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Small Changes Equal Big Life Fixes

Body+Soul

I never thought an impulse buy would change my life.

Two years ago while in New York I wandered into Elaine Arsenault's narrow East Village storefront with no need for, or intention to buy, a purse. But there, among her beguiling hand-stitched creations, was a small, no, a teeny bag. Six inches tall at most. Nubby pink upholstery fabric. Tight little leather parabola of a handle. Did I need it? No. But I loved it. I bought it.

As the thrill of spontaneous purchase ebbed, a wave of guilt replaced it. My current bag, a student's satchel jammed with months' worth of papers, receipts, file folders, floppy disks, and keys barely contained my daily chaos. The little purse had no place in my life. How could I justify the purchase? I had to justify the purchase. The next morning I fished out my wallet, my checkbook, and my keys. I tucked them in the little pink purse. "This is your new bag," I told myself. "It has to be. You paid for it." And I set off, feeling like a plane with no cargo hold.

The guilt faded, of course. But to my surprise, a new me emerged. A better me. With only a tiny bag at hand, I found myself taking a reflective moment in the morning to decide what few items I truly needed for the day. By evening, anything I'd acquired, from kids' school notices to parking tickets, had to come out of the purse and be dealt with. My life became more organized without my ever having set so lofty a goal. I moved more lightly through my days, swinging instead of hauling. I felt free.


All of this, from a weak moment in a Manhattan handbag shop. The more I examined the impact of the little pink purse, the more I marveled at the good it had done me. It is precisely this kind of small change, this often-inadvertent shift, that can create a world of benefit, if one will only take the time to look for it, says Nikki de Carteret, a consultant, lecturer, author, and facilitator from Vancouver, British Columbia, who is director of the Vancouver branch of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization.

During her Soul Power Experience seminars, de Carteret likes to pose this question to the attendees: What small change have you made recently that worked for you?

The benefits of looking at one's recent past through this lens, says de Carteret (who herself got rid of her cell phone recently and reports that she feels more focused and productive), are twofold: first, the question prompts increased awareness of one's actions and one's thoughts. Further, the emphasis is on the positive.

"Thinking about what's going on that is working forms a pattern of positive outlook," de Carteret says. And once we acquire a habit of thought about the good our actions create, a new world of small and significant choices opens up. The mechanism not only repeats as a positive pattern but also grows in amplitude with use.

Unlike sweeping New Year's resolutions that usually get broken, like giving up sweets, mastering French, or writing the great American novel, small changes are more likely to be lasting changes. Small changes can create waves of goodness that affect your life and everyone around you. One small change can beget another small change, and another, and another, creating an unstoppable, life-improving tidal wave. Once you ask yourself de Carteret's question, you might find yourself surprised at the positive changes you have made without really knowing it.

Small changes often lead to bigger, related changes. When Mandy McCurdy picked up some evening primrose oil at her local pharmacy, she wasn't thinking about kindness. The 24-year-old administrator at George Brown College in Toronto had read about the supplement's fat-burning claims; a naturopath friend also recommended it for menstrual cramps.

McCurdy began taking primrose oil when she felt cramps coming on, but that simple act tuned her in to something more profound: her tendency to become angry quickly and unreasonably the first few days of her period, something she used to notice only after she'd lost her temper.

The conscious act of taking the oil, she says, alerted her in advance: "I began to think consciously about why I was being so mean," she says. McCurdy realized her work, helping disabled students navigate the services at George Brown, had been compromised by her temporary flare-ups. The change has paid off; McCurdy says her evened-out temperament has not only helped her students but has earned her more respect from her coworkers.

Nigel Gore, a 50-year-old actor, spent last year driving his kids to a school 20 minutes away from their home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. For Gore, the most direct route plowed through several miles of strip malls and traffic lights. The first day of school this year, as he pushed past the same exurban landscape, he had an idea. Gore knew a longer way to school, along a tree-lined boulevard skirting a riverfront that would be more scenic but would add 10 minutes to an already-tight morning commute.

"At least we'd have the trees and the greenery," he said, and the kids agreed to go the long way the next morning.

The effect in the car was instant, and enduring. Seeing the river every day, says Gore, brings a new and palpable element to the drive. "[The river] gets between whatever's going on with the kids," he says. "They can be snippy with each other in the morning. Now one of them will always comment on the state of the river, the fog, the light, the stillness, the speed of it, whether anyone's rowing. The river has a purpose, which is for us to say, 'Look how beautiful the river is.' Because it always is."

And Gore, who admits that two-lane commercial strips fuel his desire to beat the other driver to the punch, credits the new route with lowering his competitive urges. "It doesn’t turn me into a saint," he says, "but it adds a different quality to my day."

The ripples spread even further. Having made the decision to choose beauty over expediency and to take his morning at a slower pace, Gore says he has begun to find other places in his day to give himself more time, to be more observant.

Observation. Awareness. Minute changes that spread in ever-expanding circles. The parallels in yoga practice are irresistible. "Yoga is the development of the witness, the one who watches," says Aruni Nan Futuronsky, director of ongoing programs at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. "[It] is the freedom, even in the nanosecond, of the non-reaction."

