Checking In

I started a new job about a year ago. I direct a program for a human rights organization, and while there are plenty of good and worthwhile things about the work, there’s also a lot of bureaucracy.

I don’t just have to do my job, but I have to report what I’m doing and what I’ve got to show for it regularly along the way. There are the weekly check-ins with my boss, the quarterly board reports, the accounting for my budget and the expectation that I’ll constantly flout my accomplishments to the powers-that-be to remind them my work is worth supporting.

I understand that a large organization needs to keep track of what its employees are doing and how they’re spending the organization’s money. But it takes time, effort, and thought. It’s a commitment.

I think the problem isn’t so much that I’ve had to keep checking in with the higher-ups in the organization, but that I haven’t made an equal commitment to checking in with myself. Between a new job and my coaching practice, I’ve gotten so focused on meeting other peoples’ expectations that I’ve forgotten to regularly consider and pursue some of my personal interests, goals and intentions. So I’ve let other things that are important to me – both people and activities – fall away. Feeling at times overwhelmed by new responsibilities, I’ve come to see those things I enjoy as what I’ll do when I retire and have more time.

Of course, I’m not retiring anytime soon. Even if I could, I don’t really want to. I’ve built a career working on issues I care about and think I still have a lot to contribute. The work also informs my coaching for other advocates facing similar strains. But human rights advocacy isn’t the only thing I care about, and it’s not something I can do all the time.

Recently, I was speaking to a group of summer interns, mostly law and grad school students seeking advice on how to create a career advocating for human rights and social justice. One of them asked me how I keep doing this without getting so discouraged or depressed by it that I give up. She described how even over the course of the one summer job, she was finding it difficult to read all the e-mails that fill her office inbox daily with stories of human rights abuses around the world. And she wondered if she’d have the stamina to work in a field where you’re constantly bombarded by all that bad news.

“How do you do it?” she asked.

“I don’t read those e-mails,” I answered.

I don’t have to. I’m not responsible for knowing every bad thing going on everywhere all the time. And if I did read them all, I’d be too depressed, outraged or traumatized to actually do my job. Even keeping up with the catalog of horrors I’m responsible for responding to can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. I have to put limits on it. I think all advocates do.

That’s why check-ins with yourself are so important. Are you nurturing the different facets of your life – physical, intellectual, creative, emotional, and inter-personal? Are you engaging in activities and interacting with people that bring you joy?

Reflecting on the past year, I think I’ve let a lot of those things slip in my own life. I don’t run or bike as much as I used to, I’ve dropped art classes and my weekly meditation group, and I don’t spend as much time with people who are important to me.

So I need to recalibrate, to recommit to those areas of my life and make time for them, even if it means I spend a few hours less working each week. I know that if I do nurture other aspects of my life, the time I spend at work will also be more productive. (Tony Schwartz, founder  and CEO of The Energy Project, has written a lot about this.)

As summer comes to a close, this a good time to consider, where is your life out of balance? And what new commitments do you want to make?

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Do It Anyway

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I finally quit my job. I’d been thinking about it for years, and I always thought that when I finally did it, I’d be relishing the act:  telling my boss and coworkers with a big toothy smile, posting it on Facebook with lots of happy exclamation points.

Instead, when it came time to actually make a move, I felt sick to my stomach.  I don’t mean just butterflies, I mean it felt like big fat rodents were wrestling in there. Which made me wonder: Was I doing the right thing?  People often say “trust your gut,” but what if your gut feels like it’s gnawing at itself?

In my case, I had a good job offer, so it wasn’t like I was being rash and taking some huge financial risk. I was actually going to be earning more money.  But I still felt sick over the change.

Feeling anxious in itself is no reason not to do something.  Your gut isn’t always going to feel good, and any big move can provoke anxiety.  There’s nothing wrong with that. When I finally realized that, I actually just let myself feel sick. I even shared that fact with my boss when I told him I was leaving.  He was perfectly understanding.  It’s a difficult decision.

When I finally got all the awkward conversations with colleagues over with, I felt much better.  I now feel completely confident that I did the right thing, and I’m excited to be moving on to something new.  But it didn’t feel that way until after I’d done it.

Modern culture offers us so many ways to manage our anxiety that it’s easy to feel like there’s something wrong if despite all of that, we still feel anxious.  Do I just need to take another yoga class, or meditate, or go for a run? Do I need medication? Or am I just doing the wrong thing?

