’t lost EVERY battle. Let’s chalk up a few of the victories and frame them for your own heart to admire. If you want bonus mojo: make it a practice to ask folks you interact with over the next few weeks what they’re stoked about this year. This world needs people to know they have the capacity to succeed, to both show and act upon it.
Connecting with others
- Give your self. Volunteer. I don’t just mean at a community center although that would be great. I mean offer yourself up in a small, non-glamorous way with no expectations of getting anything in return – not even a thank you. Given that you may have time stress, you can do things in the course of what you are already doing that allow you to experience thoughtful connection with others. Pick up trash when you take your power walk. Take one of your healthy snacks to a neighbor. Call someone you know has had a tough year and tell them what you’re doing to reclaim yourself and how it’s going for you. Decide that you’re going to let other people’s bad mood pass through you like water through a sponge. Let someone off the hook completely for whatever you would normally choose to get angry about. Your generosity of self is the ultimate gift that keeps on giving.
You may notice I didn’t bring up meditating. I didn’t bring up therapeutic treatments. I didn’t mention taking supplements or getting a hobby. While all of these are great ideas and can really help if you’ve got the resources to do them, my sense is this: when time and money are the issues, the last thing you need is more tasks, costs or “shoulds”. And when your brain is in manic-monkey mode either in anxiety or sadness, forcing yourself to try to learn to meditate without masterful guidance can actually backfire.
But there’s one thing I have to add and this is just a real life observation about being a happier me. I passed through Penn Station in NYC this morning at 6AM to get on the train to be with family. An elderly drug addict of indeterminate gender high as a kite, with no ability to balance, but incredible body odor bumped up against a young 30 something professional as he/she reached for a napkin at a coffee stand. The fashionable young professional’s meticulous and silent bearing was instantly transformed into disgust and horror, his eyes shouting flames of rage at the indignation.
I watched and wanted to comfort him and say,”Hey buddy, take it easy. No biggie. That druggie has bigger problems than any of us”. I stood there in my own silence, hearing my heart beat with gratitude for not having found myself in some gutter somewhere despite the many precarious situations and decisions I have made along the way.
By grace, on the way to catch my train the same druggie appeared just in front of me, not 8 inches between our faces. He/she looked me in the eye and we focused upon each other, really seeing into each other’s eyes. “Hello beautiful”, this soul said to me — and not silently but with real audible words. Then he/she puckered as if to kiss me and said, “You take care of yourself.”
You know, I will.
How’s your Monday going so far? If you’re like me, even the word “Monday” triggers angst anthems like the Mamas and the Papas “Monday Monday” (…can’t trust that day), and of course the Boomtown Rats “I Don’t Like Mondays” about a kid who burns down the school all because of how she feels about Mondays.
Culturally, this maligned 24-hour block of time has some major collective bad attitude stacked against it, and I confess to having to be very intentional to avoid being part of the angry mob. Mondays for me start with a 5 AM wake up to get my personal practice in before the day gets rolling. Then, because I both teach yoga and run a company, it means shuttling about NYC for client meetings, staff meetings and teaching till 9 PM. “Harried” puts it mildly.
Curious if the hype about Monday has any teeth, I googled to see if there are stats on what day of the week is preferred or disliked over any other. Surprisingly I didn’t find any definitive statistics. But I did find this in online discussions of the various attributes and benefits of the days of the week: thematically, people who said they like Mondays best see it as a fresh start, a moment of diving in anew.
Aaah. How much better does that sentiment feel than the Mamas and the Papas notion of dedicating the day to “crying all of the time?”
If you experience low or negative energy about Mondays, congratulations: you’ve got a really fantastically specific event for self-inquiry that happens EVERY WEEK. We have the option to treasure any and all moments in life, so your relationship with Monday is a great place to practice your transformational skills.
