“Let us not return to what was normal, but reach toward what is next.”— Amanda Gorman
My dog passed away recently. For my partner and me, it was devastating. We’d poured so much love and attention on Friday for more than 15 years. Even though it was clear for months his end was nearing, we felt a tremendous loss when he finally left us. It was like there was a hole in our lives: not just a hole in our daily routines of walking and feeding and caring for him, but a hole in our hearts, where we’d held our love for him. Where was that love now that he was gone?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. That love doesn’t just disappear. Of course, it’s tied to our memories, but it’s also an energy that we have available to us, at times buried more or less deeply, and can choose to draw upon more often.
Dogs are easy to love, of course, even if they’re difficult, as Friday was (he bit; I have scars). We project all sorts of ideas and assumptions onto these unwitting creatures, and then fall in love with them. People generally are more resistant to our projections. (If dogs could speak, and complain, and make their own choices, they might not be as easily lovable.)
Since love comes from a feeling of understanding, empathy and connection, projected or not, then we have the ability to love many more beings in our lives than our pets.
In the 1990s, psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron famously developed the 36 questions they declared would lead people to fall in love. The idea was that if two people ask one another a list of increasingly personal questions, they will develop enough understanding and empathy for one another, and will feel sufficiently seen and understood, that intimacy and love develop naturally.
Outside a clinical setting we can’t often ask all those questions of other people, but just like we make assumptions about what our pets are thinking or feeling, and therefore empathize and imagine they understand us, we can choose to make assumptions about other beings that allow us to empathize and even feel love for them, too. Or, as often happens, we can choose, consciously or not, to assume the worst about someone, and thereby develop animosity toward them. If we pay attention, it can be amazing how often we’re making those negative assumptions, and the angst it causes us.
We can choose to do the opposite. Buddhists long ago created a loving-kindness meditation practice designed to bring up feelings of love by deliberately directing our wishes of well-being to others. Psychologists have studied its impact and find that such meditations, or the simple practice of reflecting at the end of every day on the most positive interactions you had with other people, actually has positive physical effects on our bodies, similar to those created by feelings of love. That love doesn’t have to be everlasting. It can be a fleeting feeling – what Barbara Fredrickson, a research psychologist at the University of North Carolina describes as “that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being,” much like you might share with your pet, or someone else’s pet, or a close friend, or even, sometimes, a stranger. That feeling, writes Fredrickson, in her illuminating book Love 2.0, is “perhaps the most essential emotional experience for thriving and health.”
We can do that at any time. We don’t have to be meditating, making lists or engaging in formal practices. It’s a choice we have in every moment.
When I was in Maine last summer with my dog Friday, shortly before he passed, I heard the Rolling Stones singing Gimme Shelter on a local radio show. It got stuck in my head, as old pop songs do, so I decided to look up the words, since I had never really been able to understand them. I realized it’s a powerful anti-war song, and concludes with the reminder that we always have a choice between war and love.
Here are the full lyrics, and here’s the chorus:
War, children It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away War, children It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away
Until the last refrain, which becomes:
I tell you love, sister It's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away It's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away It's just a kiss away, (kiss away kiss away)
I still miss Friday terribly, and those feelings of love (and also sadness) well up in my heart whenever I look at his pictures. But it’s helpful to know that those feelings don’t disappear with his mortal life. I feel a bit of them every time my neighbor’s dog Molly comes bounding up our stoop and lets me pet her. And I try to consciously conjure them, through loving-kindness meditations or just conscious choice, when I go running in the park and encounter people who I might otherwise ignore, fear or even just find annoying. (It takes less effort, of course, with cute babies and puppies.)
The point is not that that we shouldn’t feel loss, but that we can also draw on and transform and direct the love we have felt, and always have capacity to feel, in many directions. That love can give us shelter. We have a choice.
“I suppose the test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please. I suppose it’s playing the game after that, that counts.”
— Willa Cather, letter to her brother, July 1916
— Edmund Wilson, writing to Louise Bogan in 1937 (quoted in Vivian Gornick, Letters are Acts of Faith)
Amid the cacophony of advice on how to survive the pandemic or what to do during lockdown I’ve been reluctant to add to it, but since so many of us are stuck at home with time on our hands and a jumble in our heads, I’ll highlight a few things I’ve found helpful.
The first has been to set some goals: not big lofty goals or enormous challenges that will feel burdensome, but simple choices to focus on things I care about that will occupy my mind and keep me moving forward in a time when I might otherwise feel stuck – at home, in the limits of my life, and in the obsessive tendencies of my mind.
