Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Letter 2011

As is often the case, for our household(s), polarities and paradox seem to be the 'themes' that best characterize the year that's been and is now drawing to a close: mobility set against permanence, milestones passed engendering a return to familiar touchstones, simplicity facilitated by increasing sophistication and complexity.

Perhaps the appropriate starting point is the 'mind map', stuck up on the wall in front of me, serving to guide and constrain (to something under a book) the annual update -- and, again appropriately enough, driven by a little 'app' called Simple Mind. The researcher-in-residence (aka, Nicola) had established as 2011 affirmations a return to mental, physical, and spiritual fitness -- not that the first had ever wandered far from the path; nor had the last, although always evolving, lapsed in any significant way. For the middle -- well let's just say for both of us, it had become a little more substantial than we would have wished (that would be 'the middle'). Enter the Pomodoro Technique -- with mind maps to follow close behind. For the household accountant, discipline (read time management via Mr. Pomodoro and its 25-minute 'chunking') and organization (mind-mapping, at first glance, looks like a flow chart gone postal -- but it works!) are figural in whipping the old brain back into shape. And the happy vehicle for all this structure is a return for Nicola to a long-lapsed piano passion. Touching base with musical muses sees her regularly shuttling between Stratford and Toronto. Oh dear, how does one bear the restaurants, the city's vitality and energy, and contemplative time to and fro on the train? Practice has taken on a multiplicity of expressions from daily twenty-minute meditations and work-outs in the basement 'fitness lab' (more of that later), against a background of double flats, scales, and regular viewings of Piano Anne's You Tube postings. How could one not lose weight?

2011 saw both Jill and Andrew move households -- their respective 'better halves' initially and energetically fulfilling the role of fiscal devil's advocate -- to digs that are both charming and well-situated. Jill and Brant find themselves mere minutes from work in downtown London, on the edge of 'old North' having cheerfully escaped the 'is that police cruiser for this complex or the next?' angst of the east end. Simon and Andrew can fall out their flat's front door and end in the Distillery District, a treed, ten-minute stroll from the Cathedral and spitting distance (hmm, should work on that descriptor) from St. Lawrence Market.

As for the permanence bit, Jill saw another boogie man (oops, boogie person) fall off the radar -- the persistent worry around renewal that haunts the contract worker. LoL (that would be London Life -- although it could equally be the other tagline, I suppose) saw fit to 'make her permanent'. One of those, careful what you wish for situations, of being 'legit' in a structure that is not exactly one's ideal -- but when is it otherwise? And so 'I can see clearly now' not only describes the immediate vocational future; but also the actual eyesight following some recent surgery to correct persistent double vision (seeing one boogie person is bad enough, but two!).

Permanence found its way into the Toronto household as well with Simon securing permanent residency status, after a long and varied roller coaster of an application process. Never hurts to be too careful with those Yorkshire-men seeking to set up Lord knows what kind of covert, organist cells in our unsullied landscape. Working pro bono really was getting a bit old. St Mary Magdalene's is the big winner with Simon now able to take on the assistant's role in their storied music program (move over Healey Willan). And Andrew continues to be a 'one man band' at St. James Cathedral, more than capably filling the role of interim director of music for another year. No mean feat between ducking office manager tantrums and balancing a music budget, with weekly recitals and a good bite out of a goal of playing his way thru' Bach's organ repertoire.

And mobility wasn't limited to bag and baggage. Well guess that's not technically true as David chose, for his cycling adventure of 2011, to drag just that from sea to sea across the north of England. Two weeks on two wheels with two panniers (and several thousand pounds of camera gadgetry) was just enough to make some 25% climbs thru' the Yorkshire Dales, let's say more than challenging. Lots of opportunity to see the countryside in infinite detail with pedal, pedal interspersed with puff, puff (and not just the occasional pause and push). Morecambe to Whitby (been there, done that, bought the t-shirt -- no really!). And there's absolutely no correlation between turning 65 (I've got Stephen Harper's letter explaining the OAS clawback to prove it!) and undertaking challenges more suited to a twenty-something, than a sixty-something. Taking no chances on back-sliding in the winter of our (cycling) discontent, Kurt Kinetic (the cutest little lime-green trainer -- think training wheels with a lot of carefully calculated drag) has joined the indoor stable of treadmill and exer-cycle.

From man in motion to gal with a goal -- more on the mobility front. Jill realized a (very hard fought) target this year breaking four hours for her marathon time with a 3:56 at Detroit this Fall (absolute 'days' to spare). Way to go (and go and go. . . as she closes in on another target: a 3,500 km. year -- 3,431 as I write -- looks like a couple of stacked workouts in the final days of 2011). And a lot of those post-wall moments could have ended less satisfyingly without the one-man support crew, photographer, whipping boy, sport's psychologist, and all around cheer leader: Brant. This man gets the 2011 family award for biggest heart and thickest skin by a country mile! Little wonder that in his 'off-duty' (when is that anyway, Jill?) moments, he finds restorative comfort staring contemplatively into the depths of aquaria; and can be heard polishing his ichthyological communication skills -- no grief or back-talk from these little buggers (and besides, they're on the other side of a glass wall!)

Even houses have their neurotic sides (or, in this case, sidings). As word of all the household moves filtered down to Chez Neal, we noticed distinct signs of an identity crisis beginning to surface. Naught for it, but a long-overdue facelift -- with new chapeau (aka roof) and togs (board and batten siding) to fend off any further, incipient security issues. And to put a period at the end of this sentence, Nicola reworked the 'back 40' (alias the 'potting plot'), creating a Provencal, micro-climated, kitchen garden. One could almost feel the tension ease in Neal's shoulders as the aubergine and pomodoro (that would be eggplant and tomatoes to us locals) proliferated!

And finally, just to ease the UK to colonies transition, a very significant British contingent found its way for visits to our fair shores, with Simon's parents, Debbie and Brian, grandmother, Jean, and cousin, Marj sampling the fare at Chez Neal amongst other destinations. No arm-twisting required at all to ensure our return visit in the upcoming year -- not a day passes that I don't moon over the Dales of England's north.

Blessings from us all,

Nicola, David, Jill, Brant, Andrew, and Simon -- with Morag, (the UPPERCASE -- for anyone whose heard her bark), Obie, the exclamation point (! -- for anyone whose pulled burrs from his fur), and Martha, the editor (for anyone who asks).

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Beginner's Mind

"In the beginner's mind (sh0sin), there are many possibilities; in the expert's there are few"
Shunryu Suzuki

Perhaps twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to hear the convocation address delivered by Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul, Soulmates) to the new crop of University of Toronto graduates. His message was succinct, clear, and, I'm sure to the freshly minted BA's, just a bit paradoxical. 'You've spent four years learning, cramming your heads with information. Now, just before you step into the world, empty it all out!' He was not diminishing their efforts; nor impugning the importance of knowledge. He was merely pointing out that information, in and of itself, can be as limiting as it is useful and instructive. Suzuki's pithy opening to his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, captures this same sentiment: when approaching any subject, maintain an openness and suspend preconceptions to reach the 'correct truth' (an alternate translation of the Buddhist term, shosin).

A few weeks ago, the Globe and Mail reported on the 'brightest community in the world' -- and here we all thought it was Stratford -- Shanghai!! Evaluated on standardized, high school-aged tests (evidently creating a basis for comparing academic performances across cultures), this mid-sized city out-stripped a host of other Western and Eastern candidates. What I found telling was that the educators even in this city were quick to point out that their educational policies have as top priorities test-taking skills and acquisition of content-heavy, broad information bases -- evidently at the cost of fostering creative thought (and generally necessitating significantly extended 'school days'). Great for high marks; not so sure about opening minds.

It seems that these priorities are not restricted to the Tiger Moms of China. Our culture too, protestations to the contrary, appears to validate the former of these two approaches (acquisition of knowledge), granting the designation of 'expert' to he/she who knows the most about a subject versus to those who choose to think outside the box, with the emphasis on understanding and the 'how' of a particular subject of interest. My wife has recently chosen to 'redo' her musical education, having completed grade 5 (in piano) in her mid-adolescence. Her approach this time round, I found a little confusing at first: integrating the physics of kinesiology and posture, mindfulness, mathematics, and the 'psychology of practice', as well as studying the theoretical rudiments (aka 'theory') of which I expect most accomplished musicians are intuitively aware (but to the casual player are a collection of rote, boring, and near random associations). Result: a very motivated student who now struggles to find the time in her day to fit in another practice. And all commenced at the preparatory level -- a true beginner's mind approach.

I had occasion to be chatting recently with a young man, currently enrolled in 3rd year university, only to hear this same theme echoed once again. Though the conversation was far-reaching, it seemed to return to the same thematic point of origin -- whatever the content. A history major, he noted that he had little difficulty cranking out papers that were well-received by his faculty (and accordingly rewarded with good grades). But he was bored, lamenting that taking an 'unpopular' point of view -- in his description, being less 'conforming', formulaic, or compliant with expectations -- often failed to be endorsed with the hoped for 'A'. Taking the 'party line' was the way to advance. He went on to say that, during a trip to Europe he found himself having to make a choice between 'charging his camera' (with which to document the reams of ruins they visited) and his iPod (source of much loved music and the portal into a more receptive, immediate state) -- opting for the music over the camera. His rationale was that, in 'shooting the sites', he had become increasingly preoccupied with the right light, image composition, sun placement; losing his very present awareness / direct connection with the building, statue, etc. before him. Listening to his music, he became more immediately engaged, less distracted -- and less obsessed with 'keeping a record', but risking missing the experience. As with information accumulation, interpolating, in this case, the photographic device between his 'beginner's mind' and the site changed and constrained his experience -- and was therefore, much to the dismay of his peers, eschewed.

