Sunday, June 16, 2013

Of Hookers, Psychopaths and Right Speech

'Man reports prostitute to police'. Not, as one might think, an angry response to gay, pay-for-sex gone wrong; or even a straight John having his wallet lifted while. . . No, this was because said 'escort' was ugly. And he (that would be John, or more properly 'the John') was fit to be tied (or perhaps, hoped to be) that he'd been lied to. Our lady of the evening had evidently 'misrepresented' herself as being somewhat more attractive than the objective facts would support. And he (John, eh) was pissed (well, maybe that too). And he wanted her charged with the British equivalent of false advertising.  BBC world news does have a way of getting my attention! 

Coincidently, I'm currently preparing to do a second workshop with something of a hero of mine and an icon in the realm of 'wrong speech' -- and all that goes with it.  Bob Hare is the reigning expert in the fascinating world of psychopathy (emphasis on the second syllable, if you're saying it out loud, in polite company). He has fashioned a career out of the study of those guys (oops, that may be a bit sexist -- but true) we typically associate with chainsaws and cults, Bundy's and Manson's. And so, after some 40 years of practicing psychology, I am finally breaking my longstanding rule of never visiting Penetanguishene -- or, more precisely, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Central North Correctional Centre. For those fans of UK cop drama, that would be the Broadmoor of Ontario. The place where all the seriously disturbed criminal population finds itself housed, at least in this part of the world.

My pre-workshop reading included a review of Dr. Hare's assessment manual* built around the twenty cardinal features that define these bad boys (granted, there are a few Myra Hindley's around, but by and large, psychopaths tend to be male -- at least the ones that get caught!). Juxtaposed with the complaint of our British friend, this catalogue struck me as remarkably parallel to the precepts that define the core of a fully formed mindfulness practice. While nothing is perfect -- except Buddha, Christ, and a few politicians -- the fit was still pretty good. The interesting piece is that Hare's list is the inverse of the Buddhist principles that underpin mindfulness. In short, Hare's syllabus is a complete recipe for how not to think, speak, intend, act, perceive, . . live.

Back to the UK for a moment. Setting aside the less laudable reasons for why 'John' might have been meeting a woman in a mall parking lot to begin with, this man was so incensed by the lie (as he viewed it), that he remained adamant, even in the face of the bobbies not taking his complaint too seriously, that he continued to see himself as the victim in this exchange; refusing to back away from his (remarkably) fragile, dare we say hypocritical legal posture. Right Speech (clearly a guiding principle in John's decidedly compartmentalized life) had been transgressed. And check marks on at least three of Dr. Hare's 'anti-mindfulness' list: Item 4: pathological lying; Item 5, Conning / manipulative (defined as the intentional use of deceit to cheat, bilk, defraud); and Item 2, Grandiosity (bragging, presenting an inflated view of one's self worth, egocentric in the extreme).

Before we leave our overseas paragons, together they have a few more teaching points to make.  Namely, Right Action: showing restraint around sexual proclivities, use of intoxicants, generally non-harming, cherishing, respecting all other life. Now granted our 'teachers' are demonstrating the darker side of a few of the guidelines that attach to this precept. And at least another five tics on Bob's List: Promiscuous Sexual Behavior (Item 11), Failure to Accept Responsibility for One's Actions (16), Parasitic Lifestyle (9), Poor Behavioral Controls (10), and just maybe number 17, Many Short Term (Marital) Relationships.

Then there's the whole arena of Right Intention. Buddhist scholar, Shantideva is quoted as follows: 'All happiness in this world comes from thinking of others; all suffering comes from preoccupation with one's self'. Often framed around compassion and caring, this precept gives rise to the powerful mindfulness practice of metta, the lovingkindness meditation. And how the anti-checklist fairly bristles with the downside of this principle:  Lack of Empathy (8), Lack of Remorse (6), Shallow Emotions (7).

And so it goes, precept for anti-precept; principle set up against its antithesis. Since the inception of Dr. Hare's work (and likely long before), a debate has ebbed and flowed around the origins of these 'embodiments of evil' -- essentially a re-work of the old nature, nurture controversy: are psychopaths born or made. As with the heredity / environment polemic, the evidence is not particularly clear, conclusive, or black and white. What might be said is that most of us, mercifully, don't live at these extremes. We are neither Christ figures nor Hannibal Lectors. Any number of well-intentioned, albeit naively conceived and executed plans to 'rehabilitate' the latter and his ilk have amply demonstrated that the 'true psychopaths' are not particularly amenable to change. Very good at 'playing along' -- but in the end, still the same old villain. (For an interesting and highly entertaining treatise on these failed experiments, have a look at The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson's -- of Men Who Stare at Goats fame -- account of his travels with Bob Hare.) For the rest of us, regularly practicing the principles of mindfulness, as best we can, just may reshape our life experience.

*Hare Psychopathy Checklist, Revised
Image: Miss Freddy Kruger, MeemieArt.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Beware the Choir

Freshly returned from a week of the world's best cycling in Tuscany, I had opportunity to reflect on a favorite subject of mine: group energy, group dynamics -- what works and what doesn't (and perhaps shouldn't!). Our intrepid wee crew were five in number. And a more diverse quintet you'd be hard pressed to find. Four cyclists and a fifth member very content to rest, read, and reflect as she invested fully in a 21-day meditation challenge -- with, just for balance, a healthy sampling of Italy's history, food, and other distractions. Two bikers of modest experience, new to the 12 to 15 percent grades of long, twisting climbs and knuckle-whitening descents; two with decades of riding and thousands of kilometers on their resumes.  Two couples virtual strangers to each other. But how well it all worked!

