Celebrating Independence Day

Of course it’s July 4th everywhere, but if you are living in the United States, you know that today is Independence Day.  For most, it’s the first holiday of the summer, marked by picnics, outdoor festivals, ball games and fireworks.  And there are some more solemn ceremonies observing the greater importance of the day and the establishment of a young country which would function independent of the English crown.

All of that came about with a great deal of struggle, idealistic differences of vision, and loss of life.  Certainly our visions and ideals continue to differ, and no shortage of argument and conflict goes on as we continue to shape our governing laws and the environment we live in.

What we can appreciate is that we have the freedom to express our differences, persuade others if we care to, and ultimately decide at the voting booth.  And although I get as aggravated with the endless debates as anyone else, I deeply appreciate that we can argue and vote and change the politicians in play if we choose to, without fear of recrimination or blood in the streets.

There are some other kinds of independence that I celebrate today.  You may notice that while we have these freedoms, we don’t always claim them. What kind of differences would it make in your life if you did?  Maybe you can add some of your own to this list.  I would love to hear them.

  • Independence of thought:  much of our thinking is still intact from our early life; you know the attitudes and beliefs that you absorbed even before your birth from your family.  And we are constantly exposed to beliefs and habits of thought by the media. Some of this may serve your life; but much of it doesn’t.
  • Become independent of the good opinion of others.  This is an empowering one! How much do you wonder what people think of you? How much do you tailor your behavior or speech to being pleasing to others?  Are you wearing camouflage in order not to be noticed?  Do you spend a lot of energy to avoid rocking the boat?
  • Free yourself from your own Inner Critic!  The chronic, perfectionistic, harping voice in the head that most of us carry around with us is responsible for most fear, pessimism, doubt and depression.  And stress, for that matter.  Formed in early life, this voice becomes such a constant companion that we aren’t even aware of it…unless we make an effort to tune in.  Your fourth grade teacher, or your dad might have said some mean things to you, but you have internalized those voices and act it out as if it were true.  It’s not!  Time to declare your independence and live the life you intend and desire.
  • Be courageous and examine your lifestyle; your job, your relationships, your state of physical health and well being; your intellectual life; your spiritual life.  Is it all that you want it to be?  Are you going along out of habit or real choice?  Are you settling for something because it’s easier than shaking your life loose a bit?  Are you having new experiences that stretch your awareness and your sense of being alive?  When was the last time you were filled with joy?  Is it possible that your own fear is holding you captive?
  • Are your habitual patterns limiting your quality of life?  The part of our brains that we have in common with the rest of the animal world likes routine and finds it comforting. Many of us have a routine that takes us from morning to night in a pretty predictable way.  Does that include zoning out in front of the TV every day?  Do you walk in the door from work, go to the fridge, open a beer or pour a glass of wine?  Do you comfort yourself with a big bowl of Ben and Jerry’s even though you aren’t in the least hungry? Do you go shopping even when you don’t really need anything, or it’s not in the budget? If you think that none of your routine is a problem, try changing it by doing without, and simply observe your reactions, thoughts and feelings.  You might want to go talk with someone about what you observe.

The beauty of independence is that when we claim it, we are open to fresh insights and new possibilities and the infusion of new energy that emerges.  Claiming our independence brings with it responsibility and if we can handle that, great empowerment.

Happy Independence Day!

 

 

Listening: the Key to Connection

Recently I had surgery to remove a cataract from my right eye.  Despite feeling some jitters ahead of time, everything went smoothly.  My ophthalmologist and her staff had explained all the details, and I prepared for the procedure as instructed. Now while my eye heals, I am waiting to have the left eye done in a few weeks.

I’m fortunate in that I have not needed surgery for many years, and was struck by the developments in technology. When I walked into the OR, being in a Star Trek episode came to mind. The smooth and quick procedure reinforced that impression.

