Self-Compassion It

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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.

Learning from Silence

images.pngThere’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.

On “The Habits of Highly Cynical People”

1342548285858004Rebecca Solnit has a powerful essay in the May issue of Harper’s that gets at something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

In “The Habits of Highly Cynical People,” Solnit writes about what she calls “naive cynicism” — a pervasive cultural tendency to predict the worst, as if somehow that will protect us or make us seem smarter.

“We live in a time when the news media and other purveyors of conventional wisdom like to report on the future more than the past,” writes Solnit, and “use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures.” The problem with this mindset isn’t just that it’s not accurate, but that it “bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.”

I’ve noticed this attitude pervade so many conversations these days, as people assume political movements or other signs of collective interest and action will ultimately go nowhere, so that even if they believe in the goal, they feel no need to actually participate. It’s why so many people don’t even bother to vote. “They’re all the same, what’s the difference?” is a common refrain about political candidates. As if Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton were actually interchangeable.

This “naive cynicism,” Solnit notes, is “first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish.” But refusing to look at the details of one policy or another, or to acknowledge nuances in different positions or values, is really just refusing to engage with reality. Not because the details and differences don’t matter, but rather, because they’re complicated. And to acknowledge those complications and uncertainties makes people feel uncomfortable.

“Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards,” writes Solnit. “But denouncing anything less than perfection as morally compromising means pursuing aggrandizement of the self, not engagement with a place or system or community, as the highest priority.”

I agree with Solnit’s message wholeheartedly, but I’m troubled by her tone. Solnit’s essay suggests a certain contempt for these “naive cynics” who declare activists’ efforts a failure long before their outcome is clear, or assume victory must be immediately visible to be worth acknowledging. But while their view may be simplistic, it’s also understandable.

I have a certain sympathy with cynicism, not of the kind Solnit’s talking about, but the historical kind, the cynicism that’s skeptical of powerful institutions and entrenched traditions, not of individuals’ ability to act virtuously and to effect change. To me, that’s “mindful cynicism.” But I can see how, particularly if you’ve tried participating in collective actions that don’t yield the outcome you’re after, one can unwittingly slide into a more profound cynicism about the possibility of change at all.

It’s a form of hopelessness, really, and it’s not just self-aggrandizement, but also fear that underlies that mindset. It’s a fear of hoping for something better that may not change within the foreseeable future; it’s the fear of looking foolish for trying to change something that often looks like it’s not going to budge. It’s a very natural inclination to look for solid ground to stand on, in a world that’s ever-changing, never standing still. It feels safer to predict the worst for the world, and to focus instead on self-improvement, or at least on making our own lives more comfortable. That may seem, at least, like something over which we’d have more control.

That kind of mindset is ultimately a recipe for misery. Our self-improvement is never good enough, and neither are our material comforts. Philosophers and then psychologists have long understood that human beings need to believe in and strive for something more meaningful — something that transcends ourselves. Naive cynicism – or hopelessness, which might be a more accurate word – discards the possibility of all that. It is profoundly depressing.

At the same time, to proclaim our dominant culture naively cynical, as Solnit does, is to buy into a similar mindset that assumes a static entity. Yes, we’re surrounded by forces that encourage a cynical mindset: simplistic and extremist punditry that boosts individuals’ careers, the pronouncement of disasters and exaggeration of fears that boosts audiences and ultimately ad revenue. But to some extent, even those institutions are on the decline: the proliferation of news sources saps the influence of television stations like CNN or Fox News that peddle cynical sensationalism; and the surprising success of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign suggests a groundswell of support for renewed engagement in civic life, especially by a new generation of voters.

I agree with Solnit that “what we do begins with what we believe we can do. It begins with being open to the possibilities and interested in the complexities.” That applies to the phenomenon of naive cynicism as well. It means not writing off those who feel hopeless, but engaging with them. Which requires first understanding their fear and discomfort, and then, rather than dismissing it, helping them see that a mindlessly defensive response does not serve them — or anyone else.

