War and Peace

4426269-war-and-peace-wallpapersTo escape the news recently, I’ve been immersing myself in 19th Century novels, and one theme keeps coming across: the destructive human obsession with social status.

In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, Prince Andrew Bolkonski, infatuated with dreams of glory, leaves his young pregnant wife and family to join the military. As he charges into a poorly-planned battle, he thinks:

I don’t know what will happen and don’t want to know, and can’t, but if I want this – want glory, want to be known to men, want to be loved by them, it is not my fault that I want it and want nothing but that and live only for that. Yes, for that alone! I shall never tell anyone, but, oh God! What am I to do if I love nothing but fame and men’s esteem? Death, wounds, the loss of family—I fear nothing. And precious and dear as many persons are to me—father, sister, wife—those dearest to me—yet dreadful and unnatural as it seems, I would give them all at once for a moment of glory, of triumph over men, of love from men I don’t know and never shall know, for the love of these men here, he thought, as he listened to voices in [the commander-in-chief’s] courtyard.

Prince Andrew seizes the opportunity to play the hero when it comes along. But he is soon struck down, and, not sure what has happened, finds himself falling.

Above him there was now nothing but the sky—the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it. … How was it I did not see that lofty sky before?” he wonders. “And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!…

At some level we all seek glory – and its reality is almost always disappointing.

This toxic form of human striving has arguably spread more widely over the years, even as living standards have risen so our actual needs are far less. As Alain de Botton explains in his book Status Anxiety, the introduction of a democratic ethos in recent centuries brought with it a growing belief in inherent human equality. No longer are some people “by nature free and others by nature slaves,” as Aristotle wrote. Now we are all free, goes the theory, and equally entitled to compete for, and to achieve, ever-higher levels of success. If we haven’t succeeded, well, it’s our own damn fault.

Modern culture thrives on this notion. Capitalism is based on making people believe that for happiness and success, they need and therefore should buy more and more things, the vast majority of which are unnecessary and often harmful. (Think junk food, McMansions & gas-guzzling cars.) It’s how our economy works: people are employed to make things we don’t really need and to figure out ways to make us believe we want them anyway. That’s also why a lot of people are unhappy in their jobs, because when they stop to think about it, they realize they’re not contributing something constructive, but instead may be encouraging people to waste their money, time and energy, and help destroy the planet in the process.

I realize I’m painting a pretty grim and one-sided picture. Lots of people provide important services to the world, like teaching, health care, nourishing food, or safe and efficient homes. But it’s also true that many of us get so caught up in wanting to prove our worth within our given social and economic systems that we rarely stop to think about what we truly value, and what we’re really trying to prove.

That’s a really important antidote to all this. When we find ourselves envying other people, for example, or feeling like a failure in comparison, we can ask ourselves, what’s important to me? What do I really want to do, and what’s important about that? Is it something I truly value, or something I think will impress others? And am I so focused on winning admiration from strangers that I can’t even see the sky?

Of course, sometimes we’re so confused by the whirlwind around us that it’s hard to know what’s important. Paying attention to what we envy can provide a clue. If I’m envying a friend or acquaintance for something I believe they have that I don’t, what is it about that thing that I want? Perhaps it’s a means of self-expression, or connection with others. It’s usually something deeper than we at first imagine.

Much of our focus on the superficial exterior comes down to a nagging desire to define ourselves, to see ourselves as a fixed entity capable of definition, which occupies a particular rung on the status ladder. But in fact, neither the ladder nor our “selves” exist in the way we think — as solid, independent entities, separate from our conceptions of them. As psychologist Rick Hanson writes in his book Buddha’s Brain, the self is like a unicorn – it’s not an independently existing thing, but merely patterns in the mind and brain. It’s “continually constructed, deconstructed and constructed again.” Nothing solid about it.

By recognizing this, we can begin to experience some freedom. Seeing that our sense of self is based on our upbringing, our culture, our experiences, and the people around us, we begin to recognize how elusive the “self” really is. We can begin to see our “self” more as a tool and a process, as the Insight meditation teacher Heather Sundberg puts it, than as a fixed entity.

And it is only by letting go of that constant need to define, represent, compare and judge ourselves that we can truly relax and be ourselves – whoever that may be at any given moment.

 

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.

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.

 

How To Deal With Annoying People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and Activism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Not a Package Deal

images-1One 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.

A Hole in the World

images-4I came across Portia Nelson’s wonderful “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” recently and wanted to share it here. It encapsulates perfectly the challenging and often painstaking process of changing our most entrenched and destructive patterns of mind.

 

“There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk”

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.