Group chemistry is rarely a fluke. And even less 'accidental' (and perhaps just a bit counter-intuitive) is to find a 'designed' or planned group composition to be a particular success. Building a 'team' is not as simple as it might sound -- seen any of the Blue Jays so far this season??  Many years ago, I'd run across a hiring policy utilized by a successful, off-shore auto industry giant in its selection of middle and upper management candidates who would be 'working together'. This policy has been christened creative abrasion. The aspect that caught my eye was the intentional pairing of individuals who did not subscribe to similar business philosophies and who would likely challenge each other's ideas. The thought was that constructing a group of 'yes men' or spouters of the party line may promote a superficially compliant and consistent work environment; but at a deeper level it was to simply build a 'choir' of a single register, whose creative capacities would be severely limited as a result. Worse, who would have the courage, much less insight to offer much-needed, self-correcting devil's advocacy?

I've had occasion to watch two films recently (one has to protect oneself against the cinematic choices of Air Transat, after all -- better to download than trust to the TS universe!) that explore this same concept with some considerable eloquence. Friends and Crocodiles is built around a Gatsby-esque character, and set in the late 1990's. It examines the career vagaries of a (sometimes) wealthy and highly creative young man who samples the extremes. These polarities range from a totally self-contained and highly indulgent 'estate' wherein no limits are placed on one's creative inclinations; to an equally failed and utterly stifling attempt at joining a 'think tank team' (a bit oxymoronic when one considers it). Throughout, our protagonist has the instinctive wisdom to recognize that he needs 'grounding' in some fashion -- lest he orbit too far from a balanced centre and escape 'gravity' completely. To this end he hires a 'secretary', initially the sole counterpoint to the laissez faire 'insanity' and self-indulgence that characterizes the estate.

Not surprisingly, once the first great experiment fails, she opts for the ultra-conservative main stream of big business, firmly anchoring the other polarity of 'group think', callous and often blatantly self-serving choices -- but never losing sight of her own ethical centre. Predictably this 'establishment' posture also fails, with the 'pair' recognizing that alone, they swing 'too wide'; and while the energy is too intense when in close proximity to each other, they absolutely need the balancing influence of the other -- at a safe distance! Creative abrasion to be sure. 

The second film, Cloud Atlas, is a complicated piece exploring themes of collective unconscious, karma, and compassion.  With its half-dozen stories, covering several centuries, it too explores the importance and sometimes tragic outcome of the questioning, challenging posture. And, as importantly, the need for 'pairing's' of two solitudes: slave with (ultimate) abolitionist, primitive with highly advanced cultures, intrepid investigative journalist with tentative and timid scientist, rebel with engineered organic automatons -- neither 'complete' within themselves, requiring the contributing energy of their counterpoint.

From bicycles to movies to diagnostic manuals. With the advent (ascension?) of the DSM-V, the psychiatric 'bible' for classifying mental disorder and replacing the DSM-IV this year, comes a final instance of creative abrasion. David Kupfer, the chair of the committee charged with revising the earlier version, could not be more philosophically distant from Thomas Insel, the head of the National Institute of Mental Health in the U.S. The latter sees an abiding need to develop not just another compendium of symptoms, based on little more than patient self-report and of little utility in directing treatment to a causal source.  His 'Research Domain Criterion' makes a compelling case for identifying hard research data underlying various disorders; supported by 'tests' for same. Dr. Kupfer, ever the pragmatist, is quoted in response as follows: "Insel's vision of a system based on biological and genetic markers remains disappointingly distant (italics added) and cannot serve us in the here and now. It merely hand[s] patients another promissory note that something may happen sometime." Still in an interview recently on CBC radio, he concedes "efforts like the National Institute of Mental Healths Research Domain Criteria [RDoC] are vital to the continued progress of our collective understanding of mental disorders." Two solitudes, each holding the other to account, balancing the polarities.

Choirs undoubtedly make lovely music -- but only when all four registers are present and accounted for. String quartets, by the very virtue of their 'fourness', are reportedly very complicated beasts (from BBC Music's May 2013 article String Tension), evidently running counter to nature's eschewing of this number in a group. Nevertheless, to paraphrase, with respect for the role of the other(s), comes the groups  harmony.

Image, New Yorker cover June 3, 2013

Monday, May 13, 2013

What Lurks . . .?

I've a few (apparently) disturbing paintings hanging in my office. There was no malicious intent; no attempt to unsettle. One, a gift from my mother, no less. A second by one of my favorite artists and sometime teller of children's stories, Leslie Watts. A third, an innocent enough purchase at a Gallery auction (as in 'I love my . . . ' -- how could there be any malice in that?). And a fourth, by the same Ms. Watts, soon to be retrieved from its (tenuous) wall space in local gallery and Canadiana emporium, Village Studios -- to the evident relief of the gallery owner.

My first inkling that I may have inadvertently covered my walls with the artistic equivalent of projective tests came from the somewhat indignant and challenging comment of a client some years back. To wit, 'how could you hang a picture of a bloody, drowning horse in here -- of all places!'  Hmm. Hadn't noticed that myself until you pointed it out. But then I sit with my back to it -- all the better to unnerve you (again, evidently). The artist, a palette knife specialist, had abstractly rendered the B.C. forest scene at right, placing centrally a splash (oops, there I go again) of red in the otherwise dark (and sombre?) tableau. Alerted to the double duty being served by painting, I began to collect 'interpretations' in the years since. To be sure, the 'horse' has 'surfaced' a few more times, along with a wounded swimmer, a sunburned grasshopper -- and a number of other, generally 'dark' images.

