What You Focus On, Grows

I wrote this quote when I realized how different exercise feels to me when I focus on the pain in my muscles, the pain in my lungs, the feeling of inadequacy, and the feeling of punishment, versus when I focus on the joy of being alive, the air flow through my lungs, the feeling of growing strength, and the feeling of gratitude for all the parts of me that work. Do I focus on the pain, or do I focus on the fun?

There’s a Native American idea that goes something like this:

A grandfather is telling his grandson that inside every person there are two wolves. One wolf represents the fear, pain, resentment, and anger a person feels. This wolf thrives on putting others down, holding grudges, being defensive, and hurting others. The other wolf represents the love, joy, gratitude, and compassion a person feels. This wolf thrives on giving to others, remembering kindnesses, having compassion for people’s pain, and lifting each other up. These two wolves battle each other inside all of us. The boy asks his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”

It’s interesting to me that modern neuroscience is reinforcing these ancient beliefs. I had this conversation with my son recently:

Him: Mommy, I wish I could erase some of my memories from my mind.

Me: Do you want to know what scientists say about memories? They say that memories exist in our brains because we think of them over and over. The more we think of them, the stronger the neural connections there are, and the faster and easier it is to remember them. We can’t get rid of these connections, but we can make other connections stronger than the ones we want to forget. We know from asking people not to think of pink elephants that when we try not to think of something all we can think about is that thing. We’re both thinking of pink elephants now! But if we think of something else, something we like, we can make that thought stronger than the memory you don’t want to have, and the memory will fade.

Him: Great! I’m going to think about Minecraft!

Do you see the shadow, or do you see the sun?

Do you focus on the pain, or do you focus on the fun?

The moment is the same; your attention chooses one.

What do you choose?

Defense

https://images.fineartamerica.com/images-medium-large-5/an-excellent-defense-lets-give-jb-handelsman.jpg

My husband came into my office the other day looking grim, and I immediately got defensive. As far as I knew I hadn’t done anything that would upset him, I had no indication that he was looking upset because of me, but I automatically told myself a story that he was upset with me, and that I needed to defend myself.

Sometimes, when I feel the need to defend myself, I go on the offensive and attack first. Sometimes I withdraw into myself. Either way, it’s difficult to be curious and open. I think I know what I will hear, and I don’t want to hear it, so I’m shut down and angry. I feel like I’m under attack and need to defend my borders.

These stories we tell ourselves get us in trouble, not just at home, but also at work. People at work may feel that if someone questions one of their ideas then they are questioning their worthiness to exist, so they defend their ideas to the death. Or maybe they’re afraid that if someone shoots down their idea that will mean they will be injured somehow so they don’t bring up their ideas at all.

All of this is normal human behavior. I don’t want anyone to think it’s wrong or bad to want to defend oneself. I want everyone to feel safe sharing their ideas. And – it’s very helpful to notice when the automatic reflex of defensiveness goes into play, so that we can ask ourselves different questions or tell ourselves different stories.

With my husband, I’ve learned over the years that my instinctive responses are often way out of sync with what’s going on for him. My fears are based in childhood stories, and almost never play out in my adult life. So I make space to ask what’s going on, while telling my defenses how much I appreciate that they are there, and to please wait in the wings for me to call on them if and when I might need them. It turned out that he was upset about an email he had gotten, and it had absolutely nothing to do with me. I was able to give him support, and he left considerably happier.

So what can you do when someone else gets defensive? Certainly, if you are the one getting defensive, you can notice, as I’ve learned to do, and put off the heavy walls until you’re certain they’re needed. But if it’s someone else, how can you help them listen?

Short term: Back off. Let them know you don’t mean to step on their toes. Acknowledge them for their insight, bravery, loyalty, or whatever else you see in them. Admit to any aggression you may have (inadvertently) brought to the encounter. Ask to talk about it later, when people are feeling more even-keeled.

Long term: Model openness. Talk about when you feel defensive and why. Ask how you come across to others, and try to be less aggressive. It is very powerful to be publicly vulnerable, and it gives others permission to talk about what is going on for them.