Have something you’re working toward: learning a simple skill or craft or about a subject that interests you; a moderate physical challenge like a series of pushups or a weekly yoga practice; a book you’ve been curious about but never given yourself the time to read before. Do something simple and achievable that you can feel good about, and that’s different than just what you need to do to get by.
Various combinations of these have gotten me through these last few months, and though I still sometimes feel stir-crazy, my online painting class (thank you Art Students League) or Yoga with Adriene or Insight meditation Zoom sessions have been a huge help.
So has learning new coaching skills, like Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems model, or IFS. For use both in psychotherapy and in coaching, IFS is a way of understanding our own minds that I’ve found particularly helpful at a time when so many of us are spending more time isolated with our own minds than ever before. Living in lockdown can be a bit like being on your own home meditation retreat (or mandatory home confinement) without the guidance of a teacher or connection to a community, which makes it far more difficult to learn from the experience.
Schwartz’s IFS model is ultimately a way of making friends with our own minds – the good, the bad and the ugly. In his view, we all have different parts of ourselves that emerge and take over and lead us at various times — and often lead us astray. Like a family where different members play different roles in the system (Schwartz started out as a family therapist) we’ve each developed these internal voices or “parts” in response to various experiences in our lives. Each serves a different function, so has different goals and interests and means of conveying them. We may have an inner critic that tells us we’re stupid whenever we make a mistake, for example, or a part of us that’s afraid to try new things. Those parts might have developed because as children we got in trouble for making mistakes, or were shamed if we tried and failed at something. We’ve internalized those responses, and now those parts are battling other parts of ourselves that long for learning, growth or adventure. The critical or fearful voices aren’t bad: they developed for a good reason, to try to keep us from getting hurt. But by now, if they’ve become too dominant, they may be more destructive than helpful, keeping us stuck in internal turmoil.
The IFS model isn’t about banishing those internal voices, but about getting to know them, developing understanding and compassion for them, and ultimately, helping them channel their energies or interests more constructively. In Schwartz’s theory, while we all have these inner parts that often work against one another, we also all have a “true self” or core wisdom that we can access, which allows us to hear and accept the various voices, and learn from but not be ruled by them. Acting from our core wisdom or true self – in others words, self-leadership – is the goal of IFS therapy or coaching.
You can learn more about Schwartz’s model here or through his audiobook, Greater than the Sum of Our Parts. The model can be applied in various settings, including, when used carefully by a well-trained therapist, to situations of serious mental disturbance. But as a coaching method, IFS can help us all sort through some of the noise in our minds that keeps us feeling stuck and dissatisfied. Whether you’re trying to endure the isolation of a lockdown or having conflict in a relationship or feeling stuck in your career, it’s really helpful to identify and come to know the various parts of yourself that are rushing in and trying to tell you what to do. They’re often arguing with each other, so it can be hard to discern what each is saying above the cacophony. Schwartz’s model is all about doing just that: disentangling the parts so we can hear, listen to and learn from each of them, and ultimately re-direct their energies and interests to guide us in more constructive ways.
If you’re feeling stuck, anxious, or just exhausted by the monotony of pandemic life, consider taking this opportunity to slow down and really listen: what are the different parts within you, and what are they saying? What might you ask them, and what could you learn? What do they want for you, and what do they need? And what can they teach you about how old patterns of thinking may be getting in your own way?
It goes without saying that these are difficult times, and a lot of people are suffering. It’s important to keep that in mind, and for each of us to do our best to help in whatever ways we can. It’s also important to keep in mind that this interruption in business-as-usual offers possibilities for imagining a different, and perhaps ultimately better, future. How might each of us contribute to that?
The world as we know it is dissolving. But behind it comes a new world, the formation of which we can at least imagine…
A massive loss of control suddenly turns into a veritable intoxication of the positive. After a period of bewilderment and fear, an inner strength arises. The world “ends”, but in the experience that we are still there, a kind of being new arises inside.
In the middle of civilization’s shutdown, we run through forests or parks, or across almost empty spaces. But this is not an apocalypse, but a new beginning.
This is how it turns out: Change begins as a changed pattern of expectations, perceptions and world connections. Sometimes it is precisely the break with the routines, the familiar, that releases our sense of the future again. The idea and certainty that everything could be completely different – and even better.
