The Love Byte of Affirmation

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Affirmations, a subspecies of thought, have the power to attract and to constellate our affects, bodily sensations, postural alignment, how we move, availability of energy, and sensory utilization as well as neural circuitry.  The entirety of our bodyminds responds to affirmations, just as they do to denigrating thoughts about ourselves, other persons or situations.   We can learn to harness the potential of affirmations to program ourselves to operate or run in a desired way.

If we borrow the vocabulary given us by software programming, we might think of the use of affirmations as essentially downloading bytes of code into our wetware.  Self-affirmations are thoughts, and specifically the kind of thoughts we call beliefs. When encoding beliefs works best, these beliefs must dovetail well with the programming that already runs.  This explains why potent affirmations must underscore narratives about ourselves with which we can agree, at least for the most part. When we grow up in households, and communities, we imbibe the predominant beliefs on a daily basis—about ourselves and our communities and those outside our immediate neighborhoods, towns, states, and even countries. As children our minds are open and curious.  Our permeable cells and senses saturate with the thoughts around us—happy, encouraging, worried, condemning, complaining, illuminating, or dismissive?  Particularly, when we hear over and over again, thought patterns, or belief subscriptions, we often incorporate those rigorously reinforced bytes of code as unquestionable.

Yet, we retain the capacity to construct and utilize affirmations purposefully: to increase our courage in tough situations, for comfort when we have suffered insult, rejection, or when we have disappointed ourselves or others, and to bolster new behavior, thought patterns and their consequently more uplifting affects.  Affirmations, when practiced diligently, can shift our perspectives, bolster our endurance, and prime us to gather our wits or our energy in order to behave or make progress on our goals in a desired way. Due to their newness in our thought-repertoire, affirmations must be repeated often enough to achieve the reiterative familiarity of second nature, and to dominate the multiple narratives that we maintain within ourselves.

Robert Sopolsky writes, in his fascinating book, Behavior, about the concept of automaticity, an alternate word to describe what happens when someone studying a piece of piano music, for example, now gets through the complicated trill “without thinking.”  In terms of the brain science, the neural activity moves from prefrontal cortex to a reflexive part of the brain.  With mastery in sports, in music, in a second language, in all types of activities, this geographical migration within the complex landscape of the brain takes place over time with practice, practice, practice.

Louise Hay reiterates that every piece of inner monologue is an affirmation or endorsement of beliefs, whether useful or unproductive.  She says that the deliberate use of self-constructed affirmations serves to eliminate unproductive thoughts or to create new ones which can offer us help in changing.

When we construct self-affirmations in a specific use of language that speaks to us and sounds like us, and hones our awareness of exceptional stories from our lives to lend support, then these affirmations help to shape our supportive behavior around them.  As an example, when fearful of learning something new, if I affirm that I can learn most things by studying them enough, then constructing time and effort to study the materials I have collected for the purpose, both buttresses and benefits from my affirmation.  The term, “exceptional stories,” taken from Narrative Therapy theory, refer to the moments in our lives when, even if shy, we have spoken up and voiced our concerns; or when, even if we feel prone to procrastination and avoidance, we just up and do something without over-thinking it.  It is much easier to affirm behaviors or thoughts that we have actually experienced, even if more rarely than our commonly held thoughts and typically produced behaviors, than to affirm foreign thoughts and behaviors that do not ring true.

From an online article in Psychology Today by Ray Williams, (May 5, 2013), called, ‘Do Self-Affirmations Work? A Revisit,’ we read: “There are other researchers who question the validity and utility of self-affirmations. Canadian researcher, Dr. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues at the University of New Brunswick who have recently published their research in the Journal of Psychological Science, concluded repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”

The researchers asked people with and low self-esteem to say “I am a lovable person.” They then measured the participants’ moods and their feelings about themselves. The low-esteem group felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not. However, people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive affirmation–but only slightly.”

This research is helpful in our understanding that wholesale affirmations, a one-size-fits- all concept, does not work as well as affirmations that support our main or exceptional narratives about ourselves.  For our affirmations to work, they must fit criteria of authenticity, and customization in our own use of language.  They must be consistent with our deeply held beliefs.

Williams goes on to write, “These findings were supported by previous research published in 1994 in the Journal of Social Psychology, showing that when people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better.”

And it makes sense.  We feel like frauds when people compliment us for something we do not think we deserve.  But when we feel truly seen for what we do, and noticed for that, and when the acknowledgements are “right-sized,” a phrase used in 12-step programs, then we can accept and feel boosted by such social recognition and support.

Sometimes self-affirmations actually amount to a rewriting (and neural rewiring) of old stories about ourselves with which we have been inculcated to our detriment.  In the excavation-level explorations that sometimes occur in psychotherapy or self-reflection, we can uncover these artifacts and recognize who planted them there.  All of these narratives may form part of our multifaceted identities, and we can exercise the right to revoke, reverse, or debate these no longer warranted narratives.

As an example, Joseph felt depressed a lot of the time and tended to sleep a lot now that he had some good recovery time from drinking accomplished.  He had moments of happiness when his kids visited, when he took long walks in the woods, or prepared a meal for friends.  But he expressed to me his exhaustion at not being able to “fix” himself.  Joseph said, “I know I’m all screwed up, and I just don’t know how to fix myself.”

“How do you know you’re all screwed up?” I asked him one afternoon.

“Well, my mother never stopped telling me how I’d ruined her life and that of my sister, the goodie-two-shoes.”

As we continued to talk, I proposed that Joe contemplate the possibility that, if by some miracle the thought that he was “all screwed up” disappeared, would there be anything to fix?  Would there be any exhaustion around such a project?

“I guess I’ve carried that belief around for a long time“, Joe considered. “Maybe way too long.”

How relieving to become aware of self-negating beliefs as just beliefs; and not ultimate truths.  As Joe worked through the notion that he might think otherwise about himself, he came to the conclusion that he could revoke all-screwed-up-ness from his list of identifiers.

In a University of Pennsylvania article, published November 20, 2015, called ‘The Neural Mechanics of Self-Affirmation,’ “led by Doctoral Candidate Christopher Cascio and Associate Professor Emily Falk and published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience,” (incorporating research out of both UCLA and the Michigan Center for Excellence in Cancer Communication Research), the team “used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to find that self-affirmation activates well-known reward centers in the brain. These areas — the ventral striatum (VS) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) — are the same reward centers that respond to other pleasurable experiences, such as eating your favorite meal or winning a prize.”

This research underscores the notion that for affirmations to feel good, then they must sync with our motivational/seeking and reward/redemption emotions and behaviors.  If I want to run a really good half marathon, am both motivated, and self-affirmative (“I know I give this and all races my best”), then I will feel rewarded by both the affirmation as well as by the solid completion of the race.

If I had never run a half marathon then such a self-affirmation would not do much good.  But if I had to get 13 miles down the road, I might successfully utilize the energizing potential of an affirmation like this:  “There is some pace by which I can keep going; even if it is a slow walk, I can keep going.”

One client, Jim, said that for him, trying to be perfectly on a diet doomed him to frequent failures.  In contrast, the willingness to eat modestly well on a holiday, for example, felt freeing.  Within freedom one encounters all possibilities—not only poor choices, but great choices.  Whereas, perfection has as its painful bedfellow, only failure.

Affirming ourselves can help us stay afloat during tough times.  Sometimes affirmations are actually rationalizations. Rationalizing is a psychological defense mechanism that protects us from feeling weaker, smaller, less competent, less than. . .And sometimes it is helpful, in order to keep on truckin’, to indulge in affirmative self-talk:  ‘So she didn’t go to the dance with me;  she’s probably stuck up and wouldn’t want to be seen with me anyway.  It’s better to go with my neighbor.  We’re friends and will have a good time.’  Or, ‘So I didn’t get that promotion.  It would have made for a lot more work without a lot more pay. I’m glad I dodged that bullet.’

In summary, positive self-affirmations work when they meet these criteria:  authenticity, believability, align with some other beliefs about the self, reflect exceptional stories in our own lives, are well practiced, sound like our own language, are specific and not inflated.  And most importantly, learning how to accept the genuine acknowledgement and recognition of others—learning to absorb that on a cellular level—helps us rework our narratives, rewire our brains, and open doors to greater freedom and new possibilities.

Writing Prompt:

What are some your self-limiting beliefs?  Do these sound like people you know?  Or derive from painful experiences you can remember?  What would you like to believe about yourself that will lift you up?  When have you experienced yourself as that (belief) courageous, assertive, open, persistent, etc?

