Web Camel Transport 36

The He*art of Goal Meshing

November 27, 2016

Lately I feel struck by the number of people who beat themselves up for a perceived lack of accomplishment. The self-punishing narrative, while often in awareness, persists in its abuse. This can sound, all too familiarly, like, “I strayed so far from my diet, I can hardly call it a diet;” “I got so much of my paper done I may as well have been sipping piña coladas on a beach chair in Aruba;” “I’ve got a membership at the gym.  That’s it, a membership;” or, “I was going to clean both bathrooms, and all the floors. I got one toilet done, grabbed the potato chips and parked myself on the couch to relax for the afternoon.  But then my dog barfed.  Then my sister called and needed to vent or she’d go off the deep end. And then my son needed a ride to the soccer game he forgot he had. . .”

Often we cannot even allow ourselves moments of levity when we are grieving the loss of a loved one, or a family member or friend is suffering and needs our attention.  “How can I be having a good time when my friend just lost her baby?”  We might even give ourselves emotional imperatives—to grieve; to forgive; to not feel those “bad feelings” like anger or jealousy; to not stress eat or drink over those bad feelings; or even to don the rubber suit and not feel anything at all.  Don’t you know, feelings can be darned inconvenient?

Many of us wonder, “Why can’t we get done what we so gallantly put on our to-do lists, the all-important and the not so important?”

If you look on the real or virtual shelves of any bookstore/e-bookstore, you can find lots of self-help tomes that task you to manage your time more efficiently, to learn how to prioritize, to differentiate what is really important from what is moderately important, and what is, after all, just fluff–those time-permitting tasks over which no one will die if they don’t get done today, tomorrow or in the next three years.  Even fancier, you can find guides for designing a tickler system that will remind, alarm, cajole, or even scold you onward to your next objective.

We embrace goals.  We love goals.  We seek the peaks and strive to climb them. As in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, survival goals come first, of course—food, shelter, a means to produce an income, safety and so forth.  But beyond that we live in a culture where we want to succeed.  However you interpret success for yourself—a healthy family, fame or fortune or both, mastery of your field, a million ‘followers,’ the drive for success permeates the air we breathe, the rhythms with which we move in our cities, the grades with which our children’s school papers get taxed, the job descriptions for which we compete, and so forth.  And while striving will harness our energies, organize our strengths, and develop our stamina and vision, it may also bring along an ‘audience’ of inner censors, critics, naysayers, and downright bullies—the ones that live in our own minds, right down the street from our resident goal seekers. Same neighborhood.

The self-denigrating narrative to which we often subscribe operates behind the scenes, outside our conscious awareness.  As an example, Connie shared with me that she felt it likely that her entire life would be partly defined by dieting.  She had attended OA for years, but now “felt sick” of its rigidity.  She said it might work for some people, but in her 60’s she sought a greater freedom of choice in life.  So, sheepishly, she thought that she would simply text a good friend her Weight Watcher points for the day, and a “1” if she walked a mile.  She wanted to feel accountable.  She wanted to feel accountable to someone.  She wanted to feel accountable to someone who cared about her. Most of her close family had died. She experienced a sense of aloneness and with it, loneliness. But she asked me if I thought it was “weak,” that she couldn’t do it all on her own—the dieting and exercising—accountable only to herself.

Upon further discussion, both her older sister as well as her father, both deceased, had always touted the benefits of standing on one’s own two feet, strongly, independently, and . . . alone.  The need for another person’s help meant weakness, defeat, and failure. So, options for accountability that asked for another person’s participation seemed off the grid for Connie.  Yet she felt in touch with a deep loneliness attached to the aloneness that occurs when one’s family has all died.  That can feel disorienting, as if one has lost one’s place on the map of the world, the living landmarks, by which one recognizes oneself, all gone.

Perhaps our self-punishing strategies play a major role in egging us on, nagging us to continue our pursuits.  It won’t easily let us off the hook.  And, at the same time, it presupposes an underlying narrative that we, alone, as stalwart individuals, are solely responsible for the pursuit and accomplishment of our goals.  The “story” that individual success results from individual pursuit and triumph over hardship, suggests that we live and work in a bubble of our own, disconnected from the forces and pursuits of others.  This narrative also disconnects us from the notion that we may experience multiple and various co-existing intentions and purposes.  And lastly, it disconnects us from our bodies, because as flesh and bone and brain we require rest, sleep, comfort, changes of gear and so forth.

Early in life, in the United States, we get innocently recruited, by our families, schools, and culture to value success above all else, and to the thought that we must accomplish our successes as rugged individuals. Although in the world of children’s athletics, we learn about being a “team player,” rewards still go to the player who makes the touchdown or the basket or who hits the home run.

If you take a moment to think about it, any “individual” success represents the culmination of multiple interactions and intersections of forces provided by other human beings as well as from factors in the environment. Perhaps an “A” on Johnnie’s exam involved Mrs. Goodenhaur’s brilliant teaching, and Johnnie’s father helping him study flashcards, and a Discovery Channel television show that brought these concepts alive, and a girl Johnnie likes at school whom he thinks of as smart and who, by always getting A’s herself, inspires me; and that the sun shone on the Tuesday of the test after a good night’s sleep and the barometric pressure was high so his sinuses didn’t bother him with congestion, and his mother packed him a great snack to eat right before the test, and his pencil was sharp and it was midmorning when his energy felt highest and most focused, and no one distracted him by throwing a spitball or coughing.

Whether Johnnie is a sixth grader, the CEO of a large corporation, a Pulitzer prize winning author, or has made a scientific discovery, he lives and works embedded in a matrix of others and other forces which may synergize or challenge or dispute, or deploy his results.

When we work alongside others, the best results come from goal meshing, rather than working at cross purposes or duplicating others’ work.  Individual goals must get interwoven with the goals of others in the workplace or at home so that two things happen:  goals get met; and everyone has a good feeling about it.  This means that transparency, communication, and the consideration and utilization of the cogent ideas and inputs of others play a large role in any one person’s successful goal attainment as well as in the overall mission of the workplace or family.

Sometimes our goals dovetail well, or mesh well with the goals of others and we and our goals synergize each other.  Sometimes our goals cause friction with other people’s goals or have an antagonistic relationship—if I win, you lose.  The more there is a felicitous interface or relationship between my goal and those of others around me—in a workplace or a family or a couple—the more likely it is that I will succeed with my goal, boosted by the energy available within the matrix into which I am interwoven.  My success will be more streamlined, graceful and efficient if it gets support from those around me and from environmental factors.

Sometimes, our goals would have been met, had it not been for those demons of interference—our own fatigue or counter-intentions; the drying up of a funding source; some requirements placed on our time and energy by others, and perhaps someone working at deliberate cross purposes.

We are currently living in a post-election time of dissent in our country, with massive polarization among our population.  There is literal as well as figurative combat between deeply entrenched values, but snarling any dialogue are the chaotic strands of goals and purposes, that like a towering Babel, do not translate.

At the very least we must develop a consciousness of us, of community, of the United States, of meshing our goals for living a decent life.  Like a baby who is already born, we who are here, are already here and present and part of the whole. I cannot have happiness without the co-happiness of others.  Just like a man cannot be happy filling his belly while his three children go hungry.  We are woven into the matrix.  We must repair the places where it is torn.  We have the capacity to utilize the friction among our plenitude of goals to energize the larger goals that support us all, in the brief time our own goals register in existence, and toward the future goals of our children.

Camel Saddle:  When do you find yourself working on your goals at cross-purposes with those of others?  When do you find your goals in harmony with others?  Are you a diehard individualist?  Or do you recognize that others can put wind in your sails?


Web Camel Transport 35

The Happiness of Failure

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

“’Failure’ is a word.  You can apply it like a blanket word or like one square on a much larger quilt.”

