“Let us not return to what was normal, but reach toward what is next.”— Amanda Gorman
There’s nothing like a 7-day silent retreat to shut you up. I don’t mean just during the retreat, when, of course, you’re supposed to be quiet. But even after. I’ve found that since returning from a week-long meditation retreat in July, I’ve been reluctant to write. Not about public affairs, which I write about for my work, but about the experience of the retreat itself. Seven days of silence taught me not only the value of silence, but why it’s really worth evaluating more carefully what it is we have to say.
Being in a room with 100 other people in silence makes immediately clear how much anxiety underlies ordinary situations involving other people simply because we feel we should say something. Preferably it’s clever, witty, or welcoming, and always it feels like a reflection of us in the world. The worry, ‘How will I present myself?’ Is frequently an anxiety about ‘what will I say?’ It leads to a lot of unnecessary chatter, which in itself can provoke further anxiety.
What’s interesting about being in silence is you find you don’t really need to say much. There’s great peace in that.
Of course, your thoughts don’t stop. You’re just saying them to yourself. This presents a unique opportunity to observe what it is that you say to yourself all day, and its impact.
For example, I noticed that, when undistracted by chatter or radio or television or even reading or writing – all things taboo on a silent retreat – my mind tends to either ruminate about the past or plan for the future. It may be ruminating about why a past relationship went wrong or something I regret saying or doing yesterday or 20 years ago, or it may be planning my next vacation, or even my next meal. But it becomes instantly clear how hard it is to keep my mind in the present.
So what? Well, for one thing, it means I’m missing out on whatever’s going on right now. Which is actually where I’m living my life. It means I’m not fully engaging with the experience I’m having, whether it’s pleasant or painful.
That also means I’m not learning from it. Paying attention to what brings us joy, for example, is really important. How else can you not only fully experience that joy, but know what it is you really want more of in your life?
Paying attention to what’s painful is harder, but also crucial. If I’m feeling bad about some past mistake I made yet again, I can recognize the pain in that and decide to respond to myself with compassion instead of blame. That makes it easier to see, consider and understand why I did what I did, and leaves me better able, when a similar situation arises again, to choose a different course. Over time, choosing to respond this way becomes a new habit. It’s ultimately a much less painful and more constructive way to move forward.
The other thing I realized is how much all these ruminations and plans are really about trying to solidify a sense of who I am: if I’m stewing over something hurtful I did or said, I’m not only regretting that act, I’m also hating myself for being the person who committed it. Identifying myself as a person who does hurtful things compounds the pain tremendously.
The same is true when thinking about other people. If I’m revisiting a wrong done to me, I’m usually not just upset about what happened. I’m also feeling angry toward the person who did it, and whom I’ve now labeled a bad person. And I’m identifying myself as a victim in the situation, which is inherently disempowering. I’ve just compounded the problem and seared into my memory these solid impressions of who everyone involved actually is.
What’s useful about silence is to see how these are all simply habits of mind. We habitually seek to create a sense of our own identity, and of the identity of others, based on partial memories, refracted images and imagined futures. That’s not only painful, but terribly limiting.
What we dwell upon becomes the shape of our minds. In our ordinary lives, we’re being constantly bombarded by stimuli that literally shape our minds, whether it’s the latest hateful thing Donald Trump said or an ad for some luxury item we don’t need and can’t afford. By recognizing this, we can begin to make the choice to focus on things that matter more to us, such as the people in our lives or a cause we really care about. That all requires paying attention to where our minds habitually stray, and setting an intention to direct them toward where we actually want them to go.
Silence helped me realize how much room we have to create our selves, and how much more charitably we can view other people — in far more helpful and responsible ways.
Rebecca 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.
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.
One of the problems with being a cynic is that, when you’re trying to learn something new, it’s easy to focus on all the things that sound wrong or silly or otherwise questionable and to disregard the entire lesson or experience as a result.
I was sitting in a meditation class recently, for example, when the teacher said something about past or future lives. I don’t even remember what he was talking about -– probably something about karma and our minds -– but it didn’t really matter. My internal alarm bells went off immediately. I thought: “That’s ridiculous. I’m not coming back here.”