Web Camel Transport 51

The Orange Question

July 23, 2017 (Image Breaking Out by Sally Tharp)

If you and your spouse or partner had to live in a rustic cabin for a week, with little variety to eat, just predominantly oranges, and you had an hour to pick all of them out from a large orange warehouse, what qualities in the oranges would you select, in order that you optimize your satisfaction that week?

 I developed The Orange Question as a strategy for inviting couples, coming in for therapy, to imagine, envision, and feel empowered to select, from all existing possibilities, those qualities which would most satisfy their desire for a good week together.

In a literal sense, oranges satisfy nutritional needs for survival.  But, in a metaphorical rendering of the perfect selection of oranges, we want additional qualities, such as deliciousness, fragrance, juiciness, that move the common orange well beyond its status as mere staple.

Surviving together as a couple, for five, ten, or twenty years, already represents a meritorious level of success in many things, like task-sharing, negotiation, cooperation, financial stability, co-parenting if there are children, communicating about logistics, and so forth.  But, unless one is a Zen master, most of the mundane business of everyday life generates little that feels romantic, imaginative, exciting or inspirational.  We humans, ever restless in our metronomic swings between the desire for familiarity, and also for novelty, for security but also delightful surprise, can get stuck in ruts of boredom or anhedonia when we just subsist, lazily plotting how to kill time between requisite efforts.

Couples, other than those living in extremes of substance dependence, psychological chaos, abuse or criminality, come apart when their multiple modes of connection have atrophied and only a narrative of cohabitation and complaint remains. When couples seek therapy, we often make efforts to untangle the morass of complaints, in order to achieve a better understanding of how each party interprets the behavior of the other.  And misinterpretations account for a vast number of exchanges that escalate into angry outbursts and emotional skewering.  While processes for coming to understand each other better, and developing one’s emotional IQ about the other person are very useful, therapy sessions may devolve into a swamp of despair if they do not also introduce the imaginative rendering of future chapters that, if not bursting with flavor, yield at least some mellow opportunities for satisfaction.

The Orange Question, and other questions like it, invigorate the muse that most of us house, garbed in hope, playfulness, curiosity and inventiveness.  Hypothetical questions, just like a Rorschach test, throwing the I Ching, or responding to a poem or a piece of music, extend to the responder a reflective template upon which to project the self as a character in a different story—sometimes the exceptional tale that’s poised on the bottom lip ready for launch.

Rina wanted juicy oranges, some ripe and some ripening, and oh so sweet.  And Joe said they must be easy to peel.  No pits; neither dried out nor mushy.  Rina added succulence and freshness; that they must find the best ones.

Another couple, Rose and Shep, offered their collective responses:  Make sure to get enough for survival, some ripe, some ripening, no bruising or flattening, flexibility to cut or peel, nothing in a bag, everything exposed, round, undamaged, big, bright color, tastes good, appealing to look at, juicy, colorful.

Having congratulated each couple for coming up with so many desirable characteristics, I then asked them to listen to my reading of the qualities they mentioned, and as they heard each one, to then ask themselves whether that quality, now abstracted from ‘oranges,’ had any relevance to the marriage they wanted to experience.  Were, for example, juiciness, sweetness and ripeness relevant?  Did a sense of freshness appeal?  Were there aspects of their relationship in which being “easy to peel” or “without pits,” served to boost satisfaction?  How relevant was ripening in the relationship as an engine driving better partnership?

This morning I read this quote:  “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” written by the poet, Muriel Rukeyser.  Of course, ‘atoms’ are also story-words, our lenses for what we can know of these unnamed phenomena. Do we not marry the universe with verse because we know how to love in language?

Steve Gaddis, a masterful Narrative therapist speaks of very careful, effortful “scaffolding” or “laddering” questions by the therapist that lead the client deeply into her own experience, both emotionally and thoughtfully.  Instead of enactment therapies, like Psychodrama or Internal Family Systems or Gestalt therapy—which can be cathartic—narrative therapy asks detailed questions including those of a sensory nature—Where was he sitting?  How old was he?  What were you feeling?  What were you hearing? Was he looking you in the eye? Are there other remembered stories like this?

When we examine and tell the tales of our past or present experiences in a holistic and detailed way, or hear those of others in all the specifics, then, as under a microscope, a world of possibilities emerges that, perhaps, we had not seen or utilized previously.  These in-the-moment experiences of re-seeing, rethinking, and re-considering, wake us up from soporific assumptions and desiccated stories that have lost all vitality.  The asking of “laddered” questions, much like utilizing the Socratic method, function like an electron microscope, or at least a magnifying glass to reveal what has previously been glossed over with the cataract of complacency or defensiveness.

In spite of my therapeutic orientation as a more relational than solution-focused (alone) therapist, there’s a similarity between the Orange Question and Steve De Shazar’s famous Miracle Question, developed for Solution Focused Therapy. It was called, in 1988, a “thought experiment.”  It goes something like this:  If, by some miracle, you go to sleep tonight and wake up with your problem(s) already solved, how does your life now look without that problem?  How do you now act and feel? What is now amazingly different?

Byron Katie produced her famous four questions to unlock the stories that bind us in self-torture, stuckness, and helplessness.  First, write down the evil thought, the harsh judgment, the worst-case scenario and then ask these questions about it:  1) Is it true?  (that your spouse hates you, or that your boss always has unfair expectations, that your sister is nothing but selfish, that none of your kids appreciate you., etc.) You need to sit with that question and let the experience of it circulate through your whole body.  2)  Can you absolutely know it’s true?  Is this something that you have the authority to know, as in the contents of someone else’s mind. This second question plumbs downward past our vast lachrymatory, through our layered onion skins of interpretation to arrive at the translucent membrane through which the relevant reality shines as a nascent, as-yet-untold tale. 3) We are asked to experience the turbulence, the shuddering, the precipitous feelings and quickened sensations that arise as we sink into the quicksand of our demeaning, damning stories.  When we believe these are our only stories, they hold us hostage in an airless chamber.  This is the embodiment question.  4) We imagine ourselves in the same place with the person or situation that troubled us, now unshrouded by our stressful story about it.  “Who would we be without that thought?”  How would this freedom feel?  Do our lives feel better with or without our damaging story?

Finally, Byron Katie asks us to perform a “turnaround,” when we examine and experience within our minds and bodies the “opposite” of what we believed.  And we find three or more examples of the truth of the “turnaround.”

Katie’s “turnaround” is kin to Narrative Therapy’s “exceptions,” as well as to De Shazar’s morning-after-the-problem-is-solved.  And, also, to Gestalt’s awakening of the dance between foreground and background in which positive and negative configurations can tickle our senses—blend and blur or alternate the capture of our attention.

The Socratic Method teaches by questioning. Although we absorb so much knowledge in school and from our parents via the lecture method, from infancy on, we learn most robustly by co-generated actions on, and in our world. At first, we learn our world as the barely differentiated landscapes of our body and our mother’s body. Later we question the acorns, stones, grapes, Tupperware, brushes, and sister’s long hair by picking up and dropping, pulling, mouthing, carrying these objects, and later still we question intention, motive, cause and effect.  We develop associative thinking, make connections, and construct the nature of the world in which we live.  We open it.  We close it.  Sometimes we close it too prematurely and our ideas go into isolation and lockdown.  All thinking is relational—name to object; co-development of ideas between persons; isomorphically related concepts from one field to another via cross fertilization of knowledges in our own minds; even gossip.  The end of our questioning marks the end of the road where, as pickings for its teeth, death consumes what’s left of us.

“This scrupulous and exhaustive form of inquiry in many ways resembles the scientific method. But unlike Socratic inquiry, scientific inquiry would often lead us to believe that whatever is not measurable cannot be investigated. This ‘belief’ fails to address such paramount human concerns as sorrow and joy and suffering and love.” (Paul, R. and Elder, L. (April 1997). Foundation For Critical Thinking, Online at website:  and excerpted from Socrates Cafe by Christopher Phillips) A fine laddering of questions in which a belief, and its believer must run an obstacle course of unusual circumstances, situations embedded in complex contexts or hypothetical counter-explanations, offers that exquisitely painstaking and painful knife edge of differentiation that renders the outcome of such questions both hard won and prized.  Upon this kind of parsing we pivot, perhaps in relief for letting go of self-damning explanations for our failures and unhappiness, but also in pain for shedding the protective wall of our decay and indifference.  Detailed questioning of our limiting beliefs creates psychic distance from them.  The experience creates breathing room between a sense of self and one’s problems.  A stuck problem, once opened to viewing from multiple vantage points, opens itself for solvability or even solubility as it dissolves completely within the context of a newly imagined story.  To a large extent we author our own lives, develop our own troubles, and yet, enjoy the capacity to imagine our way to juicier, sweeter oranges.