The most inspiring implication of our failures is that we tried.  We tried to make marriages work, we tried to succeed in a startup business, we tried to save our children from dying of a drug overdose, we tried to pass a test, we tried to win a race, we tried to get a raise, we tried to defend a client wrongly accused, we tried to win a construction bid, we tried to make a friend laugh, we tried to get into a popular movie, we tried to recreate a new recipe, we tried to make our hair stop standing on end. . .you get the point. In our lives we will make many many efforts on behalf of hugely significant outcomes as well as thousands and thousands of everyday objectives.  Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we fail; sometimes we fail, fail, fail and then succeed, and sometimes the project is larger than we could possibly accomplish as a single human being, and we observe through our humble, isolated failing that we need a partner, a team, a tribe, or a larger community to make this thing happen.  But our efforts are worthy and so are the failures attached to them.

The verb forms of the word, ’fail,’ as in, “I failed,” underline the notion that we have taken action to make our wants, our desires, our dreams and our responsibilities materialize as we imagine them.  It is important, from a psychological perspective to understand that ‘failure,’ as a character-assassinating adjective, has no truth to it.  It’s simply not possible for a living human being to be a failure, 100%, through and through.  Yet this is a common and sadly habitual thought –“I am a failure,”–that runs through many people’s minds when confronted with the disappointment of failing to achieve some particular end, small or large.  Because our thoughts have such power to magnetize bodily sensations and emotions, the thought, “I am a failure,” produces lethargy, depression, a lack of motivation, reduction in the ability to see options and opportunities in the future.  In short, from the perspective of assessing oneself to be a failure, the forecast looks endlessly gloomy.

Most “failures” in relationship occur at the level of understanding one another unharmoniously.  We all carry around scripts or stories that describe, to ourselves, what goes on in our experience of another person, or of our relationship with that person.  Sometimes these stories in our heads harmonize with the other person’s story and sometimes they do not.  Take, as an example, Mary’s interpretation of Bob’s silence as disapproval, when in Bob’s mind he wants to take the necessary time to reflect carefully on Mary’s request.  Billy thinks Sandra is controlling and possessive while he texts flirtatious messages to his secretary at work.  Inside Sandra the story is drastically different:  She feels exhausted from having to monitor Billy, whom she does not trust.  For another example, Donna thinks her father hates her because he is so strict.  Donna’s father thinks he will shirk his responsibilities if he does not prompt in her the discipline and high standards necessary to succeed in school and a job beyond. So we think of our relationships as failures when our interpretations and stories about the others’ motives sadden, disappoint, frustrate or anger us.  Many divorces, though certainly not all, occur as a result of huge misunderstandings, rather than huge malice.

Sometimes we misunderstand situations because we remain in psychological denial of something difficult.  In my own life I had felt angry at my mother for “not trying” to eat or drink more or to ambulate more, when it turned out that she truly faced incapacity on several levels.  When I confronted my own denial about her compromised health, I found that my anger and frustration with her melted away, almost instantaneously, and in its stead I felt sadness, and the fear of possible impending loss.  I also had much more patience with her; my heart open to hearing about her own fear and disappointment with losses in functioning.

Tania “failed” to make her husband into the man she wanted.  Her story:  “If I love him enough and get him to see that he needs to spend more time with us and open up more emotionally with me, then life will be good.”  It does not generally work out well when one partner makes of the other one a project.  It seems difficult to look within ourselves for the seeds of our discontent—whether it be a kind of divine restlessness and relational ambition, or our own neediness—instead of seeing our partners as flawed. We can help our partners and our partners can help us with kindness, patience, understanding, encouragement and love.  But we cannot literally make our partners happy or content nor can they do the same for us.  We author the stories of our own happiness, because only we own our capacity to feel happiness with our loved ones, or in the arrival of sun appearing in the window, or simply for the arrival of another day.

When we realize that most of our so-called failures really stem from our dark stories, we can feel happier and more liberated because we can rewrite our narratives:  see more of the beauty in ourselves and our partners.  If we extend to others the benefit of the doubt, then at least we are making positive assumptions that they are trying their best or that their intentions are generally well meaning.

Even in the details of interpersonal encounters, we often accuse ourselves of failures.  Take Samantha, who worried that she had failed to win the interest of a young man she had met at memorial benefit. She asked me, and herself, “Was it too forward to text him?”  “Did he believe my jokester sister that I was a jailbird?”  “When he invited me to the club afterwards should I have come alone and not brought my sister with me?”  Samantha constantly asked if she had “done something wrong.”  Her underlying story involved the notion that relationships are fragile.  They can be made or broken based upon small interactions.  She had not experienced a sense of resiliency in past relationships so continued to perpetuate the story of easily broken bonds, and blamed herself.  Over time Samantha developed a more resilient narrative.  All possibilities remain open when you meet someone new. Thinking about herself as an explorer of new relationship possibilities rather than as a success or failure opened up a whole new set of feelings, like excitement, curiosity, and openness.

Many stories of failures have to do with small “failures” taken out of context.  I just went to an amazing wedding in the woods a couple of weekends ago.  The joyful event occurred outdoors with the forecast of rain in the evening.  The caterers had “broken up” with the couple two weeks earlier, and this required some intense scampering to prepare food for one hundred and twenty guests on short notice.  But with the joy of participant-attendees singing and dancing the couple toward their journey in marriage with one another, and the loveliness of the environment, the drinks and food and soulful blessings, these little failures disappeared like tiny tears in the gorgeous fabric of the ceremonious and loving event, even when, under a rustic pavilion, we gathered as rain fell on the roof, bringing some water to the drought-ridden area.

“Nerves that fire together wire together” and most people find “failure” a word whose meanings are embedded within a matrix of other thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations like:  (Thoughts) Inadequate, unworthy, incapable, stupid, loser, not talented, unlovable, ugly, etc. And (Feelings) depressed, sad, humiliated, ashamed, afraid, anxious, avoidant, etc.  And (Body sensations) Heavy, sodden, mincing, pinched, headachy, tense, retreating, etc.

The idea is to unpin “failure” from this matrix and rewire it into another matrix like: “Oh well, you win some, you lose some.”  “I’m happy with what I did do.”  “That was no big deal.”  “I learned something from that.”  “There’s a next time.”  “I can do better.”  “That job was bigger than me.”  “I did my best.”  “At least I made some positive impact.”  “I think this was bound to happen anyway.”  And so forth.

The body then finds itself freed from the emotional baggage carried in the first matrix.  The heart is lighter.  One feels there are other opportunities, relationships, jobs, chances, out there in this big wide universe. The new wiring—new neurons firing and wiring together in a different loop—reduces the suffocating and anxiety producing interpretations and meanings formerly associated with failure and with the word, “failure.”

I adore words, but they are both elaborating and limiting.  When we think of “failure” in its blanketing sense, we ignore the valiance of our efforts, as well as the larger contexts in which we have “failed” a small part of the over all.   Worst, we assign to our humanness an overarching, negative identifier.

When we bravely face our possibilities, they will include failures as well as successes.  And most failures . . .”become links in the chain of our success.” (Florence Scovell Shin) Whether we assess our actions as succeeding and failure, we ourselves are never failures, only beautifully and exhilaratingly particular.

Guest saddle:  Think of something you previously relegated as a personal failure.  How else might you look at it?  How has that so-called failure helped you to grow, helped you to think about something from a different perspective, or even been transformative in terms of future intentions, goals, or visions?

Web Camel Transport 34

Horizontal Happiness:  Laying Down Arms;  Floating in Possibility

Saturday, July 23, 2016

“On the rough wet grass of the backyard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my father, my mother, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, or on our sides, or on our backs, and they have kept on talking.  They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near.  All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds.  One is an artist, he is living at home.  One is a musician, she is living at home.  One is my mother who is good to me.  One is my father who is good to me.  By some chance, here they all are, on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night.  May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away. . .” (From James Agee’s A Death in the Family)

I remember my own childhood, summers in Martha’s Vineyard, for a whole month.  My mother kept the hearth and my father worked weeks in Boston, coming in for the weekends, and finally for a whole week at the end of August.  The world seemed safer then and my younger brother and sisters and I often fended for ourselves, walking the dusty road into the small town and pier of Menemsha.  The house we rented had a big back yard that sloped down to a grassy marsh. Sometimes at night, the three oldest of us dragged our heavy, old fashioned sleeping bags down to the bottom of the yard, as far away from the house as we could get.