Several days later an acquaintance asked me how I was feeling. I opened my mouth to reply, and was startled by her saying, “You probably feel like…” and then went on at great length to tell me about her cataract surgery experience. Without missing a beat, she went on, not seeming to notice that I just nodded and smiled and had never responded to her question before she turned and addressed someone else.

I hadn’t really had a chance to respond. And more to the point, it seemed obvious to me that she wasn’t really interested.

This incident came to mind later when writing a report about building better relationships.  Often when someone tells me that a relationship fell apart because they “can’t communicate,” that may cover a lot of different meanings.

But I suspect from working with couples, that most often it means that someone, and often no one, is really listening.

The power of effective listening cannot be overestimated.

 “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
— 
Henri J.M. NouwenThe Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey

 

Most of us have been guilty of poor listening at some point. You know what I mean; you may see the other person’s lips moving, but you are busy thinking about what you want to say when they stop. Or you’re thinking about what great points or interesting experiences you have been reminded of. Or you have a funny story to tell. Or you can’t wait to tell them how right you are about an argument you are making. Or you’re bored or preoccupied and your mind is wandering and you really don’t have the faintest idea what they are talking about.

Being on the receiving end of that inattention doesn’t feel good.  Whether you intend it or not, what you are really communicating is that you don’t care about the other guy.  You are saying that she/he is unimportant to you. It can be the death knell of a relationship because you have failed to make the connection.

To help you succeed with learning better listening skills and in the process, improve relationships, I would suggest a few simple steps:

  • Maintain good eye contact with the speaker. You don’t have to stare, but look frequently and directly into their eyes.
  • Take care to reflect the expression and body language of the speaker.  Our body language needs to match up with the emotional tone of the conversation.
  • After the person pauses, reflect back to them what you hear them saying. Ask a question to make sure that you are picking up both the meaning of their words as well as their emotional experience.
  • Stay with them without changing the subject until they have finished talking.
  • Avoid the temptation to give advice, fix things, come up with solutions, etc. This is not always easy, especially when you have been reared to be a problem solver or healer. It is not always easy to just “be” with someone who is in emotional pain. Remember this is not your problem to solve!

The greatest gift that we can offer anyone is to be fully present with them.  And the way that we demonstrate that we are, is by careful listening.  As Stephen Covey wrote, “When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it is like giving them emotional oxygen.”

 

Making Connection

“With That Moon Language”
by Hafiz

Admit something

Everyone you see, you say to them
“Love me.”

Of course you do not do this out loud;
Otherwise,
Someone would call the cops.

Still though, think about this,
The great pull in us
To connect.

Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,

With that sweet moon
Language,

What every other eye in this world
Is dying to
Hear.

 

Source:  The Gift

 

Stop Complaining!

To change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.” 
~Stephen Covey~

With the beginning of the New Year, many of us have some new resolutions in mind.  Or maybe as I indicated in my last post, some recycled resolutions from the previous years.

While it is important to have the Big Picture in mind, it is only in taking small, consistent steps that we move along on our journey.  So yes, by all means you need to develop your map to your desired destination to better relationships, better health, a different career, financial freedom, or whatever it is.

But don’t get bogged down by overwhelming yourself with a huge task.  Remember that all we have in terms of making life change is this immediate moment:  Right Now.

The first one is to quit complaining.  This one is simple, but not easy.  Chronic complaining is more of an epidemic than Swine Flu, and more toxic in its effects.  Today observe the conversations around you.  Notice how much of the talk in the office or the lunch room, or the television commentary consists of complaining.

Employees complain about the boss.  The wife complains about her husband.  The father complains about his kids.  Everyone complains about the weather.  Both political parties complain about each other.  Citizens complain about congress.

This is a habit of thought.  A bad habit that gets so ingrained that we aren’t even aware that complaining is going on in our own thoughts pretty much all day. Complaining keeps you constantly focused on what is missing in your life. A certain prescription for unhappiness. You do have the ability to observe yourself with curiosity and compassion and notice that you are complaining.