Guest Saddle:  Upon what resistant problem would the light of questioning shine most brightly in your life?  What dried up ‘orange’ in your life could use an infusion of juiciness and sweetness?







Web Camel Transport 50


Friday, July 7, 2017

Christine sorts through Mari’s things for the 11th time since I started seeing her 17 years ago.  We have known each other longer than her daughter, Mari, lived, dying at age 15.  Christy has moved twice since Mari lapsed from consciousness.  Each subsequent house has felt temporary, and each had a bedroom in which Mari should have gone to sleep and awakened every morning. The final retirement home will have no empty bedroom for Mari’s ghost.

Most of us worship at the shrine of a unified self. We remember, and by inviting memories—sharp or vague, garnished with fear, humiliation or gladness–build a chronology, a through line for ourselves.  See, here we are at the beach, Mari and me.  And at every Halloween she wore a different witch hat; and there I sat, typing up my poems on an IBM Selectric word processor.

We develop into multiplicities; layered versions of our mythological, monolithic notions of me.  Our various selves, in different moments, or linked to different people or places or passions or defeats form a crowd that sometimes coheres and sometimes conflicts; occasionally a self sits alone, isolated from the rest. The crystalline Christine has lost a main facet.  For years she has obscured that lopsidedness by shoring up Mari’s things, even as they, too, desiccate, shred, fade, attenuate, turn transparent as a dying butterfly’s wings.

After 17 years and 11 times sorting through Mari’s belongings, Christy has yet to find a satisfying sense of completion.  The new retirement house, the empty nest and the one floor maintenance-free manifestation of success in living long enough to slough off unnecessary accoutrements helps though.  This weeding has got to be the last.

An archaeologist, fingering relics of infinite sorrow, Christy has done the work of grievers:  Lit candles at the shrine on Mari’s birthday and the day she died; sat in groups for parents whose children have died, read the library of self-help books, journaled, written commemorative stories, scanned pictures into Shutterfly books, testified and won the malpractice suit, and talked with me.  She as she is, Christy refused the settlement offer in favor of telling her daughter’s story, and perhaps, year after year, she comes back to sit with me every three or four weeks, to tell her daughter’s story again.  This is what she has left of motherhood.

That Christy cannot “move on,” a capstone phrase of our culture, might presuppose a narrative of failure, in life, and perhaps in therapy.  As I talk with Christy, I brush away some cobwebs of occupational failure myself; that she still comes, still needs me.  How my helping has never arrived at an outcome we imaginable as complete, or successful.

I have offered her an ‘out’ on occasion, a kind of graduation from therapy, but she wants to come back.  Perhaps, like an omnipresent and patient dog, no matter for how long, I am simply willing to hear again her story, Mari’s story.  To tear up each time she tears up.  Most people “don’t want to hear,” she tells me.  Her mother, her sister and brother, her friends, even her husband who shares a parent’s loss.

So, my willingness, and my diligent witnessing, surpass any analytical intelligence or interventional strategy I might employ to pull her from the abyss of inconsolable, and as the literature has it, “complicated grief.”  I honor Christy who has an unparalleled capacity to bend and gaze and breathe and remember, and replay and ruminate and touch her daughter’s decomposing things and tell, again and again, her story.  Together we reconstruct this dinosaur of grief from bone fragments and shards of information, with slight but significant differences.  But there is no return to Christy of her own person, and certainly not of Mari.

The thing is, Mari died because of a confluence of medical negligence.  And not because of any lapse on Christy’s part. But as a mother, she needs to hold on to an alternate reality in which, if she discovers the necessary details of omniscience and omnipotence, she could have, and would have, saved her daughter.  This seeking and puzzle solving keeps Christy alive.  And who am I, in the service of mental health, to disabuse her of this problem?  The one that knots her up but also tethers her to the planet.  Byron Katie notwithstanding (Who would you be without your story?), Christy would be dead without her story. Even for a woman of faith, the Catholic story of heavenly reunion has not sufficed, because love is a flavor of mortal connection.  This is how things, like Velveteen rabbits, start twitching their noses, and cell phones become homes away from home. So, we are working on saying goodbye to Mari’s things, sorting out rabbits from vegetation.

Our things define and describe the spaces in which we live and work as places.  Things are also place holders and prompters.  Like pearls on a strand, things help to chronologize our days, our months, even our family legacies.  I move from the pantry where coffee sits, to coffee maker and faucet, to cabinet for a mug to the fridge for half and half, to the table where the computer awaits the tap dance of my hands and the phone sits a bit removed, just out of the circle of temptation. And I’ve opened the sliders so I can feel the air move as it fans the branches of the hundred-year-old White Pine, against which my kayak leans, reminding me of the benefits, for the external obliques, of circulating the torso in a figure eight pattern.  And as the washer rinses towels and spins for the last time, sadness rinses and spins me too, as this signals my aloneness.  My dear guests have recently left and, though I looked forward to my solo time, I miss them already, those who have taken their sandals and bathing suits and beach toys and books which had marked their presence these last few days.  Dr. Christian Jarrett, in an article from The British Psychological Society, entitled, ‘The Psychology of Stuff and Things,’ quotes Karen Lollar, whose house burned down: “’My house is not “just a thing,”’ wrote Karen Lollar in 2010. ‘The house is not merely a possession or a structure of unfeeling walls. It is an extension of my physical body and my sense of self that reflects who I was, am, and want to be.’”

While the ‘thinghood,’ of my things is an extension of myself, it is also, necessarily, a distinguisher of otherness.  I cannot, after all, acquire or consume myself.  A toddler will think it funny if you ask, “Where’s Tommy’s nose?” as you look around under couch pillows, because by shear development he knows his nose is inherent to his being. The building blocks of myself exist in the world as influences, whether nutritional, intellectual, affectional, physical or moral.  Objects in the world, living and inorganic, magnetize me like a compass, or repel me.

Some psychologists say we grow more attached to the things we anthropomorphize.  But this imbuing of human characteristics to inorganic objects is the same process by which we relate to other persons who, in an important sense, are also objects in our world.  The more we humanize other humans, the more curiosity, empathy, compassion, identification and gratitude can lubricate the stubborn viscosity that has prevented us from fully embracing our own tenuous humanity and ability to relate.  On the other hand, the more we objectify other human beings, the easier it is to use, abuse and discard them.

As my mother lay dying in her bedroom, light through the blinds dappled the bed, the bookshelves, her dresser, catching occasionally on one of the delicate gold chains that spilled from a ceramic cup in which she kept them next to perfumes, all sitting on a hammered copper plate from Lithuania.  It reminded me of Mico Kaufman, a sculptor in Tewksbury, who said to me, as he showed me his studio and work, “I love to see the presence of the hand.”

Hammers extend the hand’s power to attach materials, to build, to impress design.  Phones extend our power to communicate plans, feelings, ideas.  Planes give wings to the imagination’s delight in travel.  Grandma’s samovar extends the memory of a family’s story across a continent and languages and through the ravages of war.  Russell Belk, mentioned in many articles for his work on the meaning of things, says things are “extensions of the self.”  But within and outside our own kinespheres, our extensions-of-self serve the purpose of anchoring us, as do bridges, across divides between our panoply of selves, and between ourselves and salient others.

Above the dermal layers of being, few objects seemed important to my mother but for the cheap digital clock which she demanded to see, that she might orient herself, in clock time, during these last few days without meals or errands or defined periods of sleeping and waking.  Behind the blinds silhouettes of leaves trilled, and beyond the fading room our voices, mine and my sisters, and those of our mother’s few remaining friends rose and whispered and coughed and sighed and sobbed and quieted, as do voices among the living.

My mother pared down her belongings years before she died.  Still, she had more than my sisters and I could use or treasure or shepherd into the future.  My sister Lynne took on stewardship of the Grand Dame, the Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano my mother played her entire adult life, but inherited from my father’s mother, Fannie, who won it during the seventh annual student competition at the New England Conservatory of Music, on Saturday, May 13, 1916, at 2:30 PM in Jordan Hall. The program was Beethoven’s 1st movement of Sonata in C major, opus 53, Chopin’s Nocturne in F major, opus 15, no. 1, and Debussy’s ‘L’isle Joyeuse.’ According to the Boston based Mason & Hamlin website, they went from making organs to pianos in 1881. “With Mason & Hamlin’s innovations, use of only the finest materials and expert craftsmanship, its pianos were the world’s costliest to produce and widely accepted as the world’s finest.”

