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?

Web Camel 45

It RRRReally Works: The Layer Cake of Communication

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Even if we became the most articulate, classiest speakers ever, it would not totally solve the problem of “poor” or unproductive communication between any two people—a couple, a boss and employee, two friends, a parent and child.

Communication is behavior, but more like a layer cake of behavioral outputs that rivals the complexity of an orchestral composition.  We have the powers to conceal or reveal, to exaggerate or trivialize, to assign meaning selectively, and to spin.  We can also manipulate, persuade, leverage, blackmail, threaten, or even brainwash.  We are always “selling” our story, even when we are selling the real, organic, true story.  Even when we aim for honesty, transparency and disclosure as operating principles for our own lives, we cannot help but interpret what happens in our worlds through our own subjective lenses.  People who have an extraordinary ability to empathize can entertain multiple stories as interpretive options, even when different from their own.

We utilize these verbal strategies or storytelling modes to advance the outcomes we hope to attain as well as to avoid unwanted outcomes.  For example, John doesn’t tell his wife, Sally, that he has another out-of-town conference because he wants to avoid her anger—at the demands of his job, at the lack of John’s assertiveness with his boss, and because of the stress of dealing with their three small children alone after a full day of work for her.  John is a good man, a hard worker, and loves his wife and children.  He already feels upset about his sheepishness in standing up for himself with his boss, and so, in subtle and not so subtle ways, he attempts, perhaps unconsciously, to manipulate his wife’s emotional output because when Sally gets angry and frustrated, that really upsets John.  Sally too is good at minimizing the breast tumor with which she was diagnosed so that her mother of 80 wouldn’t worry too much.  It is operable, treatable, with a high probability of an actual cure, but she has no guarantee.

When we speak with other people we express ourselves from our own point of view because we are the protagonists on our life’s stage.  Whether in conflict with anothers interest or assisting them in their aims, we have the tough job, when communicating well, of trying to understand and articulate our own wants, needs and opinions while, hand in hand, we also understand the wants, needs and opinions of the other party.

In addition, as in the example of John and Sally, our personal narratives and our history of emotional experiences greatly influence what we choose to communicate as well as how we communicate.  In large part, effective communication involves the co-creation of mutually beneficial outcomes and positive emotional experiences or experiences which uplift, educate or enlighten, even when painful.  Unproductive communication may include using others as targets for our unleashed anger, frustration, resentment or other stress; hurting another person’s feelings to get revenge for perceived affronts, or to temporarily make ourselves feel victimized, elevated or to simply let off steam. So an important layer of communication emphasizes its function as a complex expression of information, values, feelings, opinions, aims, and both cultural and personal narratives—the core stories of our lives.

On the surface, communication contains musical and choreographic elements in addition to words, like volume, inflection, speed, accompanying bodily gestures and facial expressions as well as amount of eye contact, and spatial proximity between conversants. The environment also plays a role in which dyadic communication takes place—a doctor’s treatment room, an office, a living room, a mountain top, a crowded public place, etc. The defined roles of each participant in a discussion (doctor-patient, lovers, friends, parent and child, boss and employee) establish the relevant conversation etiquette, as well as the fund of allowable topics.  Since etiquette and socially appropriate topics may vary across cultures, inter-cultural communication may require some additional education and sensitivity to avoid conferring offenses where none were intended.

A lot of available material on communication offers strategies for effective communication, as well as cautioning us on deleterious exchanges.  John Gottman, a psychologist who has studied couple’s communication for decades can reliably predict a couple’s demise based on some core premises:  that couples must have a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative exchanges as well as the ability to communication without the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”   He defines these as criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

“Criticizing” attacks or puts down the person with whom we are speaking.  In my office, I often see criticizing as the result of power struggles in which people get locked into a paradigm where someone needs to win at the other’s expense, or when someone must be right and the other wrong.  This black-and-white mentality can blind us to an alternative paradigm in which multiple perspectives can offer enriched understandings or interpretations of a situation.

“Contempt” or derision constitutes a form of attack on anothers self or character by name-calling or other insulting language as well as gestures and facial expressions like eye-rolling or derisive laughter.  Belittling, humiliating, shaming, and character assassinating come under this heading.

“Defensiveness” in my opinion, stands as the most prominent barrier to productive communication.  I believe we humans come into the world hardwired to protect ourselves from perceived physical and emotional attacks. It requires hard work to master the art of non-defensiveness;  to remain open minded and curious about what someone else thinks (particularly about us) without gearing up for battle. Defensiveness can appear as cross-complaining (turning the tables, as in, “but you always leave the lights on upstairs.”) or making excuses or attacking back or disagreeing without trying to see the other person’s point of view.

