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If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again:  The Happiness of Trying

Saturday, February 27, 2016 written April 17, 2016

If you unpacked the contents of the oft-repeated phrase, “I’m trying,” at least one “doing,” if not multiple actions should emerge.  But I’ve noticed that many clients report that they are “trying,” when in reality what they mean by “trying” has to do with the experience of an emotional and visceral sense of effortfulness.  Sometimes, when a person feels stuck—in a dead end job, a disconnected relationship, poverty, a negative housing situation, or even a sense of being lost in the world—just hanging in there constitutes a sense of trying.  At this most existential level, staying alive while experiencing the low mood, lack of motivation, and sense of helplessness that defines depression, means “trying.”

Because ‘trying’ is really a ‘doing,’ it is necessary to literally, physically act.  But often problems loom as so monstrous or enormous that the fix seems completely unfeasible.  In the face of something overwhelming we tend to retreat, heads down, and avoid doing anything at all, perhaps hoping, if any hope remains, that somehow, serendipitously, a savior will arrive with the answers, or, because of the passage of time, things will somehow resolve on their own.

Sometimes, however, a small change, a baby step, an opening of the front door, an act of reaching out to someone else, yields an almost miraculous result:  something gets set in motion and that motion can gather steam until some real momentum pulls us out of the dark pit of despair in which we had sunk and settled for so long.  Oddly, doing something, even if seemingly unconnected to the big problem, can make a significant positive difference.

As an example, Sally felt stuck in her small apartment after retirement.  Neither the layout nor the immediate neighborhood had any appeal—no shops, coffee houses to walk to, etc.–and she longed to return to the neighborhood in which she had formerly thrived.  At the moment she could not find anything affordable there.  She also felt lonely and bored.  Because she knew she had to do something, even if not directly related to changing her housing situation, she applied for a part time job, just to get out.  She started to work a few hours every day.  At the end of each short shift she found herself relishing the return to her small and cozy apartment where it was quiet after the stimulating interactions with other adults while at work. Since she had spent some time in a more stimulating world while working, the quietness of her apartment’s neighborhood now felt relieving. Ultimately, she still wanted to move, but it didn’t seem quite so urgent a problem.  Additionally, because of the increased income a slightly more expensive apartment would become possible.

Basha felt very depressed because she had been laid off and now badly needed a new job, but she had a baby, and the cost of full time child care and the sadness of leaving her baby for a 40-hour a week job felt overwhelming.  She just wanted to stay home. Whether she had the baby-blues, or just felt plagued with worry she spent most of her time on the couch. But when it was time for her college reunion, her husband urged her to go so she picked herself up and went, just to mingle and to get her mind off of her worries.  There she met a former classmate who was directing an organization needing a consultant with Basha’s skills.  They wanted a part time person.  They offered flexible hours, and the option to combine working from home as well as in the office setting.

When we feel stuck, we have likely constructed a set of thoughts that box us in and make our lives appear windowless and without doors.  It seems like there is no way over, under or around our situation.  But stuckness can often function as a defense mechanism.  After all, if I think that I can do nothing to remedy my situation, I can let myself off the hook to take an action that might feel uncomfortable or uncharacteristic of the way I usually behave.  To find the windows and open the doors in my life, I have to gather my courage and push my own walls.

As an example, Jerry felt overwhelmed by the amount of work he felt expected to do on his IT field tech job.  He frequently took home a beeper, whether or not assigned, and responded to all problems in a timely fashion, including on weekends when he had made other plans and had to disappoint family and friends by cancelling at the last minute.  In his mind, if he complained about having too much work his company would fire him.  He felt stuck between that proverbial rock and hard place:  over work or get fired.  His black and white thinking maintained his sense of imprisonment.  He stubbornly clung to his negative thought pattern even in the face of evidence that his work was highly valued by his company and their voiced awareness that he would need an assistant.

When we cling to thoughts that maintain our dysfunctional living, we need to find the payoff for our misguided loyalty to those thoughts.  In this case, Jerry feared confrontation and hardly ever asserted himself.  So long as the thought of getting fired persisted, he did not have to test himself in a situation where he would have to say that he could not keep up the current pace.

When helped to realize that an option existed to merely have a conversation with his supportive boss about how much Jerry valued his job but needed some help in prioritizing tasks and adding some work/life balance, he began to see this middle path.  While we may have some all-or-nothing choices in life, most times options for compromise exist. To find those we options we must move beyond our comfort zone when it has shrunk so small as to make us ineffective and dissatisfied.

There are lots of kinds of helping hands.  Real ones—person-to-person—have great advantages.  Sometimes a helping hand gets offered, and sometimes one has to ask for it.  But when even multiple helping hands do not constitute enough to move someone out of a rut, medications can provide a different kind of helping hand.