Poets and educators, Robert Bly and Joseph Campbell (Power of Myth) in particular, underscore Suzuki's 'subversive' stance as well. In a marvelous little essay, Bly characterizes the human shadow (that oft mis-named 'dark side') as the 'long bag we drag behind us' and, coincidentally, the repository of much of our creative potential. The 'bag' begins to grow (and become less accessible to us) as we move from childhood ('that perfect globe of energy and curiosity' -- what a wonderful definition of the beginner's mind), into adulthood, learning in the process what's acceptable and what isn't -- to parents, teachers, peers, employers, friends; and stowing all those 'not's' in our bag and generally losing touch with the content. And, one day, we look at our 'globe' only to find that it's a mere 'shadow' of its former self, a slice instead of an orb -- and we realize we have been 'socialized' out of our naive, ingenuous, receptive and curious selves. Campbell identifies a similar process as we discover and construct our personal lists of thou shalts and thou shalt not's -- building our formula for acceptance; but losing our (beginner's) mind.

When we sit, when we meditate the task before us is to regain that lost capacity in the simplest possible way -- by suspending our compulsion to think; even to think about thinking. To suspend the preconceptions, the judgments, the compulsions to evaluate -- and to approach each experience 'again for the very first time', the true beginner's mind with eyes (and mind) wide open with surprise and wonder.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ethics and Happiness

If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife . . . Or so goes Jimmy Soul's recipe for marital contentment. Sort of a re-visioning of Proverbs 31, I suppose -- and just about as popular nowadays (talk about a sexist stance!) Perhaps a bit more substance is required in cooking up a formula for this sometimes elusive state -- happiness, not marital contentment (although they do somehow seem to be related).

A few months ago, I'd had a look at the benefits of 'being happy' (The Glass Is . . .) with a quick overview of The Happiness Advantage (Shawn Achor) and Authentic Happiness (Martin Seligman), the latter author/researcher offering a whack of variables that he feels might underpin this golden fleece of mindsets. Both feel optimism is an important element.

And now, from that hotbed of happiness (Missouri) comes some research from Harvey James, an academic economist (now there's an optimistic group!) that might expand our formula a bit: Ethical people are satisfied people, or to quote Plato, 'the just man is happy, the unjust man, miserable'. Harvey's findings are summed up: 'happiness is derived from doing well (ed note: not sure if he doesn't also mean 'doing good', in the grammatically correct sense) and from meeting psychological rather than material or hedonistic needs. While income, personal characteristics, and societal values play a role in affecting happiness, so do personal ethics. If the goal of public policy is to improve subjective well-being, and if subjective well-being increases when people are just, the efforts to improve the moral behavior of people will also improve overall societal well-being'.

James, true to his researcher's roots, is not about to say that the relationship between ethical behaviour and life satisfaction is a causal one; that is, that doing good / behaving justly causes one to be happier (any more than being happy causes one to do good!) What he is saying is that these two are related, possibly thru' a collection of 'third factors', and that higher levels of intolerance for unethical situations is generally found in people with greater measures of satisfaction with their life states.

A bit of reflection on this relationship suggests that it makes good, intuitive sense. If I notice that the cashier has given me back change for a $20, when it should have been a $10 and I draw her attention to the oversight, we both leave the situation with a sense of well-being (although I'm $10 less well off for the trouble!). If I do a 'cash only' transaction in my work, I'm 'saving' the government's bite; but might find myself checking the mail for months after I file that return, just waiting for the notice of audit. Not a very good use of time or focus -- and easily avoided.

Seligman, in his taxonomy of (happiness-inducing) signature strengths, identifies a very similar element, which he labels integrity, grouping it together under the rubric of courage, along with bravery, perseverance and diligence, and in particular, honesty and genuineness. He defines integrity in his use of the word as 'more than just telling the truth to others; (it means) representing yourself -- your intentions and commitments -- to others and to yourself -- in a sincere fashion, in word and deed'.

Mindfulness teachings may just have scooped Dr. James (sorry, Harvey) on this one by a few millennia. These are couched in the Eight-fold Path (essentially Buddhist guidelines for living life) and more broadly as they address the three Liberating Trainings. These would be meditation / mindfulness practice itself, cultivation of wisdom, and ethical behaviour. The latter, in turn, is comprised of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. And perhaps therein lies the core -- when practicing, amongst all the other benefits that seem to accrue, we feel freed. James speculates that the illusive 'third factor' (relating satisfaction and ethics) may be a 'freedom from guilt or shame'.

As we move from the daily sit back into the world, mindfulness practice then is more than carrying that sense of calm, ground, and centre into the rest of our day. It is choosing the way in which we engage that day: the relationships it brings us in contact with (and how we respect or value those exchanges), the choice points that are often subtly fraught with decisions pitting altruism against personal gain, bringing empathy and compassion into our dealings -- and being mindful in all these choices. All this, secure in the knowledge (now that Harvey's done his math) that we will be more content at the end of that day.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Buddha in the Dugout

Now here's an original thought: 'baseball as a metaphor for life'! Having spent too many hours to count in front of games six and seven of the World Series, it was hard not to absorb some of the wisdom (no groans, please) of the seasoned manager, Tony LaRussa, that pulled the Cards from the brink of elimination likely a few dozen times between mid-August and the finale of the 'October classic'. For those of you who spent great chunks of Thursday and Friday night listening to the attached commentary, it was quite impossible (evidently almost as impossible as St. Louis winning this year's version) not to hear of the unlikely story of overcoming a 10.5 game deficit to catch the Braves on the season's final day; for the 'Carps' (aka Chris Carpenter) beating the Phillies' best (Roy Halliday for those of you who were never a Blue Jay fan!) -- only to face the remaining National League favourites, Milwaukee. Not to be awed by, down to their final strike -- not once, but twice -- this model of resilience and tenacity forcing a game seven. . . and then to win it all (as the cliche goes).

Buried in the blizzard of commentator hyperbole and expressed disbelief was a little gem that just may have some relevance to mindfulness practice. And attributed not to the fickle gods of baseball (be they human or heavenly), nor to the various and sundry candidates for this year's version of 'Mr. October' (turned out to be David Freese clothed in all his mid-western humility). But in fact to the sometime disgraced hitting coach of the Cardinals: Mark McGwire. His advice to his hitters: don't try to hit the ball to a particular spot on the field.

Perhaps a bit of connective linkage between this folksy intelligence and mindfulness may help. The expanded version of his counsel is first, you need to see the ball. (Stay with me here -- we are navigating our way thru' baseball cliche after all.) In baseball parlance, 'seeing' means attending to all the nuances of what's coming down the tube toward you, as batter, at something between 140 and 150 KPH: ball rotation, pitch plane, pitcher release point, etc., etc. That also means resisting the urge to 'predict' what you think might be about to happen -- generally leading to a swing that, in the exaggerated baseball babble of the colour commentator, has you 'coming out of your shoes' (overswinging), 'being late' (thought you'd get a curve and were greeted by 'high heat' -- a fastball), or frankly being embarrassed in some other way. In meditative terminology: being very present.

Once you've 'seen' the ball, concentrate on hitting it to the same spot on the field each time -- according to Mr. McGwire's wisdom, if possible, the middle of the park. Conjures up visions of seven fielders lined up and spaced out (as it were) behind the pitcher, just waiting for the highly predictable, middle of the field smack. Again advice that sounds very counter-intuitive, not to mention counter-productive. Implies that, if the hitter is successful, he will dump the ball to the shortstop or centre fielder each time he makes contact (which, for most of the spear carriers in the game will be about one time in four). Baseball lore demands, given the myriad of different scenarios possible when a batter comes to the plate, that you might 'pull the ball', or perhaps 'hit it the other way', keep in on the ground, slap it, bunt it, knock its cover off, and on and on. Mr. McGwire would have none of this. He rebuts all the naysayers with another truth: the pitch will determine where you hit it; your job is to just hit it. Again, in translation: the universe will provide the scenario -- we don't get to say; our job is to take that circumstance and greet it consistently, bringing to it that same non-judging, fully aware, acceptance of 'what is'. Attempting to control an outcome, wishing the situation to be otherwise (being prepared for a fastball and getting something off-speed) is not part of the deal. The slider down and out over the plate will go the other way; the fastball, squarely meeting a bat swung with every bit as much speed as the ball contacting it, will find its way over the fence.

Not to say that Tony didn't have a piece in all this as well. Following a hugely entertaining, albeit keystone-coppish game six (outfielders tripping over each other, MVP's dropping 'routine fly balls', catchers throwing to the fan behind the centre field fence instead of the second baseman) capped with the dramatic triple, then home run of Mr. Freese, the team's manager had the wisdom to remind his players that yesterday is yesterday -- and it has absolutely nothing to do with today beyond allowing us to show up for one more day of work. Now is now. Then is then -- and ne'er will the twain meet, except for losers. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn's catchy book title: wherever you go, there you are.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Mindfulness Habit

The reward for trailing along behind my mother as she surveyed the wares of Hens and Kelly's, Kleinhan’s, and the myriad other department stores along Main St. in Buffalo, was our visit to the Mayflower. The little donut shop, wildly predating Timmy’s and the ilk, offered more than just Saturday afternoon treats. Lettered below its distinctive schooner of a logo were the wise and cautionary words: “As you ramble on through life, brother (bear in mind this was 1955!), whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut -- and not upon the hole!” Would that goal attainment and the rocky road to building sustainable habits was that easy. (Frankly, if the goal is effective weight control -- we may have a serious problem with that advice in any event.)

