Gimme Shelter

My dog passed away recently.  For my partner and me, it was devastating. We’d poured so much love and attention on Friday for more than 15 years. Even though it was clear for months his end was nearing, we felt a tremendous loss when he finally left us. It was like there was a hole in our lives:  not just a hole in our daily routines of walking and feeding and caring for him, but a hole in our hearts, where we’d held our love for him. Where was that love now that he was gone?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. That love doesn’t just disappear. Of course, it’s tied to our memories, but it’s also an energy that we have available to us, at times buried more or less deeply, and can choose to draw upon more often.

Dogs are easy to love, of course, even if they’re difficult, as Friday was (he bit; I have scars).  We project all sorts of ideas and assumptions onto these unwitting creatures, and then fall in love with them. People generally are more resistant to our projections. (If dogs could speak, and complain, and make their own choices, they might not be as easily lovable.)

Since love comes from a feeling of understanding, empathy and connection, projected or not, then we have the ability to love many more beings in our lives than our pets.

In the 1990s, psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron famously developed the 36 questions they declared would lead people to fall in love. The idea was that if two people ask one another a list of increasingly personal questions, they will develop enough understanding and empathy for one another, and will feel sufficiently seen and understood, that intimacy and love develop naturally.

Outside a clinical setting we can’t often ask all those questions of other people, but just like we make assumptions about what our pets are thinking or feeling, and therefore empathize and imagine they understand us, we can choose to make assumptions about other beings that allow us to empathize and even feel love for them, too. Or, as often happens, we can choose, consciously or not, to assume the worst about someone, and thereby develop animosity toward them. If we pay attention, it can be amazing how often we’re making those negative assumptions, and the angst it causes us.

We can choose to do the opposite. Buddhists long ago created a loving-kindness meditation practice designed to bring up feelings of love by deliberately directing our wishes of well-being to others. Psychologists have studied its impact and find that such meditations, or the simple practice of reflecting at the end of every day on the most positive interactions you had with other people, actually has positive physical effects on our bodies, similar to those created by feelings of love. That love doesn’t have to be everlasting. It can be a fleeting feeling – what Barbara Fredrickson, a research psychologist at the University of North Carolina describes as “that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being,” much like you might share with your pet, or someone else’s pet, or a close friend, or even, sometimes, a stranger. That feeling, writes Fredrickson, in her illuminating book Love 2.0, is “perhaps the most essential emotional experience for thriving and health.”

We can do that at any time. We don’t have to be meditating, making lists or engaging in formal practices. It’s a choice we have in every moment.

When I was in Maine last summer with my dog Friday, shortly before he passed, I heard the Rolling Stones singing Gimme Shelter on a local radio show.  It got stuck in my head, as old pop songs do, so I decided to look up the words, since I had never really been able to understand them. I realized it’s a powerful anti-war song, and concludes with the reminder that we always have a choice between war and love.

Here are the full lyrics, and here’s the chorus:

War, children
It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away
War, children
It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away

Until the last refrain, which becomes:

I tell you love, sister
It's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away
It's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away
It's just a kiss away, (kiss away kiss away)

I still miss Friday terribly, and those feelings of love (and also sadness) well up in my heart whenever I look at his pictures.  But it’s helpful to know that those feelings don’t disappear with his mortal life. I feel a bit of them every time my neighbor’s dog Molly comes bounding up our stoop and lets me pet her.  And I try to consciously conjure them, through loving-kindness meditations or just conscious choice, when I go running in the park and encounter people who I might otherwise ignore, fear or even just find annoying. (It takes less effort, of course, with cute babies and puppies.)

The point is not that that we shouldn’t feel loss, but that we can also draw on and transform and direct the love we have felt, and always have capacity to feel, in many directions. That love can give us shelter.  We have a choice.

The Joy of Being Grateful

fridaysleepingI’m not a morning person. I know some people spring out of bed at 6 a.m. raring to go, but I’m not one of them. I’m the type who slowly emerges from the fog of my dreamworld only to feel apprehensive and a little skeptical about what awaits me in the day ahead.

But that gets old, and increasingly, I’m realizing, it’s a choice. So lately, when I awaken reluctantly and feel the anxiety start to move in, I’ve been choosing another path: gratitude. I know it sounds trite – ‘count your blessings’ and all that – but it’s really true that focusing on what you’re grateful for makes you feel better. It’s scientifically proven. Really.

According to this Harvard Medical School publication, for example, gratitude “helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” In one study cited, for example, psychologists asked participants to write a few sentences each week. The first group was asked to write about things they were grateful for that had happened that week. The second group wrote about things that irritated or bothered them, and the third wrote about events that affected them, but without emphasizing whether they were good or bad. After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude all felt better about their lives. They also exercised more and made fewer doctor’s visits than those who focused on irritations.