Without a mosquito net, a tent, or even a tarp, we lay down and looked up at the night sky, the colors bleeding into star dark.  We saw shooting stars, their movement across a swath of sky hypnotic, exciting, and scary at the same time—their falling an abdominal tug.  We talked and giggled, and claimed authority: “See?  See that one?  Wow. That one I saw is the best so far!”  Like a fireworks display just for us, our parents inside, trusting us to the backyard, the night and the stars.  So what that we awakened in soaking sleeping bags with mosquito bites; that we walked barefoot over dewy grass, grains of sand sticking to our feet and to the sodden sleeping bags. We had come back to our temporary home with its vaulted ceilings and wide planked floors as if from a foreign, and marvelous country.

Horizontality: lying down in the grass, or on a hammock or a bed or sand or a warm flat rock provides a contemplative surface.  More than that, an appreciative one.  Lying down, we have stopped moving across terrain.  Instead, our minds move, our hearts move; we take time to notice the support of what lies below us and the loft above.  Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.” (From Nature and Selected Essays on Goodreads website)

When we come to an impasse while trying to solve a problem, whether creative or practical, taking time out in the shower or lying on a bed of grass, often opens our minds and in that expansiveness the answers swim to the surface, welcoming us with big smiles.  Or we lie down to simply be.  To stop doing.  To let our minds and bodies rest from their restless agitation.  “Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” So says John Lubbock from The Use of Life (Goodreads website)

Most of our lives we travel on surfaces.  You live and work somewhere on the topography we all share, called the earth.  To get to you or you to me, we traverse mountains, oceans, flatlands.  We travel, we explore; we cover ground.  Most of our trajectories move from horizon to horizon.  Space travel opens limitless potential, and without gravity, no ups and downs, no side to sides anchor us in space.  Distances between celestial bodies have length, but length in space does not have a tether to horizontality as length does on terra firma.

Our bodies, born to run, born to the canoe, move along horizontally.  We leap and jump for joy or vault our bodies into heights we can achieve with a bendable pole or on an airplane, but our physical bodies are grounded.  We are earthlings. No wonder we dream in horizontal terms; we hope in horizontal terms.  Around the bend in the river, or over the next peak, or in the new city, our lives will offer new opportunities or will improve in some way.  Who has not had a ‘the grass is greener across the fence’ moment?

Horizontality is about rest and recovery, sleep, dreaming, closing one’s eyes and reducing external stimulation, being off the clock, stretching out, calming the nervous system, gazing at the sky.

Being low down, we associated naturally with humility and kindness, with rest and with ease.  A little girl, viewed nearly ten million times, on Facebook, lets her mother know she must come down (from her high horse) in order to get along with her father.  Mother is too high, and must occupy a lower spot in the vertical plane.  She tells the mother she does not have to get too low, just low enough to equalize things.

his little girl possesses an instinctive understanding that we use our verticality, our uprightness, in ways that can intimidate others. That we naturally live in horizontality.  Whatever has gravity, figuratively as well as literally, grounds us.  Frank Lloyd Wright believed his architectural designs must incorporate that idea:  “Wherever human life is concerned, the unnatural stricture of verticality cannot stand against more natural horizontality.”

Intellectual breadth/horizontality and depth both hold importance.  Perhaps they conflate at some point.  The more deeply one masters and understands something, the more details unfold.  The pro-generative  nature of details produces a breadth of knowledge, and a deep thinker has the ability to find the connective tissue between the ideas.  In part, “our joy in life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”  Christopher McCandless (Brainyquote.com)

Horizontality has much to do with those persons, objects, and environments within our sight. When we have vision we can often see afar and imagine or predict what will come.  When accused of myopia, we can only see what stands right in front of us, and perhaps need to cultivate more of a distance view.

Interpersonally, horizontality is the plane of hugs and also of exclusion, of opening one’s arms to receive sun, air and the great feeling of stretching one’s arms out wide. In horizontality we receive and cradle, carry someone or something close to the body. We gaze across a mind expanse into someone’s eyes; enjoy intimacy with another person.

“Intimacy is not a happy medium. It is a way of being in which the tension between distance and closeness is dissolved and a new horizon appears.”  Henri Nouwen (from brainyquote.com)

But a tug at the heartstrings also energizes the horizontal plane, the plane of goodbyes. All leaving-takings, even though not personal, feel somewhat sad to me, like the aching of an elongating distance.  The renters behind my cottage just left for their home.  We had but one friendly conversation.  They swam and walked here, kayaked, cooked, drank, slept.  Enjoyed.  Loved. Decompressed. But now, dust flagging their departure down the gravel road, I feel the twinge of loss. As they move farther from me, I feel my aloneness more, and my aloneness contains within it the seeds of peace, the seeds of silence, and, were I to stay here many days, the seeds of loneliness.  Horizontality offers us a release from the collective busyness of our world but also distances we long to cross for the embrace of those we love.

Horizontality and distance go hand in hand as concepts.  Our constant dance as couples, friends, and coworkers, regulate the distances between ourselves and others.  We say we are close to someone, or we feel distant.  But the dance of closeness and distance, of how close together and how far apart we think of ourselves from others reinforces our narrative about those bonds:  Do we feel reinforced enough with those bonds or do they feel close to snapping.

We use language like, “I feel connected to you.”  Or, sadly, “I don’t feel connected to you anymore.  Our bond has broken.” We enjoy the near and dear and often miss the dear who live far away.  In the horizontal plane we can enfold and gaze.  Interesting, the impact of Skype and Facetime because real horizontal distance collapses as we face a two dimensional screen and in real time the images of our loved ones appear before us.  We can gaze.  We can share stories.  But even then, some visceral and kinesthetic sense of longing remains, because true closeness wears flesh.  True closeness shares a horizon.  Love is at the center of that universe; it’s the place we call home.

Guest Saddle:  What is on the horizon toward which you are traveling?  Do you have too much distance between you and someone you love?  Or not enough?  What do you see or dream or wish for when you lie down at night?  What does life feel like for you when you stop walking, running, driving, driving, driving?



Web Camel Transport 33

The Happiness of Questions:  The Question of Happiness

Saturday, July 16, 2016

I woke up thinking about questions:  What kinds of questions are there and how do they contribute to happiness?

Like a child I often find the gift of a question popping into my mind, and greedy to explore answers I jump onto Google as onto a roller coaster, ready for a great ride; one that might cause my stomach to flip flop or my hair to fly around me in winds of exciting or unexpected information.  Curiosity, so primal, so driving, moves us to ask questions.  And in the therapy room clients often brave the rocky waters of their own depths, asking themselves about their deepest motivations, their unrequited hungers, their fears and stuck places, and together we ask, how can life move out of its ruts and dark places toward lighter, freer, happier and healthier places?

When we ask a question we turn on the “electricity,” conducting it downstream toward new ways of thinking.  Our inquiry may run into a knot of other questions that conduct us in new and often unanticipated directions.  Sometimes our conduit leads toward greater clarity; sometimes toward greater befuddlement.

Lili is a one year old.  I held her while she handled wind chimes on the deck, her finger tips asking questions:  Will this thing hurt me?  How does the sound happen and what are the different sounds that this wind chime can make, and what about its shapes, textures, tones? What happens when the wind blows? Babies start to ask questions with their bodies, their hands, their mouths.  Is this food? Does that feel good?  What is that water like to splash?  What happens if I drop this bowl? The world is a fascinating supplier of cognitive, affective, and sensory stimulation.  How to make sense of it all, let alone how to make sense of all of the things my baby body can do?

Many times, as adults, we forget to ask questions.  Instead we make assumptions and accusations which short circuit our curiosity, our exploration, and our cooperative natures.  Questions can make us happier interpersonally, as well as personally, when they lead us to a better understanding of why someone said or did what they did?  Why something went down the way it did?

Curiosity is the primal drive to find answers, to understand how things work, to discover what lies beyond the next bend in the river and questioning is what curiosity does—by hand, by foot, by mouth, by reflection, by researching, and by asking out loud.  Curiosity, and its iteration in those various forms, also acts as a connector.  It connected us, ancestrally, with places that provided edible berries or mushrooms, or fish, or herds.  Now questions lead us to food for thought, to new inventions, and into interesting and meaningful conversations with others.