Gottman’s last “horseman” is “stonewalling,” the cold shoulder, walking out and slamming the door, the silent treatment, disconnecting emotionally.

Because communication is a form of behavior with verbal and non-verbal constructs, the “four horsemen” exemplify the kind of behavior we call “acting out.”

On the surface level of discourse, the acronym, RRRR, may help to prompt generally productive, effective communication:  Receive, Repeat, Reflect, Respond.

Receiving communications from others with full attention, openness and curiosity is a prerequisite for good communication.  Without listening well—focused on the speaker rather than on what one wants to say—one simply can’t respond well.  Defensiveness can prevent us from being good listeners:  We are so primed to feel attacked that we are already preparing our firing squad before fully comprehending what is being said to us.  But we can practice listening better by adjusting our bodies—releasing tight shoulders, breathing more deeply, slowing down our processing speed, giving ourselves permission to take the time we need to respond so that we can use our post-listening time for building our responses.

Repeat back, in some fashion, what has been said to you.  When we reiterate what we understood, you satisfy your conversational partner’s desire to feel heard and understood.  I believe that the desire to feel understood is one of our fundamental interpersonal desires.  Whether or not someone agrees with us, when we have an experience of feeling understood or sympathized with, then the wheel is greased for us to reciprocate.  Sometimes “repeating back” is referred to as part of an “active listening” process.  In this process repeating back may require additional questions of the initial speaker, not to advance one’s own agenda, but to simply clarify or unpack the initial speaker’s point.

Reflect:  Absorbing what someone says, openly and with full attention, and validating your understanding of their communication, is best followed with a moment of reflection.  During this time, we process and digest our understanding and compose what we think, feel, and ultimately want to say in response.  Responses are different than reactions, because reactions often emerge half-cocked, ill composed, and lacking in attunement. Gottman’s four horsemen are sub-species of reactive communication.  When we reflect, we allow our brains/minds to link our feelings and thoughts and values productively.  When we speak, from a rootedness in our integrity, the result is often the best possible, particularly in a trying conflict or other situation.

Respond to the other speaker, even if you disagree, with the best you can offer.  If you have taken the time to reflect, your best may include your values of kindness and consideration, of allowing the other person’s concerns to influence you, of dignifying their communication with respect, and of putting forward your own thoughts and feelings with sincerity and clarity regardless of the outcome.

For myself, I often affirm that I will communicate/act to the best of my ability and remain open to all outcomes.  Because we cannot control all outcomes, trying to manipulate them underhandedly often backfires—we lose credibility and the trust of others—and undermine the possibility of effective communication down the road. On the microcosmic scale of our own interpersonal conversations as well as on the macrocosmic scale of political and media communications the same principles hold.  If we learn that we cannot trust or believe in what someone says, or they are neither transparent nor forthcoming, then we continue to feel stressed and unsettled.

As one of my clients often says, “What we say and what we do is who we are, and who we are, we are forever.” I’d like to give us a bit of legroom, as masterpieces in the making, to continue to master the art of non-defensive, impactful and productive communication.

Camel Saddle:  How does insecurity or defensiveness tend to skew your communications to others?  Do you avoid, minimize, speak in vague terms, or attack?  What aspect of your communication do you seek to improve? What do you want your communications to others to reflect about you—honesty?  Clarity?  Directness?  Consideration for others’ opinions? Etc.

 

Web Camel Transport 44

In Praise of Fear

Friday April 7, 2017

We tend to give fear a bad rap.  People committed to mindfulness or spirituality often tell me how angry they feel at themselves, or guilty, when they experience fear.  But fear, perhaps our most primitive programming, alerts us to perceived danger.  At the DNA level, the cellular level, and the conscious level, survival motivates us most prominently.

Fear, a powerfully intense emotion, both expresses and reveals to us a potentially life threatening situation to which we require the appropriate orientation—one of alertness, attunement to environmental cues, and readiness for action.  Everything else recedes in those heightened moments of fear when all of our energies unite and deploy us into fight, flight, or freeze mode.

For most of us living in the Western world comes the luxury of pursuing a satisfying life beyond the basic attainment of survival, food and shelter (which makes the poverty of some in a rich country all the sadder).

We want not only to subsist, but to live life to its fullest, and to that end we imbue our families, our other relationships, our work, and our situation in the world at large with meaning.  We crave a sense of purpose, and hope to make some helpful footprint in the vast and unfathomable expanse of time and ancestry.  Just as our aspirations supersede survival, so does the potential for fear accompany us along the way.  We fear not just the loss of a food supply, but the potential of losing out on a plum job to the competition. We fear a fall in social status, not being picked for the team, getting less than an A or B on a paper in school.  We fear social humiliation, rejection, or that our contribution will not be good enough, or that we will not be attractive enough or measure up or get ahead.