As an example, SSRIs  (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) generally work by preventing the neurotransmitter serotonin—produced and moved by one brain neuron to another–from being gobbled up so quickly by the receiving (reuptake) neurons.  When serotonin bathes the brain with its soothing balm longer, mood is lifted.  In one article I read a long time ago, a study at Yale University mentioned that the brain suffers a kind of temporary damage from unmitigated stress, worry, and anxiety.  Stress hormones like adrenalin, when cumulative, can cause serious effects on our brains and bodies.  This “fries” the brain, as working too hard can cause burnout. Feeling fried and burned out are real, physical, organic realities.  You might think of an anti-depressant as a helping hand, soothing the fevered brow. This helping hand might make the difference between a serious lack of motivation (someone staying under the covers, unable to move out of bed to shower or prepare food, or greet the day), and the ability to rise.

Some people have brains that may be boosted by the presence of others’ helping hands, alone or in combination with an elevation by psychopharmacology.  The beauty is that almost anything and everything, kind and heartfelt (even if tough) can help, at least a little, if one is open to it.  A cup of chicken soup, a talk, a card, an invitation to walk, the offer of a hair wash, a drive in the countryside, the sounds of an inspiring piece of music, a prayer in company, etc.  Everything has the potential to open up an avenue toward a new place of wellbeing in the mind and heart, and within the fold of our human companions.

Try something! Watch for what happens.

Guest saddle:  What are the “helping hands” you value most?  How/to whom do you reach out your helping hand?

 

Web Camel Transport 25

Nap Happiness:  Refreshment, Enlivening and Maybe a Rabbitat

For Friday, February 26, 2016; written April 10, 2016

“Lili’s so happy;  she had a two and a half hour nap this afternoon,” my daughter said about this beaming, cruising, grabbing, chortling 10 month old baby.  My daughter’s family had come to dinner, along with my son who’d driven several hours from graduate school to spend the weekend with us.  What joy!

With the acquisition of three bottom teeth and two uppers, Lili enjoyed sweet potatoes and bananas and little things called “Happy Baby puffs,” while the rest of us talked and ate.  She eats more when others eat, an obvious sign of the social behavior that constitutes “breaking bread together.”  There’s the learning aspect; but more importantly the tribal one.  Food shared among a loving group means everyone will eat, everyone will survive; everyone will thrive.  And the tribe is connected to the earth from which the food sprang, and the hearth on which it was prepared.  And we sat at the oversized round butcher block table custom made for my family of origin when I was a small child.

It was eight before my daughter gave Lili milk and placed her in the softly lined carrier to fall asleep.  She herself had napped beside the baby earlier and both had slept well.  Such sweet and open sleep do babies in safe places experience, foreheads free from worry, mouths slightly open, and arms released.  Waking to whatever happens next in an unanticipated world that has no check lists yet, no obligations, no coveted rewards for hard work or good service.

Renewal and refreshment come in several prized, energetic forms:  food, sleep, inspiring stimulation.  Lili had had her good, re-energizing sleep, and together our conversation and laughter was buoyed by tasty and nourishing food, and our minds received the stimulation that ideas and anecdotes provide.

The day before, a tremendously enlivening experience changed my life in some ways.  A young professor from University of New Hampshire and a graduate student, arrived at my house to walk with me through the still bare-leafed 95 acres on which I live, to determine whether some piece of this densely tree populated wetland area might be cultivated for the New England cottontail rabbit, a species rapidly going extinct, with only one hundred surviving members.  They survive in shrub lands where densely filled out low growth bushes protect them from predators.  They are hiders, not fighters.

As we walked through the muted pallet of fallen leaves and bare tree limbs, their conversation awakened the woods.  Haley pointed out small chewed twigs under a tree where a porcupine likely nestled toward its crown.  Matt looked in vernal pools with binoculars to find the first of the frogs’ eggs.  There were divots in the leaf beds where deer had gone, and scats, and squared holes where pileated woodpeckers made their way into the trees, and the sounds of the titmouse and many other birds.  Matt pointed out red oak, black and white oak, white pines, a darkly lit hemlock stand.  Up higher the ground was sandier and full of ledge.  Lower down the earth stood richer and fuller and through it ran rivulets from the marshy pond beyond, a “power grid” along which the rabbits could theoretically make their homes.

Everywhere we walked, punctuated only by the sounds of our walking and the wind sweeping in through the trees sometimes, the woodlands woke up and showed themselves to me differently, as if I had borrowed the lenses of these experts’ mental binoculars.

Everything can be interesting, bursting with news, revelatory!  Awakening senses, intelligence, and imagination.  But more, a sense of connection.  A kind of kinesthesia, I felt the woods—cool, sometimes moist as rain fell lightly; sometimes patchy with warmth where the sun stole through.  And the forest floor, lounging and lunging and bulging with rock and hummock and hardening around tree roots and sprouting all kinds of intensely green mosses, so green no matter the weather.  And the atmosphere, as if it sifted right through my skin and into my interior.  As if breathing in the moist curling air, spiraled something alive in me.

I do not have skills as an orienteer.  I get lost easily and explained that 95 acres covered with growth might as well be a seventeen mile area because I could potentially lead them in circles.  But as we bushwhacked back to the house, I began to feel a sense of direction I had not felt ever before. I recognized some places in the woods, but more strongly felt the slope of the land under my feet, and a tug to my left shoulder.  And we arrived, not too shabbily, back at the ranch.

