Seeking O’Silent Night

Imagine your whole world coming to a standstill and the only sound you hear is the gentle inhale and exhale of your own breath.  How does that feel?

Within the dashing excitement and twinkling lights of this holiday season try to make time for silence and stillness to recharge your soul.  Sit down on the floor with your kids and introduce the practice with your kids. You have to start somewhere and the earlier your children see you slowing down to be present the better.

 

Virtually every moment of the day our consciousness is penetrated and interrupted by noise.  Reflecting the noise of the world is the noise of the mind with our varied thoughts be they loving, anxiety inducing, angry, happy, or exciting. Searching for silence is a reprieve from the excitement, distraction, and stimuli swirling around us like a whirlwind.  

 

When we set aside time for silence we cast an emptiness upon our minds which gives way to awareness.  We start being and stop doing.  Stillness gives way to peace and we start to cultivate an inner serenity that we bring with us into the world.  If you would like to experience a more joyful and peaceful holiday this year share the gift of silence and stillness with your family.

Are you a supermom?

Are you a supermom?

Tis the season in the era of superheroes.  What do we expect from the greatest superhero of them all during the holidays?  Supermoms are cooking up extravagant architectural designs for the grandest gingerbread homes on the block.  Supermoms are waiting in line at 3:00 am to get the perfect present to make this the most memorable holiday until next year.  Supermoms are baking mouthwatering healthy treats that are as delicious to the eyes as they are to the tummy.  Supermoms are doing it all and looking great doing it.  More than any other time of year this when supermoms shine like shooting stars streaking across the night sky.

 

The uncomfortable truth about being a supermom is that it is often a recipe for stress, resentment, anger, and sadness leading to physical illness. “Super syndrome” and “Supermom syndrome” are two terms gaining traction in psychology and life coaching circles.  Supers try to control every detail of life and often sacrifice their time, energy and health for the love of others.  Supers aim for perfection in service to their children, their spouses, their jobs, and their friends.  

 

What could possibly be wrong with possessing a strong drive to serve?  Supers aim for an idea that does not exist but in abstract, perfection.  It is an unattainable summit and in the process their own needs are not met.

 

Since the goal is beyond reach and essential human needs are not met, supers develop excess self-criticism, self-disbelief, depression, and pessimism.  As a result they often lose sleep, have a constant drip of cortisol in their blood stream, may suffer eating disorders, have poor self image, and lose motivation.  Sure to follow from living an imbalanced life would be adrenal fatigue, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular damage, and mood disorder.

 

There is hope for supermoms and other superheroes.  Dr. Molly Barrow, a clinical psychotherapist, suggests drawing a pie chart each day and blocking off 8 hours for sleep.  She recommends putting your priorities into the pie chart and celebrating your successes each day.  “Well I was able to make Christmas decorations with my child today, but I wasn’t able to paint his room.”  Treat it as a victory.  Give yourself a pat on the back.  We all ought to try to be a little more human and a little less superhuman.  Try learning to let go, embracing the imperfect, and celebrating the incomplete this holiday season.

When Teachers Turn Clouds into Spaceships

The Sun Sets Sail

Painting by Rob Gonsalves

Did you know the Native Americans could not recognize the first galleons arriving in the Americas? They stared at the ships for days but misidentified their sails for clouds on the horizon. The galleons were so unique and out of their world that they could not see them. The Indians could only process the experience through their understanding of the world. How surprised they must have been to learn these “clouds” carried men of white skin who came from beyond the edge of the earth.

Sometimes things that are so obvious elude us then drastically change our appreciation and understanding of life. You cannot describe an experience, an object or a person unless you have the words for it.

Imagine walking through this world day in and day out and not seeing something so noticeable and so apparent. This is why teachers are so esteemed and respected. They provide a word or an explanation of a concept that changes our lives forever.

Robin Williams made us laugh at ourselves. He was a teacher who used comedy to show us our insecurities and prejudices. In one of his early stand-up performances, he pointed out our willingness to ignore our bigotry and need to find crazy to deal with governmental policies. Appears the zaniness of the world in the late 70s is no different than today.

He pretended to be an elderly man who was a bit crazy, “a bit fongooze bozo.” The government was giving people methadone to help them cope with the world “since the aliens arrived. And the aliens weren’t the little green suckers we thought they were. They were 8 feet tall, black and they were pissed.” He closed the show with this skit and left the stage by telling everyone he loved everyone regardless of who they were.

So play with the mystery of life. Support the teachers who turn clouds into spaceships. Release the dogmas that create bias and limit our understanding of the world. Our children will be pissed if we don’t.

“This ain’t about you.”

Forgiving someone for kidnapping you at gunpoint requires a Gandhi-sized pill of compassion, and most of us do not have this depth of empathy. Last week my family member—let’s call him John—made the worst mistake of his life by second-guessing himself. His mistake serves as a prescient reminder of how quickly the tectonic plates of life can shift under your feet and forever change the landscape of reality as we know it.