Then there's the 'Cellar Steps' (at left). Painted largely in gray's and black's, the image attracted me largely for the nostalgic resonance it triggered in me, so similar was the scene to the basement entry in my own childhood home. I hadn't considered the 'layers of meaning' that would potentially be peeled back as folk with a whole host of associations entered the room and were faced with. . . well, evidently a whole host of associations. Seen variously as symbolic of a descent into some dark place in the psyche; or the  residence of some unnamed, formless fear; or just a well-rendered representation of the lower levels of houses from bygone days. (Now that I mention it, I kind of lean toward door number 2 as I recall those anxious, childhood dashes -- down to get a jar of preserves, never looking into the shadowed corners of the cellar and certainly not daring to contemplate what might be secreted under the steps, watching and waiting to snatch the young David's ankle thru' the open-risered stairs.)

And we can't ignore the huge print pictured at right and upliftingly entitled 'Serenity'. Ever the innocent art lover, I'd always seen this seascape as displaying intrepid courage, engagement in a freeing, thrilling passion -- windsurfing, released from the cares of the work-a-day world. Hadn't really focused much on the isolated, vulnerable, puny helplessness of this boarder as he/she, likely naively and oblivious to the roiling clouds and impending storm, skirts disaster or worse. . .

Poet Robert Bly has christened artists and writers as society's 'hired guns'. His reference is to our resistance to seeing the world for all that it is; our tendency to put a little smiley face at the end of a sentence. He maintains that we essentially 'pay' this talented subset of our culture to portray the 'truths' that we might be in just a bit of denial around. Think Greek tragedy as a prototype -- framed as 'entertainment', but pronouncing on our darker sides. Or Shakespeare, the master of showing us human folly and proclivity -- as 'just good theatre' on a Sunday afternoon. Disturbing isn't so disturbing if it's up on stage or 'projected' on a screen or evidently, hung on a wall.

I see this relating to mindfulness practice in a quite direct way. How we might view a particular piece of art or theatre, how uplifted or unnerved we might be by same, is in part a function of our life view. And it behooves us to take note; to use this as a direct conduit into self-knowledge.  To be 'freaked out' by a painting or a play is information, quite possibly pertaining to our own particular 'shadow'. How better to gain wisdom about self than 'at the safe distance' of an observer. How better to incorporate this knowledge into our own individuation process than by noticing it -- not turning away from it.

And so I happily add to my collection with only the slightest twinkle of impishness. Thanks for being my hired gun, Leslie. And it's off your wall, Martha.

And just for fun -- your reaction to 'Life Ring'

Monday, April 29, 2013

Dont Worry, Be (H)Appy!

Can't make up your mind -- outsource!  A recent article in the Globe & Mail* suggested that, in our over-busy world, we simply don't have time to make all the trivial decisions that confront us every time we step into the intimidating and overwhelming aisles of an emporium. Choices abound -- and challenge. Be it groceries, electronics -- hell, even ordering a coffee is a forty-minute decision, most of the options for which I can't even begin to translate. (Just for fun follow this link to Starbucks 'menu': The G & M's helpful suggestion is to download an app that will 'automatically' navigate those banks of toothpaste, dish soap, cereal . . . Looks like some geek somewhere got it right -- no doubt a dabbler in mindfulness practice.

The intimation is that, to truly 'live mindfully', we will do a couple of things: stay present and act with intention. The latter exhorts us to consider our choices with some measure of consciousness and awareness. This, of course, is the opposite of acting 'mindlessly', automatically. No problem -- until we step out the door; and just maybe we need not even do that -- just log onto the internet and well. . . TMI. And so we find ourselves in a bit of a bind. We can abide by the mindfulness dictum, acting intentionally. Which may translate into spending half a day in Zehrs: 30 minutes shopping and four hours 'deciding with intention' between the non-organically produced mixed greens from Leamington, costing us an extra 19 cents but satisfying our green planet mandate and the cheaper, Southern California equivalent which we're obligated to bury in the bottom of the cart so the carbon footprint police don't catch us; or maybe we could / should go to the local health food store and pick up the visually less appealing, but organically and locally grown produce and 150% more expensive and using more gas to make two stops instead of one . . . OR just do the automatic thing, and not give it a second (or even a first) thought! And get tossed out of the mindfulness club. Rock and a hard place it would appear.

Seems there's some middle ground required. Our friendly app store geek may have it partly right: transfer the intention sideways -- at least for the truly time consuming, but minor decisions that would chew up our day if we followed 'the rules' to the letter. This being said, automaticity, defined as 'working by itself with little or no human input or control', is definitely a two-edged sword. Once we're out of Walmart or Starbucks, it may just be time to reinstate intentional behavior.

From the psychotherapeutic perspective, depending on the 'theory school' to which one subscribes, digging into the murky origins of one's childhood is the sine qua non of change. Not because we discover the 'real villain' (mummy or daddy or the evil neighbor down the block) on whom to hang and blame all our neuroses; or because it allows an emotional release of all that suppressed angst.  But precisely because it allows us insights into those behavioral paths, worn smooth by years (and years) of automatic responses -- and, in the bargain, allowing us a choice. We can 'mindlessly' continue, for example, to respond angrily to frustration, because that's how we saw annoyance acted out in our household. Or we can understand that this is a predictable knee jerk to which we'll almost certainly fall prey if we just leave it to the engram that is the product of those years of unmindful, automatic impulse; and accordingly, at least offer ourselves the choice of behaving with tolerance, compassion, patience.

