Coach’s Challenge for 3/17/13 “Neti-Neti”

Good day, team.

I’m happy to greet the new week. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and if you’ve grown up with a name like mine, then you always celebrate your ancestors on this day. It’s a good way to start a week — with a day of celebration.

The subject of this week’s challenge is “neti-neti.” This phrase comes from Sanskrit and means “not this, not this.” These are important words for me. I first heard them from my wise therapist when I was 45 years old. I was starting to say “no” a lot more often in my life and couldn’t quite figure out why that was. I didn’t think it was bad. In fact, every time I said “no” to someone or some thing, I found it liberating. So it wasn’t the “no” that bothered me but rather the fact that previously in my life, I’d said “yes” to just about everything. And that turned out not to be the best response to many of the things that kept popping up in my life.

For example, once an old friend called and asked if I wanted to go out to a local bar to hear some music with her. We had a history of going to these kinds of places, drinking too much and attracting some rather unsavory characters at the bar or on the dance floor. Regardless of how the evening turned out, I always regretted waking up the next morning hungover and deeply depressed that I’d made such bad choices the night before. This time, when she called, a deep sense of certainty arose in me and I said, most emphatically, “No thanks.” She replied, “Maybe some other time.” And I remember thinking, there won’t be some other time.

As I hung up the phone, I felt free. I finally had the courage to say “no” to her, and I knew in that moment that I could let it all go. All the judgment I’d had about my actions when she and I went out drinking together, all the lack of self-trust that came from not making good decisions for myself, all the pain that came from wanting love and affection and looking for it in the wrong places. Just two words, “No thanks,” and poof — I was released from all that drama and destructive behavior.

It felt so good that I began saying “no” more often in a variety of different situations — with my family, at work, with my diet and even with my crafty cat, who seemed to have a way of manipulating me into saying “yes” to him more often than was good for either of us. I began saying “no” all over the place, and it began to worry me that perhaps I was becoming a really negative person. What if I said “no” to something that was actually a good opportunity for me?

In describing this to my therapist, she told me about neti-neti. She explained that with age comes wisdom, and part of that wisdom is the ability to make good distinctions. Understanding and being able to act upon what we know is good for us as well as what’s not good for us is key to our emotional maturity and well-being.

What I found most interesting about neti-neti was that I could say “no” to something and not necessarily know what the “yes” alternative was. Consequently, rather than “No, I don’t want this, but I do want that,” it was just fine to say, “No, not this.” I often didn’t know what the new “this” would be, but the space that was presented once I turned away from something and before I embraced something new was a wonderful place of innocence and curiosity. It encouraged exploration instead of certainty, and it gave me room to stretch and see the world differently. It became a place to rest without fear and without the pressure that comes along with taking on something new.

I began experimenting with neti-neti at work. I would be working on a project, and although the work I was doing was good, I also knew it wasn’t my best. But my constant urge to get it done would override my desire to do the best quality job. I tried objectively looking at the results from time to time, and rather than feel compelled to finish, I would allow myself to look at it in finer detail. I began to hear it in my head — I’d look at one part of the project and see that it needed refining. Then the words “neti-neti” would come. Other times, I could clearly see that the work I was doing was just right, and it got a resounding “yes.” I would find myself in business meetings, and when someone began to behave in a way that was unprofessional, I would hear it again, “neti-neti.” I would go to the museum to look at art, and the lack of good composition in a painting or the wrong color palette would evoke the words again, “neti-neti.” Listening to music became even more interesting as the discerning neti-neti would review the notes I was hearing and make its determination. Ironically, I remember thinking that if I listened to discordant music it would evoke the neti-neti more often, but the opposite happened. Now that I had a better way of making distinctions, I was more open minded to all kinds of music, not just familiar or simple melodies.

A more open mind was one of the major by products of cultivating the neti-neti. It helped me see things with a finer eye, a more discerning ear and a more open heart. I never would have imagined that the ability to say, “This is not for me” would offer me more and better choices than when I always said “yes.”

This week, try experimenting with neti-neti. Maybe you’re having trouble breaking an old habit — for example, having three glasses of wine at night for dinner instead of one. Try saying “neti-neti” to the second and third glasses. Perhaps you find yourself working late at your job too many nights a week and then feel guilty as you drive home, knowing your spouse will not be happy with you. Try saying “neti-neti” to the urge to stay late for one day a week and go home at 5:30. See how it feels as you drive away from the office. Or maybe you say “neti-neti” to the feelings of guilt and try accepting that working late, at least for now, is what you need to do to succeed.

One of my closest friends found herself in an abusive relationship with her husband. She called me one night and confessed, “You know, it’s not just him. I can clearly see how I provoke him and even though I don’t like the abuse that follows, I can’t seem to stop the pattern.” She and her husband had been working with a marriage counselor on this subject and both parties were seeing how their poor behaviors lead them into terrible fights and abusive actions. I knew about their history, and there was no doubt, they had lots of work ahead of them to increase their understanding and break old patterns of behavior. I thought about telling my friend about neti-neti, but it seemed too simple. But then, I thought, if it helps, why not? It certainly had helped me make better decisions in my life, so I told her about it.

Weeks later, she sent me an e-mail thanking me. She wrote, “Now Bill and I have this little tool we can use. When we start to go down that destructive path, one of us will say, “neti-neti,” and it’s just enough to break up the behavior patterns and give us a chance to stop. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, we’re so grateful.”

Try using neti-neti this week. See if it works for you!

Have a good week!

Kathleen

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