Nevertheless, as I dissected this little aphorism, more and more it seemed to contain the elements necessary to navigating this path – just in need of a little ‘fleshing out’, as it were. So, in search of a better mouse trap, I first thumbed through The Habit Factor -- maybe not as tasty, but with a bit more substance than our little shop of delights. Martin Grunburg's recent offering, is a (painstakingly thorough) analysis of the relationship between goals and habits, unorthodoxly (but not originally*) placing the emphasis on habit being the roadway to goal attainment; the latter often being left more to happenstance than a planned and carefully executed, gradual process. And I began to consider applications for establishing and maintaining a regular, meditative practice that eludes many us.

Grunburg maps out a six-step process beginning with the identification of a goal, in specific terms, written out, and having some inherent value to us. While this might sound like an obvious starting point, he notes that ‘you can’t achieve what you can’t see’; rather the equivalent of knowing you want to go on a holiday – need to go on a holiday! – then setting off on the trip without much of an idea of your destination; or for that matter, what route you plan to follow. (All very adventurous and 1970’s to just ‘hit the road’ – but decidedly vulnerable to getting side-tracked and never really arriving anywhere.) In addition to setting start and end dates, he underscores the importance of ‘capturing the ‘why’’ of the goal, then visualizing what it will look like once achieved. Again perhaps a self-evident step, but one that such common ‘goals’ as quitting smoking, losing weight, etc. might fail to quantify or specify. (I would question whether achieving such ‘negative states’ even constitutes a goal – and perhaps need to be reframed in positive, identifiable increases in behaviour – than the absence of same; again, somewhat like planning the vacation around where you don’t want to go!) The ‘why’ is as much associated with the goal’s value to you, the emotional energy (aka ‘investment’) that it embodies, as the act or achievement itself. He suggests identifying the various dimensions of one’s life (sometimes summarized as the body-mind-spirit triad) that might be reasonably included in specifying the personal importance of a goal; the logic being that the broader the connection or impact, the more likely it will be achieved.

As an example, our son Andrew identified as a three-year goal – commencing March 2011 – the public performance in recital of Bach’s complete organ oeuvre. Anyone who has known this young man for any length of time is well-acquainted with his ‘spiritual connection’ to his music: most certainly his passion and quite possibly the main vehicle through which he has explored his spirituality. Learning this body of composition is a challenge to any ‘mind’ -- most certain to change and expand the ‘mental’ elements of his being. And to watch an organist perform is to marvel at the coordination, the physical ‘inclusiveness’ of having hands and feet flying over two (or more commonly, three or even four) separated manuals (keyboards) – pushing and pulling stops (as in ‘pulling out all the . . .’) as they play. Body…mind…spirit.

To carry Grunburg’s ‘formula’ further, he underscores the importance of setting milestones, breaking the meta goal into smaller, more quickly achievable, interim stages – again, not a new strategy, but one that is often given short shrift. And finally, and this is perhaps the most useful contribution of the author’s approach, engaging in what he calls ‘habit alignment’, identifying the regular, measurable parts of your day that, when performed will lead you to your goal. What I believe he is describing is process whereby, once having identified the above elements of the goal itself, we essentially let go of that ‘target’ – not forgetting about it – but equally resisting the urge to chronically measure the size of the gap between our present position and our desired destination. Instead to put our energy into daily routines, a practice if you will, that, when engaged regularly will produce, almost as a side effect, our goal. (Consider how undermining and emotionally charged the act of climbing on the scales to ‘measure our success’ might be; when the habit structure is that of tracking and shaping food intake when attempting to reach a weight goal.) Running a race of significant distance or in a shorter time is far more constructively approached by focusing on the daily regimen of proper hydration, supportive diet, appropriate sleep, regular exercise periods with a particular focus or intent, receiving the helpful guidance of a coach or trainer – than calculating the difference between a goal and present capability. Trusting the preparatory process (the ‘alignment of habits’) is a far more sustainable practice. Participating in the regimen for its own sake – than for what it may (or may not) produce down the road.

The habit alignment phase suggests picking three to five ‘core’ habits that support and relate to the goal; identifying minimum criteria for the daily practice of each; writing down the contributory importance of each; and then tracking attainment.

Applications for this approach abound – one of the most intriguing for me is cultivation of a mindfulness practice. The goal: regular daily meditation. Instead of simply stating this laudible (albeit vague and poor defined) objective, then crossing my fingers (or legs in a lotus more likely) and hoping that things maintain, how much more useful to apply Grunburg’s little formula to the supportive habit structure that attaches to this goal. Why is it important to me? How does it relate to the triadic dimensions of my life? What are the habits, the behaviours, I need to incorporate into my day to support the goal? What are the intermediate goals? Where do I find a community that supports this goal? What do I track?

And so back to the Mayflower and its sage advice: a lifetime process, focusing on something you value (at nine years of age, donuts certainly filled that bill!), that has ‘substance’ (not the ‘hole’, the ‘negative goal’), in a supportive community (brother, sister, whomever!). Not bad for a little shop at the corner of Mohawk and Main.

*Two of the founding principals of Esalen, an alternate teaching community in California, Michael Murphy and George Leonard, explore very similar territory in their book, The Life We Are Given (Establishing an Integrated, Transformative, Practice): beginning with written affirmations, establishing time lines, defining a daily ‘Kata’ (a 40-minute routine that incorporates a balancing and centering activity, a yoga series, a period of visulaizaiton, and a 10-minute meditation; within a context of – think body, mind, spirit – mindfulness of both diet and physical exercise), and engaging in a community of like-interested individuals on a weekly basis.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Rhythm

The dog just kept barking. Not a distressed or desperate or frustrated bark -- those of us with intimate knowledge of all the nuances of canine communication are able to make such fine distinctions. Just a WOOF woof, WOOF woof . . . nearly musical in its cadence and accent. Aware that I'd planned on riffing on dealing with distractions while meditating, I'd almost welcomed the unplanned teaching point as we worked our way through our 25' sit. As the bell sounded to signal the sit's finish, I polled our group members as to their response to our four-legged participant's contribution. "I found it irritating and intrusive; thought about slipping outside and putting a bark collar on it!" "Noticed it -- but then it just seemed to fade." "Constructed a complete scenario around it: selecting the dog food, filling the bowl, presenting it to our friend. . . then launched off on some other related thoughts -- quite a little trip!" "Found it had a regular 'beat', almost rhythmic, like a metronome". "Did it really go on for 25 minutes?" In short, as varied a range of responses, my own included, as there were folks in the circle.

Striking as well was the relationship between the 'tone' of reaction and the degree to which the distraction persisted in the consciousness of the meditator. Along with a sense of intrusiveness, irritation, a need to 'fix', or banish the sound, came the 'hooks' that buried themselves in the awareness of the sitter; alternately, building the 'bridge' to the next thought. The distraction had, in some sense taken on a life of its own, becoming the focus of the sit; developing its own texture and dimensionality, becoming progressively 'bigger'.

Reliably, for others, experiencing the cycle of barks as a rhythm, allowing versus resisting, developing an 'interested observer' posture -- even briefly -- enabled the meditator to hear the sound as it recurred, to apply a (perhaps wordless) label to the distraction, then return to the breath. As the pattern repeated -- as it certainly did -- the sound became decreasingly intrusive, to the point where, although it continued to be heard, its potency diminished to the point where its impact was little more than the sound a ticking clock, traffic sounds, birds chirping -- part of the surround and little more.

Bhante Gunaratana, in Mindfulness in Plain English, offers some succinct thoughts on tactics for addressing distractions (of all types, not just dog barks). He suggests allowing ones awareness to briefly migrate to the intrusion; then identify the 'what it is', the 'how strong, intense it is', and finally the 'how long it's been present'. He contends that this 'objectifying' of the intrusion facilitates one's ability to observe it, rather than participating in it, sufficiently distancing one from the emotional valence that might form almost instantly along with the attachment (resentment) or avoidance (anticipating the next yelp -- and perhaps actually 'holding one's breath while waiting!) that will develop; or to have it operate as a launching pad for the thought sequence that might pull one progressively further away from the breath.

And then there's the rhythm itself, the 'flow' of the sit. At the root of a mindfulness practice is the cycle, the regular pattern of the breath. And equally, the ebb and flow of having one's awareness 'float away from the dock', feeling the 'rope' connecting us to the breath become 'taut' (as a distraction takes brief hold of our consciousness), gently tugging at our awareness and reminding us to return to the anchoring breath. Our response to this rhythm -- just as it seemed to be in dealing with the distraction of the barking -- is critical to the integrity of the sit. There are myriad ways in which we can oppose the cycle, disrupting the pattern of 'naming' (the intrusion) and 'returning' (to the breath), and thereby empowering the interruption -- be it thought, sound, or sensation. We can resist the distraction, judging it (as bad or undesirable in some fashion). We can 'do our best' (ironically, becoming 'our worst' in terms of the sit) to push it out of our consciousness, empowering it all the more. We can engage it, holding hands with it and toddling off down the path of associative thoughts. We can berate ourselves for yet another disrupted sit.