How To Deal With Annoying People

rackmultipart-18124-0_crop_340x234I was on a conference call the other day, when a familiar voice started talking. Within seconds, my blood started to boil. It wasn’t so much that the person was saying anything particularly wrong or offensive; what she was saying triggered me for all sorts of reasons that have little to do with her. In this case, I was annoyed because she was talking about her Herculean effort to do something that was taking her forever to accomplish, and that I’d essentially already done months earlier. In my view, all the work I had put into the project already was being ignored.

We all have people or situations that push our buttons, whether because those people represent something we don’t like, or those situations reflect an uncomfortable reality we’d rather not face. Maybe it’s someone’s tone of voice that you interpret as disrespectful, or a group dynamic that doesn’t seem to adequately acknowledge your contributions. Whatever it is, the knot in the stomach, the constriction in the throat, all those things that indicate anger arising are very real – yet often based on something we’re not completely aware of.

I’ve recently started dealing with this in a new way that’s been extremely helpful, and have been recommending this to my coaching clients. The New York Center for Nonviolent Communication, led by Thom Bond, calls it “The Exercise.” It’s a really effective way of connecting to and dissecting the emotions you’re feeling, and using those to help clarify the needs you have that are not being met. From there, you can figure out a more constructive way of meeting them.

I’ve summarized before the underlying premise of Nonviolent Communication, a method of improving communication and connection developed by the psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. His book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, is essential reading for anyone looking for healthier and more effective ways of dealing with anger and other strong emotions we tend to direct outwards.

Rosenberg’s idea, carried on now by Bond and many others through NVC centers around the world, is that underlying anger, frustration and related emotions are usually a host of other feelings we’re not aware of, such as fear, sadness, insecurity, etc. And those emotions are usually a signal that some basic human need of ours is not being met – say, a need for security, support, connection, or effectiveness. The NY center actually provides this very handy list of common feelings and needs here. It’s useful to refer to these, both to help clarify our own feelings and needs, to differentiate our own feelings from assumptions we may be making about others, and to help understand just how universal these basic feelings and needs really are.

The point of “The Exercise,” as explained more thoroughly here, is to practice stepping away from the strong emotion before you react to it, and consider (and actually write down) the full range of feelings coming up for you in that situation, and your underlying needs that are not being met.

In the situation of my conference call, for example, I was feeling frustrated, irritated, impatient, resentful, insecure, envious and even a bit ashamed. (It’s amazing how many emotions can underlie what at first just feels like anger, and how difficult it can be to acknowledge some of them.) My unmet needs included appreciation, belonging, respect, understanding, contribution, and effectiveness. (Also very surprising to see and difficult to acknowledge the broad range.)

The second part of the exercise involves writing down what you imagine were the feelings and needs of the other person, who in the particular situation had just pissed you off. The purpose of this part is to develop some empathy with that person: to realize that just like you, she has feelings and needs she’s trying to satisfy, and her actions or words, effective or not, are an attempt to meet those needs.

Of course, some situations require a fast response, and you can’t necessarily take the time to leave the room and go write down all your feelings and needs. But many situations where we get angry don’t require an immediate response. In fact, an immediate response, in the heat of anger, is usually not the most effective response, once you consider what your goals actually are. So one of the key things this exercise does it get you to stop and NOT react immediately.

I’ve found that when I do this, I’m able to acknowledge and experience my emotions, but also move through them and not get stuck there. As I consider what needs I have that are not being met, it usually becomes pretty clear why that is, and whether or not I should expect to get them met in this situation at all. If not, how else can I meet those needs? Now I’m on to developing a more constructive strategy for addressing the real problem.

Meanwhile, after imagining what the other person’s feelings and needs might be, my anger at that person usually dissipates. I still may not like her words or actions, but I don’t usually hate the person herself. And in imagining what she’s needing, I might find that I can help provide her at least some of that, in a way that circumvents this whole anger-producing process. And in the end, that’s a better situation for all of us.

