“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.
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?
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.
To 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.
A young man approached a great master and asked to become his student. The student asked the master: “How long will it take me to become a master?”
“15 years,” replied the master.
“So long?” asked the young man, looking disappointed.
The master reconsidered. “Well, in your case, 20 years.”
The young man was alarmed. He persisted. “What if I devote every waking hour to learning this art?” he demanded.
“25 years,” replied the master.
“You’re talking nonsense,” the student said, angry now. “How can it be that if I work harder, it will take longer to achieve my goal?”
The master replied: “If you have one eye fixed on your destination, then you have only one eye left with which to find your way.”
I love this story, which I heard here from the Insight Meditation teacher Deborah Ratner Helzer, because I think it encapsulates a dilemma many of us face. On the one hand, we want to achieve great things, and set high expectations for ourselves; on the other, all those expectations can become exhausting and ultimately, demoralizing.
There’s a whole success industrial complex of coaches and self-help gurus that tells us high expectations are important to increasing our chances of success. Studies show that children expected to do poorly at school generally do, for example, while those expected to excel are more likely to get A’s and please their teachers and parents. And some psychologists claim high expectations make us more likely to pursue challenges, which raises our sense of effectiveness and ultimately, our levels of happiness.
I understand that logic, but it also makes me uncomfortable. I can feel my heart start to race and my stomach tie into knots as I scramble to think of what more I should be trying to accomplish, what I haven’t done already, and whether I really can or even want to achieve these new heights I ought to be reaching for.
I think part of the problem is that many of these studies conflate self-confidence with high expectations. The two concepts are actually very different.
It’s one thing to feel confident that you can take on a challenge. It’s quite another to expect yourself to succeed at something particular before you’ve even tried it. That assumes an entire path to getting there, which may or may not turn out to be realistic, or the path you even want to take.
Expectations are a fixed destination determined at the beginning, on which we keep one eye at all times. This can distract us from the learning and flexibility we need to adapt to conditions, which will inevitably change along the way. Expectations are, by their very nature, set points identified early on based on external benchmarks held up as representations of “success.”
The word “expectation” itself derives from the Latin for “to look out for,” which suggests a looking outward for something that will happen to us, rather than inward for something we can do. In Italian, the verb “aspettare” can mean to expect, but it primarily means “to wait.” It’s a reminder that expectations are something we watch and wait for – not something we ourselves can make happen. So rather than motivating, expectations can be, by their very nature, dis-empowering. And if we keep striving to attain something that’s out of our control, we’re likely to end up feeling defeated.
Still, we need to have goals and a direction if we want to accomplish anything, including continuing to grow and learn and feel competent — all basic human needs. I prefer to think of these as aspirations rather than expectations. To aspire is to “direct one’s hopes or ambitions toward achieving.” It’s more about setting a direction than about reaching a particular endpoint.
Interestingly, “aspire” comes from a Latin word meaning “to breathe.” Setting a direction allows us to let go of worrying about the outcome, and leaves us room to breathe, and fully experience the journey, along the way. Aspirations acknowledge the unpredictability of the journey, and the larger context we’re operating within. They don’t make demands that things go a particular way, they simply point us onward in a particular direction we’ve chosen. The final destination, or achievement, which will depend on circumstances as they arise.
This way of setting goals also turns out to be more consistent with scientific evidence about the kinds of goals that lead to true happiness. According to Self-Determination Theory, we’re intrinsically motivated to pursue goals that satisfy three basic psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness and competence. That is, we’re more likely to persist with our goals if we’ve chosen them ourselves, they connect us to others, and they give us an opportunity to demonstrate our competence or skill in some way.
Those who choose goals set by someone else and motivated by external rewards, on the other hand, such as wealth, image and status, are less likely to stick with them. They’re also likely to suffer a lot more striving to achieve them, since, as psychologists Kenneth Sheldon and Tim Kasser have found, motivation by external factors tends to distract people from their underlying psychological needs and encourage people to engage in pursuits they don’t inherently enjoy.
Achieving goals set by external expectations is also often self-defeating, because we’re less likely to be happy even if we achieve those goals. And repeatedly striving for something that we believe will make us happy but doesn’t can lead to what psychologist Martin Seligman called “learned helplessness” – the belief that there’s nothing we can do to improve our situation. That can lead to depression.
Of course, knowing what we value, making our own choices and being comfortable with them isn’t easy, especially when we’re bombarded with other people’s ideas of success and expectations for us. And that inevitably influences – especially when we’re younger – the expectations we set for ourselves.
It influences our expectations of others, and of the world around us, too. Yet we can’t control what other people – or governments, or companies, or institutions – do. We can only do our part, as best we know how: with positive intentions, awareness of our immediate impact and careful consideration of the potential long-term consequences of our actions. If we expect things to happen according to our desires and our timetable, we’re likely to get frustrated and give up. I see this in clients – and have felt it myself – over and over again. Instead, we need to set our course based on our current values, and pause to fully appreciate any progress we make along the way.