We don’t need more people in the world who look like they never make mistakes and never feel bad. We need more people who show up with all their humanness and flaws, and show how to move forward anyway. It’s more honest, it fosters more open communication, and allows others to show up more fully as well.

The Problem With The Golden Rule

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is a good rule for things like murder, rape, theft, big things like that. But what about how people relate to each other in smaller ways?

Are you familiar with Chapman’s Five Love Languages? (5LoveLanguages) His premise is that there are five ways people tend to relate, and that we all have preferences among these. They are: Words of Affirmation; Receiving Gifts; Acts of Service; Quality Time; Physical Touch.

When someone whose main love language is receiving gifts falls in love with someone whose main love language is acts of service, they can have trouble. She showers him with gifts, which he doesn’t care about, because she is doing unto him what she wants him to do unto her. He takes out the garbage because he loves her, which she doesn’t see as anything special since it has to be taken out anyway. Until they are aware of the language the other one is speaking, doing unto others is just annoying them. Why are you spending money on gifts I don’t need? Why are you fixing my dishwasher when we could be snuggling?

As a general rule, I like the Wiccan motto the best: First, do no harm, then, do what you will. Perhaps because I’m Jewish and there are rules about everything – how to eat, when to wash your hands, what to say, how to pray, etc. – I like the simplicity of this. If studying Torah is what I want to do, great, and if it’s not, then as long as I’m not hurting anyone by not studying it, I’m free to go dance, or make things, or whatever makes me happy.

Do no harm is actually fairly difficult to manage. It makes me see things in a different perspective. Instead of “how would I like to be treated in this situation” I ask “will this hurt anyone?” It can become a complex question. Will it hurt them physically? Will it hurt their feelings? If I talk about it first, will it hurt their feelings less? Will it hurt their income if I say bad things about their business? Will it hurt the earth if I throw away plastic bottles instead of recycling them? It makes me aware of the consequences of my actions, and that even actions that I don’t intend to be hurtful can be.

In this week before a new year comes around again, it’s a good time to think about what motto we will use for ourselves in the coming year. Will you treat people the way you want to be treated? Even if it’s not what they want? Or is the idea of ‘do no harm’ what the ‘do unto others’ people actually mean? For myself, I’m going to attempt to do no harm, and also attempt to figure out what it is I want. The ‘do what you will’ part isn’t always easy, either.

So. It’s The Holidays.

As fun as the holiday season is, it’s also stressful. Meeting new people at holiday parties, dealing with family, travel…

I was thinking recently about Amy Cuddy’s work (Amy’s TED talk) about how our actions shape our emotions. She quotes research about job interviews where the interviewee either took power poses or normal poses for two minutes before the interview, and the ones that stood or sat in power poses did better on the interviews. Apparently, how we hold our bodies affects the hormones we create, which affects how courageous, outgoing, and confident we are.

It occurred to me today that dealing with family at the holidays can be as stressful as going on a job interview. I remember when I was in my twenties and even my thirties feeling like I reverted to a child whenever I went back to my parents’ house. With so many years of accumulated power dynamics, it was easy to fall back into those patterns when I was back in those walls.

Putting the pieces together, it seems to me that standing in a power pose for two minutes before talking to your parents, or in-laws, or that uncle, or whoever is difficult for you, could change those power dynamics significantly. Of course, this is only one piece of the complex web of relationship, and changing the stories in our heads, the words we use, the attitudes we hold, the subjects we are willing to discuss, the boundaries we keep, and so forth, will also be part of the picture. Still, having a way to give ourselves a boost of confidence going into difficult conversations seems like a very good thing.

https://cdn1.i-scmp.com/sites/default/files/images/methode/2017/06/02/3401907c-4751-11e7-935d-dac9335a3205_972x_170839.jpg

What is a power pose? It’s a way of holding the body that takes up more space, that looks confident, and that signals dominance. (It may be important to do this privately, in the bathroom or a back bedroom.) For example, you could stand with your legs apart and your arms above your head and apart. Think of someone who just won a race, for example. Or, try putting your hands on your hips and your head up, like Wonder Woman. Or if you’re sitting, spread out, put your arms on the chairs next to you, or stand up and lean on the table in front of you. Think of any alpha male you know, and imitate what he does.

https://i2.wp.com/www.masculinedevelopment.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/dondraper-600x3301.jpg?resize=700%2C385

Two minutes is all it takes for a new confidence at the holiday party, or with your judgmental in-laws. Let me know how it goes!

