I’m A Stranger Here Myself

by Monica McCarthy on December 19, 2014


As is often the case, we teach what we want to learn. And so it was, in between wrapping up presents as well as the end of the year, that I had the great privilege to teach a Reflection & Roadmapping 2014 class at Holstee. As part of a larger Holstee Curriculum (more on this is a future post) we are creating monthly classes on the subject of living more mindfully in our everyday lives.

December’s class was about reflecting on 2014. Self-observation and non-judgemental inquiry are terrific tools to look within by gaining perspective from our own experiences.

There is no shortage of resources for helping us self-reflect. What is most important is that we set aside the time and space to take an honest inventory, and ask questions that help us explore not just the events of our lives, but the motivations and belief systems those events represent.

The most difficult aspect of my research and brainstorming for the Reflection class was narrowing down which exercises to include from the plethora available. I also examined personal lessons learned in my own life in 2014.

For anyone interested, I ultimately decided on examining the year through the lenses of: Beliefs & Values (Meaning, Pleasure, and Awareness), Actions & Time (Quality: Integrity/Alignment and Quantity: Habits/Rituals), Expressions & Lessons, and Patterns.

While I love immersing myself in philosophical and lifestyle design books and resources, one contemporary examination of mortality stands out in particular as a poignant reminder of why any of this even matters in the first place: The Five Regrets of the Dying written by Bonnie Ware, who worked for several years as a palliative nurse. In spending time with people on their death beds, she discovered there were central themes that emerged when the patients were asked about what they wished they had done differently throughout the course of their lives.

No one wants to die (or live with) regret. So why do we often wait until it’s too late to realize there were other roads we should/could have traveled?

The answer, it appears, lies in awareness.

As Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar writes in his book “Happier,” a common question asked among terminal cancer patients is: Why did we have to wait until now, till we are riddled with cancer, to learn how to value and appreciate life? There was no guru or class or article that provided this new insight for the patients. But for people who are acutely aware of their own mortality, there is a heightened sense of awareness. The most any outside sources can do is help raise our awareness by asking important questions.

Most spiritual and philosophical traditions remind us that we already know the answers. Yet we still err on the side of looking for outside solutions. This is one of the many reasons why self-observation is so important.

“Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh

This lesson of looking within to find the answers we go to great lengths to seek elsewhere reminds me of the central theme of The Wizard of Oz. As you may recall, the protagonist, Dorothy Gale of Kansas finds herself lost in a strange land and spends the rest of the story trying to find the titular Wizard of Oz, who supposedly has the power to transport her back home.

Along the way, Dorothy meets other lost souls, notably a Lion in search of courage, a Scarecrow in search of brains, and a Tin Man in search of a heart. Together they overcome obstacles laid down by the Wicked Witch (who is clearly a baddie because she’s green and rides a broomstick) all in an effort to reach the wonderful wizard. But when they finally do arrive at the gates and peek behind the curtain, they discover the Wizard’s only power is in making his subjects believe he is powerful. The truth is he is just a sad, lonely man who caused a lot of hardship for a lot of people. The Wizard was not actually wonderful at all. He was a fraud.

But all was not lost at the end of the yellow brick road. Instead, the sojourners discovered what they each sought was actually within them all along.

The quest was one of awareness.

With this example in mind for the Reflection workshop, I created an exercise I dubbed “The Yellow Brick Road.” If you find it helpful, I’d love to know! Here’s how it goes:


Yellow Brick Road Exercise

In the classic story The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is joined by the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tinman as they go on a quest to find Courage, Brains, and a Heart. In the end, they discover they had all three within themselves all along. This is the same realization that comes with awareness, particularly of our own mortality. Take a moment to reflect when you exhibited these qualities in 2014:

  1. Lion: Courage

  1. Scarecrow: Wisdom

  1. Tinman: Compassion


Right now, as I’m writing this post, I’m home for the holidays at my parents’ house in Maui. The first song I heard upon landing late last night was Somewhere Over The Rainbow. I always loved Judy Garland’s rendition from The Wizard of Oz and the ukelele version is the unofficial anthem of Hawaii, “The Land of Rainbows.”

But this time I heard the words from the perspective of self-awareness. If you add a dramatic pause before the last word of the last line below you’ll see what I mean:

Someday I’ll wish upon a star

And wake up where the clouds are far

Behind me

Where troubles melt like lemon drops

Away above the chimney tops

That’s where you’ll find…..


‘Somewhere’ is right here, within each of us.

And neither witch nor wizard can prevent us from the most powerful resource we have: Ourselves.

December is the end of one road and the start of another.

May we all express courage, wisdom, and compassion along the way.

May we all feel home.


image: From my first trip to Maui, 2013


Observing Resolutions

by Monica McCarthy on December 5, 2014


‘Tis the season for list-making!

From the “Best of…” to the “Worst of…” to New Years Resolutions, it is difficult to escape the feeling that we are supposed to quantify and qualify our very existence.