So what’s so bad about this, you may be asking.  Here are some of the negative effects of this mental habit:

  •  Thoughts create emotions.  We create our emotional states by patterns of thinking, in large part.  Complaining thoughts create irritation, annoyance and anger.  Not a great way to go through the day.
  •  Complaining keeps our attention focused on what’s wrong.  When we complain about our family members, we stay focused on what’s wrong with them, not their positive qualities.  What we pay attention to gets bigger.  After awhile all we can see and acknowledge is what irritates us.  And we get more and more of it!
  •  Complaining creates helplessness and hopelessness, the hallmarks of depression.  We become victims and present ourselves as victims to others.  We give up our power to the persons or situations that we complain about.
  •  Complaining lays the groundwork for our excuses.  If my boss is an unreasonable ogre or the bureaucracy that I work in is “run by a bunch of idiots,” then nothing that happens is my responsibility.  What’s the point of asserting myself?  Why take action to change anything?  I can just stay there and complain.  And believe me, I will find a lot of company in a lunch room full of complainers.
  •  By complaining, we create a state of stress within ourselves.  The effects of stress on our health are well documented as one of the biggest underlying threats to body/mind and relationships.  We get depressed, anxious; develop inflammation in joints, blood vessels and organs, which is the pathway to disease.
  •  Complaining blocks our way to creative solutions.  When you check out your thinking in the midst of a complaint, notice how you are making the other guy wrong and yourself right.  You are immediately polarized into fixed positions and therefore unable to be flexible and to perceive the situation in a new light.

When you quit complaining, you will empower yourself to make real change in your life.  You will notice that the quality of your relationships will improve.  You will be less stressed and generally happier because your focus will change to what is possible, not what is impossible and has you trapped.  And most importantly, you will see that the trap that you were in was of your own making, and that escaping it and building the life of your dreams really is possible.

You may be asking, “So how do I change this bad habit?” By doing two things instead of complaining:  interrupt yourself when you notice that you are playing “Ain’t it Awful?” with another person. You know the game…Ain’t it awful that the weather is so cold, or hot, or wet or dry? Ain’t it awful that we aren’t going to get the raise we hoped for? Ain’t it awful that young people today are so disrespectful? Ain’t it awful that my wife nags me about helping out?  When you hear yourself playing this very popular game JUST STOP IT!

The second thing you can do to end this harmful habit is by writing a gratitude list every day. It is impossible to be focused on what you are lacking and complaining about it and also feeling positive and grateful for what is present in your life!  Begin or end every day by writing down the things that you see are going right with your life and the person you are arguing with.

As you make your list, take time to allow yourself to breathe deeply and to really feel grateful! It’s okay if you repeat items the next day. JUST DO IT!

 

Thanksgiving Wishes

It’s getting late on the night before Thanksgiving. My daughter and I have been having what has become our own tradition of some crazy holiday cooking. We both enjoy cooking.  I prefer the alchemical process of cooking, grasping the concepts and principles, then often flying by the seat of my pants. She is an excellent baker because she understands the more exacting science of baking and follows recipes to the tee (yes, sometimes I lack the patience). We make a good team. And we have a lot of fun.

Each Thanksgiving and Christmas we are bouncing back and forth between the inspirations of old favorites and also untried recipes and the gorgeous pictures accompanying them, and trying to rein ourselves in from creating an impossible and stressful job. We have had some stellar successes as well as some equally harrowing (and now funny) results.

The best part of it is keeping each other company and chatting while we work. It is an echo of my memories of my mother and grandmothers working together in the kitchen, and occasionally asking us kids to help, but mostly trying to keep us out from underfoot.  Such scenes are being carried out in kitchens and dining rooms across America and probably in yours.

This year my Thanksgiving reflections are bittersweet.  A dear friend is losing her courageous and unflagging battle with cancer, and thoughts of her of much on my mind and in my heart. Needing to shift my focus from anxiety and despair, I have been writing in my journal about the many gifts of our friendship, and how much knowing her has enriched my life.