To condense this all into a handy reminder, I’ve broken it down this way:
To aspire is to:
Accept where/how/who you are
Set self-concordant goals
Practice being present
Intend your best self
Re-calibrate your goals along the way
Enjoy the ride.
Rebecca Solnit captures beautifully the spirit of this idea in her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost:
How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.
There’s nothing like a 7-day silent retreat to shut you up. I don’t mean just during the retreat, when, of course, you’re supposed to be quiet. But even after. I’ve found that since returning from a week-long meditation retreat in July, I’ve been reluctant to write. Not about public affairs, which I write about for my work, but about the experience of the retreat itself. Seven days of silence taught me not only the value of silence, but why it’s really worth evaluating more carefully what it is we have to say.
Being in a room with 100 other people in silence makes immediately clear how much anxiety underlies ordinary situations involving other people simply because we feel we should say something. Preferably it’s clever, witty, or welcoming, and always it feels like a reflection of us in the world. The worry, ‘How will I present myself?’ Is frequently an anxiety about ‘what will I say?’ It leads to a lot of unnecessary chatter, which in itself can provoke further anxiety.
What’s interesting about being in silence is you find you don’t really need to say much. There’s great peace in that.
Of course, your thoughts don’t stop. You’re just saying them to yourself. This presents a unique opportunity to observe what it is that you say to yourself all day, and its impact.
For example, I noticed that, when undistracted by chatter or radio or television or even reading or writing – all things taboo on a silent retreat – my mind tends to either ruminate about the past or plan for the future. It may be ruminating about why a past relationship went wrong or something I regret saying or doing yesterday or 20 years ago, or it may be planning my next vacation, or even my next meal. But it becomes instantly clear how hard it is to keep my mind in the present.
So what? Well, for one thing, it means I’m missing out on whatever’s going on right now. Which is actually where I’m living my life. It means I’m not fully engaging with the experience I’m having, whether it’s pleasant or painful.
That also means I’m not learning from it. Paying attention to what brings us joy, for example, is really important. How else can you not only fully experience that joy, but know what it is you really want more of in your life?
Paying attention to what’s painful is harder, but also crucial. If I’m feeling bad about some past mistake I made yet again, I can recognize the pain in that and decide to respond to myself with compassion instead of blame. That makes it easier to see, consider and understand why I did what I did, and leaves me better able, when a similar situation arises again, to choose a different course. Over time, choosing to respond this way becomes a new habit. It’s ultimately a much less painful and more constructive way to move forward.
The other thing I realized is how much all these ruminations and plans are really about trying to solidify a sense of who I am: if I’m stewing over something hurtful I did or said, I’m not only regretting that act, I’m also hating myself for being the person who committed it. Identifying myself as a person who does hurtful things compounds the pain tremendously.
The same is true when thinking about other people. If I’m revisiting a wrong done to me, I’m usually not just upset about what happened. I’m also feeling angry toward the person who did it, and whom I’ve now labeled a bad person. And I’m identifying myself as a victim in the situation, which is inherently disempowering. I’ve just compounded the problem and seared into my memory these solid impressions of who everyone involved actually is.
What’s useful about silence is to see how these are all simply habits of mind. We habitually seek to create a sense of our own identity, and of the identity of others, based on partial memories, refracted images and imagined futures. That’s not only painful, but terribly limiting.
What we dwell upon becomes the shape of our minds. In our ordinary lives, we’re being constantly bombarded by stimuli that literally shape our minds, whether it’s the latest hateful thing Donald Trump said or an ad for some luxury item we don’t need and can’t afford. By recognizing this, we can begin to make the choice to focus on things that matter more to us, such as the people in our lives or a cause we really care about. That all requires paying attention to where our minds habitually stray, and setting an intention to direct them toward where we actually want them to go.
Silence helped me realize how much room we have to create our selves, and how much more charitably we can view other people — in far more helpful and responsible ways.
I’m getting ready to head out on a 7-day silent meditation retreat, and I’ve been feeling a little weird about it.
So I really appreciated coming across Paul Graham’s essay, The Acceleration of Addictiveness, which in large part explains why I’m doing this. A computer programmer and founder of the startup funder Y Combinator, Graham — who’s also a wonderful essayist — explains that while technology has brought us many great things, it’s also made our world much more addictive.
For example: “Food has been transformed by a combination of factory farming and innovations in food processing into something with way more immediate bang for the buck, and you can see the results in any town in America. Checkers and solitaire have been replaced by World of Warcraft and FarmVille. TV has become much more engaging, and even so it can’t compete with Facebook.”
The result is that we’re constantly being drawn toward things that technology has allowed some big company to profit from by capturing our attention. The consequences range from obesity to ADHD to home-grown terrorism.
As individuals, it means we each have to pay that much more attention to where we’re putting our attention, and to whether it’s what we really want to be focusing on. This is what meditation is all about.
Graham calls it the difference between what’s “normal” and what’s “natural”. It may be “normal” to binge-watch your favorite series on Netflix, but sitting on a couch for hours on end (and likely adding some junk food and alcohol to the mix) is hardly what our bodies were made for. After a while, it doesn’t feel very good.