To help potentially contribute in a modest way to saving a species from extinction and to have a rudimentary lesson in the braille of my woods, was most inspirational, and enlivening, and that energy carried me a long way into that Friday night.

Just like the woods are high ground and low ground, thick and thin soiled, so are we humans high dancers one moment and nap-worthy monsters the next.  And so much of happiness depends upon a nap, a stir fry, an eye-opening walk in the woods.

Guest Saddle:  What was a recent moment of real refreshment for you?  A moment when your senses or your heart was enlivened?  When you saw something in a new way?  Or when you shared something with another person that opened that persons mind, heart or imagination?

(Picture is “Girl with a Pomegranate” by William Bougeureau.  Pomegranates are symbols of renewal)

Web Camel Transport 24

The Twelfth Fairy:  The Happiness of Assistance

Thursday, February 25, 2016  (written April 2, 2016)

In the milder version of “Sleeping Beauty,” a tale that made its way from gruesome narrative to love story, a princess is born to a hopeful and happy King and Queen.  On the occasion of her christening 12 of 13 fairies are invited (sometimes in the story there are 7 of 8 invited). After eleven of the fairies have bestowed their blessings on the baby princess, the wicked crone breaks into the ceremony and, as revenge for being excluded, curses the princess to prick her finger on a spindle when she turns 16 and die.  Just as the horrified crowd looks on, the 12th fairy steps out.  While unable to reverse the curse, she is able to mitigate it.  The princess will indeed prick her finger on the spindle but will sleep for one hundred years until the kiss of a prince awakens her and the entire court.  All sleep behind a ring of impenetrable thorns until the special prince comes along.

I love the mythic and archetypal quality of this story—even this Disney-esque version—because it captures what most of us experience periodically in life:  Things go along relatively well until we hit a crisis of epic proportion:  we or someone close to us gets ill, we lose a job or a house, we suffer the break-up of a committed relationship, a friend betrays us, we cheat or are cheated upon.  Something in life violates us and everything good and happy takes a backseat to this earth-shaking situation that threatens to completely overwhelm or even kill us.

But then this is not the end of the story, the last chapter.  Someone—a friend, a lover, a parent, a sister, a congregation, a group of coworkers—mitigates our situation.  Suddenly there is light in the void, a hand holding ours, a healing infusion of hope and help and caring surrounding us and lifting us up.  The 12th fairy has arrived with a moist cool cloth for the fevered brow.  Our curses may not be lifted entirely, but they are ameliorated.

Just as things can always get worse, they can always get better.  We are connected within a matrix of energetic beings and channels of healing energy and inspiration promote our well-being.  We also contribute to the well-being of others, and can do that more deliberately by becoming aware of those around us, hearing and seeing a need, and intervening even in a modest way.

As a psychotherapist I feel lucky to have ready-made opportunities to function as a Twelfth Fairy.  Now, any seasoned therapist realizes that we are only a very small part of someone’s healing journey.  The one hour a week or every two or three weeks that we spend with someone is far less contact than someone has with their family and friends—their inner circle of important others.

And yet, what is powerful, has to do with catalysis.  The Twelfth Fairy co-catalyzes or revs the engine of healing within someone.  After a therapeutic alliance has been well established, a client may say, “I could hear you in my head, Lisa, and I knew I had to broach the topic with my boss and set a boundary.”  This is an example of introjection, where a sub-part of the client has been mobilized and is represented by an image of me.  But really it is not me per se; it is the catalyzed sub-part of the client ready for action, fully engaged, and freed up to exercise options that had formerly been shut down or dormant.

In ‘The Sleeping Beauty,’ we understand dormancy and shut down.  A princess, with everything to live for, has ceased to act.  She can only sleep in her life, until awakened.  Awakenings come from moments of crisis, or from the dawning awareness that arrives out of lesson after lesson in life, or by the positive influence or presence of another being who gently awakens a de-activated or un-potentiated aspect of consciousness.  The Twelfth Fairy and the kiss of the Prince have a lot in common.  They both awaken healing energy within the recipient.

In our lives we harbor one or more sleeping princesses within.  Regardless of gender, there are dormant or suppressed parts of ourselves that have something to contribute.  Perhaps they have lived silently in the shadows due to shame, guilt, or fear.  Perhaps they have never been invigorated with sources of nurturing and remain nascent as dried seeds.  But to flourish, each sleeping princess must awaken and look around, and find herself fondly greeted by an encouraging and supportive presence.

So much inherent happiness thrives in doing what a Twelfth Fairy does, and in openly receiving what a Twelfth Fairy gives.

Guest Saddle:  For whom have you functioned as a Twelfth Fairy?  And who has offered you the hope, encouragement or validation of a Twelfth Fairy, even when you felt most in despair?