It seems that holidays and the memories they bring up, remind us of those family and friends that we have loved and lost. And yet the ways in which they have touched and shaped our lives will never be lost. Nor is the love we still feel when we think of them. I believe that love ultimately is Divine, and everlasting, even though the human form may be gone.

The thing I love most about Thanksgiving is the obvious: it is a time of gathering with others and regardless of our particular religious beliefs and practices, we express our gratitude. By now of course we know that gratitude is one the the best things we can do for our health and the well-being of our relationships.

So despite the challenges that you may have experienced over the year, my wish for you is that you will spend the day in the company of people you love. And that you will reflect on the gifts of your life and to simply express your thanks for them. And if you actually write the list, I hope that you will find it astonishingly long.

Beware the Pedestals!

Almost any day you’d care to look, the news offers opportunity to reflect on humankind and the meanings of life. Just as the heat of a national election is cooling down, and the approach of the “fiscal cliff” is looming, we hear breaking news of the fall from grace of another hero.

Like other news flurries, the scandal and resignation of David Petraeus will eventually sort itself out and fade into the background of our collective awareness.  In saying that, I’m not minimizing the importance of his extramarital affair to him, his family and inner circle, and possibly even to national security. What occur to me are our general tendencies to make our heroes one dimensional rather than remembering that they are complex humans, as we all are.

Perhaps we want some icons to look up to.  Perhaps we are comforted in confronting the chaos of the world and our resulting feelings of fear and helplessness when we put someone up on a pedestal. We may enjoy being put on a pedestal ourselves and receiving the attention and adulation that comes with being considered a hero to someone…anyone. But I want to caution you about doing either one.

After all, there are many examples of this “pedestal practice” and what comes of it. Lance Armstrong comes to mind. As does Sandusky and the whole Penn State debacle that once uncovered, revealed the dangers of the worship and adulation of a university football coach and the program he built. Many men who lived on pedestals in “Happy Valley” will topple before that scandal finishes playing out. Several years ago a well respected scholar and college professor was arrested for soliciting sexual contact with a female minor, and an entire community and church was rocked to the core. A highly regarded female pastor confesses that she has been having an extramarital affair with a parishioner, and the families and church are devastated in the wake of it.

On a smaller scale, married partners sometimes have this “Pedestal Practice” going on. If you marry someone and you regard them as more successful, smarter, more desirable, more powerful, wealthier or more competent than you, you may place them on the pedestal and never claim your own abilities and power in the relationship.

Taking the passive or submissive stance then results in an imbalance of power. The woman or man who is up on the pedestal isn’t seen as fully human, and true emotional intimacy is not possible as a result.  Not a true partnership. And usually, sooner or later something will occur that results in toppling the pedestal by an affair or deception of some other kind, and divorce.

Our first reaction to such news is, “That’s impossible!” Surely some terrible mistake has occurred!  He/she wouldn’t or couldn’t do such a thing!  Scummy, evil, bad people do this! Notice that the implication is that we are all one or the other: good people or bad people. Of course the truth is that we are neither. Each of us has our strengths, even great and wonderful qualities. And each of us has our “shadows,” unconscious beliefs and feelings that when they remain unacknowledged or unexplored, have the tendency to rear up and we act them out.

It seems to me that when we put someone else on a pedestal, whether that person is a sports hero, a national figure, a revered leader or someone you personally know, they will plunge off that pedestal by revealing themselves (albeit unintentionally) to be flawed.  Or in our resentment or disappointment at seeing them to be only human after all, we knock them off their pedestals with a resounding whack.

And if you are living up on a pedestal, watch out!

 

Mad as a Hornet

Growing up in my house meant getting mixed messages about anger.  I remember my Grandpa using the expression, “…mad as a hornet!” not to be confused with “mad as a hatter,” another mental state altogether.  This was clearly a description saved for occasions when he was full of righteous indignation.  Someone had done something that had truly offended him and he was furious about it!