On the other hand, refraining from “normal” things like television and processed food and electronics, even briefly, can make you seem pretty weird. Already, “someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US,” Graham writes, predicting technology will only accelerate the trend. “You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don’t think you’re weird, you’re living badly.”
I take some comfort from that. Living the life you choose requires turning away from lots of things the modern world is trying to convince you you should do, mostly because someone’s making a huge profit off it. Thinking and living independently is hardly “normal” these days, but it does tend to feel a whole lot better and more “natural”.
I’ll have to remind myself of that when I’m sitting in silent meditation next week and inevitably start wondering what the hell I’m doing there.
When thinking about what to do with our lives, it’s easy to get sidetracked by the idea of doing something, rather than how we’d enjoy the experience of doing the thing itself. I loved the idea of being a public interest litigator when I got out of law school, for example, but it turned out I really didn’t enjoy the process of writing briefs arguing over endless procedural details and reviewing thousands of pages of documents to build my case. I was bored.
The esteemed management professor and consultant Warren Bennis was once asked how he liked being a university president after he’d left teaching at MIT to run the University of Cincinnati for seven years. He was stumped. He couldn’t say. Later, after some reflection, writes psychologist Tal Ben Shahar in his book, Choose the Life You Want, Bennis acknowledged that he liked the idea of being a university president, but not actually the job of doing it. At the end of that academic year, he quit and returned to teaching and writing.
In thinking about what sort of work we want to do, it’s easy to get caught up in how it sounds, what we’d tell people at cocktail parties, how our profiles might look on LinkedIn. Of course, at some level we know that doesn’t really matter, but it’s still easy, when we’re feeling insecure, to get hooked by it.
As Paul Graham writes in “How to Do What You Love,” that’s a big mistake:
What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. . .
Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like. . .
Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself. . .
Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.
The philosopher Alain de Botton similarly cautions that rather than get caught up in ideas of “success” that we’ve sucked up from other people: “We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”
Of course, this is easier said than done. It can be difficult at times to separate out what you think you want from what others have told you that you should want. To separate out our often subconscious worries about what our parents would say or what our ex-boyfriend might think of us, I think the following exercise, proposed by Tal Ben Shahar, can be very useful.
Consider: What would you do if you had complete anonymity? In other words, if no one else would know your actions and their consequences, what would you choose to do? It may be hard to imagine, since we live in a world where it’s so easy to be constantly publicizing our actions, and there’s so much pressure to do that. But what if you were somehow invisible to the world, there were no Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, no parties to boast at or family visits or reunions where you had to account for yourself? What if only you knew how you were spending your time? Now what would you do?
Give yourself time to sit with that and see where it takes you. If you’re like one of the many people struggling with this question, it could help clear the messy mental landscape a bit. Kind of like pulling weeds.
I have mixed feelings about social media, and often feel more assaulted than supported by what turns up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. But there are always exceptions, and I’ve noticed that Maria Popova’s thoughtful and far-ranging blog Brainpickings is usually one of them.
Her post on The Elusive Art of Inner Wholeness and How to Stop Hiding Our Souls popped up on my Twitter page the other day, and maybe because it was the end of my work day I stopped to actually click on the link and read it.
“Do not despise your inner world,” she begins, quoting the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, and goes on to describe the 2004 book by Parker Palmer: A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Palmer observes that we tend to live split lives: an internal life we rarely acknowledge or share, and an external life that often seems foreign to us.
Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the “integrity that comes from being what you are.”
This struck me because it’s something I think about often; it also highlights beautifully the purpose of coaching and why I was drawn to it: to help people see and bring together their inner and outer identities, to create a life that brings those inner and outer worlds into alignment, so instead of feeling divided, we feel, act and live as one unified whole.
Coaching isn’t about handing someone a key to “success” or self-improvement; it’s about acknowledging, accepting and flourishing with all of the various parts of ourselves.
As Parker writes: “Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness — mine, yours, ours — need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.”
Critical to creating that new life is understanding our own sense of integrity: not an imposed set of ethics or standards, but what each of us as individuals actually cares about and values most. The alternative is to chase other people’s imposed ideas of success and importance, and to feel dull, listless, and disconnected from our own lives.
“Not knowing who or what we are dealing with and feeling unsafe,” Parker writes, “we hunker down in a psychological foxhole and withhold the investment of our energy, commitment, and gifts … The perceived incongruity of inner and outer–the inauthenticity that we sense in others, or they in us — constantly undermines our morale, our relationships, and our capacity for good work.”
To me, reconnecting with our full selves in a way that allows us to crawl out of that foxhole and live a full and authentic life, and to thrive in that, is what coaching is all about. Of course, this is a lifelong process, not a simple problem to be “solved” in a few coaching sessions. And perhaps it’s impossible to achieve complete “wholeness,” for more than a few moments at a time, at least, because we’re always changing. But coaching sets that sort of inner and outer integration as a goal, and provides tools for navigating the journey, including ways to keep coming back to our own inner compass when we inevitably get lost along the way.