For Futuronsky, some of her most important work with Kripalu guests is getting them to understand that making minute choices in awareness, rather than purely reacting, will enhance their lives. She even tries to soften a departing visitor's Kripalu-inspired desire to pledge to the yoga life in an unrealistic fashion.

"Rather than leaving here saying, 'I will love myself,'" she says, "we break that down to, 'Every Wednesday morning for the next month, instead of jumping out of bed and doing email, I'm going to lie in bed for two minutes.'"

"Life happens in these little moments," says Stephen Cope, a colleague of Futuronsky's at Kripalu and the author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. "We're all creatures of pattern. [But] the practice of interrupting those patterns is beautiful."

For Cope, these patterns are the manifestation of karma. "Karma is really nothing more than a habit," he says. "Basically any time we act, it plants a little seed that blooms into another action. The small change is changing pieces of patterns."

Cope tells a story about himself. "I discovered this intricately woven web of behaviors I had at night," he says. "I was watching TV, overeating, and staying up way past my bedtime." Cope unplugged his cable and found that by pulling on one thread, the entire web collapsed.

"I wasn't watching TV, [so] I was more available to my feelings," he says. "I began reading more. I had less of a craving for ice cream. I started going to bed earlier. All of this contributed to me having energy at night to read and do research for my book. I woke up earlier and much clearer, not having eaten ice cream the night before."

Cope also loves the advice he received to put a dot on his watch, so that every time he checked the time, the dot reminded him to take a deep breath and soften his belly. In that nanosecond, Cope says, in that breath and softening, the Buddhist awareness and choice return.

"Instantly you're home," he says. "Instantly you're back from whatever obsessive thought you had."

What we do in these small moments, says Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Leonard Felder, Ph.D., is rewire a fundamental bit of brain circuitry. "The brain is a problem-seeking missile," says Felder, citing psychological studies that show that the human brain will not only focus on the closest problem and attempt to solve it but will look at the landscape anticipating a problem.

This, for example, is why a driver in traffic will tend to obsess about the time, the speed, the obstacles, and whether she's going to be two or three minutes late, then speed up as a result of her unquiet mind and further obsess about her lateness.

Noticing the effect of small changes, says Felder, interrupts the anxious, reactive brain. "You can get into this habit of being in a more comfortable flow," he says, "as opposed to people who live in agitation."

Furthermore, Felder says, bringing yourself into that more comfortable, relaxed state will bring you to your destination -- whether work, school, or home -- in a positive state that will in turn affect the people you next encounter.

Felder says he discusses this phenomenon with couples he counsels. "I say to couples, if you walk in the door from work with a hurry-up feel, your loved one will see you as Darth Vader home for the evening."

But, he adds, if you interrupt the agitation and take just a few short minutes before walking in the door to breathe, to ask yourself whether you want to show your loved ones your best self or your worst self, it will shift an evening of potential strife into an evening of warmth and relaxation.

Nikki de Carteret calls this putting out the good karma. "What you put out there," she says, "you're going to get back." Whether the small change is accidental or intentional, the waves of goodness will likely reach far beyond your immediate landscape. "Great revolutions, be they political or religious, often begin with small changes," says Garret Keizer, who has worked as an Episcopal priest and who is the author of "Help: The Original Human Dilemma."

"What was the enlightenment of the Buddha, for example, but a small change in the mind of a single person -- a change that did not alter the position of a single blade of grass growing around the Bo tree -- yet it influenced the lives of millions for generations to come."

Keizer cites a famous observation attributed to Jesus: The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed. "Jesus also said that faith the size of a mustard seed could move a mountain," he adds. "[So] we are left with the idea that faith itself, in its essence, is closely tied to an awareness of the tremendous potential within a small thing." In "Help," Keizer explores what he calls the nurture that allows certain seeds to grow. "It seems to me," he says, "that a cardinal principle of any person, amateur or professional, who would help his fellow human beings, is a profound appreciation for the potential of small changes and small steps."

But in addition, says Keizer, a second cardinal principle for an authentic helper is to love the small change for itself and not just for its potential to pay an evolutionary dividend.

"To love the small change only for the sake of its promise is to betray a bias toward the grand," he says. "Had the Buddha never founded a religion, he might still have helped people find a reason to live."

From any angle, the small changes are there for us to unwrap. The little pink purse, for example, continues to put out good karma. It draws women to it on a regular basis, allowing me to extol the virtues of living small and traveling light.

It has even made me a safer driver: An overzealous accelerator, I often have needed to slam on the brakes. But once the little purse rode shotgun in my car, I found the physics of a quick stop were sending the purse flying, scattering its contents.

Now I brake more gently, which has slowed my overall tempo on the road. The purse stays upright, my driving moderates, and the driver behind me feels no panic at sudden brake lights. Having a moment to think about his own speed, perhaps he pledges to slow it down, too. The moments open, like quiet flowers, all around the little pink purse, and each small change creates a new chain of changes and choices yet to come.

Text by Tracey Minkin