Every January for the past several years I’ve joined activists in front of the White House to protest the indefinite detention of 40 Muslim men at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. This year, January 11 marked the 18th anniversary of the prison’s opening.
I took the train to Washington in January with a mixture of anxiety and dread. Anxiety that no one would show up, because who even remembers that the Guantanamo prison is still open? Dread because this would be yet another year where, regardless of how many people did make the effort to travel to the White House to protest, the protests would be falling on deaf ears: Donald Trump, whose support is needed to close the prison, couldn’t care less.
Still, there was something beautiful in the annual ritual. This year I had a filmmaker and cameraman with me, and the short film they created captures that. It shows ordinary Americans of all ages traveling from across the country to Washington, DC. Many of them fast for several days before the event, in solidarity with the men who’ve undertaken hunger strikes in the prison. They gather and sleep on the floor of a local church until the day of the anniversary, when they put on orange jumpsuits and black hoods to represent the plight of the 40 men still indefinitely detained, most without charge or trial, in the US military prison in Cuba.
This year, we marched from the White House to the Trump International Hotel.
“I don’t think there’s any futility in that,” Reverend Ron Stief, director of the National Religious Campaign against Torture, told us. “Human rights is a long game… We owe it to the detainees who remain there never to stop.”
The president may not have been listening, but the protesters were connecting with each other, while calling the attention of passersby who knew nothing at all about their cause.
“What is Guantanamo?” a young woman who’d recently come to the US from Argentina asked me as I stood among the crowd at the rally, listening to the various speakers. She’d been drawn to the protest while walking through Lafayette Park that sunny Saturday afternoon. I explained what it was; she stayed to listen longer.
Most activists are exhausted these days, and our actions can easily feel futile. But it’s helpful to remember we’re all playing a long game, and that there’s beauty, even joy, in just showing up for it: to support one another, to raise our voices together, and to call everyone’s attention to something larger than ourselves.
In his essay, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” the historian Howard Zinn wrote:
Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope.
An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
I was in a meeting at the Pentagon recently, seated at a table surrounded by uniformed military officers and dark-suited government officials. The meeting was tense, with the officials all insisting the Defense Department was doing the right thing and I and my colleagues from other human rights organizations pointing to our evidence that in many situations, it had not. We didn’t seem to be making any progress.
At some point I glanced down at my wrist and realized I was wearing a red rubber bracelet that said in prominent white letters: “Self-Compassion It.” I’d been given the bracelet upon completing an eight-week training course in “Mindful Self-Compassion,” and had been wearing it as a reminder to use the tools I’d learned.
Nothing wrong with that, right? Still, in this buttoned-up professional setting, I was instantly embarrassed. I sheepishly tucked my hand under the table, slid the bracelet off and stuffed it into my handbag. The idea that I would be seen considering “self-compassion” in a meeting of senior warriors seemed absurd.
The idea of mindful self-compassion can sound silly, trivial and self-involved. But it’s actually anything but. As Kristin Neff and Chris Germer, the psychologists who created the Mindful Self-Compassion course explain, self-compassion has been scientifically proven to be critical to well-being.
Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion isn’t based on pumping yourself up to believe you’re better than anyone else. That keeps you in a judging mindset, so as soon as you screw up, you feel worthless again. Self-compassion is instead having compassion for yourself — not for your accomplishments, but simply because you’re a human being, flawed like everyone else, and deserving of compassion nonetheless. Once you acknowledge that you don’t have to be perfect to deserve compassion, you naturally start feeling compassion for the other less-than-perfect people around you. In other words, it’s helpful not only for yourself, but for everyone you encounter.
Neff’s book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, explains this all very well. But most convincing to me was Neff’s story of how she’s applied it in her own life.
As a small child, her son was diagnosed with autism. She felt a huge range of emotions — including disappointment, sadness, grief and fear. She had recently learned self-compassion techniques on a week-long mindfulness retreat. She describes how flooding herself with self-compassion allowed her to feel her full range of emotions — including the shame she felt at some of her reactions. Only by accepting those emotions with compassion rather than judgment could she fully experience them, to the point where she could accept and then acknowledge that she was strong enough to handle the situation. Not that it was easy, but it gave her a critical tool to deal with the challenges.
After that, when her son would start acting out — screaming and flailing in public, for example, as some autistic children do — she would comfort herself for her feelings of confusion, shame, stress and helplessness. That calmed her enough so she could respond wisely and compassionately to her son, instead of lashing out in anger or wallowing in self-pity.