Anxiety is actually a perfectly normal response to uncertainty.  All those stress-management techniques aren’t actually designed to get rid of anxiety, but to help us manage it wisely.  Meditation or yoga won’t magically tell me what’s the best move to secure my unknown future, but it can help me slow down enough to become aware of what exactly I’m afraid of, what my options are, and what’s important for me to consider in order to make a wise decision. It still may feel really hard to act, because the outcome will always be, to some extent, uncertain.

Buddhists sometimes talk about the heart-mind as being the center of our being, rather than the mind alone. Ancient Egyptians also believed the heart was the source of the soul and of memory, emotions and personality.  The heart is something we still associate with our deepest emotions and values, like love, affection and friendship. To me, the heart-mind idea helps gets me out of my purely rational thinking, since my logical mind can sometimes rationalize all my options, and then I feel stuck. Connecting to what I deeply value seems to me an important way of guiding and grounding major decisions. All those stress management techniques are ways of slowing down our ping-ponging thoughts enough to allow us to make that connection.

That’s different than just “going with your gut,” because our stomach is a place where we tend to feel much of our anxiety. If you avoid anything that seems to disturb your gut, you could end up in a very tiny and constricted place.

Social science research conducted by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt backs up the idea that we probably ought to be taking more risks that we tend to, and that people who say “yes” to new opportunities rather than “no” tend to be happier. “As a basic rule of thumb, I believe that people are too cautious when it comes to making a change,” Levitt says. As American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks put it in a recent New York Times column: “Our sin tends to be timidity, not rashness.”

Of course, some people’s sin is rashness (witness our president threatening nuclear war on Twitter), and I’m certainly not advocating that. Weigh your options, consider the risks, and connect to what’s most important to you. You may still feel fear about your decision, and that’s okay. If your heart-mind is good with it, don’t let the churning in your gut keep you from taking the plunge.

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A Key to Change

120526826_617x416 One of the hardest things about change can be acknowledging the need to make it. And that’s often because we blame ourselves for the predicament we’re in, and for not having changed already.  The pain of that self-judgment can make it nearly impossible to look honestly at our behavior and how we might do things differently.

That’s why I really appreciated Richard Friedman’s article, What Cookies and Meth Have in Common. It’s all about how the combination of our environment and our brains set the perfect stage for addiction — and all sorts of other self-destructive behaviors. That we eat too many cookies or drink too much wine or lash out in anger under stress isn’t our fault, in a sense.  These sorts of habits are what our brains naturally do:  seek comfort or “reward” of some sort when under stress.  And since our society sanctions and even encourages all sorts of destructive habits, whether by companies selling “comfort food” or cocktails, or by leaders modeling rage-filled behavior, it’s not surprising our brains give in to those.  Once we start down that path, though, it can be harder and harder to stop.

That’s because, as Friedman explains, our brains produce dopamine, which conveys a sense of pleasure in response to immediate “rewards” like sex, food, money and drugs. But the more we have those rewards, the more the brain needs them to experience even a normal, healthy dose of pleasure.  Ordinary pleasures that don’t include the addictive substance become harder to appreciate.  Our brains literally lose their pleasure receptors.

Although we don’t normally think of anger as addictive in this way, it can be, because it can feel good in the moment and give us a fleeting illusion of power and control.

Whatever the behavior, it can become automatic, not because we’re morally flawed, but because our brains are operating according to an ingrained pattern. The key to breaking that pattern is first to become aware of it, and then to consciously create new, healthier alternative patterns of behavior that serve us better.

None of this is particularly new or surprising.  But I’m repeatedly struck by how difficult people find it even to acknowledge their own unhealthy patterns of behavior.  And I think it’s because we blame ourselves for them, and that’s extremely painful. Continuing the behavior allows us to avoid that pain.

What Friedman’s and other research shows is that none of this is our “fault” in any moral sense. A combination of stressful conditions in our environment and easy access to an immediate unhealthy “reward” can lead us quickly down the road to addiction.

Although some people are more genetically predisposed to certain kinds of addictions than others, and at this point there’s little we can do to change that, we can change our environments in critical ways that encourage us to make healthier choices.

Obvious stress reducers include exercise, meditation and yoga, for example. And we can consciously limit our access to addictive and unhealthy substances.

But one often-overlooked way of reducing the stress that sustains our unwanted behaviors is simply to recognize that the behavior itself is not a moral flaw or defect. We are not to blame. It’s simply a brain pattern. By recognizing and acknowledging it, and then paying careful attention to how we react to our environment and doing our best to create a healthier one, even our brain patterns become something we can change.