The desire for a full and rich life, as an elaboration of the instinct to survive, comes with its counterpart, a more elaborate set of attendant fears.  Want and worry go hand in hand.  Worry, anxiety and fear we generally experience as uncomfortable, but, like excited motivation, these feelings activate us and often play a key role in helping us to succeed when they don’t rise to an overwhelming level of complete distraction or paralysis.

Fear isn’t really our problem.  It’s how we cope with fear and what we do after fear has warned us of possible impending doom that can undermine us.  To start with, a negative narrative about fear, as if it has no right to a presence, presupposes a largely incorrect assumption that we humans can and should only feel “positive emotions;” that somehow “fear is bad;” and that if we feel fear then we must be less evolved than our more mature and spiritually developed counterparts.

We might turn this around by respecting fear, ours and others’.  Fear is by its nature a measure of challenge.  Some of us measure risk or challenge more accurately than others.  For some people, fear amplifies or overstates the level of risk or challenge.  On the other hand, for some people–say someone cavalierly using a circular power saw without protective eye wear or gloves, or someone whose doctor says COPD or lung cancer is immanent if they keep smoking–fear underperforms in its alert messaging.

If we can imagine our fear like a protective and loyal dog who barks at a stranger or strange circumstance, this may help us to identify fear as an ally, albeit a sometimes overzealous one.

In Cognitive Behavior Therapy, there’s an intervention in which we identify our “irrational” fears.  I object to the use of “irrational,” because no one has ever told me about a fear that has no logic to it.  It is possible for a plane to fall from a sky.  It is possible one’s symptoms could be cancer.  It is possible you will fail to get the job.  It is possible you’ll get romantically rejected.  It is possible you could drop your baby.  It is possible someone followed you in the store. But when fear feels strong—adrenaline rushing, muscles tense, shoulders hugging the ears, breathing shallow, etc.—then fear overstates the case.  Intense fear makes the possible seem probable.  Possibilities are definitely not probabilities.

Intervening with ourselves by learning to calibrate our fear can help us respond to stressful situations less intensely.  We only want to use the most efficient amount of emotional  fuel to deal with the situation.

What often amplifies fear has to do with our long held narratives about our lacks—of competence or fortitude or fitness or approval rating. With fear’s volume turned up, thinking through problems gets more difficult, or even taking one step forward can seem insurmountable.  We may even tuck the overdue bill at the bottom of the pile of papers to avoid facing it.  Similarly, people whose anger flares hot, provoked by even the smallest of inconveniences, may have to work hard to recalibrate.

One client, Bill, a young man in his mid-twenties, finished a certificate program, got a job in his field and moved into a studio apartment of his own.  Shortly after that he had a fender bender which, even with doing part of the fixing on his own, required the loan of a car from his father for a week and a hundred dollars from his mother.  Having been the subject of parental criticism in the past as well as currently, Bill barraged himself with negating comments: “I’m a failure;” “No one in my family has any respect for me.  I’m just a f-up to them;” “I’ll never get anywhere at this rate.” These thoughts came with a deep depression and suicidal ideation. While I sympathized with Bill’s current misfortune, I noticed his black-and-white thinking.  Bill’s narrative turned an undoubtedly stressful situation into a complete catastrophe, and because he had driven the car and gotten into an accident he saw himself, as not only the cause of this accident, but a worthless human being.

I asked Bill to take a deep breath, to bear with me, and to let me know what he honestly felt were his accomplishments of the last two years.  When he had finished telling me his exemplary list, I asked whether he had noticed the black-and-white thinking that had erased from his mind all these great things, and made it seem like he’d done nothing deserving of praise.

I asked Bill whether it might feel useful to him, to ask himself, “What is the gray here?” when he found himself spiraling down.  When we next met several weeks later, Bill seemed quite a bit cheerier.  His vehicle was fixed, even though it needed more work—which would cost more money on his starter wage—but he said he had been asking himself about the “gray,” and realized that even though he didn’t have a brand new free car, at least he didn’t have an undriveable one. The gray wasn’t all that bad since in a few weeks he would be paying back the loan to his mother.  He had also spent time with a friend who thought it was pretty “sick” that he had his own pad and a great full time job in his field.

Recalibration may involve developing the facility to note when a small present situation triggers a larger response to a past problem.  Fear or anger revs up in the moment, just in case what happened in the past stands a chance of recurring—the present partner will also leave us, the boss will call us in to let us know our job has been eliminated, the phone call will produce horrific news, etc. For people who have been unfortunately traumatized in the past, “triggering” may happen frequently.  Anything—a sound, a sight, a smell, an interaction—can all cause triggering.  At times, trauma makes it particularly difficult to distinguish present stressors from past ones in the moment something is taking place.