Web Camel Transport 23

Aperture:  The Space through which Happiness Passes

Friday March 25, 2016 (for Wednesday, February 25, 2016)

It is gray and cold outside, technically below freezing. I woke up and turned up the heat. I had a good sleep with somewhat disturbing dreams, like a slight clotting of cream in a delicious cup of coffee. The American International School pictures have stirred up both happy and sad and scary memories and these provoked in me some regrets that I was not more attuned to, and involved in my siblings’ lives. I was fifteen to seventeen then, and scarcely aware of the importance of awareness and memory as pillars of the development of my Good Self. That I do not remember more, about each person—acquaintance or friend–with whom I shared some time and space and location, bothers me. Like any parent to a younger child or one’s own younger self-in-recollection, I feel the frustration of not being able to perambulate backward in time to impart the wisdom that only comes streaming into the hourglass in grains of sand. The aperture of now, and the aperture of then differ so widely.

But I feel grateful this morning for the quiet and solitude of my house and the land around me. There is goodness in that. Those persons on the planet whom I love, for whom I want to express my love, recede for a moment. I can gather my energy, refresh myself. Quiet does that. The presence of others in the house occupies my mind and heart, as if, at any moment someone might want or need something. I would like to provide for them their wishes, should my help be appropriate. Laundry, food or a drink, directions, the borrowing of an item, the finding of one. . . I stay tuned to those radio-like frequencies of others and do not filter them out. I listen, lean, anticipate, and attend. So when I sit here alone, and there is no one else in the house who might need or want anything, I luxuriate in the spaciousness of that.

Yet there is no static place of solitude or company that results in happiness. Happiness resides in the dance of cloud and sun, of heat and breezy relief from heat. Inner weather, from the sunny core of me to the ozone layer and the thinner stratospheres beyond, varies continuously. Like balancing–a vibration, a shifting, a seamless (if one is lucky enough to do this well) series of delicate adjustments. Like breathing—inspiration and expiration and the long golden thread of emptying and filling in between.

I miss my brother and have missed him every other day or so this March. He died in March 35 years ago. But there are places in my body that hold his absence gently, where once, a long time ago, I railed at his utter gone-ness at such a young age–27. And all those young people, particularly young men, who are dying now, in every town across the country due to opiate overdoses, has brought this back to me. The hypnotic spell of opiates, like a ghastly Stepford conversion, this Pied Piper of death, leads too many too soon to their graves. And yet, even the taking of drugs serves an initial, and so human purpose—relief. Relief from emotional pain, from self-loathing, from anger, from disappointment, from fatigue, from stress, from depression, from loneliness, from a sense of failure, from physical pain, from an inability to envision a better future, from all kinds of unsatiated hungers; from running, running, running away.

Rain is coming down. My phone says it is thirty degrees this morning. I imagine the birds, the squirrels, and the deer as cold and uncomfortable, focused on sheltering and trying to feed themselves and this makes me remember that I dreamed about squirrels flying last night. That I thought they were birds, but someone pointed out to me that a “flock” of squirrels had traversed a great distance of sky into a harbor of trees whose canopy quickly concealed them. It must have been because I walked with Lili yesterday in the new baby backpack. We saw some birds along the wooded path to the pond, as well as some squirrels. She felt heavy in the backpack but I loved her weight and the pressure it put on my sedentary thighs. The weight, the gravity, the air-born—perhaps all of that melded into the dream imagery.

The wind blew strongly and even with the two pairs of socks I put on Lili’s feet, I worried that her toes would get too cold so sometimes I put my hands behind my back and held her feet. Even though her cheeks reddened and her nose ran she still fell asleep before we reached home. So soundly that I unpacked her, removed the extra sweater, mittens and socks without her waking. I placed her on a bed with a quilt, carefully below her face in these days where babies are supposed to sleep without any blanketing. I watched her breathe, face relaxed, and took a nap next to her.

Exercise. Rest. Waking to the sweetness of baked yam and tiny pieces of ripe banana. A slow slip into the afternoon. Goodness of a day with Lili. Goodness now this day by myself.

Materiality—sand sifting through the aperture of the hourglass in grain upon grain; the sweet, thousand-kissed nearly pore-less skin of Lili’s cheek—holds hands with any thoughts in wisdom, in happiness.

Guest saddle: Through what opening does light flow into your life? When you are walking by the ocean, a lake, on a mountain? When you wake up, or revel in a conversation with a friend? How does your inner weather change? Dramatically or subtley? What is wild and precious to you? (words taken from Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day—“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”)

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The ‘Hamlet’ of Happiness

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

 

I spoke with my mother a couple of days ago. She recently turned 88 and had just gotten home from her lifelong learning class at Brandeis University where all the teachers are volunteer peers. This course, she said, was the best ever, a true Shakespearian scholar and retired professor at its helm. She is taking his class on Hamlet, a play she has read, and studied many times over the years from college onward through continuing education classes. Yet she sounded incredibly enthusiastic to have her nose in this play yet again; to feel equally or more enchanted than ever by the synergy of familiarity with the work, on one hand, and the novelty of what this particular professor and class brought to it, on the other.