Julie Beck, in an Atlantic Monthly article from 12/10/14 quotes, “’Things embody goals, make skills manifest, and shape the identities of their users,’ write Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton in their 1981 book The Meaning of Things. ‘Man is not only homo sapiens … he is also homo faber, the maker and user of objects, his self to a large extent a reflection of things with which he interacts.’”

So what does it mean to do justice to an object so meticulously honed, and so momentously won for the artistry and craftsmanship of its musician, which has now survived all relevant owners in a family?  To honor the piano, it must be played, lovingly and by someone whose connoisseurship recommends them.  The piano must feel the presence of a devotee’s hands.

Like pimps, the piano resellers trivialized the worth of our older and less than furniture quality, but well-tended instrument.  However, they would take it off our hands.  My sister would not give up so easily, and the long tentacles of Craig’s List brought a sale close, and even closer, as successively, potential buyers tendered, not only their checkbooks but their stories.  And the most closely aligned story won!  Though there were several in the running:  The woman who, widowed young, made it on her own with three daughters, one of which with musical inclination.  We are four sisters whose mother was widowed at 42.  There was the young man studying at the New England Conservatory for a Certificate in Composition and his parents would house the Grand Dame at their Cape Cod house, just down the street from my sister’s house.  Synchronicity there.  And then there was the Frenchman, a concert pianist who needed such a piano on which to prepare for his summer concert series. And betwixt and between, the Grand Dame’s piano tuner’s client, a semi-retired lawyer, who like our mother, played all the time.  He had already driven fifty miles several times to play it, and, like our mother, had his own bucket list of compositions he wanted to accomplish before he died.  He was selling his Steinway to have this Mason & Hamlin, and our mother’s piano tuner of 40 years would continue his service to the Grand Dame.  Driven by divine discontent, he reminded me of my mother who, ever curious, ever ludic, would place her diminutive arthritic fingers on the keyboard and start a new piece, or play from ear some jazz, some ragtime, and a rock song or two.

I went to the home of a client in trouble for hoarding, and thus endangering her child.  The abundance I saw held, somewhat obscured at first, both order as well as overwhelming love.  Books, toys, clothing, art supplies, and every paper with a hand drawn doodle piled up, a growing hedge against forgetting even a single kiss.  Every day is a keeper.

I keep the word ‘omphaloskepsis’ written on a piece of paper from a receipt in my main glasses case, housing the fourth iteration lenses for my deteriorating eyesight.  It appeared ten years ago in a Balderdash game and I married it, Las Vegas style, love at first sight.

In a world of mass manufactured things, I recommend Gerard Bertrand’s Cote des Roses wine, in a bottle topped with a glass stopper and standing on an irregularly whorled rose petal bottom.  However reiterative, perfume and flavor and color and design coalesce in perfect harmony.  I sit here with my pale coral wine in a warm air that gently condenses the glass, a momentary lebenskünstler watching the water chuff at the shoreline while the wind chime dances its pentatonic dance and the kayak collects pine needles.  These are vacation things.  And next week work things will welcome me back, the plants thirsty, my dear clients ready to story and re-story.

Guest Saddle:  What are your favorite things?  What things are metaphors for who you are?  What things connect you to others in your favorite circles?  What things are you willing to do without?  Without which things would you feel sad to live without?







Web Camel Transport 49

The Boundary Puzzle

Tuesday, June 27, 2017


We require a behavioral and verbal repertoire to define boundaries because we came from oceanic enmeshment. We humans start our lives as symbiotes and remain pack animals, who crave connection as badly as do our furry friends who, in the absence of their own species (read cats and dogs), will curl up to us for warmth, soothing touch, play and loving affection. Remember Ashley Montagu’s 1971 book, Touching? Our skins, our persons, fail to thrive without bodily connection.

The psychological and self-help literature on boundaries often treats personal and psychological boundaries as analogs for territorial ones, lines in the sand.  But boundaries have vastly more vagueness and movement, and are frequently negotiable.  They do not have exact placements because of the ways in which social, psychological, professional and even global contexts define, and redefine them.  The interpersonal and larger social contexts in which we speak of intrusion, inclusion, extrusion, or codependency and isolation, selects the meanings that calibrate, with great nuance, the boundary crossings that construct or deconstruct us.

Body boundaries:  A woman’s body has housed us. For the invited or intruding indweller, her startup body had all the equipment necessary to provide shelter and sustenance, but quickly scaled up to a highly sophisticated industrial complex, whirring and whizzing, exponentially massing up and sloughing, weaponizing us for combat and cooperation in many arenas of survival: development, individuation, choice making, emotional connection, and social embeddedness.  The walls of this body-house expanded, the supporting beams flexing at their joints, an ocean lapping at its shores, while outside in the neighborhood birds sang, traffic hummed, a relative yelled, televisions dulled their watchers or interrupted their dreams with reiterative sensory blitzes.

And then the first goodbye: a cry, a slap of air opening our lungs, the blood-cord severed.  This first move–the expulsion from indweller to out-dweller–already a shift in worlds, would otherwise destroy us but for the porches, swings, branches and floors of our mother’s body, our second home.  No wonder those of us who grew up in the country loved tree houses so much, the model of our mother’s exterior home for us—the one we climbed, rode, sucked, and upon whose pillows and bones we slept our deepest sleep.

From blood to milk, from cord to mouth, attachment shifts.  Still, a baby’s cry sounds the mother’s alarm; the bald-headed baby’s sleep a maternal sedative, a baby‘s suckling, some relief for her mother.

Men and women, whatever our hue—peach, tan, almond, olive, or mahogany—all swam in a woman’s interior sea, surrounded by the continent of her body, and fed by her bread and wine.  Her blood traveled through our tiny tributaries, her music became the dance of our bones, her hopes and dreams and touch our eyes and skin. But our very essence, an explosion of DNA from two tribes, from two stranger camps, caused each of us, as crisis, to proliferate, cell by cell, synergizing our parents’ differences until they could function as one.  We have it in the very core of our nature to make a family of strangers.  In fact, the idea of purity—of race or ethnicity or family lineage—never works out well.  Inbreeding makes progeny fragile, prone to illness and oddity; even the single trait overbreeding of animals, such as dogs, can cause serious health problems.  Our sturdiness, our very survival, concerns the story of our making family out of strangers.  We are all mutts, and over time will become less distinguishable by feature and hue. Boundaries between strangers in language, ethnicity, and nationality will look more like zippers or ebbing and flowing tide lines than straight ones.

Women’s bodies house babies, as do jungles their wild beings or apartment buildings in East Boston their renters, and all reiterate the fundamental question of ownership between landlord and tenant.  The frequent misalignment, regarding ownership of house and home, and their analogs shows up everywhere, every day: between parents who own the house and their adolescents who claim ownership of their bedrooms and rights to messiness; between landlords who own the apartments and tenants the psychological space, between women and fetuses, between nations and residents, between our planet and the nations that, though squatters, we mythologize as subdividing it.  Even slavery, the owning of one human by another, though legally disallowed in our country, rears its head ubiquitously in the fuzzy ownership rights within marriages and parenting (and step parenting) relationships, as well as between employers and workers regarding human energy and time.

Our experiences of boundary trespasses also presuppose the existence of clear, separate domains of ownership.  With some exceptions, these domains have so many exceptions as to create frequent misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and sometimes felicitous surprises. A kiss, an investigative probe into our past histories in areas of money, taxes, employment, medical and mental health, and the law, may seem invasions of privacy in many instances, but we make exceptions, or exceptions are made by powers greater than our own, for these boundary crossings.  Sometimes these invasions will benefit us, and sometimes cause detrimental actions.

Boundary nuances are more psychological than physical.  When human beings are very young, parents take care of toileting, feeding and cleaning.  And when mom was dying, my sisters and I took care of her toileting and intimate personal care, with love and respect.  Our roles with regard to each other, and the understanding that defines those are far more powerful at creating comfort than whether someone’s hands are on our bodies.  We do not consider pap smears, colonoscopies, or cardiac surgery to be intrusions or abuse because the expertise and role of physicians, and the location of these practices, defines these intimate contacts as helpful and healthy.