First you’ve got to get underneath the thinking that puts you at odds with Monday. Get honest with yourself: are you holding general fears about your ability to meet expectations? Do you tell yourself negative speculation about things that are yet to unfold? Do you prevent yourself from trusting that no matter what unfolds you will respond as best you can and that is all you can expecct of yourself? Look at the mantra or narrative you hold about the day, your schedule and the week. Is there some way the stories you tell yourself about the past, present or future are sabotaging your ability to experience the day as it IS?
Then you have to claim some part of Monday for yourself and make it sacred. “Fresh. A moment of diving in anew.” Many ancient cultures GOT that transitions are difficult and held beginnings as sacred by ritualizing them. We’ve got remnants of that in our culture — in yoga or sports events you can see participants praying, setting intention or even singing together, be it an OM or the national anthem.
I’m not suggesting you take on something that doesn’t feel organic to your interests, but it is up to you to identify things you CAN do to presence yourself to the potential grace of a new week beginning. Is it setting aside a minute or two for watching the light as it changes moment by moment? Is it filling the bird feeder outside your window with attention to every aspect of the experience, the seeds, the birds, the fresh air? It could be as simple as watering the plants or taking a just a moment to read a poem, the bible, or whatever inspires you. Just make sure you DO IT, and not like you are performing an act on a checklist.
Most of all, and perhaps the biggest fool-proof tip I can offer anyone with respect to transforming any moment in life that feels oppositional, I’ve found that when I move with a sense of connectedness to my body and breath as my first priority, the rest of my life doesn’t seem as drama-filled. If you don’t have a physical practice to help you get that connectedness or somehow have missed doing your practice on a given day, try this simple ayurvedic therapy: lay your left hand on your heart and your right hand on your belly. If you close your eyes and send your awareness to attentively listening to your breath rhythm and actively sending love into your own heart for even 11 breaths, you are both acknowledging yourself as a simple life form and cultivating compassion for yourself/others.
On a Monday or any other day, this compassion and connectedness go a long way towards beginning anew.
If you follow Life Works, you may have noticed I’ve missed more than a few months of posting. No excuses here. The funny thing about being a worklife “expert” is that when I first decided to tackle these questions, I knew I was going to have to practice what I teach. In my heart, the whole reason I started looking at worklife questions is I realized that as in love with professional success as I have always been, honoring the deep longing to be good to and true to myself in the midst of professional triumph is something I insist is not only possible but our birthright. I can’t imagine telling people to set realistic expectations for themselves and then maintain a merciless schedule myself.
Transparently, a perfect storm of activity landed in my lap around this time last year – in the form of a few really huge client engagements at the exact moment that my teaching schedule really took off with more classes and workshops around the planet that continue to come my way. Between launching corporate wellness programs in 11 US markets and two overseas, there were months that I had to remind myself to even pay my bills, such was the pace.
There’s truth to the adage that we teach what we most dearly yearn to master. The bottom line of worklife integration and sustainable success is making choices, and making them with our true well-being in mind so that we can hope to value the well-being of others around us. When all this activity came to a head, it was a MOMENT OF TRUTH for me. As much as I love sharing the cool stuff we get to talk about in this blog (and get a little rush bragging about it to friends and family), I simply did not have the bandwidth to continue to post without sacrificing the precious few moments I had left. I felt called to the mat and knew that even at the risk of losing the blog, satisfying my ego had to take a backseat to conserving as many moments as possible for self care. Looking back, I have to say wholeheartedly and in alignment with what this blog is about, this a choice I truly hope you make as well.
Fast forward a few months, now with systems in place to offset the continuing workload, I’m back and excited to reconnect and revive the conversation with you. The work I have been doing with corporate wellness has given me an even more profound immersion in developing sustainable success strategies for busy professionals. More than ever, I’m fascinated by how life is evolving through the adventures of what it is to live on this planet right now, and curious to compare notes with you about what is making your life work better or what gets in the way of you living and working well.
Leave me a comment and let me know how you’re doing!
[Editor's Note: Our Guest blogger is Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, a medical editor for WebMD. She has many years of experience in the practice of both inpatient and outpatient internal medicine, and has served as a medical educator in the fields of general internal medicine, palliative care, and medical ethics.]