Love and Activism

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A few years ago I was on a nonprofit leadership training retreat, when everyone had to go around the circle and declare their “purpose.” This was the sort of exercise I dreaded, so I scrambled to come up with something plausible I could say that wouldn’t be too embarrassing. Then I heard one of the retreat leaders announce that her purpose was “love.”

My eyes widened and it took all the energy I could muster to keep from rolling them. “Love?” I thought. “Really? And this is a professional leadership training?”

It’s easy to be cynical about the word “love.” It’s exploited to sell products and convince us we need lots of self-improvement to be worthy of it. In Hollywood movies or on TV, it’s mostly young beautiful women who find it (the movies are much more forgiving to men), prompting the rest of us to feel we should rush out and buy whatever we can be duped into thinking might allow us to make ourselves over into that image. The obsessive focus on the self that creates actually leads to the opposite of love: self-consciousness and self-loathing, as well as a cramped and defensive view of everyone else.

The popular view of nonromantic love, meanwhile, is the perfect immediate family, consisting of mother, father and several children, all happy, attractive, posing perfectly for their envy-inducing snapshot on Facebook.

I’ve since gotten to know that retreat leader better, and I don’t think she meant any of those things. I think she was talking about a far more expansive, and healthy, understanding of love, one that leads to the opposite of self-consciousness, narcissism, and envy; one that instead helps dissolve the boundaries between ourselves and the world around us, opening up greater possibilities for engagement, and for joy.

The research psychologist Barbara Fredrickson calls this “positivity resonance.” Fredrickson is a professor at the University of North Carolina and a leading researcher in the study of positive emotions. Her book, Love 2.0, offers an intriguing and I think really useful look at the whole concept of love: what it means, when it occurs, and the powerful physical and psychological effects it has on us – and its potential to connect us to a much broader range of people in the world.

Not surprisingly, Fredrickson finds that love is nothing like what we see in the movies. It’s not something you fall into or have unconditionally or need to find from that one special someone you’re searching for. It doesn’t require commitment or long-term bonding or even shared values, although those things can help create conditions that encourage it. But in itself, love is an often fleeting feeling you can have when you connect with almost anyone, including a complete stranger, under the right circumstances. It has a powerful impact on our bodies and our health, and literally synchronizes people as their brain functions mirror one another’s. Studies show the experience of this sort of love actually creates a broader perspective and understanding, of ourselves, of the other person, and of everything around us. What’s more, its quantity is unlimited; it’s an emotion we can develop and increase, regardless of our current relationship or family circumstances.

Obviously, this isn’t specifically romantic love, although that’s one form of it. But the kind of love I’m talking about doesn’t depend on finding any one perfect “soulmate” somewhere out there in the universe. It’s simply, as Fredrickson defines it, “that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being, and is “perhaps the most essential emotional experience for thriving and health.”

What I like about this view is that it so clearly corresponds with actual human experience, and defies the silly cultural expectations that love be everlasting, unconditional, or limited to one person at a time. Rather, just as we experience it, love is an ever-shifting emotion that comes and goes, arises and fades away. It’s not exclusive. It’s not a unique feeling you reserve for one partner, or for immediate family or friends.

Positivity resonance is literally a “back and forth reverberation of positive energy.” Indeed, brain imaging studies done by Princeton professor Uri Hasson have shown that connection between two people actually creates synchronized changes in both people’s biochemistry. Hasson and his colleagues have shown that parts of people’s brains literally into sync during emotional moments – what Hasson calls “brain-to-brain coupling.” It’s how we understand each other.

The impact of this emotion on our bodies is astonishing. Love or positivity resonance strengthens the vagus nerve, which reaches from the brain down through the body to the abdomen, and touches most major organs along the way. The vagus nerve plays a key role in the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates the body’s stress level. A strong vagus nerve, or high vagal “tone,” as its measured, means the parasympathetic nervous system is working effectively to reduce the negative impact of stress on the body — slowing your heart rate after a frightening experience, for example. Scientists view vagal tone as a reflection of the strength of the immune system; a strong vagal tone make us more resistant to a broad range of diseases, including heart failure, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, and even some cancers.