Perhaps, paradoxically then, the need for vagueness, even infringement of boundaries enhances survival:  Susan Brown, a new mother, eloquently articulated her view of the way in which women get cultivated into an essential caretaking role with regard to other people’s lives, starting in utero and reinforced continuously after birth.  Like a surgical mesh, the conjunction of a mother’s life with that of her newborn sees the two growing into one another, their fibers of being overlapping and interweaving in a way both inextricable and impossible to articulate.  Susan said about her husband, “He is still who he is with the addition of a baby.  He has a quiet ride to work and can stop for a coffee or get breakfast.  He can get up from his desk and take a break whenever he wants to, can pee when the urge arrives, get a drink, get food, chat with colleagues. My old life is totally gone.  I often have to choose which one of those—eating, drinking or peeing—I will be able to manage after I put the baby in her crib for a minute.  I’ve lost my old freedom entirely.  He’s still living his life, but I’m living her (the baby’s) life.”

Sharon stayed married to Roy—whose body and brain fell apart from his alcoholism—for 30 years.  A “codependent,” she took care of everything—his and her finances, what he ate, when he ate, made his doctor’s appointments, woke him for his part time jobs, when he had them, organized their social calendar, communicated with his extended family, washed his clothes, set them out for him, took their dog to the vet, took him to get his excise tax paid. She was living Roy’s life as well as her own, as if he were still symbiotically attached.  Even after their separation, at long last, she still takes care of some things, fills in some gaps in his limited capacities. She even found him an apartment, still pays his more separate bills online. The leash has lengthened to the extent her guilt will allow.

Mark’s story, an alcoholic–in recovery too late for his wife to endure– reveals the importance of connection, within which our sense of self thrives.  Connections and boundary separators coexist in all relationships, even between warring troops talking across trenches during a truce.  Spouses, parents and children, friends and coworkers interact within a complex, pulsating, expanding and contracting microcosm of intentions, desires, directives, etiquettes and power differentials that formulate and reformulate the minute to minute shapeshifting of boundaries.  We dance with each other.  Come close.  Step apart. Gaze.  Shut our lids. Mark and his wife sold their house.  She took their son to live with her.  “I just want to go home,” he cried, “but there is no home.”  A man without a home, a family; a man freefalling into an undefined, borderless space, utterly disoriented, stared at me across the coffee table, hoping that I might point the way out of the Town of Temporary and the State of Despair.  Completely severed from our connections we are strangers in our own lives.  Strange, estranged, unbound.

Within our own persons we might describe degrees to which we experience connection and boundary divides.  That we play multiple roles in life, that we express different aspects or facets, does not surprise.  Some theorists speak of persons as having parts.  As Philip Bloomberg write, “the mind (is) a configuration of shifting, nonlinear, discontinuous states of consciousness in an ongoing dialectic with the healthy illusion of unitary selfhood.”  When our selves experience conflict—I am on a diet so can’t have dessert; but I want that chocolate cake—we negotiate with ourselves.  If a self occupies an intolerable status within our collective of selves, then that self might get cut off from consciousness, banished to a borderland internment camp where its voice gets silenced most of the time.

Sometimes we drift in and out of each other’s thoughts and dreams and creative foment.  Our inter-mentality gets mobilized when we brain storm or empathize, our mirror neurons firing up their engines.  Together we put pieces of puzzles together, retrace steps, find things, discover or invent new processes, mobilize and coordinate skill sets. The creative fuzziness of our intellectual and creative boundaries—this imperfect but glorious mind-reading and attunement—works often to our benefit.  In the kitchen with my sisters, and with my mother when she was alive, all of us would seamlessly move around and, without any words exchanged, manage to cook a large family meal and bring it to the table, hot and enticing, with exact timing.  And all of the cooking pots and pans cleaned up along the way.

Intentions, even ignorance, often hold sway over the sanctity of boundaries, and this can sometimes make you laugh.  Remember?  While your toddler, utterly enthralled, reads her board books on the kitchen floor, you sneak into the bathroom, silently close the door, and sit on the only throne you’ll ever know.  And then, as if the world has suddenly gone dark, the door barges open.  There’s your two-year old with that beaming face of discovery, relief, and adoration. “I’m here mama!”  Grabbing the toilet paper she pulls at least six feet of it off and hands it to you.  And what does a polite adult say in that situation, but thank you?

And if at the theater with the short intermission, you rush into your stall in the women’s restroom, with the unfortunately broken lock, and another woman pushes the door into your head, while saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ you easily forgive, underpants down at your calves, in mid squat over the dewy toilet rim—previously sprinkled on by the former temporary owner of the two foot square space where the relevance of your noggin seems to be in question.

In a hostage taking situation, a negotiator comes in peace, hands raised to signal no weaponry.  An exception might get made for talking which, yes, offers more nuances than gunfire.

And speaking of talking, of words, those brash culprits, poets, dash across the boundary of the everyday numinous: claw, pry, slip through the wall of dumbness our very existence applies. Words, even piles and piles of them, can but refer to the unutterable coldness of a vernal pool, stepped into as snow still melts, the heart racing dare of it, the uncertainty of its nascent, translucent eggs. Poets plunge head first through thickets of tangled unknowing with flashlights, illuminating the unsaid—the impossible to say—so that our marvelous mirror neurons can fire us up, embroider our surfaces with pleasure, and distract us from the breach.  Words in all of their intriguing combinations, live in neighborhoods on the other side of the tracks from our bodies—breathing and hungry and laughing or dysphoric in an orchestral wonder of grunts, grabs and expulsions of gas.

For us, boundaries protect, confine, clarify, mystify.  We decide when to negotiate them or we flail at the mercy of their violation.  But in other than the human world, migratory birds don’t give a fig through whose air space they fly.  And stars throw indiscriminate fistfuls of light.

Camel Saddle:  What boundaries do you need to feel safe?  How do you tend to react when others breach those boundaries?  Do other people ever complain to you that you’re stepping over a line with them?  What boundaries were clear or vague in your family of origin and do you subscribe to those now? How do you believe we as a nation would do well to treat our borders?


Web Camel Transport 48

Facing Our Beliefs Eye to Eye: Courageous Happiness

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A decade and a half ago concerned parents from New Jersey called me to request that I see their daughter of 20, a student at a college local to my therapy practice.  They were worried about her because she was now dating a man twenty-three years her senior.  Most importantly, they described him as a demonic character exploiting their daughter and threatening to derail her college education.

When a high school student, their daughter Sara had met a local official who was often stationed at the school, giving student workshops and often intervening in student conflicts as well as advising the student body about resources for alcohol and drug abuse. Sara herself had chatted with Ben, but according to her there had not been so much as a hint of any potential future personal relationship while she was still in high school.

After Sara graduated, she was working in a coffee shop Ben frequented and over the next month or two they got to know each other better and began dating.  Sara went off to college as planned but during her vacations and summers off, and with an occasional visit with her while she was in college, the relationship deepened.  Sara’s parents found out about the relationship and demanded to speak with Ben.  Ben agreed to meet with Sara’s parents, but not to stop seeing Sara; not unless Sara wanted to end their relationship.  Sara’s parents consulted with their parish priest, and other close friends, and threatened to remove financial support for Sara’s college education if she refused to stop seeing Ben.

I met with Sara four or five times, and then met with her and Ben.  While I could sympathize with Sara’s parents, because of the vast difference in age and experience between the couple, I also came to know Sara as a strikingly mature person who had no intention of letting her relationship stand in the way of completing her education and pursuing her career goals.  Honestly, she said, she didn’t know whether her relationship with Ben would last, but she did not want to terminate it because of her parents’ irrational condemnation of Ben.  She neither felt exploited nor derailed.  She respected Ben and felt that she had chosen to move forward in exploring this relationship of her own accord.

Even though Sara’s parents initiated contact with me, once Sara became my client, the therapy session confidentiality belonged to her.  I asked her if she would like to invite her parents into our session for a family therapy meeting.  And I also invited her parents to meet with Sara, me and Ben.  Sara’s parents refused all group meetings.

Sara’s parents believed Ben was evil, exploitative, and destructive.  They had taken steps to see that his employment in their small hometown was terminated by accusing him of sexual harassment.  They determined to stick by their story, and keeping Ben, as well as Ben and Sara,  at a distance, they did not have to consider any points of view that competed with their own.  In their story, evil Ben had stolen their daughter and threatened to ruin her life.  As I came to understand Sara, this was her love story.