Each question represents a quest.  Not all questions may be answered best through verbal, explanatory methods.  How does a chocolate ice cream cone taste?  What does sex feel like?  What kind of excitement will I derive from this roller coaster ride?  Many of our curiosities and questions get revealed through our experiences in life.  Parents, frustrated in their desires to protect their adolescent children from negative outcomes, often provide advice, lectures, consequences and so forth, as if that will satisfy the questioning, driven, seeking, curious young adult standing before them.  It will not.  We humans can acquire knowledge and we can acquire experiences and the two utilize different, albeit not unrelated channels or conduits that run between ourselves and the worlds we occupy.

Although one might categorize different kinds of questions in myriad ways, I want to borrow from some of the most basic species of questions.  Start with the notion of closed-ended versus open-ended questions.  Close ended questions typically have a monosyllabic answer like ‘yes’ or ‘no.’  “Did you steal the cookies from the cookie jar?”  Sometimes closed ended questions seek simple factual answers, such as, “Is the laundry folded?”

But sometimes they provoke power struggles between individuals, such as when mom asks Terrence if he is lying about where he was, and he says, “No,” and thus, lies again.  This can morph into mom accusing, “You’re lying!”  And Terrence responding, “No, I’m not.  You just never want to believe me.” They will lock horns unproductively and never get to the heart of the problem.  Let’s say Terrence lied about where he was because he assumed his mother would not let him go to the carnival with one other friend on a school night.  A productive line of questioning would address how the two might communicate and deal with the ever stretching cord of more maturity and responsibility going along with more freedom, or how to view school night priorities and when exceptions to the rule are allowable.

Stacked closed ended questions make us sound like lawyers, and make a good (terrifying) strategy if you want to deflate, if not to skewer someone:  “Terrence, did you just lie right now?  Terrence, did you lie about doing your homework last Wednesday?  Isn’t it true that you also stole five bucks from dad earlier this morning?  And in spite of that did I not allow you to go to the movies last Sunday with Amy?  And did you even thank me for that? Etc.  You get the point.”  Although Terrence is your average teenager, bucking authority, wanting what he wants, not thinking about the consequences of most of his actions on his future, he is not a criminal, as this stacked close ended questioning implies.

Open ended questions are freeing, and often more collaborative.  As an example, one spouse asks, ‘How can we make a vacation happen?  Can we work together to figure out when and how we can do this?’ This avoids the common, and unpleasant conflict that arises when one member of a couple says, “I want a vacation.”  And the other says, “We can’t afford it.” While the desire or need for a vacation and the cost of a vacation both constitute important variables that impact the taking of a vacation, they are completely different fruits, like those proverbial apples versus oranges.

As a parent, and as a therapist, I’ve concluded that one of the most powerful and helpful ways to influence others has to do with encouraging and empowering them to think, think, and think some more. We all know that reactivity—just responding as one would in a reflexive knee-jerk kind of way—can produce actions that don’t always express the dictates of one’s moral compass or highest sense of self.  When emotions run high, the gas tank of thought process often falls to ‘empty,’ due to a ‘disconnect’ in brain functions.  Speed is the enemy of awareness.  And our need to react to emergencies occurs less frequently, for most of us, than our need to respond with thoughtfulness, care and precision.

Questions that actually use the word “think” or “thought” in them, steer listeners into their own cognitive cabinets, more deeply than they might otherwise scavenge.  Questions might look like these:  what do you think are the options you have in this situation?  What actions do you think you can live with?  What do you think might be the outcome of that particular action?  What are your thoughts on how that might affect your future possibilities?  Or even, ‘Have you thought deeply about this?’  And for Terrence, ‘what are your thoughts about lying as a way to cope with things that might disappoint you?  ‘Do you think there are alternative ways we can discuss our perspectives on stuff you want to do?’

In the world of Twelve Step programs, a useful piece of wisdom, ‘Do the next right thing,’ cues many people to think about an action step before taking it.  Not just considering the value of taking a drink, buying a scratch ticket, taking a pill, or screaming at the top of one’s lungs, but anything that can have a significant impact.  What a powerful process, to ask oneself, “What is my next right thing?”

Interestingly, some research on the internet suggests that teachers of school aged children ask more questions about recall than questions that prompt thinking.  (Teaching center at University of Nebraska—Lincoln; http://www.lamission.edu/devcom/ProbingQuestions.htm ). In an age where we can get facts at lightning speed on the internet, how much more useful it seems for our future generations to develop capacities for reflection, problem solving, and innovation rather than rote memorization.

There are many kinds of questions that require a respondent to ponder in different ways.  A short run down of some main types:  There are comparison questions:  How is one thing similar or different from another?  Application questions:  How does something apply to a context different from that in which it originated, like, “How would a democracy function in a country ruled by an autocrat for a thousand years?” Deductive questions ask, given this situation and that situation, what might we conclude from the current one?  (Timmy erupted in class when there were over ten other children and he exploded at the family reunion.  What might we expect if we take him on a crowded day trip to Six Flags?”  Inductive reasoning questions ask someone to think through a group of specific situations, events or outcomes, and induce/figure out what explains them.  Evaluation questions require a judgment or opinion such as which job someone might take, given lots of different variables.  Then there are problem solving questions:  Johnny and Samantha both want to have their graduation parties on the same day.  Many of the invited guests overlap.  How can this be worked out?  Divergent questions have no absolute answers and call for differing perspectives with divergent conclusions.  These are mostly higher order questions that basically ask people what they think and how they think through things.

As a therapist who asks lots of questions, I asked my past thirty years of experiences how best I might conceptualize the kinds of questions I and my clients consider that yield the most comprehensive possibilities.  What comes to mind first and foremost we might call phenomenological questions:  How did you experience an interaction, an event, or a comment?  How did you interpret it?  What is your perspective on it?  How does that fit into your narrative about your relationship, etc.?

Our “reality” gets made up, largely, of the ways in which we experience relationships, situations, and events.  We have no access to absolute objectivity in any way at all.  All of our experiences, whether scientific or very intimate, filter through our bodies—our senses, our nervous systems, our neocortical processes—as well as our past experiences, our storehouses of knowledge, our attitudes and orientations, and even, in science, through the instrumentation and experimental setups we create.  We cannot help but experience so-called reality subjectively.  The only way to counteract the tension between our inherent senses of rightness about our own particular experiences of life (including relationship dynamics, what is happening in our complex world, etc.)  is to develop an openness to other perspectives and filters than our own.

In the therapy room, affective questions have vast importance.  These concern how we feel about something.  Some people have much more ability to articulate feelings than others.  Women typically have had more encouragement and social support for the expression of emotional responses to situations than have men.  Therapists can help others develop a language of feelings which serves many purposes, including the understanding of what drives us so persuasively.  How many times have you or someone you know acted out in anger, when underneath it all, they felt a deep sense of hurt—diminishment, unworthiness, or unlovability?

Humans have the capacity to experience multiple feelings at the same time and this, in and of itself, can feel confusing.  For example, a widow who adored her ill husband and woke at all hours of the night to care for him, feels relief, along with grief, when he dies.  Then she feels guilty because of the relief.  She wonders how she can remain a good person and tolerate the feeling of lightness around her shoulders.  Does how we feel about something, when it sounds unacceptable to us, make us a bad person?

Feelings come and go.  Some seem negative.  Some positive.  Some appreciative and some resentful.  Still, we have this weather going on and sometimes it seems unpredictable.  Still, feelings do not equal ‘doings.’ If we feel jealous of someone, we can learn to tolerate the feeling or utilize it to spur ourselves on toward our objectives.  We do not need to undercut that person in order to make ourselves feel better.

Conceptual questions attempt to unpack the ways in which someone is thinking about something.  Are there no exceptions?  Are there any circumstances under which you would tolerate that? There is probably not a world of math in which 4 x 4 does not = 16 (major disclaimer:  I am no mathematician).  But is there no world in which euthanizing a consenting adult has merit?