Love also affects our bodies by increasing levels of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin has long been known to be critical to mother-child bonding and sexual connection, but it’s also been found to increase during much more subtle emotional and social interactions. Oxytocin triggers the release of serotonin, which leads to increased feelings of happiness and reduces levels of stress. (Most anti-depressant medication similarly tries to increase the brain’s serotonin levels.)

The encouraging thing about all this is that it’s largely within our control. Increasing this sort of love is ultimately about letting yourself be open to it. Sure, there are formal practices designed to induce loving feelings, like lovingkindness meditations, or reflecting at the end of every day on the most positive interactions you had with other people, which can be very effective. (Fredrickson has studied these practices and finds that if done over time, they actually increase vagal tone.) So, too, can simply increasing awareness of the positive impact true connections can have.

Daily interactions, with colleagues at work or neighbors in the dog park, for example, can take on a new meaning. Instead of merely awkward small talk by the water-cooler or bleary-eyed encounters picking up dog poop in the morning, they become opportunities for increasing positivity resonance and better health.

Positivity resonance can support social activism as well. Instead of focusing only on achieving a particular outcome, which may be elusive, the possibility of connecting in a real way with others doing the same thing –- and experiencing the same frustrations — can give our advocacy work a whole other purpose.

This sort of “love” can help counter the burnout advocates so often feel in another way, too. Focusing on the problems of the world and seeing few easy solutions can quickly lead to pessimism, despair and depression. Focusing on positive feelings for those who you might benefit, on the other hand — what lovingkindness meditation does — can really lift the spirit.

Meditations on love and kindness or positive interactions with neighbors, colleagues or clients won’t stop wars or save the planet or directly help those suffering the consequences of those disasters. But if practiced regularly and sincerely, they can renew our sense of hope by changing how we feel towards other people, including those most harmed by the world’s problems. And that can help keep us motivated to do what we can to help.

The Demoralizing Science of Success

063b6cfOne of the most interesting subjects in the field of Positive Psychology is the science of human motivation and success. Why are some people so motivated and so successful? Why do some people not even bother to try? And how does that correlate with human happiness?

I find this all fascinating. But I also find it tends to make me crazy. The other night, for example, I listened to a lecture by psychologist Tal Ben Shahar, who explained a range of psychological studies showing that high expectations of ourselves leads to higher self-esteem and higher levels of happiness in the long run, even when we fall short of those expectations. It was somewhat counterintuitive, since I would have thought that lowering our expectations would make us feel better, because we’d be more likely to meet them.  Studies show, however, that seeing ourselves try to meet our own high expectations actually changes our view of ourselves, which raises self-esteem, even if it also means we fail more often.  Higher expectations, if grounded in reality, also tend to lead to eventual success.

All good as far as it goes. But the longer I listened to the lecture, the more I found myself in turmoil. Were my expectations high enough? I wondered. Had I settled for too little in my life? Should I be setting my goals higher, and if I did, what would they be?

Ben Shahar went on to explain the impact of our environment on achievement, and how we can create an environment that “primes” us for success, even subliminally encouraging and cheering us on. That’s good news.  Still, I found myself in a bit of a panic: is my environment encouraging enough? Should I have more photos of friends and family on my walls?  Would that feel supportive, or oppressive?  And what about inspirational quotes? Would those subconsciously help me even if I tend to find them cheesy?

By the end of the lecture I felt like crap. Now obsessing about my lack of achievement, I looked up one of my favorite positive psychologists, Ellen Langer. A researcher and professor at Harvard, Langer has published 11 books on mindfulness and is an accomplished self-taught painter. I can never be as successful as her, I despaired.

The science of success wasn’t motivating me, it was deflating me.

It’s great to want to be your best self, but knowing what or who that even is can be a lifelong work-in-progress. I think the key to making that process “successful” is to learn to enjoy the ride along the way. Comparing yourself to your role model of the day, on the other hand, is a recipe for despair, depression, and demoralization.

The Beat Generation writer Seymour Krim has a wonderful essay called “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business” that encapsulates what I’m talking about.