The 'rhythmic' option accepts the distraction (be it drowsiness, boredom, restlessness, self-doubt, etc.), welcoming it as yet another wave breaking on the beach -- to be noticed (not resisted or becoming enamoured of) as a unique event; then allowed to recede, only to be followed by another. . . and another as the sit proceeds. The pattern, the cycling puts us closer in touch with our anchor, the breath. And each repetition deepens our intimacy with and capacity for utilizing this valuable tool of mindfulness through the rest of the day. The reality that we will be pulled from our centre; and our task, perhaps our only task, is to ground ourselves (noticing the desire, the aversion) and to gently return to our 'dock'.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What Were They Thinking??

Mindless! This, the opening to a homily at Toronto’s St. James’ Cathedral, in reference to the days of violent rioting in London, England this past week. As is often the case, the making of some sense of catastrophic events, particularly those authored by other human beings (but even natural events get those evangelicals’ tongues a-wagging and fingers a-pointing!) becomes paramount – and with this (pseudo) understanding, just as often comes the offering of a ‘cure’. In the case of the homily, it appears that the roots of this mindless behaviour are traceable to a loss of one’s religious bearings; and, by extension, the cure lies in ‘getting the good word out’ to those lost souls (sounds like evangelizing to me). I’m not sure it’s just quite that simple (on counts of either cause or cure).

Saturday morning greeted Nicola and I with a tableau wildly less ruinous, mercifully, than the one pictured above – but nonetheless very disturbing. And reminding us, yet again, of that very fine line that sometimes blurs sufficient to allow us residents of comfortable Canada in secure Stratford to be touched by events, if not of scale and devastation, at least of similar etiological seed. Mindless behaviour.

I’ll not quibble with the Dean’s (homilist at St. James’) points. In my experience of him, he is a courageous and articulate speaker, a tolerant, inclusive, and socially sensitive observer, and a deep thinker. But he has a job to do and a context within which to do it. Nevertheless, seven additional considerations – which, together with God (or more properly, the loss of touch with same), bring our tally to eight, possibly causal, almost definitely contributing elements underpinning this mindlessness.

As with England, so with Stratford: age, stage and content of values acquisition, a sense of (pseudo) power (however transitory and pointless) against an abiding backdrop of felt powerlessness, an alienation and separation from (and with it, a marginalization), frank numbers (of bodies), impulsivity (and its primary catalyst, substance), and finally the capability to communicate (one’s actions) in word and picture to widespread numbers of like-minded, like-situated, but perhaps geographically remote peers.

The analysis of England’s riots (principally taking place in London and Manchester) seemed all the more challenging in the absence of any ‘reason’. Flashpoints were identified – but seemed quite insufficient to explain the devastation that followed. Large numbers of mainly teenaged rioters seemed intent on trashing the neighbourhoods in which they lived, with no particular motivation (political, social, racial, etc.) other than ‘everybody’s doin’ it (doin’ it, doin’ it) – so let’s go! It seems just a little precious to compare the UK’s widespread destruction with objectively trivial vandalism. But perhaps easier to understand on the smaller, local scale.

We happen to live on a well-trodden block, midway between point ‘B’ (that would be probable destination of said vandals) and point ‘A’ (the bars). Over the day on Saturday, one or both of us had opportunity to ‘retrace’ the path: the destroyed flowers of our neighbours (above), the smashed urn of a resident along the river (at right), and finally the vandalized garden of another homeowner, living at the corner, as one staggers off the bridge at the base of the downhill stumble from the bars. Without too fully indulging (the very short step to) stereotype, I would venture, like the UK, that the above examples were the handy work of a youthful group (remembering that a group is more than a single individual, for present purposes) of alienated, substance-altered (and thereby, disinhibited), ‘in the moment’ (read, uncalculating, unplanned) folk who quite possibly photographed and posted the proceeds of their stroll home on a pleasant Friday night.

Like the Dean (and countless other analysts), troubling as the behaviours themselves might have been, the task is first to understand and secondly to craft a ‘cure’, owning that riot and rebellion is as old as community itself. As is vandalism, almost by definition, an impulsive act in the presence of (disinhibited) opportunity. Much as the desire for vengeance and retaliation surges in the immediate discovery, I’m equally certain that the answer does not lie in secreting oneself in the bushes for countless nights thereafter, waiting to jump out and confront the perpetrators. (For one thing a sleep-deprived, sixty-four year old is not exactly a match for drunk teenagers!) Where our esteemed homilist and I diverge is not in the ‘spirit’ (if you will) of what we say – but in the vehicle. Mindless acts are exactly that. Mindless acts require a mindful solution.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Walk a Mile in My Shoes: Empathy & Evil

Humanistic psychology has been around for a long time. As good luck (certainly not good management on my part) would have it, I was entering graduate school just about the time that the particular university I was attending was implementing a relatively new emphasis in training clinical psychologists. In fact our ‘branch’ even got a new label: counselling psychology. Nothing wrong with the long-established psychoanalytic approaches of Freud and Jung or, indeed with the ‘new’ behavioural techniques that had grown up over the preceding three or four decades, under the watchful eye of B. F. Skinner. The former with its emphasis on the unconscious, presenting concerns generally being seen as surface ‘symptoms’ of long-buried neuroses; and the latter with its mechanistic, push button ‘A’ and observe response ‘B’ explanations of human behaviour were being supplanted with what one of the leading theorists in the area chose to call ‘client centered therapy’. A cornerstone of Carl Rogers’ approach was that of demonstrating ‘unconditional positive regard’ for the client. In place of ‘interpreting’ one’s complaints, making ‘conscious’ the hidden villains or alternately, manipulating one’s environment to promote superficially altered behaviour (in the hope that it would attach to deeper, sustainable change), Rogers chose to listen to his clients, endeavouring to develop a sense of what it was like to experience the world as they did, validating their experience – not interpreting it, pathologizing it, or manipulating it. Empathy had entered the realm of psychotherapy – as an ‘intervention’, a therapeutic tool.

I and my fellow classmates spent endless hours dissecting, deconstructing this vague, marvelous concept; cultivating ‘verbal attends’, open-ended queries, reflections, and summarizations as feedback to our ‘clients’ (happily not live bodies – well I guess other grad students were technically live bodies!), conveying that ‘I feel your pain’ and that ‘I hear what you’re saying’ – all in the name of empathizing. Rating scales were developed to track our progress in the acquisition of ‘core skills’; budding careers turned on one’s ability to draw out the client; and the ‘cherry on top’ was the client exclamation: ‘that’s exactly how I feel’ – proof positive that therapist and client were indeed, on the same page! Two underlying assumptions: empathy does not reside, in equal measure, in all of us, needing in some cases to be learned; and more critically, that empathy can indeed be taught.

Somewhere along the line, since those heady school days, I became interested in, let’s call it the ‘flip side’ of empathy – academically and professionally, of course! Not to put too fine a point on it, that would be evil. Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist with a truly international reputation, has fashioned a very productive and hugely valuable career around the study of evil; or more properly, the study of individuals who do evil. His Hare Psychopathy Checklist, since its conception in the early 1980’s, stands now as the central point of reference and primary assessment instrument used in the quantifying of evil (doers). Simple in construction – consisting of twenty defining aspects of psychopathy* – it produces a ‘number’, somewhere between 0 and 40, that, if we can play a bit fast and loose with current acronyms, represents an individual’s ‘EQ’ – Evil Quotient (forgive me, Bob). Right there, nestled comfortably between ‘Parasitic Lifestyle’ and ‘Shallowness of Emotion’ is ‘Lack of Empathy’ on Hare’s top 20 list of beahviours of the evil ones amongst us. While happily it occupies a relatively small part of my practice, I am able to indulge my ‘two-sided’ interest (that would be empathy and its ‘evil’ twin) in the assessment of a tiny population of individuals who are, by court or related agency, under scrutiny for their past behaviour and are deemed at risk of repeating said behaviours in the future. And Hare’s Checklist is right there on the top shelf of my tool box.

So when a review appeared of a new book by Cambridge researcher, Simon Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, it definitely caught my attention. Baron-Cohen contends, and I think correctly so, that evil, as an explanatory concept in accounting for horrific acts of cruelty, is somewhat limited. Not to say that Hitler or Norway’s Breivik are not aptly described as ‘evil’ – but, in helping us understand (to the extent that that is even possible) the individual, or indeed ‘what’s wrong with them’, it’s not very enlightening. Baron-Cohen finds, as does Hare, a ‘lack of empathy’ a more useful avenue, as it focuses more on the individual, his personality, history, style, and interpersonal relations; and less on the acts of the individual – which, may in fact be mitigated or aggravated by any number of external influences.

While Baron-Cohen is most interested in elucidating the brain-based contributors to empathy, he notes that they are only a part of the story. Genetic and social variables occupy central roles as well. The ‘hard-wired’ view, the brain or physiologically-based origins of empathy (or a shortage of same), suggests that evil-doers are born, not made; and by extension, are therefore open to little in the way of change, rehabilitation (short of a lobotomy!). The genetic contribution, the ‘bred in the bone’ part, suggests a similar, cast-in-stone immutability. Hare’s research and portions cited by Baron-Cohen would seem to support the view that certain individuals definitely respond in ways that indicate (without hugely oversimplifying) they are less ‘moved’ by emotionally-charged material (both negative and positive). In short, that they lack the ability (read, wiring) to process information that should influence their choices, should trigger sympathy, understanding, compassion. They are lacking empathy, in some cases, utterly so.