Intense fear prepares us for worst case scenarios and often overpowers our ability to stay fully present and engaged in the now.  Our heightened response, like road rage, an expression of the influence of older narratives playing out in our minds, as well as our general level of stress.

Of course, our brilliant imaginations consider multiple case scenarios so that none will take us unawares. This is a gift.  But remembering that past and present can collide emotionally may help us to ramp down overblown fear responses to present situations that don’t warrant them.

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a creation of Marsha Linehan’s for working with people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, “dysregulated” emotional output can respond to the use of DBT skills—journaling, changing the scenery, listening to music, soothing self-talk, etc. When practiced over time, these strategies gain utility.

Mediating the emotional output of fear with powerful, and often short (and short-circuiting), thought-input helps, as a kind of re-storying about ourselves (our character within our story).  As an example, when fearful ask yourself: “How would a calm and wise person act in this situation?”  When angry, ask yourself: “What would a patient and wise person do in this situation?”  Similar questions help in two ways.  First, by slowing down our experience so emotions don’t get on a runaway train.  And secondly, by maneuvering us toward a reservoir of conscious resources and past situations that would be helpful in the current situation.

Once we have stepped over the threshold of fear to engage ourselves in the venture ahead—tying a tourniquet to save someone’s life, taking the test, acting our character’s part onstage, parachuting from the aircraft, getting married, going to another country alone, learning something new and difficult—our engagement in the process, our supremely focused attention, allows fear to recede into the background.

 

“I have learned that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear.”  Rosa Parks

It would be remiss not to say that emotions, and particularly fear, are infectious.  In a crowd of scared people, we feel scared.  The definition of emotion is movement outward.  The energy of fear can grab us by the neck, squeeze the air from our lungs, and cause our hearts to thump loudly and fast like a drum beat loud enough to alert everyone around us.  Because fear is so primal an emotion, and because it flags things that matter to us, we can easily get manipulated to do things, say things, or behave in ways that would otherwise surprise us.              While I, in no uncertain terms, do not want to turn this psychological article into one about politics, it seems noteworthy from a therapist’s office, how many clients feel fear about things that matter to them and their families through the lens of the collective bigger picture—will their jobs remain secure, will they have health care, will their children get a quality public school education, will there be arts experiences for their children who paint, play the violin, or dance.  Will one’s sexual orientation or gender, or ethnicity, or country of origin, undermine their rights in this great nation.  Will the air remain clean for the baby on the way, and for that baby’s baby born sometime ahead?

We fear things, both close to the chest and at large, that seem threatening to our healthy lives and livelihoods, to our safety and security and to that of our children. Our vulnerability around fear leaves us open to manipulation, thought insertion, and fear mongering.  Mediating fears that go beyond our individual and family lives, fears that concern more collective concerns, often require us to seek the comfort of others and the inspiration of those who can help us see potentials beyond the provocations of our fear and inspire us with the power of collective voicing and collective actions.  Whether for our own lives or for the lives of those around us, taking action on something we hold dear, turns down the volume of our fear.  Only if we experience helplessness and hopelessness will fear have unfettered reign.

If you play a role as a parent, a boss, or another authority figure, it may be beneficial to remember that scaring someone into something—dominating their behavior by cultivating their fear—does not have as much power, in the long run, as helping others to use their own powers of thought, reflection and compassion as cultivators of productive behavior, at home, in school, in the workplace, and in society.

Camel Saddle:  What worthy challenge scares you the most?  What are your tendencies in terms of coping with this fear?  Do you avoid, procrastinate, get angry, self-condemn, feel depressed, get distracted?  On what exceptional occasions have you faced or conquered this fear?  What encourages you the most?  What is some useful self-talk to get you up close and personal with what you most want and most fear?

In the movie, ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ Benjamin Mee says, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

 

 

Web Camel Transport 43

Yes Happiness

Wednesday March 15, 2017

“yes is a world     and in this world     skillfully curled    live all worlds.” ee cummings

A favorite little phrase, and packed with meaning, cummings’ stanza expresses the stamina of yeses to open doors of possibility.  When we say “yes” to meetings, adventures, trying our hands or our minds at something that scares us, then wondrous vistas and opportunities as well as creative expression await our arrival through those doors of YES.

When we say “yes” to something that might thrill us but also produce anxiety, we will have gone through an emotional maze of reasons why we might want to avoid such a challenge, or bar ourselves from the attendant risks involved.  But finally, perhaps with trepidation taking the backseat to curiosity or ambition, we take the leap of faith.  We say, “yes!”  Most great human ventures come with risk.  The oft stirred cold feet of betrotheds, standing at the threshold of their marital life together, as an example.  Or the wary investor about to press “buy” on these promising mutual funds.  Or, the shy actor auditioning for his largest role yet.  Or the quiet employee seeking fairer compensation for her diligence and brilliance.  Or the person scared of heights facing the rock wall finally.