How are you thinking about what happened to you?  Getting laid off when you least expected it, or learning that your spouse wants a divorce?  Do you blame your boss, your spouse, or do you turn to reflection to find your part in the situation?  How does this hurt you?  How does this help you?  If you can’t do anything to correct the course things have taken, what can you derive from this awful situation that can move you toward healing?

And then there are action questions:  What does one want to do?  How can one execute a plan under chosen conditions?  What are the outcomes one desires and how well might they be achieved given this course of action?  How would things look if they were going better?

And then, the higher order principles/values questions:  Even though you feel like punching him in the nose, what are the most important factors that will impact what you do and how important is it that your actions line up with your most cherished values?

High self-esteem has its basis in the ways in which we appreciate ourselves as we treat ourselves, and others, in our world.  When we have high self-esteem we behave in alignment with our higher selves.  When we have high standards for ourselves then we can function as our own worst critics when we express less patience, less honesty, less work ethic, less generosity, or less understanding and sympathy than we have the capacity and desire to express.

Values questions have potency, especially with one’s chaotic and often frustrating teenager:  What traits do you have that make you a good friend?  Whose interests were of concern when you insulted that new kid?  How do you think a good son should act toward his grandmother?  What do you think made it impossible for you to cooperate with the agreement we made?

One other kind of question that helps us to build and develop mastery—with regard to anything and everything—concerns feedback questions.  Whether you are a bricklayer, a cardiac surgeon, a swimmer, a keeper of the hearth, a writer, an engineer or a player of games, feedback in the form of constructive criticism, expert coaching, good advice and the like, even sometimes unwanted criticism, when incorporated into repetitive practice, makes for expertise.

We can repeat the same mistake over and over again and get better at making that mistake.  Or we can strengthen our physical, mental or emotional muscles while honing and refining our skills, focus and attitude.  Asking for feedback from others might feel risky, but it will help bring us closer to the mark:  How did I do this time around on filling out the paperwork?  Did I improve my form in the breast stroke as you suggested?  Did I get the perspective on this street scene more accurately in my picture?  Did I manage to communicate my idea to you without sounding so judgmental?  Did I accurately incorporate your ideas on our business plan?

Guest Saddle

Consider these questions of happiness:

Is happiness more a “being” or a “doing for you?”

In your experience does happiness flow from a positive attitude?  From gratitude?

Do you experience happiness during moments of pure presence?

Is happiness experienced more as an intrapsychic or interpersonal phenomenon for you?

Is happiness an energy state that can be passed from person to person?

In your opinion, does happiness describe a group of phenomena like pleasure, utilizing oneself in fulfilling ways, and using oneself to the benefit of others?

Is happiness our default, our home, from which we often wander a long way?  When do you wander off from your home of happiness?  Have you thought about ways to return?

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The Charisma of Happiness:  The Happiness of Charisma

Saturday, July 9, 2016

While reading a new book, The Happiness Track, by Emma Seppalla, PhD, I came upon some unexpected material about the qualities of charismatic people.  Not only was her description of  charismatic people different than my associations with how that quality gets expressed, but so was her description of charismatic people surprising in that it related so well to what we therapists do with our clients.

My default assumptions about charisma had more to do with glamor, fame, a patina of great importance, perhaps a peacock-ishness, than about presence per se.  And being intensely present turns out to stand as the highlight of charisma, according to Seppalla.

Much to my surprise, research psychologist Seppalla, and the study from which she drew, by Robert J. House and associates, consider the most important characteristics of charisma to include presence, attentiveness, and enthusiasm.  These qualities hail from genuine interest or curiosity, and an impeccable ability to invest wholly in a moment of interaction.

Seppalla writes, “A charismatic person is able to exert significant influence because he or she connects with others in meaningful ways.  It’s no surprise that highly charismatic people. . .are often described as having the ability to make you feel as if you were the only person in the room.  Given how rare it is to receive that kind of attention from anyone, the ability to be fully present makes a big impression.”  Seppalla says that nascent research on charisma found it more a learnable skill than a “gift” or trait.

The study she mentions (Robert J. House, ‘Personality and Charisma in the US Presidency’, 1991) points to 6 elements:

1)  Empathy

2)  Good listening skills

3)  Eye contact (attention and gaze go together in our experience)

4)  Enthusiasm (including encouragement, admiration, and validation of another person)

5)  Self-confidence—being oneself authentically without self-consciousness or worry about how one is coming across or what others think.

6)  Skillful speaking—use language that connects with another; clear, sensitive, but does not talk down.

“Charisma, simply put, is absolute presence.”  (Seppalla, pg 32)

I could not help but think about the similarities between charismatic people, and people in service industries like mine—psychotherapy.  What any person, practiced in mine or another service profession, might add to the list would include a ‘wetware’ data base of diagnostic/analytical/anecdotal information, and the kind of mastery that comes from ten years or more of experience.  The skill sets and education in any field lie ready to access, almost incidentally, during the interactive process, when one is a master.  Mastery requires a depth of understanding and utility within a field that is highly nuanced and detailed.

When you use your charisma–which means we all have some capacity for it–we have, according to this research, honed our ability to pay close attention to another human being.  And when engaged at that intensity, we find ourselves more interested.  Engagement, or investment of one’s energy enhances our own experience, even as we are providing a more empathic experience to the person on the other end of our interaction.  We feel happier when we feel more engaged.  We enjoy our charisma, as does the other person receiving our undivided attunement and the gift of our undivided energy.

Interest and mastery go hand in hand.  To develop one’s ability in any field, as well as to continue to feel in love with it, requires ongoing scrutiny and exploration of successively finer levels of knowledge and skill.  If, like a therapist, you fall in love with what makes people tick, and how people make positive changes in ways of thinking, acting and feeling, then that interest grows in daily interactions where more subtle and intricate observations serve as sources of constant feedback toward refinement in motivational, palliative or empowering interactions.

Unasked for gifts sometimes arrive, such as when Angelica said to me, “I know you are busy, but you make me feel like I’m your only client.”  Or, Bob expressing with a sigh, “You nailed it!” when I simply played back the fear and frustration he felt when unable to get through to his wife.  Even when my “nails” are off their mark, by listening to my client suggest where they might be, I receive the gift of greater attunement and understanding, and so does my client!  This mutual feedback loop moves both of us into greater synchrony.  And greater presence.  Presence itself is highly influential.  On an energetic level, when I am fully engaged and present, I feel calm and that calm energy radiates to my client(s).  When fully present, I do not feel taxed by self-consciousness because my focus is on the recipient of my interest and positive curiosity.  The appearance of that includes self-confidence; just a simple expression of being all right as oneself; as a helpful human being.

We can learn to listen better.  When working with couples, therapists often offer some coaching in how to listen:  lower defenses, wear your curiosity hat, reiterate what you heard, validate the other person’s feelings and show empathy for their concerns, their pain, their suffering.  Ask good questions to flesh out your understanding of how the other person arrived at their point of view and their feelings.  And only when you have nourished all your attention on the speaker, and they feel satisfied in being heard, would you change roles, if appropriate.  In the process we learn more about each other.  Our “emotional IQ” develops.  We learn more about how to contribute to our partner’s happiness than before.  We learn with what language we make connection and what creates an experience of disconnect in our tone of voice.

Guest saddle:  When do you show up “with bells?”  In what situations or with whom would you like to show up more engaged, more alive, and more involved?  When and where do you find yourself most present?  Where and when do you experience your energy as most divided?  When do you notice others being drawn to your “charisma?”


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The Happiness of Confusion

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Honor your confusion. Even though your bodymind feels restless, unstable.  You make pros and cons lists.  You teeter.  You hedge, waffle, imagine and reimagine.  You second guess yourself.  You want this vague, cloudy, indecisive moment over and done with.  You would give anything to feel assured, rested and reassured.  But something holds you back:  Confusion.

Confusion occurs when we experience a mixture of thoughts, emotions, and perhaps information which has not taken shape completely.  Or it causes shapeshifting—one moment we think we will decide X, and that makes so much sense; but thought about from a different perspective Y makes more sense.  But we love X and only moderately like Y.