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War and Peace

4426269-war-and-peace-wallpapersTo escape the news recently, I’ve been immersing myself in 19th Century novels, and one theme keeps coming across: the destructive human obsession with social status.

In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, Prince Andrew Bolkonski, infatuated with dreams of glory, leaves his young pregnant wife and family to join the military. As he charges into a poorly-planned battle, he thinks:

I don’t know what will happen and don’t want to know, and can’t, but if I want this – want glory, want to be known to men, want to be loved by them, it is not my fault that I want it and want nothing but that and live only for that. Yes, for that alone! I shall never tell anyone, but, oh God! What am I to do if I love nothing but fame and men’s esteem? Death, wounds, the loss of family—I fear nothing. And precious and dear as many persons are to me—father, sister, wife—those dearest to me—yet dreadful and unnatural as it seems, I would give them all at once for a moment of glory, of triumph over men, of love from men I don’t know and never shall know, for the love of these men here, he thought, as he listened to voices in [the commander-in-chief’s] courtyard.

Prince Andrew seizes the opportunity to play the hero when it comes along. But he is soon struck down, and, not sure what has happened, finds himself falling.

Above him there was now nothing but the sky—the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it. … How was it I did not see that lofty sky before?” he wonders. “And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!…

At some level we all seek glory – and its reality is almost always disappointing.

This toxic form of human striving has arguably spread more widely over the years, even as living standards have risen so our actual needs are far less. As Alain de Botton explains in his book Status Anxiety, the introduction of a democratic ethos in recent centuries brought with it a growing belief in inherent human equality. No longer are some people “by nature free and others by nature slaves,” as Aristotle wrote. Now we are all free, goes the theory, and equally entitled to compete for, and to achieve, ever-higher levels of success. If we haven’t succeeded, well, it’s our own damn fault.

Modern culture thrives on this notion. Capitalism is based on making people believe that for happiness and success, they need and therefore should buy more and more things, the vast majority of which are unnecessary and often harmful. (Think junk food, McMansions & gas-guzzling cars.) It’s how our economy works: people are employed to make things we don’t really need and to figure out ways to make us believe we want them anyway. That’s also why a lot of people are unhappy in their jobs, because when they stop to think about it, they realize they’re not contributing something constructive, but instead may be encouraging people to waste their money, time and energy, and help destroy the planet in the process.

I realize I’m painting a pretty grim and one-sided picture. Lots of people provide important services to the world, like teaching, health care, nourishing food, or safe and efficient homes. But it’s also true that many of us get so caught up in wanting to prove our worth within our given social and economic systems that we rarely stop to think about what we truly value, and what we’re really trying to prove.

That’s a really important antidote to all this. When we find ourselves envying other people, for example, or feeling like a failure in comparison, we can ask ourselves, what’s important to me? What do I really want to do, and what’s important about that? Is it something I truly value, or something I think will impress others? And am I so focused on winning admiration from strangers that I can’t even see the sky?

Of course, sometimes we’re so confused by the whirlwind around us that it’s hard to know what’s important. Paying attention to what we envy can provide a clue. If I’m envying a friend or acquaintance for something I believe they have that I don’t, what is it about that thing that I want? Perhaps it’s a means of self-expression, or connection with others. It’s usually something deeper than we at first imagine.

Much of our focus on the superficial exterior comes down to a nagging desire to define ourselves, to see ourselves as a fixed entity capable of definition, which occupies a particular rung on the status ladder. But in fact, neither the ladder nor our “selves” exist in the way we think — as solid, independent entities, separate from our conceptions of them. As psychologist Rick Hanson writes in his book Buddha’s Brain, the self is like a unicorn – it’s not an independently existing thing, but merely patterns in the mind and brain. It’s “continually constructed, deconstructed and constructed again.” Nothing solid about it.

By recognizing this, we can begin to experience some freedom. Seeing that our sense of self is based on our upbringing, our culture, our experiences, and the people around us, we begin to recognize how elusive the “self” really is. We can begin to see our “self” more as a tool and a process, as the Insight meditation teacher Heather Sundberg puts it, than as a fixed entity.

And it is only by letting go of that constant need to define, represent, compare and judge ourselves that we can truly relax and be ourselves – whoever that may be at any given moment.

 

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Time Out

imagesI’ve written almost nothing on this blog since the inauguration of Donald Trump. Partly I think it’s because I’ve been so outwardly focused – fixated on the daily, minute-by-minute news of the disturbing, twisted, often absurd machinations of this new administration that I haven’t taken the time to stop and think much. When I have, usually because all my anger and frustration has exhausted me, what surfaces is primarily a sense of defeat, resignation, and depression.

