Time Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Bernie Sanders, the Optimist

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One of the most common criticisms I hear of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is that he’s too angry.

Americans are famous for being upbeat and optimistic. We’re raised to believe in “the American Dream” in which anyone can rise up from poverty to be a huge success. Anger –- particularly about the reality that lots of people don’t have access to that dream — doesn’t fit so well into that equation. (Unless, perhaps, it’s satisfied by scapegoating other people — the Donald Trump strategy.)

Hope, on the other hand, has always been a runaway bestseller. Bill Clinton, “the man from Hope” – his hometown in Arkansas – is still one of the most popular American presidents ever. And Barack Obama got himself elected promoting “the Audacity of Hope,” as he called his 2006 memoir. His vague promises of hope allowed the electorate to project all sorts of their own hopes and dreams onto him. Seven years later, many are sorely disappointed.

Thomas Frank, in his 2014 Salon essay The Hope Diet, cynically dismissed all the hopefulness in American politics as a way of duping the citizenry into complacency while leaders do what they want. Rather than a motivating force to engage the public, hope is something politicians “bring with them…ensuring this fanciful substance flows our way doesn’t require them actually to, you know, enact anything we’re hoping for. On the contrary, they can do things (like Clinton’s deregulation or Obama’s spying program) that actually harm their constituents, and then tell us, as Barack Obama tweeted after the 2012 election, the definition of hope is you still believe, even when it’s hard… This is the opposite of accountability.”

Perpetual war, extreme inequality and rampant injustice seem to be the norm these days, so one can be forgiven for feeling a little less hopeful. I think that’s why Bernie Sanders’ anger can seem, at least to some of us, highly appropriate.

Anger makes us uncomfortable, but it can be motivating. It signals something is wrong. And being on the lookout for something wrong may be the appropriate approach to the systems and institutions that hold so much power in our society. One can be angry at, or even cynical about, those institutions, and still be optimistic about individual human potential for change.

It’s a stark contrast to the approach of Donald Trump. Like Sanders, Trump is angry and cynical – but his wrath is aimed at specific groups of people, such as immigrants and Muslims. He’s not a cynic about our institutions, which have helped him amass huge wealth while providing only a $7.25 federal minimum wage that Trump has suggested is “too high.”

Although the media doesn’t generally tout Sanders as an optimist, it strikes me that his views are highly optimistic about human potential. This sort of view is encapsulated by the work of leading “positive” psychologists, such as the Harvard researcher Ellen Langer. In her book Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, Langer explores how beliefs about aging affect and in some cases dictate our physical and mental experience of it. (This is also relevant to the criticism that Sanders is “too old” to be president.) Langer is not concerned with the statistical probability of something happening. She’s interested in what can happen. That’s far more motivating and relevant when you’re talking about make change. For example, I don’t really care if it’s statistically unlikely that I’ll run a marathon next year. If I really want to do that (I don’t, particularly, but you get the idea) there’s a lot I can do to make it happen.

That to me is what hope is about, whether personal or political. It’s what motivates and encourages us to improve our lives and our world.

I think it’s why I like Bernie Sanders. There’s something about his willingness to see and state clearly the powerful influence of concentrated wealth in our society and its control over all of our major systems and institutions that’s refreshing. It may come across as angry, but it’s not pessimistic. His candidacy is all about offering the possibility of a new form of governance that roots out that outsized influence.

Of course, his ability to actually accomplish that within the existing American political system is another matter – and may reasonably influence whether voters wants to place their hopes in him. Still, it’s a good example of how one can be appropriately cynical about systems and institutions, and still be optimistic about the possibility of well-meaning individuals to join together to change them.

“Killing People is Too Superficial”

images-3I love riding my bike, but lately I’ve noticed that within minutes of setting off on a ride in the city, I usually want to kill someone.