The thing is, I know and like this teacher, and I know he’s very good at explaining meditation, its practice and purpose, in an accessible, down-to-earth and engaging way. And I know, from personal experience, plus all the scientific studies backing it up, that meditation can be very helpful. I hadn’t been to that particular meditation center for a while, and I was enjoying being back and laughing along with his painfully accurate descriptions of how absurdly our minds work sometimes, and how they often cause us distress. Until he said the thing about multiple lives. At that point, my internal critic leapt to attention and immediately dismissed the value of whatever it was he was trying to say. I didn’t hear it. And chances are, it was something interesting.
Aware that he was talking to a group of mostly secular Brooklynites like me, the teacher quickly interrupted himself to let people know they didn’t have to believe in past and future lives to learn to meditate or reap its benefits. But I was aware of how easily and quickly my mind was ready to dismiss him and the whole meditation project, simply because the teacher — who was, after all, teaching at a Buddhist meditation center with a big golden Buddha statue behind him — had briefly mentioned something that is a basic tenet of Buddhism.
I’ve written before about how our minds have evolved to focus on the negative aspects of our experience, largely in order to protect us from mortal dangers. The part of the brain that reacts to fear, centered in the amygdala, also steps up when something isn’t physically threatening, but just doesn’t sound quite right. But it’s important to learn to step back a bit, and let the more developed, discerning part of my brain –- centered in the prefrontal cortex -– play its part, too.
I may not believe I’ll have multiple lives to live, although sometimes I wish I did. But I’m capable of distinguishing that piece of the teaching from the larger point, which is that our minds are influenced by all sorts of things –- including past experiences — that we’re often not aware of. Whether it’s something I did in my past life or something my mother said to me in grade school doesn’t really matter. The point is it may or may not be helpful to me, or to anyone else, today. The purpose of meditation is to develop more awareness of what’s going through my mind so I can choose how I want to respond rather than letting unconscious habits choose for me. And one of my habits is letting a cynical mind quash any new ideas that come packaged in or accompanied by something that makes me squirm.
As my positive psychology instructor, Tal Ben Shahar, pointed out in a recent class: “this is not a package deal.” I was in the middle of a week-long immersion for my Positive Psychology certification course, and struggling with some of what at the time seemed like really dumb, pointless exercises. More than once sitting in that lecture hall, I wanted to flee. But it helped me to hear Tal acknowledge that that’s okay. “You’ll hear things here that don’t make sense to you or just sound silly or unconvincing. If you don’t like them, forget about them. Pay attention to what resonates with you, and use it. Leave behind the rest. This is not a package deal.”
It was an important reminder for a skeptic like me. I too easily dismiss things as irrelevant or meaningless because some piece of it doesn’t jibe with me. This aversive reaction may feel immediately comforting, because now I don’t have to bother engaging with new material and can stay safely ensconced in my own cocoon of imagined superiority. But it’s ultimately extremely limiting, and really kind of silly. It’s a bit like dismissing Freud as irrelevant to psychology because I don’t believe in penis envy. But he did develop our modern understanding of the unconscious, which underpins much of our understanding of the human psyche today. So maybe there’s some value in his work after all.
Our culture of cynicism and irony is so focused on mocking and disparaging what we think is wrong that we tend to overlook or outright dismiss ideas that may be really valuable. The criticism might make us sound really clever — especially if we can express it as a witty 140-character commentary on Twitter. But in the process, we may find ourselves flushing a lot of really helpful wisdom down the drain.
Since starting my training in Positive Psychology, I’ve been bombarded with all sorts of helpful suggestions about what I ought to do to make myself happier. “Make a daily list of five things you’re grateful for,” or “meditate every day,” or “exercise regularly,” or “clean your closets.” All good ideas, and I’m sure if I did them all I’d be a happier person. But as soon as someone else tells me what to do, I find myself resisting it. I know I’m not alone in this, because I’ve noticed that when I try to tell other people what to do to be happier, they don’t follow my instructions, either.