Most schools of thought emphasize at some level, an examination of our 'core values' as a precursor change. These, of course, are often devoutly held beliefs, inclinations, perspectives, views of self and others that have become increasingly 'unconscious' over the years; and, by extension, adopted as 'personal truths' and form the template on which 'unintentional' or automatic behavior is predicated. If we are to genuinely respond with intention / awareness, we need to begin the journey on that long and winding road of making these patterns, these pathways conscious again. We need to replace these 'knee jerks' with a 'notice and choose' strategy: taking careful note of those proclivities into which we automatically slide; then pause and decide if that is in fact the preferred response. Making an intentional choice.

As for toothpaste and latte's, I'm OK having Mr. App Man take that on. For the more significant interactions of my day -- maybe I'd like a little more personal say.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Praise for 'A Rat's Ass'

Compassion is overrated. Well, at least, regularly misunderstood in its application. Like so many concepts and principles, drawn from mindfulness practice, it seems to have been adopted, swallowed whole by our Western culture  -- without much consideration for the 'downsides' of its undifferentiated and indiscriminate employment. Again, in keeping with our Western values, 'if a little bit is good, bloody great dollops must be better'.

Reflecting on pivotal periods, critical choices points in my life, the candidates could be narrowed to a few select 'suspects' joined by a common thread.  With an initially disturbing awareness, these are all times when, in the parlance, I 'didn't give a rat's ass'* -- generally for the feelings of or impact on others. More of that in a moment.

Having spent (or mis-spent, depending on one's perspective) a year of my early adult life living, more or less hand to mouth, in various parts of western Europe, I returned a changed person -- leaner and meaner, as the saying goes. A previously chunky young man (witness my mother's stubborn insistence on shopping for 'hefty boy' sizes at the local department store in still earlier times), I'd slimmed down physically over that year. And shed as well was, not so much my morality (although it can become quite the encumbrance!) as my fearful observance of 'being a nice guy'. Sadly, I believe it's this latter interpretation of compassion that gets us into trouble -- lest we upset, incur ire, or ripple the waters unduly.

I had this realization confirmed a decade later when, having dabbled in running for a number of years with less progress than I would have hoped, I'd engaged a coach. Two bits of his wealth of advice stuck: choose a distance and concentrate on it; and secondly, be a bit more ruthless. He'd sussed out my 'nice guy' posture yet again and concluded that sticking with and supporting my buddies was not a way to engage what is essentially a competitive sport. 'Pack runs' are the time for that sort of thing, not race day. Hmm?

Some years after this 'second rebirth' and now into a third 'iteration of awareness', I had  clearly backslid to a significant extent and was in need of yet another 2 x 4 to the forehead. Guilt, self-doubt, and hand-wringing confusion, coincident with a very fresh divorce, had prompted my engagement in an intensive group workshop built around seven days of personal introspection and encounter (think Bob & Carol & Ted &Alice), my first of this ilk. The facilitator had drawn me back to 'life changing' points -- less concerned with the 'when' as the 'what'. And as I catalogued some of these moments, he summed up the commonalities succinctly: "Sound like 'rat's ass' moments to me" -- . With his background in Gestalt and Human Potential, he was able to expand a bit. To his mind, these were all times when I'd allowed not so much a less caring (or compassionate) side of self to have a voice; as a more authentic, truthful, and certainly less deferential expression of self.

Compassion is indeed a very tricky concept. Too often it has become associated with being 'a nice guy' (or gal). Doing our level best to divine a 'right answer' (read, what we expect someone else might want, what might raise our good guy stock a notch or two, or keep a potentially volatile or confrontational situation from escalating). A review of Karen Armstrong's parameters in her efforts to construct a Charter of Compassion will quickly identify the foundations on which it is built: empathy, recognition, mindfulness, respectful dialogue, among others. Nowhere could I find a chapter entitled 'cultivation of a bleeding heart' or 'being nice'.  In fact, she contends that the oldest and most basic component of compassion is a variant on the 'Golden Rule': do unto others -- as you would have them do unto you.

It's this last bit that perhaps bears repeating. Compassion is a very reciprocal thing. It is not a matter of self-denial, self-sacrifice alone; not simply 'doing for others. An essential meditation in a developed mindfulness practice is the lovingkindness or metta meditation. The core practice is that of blessing individuals occupying increasingly remote orbits of relationship, finally reaching the ring occupied by one's enemies. But it starts with the blessing, the wishing well of oneself. To deny one's own wellbeing is to skip the point of origin of compassion. What the facilitator had focused my attention on was not that when I behaved selfishly or callously, I did better or was more content. Quite the contrary. He was drawing my attention to the need for a more balanced voice, a voice that expressed my truth -- not at the expense of others but in tandem with the needs, views, beliefs of others.

So 'no more Mr. Nice Guy' is not an invitation to abuse or ignore; it's simply a reminder that equanimity must inform compassionate acts -- just as it should inform all behavior. 'Not giving a rat's ass' is not permission to dismiss or worse, diss; just a mnemonic for a balanced life. Hard to pass on a final pun, an 'ass of another kind'. One of my favorite explorations of this concept is contained in Forster's Howard's End (with apologies) wherein the bleeding heart really does get her comeuppance 'in the end'. To be sure, so does the 'harda__'.