But then there’s the social piece and a very complicated one it is. Consider not the commandant of a concentration camp, but the guard, the foot-soldier assigned to duties at an Auschwitz or a Buchenwald. Or indeed consider the behaviour of any soldier whose tour takes him/her into a war zone. It is unlikely that all such individuals have self-selected for placement in situations that endorse ‘evil’, inhuman behaviour; indeed unfair, to see all such individuals as empathy-challenged, psychopathic – but who are nonetheless the perpetrators of such acts. Baron-Cohen is quick to point out that, under such circumstances, it is more likely ‘group membership’ (acting in concert with a group of ‘like-minded’ individuals, perhaps under orders and at personal risk of disciplinary action) that somehow ‘switches off’ or mutes their more ‘human’ wiring. It is in that conflicted moment where acting on one’s instincts, in accord with one’s values, morality collides with simply acting, that we lose our way.

Back to the assumptions underpinning my grad school training: that empathy, in some cases may not be present in the individual in any great measure; and secondly, that it may be taught. I would now add a third and fourth consideration: that empathy needs room in which to manifest and that it must be an intentional, considered option, not necessarily available on some automatic, intuitive basis. And that is where mindfulness becomes a necessary element in the equation. Mindfulness practice invites a slowing down (hitting the pause button rather than acting impulsively), an acting with awareness and intention (not relying on a quite possibly deficient store of ‘pre-wired’ empathy), a consideration (right speech, right action), a compassion (Metta). I do not consider myself an instinctively empathic individual, not evil, just not spontaneously empathic. I have learned to listen, to attend to cues, verbal and non-verbal, from those in front of me, to provide feedback and response to those cues enabling a deeper consideration of presenting issues. I would like to think that I’ve ‘learned’ – and perhaps more importantly, am able to provide the necessary room and to make the choice that puts me in someone else’s shoes – for the moment.

*Psychopathy: characterized by the inability to form human attachment and an abnormal lack of empathy, masked by an ability to appear outwardly normal (online definition).

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Our Best Teachers (& the square foot rule)

There’s an oft-repeated story, attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh, the founder of Plum Village, a Buddhist retreat centre near Paris:

Each year, as applications for continued participation in this community were being reviewed, the question would arise as to why one particular individual would be invited to return. This man was notoriously challenging, difficult to get along with, and generally undermining to the values and teachings of the centre. Each year Thich Nhat Hanh would patiently listen to the near universal entreaties to bar this individual from membership; and each year he would approve his continued association. When pressed to explain his reasons, his answer was simple. This man provides a focus for the centre. His actions are so outrageous that he cannot help but be noticed by all. And none of you has yet learned to be in his presence without having him distract you from your own reflections and study. Only when you have learned his lesson, will we consider your request to bar him (and then we won't need to). He is your ‘best teacher’.

The community members were merely acting out the very human response to a situation or individual that made them uncomfortable, angry, frustrated: avoidance – or at least a request that the community’s leader would ‘remove’ the challenge and restore order and peace. The belief, of course is that by excising the problem, the issue is resolved. Thich Nhat Hanh was underscoring the reality – ‘until the next time’. Better, even necessary, to cultivate a capacity to deal with these emotions within ourselves than to spend our days trying to remove the external source of them.

With Karmic predictability and relentlessness, these ‘opportunities’ enter and re-enter our personal theatre – until we get it right. (Maybe it’s time to watch Groundhog Day – yet again!) The range of response is also predictable (although somewhat specific to the individual). For me, the sequence usually starts with a rant, typically rationalized and washed through the lens of feeling betrayed or disappointed. (I’m entitled to rant because I’ve been . . . or so the opening act generally goes). Truth be told, it’s usually more about the order of things, my order of things, being disturbed (often unexpectedly). Then the parent appears – usually daddy – and his need (delusion?) that order can and must be restored – whether through civilized negotiation, gentle correction, or arbitrary mandate. This stage of course is heavily reliant on my having sufficient control of outcomes to be conciliatory, didactic, or arbitrary. Either way, the operative term is ‘control’; and its flip side, ‘helplessness’. And then we move to angst – what if. . ? If the tantrum doesn’t do it, dickering and/or pronouncement doesn’t do it. . . then what? Concern, anxiety about the future. Quite a lot to learn from one ‘teacher’!

So what’s to be done? In an earlier blog (May 9, 2011) on projection and how to address it mindfully, I’d recounted Zindel Segal’s suggested protocol: developing an awareness of the present experience – taking our attention away from the ‘trigger’ event or individual and shifting it to our own experience (what am I feeling?); identifying the way in which we’re relating to the event (attaching, avoiding, etc.); letting go of our need to make things different than they are (accepting, allowing); and finally, inviting the experience to remain, understanding that it will change, evolve – all things do and in their own fashion.

At lunch with a friend this week, we began to discuss the relationship between physical pain and levels of discomfort or, in many cases, literal suffering that result. As Shinzen Young, a widely respected meditation teacher, frames it, pain exists along one dimension of our experience; and our resistance to it (in simplistic terms, our effort to avoid it, deny it, medicate it, operate on it, etc. – in essence, the degree to which we push against it) along a second dimension. He describes the subjective experience of pain, our suffering, as the product of our ‘objective pain’ and our resistance – or the amount of the first multiplied by the amount of the second. So, as we experience greater levels of pain, our subjective experience of that pain is magnified exponentially by the level of resistance we bring into the equation as well. In the diagram, a six-fold increase in pain, accompanied by a similar increase in resistance, produces a subjective pain level, not of six, but of 36! His contention is that, a regular mindfulness practice, by bringing increased levels of clarity and acceptance to our physical experience, is able to address the dimension of resistance – in essence containing that part of the equation over which we have some control. While we can’t, in many cases, limit, reduce, and certainly not remove the pain, we can definitely impact our level of subjective suffering by lowering our resistance (increasing our acceptance).

Conversation turned to dealing with challenging people (teachers, as it were), and it occurred to me that a very similar model had application. Our Plum Village populace, courtesy of their ‘dictatorial’ leader, was not able to address their resident ‘pain’. He was there for the duration – suck it up, buttercup! What they were most certainly able to do was to limit the level of reactivity (resistance) to this man. The resultant distraction (i.e., suffering, in Shinzen Young’s model) was able to be contained, hopefully sufficient to allow them to carry on with their own lives without having this man continuing to be the ‘tail that wagged their dogs’. Similarly, if I examine my personal response to ‘teachers’, my anger (the initial tantrum), my efforts to restore ‘equilibrium’ (my equilibrium) / control / order, and ultimately my anxiety over where things will head from here, all represent resistance in various guises to accepting what is, to sitting with an individual over whose decisions I have (and probably shouldn’t have) much say, much as I’d like to. A pain, perhaps. My choice as to whether I want a 6 or a 36!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Diagnosis: Unusual; Prescription: Meditation

A pleasant, earnest, and persistent young man telephoned last week intent on ‘helping’ us with a problem that we were about to encounter with the Windows operating system that populates our various computers. His message was clear: he had been instructed by Microsoft to contact us and assist us with the removal of a viral program, origin suspected to be Thailand. While he (helpfully) remained on the phone, we were to go directly to our computer (do not pass ‘Go’; and certainly do not collect the usual $200 swag – that evidently would be his job!), log on to the website he would designate, and presto, we would have dodged another digital bullet. Fortunately, my wife received the call, together with all its urgent instructions – and accordingly informed our obliging young caller that her experience with Microsoft (and it is ample) was that contact is not typically made by telephone. She thanked him for his time (more or less) and ended the call. A few days later, she had occasion to take her computer in for servicing, discovering in conversation with the technician that we were not alone in receiving this uninvited assist. Another less cautious customer had reportedly followed the directives; only to find that, in doing so, he himself installed corrupted code – which then cost him a few hundred dollars to have removed, evidently with the now ‘necessary’ intervention of said helpful and anonymous caller.

I was reminded of the above scenario as I read, with some interest, Ian Brown’s weekend editorial about the soon to be published DSM-V (see our ‘Of Interest’ website, for the full text – of Ian’s article, not the DSM!). The lingo may be a bit unfamiliar to some – the DSM’s are the manuals utilized in making diagnoses of mental disorders, syndromes, etc. Evolving thru’ three previous editions in the past 60 years, the DSM-IV, its current incarnation, is an imposing checklist cataloguing criteria for everything from depression to dementia, psychosis to personality disorders, anxiety to Asperger’s. Ian chooses to highlight the contentiousness that has pretty much preceded the release of each successive edition; largely driven by what some see as a rather arbitrary and scientifically ‘unsupported’ inclusion (and exclusion) of ‘conditions’ that might be better viewed as ‘extremes of normal behaviour’. (PMS, in; homosexuality, out.) He also raises the concern that, with every good (or maybe not so good) diagnosis, comes the need to develop ways of treating said condition. His contention is that, since this is primarily a medical/psychiatric volume (although the ‘protected privilege’ of pronouncing diagnosis is extended to psychologists in Ontario), ‘treatment’ has increasingly come to mean ‘medication’. In short, not to be too inclined to see a suspicious character behind every tree – that would be frankly paranoid, the editorial considers the possibility that the DSM’s have gradually become something of a self-perpetuating marriage between psychiatry (‘we invent the pathology’) and the drug companies (‘we invent the cure’). Hence, my little resonance with the scenario in the first paragraph: first I’ll help you inject a problem into your computer; then I’ll ride in to the rescue (for my $300 fee!). Hmmm, seems a bit circular (and scary).