“At 51,” he writes, “believe it or not, or believe it and pity me if you are young and swift, I still don’t know truly ‘what I want to be.’ I’ve published several serious books. I rate an inch in Who’s Who in America. I teach at a so-called respected university. But in that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine I’m as open to every wild possibility as I was at 13, although even I know that the chances of acting them out diminish with each heartbeat. One life was never quite enough for what I had in mind. “

“That’s because I come from America,” Krim continues, “which has to be the classic, ultimate, then-they-broke-the mold incubator of not knowing who you are until you find out. I have never really found out and I expect what remains of my life to be one long search party for the final me. . . . and I don’t really think that the great day will ever come when I hold a finished me in my fist and say here you are, congratulations.”

Positive Psychology seems to arise out of that American tendency to take advantage of every possibility available to us. Which is a lot of pressure. With all this psychological understanding, now, it’s not enough merely to be successful by conventional measures, but we have to realize our truest deepest visions, too. It’s a nice goal, but trying to meet it can be exhausting.

This is where I think we can learn a thing or two from Buddhism. Unlike positive psychologists who speak of unmasking your true, best self and then succeeding wildly, Buddhism speaks of the self as a constantly evolving and changing, ephemeral concept. There is no fixed self to unmask, no core we need to improve. Sure, we have tendencies and inclinations and strengths and weaknesses based on causes and conditions in our past – whether our genes, family, society, education, or whatever. And those may or may not be helpful to us now. But the goal is not to try to remove all those to reveal some true self that you then have to shine and polish. It’s to see them all as clearly as we can and to work with them. Acknowledge their influence, and then, with the wisdom we have today, choose what we want to develop, let go of or build upon.

The purpose of mindfulness practices like meditation are to learn to see and discern the various thoughts and influences that have led you to this place, so you can make clearer and wiser choices from here. That may include choosing more helpful influences in your future.

If you approach your own efforts with heartfelt compassion for the self you have become, you’ll be much more able to take advantage of the wealth of scientific studies on happiness and success. Because only by seeing and accepting who we are now can we begin to truly consider who we want to be and where we want to go.

Success, then, means simply continuing to move in our chosen direction.

You Can’t Own It All

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When I go on vacation, I like to find a remote and quiet spot. In fact, much of the reason I go on vacation is to escape the sounds of sirens and jackhammers and car alarms and blaring music I confront on a daily basis in New York City.

Inevitably, though, when I get to my carefully chosen vacation destination, I’m at least a little bit disappointed. There are other people there, for one thing, and they’re usually doing things I don’t like.

Yesterday, as I sat on the deck of the rustic cabin we’d rented for a week along the coast of Maine, for example, I was suddenly shocked out of my reverie by the roar of speeding engines:  a family on jet skis, screaming and whooping as they circled round and round the quiet cove we’d spent a chunk of our savings to spend a week on.

I could feel my stomach tie into knots, and all that compassion I’ve trained to muster fly right out the window.  I wanted to kill these people.  Literally.  It wasn’t just my peace and quiet they were destroying, I was thinking.  I imagined the local harbor seals rushing off in terror, the sea birds abandoning their nests, and the jet skis leaving behind a slick of oil that would sink behind them into the ocean water. They were not only destroying my peace of mind, but they were destroying the planet. I was outraged.

There’s a curious possessiveness that comes over me when I come to a place like this. On the one hand, I feel immediately relaxed just visiting here, being so close to nature. Yet almost immediately, I start to feel like I want to own it. I check Trulia for house prices and start fantasizing about how I’d fix up this run-down rental cottage if it were mine.  Something about liking the place makes me want to possess it, to control it, to keep it for myself.  And as with any sort of grasping, that desire makes me suffer. Even if I could afford a waterfront cabin in Maine, which I can’t, it wouldn’t be enough:  I couldn’t possibly own, and control, the entire wilderness.