Emotionally, humans experience greater complexity than other animals who, although they too have feelings and express them, tend to experience one feeling at a time and not a confusing co-occurrence of multiple feelings;  feeling and thoughts that can do everything from collide, to wrestle with one another, to sit side-by-side like strangers.  No wonder we have so much trouble sorting things out and making decisions—this job or that job?  Get married or not?  Tell someone of our unhappiness or keep it to ourselves?  Go back to school or continue on our career path?  Go to the party or stay home and read a book?  Have a salad with salmon or a cupcake?  Volunteer at the food pantry on Saturday or go to the beach with friends?

Honoring your confusion.  It means you have ambivalence or ambiguity about the optimal path to follow.  The stakes may be high regardless of what you choose.  Or, even in a happy sense, you can identify more or less equal benefits that you would derive from any of the choices. Or, you lack enough information, including emotional information, to make a fully informed decision.  Or your decision is hampered by internal  interference like the fear of “making the wrong decision,” or anxiety about whether you can meet the expectations of a particular decision, or whether, later, you might find a reason to regret the path you chose, as if there is a perfect one, or the destined one if only you can intuit it correctly.  Confusion may also plague you because you are good enough to consider the needs, wishes and welfare of other important people in your life, and you realize that your decision will affect them.  Because you don’t want them to suffer, you try to calculate the costs and benefits, not only for yourself, but for your nearest and dearest as well.

From the cognitive standpoint, we can easily experience confusion when we do not have a framework to make a decision.  In other words, we have not decided how we will decide something.  Through which filter(s) will we compare the options?  As a simple analogy, one cannot adequately compare those proverbial apples and oranges.  The excellence of an apple, or of an orange, must be rated on, respectively, apple standards, and orange standards.  We might ask how crisp versus mealy are these apples.  We might compare how sweet and juicy one orange blooms compared to other oranges.  Will job A be better than job B because of salary?  Location relative to home?  Future potential?  Interest and challenge factor?  Values around work/life balance? Do economic factors make one job more viable than another?

Committing to relationships proves complicated as well, not only in the moment, but because we all go through developmental stages throughout our lives.  Young couples might rate being in love as so important that it blinds them to other considerations of “fit.”  Whereas, middle aged couples want love and companionship but also have additional criteria that have to be met before a longer term commitment seems feasible:  will the other person pull their own weight financially, can the other person deal well with children produced in a prior chapter, is there mutuality around chores or sharing time; how many interests are in common or distinct, and so forth.

We can feel happy with our confusion when we realize that it is not a trap, but an experience of our inner wisdom, a wisdom that lets us know that we still lack some information—internal or external–or some capability, or some readiness.  When we can have faith in our process and trust in ourselves, we can proceed through all of the considerations necessary.  Yes, it is possible to get stuck in confusion, as in anything.  Generally “stuckness” is fueled by fear or fatigue or depression, if not by what seem like insurmountable economic or practical considerations.  But confusion, when we accept it and honor it, does not necessarily hold our ankles in the muddy rut, but encourages us to expand our awareness of what is most important to us, and how we can envision ourselves, and those important others, thriving as we proceed down a path where many opportunities, as well as risks, await our choosing.  The experience of confusion, while somewhat uncomfortable, also supplies us with a divinely restless energy and that is also motivating.  We must hunt for an answer.  We must trust our ability to see through the thickets and to steer by the stars until we have come to our next place of awakening.

To the extent you can, accept and relax into your confusion with gratitude.  Honor your inner wisdom.  Continue your quest.  And ask yourself through which window of core considerations  your future will appear most clearly.

Guest Saddle:

About what do you feel confused right now?  If you are experiencing confusion about something big and important, ask yourself if there is one certainty about yourself that is so important to your sense of self and/or wellbeing, that you must take it into consideration when making this decision.  If you are confused about something little, ask yourself whether the blockage or resistance to making your decision has to do with anxiety, worrying about what others will think, fatigue, or just plain laziness (not that we can’t celebrate a lazy loll in the sun or a delicious nap, or just a break from do, do, do).


I posted my blog about confusion before I learned of the senseless violence that a murderer perpetrated on innocent people having a nice night out at a club called Pulse in the Orlando, Florida area.  Whatever or whomever he hated, I do not know. I do know that he should have been confused, because confusion may stop us from taking action. Confusion is an honest experience.  This evil individual bought guns, and premeditated his senseless attack.  He had clear and deadly intentions and carried them out.  Honest confusion, our own experience of confusion—both emotional and cognitive—serves us well when it slows down the freight train of terrible and terrifying decisions.

About an act of utter evil and or insanity, we might say, “That person was very confused.”  But that would be our own judgment, and our own (good) failure to identify with someone who acted in evil clarity.  We would project onto that person our own sense of confusion about what would drive someone to that kind of heinous and irreparable act.

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The Happiness of Organizing

Saturday, May 21, 2016

On a recent bright and beautiful day I started by vacuuming the rugs and doing a bit of washing of the baseboards and floor boards in my office.  At first I had to override some resistance, but then the action made me feel good, as well as reducing the inevitable influx of cosmic and planetary dust. There is a lot of dust in the world and it merely migrates from place to place, being moved by a wet rag from floors to drains and incorporated into the water table ultimately to be re-filtered into the environment so that it will ultimately rise again and circulate somewhere else.

There is organizational work to perform in the world, at many levels:  to make a nice nest for oneself, to harmonize one’s brain and body functions, to participate in an orderly and functional workplace, and so forth. Part of organizing involves tasks of clearing and cleaning, both internally and externally.  Even the brain’s detritus is cleared by a flush of cerebrospinal fluid.

Cleaning, clearing and organizing have multiple purposes which enhance happiness:  They promote a sense of safety (as in Feng Shui).  Nothing can topple on one’s head, trip one up, or leave one suffocating and overwhelmed.  A lot of stuff lying around or misplaced can result in the feeling of overstimulation which prolongs the stress one might bring home after a rough day at work or having had to deal with some frustrating circumstance.

When our nervous systems try to function on overload we get distracted from clear and pointed thinking.  A clean and clear desk top or craft table or workbench makes it easier to focus with greater acuity and intensity on what we want to accomplish.  We want to get into the flow, and experience a oneness with the task at hand, undeterred by anything getting into our way, mentally and physically/logistically.

Cleaning, clearing and organizing also manifest an important component of creativity.  By manipulating our surrounding spaces we, in effect, decorate, arrange, compose, orchestrate, harmonize, contain, and fit.

Even animals take time organizing their nests, dens, and burrows.  In an article by the National Wildlife Federation I found the following paragraph about Groundhogs, for which I have a real fondness, as there is one on whose property my house sits:

“Groundhogs have both summer and winter dens, or burrows. The winter dens are usually built in dry, wooded areas and are two to four feet deep. It is here that the groundhog hibernates. Summer dens are built near grassy areas where food is plentiful. Dens typically have two entrances or more, one main entrance and one “peep hole” or escape route which offers protection from predators. There are separate areas for sleeping, nursing, and potty facilities. Groundhogs line their dens with leaves and grasses and keep them clean.”

Parents of children who become successful adults have multiple traits (in this article 13 parenting traits are mentioned) including directing children to do chores.  From online Tech Insider (By Rachel Gillett and Drake Baer; May 6, 2016 issue):  “If kids aren’t doing the dishes, it means someone else is doing that for them,” Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford University and author of “How to Raise an Adult” said during a TED Talks Live event.

“And so they’re absolved of not only the work, but of learning that work has to be done and that each one of us must contribute for the betterment of the whole,” she said. Lythcott-Haims believes kids raised on chores go on to become employees who collaborate well with their coworkers, are more empathetic because they know firsthand what struggling looks like, and are able to take on tasks independently.

She bases this on the Harvard Grant Study, the longest longitudinal study ever conducted.  “By making them do chores — taking out the garbage, doing their own laundry — they realize I have to do the work of life in order to be part of life,” she tells Tech Insider.