Chapter 3

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter 4

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5

I walk down another street.

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, I’ve also been thinking it applies equally to how we collectively, as a society and political order, approach our most vexing problems — only it’s not clear we ever get past the first couple of chapters.

“I would bring back waterboarding,” declared Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on ABC News’ Sunday show, This Week with George Stephanopolous, talking about how he would respond to terrorism if he were president.  Surely Trump doesn’t think that’s the answer, given the wealth of evidence that torture undermines rather than promotes national security. But with so many fearful Americans eager to see leaders do something, anything, to ensure their safety, Trump probably figured it would grab more headlines and score him more votes.

Donald Trump is an extreme case, of course, but whether it’s global warming, income inequality or terrorism, there seems to be a general societal instinct to respond immediately to our most entrenched problems with a defensiveness that clouds our ability to see our role in the problem and how our reactions perpetuate it.

An individual wanting to change can make a commitment to approaching the situation with renewed awareness and, eventually, choose to walk down a different path. But how can we do that as a society, in a political system governed by leaders focused only on short-term gains?

 

“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.

The Power of Positive Psychology

istock_000005349409xsmall-300x299I’m taking a certification course in “positive psychology,” and I’ve realized lately that I feel a little sheepish telling people about it. There’s something about the idea of studying something so unabashedly “positive” that sounds a little silly, fake, Pollyannaish.

It also sounds very corporate, like the kind of thing they’d teach in business school so owners can convince employees that they’re really happy toiling away at meaningless jobs while they’re actually being exploited to make the owner huge profits.

Of course that’s not what “positive psychology” is really about, although it has become popular in the business world. It’s actually a growing branch of the field of psychology taught at such eminent universities as the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard.  Still, I’m realizing that I’ve so bought into the popular culture of cynicism that it feels like it takes an act of courage to admit I’m interested in what makes people happy. After all, given what’s going on in the world these days, (and especially what we see in the news), what right does anyone have to be happy?

As a therapeutic tool, the term “positive psychology” doesn’t inspire much confidence, either: it sounds like learning to sweep all the painful stuff under the rug and to just look at the bright side, which doesn’t seem like a very honest or effective strategy.

That’s not how the lead course instructor, psychologist and Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar, describes it. In his talks and books – some of which I’ve read and think are very good and not at all simplistic – he describes positive psychology as a sort of antidote to the field of psychology’s traditional focus on the negative – the pathologies and illness that make people suffer. He wants to focus on what works: what makes people happy, successful, and fulfilled.

But isn’t that just looking at the other side of the same coin? I wondered initially. People who aren’t happy, successful or fulfilled tend to be depressed, anxious and neurotic, right? So what difference does it make if we ask them why they’re depressed and anxious, as opposed to what makes them happy?

From what I can tell so far, the difference appears to be the focus. Let’s say I’m depressed and anxious because I hate my job, for example. I can focus on why I hate my job – because my boss is an idiot, or the work seems meaningless, or the hours are too long – and those would all be legitimate reasons to be miserable and want to quit. After all, it’s normal and even healthy to want our work to be fulfilling and in balance with the rest of our lives.

But I think a positive psychologist would first ask a few key questions. What do I like about my job? When do I enjoy it, or find my work interesting or fulfilling? The idea wouldn’t be to ignore my negative feelings, but if I can find and focus on the positive ones, that may lead me to a broader understanding of what’s going on, and to a wider range of options. Once I’ve identified what I like, I can consider how I might be able to increase those parts of my work. In the process, I can consider how I might decrease the parts I don’t like. For example, if a toxic boss is the problem, maybe I can limit contact with her, do the things that I know will satisfy her and get her off my back, or explore whether it might be possible to report to someone else. Now I have more options than just quitting, which may or may not solve my problem, since I don’t know what my next boss or colleagues or workplace situation will be like.

One advantage of positive psychology seems to be that it puts us in a position of power rather than leaving us stuck, feeling helpless. (Interestingly, the man considered the founder of the modern “positive psychology” movement, former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman, is the same psychologist who coined the phrase “learned helplessness,” in which an animal or human being has learned she has no control over a bad or painful situation and therefore stops trying to change it.)

Positive psychology also reveals how much power we have to affect other people in a positive way. Rather than criticizing or focusing on what’s wrong with others, we can be the voice of encouragement, the one who finds the jewel in those around us and helps them polish it.

I was driving as I was thinking about this, returning home after a particularly grueling period of work, for which I was feeling generally unappreciated.  I turned on public radio. Terri Gross, host of the show “Fresh Air,” was interviewing country singer-songwriter Iris DeMent about her new album.