Neff’s experience illustrates why self-compassion is so valuable. It allows us to face our situation, whatever it is, with compassion instead of judgment. That allows us to look at the situation more honestly and thoughtfully, and to choose more carefully how we want to respond.
If I’ve made a mistake, for example, instead of immediately criticizing myself as “stupid”, I can forgive myself for not being perfect, acknowledge the mistake, and look more closely to see what happened and what I’d want to do differently next time. Giving myself compassion instead of criticism allows me to move forward. On the other hand, if I immediately beat myself up and feel worthless, I’m going to try to hide from or forget the situation immediately and avoid looking at what I did at all. And I’m more likely to repeat the same mistake again.
The feeling of compassion, much like the feeling of love, has positive physical effects on our bodies, too. Scientists have shown it increases oxytocin, which has a calming effect on our nervous systems; it improves vagal tone, which helps the body reduce inflammation; it improves relationships, which has an anti-ageing effect, and, well, it just feels good.
The feeling of judgment or self-hatred, on the other hand, creates anxiety, which has a decidedly negative impact. Chronic self-doubt and anxiety harm the heart, immune and gastrointestinal systems. Plus they just make us feel lousy.
Compassion “involves the recognition and clear seeing of suffering,” writes Neff. “It also involves feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help – to ameliorate suffering – emerges. Finally, compassion involves recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is.”
Self-compassion thus places us in the sea of common humanity and allows us to extend the same compassion to ourselves we would instinctively offer to a good friend, a small child, or favorite pet. It allows us to acknowledge what’s happening, including our suffering, with kindness rather than with judgment. For those of us who’ve allowed ourselves to be ruled by self-judgment, that’s a huge relief.
“Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?” writes Neff.
It’s hard to be a human being in a difficult world. Our social and professional settings can make us feel like we constantly have to prove ourselves, to measure up, to justify our worth. As obvious as it sounds, no one’s perfect: we all make mistakes, even if we’re trying our best, usually in less-than-ideal circumstances. The simple response of kindness – both for ourselves and for others – can go a long way.
I haven’t had a chance to write much lately, but I do want to share some great online resources I’ve found useful in recent months.
When the madness of the world, the onslaught of bad news, or just the cold and dark of winter get you down, consider these two “positive psychology” podcasts as an antidote:
The Uplift podcast features interviews with a range of scientists, authors, activists and teachers who offer insight and tips on positive living and thinking. Although they seem to have stopped creating new episodes, the ones from 2017-2018 are still online and worth checking out.
The One You Feed is another podcast I really like, and it’s still producing new material. Host Eric Zimmer interviews researchers, writers and thinkers who’ve found ways to feed the so-called “good wolf” inside of us — the one that’s characterized by kindness, bravery and love, as opposed to the “bad wolf” characterized by greed, hatred and fear. According to the old parable this podcast is based on, we all have both those wolves inside us constantly battling it out. The one that wins, the story goes, is the one you feed. The podcast is free; a monthly subscription fee gets you commercial-free episodes and other bonus content.
For those interested in meditation and/or Buddhist philosophy, Dharma Seed offers thousands of free talks online on a range of topics, most from meditation teachers connected to the secular Insight Meditation Society. Many of these are not only about personal practices that can help bring calm and wisdom, but also about key principles that can help guide our engagement with the world. Some of my favorites are from teachers like Donald Rothberg and Zohar Lavie, , who focus on service to others and the world — what’s often called “engaged Buddhism.” But there are so many great ones, it’s worth scrolling through recent titles and just seeing what interests you.
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. There are the weekly check-ins, the quarterly board reports, the accounting for my budget, etc.
I understand that an organization needs to keep track of what its employees are doing and their results, but it takes time, effort, and thought. It’s a commitment.
The problem may not be so much that I’ve had to keep checking in to others, but that I haven’t made an equal commitment to checking in with myself. I’ve gotten so focused on meeting other peoples’ expectations that I’ve forgotten to regularly consider and pursue some of my interests, goals and intentions. I’ve let things that are important to me – both people and activities – fall away. Feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities, I’ve come to see many things I enjoy as what I’ll do when I retire and have more time.
Well, for better or worse, I’m not retiring anytime soon. 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 interns seeking career advice on working in human rights and social justice. One of them asked 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 her summer internship, 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 for years being 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. 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’ve let a lot of those things slip in my own life. I’m not doing many of the things I used to enjoy or spending enough 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?