When we have wrestled with all of the “no’s,” and “yes” has claimed the victory, then we decided on “yes.”  We align ourselves with “yes,” and that “yes” represents our best self, pushing the envelopes in which we have wrapped our dreams and aspirations, our hopes and our curiosity.  This is a decidedly different kind of “yes” than the yes of our people-pleasing selves.

Some yeses, when they issue from a place of people-pleasing, happen on autopilot, reflexively, reactively.  They have nothing in common with victorious yeses which are proactive, and often hard won.  To have a good “yes,” one must have a good “no.”  If “yes” exists as the only one of those two words in our vocabulary, then yeses, habitual yeses, can take over our lives and dominate our efforts and how we spend our time.

Except in rare circumstances, even if you are one of those people for whom serving others constitutes your main purpose, no one needs to service others at the expense of oneself.  When serving others—saying “yes” to others—on a routine basis means depleting your personal resources of time, energy, emotional and physical well being, then saying “yes” has turned into a bad habit.  The consequent and inevitable anger, resentment, and feelings of deprivation that yes-people experience illustrate a misalignment in relating to oneself.  If you find yourself too busy, too fatigued, too stressed, or too harried or overworked to do everything you need for your self-care and well being then your life raft looks like NO!!!  “No” to others when “yes” to yourself has a dignified place in your embrace.

One young woman, Sally, said she felt angry at herself for being such a people pleaser who put herself last.  “I’m not cheap about spending money on others for gifts when I want to show them my love and appreciation.  But I find every excuse not to buy something for myself.”

She had recently started a boot camp class and needed exercise clothing.  Yet, “I made every excuse for why I should save the money instead.”  Sally had a talent for evaluating the benefits of purchases and I certainly didn’t want to discourage such useful reflections.  But at the same time, she acknowledged that she placed great value on her health.  Appropriate exercise clothing was part and parcel of accomplishing that goal rather than a frivolous purchase.

Often, virgins at giving a “no” to others, require a concrete reason to say “yes” to themselves.  It is far easier to protect one’s time, energy and quality of life if you have something you really want to do, like Sally’s wanting to take the exercise class.  Another client, who thanklessly, both at work and with her elderly parents, spent all of her time and energy, found it nearly impossible to set any boundaries on her altruistic output until she wanted to take a class in psychology, something she had wanted to study for years.  Between class attendance, studying, and homework, she finally found herself capable of guarding her own resources of time, energy, and emotional output.  She had a reason to say “no” to others.

But shouldn’t our rest, our peace of mind, our freedom to be spontaneous or to relax be reasons enough?  It may take some time to work up to embracing those more abstract notions of wellbeing.  But people-pleasers have to start somewhere, and it often begins with simply slowing down the automatic process of saying “yes,” and instead, going through a decision making process.

Because Sally had the ability to think through the issue of the exercising clothing, she saw that this purchase would manifest an investment in her health. She felt able to tolerate the discomfort of making these purchases for herself. Sally and I discussed the often misunderstood notion of selfishness among people-pleasers.  People-pleasers tend to associate anything they want or do for themselves as selfish.

In my view truly selfish people almost always put themselves first, even going so far as to discount or diminish the needs and wants of loved ones as well as failing to consider whether or not higher order principles or values might prevail.  Extremely selfish people have taught themselves not to care too much about the impact of their selfishness on others.  Sometimes, in the background of such a person, deprivation—of love, of attention, of care, of things—shaped experience, and the prevailing narrative of the world took on a dog-eat-dog theme.

Some selfish people function like battering rams.  Battering rams prove difficult to deal with, particularly for people pleasers who, eventually, might find themselves at the very limits of their envelopes to keep saying “yes” to a person who constantly exploits their kindness and generosity.  Even people with the ability to say “yes” and “no” find battering rams difficult, since the need to constantly apply boundaries gets inconvenient if not exhausting after a while.  People who, sadly, ask too much of others, eventually find doors closing in their faces, subjecting them to feelings of rejection and abandonment, without realizing how they have co-created the problem.

Taking a healthy and buoyant interest in oneself I call self-interest.  I encouraged Sally, and encourage those like her in that respect, to revel in healthy self-interest.  To be interesting to oneself in all of one’s possible expressions exercises one’s fullest capacity to live wholly and well. Sometimes it proves difficult to balance one’s self-interest with caring about the interests of others, but keeping that question alive fosters emotional freedom and decision-making capacity.