To read a prized work with the intimacy of the scholar and the curiosity of the explorer excited her, and hearing about it excited me. To see and hear with new eyes and ears, even what feels familiar, represents a hallmark of enjoyment. Things only get old when our modes of experience get stale, when we have used up our line of inquiry, and when we have turned jaded and cynical.

To read a work of literature is to co-create its meaning. Whatever the author intends, or writes unintentionally (subconsciously), takes on meaning within us as we bring to bear our own intelligence and experiences as lenses. Through our reading the words on the page take flight in the skies of our imaginations. Reading is like having a dialogue with the material, and if we are lucky this conversation sparks a love affair or an inspirational, even transformative encounter.

There is so much that seems difficult about aging. Naively, I once thought that along with our acquired wisdom over the years—should we be lucky enough to live a long time—that we would also grow to accept our declines in memory, in muscle tone, in agility and flexibility, in speed; that somehow the slow dulling of vision, hearing, smell and taste would somehow feel compensated for by a growing appreciation for the small things.

What I have learned is that we tend to have a sense of ourselves that persists.(And neurons with which we are born that are still with us–yeah, baby neurons!) If we are lucky enough to house a decent memory, there is some through-line, some arc of chapters in our lives that make sense as part of our story. And it is difficult to reconcile the creaky joints, perhaps the increased pain, the dulling capabilities, with who we “really” are.

Although older age can produce greater happiness in some ways, and some alacrity and quickness with a huge data base in our chosen fields, it does not often happen without feelings of loss—the losses of those family members and friends who have left this plane, of course, but also the losses of our major identifiers—professional identities, community participations, etc. Many elders feel almost invisible, as if they have grayed into the atmosphere. And certainly we live in an impatient culture of elbows, with little interest in making room for those moving at a slower pace.

To love something—one’s garden with its flowers petaling open anew under the morning sky; a favorite piece of literature; a symphony, etc.—and to love it again and again, with fresh ears and eyes, well, that is savoring. The happiness of savoring, of ‘Hamlet.’

Guest saddle: What do you love, over and over? The smile of your baby or grandbaby? The smell of the lilacs wafting through the summer-open windows? A piece of music that reminds you of happy times? Are you giving yourself enough opportunities to revel in such happiness?

Web Camel Transport 21

The Aspect Ratio of Happiness

Monday, February 22, 2016

Within the context of any whole—an interpersonal relationship, an image, a business, a work of art, a form in nature, the human body, the human brain—exist parts which relate to one another in complex ways. Proportionality constitutes one kind of relationship that exists between parts of a whole. Simply put, a proportion means: So much of X to so much of Y.

In the world of film making the aspect ratio tells us the dimension of width and length of the image we see. A typical aspect ratio is 4:3 or 1.33: 1. This aspect ratio creates, though subtly, an influence on how we experience the images we see. Some filmmakers have changed the aspect ratio, sometimes several times within the same movie, to create differences in emotional intensity and perception in the viewer, the technology of both film and television evolving to produce ever wider screens and, therefore, scenes.

Throughout history, mathematical proportions have provided lenses through which to understand the balances of forms in nature, art, and human behavior—in social, political and business contexts.

In Greek philosophy the Golden Mean described the balance, relationship or proportion between two extremes. If, for example, you take the notion of courage (example from Wikipedia), to be courageous in some contexts would result in “recklessness,” while not being courageous in other circumstances would be too weak and “cowardly.” We also hear the expression, “All things in moderation.” Eating is great, but too much makes you fat and too little makes you anorexic. Too much alcohol causes dependence and dysfunctionality, but tea-totaling (and this may be necessary if one is in a 12 step program for compulsive drinking) removes one from the occasional glass of the bubbly to celebrate at a wedding, etc. Even if you are a determined person who never quits anything, at one extreme you might hit your head on the proverbial stone wall. But quitting before you’ve done your best will leave you feeling unsuccessful and less optimistic about future pursuits. In Eastern religion and philosophy the notion of The Middle Way, is similar.

The Golden Ratio= Phi (1.618. . .) In math and beauty and nature this ratio appears. And Sacred Geometry incorporates mathematical principles at work in both nature’s forms, and also art and architecture. As an example, the nautilus shell “grows at constant rate and so its shell forms a logarithmic spiral to accommodate that growth without changing shape. Also, honeybees construct hexagonal cells to hold their honey.” (Wikipedia)

From Classical Greece to Leonardo Davinci, the “ideal” proportion of head length to height for human beings is roughly 1/8. Most human beings have ratios between 1/7 head-to-body length to 1/8, whereas babies have a 1/4 proportion.

The Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, is something observed in the success of businesses. 20% of your time produces 80% of your business. And 20% of your customers produce 80% of your income. The Italian, who developed this idea first observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the populace. In general the rule states that 80% of effects come from 20% causes.

I have also seen this rule used to describe that if 4/5 of the time you keep to a schedule—be it exercise or a nutrition plan—then that will cover the 1/5 that you go off course. So doing something positive most of the time will offset a less stringent regimen for brief periods.

