Pay Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No Expectations

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There’s a classic zen story that goes like this:

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.

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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.

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Separating the Normal from the Natural

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.

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What Would You Do If Nobody Knew?

UnknownWhen 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.

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Coaching for “Wholeness”

imagesI 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.

He writes:

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.

 

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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.

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