I also had occasion a few weeks back to catch the end of an interview between Steve Paikin (The Agenda) and an octogenarian, Don Weitz who is a self-described ‘psychiatric survivor’ and ‘anti-psychiatry activist’. (The podcast is viewable at: ). Weitz, an arrival in Canada some 50 years ago as a student in U of T‘s graduate psychology program, became progressively disenchanted with the whole concept of mental illness, partly a reaction to treatment interventions observed during a stint working at CAM-H (formerly Queen St. Mental Health Centre) as a psychologist; and partly responsive to his own earlier experiences on the ‘other side of the window’ as a patient in late adolescence. He has been a vocal critic of all things psychiatric ever since.

As a practitioner, two observations. As a culture, we seem to be getting ‘sicker’, judging from the upsurge in numbers of certain categories of identified dysfunction (depression, attention deficit, anxiety, to name a few). A statistic cited in Brown’s column (NIH survey) notes that presently nearly half of American adults satisfy the criteria for at least one DSM mental illness! I’ve often wondered just what these sorts of reported trends actually reflect. Are there more depressed people in 2011 than in, say, 1990? Are little boys becoming progressively less manageable, more chaotic? My own (perhaps overly optimistic) suspicion is that this increased ‘mental malaise’ may in part be artifactual; that the ‘statistical evidence’ is in part predicated on two sources of somewhat suspect data (not the accuracy of the numbers, but the interpretation thereof): more prescriptions written for conditions typically seen as psychiatric (depression, anxiety); and more lost time work absences, reported as having a ‘psychiatric / psychological origin’. This trend, if my view has any credence at all, is disturbing in and of itself, in that it reflects as much an increased readiness to diagnose a condition – but quite possibly not an actual increase in the base rate of the condition(s) itself. More disturbing still is the reactivity that it seems to engender against taxonomic systems such as the DSM (as typified by Ian Brown’s column), and treatment of psychiatric disorder in general (as portrayed in the Weitz interview). The equivalent of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Certainly there are villains that will attempt to corrupt your computer. And certainly there may be a tendency in some quarters to pathologize eccentric, atypical, unpopular, or extreme behaviours. But it does not mean that we should stop answering the phone or throw out the computer. Nor is taxonomy the problem. What’s that hopelessly overused cliché: guns don’t shoot people; people shoot people. The tools are not the problem. Their application might be.

Oh yeah, the second observation. Restoring my faith on a regular basis is the appearance of clients in my practice, adamant that they wish to implement alternative strategies in addition to and on some occasions in place of medication in management of their presenting symptoms. The capacity for regular mindfulness practice, linked with other cognitive interventions, to sustain gains in a host of areas (anxiety, chronic pain, depression, anger/impulse control) is testament that perhaps we’re not going (straight) to Hell in a psychiatric hand basket. And that we, as a culture are not the uncritical, unquestioning collection of buffoons that the alarmists might suggest.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other
(Tao Te Ching, 2)

Natural events are cyclical, always changing from one extreme toward an opposite. . .That is the way of nature: to relax what is tense, to fill what is empty, to reduce what is overflowing. . . The wise person follows this natural order of events (and) by remaining disinterested (in outcome) becomes potent and successful.
(Tao of Leadership, 77)

One year ago this week, I attended a memorial service in Lawrence, Kansas for my friend and principal mentor, John Heider, the author of the second of these two quotes – and it put me in mind of endings and how we deal with them, what they represent to us. For the past two decades, I had, more or less annually, joined at least one of John’s trainings as he taught group process, body work, gestalt technique, and meditation. Our final group was held in October 2008, (barely a year and a half before John’s death in May, 2010), prompting me, at the time, to reflect on this bittersweet event:

Without fear of exaggeration, it is this man’s guidance and gentle suggestion, teachings and wisdom, provision of opportunity to explore the truly difficult, conflicted and challenging issues that plague us all, insights, encouragement to cultivate a contemplative and meditative practice, that has sculpted the spiritual framework that has occupied for me mid-life to ‘young’ old age. And this is his last group. This year’s trip is tinged with the sadness and uncertainty that must always accompany a transition, indeed a closing – especially one that will be hard pressed to find equal; and certainly never be replaced.

We sit around the group circle, ‘old style’ – pillows on the floor (no mean trick for a group with an average age of somewhere in the low 60’s). All bound by a few simple rules: tell one’s truth (or as much of it as feels safe); remain present; and above all, ‘trust the process’. This last bit, cryptic and succinct as it may seem, to my mind is the essence of personal and ultimately spiritual growth. It presumes a community that may be relied upon to place each other’s respective interests in a non-judgmental, supportive, receptive, and respectful light. It presumes a set of expectations that does not include ‘getting answers’ – only being granted a full opportunity to ask one’s questions, a forum to be fully heard (not judged, corrected, or advised). And it presumes that speaking aloud one’s dilemmas and enthusiasms, regrets and successes, witnessed in such a community, will advance and clarify, will provide direction, and, most importantly, be listened to – a rare occurrence in today’s world where many speak and few hear. Neither is talk the only medium. Equally important is the silence. If I may appropriate: ‘Be still and know . . ; be still; be’ is something of a maxim easily adopted by this group.

As expected, the sub-text, the ‘elephant in the room’ of this final group is a sense of loss, dislocation, anxiety around ‘where to from here’ – as we say our goodbyes to a group of friends, to a community that has, without exaggeration, been the touchstone, the anchor, the home that this incredibly diverse group of sometime strangers has come to rely upon for all of the above gifts. Equally evident, and somewhat less expectedly is a profound sense of gratitude for having had the opportunity to live in this community – however, briefly.

I believe my personal ‘work’ has ever orbited around endings – as it may for many of us – or perhaps more properly transitions, even evolutions. In this regard, I had occasion to look back at some writing I’d done in the mid-1990’s, at that time centering on frustrations associated with our local bicycle club. A few of us had invested heavily in interest, energy, and time to consolidate and promote the growth of a group of ‘hobbyists’ (hardly!) in a sport paradoxically populated by individualists – despite the superficial identification of a team structure. Adding members, structuring regular group rides that would conform to (supportive) ‘guidelines’ that wouldn’t see loose cannons charging off the front or lame ducks falling off the back, ride schedules, club jerseys, sponsorship – you name it – all became central focuses; and in turn, confirmations of ‘success’. The awareness finding its way into print fifteen years ago was much less about the effort imbued to make something work; and much more about the, at first subtle disappointments forming around something when it starts to stop working. At the time, coming to recognize – and accept – the natural course of things, in John’s language.

Were I a student being graded in a more conventional context, I would likely be scored an ‘NI’ (needs improvement) or, at best, perhaps an ‘S’ (satisfactory). I’m still evidently a work in progress. As if to highlight my forward movement (or lack thereof), this week too saw an email arrive in the in-box from a colleague in our group practice announcing that, after ten-years of affiliation with our collective, it was time for her to establish an independent, unique, and separate identity. The (at least for me) instinctive response to yet another ending was immediate: disappointment, anxiety (over filling the void), a dab of doubt (something I/we did?) – and even a little anger, sense of betrayal (where’s all that loyalty and gratitude when you need it?). Out of sight, but hopefully around the corner, were the celebration of the new venture and the capacity to actually read the words that thanked us for a great decade and a positive association. Still a little stuck in the ending, the ‘what was’; and a little hesitant to embrace what will be – the new beginnings.

Mindfulness practice, with its emphasis on balance, equanimity, acceptance of ‘the full catastrophe’ (the ‘natural course’ of change and impermanence), letting go, and developing an awareness around the paired distractions of avoidance (in this case, of change) and attachment (in this instance, to what was) seems the ideal tonic with which to deal with endings. Quoting John once again, the point of any practice is to ‘shed the light of consciousness on an issue, a concern, a decision’; not to solve the problem or provide an answer in a conventional sense, but to sit in the presence of the question. Evidently, some of our ‘aging’ group from Lawrence still has this work to do. The consensus was to carry on meeting, ‘leaderless’. Perhaps it’s time to embrace a new beginning, letting John go. And 'trust the process' that each ending (as Lau-tzu suggests in the opening quote, 2500 years ago) holds within it a beginning.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Community of Self

We seem to be social critters. Affiliation becomes us. A few experiences, however, in the past month or so, while not openly challenging this view, at least have given me pause to reflect on some ‘guidelines’ that might be worth considering before memorizing the secret handshake of our next club initiation rite. Most recently, a lovely little film, Another Year, had found its way into our DVD player. Featuring Jim Broadbent, Leslie Manville and Ruth Sheen, it explores four seasons in the contented lives of Tom and Gerri (no relation, as far as I know. . .) as they host in their home various friends and family members (all with some measure of dysfunction and neediness attached); and tend their ‘allotment’, a plot of land subdivided into parcels and made available to individuals and families to be worked side by side but, and here’s the critical piece in my mind, independent of one another.

A second moment of awareness arrived shortly after my return from a bicycle trip in the UK. A neighbourhood friend paused on his dog walk to chat with me while I fussed over the reassembly of my bike, safely (and happily) arriving in the same time zone and universe as its owner on the inbound flight. After the generic inquiries, he asked if I’d enjoyed the group this time as much as last (reference to a similar venture in France last Autumn). Without a moment’s hesitation I replied that “yes, the company had been extraordinary – convivial, cooperative, interesting, timely, and cycling at just the pace I could manage!” My friend, a fellow skeptic by training and preference, raised an eyebrow and scanned my face for the signature irony he has long associated with our conversations. “I was by myself”, completing my reply. I thanked John for drawing my attention to this particular aspect of the trip – with the quite surprising awareness that it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d quite contentedly spent the bulk of each day in the two-week journey with no other company than my own.