Have you ever wondered what drives people?  By understanding human needs we can interpret human behavior.  Depending on which source you turn to, human needs may range from about five needs to more than a dozen needs, or some 89 needs in total.  These are often structured as a hierarchy, but can also be seen as oscillating. Max Neef developed a model that has 9 needs: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom. These needs have been found to transcend cultures and history. However, the way in which these needs are met has evolved and changed.  So much of what we do and say is governed by our drive to meet our needs.

On August 5th, John was traveling to Stuart, Florida, to join his family for a summer holiday when he stopped at the first gas station from his exit. A fairly clean-cut and well-spoken man in his thirties approached him with a gas can explaining his car ran out of gas on I-95. Could he please get a ride?

What would you do in such a situation? John told the man he could not help him, as he had been on the road a long time and his family was expecting him. The guy walked away to stand on the corner with his gas can, and that is when the fault lines began to shift.  This is where he made the worst mistake of his life by second guessing himself. I can only assume what went through John’s mind. “Am I being prejudiced? What if I were in his situation? It is just a few minutes out of my way to help a guy down on his luck.” John confessed he felt sorry for the guy and after filling up his car John changed his mind by offering him a ride to his car.

He asked John to get onto I-95 and after a few minutes, a semi-automatic handgun was pulled from a plastic bag and pointed at John’s abdomen.  “Sorry, but this ain’t about you. You do what I say and I’ll let you go and you will see your family again.”

John pleaded that the man take his car, credit cards, and wallet if John could just pull over and get out. The gunman ignored the requests. He asked for John’s name, bank, birthday, and iPhone password. He said they would go to a branch of his bank. John drove as this man went through his iPhone. He followed the man’s directions but knew he would have to choose between fight or flight.

I am reminded of the poem “Design” by Robert Frost as I try to understand what was driving the decisions of each of these individuals and how their paths crossed.  In the poem, the narrator observes that a white spider and a white moth each choose to go to the same white flower for different reasons.  The spider seeks safety and a jump on his prey.  The moth seeks to blend in on the white heal-all.  The poem concludes when the spider makes a meal of the moth. The narrator asks, what had the flower, the moth, and the spider to do with being white? What drove them there in the night, if anything at all? What had brought the good Samaritan and the con man (gunman, and possibly a killer) together, if anything at all?

After twenty-nine minutes with a gun on him, John was instructed to get off on Okeechobee which signaled that this ride was coming to an end. Fortunately, they had a red arrow at Okeechobee Blvd and Parkway/Peters Road.  As they slowed down the gunman looked out the passenger window to check his surroundings. That is when John dived from his moving car, hit the ground, jumped up and started running. His car was still in drive so it collided with the car in front. This motorist never stopped to examine damage to the car likely out of fear upon seeing a man jump from a moving car.

John looked over his shoulder to see the gunman yelling something and now standing at the driver’s side. When he got to a place of relative safety he called the police.  Unfortunately for John, this would only be the start of his trying time.

If the start of this was nearly unbelievable what follows is incredible.  The police suggest that this entire story is made up and would like to know, “what really happened.”

John decided to advocate for himself and in less than 24 hours went back to the scene to search for cameras, look for his car, and look for the individual who did this to him.  To his disbelief, he got a ping from his iPad that was with his stolen car.  John called the police and after an hour of waiting he gives the officers the address from the GPS of his iPad.  The officers reported that the car was not seen and left it at that.  John drove to the GPS location to have his own look.  One street over from the iPad location he found a car that matched his make and model one residence immediately behind the address sent from Apple.  John drove by slowly to verify the license plate when just at that moment his former captor, the person with the con-story who held a gun to his abdomen, walks into the street to get a closer look at John in his mom’s car.

Life presents John a choice. Understandable thoughts cross John’s mind. Shall I run this person over who threatened my life, stole my car, wanted me to empty out my ATM? Besides, he ruined a perfectly good family holiday! Can I meet this person with an equal amount of disregard for human worth as he has shown to me? Will I be able to accept my choice and the gravity of the consequences?

Violence can be seen as the language of unmet needs.  Violence is the outcome of a person’s inability to identify truly and deeply what he/she needs along with an inability to communicate those needs, in which case violence in the heart takes over and manifests itself in harm, ill will, hurt and pain towards others.  Nonviolence, on the other hand, is the natural state of compassion.  When we work to listen to our needs and the needs of others through an emphasis on deep listening, we discover the depth of our own compassion.  This language reveals the awareness that all human beings are only trying to honor universal values and needs, every minute of every day.

 John chose not to run this man over, although I cannot say for sure it was the path of nonviolence, the path of compassion.  However, John was deeply aware of his own needs, which included being whole and having justice. 

 He chose to drive by him, call the police, and in a barely controlled voice tell them, “I’m the guy that got kidnapped at gunpoint, car jacked, and jumped out of my car in an intersection to escape yesterday. I’ve found my car and the person who did it. I think you better get over here soon.”