I guess I’ve always been suspicious of adopting other people’s rituals, which remind me of religion, which reminds me of manipulation. And I’m equally suspicious of the self-help gurus and celebrities that promise a quick fix of all my problems if I’ll just follow their five steps. It all feels fake and simplistic to me.
Still, as I’ve delved deeper into the scientific studies of how people actually make lasting change, I’ve become convinced by the experts’ view that the best way to change old habits or create new ones is by establishing new rituals. According to psychologists and neuroscientists, by practicing something new over and over, we create new neuropathways that eventually turn that new behavior into a pattern — a new habit. At that point, it takes much less energy (what we often refer to as “willpower”) to keep doing it.
It turns out human beings have very limited amounts of willpower. It’s why most people give up pretty quickly on New Year’s resolutions and other promises to change. The psychologist Roy Baumeister has studied this extensively, and found that creating new habits is far more effective than attempting to muster enough willpower each day to do something new. (His findings are explained in an excellent book he co-authored with journalist John Tierney called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.)
So while I’ve resisted adopting other people’s rituals, I realized recently during a week-long Positive Psychology training immersion that to get the benefits, I don’t have to follow someone else’s practice; I can create my own. In fact, I’m much more likely to adopt a new habit if it’s something I came up with that suits my schedule and temperament than something someone else devised to suit theirs. In other words, I don’t have to clean my closets or make daily gratitude lists or write in a journal if I don’t want to. But if there’s something I do want to change – whether it’s developing certain qualities or dropping bad habits – I’m far more likely to be successful if I establish a daily practice that moves me in that direction. And I can use the wealth of evidence about the effectiveness of rituals to create a ritual that feels not like I’m fulfilling some external obligation imposed upon me, but one that I’ve chosen and created to help me pursue my own goals.
It may sound exhausting to have to do something new every day. (Another reason I’ve generally resisted it.) But making one decision in advance to do something and making it part of your daily routine drastically reduces the amount of mental energy involved. It would take far more willpower to re-convince yourself of the value of a new practice and to have to re-commit yourself each day to doing it.
And the truth is, we’re always practicing something. If we’re not consciously deciding what it is we want to practice, then we’re usually letting old habits decide for us. And often those aren’t taking us where we want to go.
Willpower, then, is not something that requires heroic strength. It’s simply a choice to use our awareness to make conscious choices. Creating a new ritual doesn’t have to demand Herculean effort. As Anthony Trollope, the prolific writer who never wrote more than three hours a day said: “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” A new ritual can take all of five minutes to complete, depending on what it is and how you want to implement it. But it can make a big difference.
Don’t try to change too much at once, though. People who try to take on too many new behaviors at once often end up abandoning them all. Studies show that people who implement small changes, one or two at a time, are more likely to sustain them. Committing to them in the presence of someone else (such as a friend, spouse, coach, etc.), to whom you’ll feel accountable, also greatly improves your chances for success.
The biggest effort required is the decision to create and practice the new ritual itself. To overcome your inner skeptic’s resistance, make it your own.
“We are not in bondage to even our most grievous mistakes,” says Louis Newman, a professor of religious studies at Carleton College in Minnesota. I find that helpful to consider today, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of repentance.
For anyone observing the holiday or just interested generally in the subject of repentance — not as an immersion in guilt but as an opportunity for renewal — it’s worth listening to Krista Tippett’s interview with Louis Newman on her NPR show, On Being.
Newman, who wrote a book on repentance, approaches the idea as a practice that’s healing, rather than punishing. So long as we’re willing to look honestly at what we’ve done, make amends, and choose another path, we can be healed.
As Newman tells Tippett, our human tendency to run away from the bad things we’ve done, to hide them or pretend they never happened, actually keeps us in bondage to them. Repentance, on the other hand, “is about coming to terms with who we really are.” It’s about claiming and owning our own mistakes, with an understanding that deep down our essence is good. So by repenting and correcting our path, Newman says, we can “return to the original wholeness that we strayed from.”
What’s more, you don’t have to change everything altogether in order to acknowledge and correct a past wrong. Even small changes may be effective and allow you to set a new course, says Newman. “If you’re headed in one direction, and you turn only one or two degrees,” he explains, “over an extended period of time if you now walk in that direction” instead of in the one you were headed in before, you’ll end up in a completely different place. In other words, we don’t have to make a radical move to make a meaningful change. We need only acknowledge that we must pay attention to a particular habit or weakness or failing that’s caused harm, and act differently next time.