* For those in the reading audience who, for reasons of sensibility or sheltered childhoods, may be unfamiliar, the expression refers to generally 'dismissing the importance of . . .' In contemporary lingo, it's the equivalent of a response of 'whatever'.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Second Violin

This has been a weekend of music: Daniel Taylor, a world class tenor backed by his choir of 'students' from U of T singing the most stunning sacred music in a pro bono concert in the afternoon. Then the InnerChamber unleashing a Haydn and a Brahms string quartet in the evening. All this preceded by A Late Quartet, a compelling film exploring the dynamics and the dialogue that flows, often unheard, below the music itself.

Two comments: one from Andrew Chung, the leader of the InnerChamber group and a second from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the second violinist in the above film, form the backdrop of this weeks ramble. 'Among other things, what appeals about the Haydn is the equality of conversation amongst the four instruments. Sure, the first violin has some of the spicy bits, but. . . ', from Andrew, playing second in this quartet. From Hoffman: 'Without the second to add color, texture, linkage, transition, there's no quartet'.

I was reminded of a comment attributed to a colleague: 'I'd rather have impact than importance; effectiveness than fame'. At the risk of sounding maudlin, I have a strong affection for, identification with the 'second violin' -- or more properly, the second violinist. On my childhood street, my best friend, Larry, was the son of a doctor. He was thin, good looking, with a social ease and unselfconscious style that made him very popular with the girls; and a bit of a sought after 'buddy' to the guys who could count on benefiting from their social proximity to him. My first 'opportunity' to play second violin.  Absent any swagger or arrogance, Larry just moved through his world, largely unaware that he occupied the 'first chair'. It was the rest of us who were acutely conscious of playing 'second fiddle'. And we had a choice: we could resent it; or we could focus on the skill sets that shone a little less brightly in those heady high school days. For some of us it became academics -- accompanied by what came to be known as 'Larry's leavings'.

Fast forward three or so decades. My longtime business partner, Rick Graff, and I are starting our private practice. Not exactly a coin toss to decide the moniker that would define our partnership -- but in those days, the preferred protocol for naming a practice required a single practitioner's name be used. For various reasons, we decided to christen the new enterprise: Rick Graff & Associates. Just out of sight, in the Associates section, are a contingent of skilled and experienced practitioners, part of the 'orchestra', out of the spotlight. An excellent partnership over the intervening 20 years, once again I've had the opportunity to focus on the aspects of psychology that interest me in addition to clinical work -- that would be the building of a business, expanding the compliment of practitioners, seemingly providing the 'glue' that acts to keeps our 'herd of cats' more or less on the same path. Attending to the 'color, texture, linkages, and transitions'. Second violin.

My musical weekend has underscored two significant awarenesses for me -- both with implications for mindfulness practice. The first is one of ego and cultivating a clear consciousness and acceptance of the role which one plays -- not to belabor the metaphor. Neither Larry nor Rick are defined by their ego -- both, in my experience of them, have been modest, unassuming friends. Each in their own way wearing the mantle of 'the first chair' without pretension; neither grasping after nor clinging or aspiring to that 'part'. Equally, to maintain the 'chemistry' between us requires a certain 'ego-less' posture on the part of 'the second violin'.  A delicate balance to be sure -- and one that fosters the second awareness: community -- or, from the musician's perspective, the conversation and harmony of players playing their part.

A community, whether of practitioners or musicians -- an association or a quartet or a choir -- demands 'rehearsal', dialogue, and a variety of 'instruments'. Its strength derives from its diversity and role-awareness; its readiness to adopt shared goals. Daniel Taylor's choir finished their afternoon with a haunting piece of Tavener: perfectly balanced, split on either side of the church, each chorister singing in their assigned register. Taylor's pure tenor soloist voice is a compelling 'first'; the choir, a testament to the 'conversation' that adds the 'texture. . .'

Monday, March 25, 2013

What To Do About Change

Change is a very tricky thing. When I first began practicing psychology in the 1970's and was considerably more active on the 'low end' talk circuit (that would be the noon-hour library lecturer and professional development day talking head), it became immediately clear that I needed to develop some 'canned content'. I settled on one of the more durable topics of the time: stress.  The collection of 'overheads' grew to the point where I could just pull them off the shelf; and talking about stress didn't actually add to my own levels. Assembling one of the resilient packages, Stress: Symptoms, Sources, Solutions, led me to a few resources that continue to illuminate.

Hans Selye, the Hungarian endocrinologist who coined the term 'stress', theorized that it is the adjustment to change in our lives that sets us up for the physiological changes that we experience as 'stress'. One of his major contributions, the General Adaptation Syndrome, documents the disturbing impact that change has on us and our various organs -- particularly if it's unrelenting or experienced in large doses. One of his most surprising findings was that change of any kind (that would be the good, sought after things as well as the less desirable variety!) has the same impact.  We get stressed. 

Which led me to another, now decades-old bit of intelligence: the Life Change Scale. There are lots of variations around (here's a pretty typical version:; but the message is the same in all cases: each time we endure a shift in circumstances -- desired or not, planned or not -- we increase our 'stress score'. The contention is, quite correctly, that if we accumulate too many 'stress points' in too short a time period, we get sick.  If you take a minute and follow the above link, you'll see that getting divorced, being fired, or losing someone close to you, predictably, take a significant toll. But then so does getting married, being hired, and celebrating Christmas! Hmm? No wonder so many of us are 'change phobic'.