Out Of Balance

My son is sick. He is being very dramatic about it, too, whining and flopping on chairs instead of standing up, sniffling loudly and moaning about how much his head hurts. I think I’m getting his cold, and I want to declare how icky and tired I feel too.

https://taliadashow.files.wordpress.com/2017/09/f6912-demam.jpg

What is interesting to me is how bad we feel because our bodies are doing exactly what they are supposed to do. The symptoms we have are there because our bodies are fighting off infection, and the runny nose, fever, and cough are there to get the invaders out of the body or burn them to death. Our bodies feel out of whack because there has been an extreme test that requires an extreme reaction before we reset to normal.

It’s an odd perspective to say we feel icky because everything is going right. It sure feels like something is terribly wrong – and I suppose the invading germs are wrong – but our bodies reactions are exactly right.

What if this were a metaphor? Is there another place where things are out of balance and feel wrong? I’m tempted to say that the current political climate feels terrible because a poison has been introduced – hate, intolerance, injustice, etc. – and the tumult that is resulting – protests, marches, lawsuits, rioting, etc. – is the body politic’s response to the disease. It is absolutely the right thing to happen, and should happen more, to drive the poison out of our system. Even thought things feel scary and dangerous, it’s more dangerous not to fight back.

Each of us is our own white blood cell attacking intolerance in our own environment. Each of us has the option to speak up when we see injustice in action. We are stronger when there are more of us. No one can do our job for us – we are an army of individuals addressing what we see as we see it.

Sometimes we will get things wrong. Some of us might interpret others actions incorrectly, or through fear-tinted lenses, and attack the wrong people. Other times we might not be as aggressive as we should be because we fear for our own safety or we don’t know what to do or say. At times we will just sit down and give up because it all feels so uncomfortable and out of whack. We may complain more than we act. All of that is normal, and human, and forgivable, as long as we get back into the fight.

The health of the entire nation is at risk, here. It’s not just the immigrants, or people of color, or Muslims, or whatever other group has been targeted. The culture of fear and hatred this poison is spreading will harm all of us. We can’t pretend not to be affected, even if we are not the group being targeted for prison or deportation. All of us need to fight to the best of our abilities for compassion, tolerance, kindness, compromise, mediation, coming together, helping each other, finding ways to live together in peace and justice. Isn’t that the American way?

Death of a Pet

My cockatiel died this week. She was 22 years old, with a life expectancy of 12-15 years, so she lived a long life. I’d like to think it was a happy one, too. Her death has me thinking about life and death, and I want to share some thoughts with you.

Toby[1]

I considered writing about what you are doing with your one precious life. I thought about writing about holding your dear ones close and telling them you love them. I even pondered writing about unconditional love. Instead, I want to write about prey animals.

My bird was a small bird, and in the wild she would have been preyed on by larger animals. So she was wired to not show weakness. She knew that looking weak could mean being singled out of the flock, so she never told me when she was hurting.

I knew something was up because the feathers where she broke her wing 17 years ago were growing in wrong, and when she preened them she squawked. But I have no idea if she hurt the rest of the time. If I knew, I could have done something about it. I could have taken her to the vet, gotten medicine, gotten work done on the amputated tip of her wing, something that could give her relief. But she didn’t tell me.

When I was a kid, I didn’t tell people either. I tried, but got shut down so many times I figured I was safer not saying anything. I was a sensitive kid, and a lot of things hurt me. I kept being told to toughen up, not be so sensitive, get over it, etc. So I stopped admitting things hurt. I stopped showing up, because saying the wrong thing could get me attacked. I felt like keeping my head down was the safest thing to do.