John Gottman, a psychologist who studied couples extensively, watching hours of videotape of them discussing different issues, came to the conclusion that he could predict with over 90% accuracy, which were in relationships/marriages that would last and which would fail. He concluded that a couple needed to have a 5/1 ratio of positive to negative interactions to survive. The quality of life would go down dramatically, and the relationship would teeter on the brink of disaster as that ratio went down. The couple could be talking about anything, whether superficial or profound, but what mattered was whether the interaction was experienced as positive or negative. It is possible, though it requires some art, to disagree positively. Conflicts of interest, themselves, do not necessarily have to devolve into negative interactions.

In psychological researcher, Barbara Frederickson’s book, Positivity, she talks about the all-important ratio of 3/1 positivity to negativity for flourishing, whether in speaking about individuals, couples, or groups, including businesses. Positive emotions allow for flexible thinking, resilience, openness to new ideas. Negative emotions tend to narrow options and opportunities. For severely depressed individuals, tunnel vision often applies. People forget they had good times and fail to feel hopeful for the future.

Frederickson says negative emotions function in the moment, evolutionarily, to promote action such as fighting or fleeing when we feel afraid, whereas positive emotions “broaden-and-build” for the future. I believe the evolutionary thrust for positive emotions may be even more basic: Just like sex feels good which promotes procreation, and food tastes good so we will nourish ourselves, positive emotions give us a reason to live. If we were only “protected” by negative emotions to survive, we would cease to want to survive. Positivity is inherently filled with purpose because it connects us to what comes into our senses, to the earth upon which we walk, and to the people with whom we relate. Positive emotions draw us to others, and into nature, and even to develop a more loving relationship to ourselves.

Guest Saddle: What do you guess is your ratio of positive to negative outlooks on yourself and your opportunities, on others? How often do you find yourself truly enjoying a walk, a meal, a conversation, an activity? Do you feel prone to that Puritan guilt when you enjoy yourself or bring enjoyment to others? Or do you relish and savor those opportunities?

Web Camel Transport 20

Attracting Happiness:  The Art of Constellating

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Law of Attraction reminds us that what we think, and what thrives in the locus of our attention holds the power we have poured into it. Our thoughts, like magnets, invite other objects of thought or circumstances “outside” ourselves to resonate in our lives. And in a sense we co-create that which we think will happen. At the same time, when we remain open to unanticipated surprises or delights, then the open door of our imaginations welcomes the nascent and as-yet-unarticulated.

We do not live in worlds of certainty. Walking around with an anxious load of uncertainty makes us feel terrible, unstable, and insecure. But to welcome some unexpected, spontaneous and interesting happenings, allows us to receive those “lucky,” or felicitous gifts when they occur. We do not always know when opportunity will knock, but if we do not find ourselves eager enough to open the door, then we will chalk up many missed opportunities. After all, our own attracting forces live in a world of many other attracting forces. A happy coalescence of optimistic or inquisitive (attractive) forces can change history.

Many people speak of the Law of Attraction, or magnetism, as if “like attracts like” is always an apt analog. With magnets, themselves, the North and South poles attract each other—they are opposites—but the like poles repel each other. And yet, if you think nice people will like you at the party where you only know one other person, then you will find people to like you. So thinking about making friends attracts the actual making of friends. On the surface we can say “like attracts like.” But perhaps thoughts do not exactly replicate themselves, like a harmonic, or an overtone, in life, but rather function as organizing or constellating principles. And principals.

For example, when I go to an event with the thought that no one will like me, that thought constellates my body posture and facial expression, my emotions, and my (all-important) behavior. I may keep my head down, avoid making eye contact, refuse to initiate conversation, and interpret other people talking together as deliberately excluding me, thereby fitting what I experience as evidence to support my negative narrative. So, in this way, my beliefs organize my body, my attitude, my emotional pallet, my behavior and therefore my possibilities. I attract, as per the Law of Attraction, a negative social outcome.

In order to constellate differently, to align myself with what I really want, then I need to intervene with myself to change the thoughts that issue from my mind. Changing any element of a constellation has some capacity to realign all aspects of it. For instance, I can practice affirmative thinking. To make it more specific than simply a generic positive thought, I customize it to myself: What is it that I prefer to think when going to a social engagement? Maybe I want to think, “I will enjoy people at the party and they will enjoy me.” Changing our thoughts directly, through reiteration, might work better for some people than for others.

One can also determine to shift physical alignment and posture as well as facial expression. Going to the party one might walk with a nice, relaxed but upright posture, make eye contact with people and smile. And that leads to another dimension—behavior. I might determine to talk to a few people, to behave as though I have more confidence and a more positive attitude (I have likely experienced moments in the past where I did have an upbeat attitude and felt confident). With these thoughts, postures, facial expressions and new behaviors, I will constellate differently and my experiences will be different—most often better. At the very least I always benefit from “putting my best foot forward.” I would much rather fail—to win friends or garner opportunities—due to forces outside myself than due to my own lack of courage or creativity.