The “work of life” may involve chores and tasks that reduce cosmic dust, physical chaos and promote a sense of hominess and relaxation, but the organizational work of life also includes one’s mind and nervous system. Each organ in the body has a purpose and the arrangement of the organs and the interplay between them describes the perfection of functioning.  Form and function, as is talked about in architecture, furniture making, or ceramics, when seamlessly organized, support and inform one another with the utmost grace (grace being a combination of efficiency and beauty).

Meditating this morning, which I have not done for years, involved organizing my body for comfortable aligned cross-legged seating.  My back felt straight but supported by the backrest of the couch.  My fingers moved in simple pincer motion to connect with my thumb– the anchor for hand movements–as I repeated a series of sounds sublingually.

According to neuroscience research, meditation involving mantras and body movement (or hand movement) reorganizes the brain beneficially by slowing down the amygdala (a major player in generating fear) and activating the anterior cingulate (involved in empathy and intuition), as well as improving overall emotional and physical health.  I’m in!

When I was a college student, Transcendental Meditation was being taught across the country on campuses and I employed this kind of meditation for around 3 years in a fairly consistent way.  After the first year my chronic headaches (these were not as bad as migraines but required a lot of Tylenol) had ceased, something that I suddenly realized one day, and could only attribute to the meditation–the only add-on or major life change during those years of intense study, self-reflection and social interaction.

When I first got out of bed this morning my body felt heavy on my feet, my whole being sodden.  But after the meditation I experienced my body and my being as lighter and more optimistic, while my modestly proportioned surroundings seemed more spacious.

The Merriam Webster dictionary online says that the word “organization” came into our collective vocabulary around 1949.  That surprised me when I hunted for an etymology I assumed had something to do with organs in the body.  In business as in individual and community life, teams and departments have functions and purposes that, when harmoniously connected to each other, move products and services forward unimpeded by chaos in the pipelines.  Both strength and flexibility are assets in a body or an industrial corpus.

Guest saddle:  What beauty have you recently created from chaos?  What dust have you settled or cleared lately?  What kinds of chaos overwhelm you?  What are the most important aspects of your life for which organizing produces the most benefit?

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Assembling Happiness

Sunday, May 15, 2016

In The Stone Soup story, a group of hungry gypsies place a pot of water over a roaring fire in the middle of a village square.  As villagers pass by with interest in the undertaking, the travelers ask for a single contribution to make the “soup” tastier.  When everyone in the village has added a carrot, a celery stalk, an onion, a marrow bone, some peas, garlic and so on, there is, finally, a savory soup, a “stone’s throw” from mere boiling water and a pebble.

This is the melting pot, the cauldron, the collective village happiness, the assembly.  In the United States, the right of assembly is a First Amendment Right:  groups of peaceful citizens can come together in a public forum to advance their cause.  In the story the cause is the most fundamental:  feed primal hunger.  Everyone contributes.  Everyone eats from the common pot, the collective good.

Scientific discoveries, movements in art, architecture and fashion, cultural norms and social etiquette all evolve from the assembly, over time, of multiple contributions.  Wholes, whether of people in workplaces and families, or of ideas, are greater than the sum of their parts, because of the complex and various ways in which parts interact and co-influence each other within assemblages.  Synergistic and evolving, living systems exist within other meta- systems, and attach to other “galaxies.”

On Mother’s Day my family and my family of origin assembled at my house to break bread together, to share news and upcoming events, to laugh and hug and enjoy the new babies in the family–those actively moving parts who were happily integrated into this matrix of love and devotion.  Although I could barely stand at the end of the evening, having marinated, sliced, diced, stirred, poured, heated, chilled, served, washed, and dried the entire day, I felt incredibly happy and deeply satisfied.

As human beings we are constantly assembling and disassembling; then reassembling.  Even caring is something requiring assembly. Sometimes instructions are needed.  The Thursday before Mother’s Day I cared for my 11 month old granddaughter.  We laughed and smiled and clapped and danced and walked around and ate and went for a walk and tapped on toys and explored each others’ faces and hugged and I rocked her and she slept.  I watched how our attunement resulted from an assembly of rhythms, pressures, temperatures, expressions, interpersonal distances; a complex dance that can change from moment to moment.  One moment we gazed into each others’ eyes and she put her forehead to mine; I cradled her tired head on my shoulder, rocking in comfort-time.  Each response and counter response an expressive piece of caring.  This level of attunement seems rare on an adult-to-adult level because it requires masterful presence, focus, effort, flexibility, observation, and endurance, as well as the capacity to put someone else’s needs before one’s own (while not losing sight of one’s own needs entirely).

Each response to another is a piece of caring. Taken together, the expressive details amount to lovely nurturing.  We can use language simply to say we care about someone.  While this may provide a heartwarming moment, it, like ‘I love you,’ is fairly generic.  Without specific actions, including verbalizations, the credibility of such a blanket statement may wane over time, in the absence of particular expressions that reveal a high emotional IQ about the person for whom such caring is intended.  As a metaphor, the garden of a relationship thrives when given enough sun, shade for a respite, water, enriched soil picked clean of weeds, and so on.  Simply throwing a bunch of seeds out the front door and expecting the garden to develop and thrive on its own will not work.

Pieces of ourselves assemble to form a whole.  One of my clients, Molly, recently returned from a rehabilitative experience with a new and more workable narrative about herself and the compulsive behaviors about which she had so harshly berated herself in the past. To access a part of herself that could understand and forgive formed a crucial part of her further healing, as well as the development of healthier coping mechanisms.

We all have younger selves, and each of our subparts understood our lives and the contexts in which we lived them, from different perspectives. The perceptions of your adolescent self, or that of your child self, have cognitive, experiential and emotional limitations that do not have to continue into young and middle adulthood.  Yet sometimes those earlier perspectives entrench us in unhelpful beliefs about ourselves and others that do not get replaced until we bring the light of our current reflections upon them. For example, understanding one’s addiction from a disease model perspective as opposed to a paradigm of poor moral character can relieve one of guilt and shame, and thus provide the empowerment needed to seek beneficial treatments.

Whether we assemble a village soup or the multiple stories within ourselves, we thrive when we engage in the creative enterprise of exercising and utilizing the many parts and perspectives on any situation.  Little seems absolutely impossible when we act in resourceful ways as part of a group, a work team, a community, or as our own “whole.”  The multiple lines of synergistic communication between parts makes the whole far greater than a mere sum of parts.

Guest Saddle:  In what group or assembly do you feel the best, the most productive, the most part of a whole bigger than yourself?  What assembly puts wind in your sails?  And what parts of yourself need greater nurturing and understanding from you so they can grow and thrive and feel honored for their contributions?

Web Camel Transport 28

Cultivating Happiness

For Monday February 29, 2016 (written Wednesday, May 4, 2016)

The word on my office calendar is cultivate.  Cultivate a long row of crops, or your long career path or you long commitment to friends and family.  The quote says the words ‘improvement,’ ‘achievement’, and ‘success,’ have no meaning without the continuing development and growth that cultivation brings.

I often think of the garden as a metaphor for a relationship or project.  It must be tended:  thinned, pruned, watered, supplied with sun, kept free from pests but inviting to bees, the soil enriched and tilled as needed.  The seeds having lovingly been planted and now enjoyed in their flourishing.

At home with our partners and children, and at work with our coworkers, we have gardens to tend, and we have to tend them all the time, surprising as that might seem at first blush.  Families have lots to do and this busy life with all of its mundane and ubiquitous duties like washing dishes, doing laundry, shopping for and preparing food, bathing small beings, taking out trash, paying the bills, chauffeuring the children back and forth to friends’ houses and to lessons, changing the oil in the cars, and so on, can easily usurp the joy.  We do not commit to another human being long term, or commit to children we bring into the world without understanding the responsibilities involved.  But how worthwhile would all of this incredibly endless and daily set of tasks and routines seem without enjoying one another.  We do not seek more work just for the sake of working.  But we must feel willing to do the work in order to reap the harvest.