The police questioned the suspect who claimed he had never seen that stolen car before. Things would not go quite how John would have liked.  The police would not search the house; therefore a gun was not looked for or found.  The keys were not on the suspect so the car would have to be towed.  Several papers that have personal identification information were no longer in the car and conceivably with the suspect.  The suspect was arrested and charged with grand theft auto, but nothing else and released five hours later.  Also, John was called down to the police station to be questioned because the new narrative was that John was trying to buy crack-cocaine.  The police seemed unmotivated to pursue this case further because of this new ‘revelation.’  John, in absolute disbelief, pointed out that he was an attorney, a member of the Florida Bar, and a marathon runner.  He did a half marathon every day in May and ran 18 miles on the morning of the incident.

He suggested to the detective it was unlikely he ran 18 miles that morning then decided to celebrate with some crack-cocaine before joining his family at the timeshare.

John will have to put this all behind him.  He will have to accept that systems are not perfect, and people turn to violence when they have unmet needs, an inability to communicate their needs, and threaten others instead of making reasonable requests. 

If John cannot find forgiveness for his transgressor, he will be bogged down by anger and resentment.  His health will deteriorate and this experience could begin affecting his loved ones. 

I’m sure that John will indeed forgive and move forward in a manner that is both gentle and magnanimous.

These are my thoughts on ways to forgive transgressors in our lives so that we too can move forward with compassion for people who have unmet needs.

  1. Recall that all any one is ever saying is please and thank you. This person was saying, “Please give me some money.”
  2. People are more likely to meet your “please” if you make a request rather than a demand. John had a negative reaction to the demand of “give me your money” and chose not to fulfill the need.
  3. Train yourself to look past words and actions to see the human need driving the behavior. John may have given this man money if the man said, “Can you please give me $50 to help my child who has asthma and is in desperate need of an inhaler?”
  4. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. We are not perfect so forgive yourself as you learn to hear needs.

In this manner, we will as a human race begin to eliminate the language of blame, judgment, and domination while we absolve our hearts of the want for violence against our fellow man, our neighbors, our coworkers, and our family.

The Most Popular Course in Harvard History

 

Tal Ben-Shahar, a Ph.D. from Harvard University, taught the most popular course in Harvard history.  Some refer to his course as Happiness 101, but it is actually Psychology 1504, “Positive Psychology.”   

Ben-Shahar says, “People are looking for ideas that will help them to lead better lives.” Depression and anxiety are reaching epidemic proportions across all industrialized countries. Suicide rates surged to a 30 year high last year.  We are checking our emails every moment of the day.  We are constantly tied to our professional and social media networks.  Our work days grow longer, our tasks more complicated, the pace of work is accelerating.  Competition is on the rise for professionals and students alike.  Students especially are having to contend with higher expectations and fewer prospects.  

This is not your father’s psychology class.  Positive Psychology hones in on themes like flow, optimism, resilience, courage, virtues, energy, flourishing, strengths, happiness, curiosity, meaning, subjective well-being, forgiveness, and joy.

Harvard Professor of Psychology George Vaillant explains, that the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, the clinical “bible” of psychiatry and clinical psychology, “has 500,000 lines of text. There are thousands of lines on anxiety and depression, and hundreds of lines on terror, shame, guilt, anger, and fear. But there are only five lines on hope, one line on joy, and not a single line on compassion, forgiveness, or love.”

The mind healers of the past were singularly focused on where humans went wrong, how we responded to pain and pleasure, on flaws and weaknesses, and depraved behavior.  We were in Freud’s view struggling to keep it together under the torment of deep, dark drives.  It was the job of the psychologist to work with pain because it was thought our minds could not face these issues alone.

This is not Tal Ben-Shahar’s message or approach.  Positive Psychology rests on looking at personal strengths, building competencies, seeking pleasure, pursuing happiness, growing your potential, and leveraging creative tension.  Positive Psychology aims to ground concepts from a generation of self-help humanistic psychology with research and reason.

Their lab experiments might seek to define not the conditions that induce depraved behavior, but those that foster generosity, courage, creativity, and laughter. Their departure point for achieving greater happiness is not in addressing humanity’s flaws, but to focus on people’s strengths and virtues.

He also works at bringing research from the ivory tower to a more accessible place where it can be applied by real people.  “Most people do not read the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  In fact, one of my colleagues at Harvard did a study, and he estimated that the average journal article is read by seven people. And that includes the author’s mother.”  

With the hope of reaching more than seven readers here are Tal Ben-Shahar’s 5 Tips for Flourishing and Happiness:

1. Accept painful emotions as part and parcel of being alive.  When we open ourselves up to being human, that is to say invite the entire gamut of human emotion, then we open the door to all the positive emotions, too.

2. Stop texting while you are with your friends.  A very big predictor of well-being is time affluence.  The time we have to sit down and be with our friends.

3. Exercise!  3 times a week of 30-40 minutes of exercise is as powerful as some of the most powerful drugs in dealing with sadness, depression, or anxiety.  

4. Express your gratitude daily–in writing.  People who write down 3 to 5 things for which they feel grateful (big things or little things) are happier, more optimistic, more successful, more likely to achieve their goals, physically healthier (strengthens your immune system), and are more generous and benevolent to others.

5. Simplify.  Do less rather than more.  We try to cram more and more things into less and less time.  We pay a price in the quality of our work, and in the quality of our relationships.