DeMent, who writes and sings soulful, plaintive songs in an oddly appealing high-pitched twang, was describing growing up as the youngest of 14 children in a religious Pentecostal Christian family. While music and singing were a big part of her upbringing, mostly connected to the church, school wasn’t, and she dropped out of high school by the 10th grade.

At 23, she decided to go back. DeMent had always loved writing stories, she said, and though she had little confidence in her writing ability, she enrolled in an English class at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. What she remembers about it was her teacher who, instead of commenting on the misspellings and bad grammar that littered her papers, would praise her imagination and creativity.

“She was so kind to me and so – just little, simple teacher notes, you know?” DeMent told Gross, her voice trembling as she recounted it. “But her red pen, you know, she’d say these really kind things and – you know, you have an imagination. You got the – and it encouraged me. She didn’t criticize what I didn’t know how to do.”

DeMent “sunk herself into that class,” she said, and then took another. She soon wrote her first song. From then on, she knew that was what she had to do.

From her telling of it, that one teacher, who saw and focused on the best in her, made all the difference. And that, from what I can tell, is the power of positive psychology.

Balancing the Terrible and the Beautiful

The_ScreamAnyone involved in social justice work of one sort or another, whether providing direct services or advocating for better laws and policies, will find themselves spending an awful lot of their consciousness wallowing in the world’s muck. It can be exhausting. It also sometimes leads to the obvious question: why am I doing this?

Of course, we get involved in social justice work not because it’s fun, exactly, but because it seems meaningful. Living a happy and fulfilling life is ultimately as much about finding meaning as it is about pleasure, as thinkers from Aristotle to “positive psychologists” like Martin Seligman and increasingly, even neuroscientists have recognized.

Still, throwing yourself into a cause to the detriment of other parts of your life doesn’t turn out to be so fulfilling. Early in my career, for example, first as a lawyer and then as a journalist, I tended to throw myself headlong into a new project, abandoning other interests and neglecting my own mental and physical health – and often, the people around me. Whatever it took to succeed, I thought, I would do. Each time, though, after a few years, the “success” wasn’t what I had hoped – the injustice I was fighting was still there, and my personal success didn’t feel as good as I’d expected. I ultimately felt frustrated, exhausted and defeated. Plus I wasn’t very pleasant to be around. Eventually I would quit and move on to something else.

The psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar writes about the perfectionist tendency many of us have that leads us to believe something is only worth doing if we do it perfectly or 100%. This necessarily means neglecting other things in our lives, as well as ourselves. That tends to be self-defeating. In part, that’s because we keep moving the goal post further away as we approach it, so we never feel we’ve really succeeded. At the same time, the things we’ve neglected are often important, and in fact, nurture the other goals. “To ignore one’s feelings and needs,” writes Shahar, “is a prescription for unhappiness and, ultimately, failure.” Instead of perfectionism, he recommends “optimalism” – doing the best you can balancing all the things that are important to you, but accepting reality (including your limitations) as it is – not insisting it’s what you think it should be.

Social justice advocacy represents a twist on the perfectionist problem, because at first, it feels virtuous to focus 100% on the work. But that means not only neglecting other things (and people) in your life, but also immersing yourself in events or other people’s lives that may be traumatic, not just for clients but for service providers and advocates as well. It can also lead to “compassion fatigue,” making us ultimately less effective.

So advocates face a dilemma: how much can we focus our work on awful things while still living a good life? And can we enjoy our lives and our own good fortune, without feeling guilty about it?

Ultimately, we all have to engage in a constant balancing act, juggling passionate advocacy with soothing self-care — and a keen awareness of our immediate interactions with the world around us. It also requires keeping in mind that happiness is not a finite resource: you don’t owe it to your clients or to any larger cause to be miserable.

Here are some guidelines for doing that:

First, you don’t have to spend ALL your waking hours immersed in awful and depressing subjects. Continue to pursue other, more uplifting interests (for me, it’s coaching and writing), which offer different perspectives on the world and remind you it isn’t all horrible.

Second, take care of yourself, physically and emotionally. For me, that means regular exercise, yoga, and meditation.

Third, be patient and careful about how you define “success.” I know, for example, that my efforts aren’t going to eliminate human rights abuses, no matter how hard I try. My role will be merely one small piece of a larger effort made by many dedicated people, that’s frustrating for all of them, but still worth doing. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to be among them. I can do my best at the work, but my sense of personal fulfillment can’t hinge on its outcome.

And finally, it’s just as important to treat the people and the world in my immediate surroundings with as much care and patience as I treat any cause. Because no matter how hard we work, our impact on them will be much more direct.