Someone who shares and also listens well, who gives to others but receives from others with enjoyment and appreciation, who gladly does service to and for others but does not shy away from asking for favors on occasion, models sterling emotional freedom.

Compassion fatigue is the professional equivalent of what many people experience on a daily or weekly basis in their personal lives—an overextension of one’s servicing of others’ needs and wants to the detriment of oneself.  Sequelae often include feeling drained, exhausted, wiped out, resentful, exploited, trapped and frustrated.

To deeply want what one wants, but to be able to take into consideration the impact of those wants on others and on the planet, and to make decisions on the basis of that, as well as on one’s highest principles, results in the best possible yeses and the best possible no’s.

Camel Saddle:  Are you a person who tends to say “yes” out of habit?  If you were to think more carefully about your yeses, would you revise any of them?  Or, do you say “no” with an equal lack of careful thought?  How would you like to recalibrate your yeses and no’s to be more fully aligned with the ways you want to show up in your life for yourself and for others?

 

 

Web Camel Transport 42

Settling for Happiness

March 11, 2017

“Love is the affinity which links and draws together the elements of the world…

Love, in fact, is the agent of universal synthesis.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955)
French philosopher and priest

Love does make bridges and link people.  Love allows us to embrace “otherness.”  But continuing to love another person the way we loved them at the beginning of our relationship does not happen as Hollywood fantasies would suggest.

When we fall in love, we often fall dramatically; we experience a euphoric sense of connection and attraction to another human being and dance together to create a bond of mutual interest and eventually attachment.  Over time, a relationship–like everything else that lives–develops and matures.  The heightened and intimate revelations of the courtship phase may give way to other kinds of closeness that feel comfortable and nest-like.  And with ongoing togetherness a beautiful gift of companionship and trust may coexist with some sadness or grief over the loss of that gorgeous intensity at the beginning comprised of novelty, lust and relational ambition.

At some point, staying with one’s partner constitutes a decision.  We feel lucky if chemistry still unites us, but it won’t unite us strongly enough, all by itself, over a long period of time.  After ten, fifteen, twenty or more years, we will inevitably decide whether to settle in for the duration, because we feel differently about this other person than we did so long ago.  We experience our love differently—in some ways more than, and in some ways perhaps less than before.

When people refer to settling (“I don’t want to settle this time,” or, “Am I just settling?”) the question floats in the air:  “Is there someone better for me?  Is there someone who will make me happier?  Is there someone who is a better match?”

Certainly no therapist would encourage someone to settle for something as negative as maltreatment—abuse, neglect, derision, malicious manipulation, forced isolation, brain washing, pattern of disrespect and invalidation, and so forth.  But there is, indeed, some realistic settling that has to do with our ability for tolerating “otherness.”

“Otherness” refers to how we experience people, since everyone else is not me.  We see our partner as having quirks, habits of thought, levels of emotional expressivity, different degrees of awareness, as rather more self-minded or other-minded, as messy or chronically late or lazy about doing chores, as too strict on the kids or too lenient, as having different levels of interest in sex, as relatively grumpier and moodier or not good at putting up with our grumpiness and moodiness.  Our partners ski or not, like car shows or not, want to spend all their time with us or not enough time with us, are nurturing or tell us our problems are not theirs to worry about.

Some of us have a wide window of tolerance for typical kinds of differences we observe between ourselves and our partners, and for some of us that window has more narrow measurements.  We have fantasies about our perfect partner and often, in real life, our partners fail to subscribe to, or look like our fantasies in hundreds of little ways or in hundreds of moments throughout our relationship. We are all perfectly imperfect and so is our match.  And what would we even mean by finding someone we could call our perfect match?  Is that person much like us?  Very different from us, but only different in the ways that we admire?

The couples I meet in my therapy room, even couples who have lived with one another for a long time, and who feel devoted to their partnership and want to work on growing their connection as well as understanding their disconnects, agree sub rosa to an ongoing life in which they must agree to disagree sometimes and agree to dis-argue about those things which distinguish them in less than felicitous ways.  They settle.

We settle for this perfectly imperfect person who is not me-like enough at times, or who could have left a lighter footprint—meaning, washed the dishes or did the laundry we are now having to do.  We settle for a relationship in which our lives together don’t always feel harmonious, seamless, in tune, or give us the delicious love or consideration or thoughtfulness or conversation or mutual interests or personality flavors that we prefer.  We settle for an imperfect match.

The good news is that we tend to grow, ourselves, and to really develop our interpersonal skills right at the edges where our desires and preferences do not get met!  We develop greater adaptability and strength, and all of the personal traits we hold in high regard—patience, sacrifice, tolerance, understanding, empathy, flexibility, kindness, integrity, etc.—when we experience friction between ourselves and our partner.