Fast forward to the current millennium. Stress is no longer treat of the week (guess I'll have to recycle all those overheads). Mindfulness is the new big thing (fortunately, I have a Power Point ready to go at the drop of a Shriner's Club fez). We're encouraged to walk, sit, drive, exercise, eat, speak, . .  all mindfully, with complete and present awareness.  And one of the essential underpinnings that this 'way of being' addresses is, guess what? Change. In fact, one of the three 'characteristics of existence' is -- impermanence. Change, by any other name. So now what do we do? On the one hand we have the good Dr. Selye telling us that each time we endure a change in our circumstance, we add a couple of ticks to our stress score. And, on the other hand, Buddha is saying 'suck it up buttercup -- change happens, get used to it'!

The awareness that prompted this week's offering came out of a conversation -- well, actually a single exchange in that conversation -- that my wife and I were having with our lawyer recently. Redoing our wills -- funny how those institutions that seemed so deserving a decade ago, have lost their sheen -- the query came: 'and if she predeceases you, what's your vision?' Definitely the chronological 'senior partner' in this marriage, I hadn't really considered this possibility very seriously before.  My response, without a lot of need to reflect: 'well, I'd sell the house, buy a condo and bicycle till I drop'. The pebble tossed into the still, make that static pond! It instantly occurred to both my wife and me, that we needn't wait until one of us dies to consider all sorts of possibilities. And as the ripples spread out from that epicenter, change or its potential had begun to happen. Or more properly, to be allowed to happen (as it inevitably will) and to be embraced. 

And with that awareness, the reconciliation of Selye and Buddha. What these two gentleman share (at the very least) is a dispassionate view of change: one the scientist, the other the metaphysician. Change is neither good, nor evil -- it just is. What provides its 'valence', it's weightiness and accordingly, it's potential for ill, is our response, reaction, or resistance to it. Bhante Gunaratana, in Mindfulness in Plain English sums up the Buddhist position succinctly:

we human beings live in a very peculiar fashion. We view impermanent things as permanent, though everything is changing all around us. The process of change is constant and eternal. . . You set up a collection of mental constructions ('me', 'a book', 'a building') and you assume that they are solid, real entities. . . that they would endure forever. Tun[ing] into the constant change, . . you can learn to perceive your life an an ever-flowing movement. (p. 34-35)

The difficulty with change, then, is not that it exists or happens. The problem derives from our attachment to things, people, states that we would have endure, unchanging; and equally, to our avoidance of, our fight against things that we would have out of our lives, that we find distressing, unpleasant, irritating. My wife's 'implicit' expectation was that, whomever of us survived the other, they would continue to occupy a home into which we had put significant energy and resources, having 'gotten it just like we wanted it'.  And I, until the pivotal query, had shared that view -- without awareness, evidently. The freeing thought it seems was a 'thinking outside the static box' moment. When we cultivate a readiness to 'consider the alternative', we begin to 'de-stress' change. When we fully accept the impermanence of things, we reduce our resistance, we become more flexible . . . and a whole lot less stressed.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

And Your Mother Wears Army Boots. . .

I did not attend his funeral; but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.
Mark Twain

Some cause happiness wherever they go; some, whenever they go.
Oscar Wilde

He has all the virtues I dislike; and none of the vices I admire.
Winston Churchill

I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend ... if you have one.
George Bernard Shaw, (to Winston Churchill)
Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second, if there is one.
(Churchill's reply)

What is it that's so gratifying about getting in a good zinger -- at someone else's expense?  A new book by William Irvine, a philosophy professor at a U.S. university contends that, under some circumstances, the barb, the insult can constructive -- even a sign of approval and affection. One can well imagine that Shaw and Churchill were neither offended nor alienated by the above exchange. In A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt and Why They Shouldn't, Irvine identifies a number of circumstances wherein the 'unsult' (as he terms endearing teasing amongst friends and family) is a sign of acceptance and a check-in on one's status within that group. With certain conditions applied (and that's the kicker), such 'teasing' reassures that one 'matters' in and to a group: no insult equals no relevance or interest in you by other group members.

He goes on to characterize the carefully crafted zinger as a form of 'permitted disrespect' between adult male friends. Think back to those inglorious high school days when, if a buddy didn't punch you in the shoulder on meeting or departing, it was almost certainly a bad thing. Or even earlier, failing to be pushed into a snow bank or tripped in the hallway meant your peer status had slipped a notch or two. The verbal gibe, in Irvine's view, is the grownup version of same.

Or in spousal relationship, reportedly the (carefully crafted) effect is relief of tension, without direct confrontation; pointing up of a concern, without eliciting defensiveness or shutting down the conversation. Hmm? Similarly, amongst friends or co-workers the point can be a 'non-threatening' vehicle for bringing irritating issues to one's attention -- without straining the relationship. Again, hmm?

What a very fine line one walks, however, in this world of witty repartee. It would seem to require a careful assessment of one's pre-existing status with the intended target. Too little familiarity and one risks open offense. (In high school currency, punch the stranger in the shoulder and . . . look out!) Too intimate a relationship and the impact of one's 'obtuse wit' is that of hurt or resentment. In the beginnings of relationship, the casual bit of sarcasm is accepted as an endearing part of the 'come on' (hopefully); later on it's more likely to be seen as a betrayal by 'the only one I can count on to be open and honest' (regrettably).

Or if the intended recipient is a bit literal, or worse, utterly humorless; the gibe risks becoming a gauntlet, tossed down. In the age of email the accepted wisdom is that use of subtlety and irony are shoal-laden waters -- misunderstood intent and 'emotional tone' being all too common. No opportunity to see the wink, the inclusion of punctuated pictograms ;-) aside.