It may have been the safest option at the time – it’s hard to tell now, and I don’t want to argue with anything that let me survive. Now, however, not showing up has some pretty big costs. It means losing a part of myself. Not offering my gifts to the world. Not being seen, not being befriended, not being loved. I am an adult, no longer a prey animal, now big enough to do hunting of my own. I don’t want to give anyone else the feeling they aren’t safe around me – but I also don’t want to lose my voice again. I will stand strong.

So, this week I am saying goodbye to my long time friend and pet. She taught me a lot about birds. I would wake up early to take her out of the cage and let her walk on me, peck at my freckles, turn her head so I could scratch all the right places on her head and neck. I miss her. And I honor her by being the most vivid, honest, biggest, brightest, most courageous me that I can be. I love you Toby. Rest in peace.

Revising Our Thinking (Advanced Problem Solving)

https://i0.wp.com/cdn.wonderfulengineering.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Einstein-Quotes-1.jpg

This quote has always struck me as both wise and difficult to do something about. On the one hand, the thinking we have now is what led us to consequences, perhaps unintended, that are causing problems. On the other hand – how do you change how you think? Thoughts are just there, like air.

Actually, it turns out that thoughts can change. I think this is fascinating stuff.

First step – pause. If there’s no pause, there’s no chance to question. We believe what we think because it’s always there, informing everything we experience. If we can take a breath, stop the knee-jerk reaction, pause before moving ahead, it gives us a chance to do something different.

One way to practice the pause is to meditate. One school of meditation suggests that you notice what you are thinking, and then let it go. Aim for total quiet in the brain. Thoughts and feelings will come through, and rather than getting snagged in them, just let them pass. This takes practice, and honestly, doesn’t work all the time. When I meditate, I spend plenty of time thinking. But even a little practice in letting the thought be separate from the thinking of it helps create a pause. Seriously, even 3 minutes once a week.

Second step – question. I’m going to quote the wikipedia page about Byron Katie for this:

Byron Katie’s method of self-inquiry, The Work, consists of four questions and what she calls turnarounds, which are ways of experiencing the opposite of what you believe. The questions are: 1. Is it true? 2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? 3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? 4. Who would you be without the thought?

Contemporary neuroscience identifies a particular part of the brain, sometimes called “the interpreter,” as the source of the familiar internal narrative that gives us our sense of self. This discovery, based on solid experimental work, show that we tend to believe our own press releases.

If we can question our own thoughts, we can start to figure out where they might be right, where they might be wrong, where they might be more compassionate, where they might be more expansive, etc.

Pause, and question. How often do we do this in our own lives?

I’m going to tell you a parenting story. My son has sensory processing issues, which means he’s sensory seeking a lot of the time. He was playing with a toy on a string, enjoying the feeling of it swinging around his head, swinging against furniture, swirling around on the floor and against the edge of another toy. All that swinging was driving me crazy. I saw the floor being scratched. I saw the toy about to hit things on shelves, about to sweep the papers off my desk, about to hit me. I kept asking him to stop, and he didn’t stop. I was getting madder and madder.

This time, hallelujah and hooray, I remembered to pause, and question. I took a break, went outside, and asked myself what was going on. I helped myself remember that my kid gets hooked by how things feel. He wasn’t continuing to swing the damn thing around in order to piss me off, he was doing it because he liked how it felt. It was hard for him to stop because it fed something in his brain. I had a choice how I responded. I’ve tried yelling, I’ve tried grabbing the toy away, and these things don’t usually end well. What other choices did I have?

Once I calmed down, I went back inside. I told him he could use the toy on a string in a certain area, but not in others, because he could damage things. He agreed, and after a while was done swinging it around and moved on to something else. Relationship preserved, boundaries enforced with kindness, no yelling. What a difference. Pausing, and questioning.

I think it can be unnerving to be still and open to new ideas. It’s much easier and more comfortable to just be Right. All. The. Time. But we can’t solve our problems with our current thoughts and frames of reference. If we are open to new ideas, all sorts of creative possibilities open up. It’s a little uncomfortable to feel like a vessel for new ideas flowing in. (That may be another blog post.) But how wonderful to find a new solution!

Where have you paused, and questioned? What happened?