What links these two accounts for me is that community forms an intimate part of both experiences. Tom and Gerri are painted as generous, social beings – Gerri working as a National Health counsellor, Tom as a successful, company-based geologist – connected with their extended family, but content to allow them (an adult son and a sadly disconnected brother) to work out their own issues in their own time. Equally, however, boundaries within and between these relationships are the critical elements that makes their community involvement sustainable and healthy. A somewhat pathetic co-worker is included in the couple’s weekly rhythm of entertaining; to the point where the demands cross a boundary that makes her company intrusive and unhealthy; that point where friendship and support become enabling. The couple is acutely aware and protective of this point and take good care to defend against further encroachment. This is the point where we see them, once again, contentedly working in their allotment garden and regenerating their independence. And what a beautiful metaphor for this balance between community (the parcel within the plot) and individuality. And what a healthy distinction between community and communal.

The solitude and time for reflection, offered by the solo bicycle tour, I now see as fostered and driven by a similar balance. This was not some kind of Into the Wild, ill-construed adventure in self-sufficiency and abandonment of social contact. Rather, day’s end would see me check into a (usually highly restorative) B & B, connect with the hosts, even share tales of each other’s lives (Mick’s story will no doubt find its way into a future riff as testament to resilience and coping). More so, the daily phone call back to Canada, partly to ease my wife’s anxious mind (the constructions her imagination could place on the troubles an aging husband, alone in the Dales could contrive were well worth defusing!) but as much to share the day’s adventures, was a pivotal piece as well; the point where community meets solitude. Without one to define the other, both go wanting.

Larke Turnbull, a journalist and regular participant in one of our weekly mindfulness meditation groups, had chatted with me recently with a principal query being the increasing popularity of meditation; and in particular, meditation in a group setting. It is not difficult to see how sitting, with one’s eyes closed, focusing on the rhythm of one’s own breathing might be construed as a solitary activity – but exercised in the greater presence of a group with similar intentions and, most importantly, with great respect for the other individuals in that group.

One additional comment on this perhaps paradoxical concept of individuality within the group, the community. Alone in a crowd is the sometimes negatively construed description of a person who finds themselves surrounded by people – but still feeling isolated and disconnected. What I’m attempting to describe is essentially the opposite: one who feels at peace with his/her self, content with solitude; but intimately connected in a very healthy and salutary way to those around them. Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul; and Soul Mates) has described what I see as an important starting point for the latter of these two relationships. He references ‘the community of self’, alluding to the multiple aspects of self that we all contain. Gestalt psychology pays great heed to the same idea; as does psychosynthesis theory. The essence is that of cultivating an awareness of and taking ownership for all ‘sub-personalities’ – the good, the bad, and the ugly, as it were – and thereby getting quite comfortable in one’s own skin, with one’s own self. (This is contrasted with rejecting aspects that we find discomforting or know to be unpopular – ‘that’s not the real me’ – and embracing those pieces that we feel will endear us to our community, or relationships.) The ‘alone time’, the keeping our boundaries in place in our community connections, the ‘working of our own allotments’ provides us the space and opportunity to get to know ourselves. Then (and perhaps only then) do we have the perspective, the assurance, the self-knowledge, self-acceptance to develop and maintain healthy membership in our communities.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Glass Is. . . Well, The Glass Is.

I can still recall my reflexive annoyance at seeing the cute little smiley face appended to the signature of a former colleague’s written communications – and the momentary pleasure I’d take in blacking it out. The implied ‘have a nice day’ seemed to invite an ‘I’ll have whatever kind of day I choose, thank you very much’ accompanied by thoughts of pathetic Pollyanna’s and irrepressible Ricky’s (for those of us old enough to have watched Ozzie and Harriet). Give me a good, solid cynic anytime: grounded realists all. In short, I’d always harbored a view (a suspicion) that optimism lacked gravitas, smacked to some extent of self-delusion – or, at best, naïveté; pessimism, while ‘harder to look at’, was the real deal, the unvarnished truth.

Mellowing somewhat, as I expect we must, in the past few decades – and I suppose fortunate, professionally, that psychology as a discipline has gravitated toward the middle ground – I’ve found myself a little less dark and now quite accepting of ‘balanced thinking’. Cognitive behavioural techniques, with their emphasis on rational thought and a ‘just stick to the facts, m’am’ methodology, have displaced, for the most part Freud’s sinister interpretations of our hidden compulsions as the intervention of choice. My personal pendulum had begun its inevitable return trip to the midpoint. Nevertheless I was not about to turn in my cynic’s club membership just yet and become a card-carrying optimist.

So it was with some skepticism (of course!) that I read Sarah Hampson’s piece in the Globe last weekend highlighting the findings of a recent book entitled The Happiness Advantage (Shawn Achor) associating, among other things, a performance edge going to the happy camper. Identifying a range of potential within the individual, research reviewed by Achor reportedly suggests that we operate more toward the upper reaches of that range when we are ‘happy’. In fairness (to us former cynics), he is quick to differentiate between that chronically effervescent, resilient state that so reminds me of those inflatable ‘bobo’ dolls with sand in their feet that pop right back up each time you’d whack the bejeezus out of them – a condition he calls ‘irrational optimism’ – and its more grounded sibling: rational optimism. (We didn’t all buy into The Secret and its questionable, though wildly popular contention that ‘if you put it out to the universe, it will happen’ – and if it doesn’t, it’s because you had a little doubt sneak in the side door – and neither, it seems, did Mr. Achor.)

His rational optimist is not just somebody who thinks happy thoughts (think Chicken Soup for the Soul author tacking his cheque for $1 million on the ceiling above his bed – until it showed up. Oh really!!). Rather, he/she is someone who exhibits three characteristics that Achor claims are responsible for 75% of our performance in any given situation (intelligence, skill set, etc. accounting, in his view for the other 25%): optimism (of course), a positive and supportive social network, and a positive response to stress. The last of the three is the one I found most compelling – and, in some ways, most relevant to and accessible through mindfulness practice. The author identifies, as part of the rational optimist’s tool kit, post-traumatic growth as key. He defines this as the individual’s capacity to respond to crisis, hurt, disappointment, tragedy with a readiness to incorporate these difficult, even tragic circumstances into their ongoing psychological growth – as he puts it, ‘growing because of trauma, not despite it’. I contrast this with what an acquaintance of mine calls ‘victim mode’ – the adoption of one’s tragedies as a defining element in their identity going forward. A wonderful exploration of these two polarities is contained in Rohinton Mistry’s, A Fine Balance, chronicling the undeniably tragic lives of two, poverty stricken tailors from the north of India and their infallible and personally innocent ‘instinct’ for participating in one disaster after another buoyed only by their resilience; and a spoiled relative afforded every opportunity who ultimately suicides, a ‘victim’ of his own ‘thoughts’.

In mindfulness practice, attachment represents a considerable impediment. Among its other ‘roles’, becoming attached to or entrenched in a particular state or event fails to allow us to move on. We become ‘stuck’, in the present context, ‘in victim’ – which then begins to define who we are, how we see ourselves, and even what our expectations for the future might be. (In clinical terms, we may become depressed or overly preoccupied with the past; even making ‘predictions’ about the probable negative direction we’re headed in – the ‘nothing ever changes’ or ‘without bad luck, I’d have no luck at all’ outlook.) Regular mindfulness practice, with its attendant emphasis on the basics of letting go, allowing what is, accepting that change and evolution is inevitable, can be figural in our adoption of a more fluid, tolerant (of all experiences) mindset – living with the ‘full catastrophe’, in Jon Kabat Zinn’s description. In Mr. Achor’s view, this becomes important as we sort out how we’re going to address the inevitable ‘downturns’ in our lives (he claims something of the order of 10% of what we face is externally determined and therefore unavoidable) – do we treat them as ‘confirmations’ of our ‘traumatized’ state; or adaptively, with rational optimism.

This thinking is not new. I can still recall seeing Norman Vincent Peale sitting prominently on my parents’ bookshelf (well, his book, anyway). Much more recently, and for the hard-headed scientist in me, more palatably is the work of Martin Seligman, a prominent psychologist, whose earlier research centered on learned optimism, leading to his very readable book, Authentic Happiness in 2002. In it he provides compelling evidence and manageable formulae for (in language very similar to Achor’s) ‘fulfilling one’s potential’. His listing of ‘signature strengths’ (vs. defining pathologies) – what’s right, rather than what’s wrong – reads like an index to mindfulness practice: openness to experience, objective consideration, social intelligence, perspective, integrity, genuineness, honesty, (loving)kindness, generosity, self-control, humility. . .the list goes on to twenty-four such dimensions. (Just a tad more ‘optimistic’ than reading the DSM-IV, the catalogue of psychiatric mental health disorders, prominent on our current bookshelves.)