So at home and at work we do both the business at hand and cultivate relationships with those in our boat.  One will not get very far if everyone is rowing in a different direction. Nor will we feel the joy and confluence of moving almost effortlessly along the water. In the book, The Speed of Trust, by Stephen Covey Jr (his father writes the introduction– Stephen Covey Sr and author of the renowned, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’) we learn that trust—whether between two people in a couple or friendship, or between an employer and employees or a company and its customers and vendors—greases the wheel of success.  Mistrust bogs down businesses and families alike, because when people work at cross purposes and undercut each other, or pull sneaky stunts, or lie or keep secrets, these hurdles prevent operations from running smoothly.  And morale goes down.  People who operate with honesty, transparently, fairness, and take an interest in the welfare and success of others, make more money and win more friends.  When you are as good as your word, everyone learns your word is gold and deals get made quickly.  Trust is efficient.  What is efficient is graceful—smooth, agile even with twists and turns, seamless, and strong.

We cultivate trust at both of its ends:  We speak and act in trustworthiness; and we give the gift of our trust to others.  Most importantly, we trust ourselves to show up for our commitments, to offer our undivided attention, to do the best we can to secure our own interests as well as the interests of others in honest and mutually beneficial ways.

Cultivation in rich soil is a lot easier than trying to cultivate sandy or barren soil.  Many people live in dire circumstances whether materially, or psychologically.  And many people, even the “lucky” ones who have enjoyed material comfort and opportunities for education and employment and freedom of movement, may endure painful assaults to health or grievous losses.  But no matter how we have suffered, there is cultivation work to be done if we are to move beyond survival to enjoyment and satisfaction in life.

I recently spoke with an 88 year old relative who had had multiple joint surgeries which required massive operations and long times to heal.  And yet this woman suffered most from recently having her teeth pulled.  Although she had adjusted to the dentures and could physically eat in relative comfort, she could no longer taste the food she ate.  It seemed to her that because the dentures covered her own palate, she experienced not only reduced contact with food, but a great reduction in taste. Food could well have been cardboard; except for dark chocolate.  And we all know dark chocolate has magic.  The loss in taste, the lost in enjoyment of food, and the loss of her teeth hit her much harder than the joint replacement surgeries even though mobility was still limited.  Even the dentures, soaking at night in a glass of solution, and looking in the mirror at the sunken mouth that didn’t feel like her mouth any more, took a psychological toll.

We want to feel like ourselves.  What a huge disconnect to lose a leg, to lose one’s teeth, to lose a breast or any part of oneself because of illness or accident.  And what a huge project to reconfigure, within our innermost beings, these altered bodies which no longer feel like us.  In the Boston marathon, even young people ran with prosthetic limbs.  Amazing and awe inspiring. These brave and determined persons have gone beyond adaptation to cultivating excellence in the face of enormous odds. It is difficult to even imagine the dedicated work required to enable the incorporation, within one’s locus of action and being, an alternate part of one’s body.

And yet to incorporate, to integrate into one’s body and mind a formerly unrelated part of the body, consideration of the mind or occupant of the heart, is necessary for the continuing cultivation of our lives.  We are all composites of parts, recipes full of ingredients—and changing ingredients at that.

Sometimes, whether in conversation with a friend or family member, or in a therapeutic process, or while practicing a sport or an art with a teacher or coach, we turn and till the soil in which our deepest desires nestle.  Sometimes we can even dig deep enough to feel the bedrock underneath, holding up all this cultivation.

Guest saddle:  What is it you most want to cultivate within yourself?  What garden needs tending between you and another person?  What tools, practices and strategies do you use in cultivating your life?

Web Camel Transport 27

Athletes of Happiness:  Walk, Run, Participate

Sunday, February 28, 2016 (written April 24, 2016)

The day after Patriot’s Day, a Massachusetts holiday (April 18, 2016), I saw a blurb on the internet that said everyone who participated in the Boston Marathon was happy whether or not they completed it; whether they ran or walked.  And, seemingly, regardless of what corner of the planet from which they came.  They are all athletes, regardless of age, or whether in wheelchairs or with a prosthetic legs, or 65 years old; and many who push our human envelope to a maximal point of excellence and possibility.

What is an athlete? An athlete trains in a sport or discipline and gains exceptional strength, agility or stamina. And at a peak of mastery, excels in a physical and mental output that is awe inspiring, both for its quality, and for the amount of dedication and persistence required to get there.

Athleticism, whether physical, intellectual, or emotional, starts with training.  And training requires dedication.  Training often seems less than glamorous.  And similarly to sports training, in my years as a dancer, the exercises for areas of the body required reiteration thousands of times and on a near daily basis, so that, like walking, these positions and movements got incorporated into muscular intelligence and seemed natural. Runners run, all the time.  Swimmers swim.  Competitors in tennis, football, and the many forms of sport in the world, repeat and repeat what their bodies and minds have learned until, by habit, they perform under stress and in a variety of conditions those masterful scripts.

There is no quick way to become a master.  Thousands and thousands of subtle cues, nuances of movement, and orientations of the mind, have to come together in a recipe of as-close-to-perfection as it gets. So training, though mostly reiterative, also includes incorporation of more highly sophisticated, micro-informative material so that performance gets honed to a greater and greater degree.  When teaching dance for many years, I had to think through and describe and offer input to students. I found it fascinating that nearly every day a new thought, a slightly different perspective, an additional insight informed both my teaching and the students’ capabilities.  It seemed possibility that a never-ending deepening of understanding existed in dance, and therefore in every athletic variation.

Exceptional strength, physically, results from repetition, but also, most importantly, from pacing.  Pacing requires an ability to output a more and more exacting ratio of effort over time or quantity.  As an example, the amount of exertion has to cover one hundred repetitions of lifting a certain weight or running a certain distance.  If too much exertion gets expended up front then the remaining pool of exertion may run out before task completion.  I have often read that studies of productivity show that workaholics who stay late in their offices tend to accomplish less and less per hour over optimal energy times.  As someone who works fewer days in the office but longer ones, I have learned to pace my energy and to reboot four or five times during the day with healthy snacks, power naps, and stretching or brief exercises.  This does not always work because so many variables affect our wellbeing.  Fighting a cold, feeling under the weather, dealing with a non-usual stressor, a less than adequate night’s sleep exemplify some common influencers on ability to pace one’s energy over a long period of time to perform well.  We also have a chronobiology profile, or a circadian rhythm which, though possessed in common by the human species, has individual variations.  I am a “morning person,” but my mother is a “night owl.”  Yet, my low point in energy runs typically between 2 PM and 3 PM in the afternoon and I get a “second wind” till about 9 PM.  My brain still feels alive, excited and active until then, when Cinderella turns into a pumpkin.

Marathon runners must have stamina or endurance, to maintain and pace their energies over a long distance.  They know when to run fast, faster, and fastest.  They know when to slow down a bit.  These strategies achieve a high level of finesse over time.  In the psychological realm of our lives, stamina and endurance have as a partner, resilience, and perhaps patience.  Sometimes a situation or relationship requires of us that we hang in there through some hard or disappointing times.  It takes resilience to get through a divorce, and it takes endurance and stick-to-itiveness to keep applying for jobs, week after week and month after month of no responses, interviews but no job offers, and job offers that fall through.  Eventually stamina and endurance pay off.  The goal may not look like the initial vision—getting to the finish line or attaining that plum job.  But the goal stands as the result of hard work and sustained effort and has the halo of gold around it, and a happiness banner.  The result sports the face of your personal and beautiful best!

Agility includes quickness and grace.  A person who possesses nimbleness of mind and/or body moves with efficiency.  No mental or physical effort gets wasted.  Every moment of the thinking process or the musculature serves the goal with nuanced and masterful economy. No matter the slalom course complicating the landscape or mindscape.  Agile people solve problems well because they can think through them, figuring the best path to navigate the situation.  You have to be highly in tune to yourself and to your surroundings in order to use yourself in this way.

Athletes of happiness try hard, harness themselves to the task like obedient oxen and plow the field, happy to feel their way, and happy to get to the end of a row.

Guest saddle:  In what area of life do you feel most like an athlete?  When and where do you try hard, and repeatedly, getting better and better all the time? In what arena of your life do you intend to apply yourself with more diligence and commitment?