The other reason I’m not writing is because I’ve been seeing the world around me as rapidly deteriorating, so everything else seems trivial. I just haven’t been able to muster the energy to think of something positive or hopeful or encouraging to write about. And nobody needs more bad news to read. There’s plenty of that available already.

Of course, when I do stop to think about it, I’m not actually seeing the world deteriorate.  I’m reading, watching and hearing about it. It’s the focus of the news, of my Facebook and Twitter feeds, of ordinary conversation with friends, neighbors and colleagues.

What I’m actually seeing on a day-to-day basis hasn’t changed that much — except maybe the buds bursting up in February or the snowstorms in mid-March, which were definitely disturbing.  Still, most of what I’m seeing is exactly the same as what I saw when Barack Obama was president:  the same buildings and trees outside my window, the same people and dogs on the street, save for a new baby or puppy that’s recently arrived. My physical and visual world, my own life circumstances, haven’t really changed much.

Of course, lots of other peoples lives have changed, especially if they’re undocumented immigrants or Muslim, and I recognize that I’ve been shielded from the immediate effects of Trump’s policy changes by my relative social privilege.

Still, it’s amazing how much our consciousness and sense of the world and of ourselves in it can change based on what we’re reading, watching or listening to: the material our minds consume.  On the one hand, it’s wonderful that we can access news from all over the world in such an up-to-the-minute way and know what our government, for example, is doing. On the other hand, having that option can really take us away from ourselves, what we want and care about, and from doing the things and living our lives in ways consistent with that.

In “Life Without Principle,” Thoreau wrote: “We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention.”

As the Buddha taught, what we frequently dwell upon determines the shape of our mind.

Many of us can’t just turn off the news, of course, and I don’t think we should.  We need to know what’s happening in our political system, and the real consequences it has for millions of people, and for the entire planet, to even begin to try to change it. But taking time to reconnect with ourselves is also key to staying in touch with what’s important to us and to recognizing our own inner strength and resources, despite the mayhem in the political world.  It’s also key to refueling — we need to re-connect with a sense of peace, with joy, with beauty, in order to replenish the energy it takes to continue fighting against these larger forces that threaten to overtake our better natures.

In Harper’s this month, Walter Kirn writes of driving from Western Montana to Las Vegas, without looking at or listening to the news the entire time. He finds it eye-opening, revitalizing, and oddly political: “In a supposedly post-factual time, deep attention to the passing scene is a radical act, reviving one’s sense that the world is real, worth fighting for, and that politics is a material phenomenon, its consequences embedded in things seen.”

I learned recently of the death of an acquaintance, someone I knew slightly but not well, and it struck me that even in our occasional encounters, he had touched me deeply.  I remember him as open, kind, gentle and wise — all qualities I admire, and would like to have more of.

We don’t tend to think about it, but we influence other people all the time, through even our most ordinary interactions. Taking time away from the public drama to reconnect with ourselves seems key to understanding that, and to reminding us that we can choose how we relate to the world. And that’s really the only way we can even attempt to leave our best impression on it.

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On Staying Hopeful

954325Last week was tough. Not just because many of us were returning to work after a holiday break, but for anyone who works in social justice advocacy, the air is thick with fear, apprehension, lingering shock and disappointment. What will this new administration bring?  So far, the signs are ominous.

I was reading through news stories about refugees and asylum seekers the other day, trying to help my organization figure out how to combat some of the misinformation that’s been spreading like wildfire through cyberspace. It didn’t take long before I was depressed and discouraged. The distortions, the nastiness, the sheer vitriol I found targeted at some of the most unfortunate and vulnerable people in the world these days was beyond disheartening. It made me feel like there’s this huge dark cloud amassing and expanding over the country, threatening a deluge of hatred and anger and violence that could wipe out many of the fundamental values and assumptions we’d come to rely on.

What I’m describing, of course, is a sense of despair, and I see it all around me these days. Many of us seem to be moving through a haze, lamenting the times, and, especially during the holidays, drinking away our sorrows with like-minded friends and neighbors, as if we could put the disappointment of 2016 behind us.

It’s a mood that’s easy to slip into, but really, a luxury we cannot afford. Yes, the idea of Donald Trump as president and Jeff Sessions as attorney general and Rex Tillerson as secretary of state seemed so absurd and beyond our imagination just a few short months ago that it’s hard to know how to respond now. But merely indulging or consoling ourselves with the latest spikes in the stock market isn’t the way to go. There’s a lot each of us can do towards shoring up the values and principles and social compacts many of us still believe in, and while some of it may be painful and tedious and frustrating, it’s still worth the effort. Tempting as it may be, we can’t just check out now.