If it helps once a week then it’s probably even better once a day, so I’m trying to do gratitude as a daily practice, at least on days when I wake up feeling lousy. This morning, for example, when I woke up cranky, I started thinking about what I was thankful for, over my cup of coffee. It was a slow start, but as I enumerated my gratitude for the coffee, my partner who brought it to me in bed and the sunny spring day outside, I was able to get myself out of bed and put on my running clothes. When I got outside, my gratitude practice really started to kick in – combined with sunshine and endorphins and it’s doubly effective.

By the time I got to Prospect Park, I was pretty much ecstatic:  I was grateful for the sun, the sound of the birds, the magnolia blossoms, and the fact that I can physically run at all. I was grateful I have a job that allows me the flexibility to go running in the morning, and for all the other people out there running with me, who kept me company and motivated me to keep going. This was a lot of positive feeling crammed into just one hour, and all before 9:00 a.m.

Of course, the high from a good run and counting your blessings doesn’t last forever. By 3:00 p.m., my allergies had kicked in and I was tired, and all the bad news in the world and in U.S. politics, which I follow for my work, was bringing me down.

Time to re-start my practice: this time I was grateful I could turn it all off for a few minutes and take a nap — and for my tempestuous little dog snoring soundly beside me.

If Dogs Run Free . . .

7aceb4bd3e15499190a8b4762050e1b8If there isn’t a name for it, there should be:  that feeling when you come back from vacation in a beautiful place and wonder why you don’t just live there.

I know, this is a privileged person’s problem. Still, travel often leads people to question their daily lives and purpose, and I was having a severe case of that as I packed to return to Brooklyn after 5 days in the Dominican Republic in early March.

Of course, I was very lucky to be able to go there at all, and to stumble upon the terrific Hotel Todo Blanco:  a picture-perfect colonial style building perched on a hill above the ocean.

Waking up there, I felt like a different person:  fully relaxed, in both body and mind. In New York, I face winter mornings in the fog of a sinus headache and have to drag myself to the gym just to attain a modicum of sanity. In the D.R., I felt great from the moment I woke up and felt the cool ocean breeze wafting through our open patio door.  Though I took long walks on the beach, swam in the ocean and hiked up to a terrific restaurant, El Cabito, perched on the edge of a cliff with a breathtaking view of the sunset, I never once “worked out” – there was nothing like work involved.

It helped, of course, that I never turned on my cell phone or checked my e-mail. Nor did I read or hear any news for the 5 days I was there. (Turns out it doesn’t really change that much when you’re gone.) So why, I wondered, as I reluctantly packed my suitcase, do I choose to live in the harsh climate and dirty, noisy, costly city of New York, and keep a job that requires me to follow the news obsessively? Is this really a good idea?

It’s not just the people in the D.R. who are relaxed: dogs roam freely, on the beaches, in town, even in restaurants. No leashes (or neutering) required. And I never saw even one act aggressively.  The D.R. seemed like heaven for all of us; I envied the European expats that live in the fishing village-turned-tourist town we stayed in. I even fantasized about buying the Hotel Todo Blanco and offering beach yoga and life coaching to my guests.

Then we got in the taxi to the airport.

As usual, upon arrival in New York, we had to go through customs. I always kind of like this ritual, because the customs officials always offer a warm “welcome home.” This time, though, the man asked me what I do for a living. I don’t know why that’s relevant – maybe it’s how they guess whether you’re sneaking things into the country. In any event, I said I’m a lawyer for a human rights organization. The customs official stamped my documents, looked me in the eye and responded: “Keep making a difference.”

I was surprised and a little flustered. “Thank you!” I said with a smile. As I headed for the taxi stand, though, I wondered: “making a difference? Do I really make any difference?” I’m not sure. In fact, I thought, if I owned a hotel in the D.R. and provided decent jobs and a living wage to people there, wouldn’t that be making more of a difference? Maybe I would even do volunteer work there, teaching English to children or something. Wouldn’t that help people more than I do now?

I don’t really know the answer to those questions. But what I do know, and I felt as I headed to my office the next morning, is that, like many of us who put up with the discomforts and stresses of big cities, I have an opportunity now to do work that’s useful. Now that I’m back home, it’s where I need to focus. Advocating for better human rights policies may not provide anyone a living, but as I’ve written before, I do think advocates, working together, ultimately do an important service – even if it’s only to keep things from getting worse.