Children and girls especially, were not supposed to get angry.  If you did and if you acted out in an angry way by yelling or hitting or arguing, or God forbid, back-sassing, you would be in for it.  You would soon see an adult being angry and learn pretty quickly that this would have an unhappy outcome.

While children were punished for being angry, adults (men especially) were allowed to be very vocal and sometimes physical, depending on whether they were annoyed, put out, highly irritated or frustrated or just plain mad. So expressions of anger depended on gender and where you were in the hierarchy.

To make it even more confusing, Christians were supposed to “turn the other cheek,” which my child’s mind took to mean if someone slapped you on the cheek (in anger, what else?) I was supposed to not only NOT feel angry, but should allow them to hit me again if they chose to.  We were pacifists, or at least aspired to be, but let me tell you that growing up in a tribe of 7 children, there were some fisticuffs from time to time.  The idea of allowing someone to hit me twice went against my little primal grain.

As an adult I have discovered that I am not alone in my confusion and struggle to deal with anger.  It seems to be as common as dirt.  As a result of our inner conflicts about anger, we learn to 1) squelch it altogether (“Who me, angry?”); 2) express it and feel very guilty; 3) blow up and make a mess of our dignity and our relationships; 4) suppress it and act like a doormat;  5) suppress it and use alcohol, drugs, shopping, Ben and Jerry’s, etc. to make ourselves feel better; 6) use it to control other people and situations by being either aggressive or passive-aggressive (slamming doors, showing up late, making sarcastic comments, sighing, etc.)

It seems that anger, a very energetic emotion, tends to highjack us and in the blink of an eye, we are carried away to act in one of the above ways.  Depending on temperament and life experiences and the messages from our family, we develop thought-feeling-action habits that seem to have worn grooves in the brain.  Just like driving on an entry ramp onto I-95 (my personal metaphor for the road to hell), we are off and driving like blazes before we know what is going on.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Rather than thinking of anger as a bad thing, remember that it is just an emotion such as joy, sadness, hurt, love, etc.  Like those other emotions, anger comes to tell us something that we need to know.
  • Anger, commonly translated, usually means that you feel that you have been unfairly treated.  You have been wronged and need to put some distance between you and the one who has wronged you.  You need to wake up and take care of you and your interests.
  • Anger, being energizing, can help you focus on taking action in a constructive way.
  • It is anger that helps us end toxic relationships, build healthy boundaries, stop behaving in a self destructive way, or stop abusive behavior.  We can use our indignation at injustice in the world to join others in finding remedies.  We can use our outrage over pollution to join others in saving the planet. You get the idea.

When you find yourself feeling “mad as a hornet,” stop and pay attention to what you are experiencing.  Take 5 deep slow breaths.  Check out the frontal zone of your body from throat to chest to solar plexus to abdomen.  Any tightness, butterflies, heat or cold?  Just breathe some more and relax your body.  If you can, walk away from the triggering situation and find a quiet place.

Now bring your thinking or reasoning mind into the mix.  You recognize by now that you are feeling some degree of anger.  Take a little time to think it through.  What has triggered your anger?  Does it really require an immediate response from you, or could you take some time to decide the best response?  Does it really require a response at all from you?  Remember to keep breathing and observing yourself.

A highly effective method for accepting anger and working through it to discover how it might benefit you, is EFT or Meridian Tapping.  Especially when you notice repeated patterns that keep bringing anger up and disrupting your life, tapping can be a great psychological tool.  You may access it here http://www.coach4lifechange.com/tryitoneverything

Sometimes learning new patterns with anger takes awhile to work through.  Find someone to talk with and ask them for feedback or suggestions.  Use your journal to write about your emotions and thoughts and options for any further action.  Ask yourself (my favorite question), “what am I supposed to learn from this?”

By not acting out immediately on the anger, you can usually come to a decision that will serve you well.  There’s any number of constructive action steps you can take.  Harness the energy of the emotion, and use your reasoning mind to find a solution.  Very often it will be to just let it go.