My own constellation demonstrates a kind of “gravitational force” between personal elements, but the totality of my constellation fills the interpersonal space around myself in a particular way, and that influences how others perceive and respond to me. If I reach out with curiosity and warmth to learn more about others surrounding me, I may not “attract” them to learn more about me, but perhaps I attract their openness and trust as they respond to my genuine interest and positive regard. Attraction can pull for homogeneity sometimes—that common denominator with another person that makes them feel familiar to us; or it can pull for complementarity, for a “fit,” as in the example above: I am curious about someone and they respond by wanting to express themselves. In either case, we can attract happiness, whether familiar or unfamiliar.

Guest saddle:  What do you tend to attract to yourself?  Are you aware of your constellation of elements that influences what comes into your gravitational field?  Is it easier to change your thoughts, your bodily expression or your behavior?

Web Camel Transport 19

A+ Attitude= Higher Happiness Altitude

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Our attitudes live through both our minds and bodies. We take positions, orient ourselves a certain way, buy into certain perspectives, occupy stances with regard to various people, situations, events, relationships, jobs, etc. Our attitudes typically precede our involvement in something on a particular day. Often we bring forward a calcified set of attitudes from prior experiences that, like a pair of sunglasses, color the present situation. That means we cannot see the present situation with fresh eyes, but only through the lenses of our internalized attitudes.

In any case, we can generally categorize attitudes as positive or negative with regard to our experiences and our forthcoming experiences.

Attitudes are often intimately connected to our living narratives—the scripts we have and live out, about ourselves and others. For example, if the narrative, “I always lose,” possesses me, then I will likely have a poor attitude about trying hard, whether it involves taking a math test, running a road race, or aiming for a promotion. Why try hard if I always lose. If I think, “Nothing ever can cheer me up,” then my attitude will not aim toward lightheartedness in my forthcoming experiences.

A negative attitude can event distort our perception of physical reality. A client of mine who is by all accounts a handsome adult, said that he had been teased when he was a child about his tall gawky presence and prominent features. Even though he had since grown into his features, he still, when having a bad day, looked in the mirror and saw the “ugly” kid who had been teased. And upon that vision, decided that no attractive woman would go out with him.

With a negative attitude you work at cross purposes with yourself. Your sub-parts don’t harmonize. If you have to do something, then thinking that it serves no purpose, or thinking that you are not up to it or don’t want to do it, takes energy away from the project and is draining to you. One part of you agrees you must accomplish the thing, and other parts argue in dispute. How exhausting! It fogs your cognitive faculties and dulls your emotional vitality.

I remember, as a child, having to take piano lessons and practice for half an hour every day while many of my friends played in the neighborhood. I would fiddle around on the keyboard half-heartedly. One day my mother said, “You are going to sit on that bench for half an hour, whether you fiddle faddle or practice sincerely. How do you want to spend your time on the piano bench?” Although I still had my days of half-hearted practicing and was distracted by my impatience to run outside, the message was not lost on me and it changed and refined my attitude about dealing with commitments and responsibilities. My mandatory half hour at the piano, and all mandatory periods of time, could bracket a sincere and energized effort on my part, an all-in attitude, or constitute a draining purgatory of waiting for it to be over, or what some people call, “killing time.” Our precious time on this planet is killed soon enough.

When we take a relatively positive attitude toward others, toward upcoming situations, and present circumstances it buoys our moods, like floating over choppy waters rather than thrashing around getting worn out and sinking. Imagine even this: You fall overboard from a large boat. Someone throws you a flotation device attached to a string. Would you rather hear encouragement, like, “Just grab this and we will be sure to pull you to safety?” or, “Don’t bother to grab on, you’ll probably drown anyway I just threw you a line to say I did?” It seems clear we do not feel good when others present us with a negative attitude, so it moves us toward our own happier place when we present a positive attitude toward others, toward our responsibilities, as well as our possibilities. While no single attitude may apply equally well to every situation, most of the time an attitude of openness to many possibilities serves us well.

Guest Saddle:  In what situations do you find yourself entering with a negative attitude?  Do you have typical narratives that are negative?  (No one will like me; I’m not smart enough to be here;  they all came from money and me from poverty, etc.)

What is one positive narrative you wish to practice?

 

Web Camel Transport 18

Here is My Handle, Here is My Spout:  Pouring Out Happiness

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A number of years ago I taught with a professor and his wife, Cecily, in New York. One evening I had dinner at their house, served on heirloom china Cecily had inherited from her mother who had inherited it from Cecily’s maternal grandmother. Each woman had received the china on the occasion of her wedding. Cecily kept her china set in an antique corner hutch in the dining room, and had typically only used it on special occasions. But due to a recent situation she had decided to use the precious china more often, rather than her everyday dishes.

Cecily and Mark had gone on sabbatical to England for a year, and during that time rented their furnished house to a visiting professor from Japan, who had a wife and two children. Cecily had assumed the family would use the dishes in the kitchen cabinets, of course, and hadn’t worried about her heirloom china set at all. She assumed that since she would be afraid to break something of value in the home her family had leased in London, that her own tenants would adopt the same view.