It can be helpful to remember that progress never happens in a steady upwards trajectory. There are always discouraging dips and setbacks and stumbles along the way. And real, lasting gains can require decades or longer to take root. Think of gay marriage, an idea barely considered 20 years ago, or the fact that 100 years ago women still weren’t trusted with the right to vote. Just 50 years before that, Africans could still be seized, shipped, sold and bought as slaves in this country. We’ve come a long way.

In her 2016 book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit likens social change to the emergence of mushrooms in a forest:

After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork – or underground work – often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

The ugly expressions of racism, sexism and xenophobia so easily found online these days can make it seem as if it’s impossible to change anyone’s mind, especially as people seem to just immerse themselves in opinions they already agree with, the ideas and beliefs bouncing around in their chosen echo chamber getting louder and uglier as they reverberate.

We do, however, operate in a larger culture, and political system, and slowly, over time, progress can and often does occur.

As Solnit puts it:

Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power…

Positive change is not inevitable, though. We’re seeing some pretty ugly mushrooms sprout right now. Hope is “not a substitute for action, only a basis for it,” Solnit reminds us. “Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act.”

That’s a sentiment I’ll be holding onto. None of us alone can change the current political climate, but we all can find ways to contribute to its change. Yes, we also have to take breaks, to turn off the news, appreciate silence and take care of ourselves. But this is not the time to retreat and accept the status quo. Those dark clouds will need a strong wind to disperse them.

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Pay Attention

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There are many things we cannot control. We can, however, exercise much more control over one thing: where we place our attention. Do we allow it to be seized by someone else’s agenda, or do we set our own? Are we distracted by every bit of bad news that flashes across our screens, or do we concentrate on doing and creating something good?

We all want to do something something important, to make a contribution. As the Dalai Lama and the head of the American Enterprise Institute put it recently, we all want to feel useful. It’s a basic human need. But one of the challenges of modern life is we’re constantly distracted from even considering what we can usefully do by the endless barrage of news, ads, and other shiny objects that seem to demand our attention.

Some of these things can seem very important. For example, lately I’ve been avidly following the new president-elect’s picks for his future cabinet — the people (mostly older white men) he’s chosen to control the various agencies that run the functions of our government. (I do believe it’s ours, even though we often feel helpless to have any influence over it.)  And I’ve spent a lot of time angry and upset.

How can he pick the head of a global oil company with huge business interests in Russia to be the next Secretary of State?  How can he pick a climate change denier to run the Environmental Protection Agency?  The list goes on and on.

In fact, I have no ability to control who Donald Trump picks to fill his cabinet or to advise him or even to sit on the Supreme Court (God forbid). I can participate in the political process once he makes those appointments, urging members of Congress to reject his choices, for example, if that seems possible or appropriate. But the vast amount of time I spend following the news sites reporting on his latest picks — or statements, or tweets, or lies — is really a waste of my time. I don’t really believe that knowing Trump’s latest moves within hours or even moments of his publicizing them will give me any more ability to respond effectively. In fact, I’m starting to get the feeling that the more I allow my mind to be consumed by this whirlwind of toxins, and my rage and fear to be stoked by it, the less effective I’m likely to be — at anything.

Rage and fear are what got us into this mess: it’s what led a surprisingly large number of people to vote for a candidate that encouraged and played upon those emotions. I don’t really want to follow in their footsteps.

For me to be effective — politically, and also personally, in all the other areas of my life that are important to me — I need to stay informed, but also to keep some distance. I need to refrain from following it all so closely that my entire focus becomes on things I don’t need to know, about which I have no control, and which only feed my anger and sense of despair. I need to maintain enough space between myself and “the news” — which is largely defined by others — so that I can develop and maintain my own sense of what’s important, what I want to know about, and what I can do and can contribute. How can I be useful, what do I have to offer, in the midst of all the anger and fear and craziness — and in the midst of all the well-meaning, hard-working, good people I see around me? How can I keep at least some of my focus on all the possibilities to do good that still exist, even as I feel sad and frustrated at the direction I see my federal government taking?

I think this is a central question for many of us right now. It’s a hard question, and one that’s easy to avoid by staying focused on the daily alarm bells. But it’s important to answer, so we don’t look back later and see we were squandering our opportunities by reacting impulsively instead of responding deliberately. And answering it begins, I believe, with being more conscious and careful about where we place our attention.

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