I love the feel of the breeze, and the ease of getting around far faster than walking and without waiting in lines of backed-up automobile traffic. But I find I’m also on hyper-alert for danger – a car parked in a bike lane, a spaced-out pedestrian crossing the street, a monster-sized SUV speeding up behind me.

That reaction is understandable, even necessary. But living with that kind of vigilance also gives me a warped view of the world around me, leaving me feeling like a victim of what seems like the city’s endlessly aggressive energy. It’s exhausting.

As psychologist Rick Hansen explains, “humans evolved to be fearful — since that helped keep our ancestors alive — so we are very vulnerable to being frightened and even intimidated by threats, both real ones and “paper tigers.’ ” This is part of our brain’s “negativity bias” – we react more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally strong positive ones. As Hansen puts it, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

So my intense reaction to someone making a wrong move – opening a car door without looking or swerving their truck into my bike lane – may be perfectly natural. But cursing out the careless driver or pedestrian, fantasizing that I had a rock to throw at his windshield, isn’t actually a very helpful response.  In fact, it can ruin my bike ride, or at least make it much more stressful than it needs to be, which also makes it more dangerous.

Plus, it can send me on a downward spiral: I start to feel like riding a bike in the city is just a lethal exercise. Then, I wonder, why do I live in a city where everyone is out to kill me?  Finally, I turn it inward, and I’m just angry at myself for living in this crazy place.

I think the key to anger and fear of any sort is perspective—stepping back to see what’s underlying it, and how our minds, caught up in those emotions, distort reality. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t let ourselves experience them. As psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar says, the only people who don’t experience painful emotions like fear and anger “are the psychopaths and the dead.” The key, it seems, is to let yourself experience the emotion, but to pause before reacting to it – or at least to question your reaction, if it’s automatic.

Marshal Rosenberg, a psychologist who created a powerful method of conflict resolution called Nonviolent Communication, talked about anger as a sign of unmet needs. If we can recognize the anger, pause, and identify our unmet needs, he explained, we can focus our energies on meeting those needs, rather than on judging or harming other people. That turns out to be far more productive.

“Killing people is too superficial,” Rosenberg wrote in his groundbreaking book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. The process he recommends “does not encourage us to ignore, squash or swallow anger, but rather to express the core of our anger fully and wholeheartedly.” That would be after figuring out what needs are underlying it.

In the case of riding my bike, of course, my need is for safety. And yelling at the person who just stepped in my way isn’t going to make me any safer. It may do the opposite. What will make me safer, and what I’m increasingly trying to do, is to just accept that there are some people on the road who will park or walk in the bike lane, and that they’re going to do it whether I fume at them or not. If I can accept that it will happen and be alert to but relaxed about it, I don’t have to get so angry.

My anger also compounds the problem by distorting my perception of the situation: most of these people aren’t actually trying to hurt me, they’re just not paying attention. In fact, if I think about it, far more people are actually complying with the traffic restrictions than aren’t. Cars are parked in a line all along one side of the bike lane, and the vast majority are not crossing it.  The same is true for the people driving the cars in the street; although some are careless, most actually don’t cross into the bike lane, or try to hit me when they pass me by. I rarely stop to think about that (that’s the Teflon at work), but keeping it in mind can help me relax and direct my anger at the transgressors a bit more skillfully.

The truth is, the anger that arises in these sorts of situations can be really useful, if understood and well-directed. Cyclists’ anger at the dangers posed by motor vehicle drivers has led to an impressive movement in New York City to support more, safer, and more visible bike lanes around the city. Transportation Alternatives is one of the advocacy groups leading that effort, and I think it’s done a great job harnessing and directing cyclists’ and pedestrians’ anger about the very real dangers on city streets, including calling attention to the deadly car crashes that happen on pretty much a daily basis.  It’s a great model for how to use anger to promote a common good.

But learning to respond to anger constructively isn’t easy. It takes conscious intention, effort and practice. Which is yet another reason to get out and ride.