But how helpful are these lists really? The latest statistic I read states that only 23 percent of people see their resolutions to completion. Yet I’d bet 100% of us would like to have our next year be better than the last.

So how  can we translate our inner desire for transformation into our daily lives?

Enter: The art of self-observation.

There is no perfect system for this practice but there are a variety of exercises that have proven beneficial through the ages. Self-inquiry is part of almost every philosophic tradition and the foundation of living mindfully. Buddha, Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Freud, among other wise folks, have all advocated self-study.

This process requires more than a spreadsheet.

Yes, listing our accomplishments and stats can help us track what we’ve done, but they do not offer much valuable insight as to who we are.

Lists offer a sense of certainty (we can’t control what will happen going forward, but we can quantify what has been) but they are data, and not a conclusion. (And many can be manipulated or biased.)

We have to go below the surface if we are to pursue goals that align with our intentions. And this process requires perspective, which is why the end of the year is a natural fit for this type of reflection.

By observing our past from a non-judgmental vantage point or “bird’s-eye view” (a term often associated with Aurelius’ Meditations) we are better able to bring together our emotions and logic and act accordingly. This distancing effect also helps us develop and deepen our sense of compassion and empathy, two elements that often go missing when analyzing our past and setting goals for the future.

Self-reflection is not an exercise in vanity. As psychotherapist Phillipa Perry states in her book How To Stay Sane: “Self-observation is not self-obsession… On the contrary, it is a tool that enables us to become less self-absorbed.” But the process requires more effort than simply examining wins and losses as if our lives could be measured by such standards.

Of course, like all worthwhile pursuits, self-observation takes time, energy, and focus, and for many of us December can be a particularly difficult month to pause and reflect. There are holiday parties to attend, projects to finish, presents to wrap, wassail to drink… ok, probably not actual wassail, but adult beverages abound! There is an energy that is both exciting and exhaustive. Setting aside an afternoon to sit down with a mug of hot cocoa and pondering our purpose sounds nice in theory, but harder to implement in practice.

Last December I refused to look back at all. Sometimes the past doesn’t deserve any more attention at the proverbial dinner table. That’s fine too! Know thyself.

This year I feel ready to observe before I venture ahead… Not because everything went well in 2014 (far from it!) but because I can now appreciate those experiences for what they were and not allow them to define who I am and strive to become.

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better. – Maya Angelou

We are the lessons we seek to understand. But first we must be willing to learn.

Wherever you are, I wish you a season of reflection, observation, and joy.

And I look forward to reading your stories of 2014 and beyond.


P.S. On December 14th I’ll be offering a Reflecting & Roadmapping afternoon (aka self-observation with community and the aforementioned hot cocoa) at Holstee in Brooklyn and would love to have you join us for prompts, writing, and connecting if you’re in town! And anyone who joins is welcome to stay for our weekly Candlelight Yoga & Meditation class, another personal favorite experience of the yearUpdate: We sold out the workshop but opened up five more spots! These really will be the last seats available. Hope to see you there:)


Should you prefer self-observation in solitude, there are a plethora of helpful online review templates available. I find Susannah Conway’s free workbook particularly insightful and beautifully designed.



On The Past & Presence

by Monica McCarthy on December 3, 2014

This is a post I wrote that originally appeared in the Mindful Matters issue on “Reflection” earlier this week.



Should old acquaintance be forgot,

and never brought to mind?

Should old acquaintance be forgot,

and old lang syne?


For auld lang syne, my dear,

for auld lang syne,

we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,

for auld lang syne.

For many of us, the new year is rung in with a nod to the past as we sing about friendships and memories of days gone by. The confetti falls as we raise our glass and cheers to new beginnings.

While there is something intrinsically beautiful in the notion of a fresh start filled with hope and optimism, it is the past that has paved the road for us to arrive at this moment.

Just as the lyrics invoke a celebration of the year-that-was, taking time to reflect back helps us not only honor the memories of old, but to make mindful choices for the future.

Interestingly, the word reflection serves two purposes: To contemplate about what has been, but also to see the image of what is in front of us right now.

Like many of you, I will spend much of December pondering the previous eleven months. From highs and lows in areas including career, relationships, adventures, and well-being, I’ll enjoy seeing the patterns emerge and lessons unfold with the insight that only hindsight can bring. (In fact, it has proven to be such a powerful exercise that this year we’re inviting people to join us at our Holstee Work/Shop for an afternoon dedicated to reflecting on 2014.)

The purpose of this reflection is not to fill ourselves with regret for what might have been, but instead to help us better understand the future of what could be.

And though we don’t know exactly what lays ahead, we each have the ability to look within, as if holding a mirror to our true selves. Our present moment is reflected by our presence. And what we see in our reflection determines what we choose to do next.


I’d love for you to join me on December 14th from 2-5:30pm for an afternoon of Reflection & Roadmapping! All the details can be found here.