I have long been a devotee of satire and allegory. Jonathan Swift, of Gulliver's Travels fame, thoroughly won me over with his Modest Proposal ( wherein he suggests that a solution to the 'Irish Problem' might simply be to have them eat their healthier children. Much, perhaps too much, of my earlier ranting took the form of thinly concealed irony intended to pillory those institutions (and on occasion, individuals) with whom I had issue. I have rarely shirked from employing the veiled insult. I cannot recall, however, the last time, that such was employed as a 'term of endearment', a testing of my rank in a particular hierarchy, or a problem-solving, conflict-resolution strategy. (Truth be told, it was likely in late high school: sweet on a particular girl and too socially awkward to simply ask her for a date, I chose instead to 'insult'. Years later -- the acquaintance survived for some time in spite of me -- she shared that she was convinced I disliked her. And why would she consent to spend time with someone who evidently hated her? Didn't work then and won't work now!)

With the evolution of the 'insult' from what Irvine calls the Golden Age [populated by the Twain's, the Wilde's, the (Mae) West's, and the Churchill's] to the era of Don Rickles, Dennis Miller, Chris Brown -- where curse has replaced class, rant displaced rhetoric, invective outranks intellect -- perhaps it's time to revisit the simple Buddhist parameters of 'Right Speech': speak the truth, in a timely and helpful fashion. Nothing wrong with a good insult -- but it will ever be mean-spirited, intended to hurt, one-up, or put down, and be rooted in anger, veiled or overt . . . and little more. Let's not dignify it as a 'therapeutic intervention'.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Traveling The Road Not Taken

Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch

Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker's cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.

Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

Philip Larkin, The Importance of Elsewhere

Fifteen years ago, I had the good fortune to attend the Courtauld Impressionist exhibit at the AGO in Toronto. Wandering past the jaw-dropping wonders of the Monet's, Manet's, van Gogh's, and Degas', I came into a room devoted largely to Cezanne. Never my 'favorite' (whatever that might mean when we're talking art of this magnificence!) and already overwhelmed by what I'd seen, I was prepared to move relatively quickly through this space. But I couldn't. I found myself rooted to the spot and staring at the several views of Mont St. Victoire, a favored subject of this artist, with the growing awareness that I'd missed something very profound -- not that day, but some three decades earlier.

That road had led me to Aix en Provence in 1969 where I was somewhat serendipitously 'stuck' for three months while I waited for parts for my motorcycle. I wiled away the time in this beautiful Romanesque city in the south of France, sitting in cafes, making shallow acquaintance of the rich variety of peer-aged students associated with the various institutes and universities, picnicking in the foothills below that very Victoire -- and all the while, all but oblivious to this being the home of Paul Cezanne. That day at the AGO, I'd been granted a second entry -- and this time I noticed.

Our conversation began, as it so often does, with a question from my wife: did I think it was foolish for one her age to be investing so much time and energy into studying music at what amounted to a beginner's level? She'd just finished a weekly, online theory class with an extraordinary teacher, the 'classroom' populated by two other students, both bare adolescents (if that), one of whom has successfully completed her grade 10 music performance requirements, the penultimate in piano. The musical equivalent of entering university at age 12! Cowed by this young gal's musical prodigy and feeling somewhat overmatched, my wife was nonetheless a little confused by the degree to which this young and future performer struggled with the 'architecture' that musical theory comprises; at once, hugely proficient in the playing, but lacking in the (ultimately) essential foundations that allow for a full appreciation of the 'language'.

Our discussion broadened to the more validating view that, by revisiting her musical training -- begun in her adolescence and progressing to grade 6 at the time -- my wife too was taking a 'second go' at that road not taken the first time, at least in any real sense of the phrase, and throughly steeping herself in its richness. The purpose this time round was not 'getting there as fast as I can' -- but truly enjoying and experiencing the trip. And perhaps as importantly, noticing that the second opportunity had presented at all. 

This week's CBC Tapestry segment ( underscores the choices we have when confronted with the awareness that we've 'made a wrong turn' and perhaps opted for a path that, at present feels unfulfilling; or an opportunity missed. Mary Hynes' conversation with Adam Phillips is an examination of the ways in which we often pine for the 'the other fork', the one that would almost certainly have made us happy (or at least happier than we now feel). We mourn, we compare the 'what is' with the 'what could have been', we become obsessed with the 'gap', the shortfall -- and we embrace a recipe for continuing sadness, frustration, discontent.

Phillips' thesis, in part, addresses what we could be doing with that other road. He contends that our 'laments' are in fact useful material that might reflect aspirations, dreams, goals that can and perhaps should be explored in one's current life position -- not merely employed as 'war stories' or badges of 'victimhood', nostalgic reminiscences.   He also explores the (almost cliched by now) concept of 'being present' and how the 'other road' represents a 'stuck in the past' comparator that seductively insulates us from our present lives and inevitably is destined to be our own Glass Menagerie -- a lifelong longing for what might have been.

The Larkin poem that heads this piece, captures the essence of this concept. An Englishman in Ireland, he embraces 'the difference' and as a result feels welcomed, 'in touch' with his immediate, though 'foreign' setting. Returning home to the routine dissatisfactions of his own country, he shifts, conscious that dreaming of a better place, away from what is serves no purpose and that his task now is to fashion a co-existence with, an acceptance of this immediate reality. A very succinct statement of Kabat-Zinn's 'Wherever you go, there you are' concept!