But when Cecily and Mark returned, the Japanese professor asked if he might purchase from her the heirloom china teapot. He said his wife loved it, and both of them thought it made the best tea of any teapot they owned or had ever used.

Cecily explained that the teapot not only came with a sugar bowl and creamer, but it was part of a complete heirloom set, passed down in her family, and the set was intact. No one had broken a single cup or plate. She had plans to continue the tradition and pass it down to her own child on the occasion of a wedding. The set would be broken if she gave away the teapot. Downcast, the professor politely continued to plead for the teapot. He would be heartbroken, it seemed, to displease his wife, who treasured the teapot and had taken such good care of it during its daily uses. The teapot was special to them and he would give her a big compensation to be able to take it with him.

Cecily said she would think about it, and in the end she gave the family her teapot. She felt sad about the broken set, and the broken tradition, but the teapot meant a lot to the Japanese family and she found herself unable to break their hearts. It meant more to Cecily to give away something that caused her some painful feelings of loss, than to deny another human being something that he had so determinedly wanted.

Over the years the teapot became more alive for her when she thought of the family in Japan drinking their tea from it every day as if it were enchanted. She had not used it very much, and it had found a home far away from the rest of the china set. The giving of this gift altered her perception about legacies, and about the use of valuables. If not used, and shared, they would not be enjoyed. Now, when the china came out, so did her mother and her grandmother, and reminiscences of family recipes, written on old index cards.

When she gave away something, Cecily made room for other experiences. Happiness finds its way even into the broken places in our lives, filling the empty places, the losses, with possibilities that connect us across continents and even across time.

Guest saddle:  What is something you have given away, or given, until it hurt?  How did your gift change the way you view things?  Has someone ever give you something that was precious to them, be it material or immaterial?  Did you recognize the magnitude of the gift?

Web Camel Transport 17

A Company of One:  Brilliant and Bumbling Happiness

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Around the conference table in my head sit all of my sub-parts. The overarching CEO provides the glue and the team-building for the motley crew of subcontractors: the responsible me, the funny one, the reflective one, the artistic one, the analytical one, the nudgey one, the empathic one, the goofy one. . . etc.

“Look,” the (my) CEO pronounces, “You all have a role, you are all employable, but lately you’ve been working at cross purposes and not listening to one another. It takes a village to raise oneself, as you all know, and as a masterpiece in the making we need cooperation. Our moves can look just as bold, when backed by all of us—even those who remind us of the caveats, the exceptions, and the threats–as can that of a wiseass gone rogue. But our outcome is likely going to be a lot better when we have thoroughly considered what generates all the problems and what all of the impacts of our actions will yield.
I know some of you interface with others (while some of you operate behind the scenes). And in that interface I expect you to remain true to the group; authentic. Presenting a false facet presents a false self. We need all of us because every situation calls for different strengths, a variety of nuances, and different levels of energy. If you are called upon then go for it, but don’t shame or guilt the rest of us. Check in if you feel unsure of what to do.”

We don’t show all of ourselves in every situation. We are like gems, multi-faceted, but fused into a whole. And not only a whole of our own parts (and a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts), but a whole in the broader netting of gems—families, communities, etc. When each facet is true, the interface between our facet and that of others, in context, is clean and clear. It represents our best at that moment; our most sincere and honest at that moment. It represents us as authentically as possible. If that facet is our responsible and dependable self then we show that with consistency, and not just when it will benefit us or manipulate a situation in our favor. When we lie, cheat, or deceive someone else, they may feel hurt or offended, but for us we have betrayed our own character; we have chipped away at our gem; we have marred our authenticity. It takes the encouragement of a courageous sub-part to help other facets reveal themselves when they are vulnerable or weak.

Falsehood, or the making of a false self, derives mostly from fear(s). We fear not being loved, not being worthy, not being good enough. We fear rejection and criticism. We feel overwhelmed. We feel nothing we do is going to garner the respect or admiration or love we so desire. We feel ashamed. As an adaptation to that we evolve a false self or false selves. These are “fronts,” or “acts,” or “facades” behind which our more vulnerable, sensitive, and insecure facets can hide. The result of false selves causes suffering. You might hear someone say, “If he/she only knew what I am really like, then she wouldn’t like me. . .” The false self betrays the true self. The sub-parts cannot cohere. When we present a false self we cannot trust others because we do not trust our real selves to be worthy or beautiful as they are.

We feel happy when we live fully alive, and instead of censoring ourselves, let the spontaneous laughter, the unfettered hug, the lament about our clumsiness emerge, freely expressed. All of our unabashed ignorance, our clumsy footing, our hundreds of aspects that miss perfect calibration are just as dear and expressive as any facet we cultivate to please others, to succeed, to get ahead. Be real and your beauty will serve you well. Those who love you will truly love you. Those who criticize or judge will be critical and judgmental, and mired in a place you do not need to live.