“Are you really expecting me to memorize this complicated jazz piano standard with complex chord progressions?” That was my first thought recently when my piano teacher asked me to memorize the piano piece I was practicing.
We all have those everyday experiences where we need our minds to be in tip-top form. Situations such as performing from memory, studying for a test, giving a presentation, or having an important conversation call for our minds to be alert and focused.
For a sharp mind you need to maintain brain health. Keeping your mind in shape is much like keeping your physical body in shape. A healthy diet, exercise, and keeping the mind engaged in lifelong learning all help to keep your brain youthful and active.
Food for Thought and Exercise
Optimizing nutrition is important in maintaining brain power. In particular, some studies have shown that foods that are rich in antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables may be beneficial in preventing the onset of dementia. Following the Mediterranean diet has been shown to have many health benefits, among which is a decrease in the risk of dementia. This diet focuses on eating a high amount of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, cereals, fish, and olive oil, and a low amount of red meat.
Performing regular physical exercise has also been shown to reduce the risk of dementia. The 2008 Physical Activity Guideline for Americans from the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends a general exercise goal of 2 ½ hours a week of moderate intensity exercise such as a brisk walk for 30 minutes 5 days a week or alternatively 1 hour and 15 minutes a week of vigorous intensity aerobic type exercise. Muscle-strengthening exercises that involve all muscle groups are recommended two or more days a week.
Challenging your brain to learn new things and keeping your mind engaged may also help to maintain mental sharpness. Reading, doing crossword or Sudoku puzzles, learning a new language and learning to play a musical instrument are just a few examples of how to keep your mind active.
Rest and Relaxation
Sleeping well is another key to keeping your mind alert and attentive. The National Sleep Foundation states that the optimal amount of sleep for an adult is 7 – 9 hours a day. Some tips for good sleep hygiene include setting up a routine sleep and wake-up time, exercising daily – but not right before going to bed, and limiting caffeine and alcohol before bedtime.
Our guest blogger is CNN Senior Vice President Wendy Walker. The longtime senior executive producer of Larry King Live, Walker is the force behind television icon Larry King, and is a CNN original, joining the network when it began in 1980. Wendy has won a number of important awards in her career, including an Emmy and the First Amendment Service Award. From statesmen and world leaders, to celebrities and everyday people doing extraordinary things-Walker has covered them all as she created some of the most remarkable, famous, and history-making moments in television.
Freaking Out Is Not an Option
As senior executive producer of Larry King Live, those six words are my daily mantra. In fact, they’re so important I made them the title of the very first chapter of my book. I wasn’t born with these words in my mouth. They came to me after some hard knock experience.
It probably goes without saying that no one likes to work with a screamer. Their negative energy spreads and throws everyone off their game. The first time I witnessed someone lose it in the office, I knew I wanted to handle myself differently. This isn’t to say I’ve never felt like screaming or freaking out. I’ve just trained myself not to. It’s like a muscle that I’ve developed.
In my line of work, I get plenty of opportunities to flex that muscle. The afternoon of June 25, 2009 was one of those opportunities.
I woke at 5:30, as I do every day. I was in a good mood because I knew that my staff and I had booked an interesting show for that night’s Larry King Live. But, I also knew from experience that if breaking news occurred anywhere in the world, we would have to change our plans in an instant.
My day took its first turn at 9:28 when it was announced that Farrah Fawcett had passed away. Knowing this was a bigger story than what we had planned, it called for a total about-face. My staff and I immediately shifted gears to make the appropriate adjustments. We needed to reschedule the guests for the show we had planned (we never cancel) and start booking guests for a show to pay tribute to one of America’s beloved actresses. Adjusting on a moment’s notice is what my job constantly demands, but here we were starting from scratch on the morning of the show. Freaking out was not an option. I knew it would just waste time and energy. Plus, I needed to make hundreds of decisions and the only way to do that effectively was to remain calm and trust my gut. Each moment was crucial. The clock was ticking. Fortunately by around noon, we’d already booked guests who were close to Farrah and it looked as though we were going to pull off the switch.