A regular mindfulness practice affirms all of the foregoing aspects of that other road. It teaches us to notice, allow, and engage the present reality. It apprises us of the folly of being stuck in the past; or, alternately, fearing for or expectantly (and possibly, unrealistically) awaiting the future for what it might contain -- but probably won't -- be it angst or redemption.

A personal thought: the next time the other the other fork presents, take it, 'again, for the first time'. The analyst, Robert Johnson, in his brief but very compelling little volume, He, supports this suggestion in the most poetic of ways. Within the context of the Parsifal story in the Legend of King Arthur, Johnson describes this callow and foolish youth's stumbling into the Grail Castle, with the opportunity to fully engage all his hopes and dreams -- merely by asking the right question. In Johnson's words:

Every youth blunders his way into the Grail castle and has a vision that shapes much of the rest of his life. Like Parsifal, he is unprepared for this and does not have the possession to ask the question that would make the experience conscious and stable within him. . . (and) the next morning find(s) himself back in the ordinary world. . . No youth can cope with this opening of the Heavens and most set it aside, but do not forget it. . . A few, like Parsifal spend the rest of their lives searching for the Castle again. . . (while) one has to only "go down the road, turn left, and cross the drawbridge" (to quote the Fisher King).

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Mindful Metaphor

Miss Stevenson, my grade 11 English teacher, was quite the marvel. She somehow kept us engaged as we plodded thru' Great Expectations, struggled with 'that Scottish play', and drafted précis after précis as she prepared us to distill lecture content into succinct points that wouldn't produce writer's cramp in the first ten minutes. But her real achievement was to instill a lifelong love affair (well, at least for some of us) with grammar. The marvelous structure on which (diminishingly, in our world of Twitter) our ability to communicate is built. Parsing sentences, identifying parts of speech, regretting the dangling participle, eschewing the one-sentence paragraph. While the synecdoche's  and the oxymoron's have largely slid off my radar, metaphor has remained.

Humbly, by definition: a 'figure of speech wherein a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it does not literally apply'.  What I've come to realize and appreciate over the years, however, is that metaphor is not just some esoteric figure of speech used by authors and abused by sports analysts. It's a tool crucial to our understanding of circumstance and process, when the content is often too complex or abstract or unfamiliar to enable us to grasp a concept. A well-turned and appropriate metaphor makes accessible to an untutored mind the wonders of the quantum physics on which our universe is thought to depend, the nuance of symphonic music, the workings of a disordered mind -- all without a whiff of an idea of calculus, harmony, or psychopathology. It brings things 'down to our level', at once simplifying and elaborating in accessible and understandable terms.

Therein lies both its utility and its risk. In short, use of metaphor should perhaps be a 'protected act'. (It's OK -- two sentences.)

Consider, if you will, the content of the world's best selling volume -- right behind Fifty Shades of Gray. That would be the Bible.  Metaphor all. Little did the authors, millennia ago, conceive for one minute that a) anybody would actually assemble these writings into a semi-coherent whole, b) use them as a basis for two of the world's great religions, or c) and this is the big one -- take it as literal truth. Sadly, not at least until the recent writings of Marcus Borg or John Spong, did it occur to an unsuspecting public that 7 days, 40 years, virgin birthing, burning bushes, angels, heaven, hell, and everything in between were 'phrases applied to objects and actions to which they are not literally applicable'. No waiver on the flyleaf; centuries of abuse and literal interpretation to follow.

And then there's the poorly conceived metaphor. I had occasion to read a transcript of a lecture given recently wherein the church is compared to a parent, its sheep (oops, there goes another one) to children. Seemingly all a-OK as we conjure up the wisdom, experience, guidance, morality, teaching points, and generally just good stuff to live by -- associating these with the parent and its propagating institutions; the rebelliousness, experimentation, challenging, mistake-prone, impulsive behavior -- attaching to the child. The intention of the 'implied comparison', of course, is to portray the institution as patient and tolerant; the sheep, as it were, as wayward and misguided, but soon to come to its senses and 'return to the fold'.

Sadly, again, metaphor, once 'let out of the barn', has the annoying capacity to be carried by those on the receiving end to a more extended and, in this case, unanticipated conclusion. After all, the intent is to make a relationship fully understood and 'manageable' for the audience. Right? Ah, but the child does not simply wake up one morning, post-adolescence, and 'realize' its mistakes; and come groveling back to a forgiving parent. The child is, in fact, 'paid' to individuate, to develop its own ideas, and to continue to foster a completely independent identity that -- wait for it -- is intended to change and evolve and extend the ideas of the parent; not simply to parrot what mummy and daddy have so fondly hoped would become the mantra of said child. In fact, it is the psychologically unhealthy (or at least, incomplete) child that returns, chastened, to the corral. 

And so what begins as a half-baked metaphor, emerges from the oven, fully risen and ready to convey the very opposite of that which its designer had in mind. We're in it this far. Let's just give it a tug and see where the metaphoric thread, when pulled, might lead us -- as we watch the intended sweater unravel and resolve into a pile of tangled yarn on the floor. Could it possibly be -- praise be -- prophetic, not pathetic? Could the lecture have been intended to float the concept of the need for complete revision, the dissolution of such anachronistic institutions; to be not merely redesigned or redecorated, but wholly supplanted by an emerging spirituality of the individual -- capable (not unlike our maturing child) of thinking for himself, without benefit of an intermediary to 'interpret those really tough bits'; tired of caring for the aging, demented parent with its rants and entitlements. Hmm? Or is it just another case of playing with a loaded metaphor and shooting oneself in the foot?