For a full, working example of what Achor’s formula might look like in action, have a look at this morning Globe’s lead story at:

Optimism, supportive social network, positive response to stress – indeed! Maybe there’s hope for this aging cynic after all.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Once You Learn, You Never Forget

I have the sense that bicycle metaphors may hold preeminence for a bit. Sleek and streamlined, narrow-tired, aero-rimmed, the touring bike with which I was about to spend more of my time than with any human being for the next two weeks leaned casually against a corridor wall in Manchester Airport – ready for action. Unencumbered, it was a thing of beauty. Then the ‘encumbering’ began. First the rack that would hold panniers away from the spokes of the rear wheel – and hopefully contain all the ‘stuff’ I would require for this fortnight. Then the brackets for the ‘hungry-man’ sized handlebar bag. Followed by the mount for what some, less well-prepared acquaintances have dismissed as David’s wide screen TV; aka, my GPS that would guide me to those remote B & B’s in the Yorkshire Dales (missing a turn in a car is one thing; 10 kilometers out of one’s way on a bicycle can be, shall we say, a little more frustrating). Frame pump, under-saddle tool bag, water bottle, waterproof pannier covers, front and rear lights – and the kitting out was complete. I gingerly mounted, deluding myself that I could cycle my way out of the bowels of the airport, only to find that my responsive, light-weight, and ‘balanced’ bike had metamorphosed into an awkward, unpredictable, finicky, and decidedly burdened semblance of its former self; mirroring even the most insignificant departures from a perfect perpendicular with the front wheel twisting sideways on itself and the whole unit ready to collapse in a heap with any lapse in the rider’s attention. I was immediately reminded of accounts of Arthurian knights’ steeds caving under the weight of their own ‘protective’ armour.

A second image, also cycle-based but from a much earlier stage, is that of my first two-wheeler presented me by parents as a birthday gift on one of those rare early November days when southern Ontario was blessed with a significant snow fall. Unable to engage the usual father-son ritual of having the former run along clutching the underside of saddle to support and maintain the upright latter unit of son on wobbly bike, I had to content myself using the fridge as father-surrogate as I rocked to and fro in our kitchen, making first attempts at balancing this creature that seemed (not unlike the loaded unit in the airport) more intent on falling over than on remaining vertical. (I really do need to stop biking indoors!)

Either way, balance is a tricky, elusive thing. For the perhaps six-year old David, there was not yet the intuitive ‘once you learn it, you never forget it’ skill that allows dad to let go the seat, the training wheels to come off – or, in this auspicious beginning, the fridge to be abandoned for more free-wheeling days. Six decades later, the intuition might well be in place, but the compulsion to sabotage it with ‘stuff’ – all very essential, but clutter nonetheless – had crept in to undermine. Trust (that inner instinct that is just there – very hard to ‘tell’ someone how to ride a bike) and simplicity: the casualties that are often reflected in an ‘unbalanced’ life. In the case of the former, the more we attend to our ‘riding’ (“how am I doing, Dad?”), the more wobbly we become; in the latter, the more we surround ourselves with the ‘reassuring encumbrances’, the less we are free to attend to the ease and effortlessness of moving through our space.

A few thoughts on what we might do to restore balance. If we consider our subtle ‘vertical’ as some hypothetical mid-point between attachment (those aspects of our life without which we would surely perish) and avoidance (the other end of this continuum wherein reside all those things that, to which were we to be exposed, we would surely perish), then we might be getting a little closer to riding that unencumbered beauty, uphill and down with equal joy. This allows us to position ourselves along the horizontal dimension somewhere between our two ‘extremes’. I had read an instructive midrash (a Hebrew ‘teaching story’) that characterizes these end-points as two cliffs between which one is sailing; perched atop one cliff is one of a pair of characteristics and atop the other, its opposite. Examples might be generosity and stinginess, patience and impatience, impulsivity and procrastination. The task, in retaining / regaining our balance is to first be mindful of what sits on our ‘right’ and ‘left’; secondly, to steer a course between – taking care not to pass too closely to one rocky wall or the other; and thirdly, to resist judging either as inherently good (becoming too attached to it) or bad (avoiding it). A fourth aspect is that of ‘subtlety’ – taking care that our ‘course corrections’ do not represent overly aggressive, ‘over-compensations’ (recall what happens when riding that ‘balanced bike’ when one jerks the handlebars too radically; better to subtly lean in one direction or another – if one is to stay uprigtht!)

Mindfulness practice introduces an additional element that ‘elevates’ us above that horizontal: equanimity; essentially allows us to hover above, rather than simply bouncing back and forth between. Equanimity is seen as a state of mental or emotional stability or composure arising from a deep awareness and acceptance of the present moment. I like a few aspects of this definition. First, stability (in keeping with our mindful cyclist) – keeping upright, balanced and to the middle road, as it were. Secondly, composure; avoiding radical ‘corrections’, pausing and considering a situation before reacting (although that child on the bike path coming into York on that sunny, dog- and child-filled Sunday afternoon did require a tad of ‘act first, think later’ intervention!) And finally, acceptance of. . . beyond an awareness of our ‘two walls’, an allowing of what sits atop them.

Both my bike and I came to accept the ‘middle ground’ between the unburdened ‘lightness of being’ (envied in those that, on occasion passed me peddling up some quite unbelievable hills – as I pushed mine to the top) and the prospects of wearing the same pair of shorts for two weeks as I wandered, totally lost across the North Yorkshire moors. I still had that tail wind and the privilege of sailing down the other side.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mirror, Mirror. . .Refletions & Projections

Two folks with punk hair-do’s, face-to-face, playing patty-cake. Perhaps engaging in something a little racier! Two sultans high-fiving. Bug ‘blood’ on the windshield. The whole idea is that the picture be sufficiently vague as to allow one to project onto it (hence the naming of Rorschach’s famous ink blot series as a ‘projective test’); but sufficiently suggestive as to not simply elicit blank stares. Maybe as a meaningful pipeline into one’s psychological soul, this and other projective techniques left a bit to be desired – after all, are not the interpretations of one’s responses just as subject to the practitioner’s own projections? (Rather like looking into the mirror on the box of Pot o’ Gold chocolates as the woman’s image is reflected in the reflection. . . to infinity). But the concept of projection itself remains as a most useful awareness for one to ‘reflect’ upon.

My weekly source of inspiration seems to be narrowing – once again from Larkrise. Alf’s ballad, composed as a thank you to the community that has supported him, on the surface appears to be little more than a catchy tune about a wandering gypsy stealing the heart of a land owner’s daughter, with things ending badly for the latter as her wild thing moves on, leaving her with a collection of burned bridges and few prospects. The intention is innocent and well-meant; the meanings attached as varied and unanticipated as the individuals who hear it. An endorsement to risk breaking out of the mold of ‘service’; an invitation to breach boundaries and orchestrate (or try) the future of others; permission to challenge one’s parent; literal instructions in the niceties of catching a man. The tune becomes a template, a screen upon which one is able to project one’s current situation, to which to assign meaning, and in which to read direction and ‘truth’.

The trick of all this is to recognize the process as it happens. Freudian in its origin, projection is defined as a ‘defense mechanism’ – an (unconscious) strategy for dealing with emotions, experiences, etc. that are perhaps a bit too potent for the individual themselves to manage; more comfortably and less disturbingly dealt with at a ‘safe distance’ – perhaps happily assigned to someone else. The pitfall is in seeing this projected image as universally singular – the only ‘interpretation’ – and losing sight of its point of origin: ourselves. The person upon whom we project is generally only that – the screen.

The recognition process should be simple – and obvious. But what’s that expression: ‘simple, not easy’. In many cases, being the ‘projectee’ (i.e., the ‘screen’) is the simpler role. Oftentimes, in (heated or deep) conversation, one is left with the distinct impression that this exchange is just not making sense. That which is being ‘assigned’ to us simply ‘doesn’t fit’. Good chance we’ve just been projected upon. For the ‘projector’, the task can be a little more challenging, the ‘truth’ a little more elusive. A clue can be the goodness of fit between the intensity with which one finds oneself engaging in an exchange and the actual ‘facts’ of the case. OTT (over the top) is typically a good indicator of some measure of projection. Our old friend, attachment, accompanied by our other, by now familiar neighbour, ego, both (and for a change) may be helpful in identifying the projection process. Our ‘need’ to have our interpretation accepted, bought into by our ‘screen’ (often accompanied by little catch phrases as ‘don’t you see’) suggests this is more our issue than that of our ‘target’. Once we’ve become ‘suspicious’ of our intensity, motives, interpretations, a useful question to ask of oneself is ‘what’s being touched or triggered – in me?’ This is quite a different perspective than staying focused on the ‘screen’ and continuing to react to (real or imagined) elements we’re convinced we see in the ‘other’. In one sense, we’re reversing our vision – to that of self-examination and from that of fault-finding, etc. outside of self.

Mindfulness practice is able to provide tools both for ‘catching’ projection and for dealing with our awarenesses, once identified. Zindel Segal outlines a four-step sequence in aid of this process:

Awareness of present experience. “What’s the pull?” Once we’ve ‘reversed’ our vision, take a gentle awareness to the spot, thought, feeling, or place which predominates in our immediate attention. Gently shift the attention away from the stimulus (the ‘screen, as it were) . . . and back to self: “What am I feeling, experiencing; what’s arising in me?”

Notice how one is relating to that spot, thought, or feeling. Am I attaching to it? Becoming entrenched in it? Hanging on to it? OR are you avoiding it, judging it, resenting it?

Stop trying to make things different. Let it be. Notice and observe what is there. Practicing non-reaction, acceptance. A little visual trick at this point: Set a chair immediately in front of and facing you. On that chair, sit the person or issue that is triggering you and gently observe him / her / it. Develop a benign tolerance of its presence – without engaging. As with any strong feeling, we humans are programmed to maintain maximum intensity for a finite time – with that feeling’s strength diminishing gradually as we allow it to be in our presence.
Process: Bring a gentle attention to the spot, thought, or feeling. Breathing into it; and out from it. Accepting what is there (“It’s OK”). Inviting the experience (“Let me feel it”) – using breath in and breath out to ‘soften’ and ‘open to’ the spot, thought, or feeling.

Critical to this sequence is the recognition that we are, in fact projecting.

OK, OK, so it was Mother’s Day last Sunday!