The jet skiers brought that point home. It’s a similar sort of grasping, a desire to own and control, that leads to the sort of destruction and disruption of precious nature that I saw the jet-skiiers engaged in. Their aim, too, was to “own” the bay, but they weren’t just imagining what it would be like; they were seizing the whole harbor and turning it into their play area. That excluded anyone else who might be there seeking more quiet enjoyment.

This all reminds me of a memorable passage in philosopher Michel Serres’ book The Natural Contract:

I’ve often remarked that, just as certain animals piss on their territory so that it stays theirs, many men mark and dirty the things they own by shitting on them, in order to keep them, or shit on other things to make them their own. This stercoraceous or excremental origin of property rights seems to me a cultural source of what we call pollution, which, far from being an accidental result of involuntary acts, reveals deep intentions and a primary motivation.

Let’s have lunch together: when the salad bowl is passed, all one of us has to do is spit in it and it’s all his, since no one else will want any more of it. He will have polluted that domain and we will consider dirty that which, being clean only to him, he now owns. No one else ventures again into the places devastated by whoever occupies them in this way. Thus the sullied world reveals the mark of humanity, the mark of its dominators, the foul stamp of their hold and their appropriation.

A living species, ours, is succeeding in excluding all the others from its niche, which is now global: how could other species eat or live in that which we cover with filth? If the soiled world is in danger, it’s the result of our exclusive appropriation of things.

Ironically, one of the only ways to protect natural land these days, it seems, is to buy it – hence The Nature Conservancy was created to buy large tracts to protect the wilderness from “development” – that is, from people defecating on it.

Most of us can’t afford to buy hundreds of acres to preserve. And so we travel ever farther – in earth-destroying automobiles and airplanes – to find that peace and quiet and natural beauty we all viscerally long for, yet which human “development” – stemming in part from our desire to possess and control — has increasingly destroyed.

Inevitably, this grasping will lead not only to the destruction of our own peace of mind, as we arrive at our destination only to find ourselves surrounded by car traffic and jet skis, but to the destruction of the planet itself.

How can this possibly change? Given the short-term thinking that controls our culture, Serres points out, our political system has failed to address this. He believes we need politicians who are not just lawyers but also scientists and philosophers, which sounds like a good idea. We certainly need politicians who are sufficiently enlightened and independent to be able to promote and motivate others to support our collective long-term interests.

I reached a similar conclusion myself the other day, in a different context. I was speaking to a class of foreign law students about human rights advocacy, particularly in the face of the endless war our country seems to have embraced. I ended with the usual lament that with our current state of politics, with politicians serving their own short-term interests, which often turn out to be the interests of defense contractors, it’s hard to imagine significant change anytime soon. Certainly international human rights law wasn’t going to accomplish it. One of the students refused to accept that downer of an answer, and asked:  So what would change things?  I thought about it, and realized that the only thing I could imagine is a new kind of politician – a long-term thinker interested in more than his or her own re-election and willing to stand up to the powerful short-term interests that control much of our society.

Of course, there are small changes that happen in small ways, and I don’t mean to diminish those. But anyone who believes in anything faces the constant challenge of appreciating what you’re doing without getting too hung up on its limitations – and angry at the people creating them. That can be hard.

I’ve managed to enjoy my time in Maine despite the obnoxious jet-skiiers  (thank god they go in at low tide) and the sound of cars in the distance whizzing by on the local highway.  I’ve had to remind myself that I, too, share that tendency to grasp, possess and control things, so focusing on how other people have done the same (albeit in what I consider a more destructive manner) is a bit absurd.  I’ve also made a point of taking time out each day to meditate, to encourage a sense of inner peace and stillness, wherever I am and whatever’s going on around me. (I’ve found the meditation app Headspace really helpful for that, by the way, and recommend it for anyone who has trouble meditating on her own.)

I still think jet skis ought to be outlawed and all our use of motor vehicles more strictly regulated.  And I’ll do everything in my power to support those sorts of policies, whether advocating for more bike lanes back in the city or voting for whatever political candidate seems to truly share my concerns.

But I know – and will continually have to remind myself – that I can’t hinge my happiness on the outcome.