Christof Heyns, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary or Summary Executions (a cheery title), made a similar point recently at a lecture at Columbia University law school that really struck me. He said that while the world seems pretty brutal today, it’s a whole lot better than before the Geneva Conventions, the cornerstone of international human rights law. In World Wars I and II, for example, the brutality of organized governments and their armies was unimaginable: some 60 million people were killed in the Second World War alone. Today, bombing the civilian centers of major cities would be unthinkable. Yes, there are brutal dictators who sometimes slaughter their own people, but it’s not on the same scale. Major world powers do not commit the level of atrocities seen in the past. New weapons have actually improved governments’ abilities to fight wars while killing fewer people. And the establishment of human rights laws and norms has made it impossible for those trends to reverse, even if we know that a superpower like the United States will never be held accountable for its own wrongdoings. The development of the law, pushed along slowly by its advocates, is gradual and often painfully slow, Heyns acknowledged, but it does shift norms and public understandings that eventually lead to lasting change.

Of course, today’s challenges are still huge. As Rebecca Solnit recently wrote in a powerful essay in Harper’s, nation-states are less vicious today in attacks the built environment, but we’re steadily destroying what’s left of the natural one. That’s perhaps the fight where tangible gains seem most elusive: defending the planet’s climate and air and water requires long-term commitment to concerted and coordinated action despite huge political hurdles; it’s undoubtedly incredibly frustrating to everyone involved.

So what does this have to do with why we don’t all just move to the D.R.? Maybe just that part of how many of us feel in any place will be directly connected to what we think we can contribute there.  Maybe one day I’ll find a way to make what feels like a real contribution while living along a tropical beach lined with palm trees and cooled by ocean breezes. But for now, I live in Brooklyn, which has a lot of very different things to offer. And I think there’s plenty for me to at least try to contribute right here.

Finding Joy at Work

imagesI joined a meditation group in my neighborhood recently, and the other night the teacher’s talk was about Joy.

Joy. It’s not something many of us tend to think about much. We focus on getting work done, on what’s annoying us, on the onslaught of problems we need to solve or that we’re hearing about in the world, but joy is something that many of us – maybe especially New Yorkers – tend to overlook.

When do you experience joy?

Of course, there’s joy to be experienced in everyday life: in the enthusiastic face-lickings I get from my dog when I arrive home, in the savoring of a good meal or a good conversation or the company of good friends. But one thing I realized listening to this talk, which came after a particularly intense day at the office, was that I rarely experience joy at work.

As I reflected on my work (I’m talking about my office job, not my coaching work), I realized that so much of it is spent focusing on awful things going on in the world that it’s hard to even think of joy in that context. I imagine that’s true for lots of people working as advocates, whose job it is to focus on some problem in the world and try to fix it. But that itself creates a problem.

Joy is essential. It’s what motivates us, and allows us to appreciate our lives and the world around us. Without joy, can we really bring our full selves to anything we do, and can we really do a good job? I don’t think so. But most importantly, without joy, work will leave us feeling pretty miserable.

How do you cultivate joy at work when your job involves things that are inherently a bummer? That may be some big social justice issue or a problem in your neighborhood or your company or with a product. Whatever it is, the potential for joy may not be apparent.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. When I work with coaching clients, there may be parts that are difficult, but I find joy in the interaction itself, and in the feeling that I’m helping somebody, even if just by listening and helping them reflect on what’s on their mind and what might be getting in their way. When I work as a legal advocate, though, there isn’t that immediate connection with another person, or that satisfaction at the end of a session. Instead, it’s a long, endless slog toward improving a long-term situation that really sucks. You may never see the outcome, and anyway, the outcome probably won’t be what you’re hoping for. Where’s the joy in that?

Still, I see a lot of value in people advocating collectively for justice or other kinds of social and political change. It’s important work that in the long run, can make a difference. But can it be joyful?

I’ve written before about the importance of making your work meaningful, setting your own goals and acknowledging your successes. But I’m talking here about the daily experience of a job, which is a little different. As an advocate, you may know you’re part of an important effort to, say, stop global warming, but that may not make lobbying a Republican Congress led by climate change-deniers to pass laws reducing carbon emissions any more joyful.

So I’ve decided to embark on an experiment. I’m going to dedicate myself to bringing joy into my work every day. It may be in making a point to have one really good conversation with a colleague in the office, or in writing an advocacy piece that I really put my heart into. It could just involve going out of my way to acknowledge the great work done by one of my colleagues – a kind of “sympathetic joy” as Buddhists would call it . (“Sympathetic joy” is taking pleasure in other people’s happiness or success.) If none of those are possibilities, maybe it’s just taking time out of the day to quietly savor a good lunch or cup of coffee or listen to some really good music. Whatever it is, it has to be something that I actually stop and notice as joyful in some way, whether the process itself or the outcome.

Consider trying this with me. Because no matter what our work may be, if we can’t find one thing a day in it to truly enjoy in it, then in the long run, we’re not going to be doing anyone very much good.