All beings shrink, erode, degrade, and sink over time.  Our bodies shrink in height and muscle mass just as sand erodes from a cliff, as shore gets swallowed by the sea.  We are all subject to gravity and to wear.  Our “fur” thins like that of the Velveteen Rabbit, from love and exertion, from disappointment and fatigue, and from work.

Settling is mostly about tolerating differences, even appreciating them, and discovering flexible and adaptive ways to interact with our partners that incorporate our differences and make the most of them.

We feel somewhat attracted to “otherness,” which is novel and exciting, but the counter tension we experience runs also:  “Why can’t you be more like me?”  When we live with someone who has marked differences, there are multiple, even subtle ways in which we try to cajole, beg or request that they be more like us.  Take a talkative partner and a quieter partner.  Often the talkative partner will “try” to get their quieter partner to open up and talk, thus developing greater skill and adeptness in getting others to open up.

We tend to advance our own skill sets with someone who functions in a way seemingly “opposite” or different from ours.  Quiet individuals learn how to guard their secrets better, on one hand, or on the other, benefit from learning to become more transparent and revelatory with their feelings and thoughts.  Partners “stretch” each other through the friction and interaction between their differences.

When it comes right down to it, settling serves the function of maintaining a couple over time.  The gift of settling has to do with the cultivation of tolerance for differences, the development of empathy, and the flexibility to see things from our own, and the other person’s perspectives.

In some instances, a person may not find enough room, emotionally, to settle for differences that seem too marked or too much of a polar opposite.  Sometimes the energy match is too strained—a highly reserved person and an intensely effusive one, as an example.  Or each person’s fundamental beliefs feel too different to reconcile—be they religious, political, related to parenting, or to life’s priorities.

That we co-create all of our relationships means we have both accountability for, and are the beneficiaries of, what gets created.  Settling involves, not only the more passive giving in to the gravity and significance of a relationship but also involves active processes of developing one’s emotional intelligence about the other person and learning to tolerate and appreciate their otherness.

Camel Saddle:  For what in a significant relationship have you settled?  What qualities or quirks about you must your past, present, or future partner likely have to tolerate (and hopefully appreciate)?  What are the differences you find easier or harder to live with in another person?

 

Web Camel Transport 41

Dancing Happiness

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

We say “Jump for joy,” because joyous bodies move. Babies inherently know how to move to music. Youtube has an abundance of cute-baby videos, including of babies dancing upon waking up to music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Mruxjn__Oc)s).

Our cells respond at the most intimate and microscopic level to the vibrations of music—the lullaby voice, the choral voices of our community, the calling and responding voices that connect us.  All dancers dance for joy, those without any formal training and those who have mastered the utmost technical challenges. Music itself expresses emotional tenor; or we invest our listening of music with a panoply of emotions.  But our emotional life, our joys and excitements thrive even without the addition of music, and inspire our bodies to move in concert with our moods, the weather, and the needs of our physical persons (have you ever watched a cat or a dog wake up in the morning and stretch luxuriously?).

Dancing–wholeheartedly dancing–turns on the artspirit.  Our artspirit consciousness requires no additional discipline to quiet the ‘monkey chatter’ of our minds.  In mindfulness meditation we quiet our bodies and learn to gently bring our focus back to the breath, to the next-to-nothingness between each interruption by these sweet or ferocious monkeys that chatter, chatter, chatter all ‘mind’ long.  But when we dance—on stage or at the disco, or in the country line or in a trance dance or in the fitness studio or even while listening to the radio—we interrupt the monkey chatter and let our bodies take over. What a beautiful conspiracy the elbows, knees, hips and shoulders achieve in heightening our experience of living while shutting down the opposition—the naysaying, judgmental, catastrophizing, list-making nags that occupy our own minds and plot our every hour. How euphoric and exotic a transport on two little feet, our muscle memories bringing back a choreography or allowing us improvisational freedom.

Dancing increases our perviousness to the energy around us, just as our pores open.  Our edges expand.  We reach beyond our reach.  We see beyond our seeing.  We feel beyond our smallness. Dance can embrace us in an all-encompassing experience, as completely in-the-moment.  On some level dancing is tribal, and those who move to the same music become our extended families, become part of the history of our laughter and singing.

The arts of dance may require hours upon hours of dedicated discipline and practice, honing and fine tuning every joint in the body, every muscle, every rhythmically beating cell.  But on stage great dancers let their bodies think for themselves, and their bodies become conduits for the artspirit.