That’s how change begins.
If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so hard to make lasting change, you may find comfort in knowing that one reason is human biology. Neurobiology, in particular. That’s not cause for despair: because with sustained effort and support, our brains are actually something we can change.
Ever since participating in a retreat on the neurobiology of yoga and Buddhism back in May, I’ve been fascinated by how our brains have developed over millennia to help us survive, but in many ways, particularly in the modern world, also cause us to suffer. And I’ve found it strangely soothing to know that we’re all in the same boat here: another reason to extend compassion to ourselves, as well as to others, even when we – or they – do things we really don’t like. It’s also a good reason to seek support for changes you want to make – whether from a coach, friend, teacher or mentor – because it’s really hard to make lasting change on your own.
The brain is a complicated organ, of course, and there’s lots to be learned about it. Interested readers may want to check out Rick Hanson’s excellent book, Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, which provides a great explanation and lots of brain-changing exercises. I’m also relying here on what I learned from Jim Hopper about this at his recent Kripalu retreat, and in his chapter in the book Mindfulness-Oriented Interventions for Trauma: Integrating Contemplative Practices (The Guilford Press).
The Cliffs Notes version of this material goes something like this: we’re hard-wired to flee from danger and pain and to seek pleasure and safety. So when the part of the human brain called the amygdala — often called the “reptilian brain,” because it’s the oldest part of the human brain, in an evolutionary sense — senses a threat, it creates a response of fear or aversion – what we commonly call a “fight or flight” response. Whereas in the wild “fight” might have meant trying to kill a predator or competitor, in modern life, we “fight” often by getting angry or judgmental – a way of trying to regain control. The flight response, meanwhile, kicks in our seeking circuitry: now we’re seeking an escape from the fear or other unpleasant feeling. That may lead us to suppress the feeling, or to mask it by indulging in some immediately pleasurable activity to escape it – for example, eating, drinking, or sex.
Although we tend to lament these “bad habits,” these instincts were actually useful when we lived in the wild as hunter gatherers, where we had to escape predators and be on the constant prowl for food (and sex) for the species to survive. But these now-ingrained habits unfortunately don’t work so well in modern life, where we’re largely cushioned from life-threatening predators, and food and other basic pleasures are, for many of us, often too easily obtainable. That leads to indulgence, feelings of guilt or other kinds of pain, and more suffering.
On top of that, again with the aim of species survival, we’re hard-wired to pay far more attention to things that frighten us or cause us pain than to things that feel good. This is the brain’s “negativity bias.” As Hanson explains in his book, that helped us survive ages ago, when one encounter with a predator would mean the end of us, so we had to be hyper-alert to threats and lived in frequent fear. In comparison, there were multiple opportunities to find food and mates, so if we paid less attention to those simple pleasures when we encountered them and just sought them out when we really needed them, we could still survive just fine.
But you can see how this all becomes a recipe for suffering today. For one thing, it means we tend to exaggerate our fears. Since change usually involves some fear of the unknown, it means we have a built-in bias against change, even if that change would be good for us. We also have a tendency to overlook or underestimate the opportunities for lasting, more meaningful pleasures – things like love, peace, playfulness and joy (what Hopper calls “true goods”) — because we’re distracted by fear. Plus, because we’re raised among similarly hard-wired humans, we’ve incorporated the fears of everyone around us, too, who likewise have an exaggerated sense of fear when it comes to change, and a tendency to underestimate deeper satisfaction. (Not surprisingly, marketers have learned to take full advantage of this — hence the relentless advertising of junk food, luxury goods, pharmaceuticals and fabulous vacation “escapes”.)
The result of these ancient and culturally reinforced tendencies is that it often feels easier to stay stuck – to avoid the fear of making a change, and respond to current dissatisfaction by seeking short-term easily-available immediate pleasures (which often lead to more suffering), rather than seeking longer-lasting deeper satisfaction, which may involve more effort and taking risks.