When we cut people off emotionally, we can continue to demonize them.  Letting ourselves face someone “up close and personal” tends to give the “evil” person a human face.  We all for the possibility of feeling empathy for that person.  Perhaps we might even understand their point of view.  But if we do allow ourselves to truly understand someone else’ point of view what then? It may mean softening our sense of rightness or the superiority of our perspective.  It may even mean giving up our own agenda or now seeing our own story as flawed.

There are certainly circumstances where someone may feel that their own well-being depends upon “divorcing” themselves from a certain relationship—with a significant other, a friend, a parent, a child, and so forth. At the very least, this is a loss of the relationship one hoped to have. It is sad when this seems the only way to get any kind of resolution on problematic relating.  But in the case of Sara’s parents, they did not want to challenge their belief about Ben’s intentions toward their daughter, nor their belief that no one should have a relationship with such a considerable difference in age.  To them, the unusual was tantamount to the unthinkable.

This small example of one family crisis is exemplary of ways in which, by insulating ourselves, by closing all the curtains in our rooms, we can shore up our beliefs and keep a variety of other narratives from shaking us up.  When we feel very comfortable with our beliefs, and with the connections and communities with which we bond around those beliefs, it can feel very frightening to consider other perspectives on the nature of being human, on how we might live together in this world of strangers as well as familiars.

By their very nature, beliefs are often not scientifically evidentiary.  But we consider our experiences in life evidentiary.  The problem is that when I hold to a certain belief, I view my experiences through the lens of that belief, filtering in experiences that buttress my belief rather than contradict or point to exceptions.  This is similar, in its filtering process, to how a pregnant woman sees “so many” other pregnant women.  “Wow, these days there are more than the average number of pregnant women.  They’re everywhere,” she thinks.  Or, you buy a new pair of brand named sneakers and see them as ever more popular than you thought.  If I believe that some group of people are criminal, then every news item that is exemplary seems like more evidence to support my view, whereas other news stories that extol members of this group go unnoticed by me, or relegated to a rarity.  In this way, I bolster my preconception.

Sometimes only a real crisis in my life will produce enough power to make me question a belief.  As an example, though today parents would be far less taken by surprise to find their adolescent children questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, in past generations some parents had to face their fear and rejection of the non-normative in their worldviews or religious contexts.  For parents and their children whose relationships survived such challenges, parents had to reflect upon and rethink their views, their priorities, and their capacities for overarching guiding principles.  If a parent believed homosexuality to be “wrong,” rather than a biological, emotional, social or political opportunity, then love and kindness may have had to become overarching beliefs, as an example.

Beliefs mostly involve taking things on faith.  Faith bonds us to the thoughts we call beliefs because we cannot scientifically prove them.  Beliefs get linked to a sense of rightness in our minds which fosters our adherence to them.  Sometimes we cling to our beliefs as to a life raft and when powerful experiences shake us to the core and cause us to question our long-held beliefs we may feel cut adrift and disoriented.  Occasionally, in my therapy practice, clients question their religious faith when starting a long healing process after the untimely, or unanticipated death of a child.  “How can there be a benevolent God if my child was taken?”

Many people return to their long-held beliefs, after a period of time, during which a fitting narrative develops.  For some, the notion that an afterlife is better than this planetary life helps; or there is the promise of rejoining one’s loved ones.  Or “God has a reason or a plan,” or “only gives you what you can handle.”  Or the death transforms one’s mission in life, in honor of their late child, and to help others in a similar situation come to grips.

The more beliefs get bonded to notions of rightness, the less flexible our thinking; the less able we find ourselves to consider alternate beliefs or perspectives.  This may cause exclusivity behaviors on one hand—we who share the same belief are insiders and others are outsiders—or on the other hand we may take on a missionary role, becoming zealous about persuading others to believe what we believe.  This gets more apparent the more a sense of rightness turns into a sense of truth.  Not only is it right to believe what I believe, but what I believe is the truth, and if you believe something different, then you believe a falsehood. As a self-appointed ‘knower’ of true beliefs, it is my mission to persuade you to the rightness and truth of my beliefs.

From rightness and truth comes ‘the good.’  We are right to believe the truth, and therefore we are good.  Others who believe wrongheadedly, follow falsity and are bad.  At the extreme end of this linked chain of notions—my beliefs are right, true, and good—sits extremism.  Because we get inculcated into many of our beliefs from early childhood, they feel self-evident because our development has been shaped around those beliefs.  They become part of who we are, and the social community with which we identify.  Beliefs—those powerful ideas that inform us over a long time–function as organizing principles for our identities and for the ways in which we relate to other people.  And when we feel we must do something with our extremely polarizing notions, then friction with others–who think, feel, and act according to a different set of beliefs, whether religious, or in terms of political governance, or concerning our interpersonal freedoms and obligations–can amount to battle.

It is everyone’s prerogative to believe whatever thoughts one wants to believe.  However, it does not presuppose that we are entitled to use whatever means we want in order to achieve the outcome of converting others to our beliefs.  The means-to-ends constitute our behaviors and actions in the world—the way we treat others within and beyond our borders.

Like Russian nesting dolls, some beliefs exist within other sets of values, and sometimes those beliefs and values create ambiguity if not extreme ambivalence.  If, for example, one believes in treating all human beings with love and kindness, then that may seem antagonistic to aggressive persuasiveness or a lack of mercy.  Human society is full of laws and etiquette which recognize the need to mitigate our strong emotions and even our powerful beliefs in order that the behavioral expressions of those emotions and beliefs do not threaten chaos.

Some people will willingly die to defend what they believe, and some people will die by the hand of those who believe that their beliefs are preeminent and must be perpetuated, even globalized.  There are many complex situations that a country like the United States faces when contemplating whether, aside from protecting our own borders against hostile attacks, we must protect innocent people in other countries from regimes different from our own, or overthrow those regimes.  It is a question of values and beliefs to define to what extent we have global responsibilities, and what agendas our interventions will support—economic, political, etc.

It is a challenging awakening to expand our circles of awareness such that we might view our own beliefs and values systems within the larger context of multiple belief systems.  And to consider which human beliefs and values have the most universal power to bridge other differences.  Tolerance of others who subscribe to beliefs different from our own comes with understanding that complex social, economic, cultural, and geographic structures embed those beliefs.

Camel Saddle:  What are your top five beliefs?  The ones that guide you in your life and relationships?  How well/poorly do you deal with others who espouse religious, political or social beliefs that are very different from your own?  Are you able to listen and understand?  Do you try to argue others from their positions?  What beliefs have you ever had to question in your own life?  Have you ever pivoted from a deeply entrenched position or belief to another?  And if so, in light of what information, circumstance or outcome were you so inspired?

Web Camel Transport 47

Beginner’s Mind Revisited

Friday, May 12, 2017

Looking back, I chose a beginner’s way with clay when I had multiple small children at home and worked a couple of nights a week.  Unusual for me, because I mostly opt for classes, conferences, instructional books, and informal teachers when I want to learn something new, I decided to let the clay teach me.  Almost every day, sitting at, or standing by the clay table, I discovered the differences in clay’s malleability based on its water content and the temperature in the room.  The clay showed me how thinly or thickly it could bend or support, what details might impress it, and what shapes emerged from my contact with it.  I learned that by extending my hand with ceramic tools I could develop more details in the skin of the clay, giving its texture a more tooled look.  I hand sculpted fan bowls, fountains with figures embedded in them that emerged and submerged, as if from the bedrock of life.  I made free form bowls and urns, and other shapes that had utility or just played.

Lots of things didn’t work:  would tear or break apart completely, collapse or crack, shrink too much, or even explode while firing.  Some pieces simply looked awful or I abandoned.  But in the longer run, I began to acquire some facility which I had not possessed at the beginning of my acquaintance with clays.  Each type had its own personality as well as its optimal expressions as hand built objects.  As a complete novice, I would greet the clay that awaited me in its moist plastic bag with interest and curiosity, never knowing what the process of discovery would yield—a masterpiece in the making or a total disaster, or something in between.  But I recall the way in which, seamlessly, one idea, interacting with the clay, would yield another and another, as if carrying me along on an exciting journey.

During the hours that I moved my hands in clay, I felt refreshed, honed, concentrated, joyful, excited.  The rest of my responsibilities, worries, and schedule receded.  At the end of each session I felt strangely accomplished.  In discovering an aesthetic object “hiding” in a lump of clay, I also discovered and fabricated myself.  It did not matter if anyone else saw or admired these pieces, because the process itself provided so many rewards.