At a nightclub or a wedding, we dance for joy; moved, almost as would be a puppet, by the pump and sway of the music, and by the surrounding waves of exuberance.  Like runner’s high, we can dance like there’s no tomorrow, or, as the saying goes, “like no one’s watching,” yet not feel the exertion of it–the hard breathing, the pressure and madness of the blood, the sweat making slippery our arms and legs and shining our faces with shear, unadulterated glory.

Much of our lives we pursue the stated, the mandated, the mundane and necessary.  We forget to play.  The ludic escapes us in its full bodied manifestations.  More and more today, we get our dopamine squirts from watching television and playing video games, or from endlessly posting our selfies on Facebook and Instagram.  We get our fill from these two dimensional or three dimensional look-alike adventures.  But there is little texture to it.  It does not feel like grass or a gust of cold air, or the warm press of a cheek, or smell like damp leaves in the thawing of winter, or tax our calves with the ache of accomplishment after a long walk or a challenging hike.

I feel wowed, awed and impressed by the brilliance and continuing technological innovations of our age, but like everything we can imagine coming into being, we cannot anticipate all of the potential ramifications, or how aggressively the downsides will vie with the upsides for ascendancy.

Martha Graham, a queen of modern dance in the twentieth century made many quotable remarks about dance, but I love this one:  “Every dance is a kind of fever chart, a graph of the heart.”  Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the preeminent ballet dancers of the twentieth century, who came to the United States from Russia, said, “I found that dance, music, and literature is how I made sense of the world.”  And many have written about how the arts, and here I speak about dance, give shape and voice to our most human experiences in this world.  Football players dance after scoring a touchdown.  Dance has been used to celebrate weddings, births, to bring rain, to enter a trance, to celebrate deities. To flirt.  To prepare for war.  To honor peace.  To captivate and entertain.

I spent much of my life involved in dance—recreationally and then professionally—and as I segued into a chapter of life after dance, the transition felt profoundly difficult, even grievous.  I could barely watch a dance concert without crying.  But over the years I realized that dance had become part of me in some integral, hard-to-articulate way, but surely as a filter through which I honed my observations of body language and rhythmicity, of gait and gesture, of posture and expressivity.  And of the subtleties of resonance or awkwardness in how people connect interpersonally.  Grace is, after all, not something fancy or complicated, but the efficiency of movement for its outcome’s sake, whether utilitarian or aesthetic.

At three years old I asked my mother for dance lessons, interrupting her as she napped.  I didn’t know anything about dance as an art form.  The top of her bed and my face met.  I remember that, and my paternal grandmother playing “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite, prompting a three year old’s rabid dance to such profoundly driving music.

My mother made good on my request. From a converted barn in Lexington where Isadora Duncan style “free” movement was encouraged to the Cambridge Ballet School in Harvard Square, to a long succession of dance schools and styles and graduate education and teaching contemporary dance and choreographing in a University to writing dance reviews, my love of dance evolved.  For many years I lived, breathed, slept and thought about dance. And went as far in the field as I could, given the anatomical limitations of my feet and back that made a professional performer’s life just out of reach. Yet dancing was always good therapy and I was able to bring that to patients in an acute hospital setting. Moving their bodies animated them and moving together with others brought them into community in a powerful way, where isolation had prevailed.

In spite of that, I had had enough experiences rehearsing and performing to know the sensation of heightened euphoria, when the music and the muscle memory take over your body, and you attach to an energy beyond that of yourself.  You move, in the moment, electrified, and perhaps a bit electrifying to watch. Perhaps, like the adrenalin rush of a sky or cliff diver, the physics that govern our bodies seem somehow suspended, and in this magical landscape of the stage, or the nightclub, we leap, balance, accelerate, float, and fly as if defined by a different kind of magic.

Last night my three sisters and I attended a dance concert at the Portsmouth Music Hall. The Momix company’s ‘Cactus.’ The tensile strength of the dancers, utilized playfully in the slithering, darting, staccato and sensual movements of the animated desert creatures—lizard, snake, fan tailed birds—as well as the suggested tribal dances of courting, fighting, or rain-making for an indigenous culture—captivated us.  At times two dancers, intertwined, cantilevered, or extended from each others’ bodies in silhouette, created the image of a creature, plant or animal, with jutting or wheeling appendages.

In some dances long poles, like vaults, suspended the dancers a bit longer and higher than gravity would allow without these extensions.  And so we found ourselves lifted into the arena of brilliance and light that imagination occupies:  the extraordinary.  Accomplished by ordinary humans doing ordinary grunt work.  Over and over again.  Try happiness as a form of dance.

Camel Saddle:  What are your best experiences dancing?  What were the messages you received about dancing while growing up?  Did you feel inhibited about moving your body or encouraged to express yourself in movement?  Have you ever “lost yourself” while dancing, and become one with the music and the movement?  Are there other experiences that have captivated you in that same way?