This all sounds pretty depressing. But take heart: neuroscientists have found we can actually alter how this circuitry functions. It just takes awareness, practice, and support.
That means paying attention to how our brain functions on autopilot (and how it affects the body) and trying to create more space between the thoughts and the impulsive (and often destructive) behavior that tends to follow them. It means practicing different ways of thinking, through contemplative practices like meditation, which can actually strengthen the prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain that allows us to reason and regulate fear and other responses — or visioning exercises that can help counteract the paralyzing impact of fear by motivating a desired change. (Hanson includes in his book a series of guided meditations designed to enhance certain parts of the brain, such as those responsible for positive emotions like love and empathy, and for skills like mindfulness and concentration.) And it means finding support from like-minded people who can help keep us on track – a trusted friend; a local meditation, yoga or support group; a skilled coach; or ideally, some combination of these.
Changing your brain — and changing your life — is possible. But it’s very hard to do alone.
One of the hardest things about being an advocate is the slow pace of change. As advocates, we assume we know the answer to how to fix some vexing problem, and it’s just incredibly frustrating that the powers-that-be don’t seem to get it. We have to repeat ourselves interminably and try to come up with new, ever-more-creative ways of saying the same thing simply in order to feel like we’re being heard. It can be exasperating.
So I found it encouraging to read Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s book called Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. Although their book is most helpful for providing a simple and effective method for challenging our own built-in immunities to doing things differently – which I’ll write more about another time — before they even get there, the authors, experts in adult learning and development, first explain the importance of complex thinking, which involves the ability in all situations to see beyond your own point of view and keep in mind its limitations. And they note that very few people – including leaders of massive organizations — are really good at it.
It sounds obvious, in a way: of course we know we don’t know everything. But that’s not how we tend to operate in the world. Managers often fail to keep an open mind to others’ ideas, for example. I’ve written before about how a lack of mindfulness – which is very similar to what Kegan and Lahey call complexity of thought – leads to unhappy employees and bad outcomes for the organization.
There’s a similar lack of this sort of mindfulness in the world of advocacy, where we tend to over-simplify a problem. At times, of course, we need to simplify a problem to explain it to a broad, non-expert audience. But if we become too attached to that simplification, and fail to remember its own limitations, we’re likely to see little progress and become tremendously frustrated.
Say, for example, you’re advocating for reduced reliance on fossil fuels. It seems like a no-brainer, given the problems of global warming, pollution, and wars being fought over oil. But there are obviously complicating factors, such as the livelihoods of people dependent on the fossil fuel industry and communities or whole countries (or at least their governments) that benefit from oil and gas extraction. They’re obviously going to fight the effort. If you just assume they’re evil – as it’s easy to do, looking at the problem through your own perspective – then you’re going to find your work pretty frustrating. No matter how many times you’ve repeated yourself, or found new creative ways to say the same thing, nothing seems to change. Why bother?
But is it really true that nothing changes? And how does change actually happen?
This is where I think complexity of mind is interesting. It’s only by recognizing the complexity of the problem that we can understand where others that disagree with us are coming from. And it’s only by recognizing that we may not always have the complete picture that we can see where small changes and improvements might actually be possible, and may even already be happening.
This is not the exciting theory of change that drives people to become advocates. When I was in law school and read the great civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, I got the fantastical impression that you became a lawyer, made a winning argument to the Supreme Court, and that changed everything. But anyone who’s practiced law — and anyone who’s ever fought for racial justice or reproductive freedom — knows that’s definitely not the case.
That doesn’t necessarily make it less frustrating. Years of making arguments about why the Guantanamo Bay detention center should be closed (a key part of my legal job) doesn’t make it happen. But recognizing the importance of complexity of mind also helps me remember that it may not – indeed, it almost surely won’t – happen the way I, and others I agree with, insist it should. Progress is slow, and some bad moves made years ago can take a very long time to correct. I don’t have to abandon my values or beliefs to recognize that. To satisfy my own needs, I may need to pursue other things that are more gratifying on a short-term basis, such as coaching. But like anyone advocating for legal and policy change, if I’m going to sustain my commitment to a larger cause, I’ll need to keep in mind its complexity. And I’ll need to train my own mind to better see and accept the many facets to the problem — and to the obstacles to real change.