Perhaps those couple of years of clay-making provided me with pure self-indulgence.  Although I sold a few pieces and exhibited a couple of them, I certainly didn’t make the kind of money one would have to make to legitimize such an enterprise.  I did not become either a sculptor or a potter.  But a curiosity and fearlessness when engaging with something new stayed with me.  And a trust in the abilities of all things, living and inorganic, to reveal something about themselves to those who remain open and curious.

In a Psychology Today online article from November 8, 2008, Jay Winner, MD, considers the popular notion of ‘beginner’s mind.’  He writes, “Shoshin (初心) is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning beginner’s mind. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. . .It’s an old Zen term made popular by Shunryu Suzuki. In his book he says, ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.’”

Both my experience, long ago, with clay, and my contemporary experiences, watching my two year old granddaughter explore piano keys and tricycle pedals for the first time, or play outside with a small square bucket of water, extended my thoughts about beginner’s mind.

With a larger bucket of water, Lili played with two differently shaped plastic cups and small rocks that fill my driveway.  Every way in which a cup can turn—upside down, right side up, side angled—and enter water, with and without rocks, and for water to be poured from cup to cup to bucket to step to driveway, and to be recaptured or emptied (“More wahwer Gwama!”) enthralled her for a long time.

Over and over she repeated the variety of obtainable results, with slight alterations in how she manipulated water, cups, bucket, rocks.  More amazingly, she had been sick with a cold and very cranky all morning, but her beginner’s fascination virtually eliminated her symptoms.  Her eyes no longer hurt and her nose stopped running as fluently.

Lili opened my eyes to the realization that, as beginners, we don’t know what we don’t know, which removes a huge barrier to operating on an ambition or problem.  We don’t see failure as an option.  By persisting in our exploration, we often achieve some alternative results to just plain failure.  I realized that the qualities of beginners go way beyond open and engaged awareness.  Novices share an openness to new experience, awakened minds and senses, curiosity, fully operationalized capabilities unhampered by anticipatory worries, an experimental outlook, and potential which is activated.  Beginners are pioneers and discoverers, connecting proactively with interpersonal, natural, material and other environments or contexts.  As beginners, we make connections between ourselves and our world that enjoin us, creating new entities. Beginners are not only open and curious. Beginners act.  Beginners operate on the world, and the connection between actor and that which is acted upon, co-creates new possibilities and new results.

How might we recreate the exciting experiences of beginner’s mind?

Thinking about a baby, whose mind is still pre-verbal, we see the desire to ‘speak’ of an object with hands and mouth.  The first discovery of every baby’s world:  Is it edible?  Babies’ first naming involves discerning in what way an object may be taken into the body.  The stomach?  The eyes, the ears? Babies activate themselves to connect with ‘objects’ in the environment, both people and things, because forming relationships is fundamental to survival.

Around two years old, the intimate pleasure of knowing someone or something, of making it familiar (making it part of the family) announces itself verbally.  ‘This is mama,’ ‘this is an apple,’ this is an owl, hoo, hoo!’  So beginner minds not only possess traits of openness and non-judgment, but are also powerfully potentiated. It is efficient for a mind gathering more and more information about the world to relegate what already has a name to a less active corner of consciousness.

The difficulty for us, later in our lives, if we do not want to sit saturated in boredom, glued to the TV, requires us to re-pleasure or to newly savor the familiar.  Neither the novel nor the familiar are good or bad.  We love both, the coziness of those people and places we know so well, and the stimulation of our senses with fresh vistas and new conversations.

As young children, our curiosity and ambition propelled our lips and tongues to tap or slither along our palettes and little teeth to taste the power of language; of words that bridged our eyes and noses to the rose in the garden, to the ocean, to the orange hat.

Try, now, to say a common word one hundred times.  Watch it dance back into sounds.  Taste it again as music, those consonants and vowels that bonded for the first time when we learned the word.  To see and hear and experience things in their namelessness, to get lost in them and find our way out again. . . that is the dance the child, the poet, the artist does.  To re-experience without presumption.

We are shape makers, translating whatever essences things have into identifiable or stranger sounds, sights, words, concepts.  We make shapes with our mouths, our hands, and our imaginations. As beginners, we do not stand idly by in passivity. The leafing trees flirt with our senses and sensibilities and we flirt back with a refreshed mood, a line for a poem, a desire to share our delight with another person.

Our beginner’s minds are open, activated and operational, at work on the world in a second moment of brilliance.  The first moment of brilliance, like an eye opening, receives the rose, the breeze, the wave, the roar.  In this moment, a relationship is forged.  The essences of a rose or a breeze can never be known as they really are, but we can be with them. Even nonverbal apprehension by sight or scent filters the essence of the as-yet-unnamed rose through our humanness, and more specifically through human embodiment.  Whether we name, define, or classify a rose, or mindfully enliven our senses with its perfume and softness—leaving monkey chatter to its quiet corner in the back of the mind—our bodies—senses, feelings, conceptual minds—have consumed it.  We have eaten and breathed in and touched to our hearts its gifts.  We feel moved, awakened, aware, inspired, refreshed.

A phrase much quoted, by French novelist Marcel Proust, aptly describes this phenomenon of beginner’s mind: “The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.”

As beginners we tend to feel optimistic because we don’t know how much work is involved, we don’t have familiarity with the barriers to success; our expectations and standards may remain high for a while.  New teachers expect a lot of their students and sometimes impact their classes by getting better results.  New therapists bring zest and enthusiasm to their work with clients, young engineers believe their inventiveness can overcome knotty problems.

As we progress from eager and naïve beginnings to greater and greater mastery, we may take some things for granted, seeing with old eyes instead of with new eyes.  But there exist ever new-within-the-old possibilities, which only a master’s eye can detect.  These “new” elements constitute the nuances or variations on a theme that only those who know the theme intimately can detect as slight differences, unexpected outcomes, exceptions to rules, all the delicate filigree that only a master hand or mind can generate.

Camel Saddle:  What are the most refreshing, fresh-eyed experiences you count on when everything seems stale or stressful?  What can you challenge yourself to view from an open perspective, as if for the first time—your significant other?  Your work?  Your surroundings?


Web Camel Transport 46

The Happiness of Association

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Swami Vivekenanda, an Indian Hindu monk who died in 1902, was quoted as saying:

“The rain drop from the sky:

If it is caught in hands, it is pure enough for drinking.

If it falls in a gutter, its value drops so much that it can’t be used even for washing the feet.

If it falls on hot surface, it perishes.

If it falls on lotus leaf, it shines like a pearl and finally, if it falls on oyster, it becomes a pearl. The drop is same, but its existence & worth depend on with whom it associates.

Always be associated with people who are good at heart.”

Our associations bring us up close and personal to other beings—people and animals as well as manufactured and natural environments where qualities of architecture, air, water, noise, light, spatial dimension, and so on, converge.  We will never be alive in a vacuum, so we cannot be completely impervious to our surroundings, although great variability exists in how much we absorb or how sensitively we experience the interpersonal and environmental elements around us.

As in the above quote, different associations co-construct the use or meaning of a rain drop.  The rain drop has no absolute, inherent meaning or function.  As the rain drop associates with its interactive environmental partners, meaning and function unfold as an expression of the association.  How we behave, think and feel as people, often takes on characteristics in response to those with whom we associate.

My litmus paper test for a great relationship results in liking the “me that I am with you.”  In other terms, we tend to like people who we feel bring out the best in us, whether in the workplace, in our neighborhoods, in our couples or with our friends.  We tend not to enjoy hanging out with others when we feel less than our best—when our argumentative or cranky or judgmental facets come to the foreground.  If I enjoy feeling smart or funny or feisty or understanding or helpful or curious about others, or admiring of others, then I enjoy interacting with those people who co-create those personal experiences for me.

Intuitively, parents feel clear about this and often, to the disgruntlement of their adolescents, forbid their children to hang out with peers whom they see as troublemakers or “bad influences.” What a teenage boy might elect to do, as an associate of his parents, might differ dramatically when he immerses himself in a group that enjoys playing pranks, sometimes just this side, or the other side of legal.

Although there are differing theories of “crowd” or “herd” mentality, some common elements include the submergence of individual identity into the shared identity of the group.  The contagiousness of the energy in the group, like being born out to sea by a series of powerful waves, moves us along and may, temporarily influence us to behave in ways we might not, were we to have reflected on our own.  Over the years I have seen many young people who would never have thought of bashing their neighbors’ mailboxes had they not been with a group of their friends in a speeding van, awash in beer and laughter.  It is very difficult to distinguish oneself from a powerful encompassing influence.  Our desires to be insiders rather than outsiders, to belong, and to feel accepted, also contribute to going with the crowd.