Then, things took another unexpected turn. At 1:44 p.m., I received an email saying that Michael Jackson had just been taken to the hospital after suffering a severe cardiac arrest. At this point, it was just a rumor. But if confirmed, I knew this would be a big story. So as my staff continued booking the show about Farrah, I worked on Michael’s story. Soon TMZ posted that Michael Jackson had passed away and I needed to confirm it. If it was true, I knew it would be one of those moments in history that the public would never forget. I remembered exactly where I was when John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, President Kennedy and Princess Diana died. If Michael Jackson were dead, I would have to make the decision to switch the show one more time from Farrah to Michael. At 3:38 CNN confirmed that Michael had indeed died. Once again, we needed to change the show.
When news happens in the world, I know millions of viewers have their eyes and ears trained on Larry King Live. They know Larry will have something to say about it and I’m responsible for deciding who sits opposite him every night. So no matter what challenges the day throws my way, the show must go on. With hard work, quick thinking, and calm resolve, we were able to put together a compelling show on June 25th, featuring a number of people close to Michael.
When I dropped into bed that night completely exhausted and amazed that I made it through another day, I felt a little wiser and stronger for what I’d experienced and glad that in the midst of the storm, I didn’t freak out.
Tune in to watch Wendy Walker on Larry King Live on November 16 at 9 PM ET (6 PM PT).
Friends tease me about being a globetrotter. And they’re right. Since the age of two, I’ve been wandering the globe first with my family living in Italy, then in my teens beginning to journey solo to foreign lands. Since leaving corporate America, the miles have definitely downsized, but there was a time when I slept more on American Airlines than I did in my own bed. In the past 12 months (even dead broke), I’ve logged Peru, Ireland, Italy, Los Angeles and Costa Rica. New Orleans over Easter is coming right up.
I don’t say this for pity or to convey glamor – actually it’s more because I’m in shock. I just deplaned a NYC to LAX flight having emailed the entire time.
It’s true – my thumbs are tired and my PDA (personal digital assistant; i.e., BlackBerry, etc.) completely dead of any battery life. And I’m grieving.
I’m grieving because for many, many years and miles, those hours in-flight meant surrendering to what IS. As soon as the door to the plane was shut and the flight attendant announced all devices must be turned off, (although I followed her order reluctantly – so it goes with addictions), once I did so meant unless something was pressing enough to lug out the laptop and boot up for an hour or two of work (limited by battery life), I was in for some good old fashioned “me” time, analog style.
Movies, journaling, books, magazines, Sudoku, maybe even a well-deserved nap – this time was for many years a secret indulgence, a time when saying no to being productive was not something I had to justify or explain to anyone, much less myself.
But above the clouds is no longer off the grid. Up in the air is no longer a flight of fancy.
Gathering up my things to deplane at LAX, I felt strange about how I spent the time, dirty with betrayal, in this case of myself. Yes, I watched two movies on Delta’s cool personal media viewer thingy in the headrest of the seat in front of me. Yes, I did the Mensa quiz (no, I’m not telling how I did). But rather than being truly present to George Clooney’s challenges in Up In The Air or The Men Who Stare at Goats, I did all of that glancing surreptitiously at my PDA, fueled by the fear-driven thought in my head “you might miss something… you might drop a ball… better make sure everything is going smoothly.”
How did I feel? Burnt out. Frazzled.
Reflecting on it now I know this – I need that downtime. I need to allow time to enjoy a movie. I need to do a Mensa quiz, journal, read an article in the Atlantic or listen to a meditation class with my teacher Sally Kempton downloaded onto my MP3 player. Technology literally catching up with me and with all of us, I also know the time is now for becoming disciplined enough to give ourselves that time – simply because we need it.
I’m flying back to NYC tonight. I promise you, and more importantly, myself, I will not get online once. I need it.