I guess this is why patience is considered a virtue.
I like to read about meditation – the shelf on my night-table is filled with books by Pema Chodron, Mark Epstein, and various other Buddhist-inspired meditation teachers, whose words and ideas I find soothing, especially before bed. But actually sitting on a cushion and meditating every day? Not so much.
I like meditating in groups, and I’ve enjoyed going to various meditation centers in New York City, which has plenty of them. But I can’t always get myself to a group sitting, and I’ve been especially reluctant this winter.
Meanwhile, I keep seeing new studies studies touting the benefits of meditation – to treat insomnia, reduce stress, improve creativity, even prevent brain shrinkage as we age. So lately I’ve been thinking I really ought to be more serious about doing it.
What I love about the books is learning about Buddhist philosophy and psychology, and its application to daily life. I’ve found the practice of mindfulness incredibly helpful, for example, in getting me to really pay attention to, and appreciate, what I’m doing at any time. I also think it’s invaluable for coaching – encouraging clients to slow down and experience the moment they’re in, or an event or emotion they’re struggling with, has immense benefits and can be really important to the ability to make lasting change.
But I’ve still found it hard to just sit for 20 or 30 or 40 minutes a day with my eyes closed, or staring at the floor, depending on the particular style of meditation involved. I sometimes meditate on the subway, which is always calming, and I’ll practice that kind of one-pointed concentration on the breath or on my movement when I’m running or at the gym or doing yoga, at least for short periods. I even use it to take a nap in the afternoon or fall asleep at night. It’s the sitting still part – and staying awake – that I have trouble with.
I imagine it’s because all my life, I’ve had the feeling that I’m supposed to be doing something – often, something other than what I’m doing. I remember in college, if it was a beautiful day outside and I was in the library studying, I’d feel like I should be doing something outdoors. If I was outside, say, hanging out with friends or going for a run, I would feel like I should be in the library studying.
Now, when I sit down to meditate, that struggle comes up constantly. I immediately think of all the other things I have to do. Within minutes I’ll find myself jumping up and making a to-do list.
I remember being on a weekend meditation retreat once at a retreat center in the picturesque Hudson Valley, and telling the meditation teacher in my interview that I was wondering the whole time why I was sitting on the floor inside all weekend, when I could be outside doing something. He just smiled his wise smile, and told me that was okay, I can just let myself feel that. That sort of helped.
I know it’s in part the way I was raised – in a very traditional, achievement-oriented Jewish immigrant family, where we were always expected to be doing something aimed at achieving some concrete, demonstrable result – studying or practicing the piano, for example. That attitude helped us get into good colleges and graduate schools and landed us professional degrees and accolades, but I think both my brother and I still have a hard time settling down – accepting and appreciating things as they are — just being, as the Buddhists would say. Which is a problem. Because we can’t, and we won’t, always be achieving something. And even if we are, we likely won’t be achieving it as much or as well as we want to, or we’ll be thinking we really ought to be achieving something else.
One of the cornerstones of Buddhism is that life is filled with a “pervasive feeling of unsatisfactoriness,” as the Buddhist psychoanalyst Mark Epstein describes it in his book, Going on Being: Buddhism and the Way of Change, about his own exploration of Buddhism and psychology. “We want what we can’t have and we don’t want what we do have; we want more of what we like and less of what we don’t like.” Seeing this clearly is part of the point of meditation – to illuminate how our minds work and cause us suffering. The idea is that if you see your mind doing this – and as in my retreat, it will start doing this pretty quickly when you sit to meditate – we’re able to recognize those as just thoughts, not necessarily “truths” – and create some space around them, lessening their grip. I understand and appreciate the theory, and it’s helped me become more aware of my thoughts (including the absurd and dysfunctional ones), which has been really helpful. But I still can’t get myself to sit down and meditate every day.
What are other people’s experiences with this? Do you need to have a formal practice of daily sitting meditation to truly incorporate mindfulness and its insights into your life? I’d really like to know.