Gangs also represent powerful groups with whom a person might associate, generating a sense of identity as part of an entity greater than oneself, and therefore more powerful, and perhaps more successful materially or in terms of a status to which one can aspire.  Like a fraternity one does not have to live in isolation.  One can feel known, can belong, feel accepted, and there’s a context for aspiration to unfold.  As many have written, the downsides to gang membership—violence and early death, drug dependence, a lack of real traction in the greater society, etc.—make it a mostly dysfunctional alternative to more positive associations.  Having said that, family dissolution, poverty, lacks in education and opportunity as well as few positive role models and mentors can make any positive associations out of reach if not non-existent for some youth.

In two powerful novels, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and King Rat, by William Clavell, individuals in a context dissimilar to the one in which they were raised, take on status, motivation and behavior that would not have shown up otherwise.  In the first instance, British boys on a deserted island form their own society to maintain some order and to work together.  Increasingly, chaos takes over with violence, superstition, and murder.  In King Rat, an American corporal and prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp in Singapore during World War II, takes on a powerful status within the camp that he never had nor would have had in his civilian world.

The positive power of associations, on the other hand, gets expressed in cohesive sports teams and work groups who accomplish things well beyond what would have resulted from isolated individuals working independently.  Often a pep talk precedes a game or an inspirational speaker jazzes a sales force to aspire to new heights.  This energy offers a positive contagion and spreads throughout the group.

Historically, agricultural work groups often sang songs together to unify their repetitive processes, as well as to lighten the load of such exhausting work.  Collective singing alleviates isolation and monotony.  The cohesive group focuses on the pleasure and meaning of the songs. Rhythmic chants or songs on vessels also kept rowing crews together.  Their synchronization propelled the boat along.  Today coxswains provide a similar unifying, pacing count.

Associations—singing groups, exercise classes, writing groups, brainstorming cohorts, etc.—also put wind in our sails.  We get a boost from our compatriots and harness their energies to our own.  The synergy helps us when our personal energy would otherwise drop.  We go one more step, produce another page, or try once again to get the harmony just right.

Environments too have associative components.  In a theatre or chapel we keep quiet.  At a nightclub we dance up a storm and yell to our friends over loud music.  In a classroom we respectfully wait our turn to speak.  Where we go and where we live often begin to fit us like old clothes.  Whether a tent in the trees or a mansion, when we live or work someplace long enough, we might develop a real fondness for the place that houses us, or houses our efforts.

April is National poetry month, and I was so struck by this gem of a poem by C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933).  I will quote the whole introduction to the poem from poem-a-day, sent via the internet from Knopf:

“Daniel Mendelsohn writes in his introduction to Complete Poems, by C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), that he lived in a seemingly dull and ordinary fashion: “The cluttered, déclassé surroundings, the absence of aesthetic distinction, the startlingly conventional, to say nothing of middlebrow, taste: Cavafy’s apartment, like his job, gave little outward sign of the presence of a great artistic mind—the place from which the poetry really came.”

In the Same Space

House, coffeehouses, neighborhood: setting
that I see and where I walk; year after year.

I crafted you amid joy and amid sorrows:
out of so much that happened, out of so many things.

And you’ve been wholly remade into feeling; for me.

Cavafy’s feeling-infused surroundings reminded me of the year I lived in a small yellow, and yellowing room, in the eaves of the farmhouse on Mica Farm.  Sun had bleached most of the wall paper but for brownish stains where leaks from an old roof had toyed with it.  Some old wicker furniture—a chair, a stool—had cracked, flaking off some of the white paint.  The bed sagged and creaked, the mattress literally desiccating into dust.  From the windows under the eaves a vast expanse of meadow to a woods in back, and across the horse pasture in front, apples trees and then the road.  We had only planned on staying for two months, at the most, while waiting for the all-important certificate of occupancy so that we could move into the new home we were building. I cried when we left.  The shabby room with its wide planked pine floors had somehow entered my heart, and its quiet perch over the spread of land under it, nested me gently and I had come to sleep well there.  I realized that almost any place can come to feel like home, even a single room.

An association is an energetic whole that contextualizes its component parts, the size and the power of which varies a great deal.  Associations can have materiality—families, workplaces, neighborhoods, places of worship, recreational groups, teams, and so forth.  But we can also associate virtually and psychologically, with particular systems of religious or political doctrines or social, cultural and tribal beliefs.  The complicated part is that each component is both modified by and modifies the other constituents in a way that can only be understood as creating a unique phenomenon or system with its own functioning, traits and energetic output.  This cannot be dissembled as a summation.  The adage, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” captures this idea.

Marsha Linehan, the master mind behind Dialectical Behavior Therapy, developed a unified set of concepts to help people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.  Highly sensitive persons who respond and react intensely to emotions might experience “dysregulation”—a difficulty calming and soothing amplified affective states.  DBT promotes integrative notions like “rational mind” and “emotional mind” coming together in an overlap called “wise mind.”  Informed by both feeling and thought, it is possible to accept what happens in life, as well as the consequent feelings that arise from those situations, but to lightly free oneself up from being ruled by those feelings.  The philosophical term “dialectical” generally describes the possibility of a new result, concept, or understanding, arising from opposing, or seemingly opposing points of view.  Sometimes known as ‘thesis’ and ‘antithesis,’ these polarities in thought, cause creative friction when opposed, often generating unique possibilities and outcomes.  In the Hegelian notion of dialectic things are seen as contradictions.  Other terms that describe a dialectic are proposition and counter-proposition.

In DBT, one dialectical notion concerns the idea of “radical acceptance” of oneself as one is, of one’s emotions, and the slings and arrows of life, while, at the same time, “changing” one’s behavior and approach toward these.  On the surface, if one accepts oneself, how would the need to change arise from that?  The dialectical tension between these two creates opportunities to hold oneself in high regard while continuing to embrace greater empowerment (over the emotional and behavioral outputs generated in the context of disappointing, hurtful, or otherwise upsetting events or interactions).

Even our words live within matrices of association, and often breathtaking poetic images and metaphors wake up our consciousness to new experiences by taking words from different matrices and juxtaposing them. I was remembering the book, The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler which talked about matrices of association.  Take a word like “shade,” in a poem called ‘From Blossoms’ by Li-Young Lee.  ‘Shade’ lives in a matrix of associations like light and dark, perhaps trees and foliage, clouds, etc.  But in the poem Lee offers us a delicious rendition of eating peaches (“peaches” from a matrix of associations having to do with fruit, etc. and ‘eating’ has its own set of associations):  “O, to take what we love inside, to carry within us an orchard, to eat not only the skin, but the shade. . .”

To eat the shade of the day.  How extraordinary, novel, uplifting, expansive.   To carry an orchard within us.  We can feel our imaginations soar as we take in the sense, the meaning, the connections we haven’t made previously in our lives.

James Joyce wrote sometimes in a “stream of consciousness,” where thoughts tumble out as idiosyncratic associated contents.  “Thought is the thought of a thought.” (Chapter 2, Ulysses).  Journal writing, and even the mental chatter that goes on in our heads most of the time have repeat concerns and themes but also ramble on in paths, however circuitous, that describe our associative capacities.

As we go through life, we have ever greater numbers of experiences that reinforce or modify our thoughts, opinions, impressions and feelings about many things.  You could say that our previous thoughts and experiences get enriched or altered by succeeding contexts of experience which, like concentric circles, redefine the contents at their centers.

Just like our literal associations with other people can grow, forming more vast and complex networks (we all know about the value of networking professionally/occupationally) so can our intellectual and emotional associations grow and mature.  Creative solutions to life problems as well as to challenges in engineering, science, and the arts, often come from cross-fertilization.  Cross-fertilization is identical to the notion of previously dissociated matrices of words or thoughts, now coming together to create something entirely new.

Our associations can happily inspire us, buoy our energy, drive and determination; can contribute to a whole greater than we can build on our own, and also prompt us to rethink and re-examine our thoughts and feelings.  On the downside we can get carried along on a negative stream of thought, belief, and action.  When that occurs, changing our associations can help us advance new perspectives and develop ourselves in more positive ways.

Camel Saddle:  Who do you count among your closest associates and why?  In whose company do you feel like your best self?  What beliefs do you hold dear?  What beliefs might you question in light of new experiences and newly associated people, ideas and feelings?  In what groups or communities do you experience the most synergy?