Growing. Old.

For their final papers, students in my classes interview an “old” person (over 60) about his or her life and write a description of this person. Reading these papers is always inspiring, surprising, and delightful. The students are usually in their twenties, or, at a stretch, their early 30’s. Many of them have never talked seriously with an elderly person. They find the assignment daunting and often complain that they do not know where to find an old person. They have many nervous questions about the assignment and about how to approach an older person.

Over the course of the next several weeks, each student interviews the same older person at least 3 times for one hour each time. There is a set of questions that are suggested to give the students an idea of how to get at important parts of a person’s life, but overall, the interviews are very free floating. Each semester that I teach this course, I look forward to these final papers. The stories are absorbing and the transformation in the students’ perspectives is even more remarkable.

One student noted in class that most people view elders as either slow, forgetful, and behind the times or wise gurus who have transcended everyday life. We tend to put things in either/or categories, and we have a hard time accepting complexity. But the older people have complex lives and histories, and the ways that they have overcome difficulties or created satisfying lives are unique and varied. People have dealt with trauma, either well or with difficulty. Health concerns sometimes overpower people’s efforts to create a healthy and active old age. And sometimes they don’t. People have financial worries or no financial worries, involvement with family or no involvement with family. They have active work or volunteering or they have hobbies and recreation.

One of the important learnings for students is how much people’s lives reflect their choices and efforts from earlier in their lives. Building a life happens at times subtly and slowly and at times instantly and profoundly. Each interviewee has been faced with life circumstances and unexpected events, and how they have responded to these facts has a huge impact on the quality of their lives later.

At the end of the semester, the students are transformed. Their interviewees have taken great pleasure in sharing their life stories and explaining why they have made the choices they have made. Students are amazed at the happiness and well-being that most of the elders express. The students perspectives have been completely changed and many of the students decide that they will work with an elderly population for their careers. It is a fun transformation to watch, and always a learning experience for everyone.

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Living with Depth

I’ve been thinking about how to describe the experience of living with depth. We are in such a fast-paced, hyperconnected, ambitious world, we find ourselves chasing ever more speed and efficiency at the expense of the experiences that require more depth, more time, and more thought. And I began to think about what depth really means. It has to do with moments of experience where we have some resonance or awareness within ourselves I think.

Sometimes you are sitting somewhere and you suddenly realize what a spectacular moment it is. It may be an encounter with another person, sitting in a beautiful spot, or hearing something delightful–music, or a baby laughing, or the sound of a stream. You feel as if you have woken up out of a sleepwalking pattern and recognized the absolute miracle of everyday life.

In the same way, you can sometimes see the profound value of those things that require time to create or develop, that require your total attention and thought, that have immense significance that cannot be explained. These aspects of depth cannot be found without enough time and space. Our usual mode of trying to be more productive and more efficient just won’t deliver the same type of value.

In some ways, it is the old-fashioned approach of stopping, noticing, thinking, being with someone, taking time that allows those parts of our human capacity to surface. We do not trust that our inner selves have more to offer. We over-rely on our conscious, obvious thinking, and we under-estimate how very much we have inside of ourselves. There are no short-cuts to those depths. We cannot think harder and smarter and get there faster. This depth of experience must be allowed to arise at its own pace.

This grounded connection with ourselves and our lives is the focus of many of the wisdom traditions. There is a larger teaching about stepping back from the details of day to day life and getting in touch with something both larger than ourselves and deeper than our everyday conscious train of thought. There are many avenues to develop this capacity, like meditation or depth psychotherapy. But they require that we slow down, change our measure of success, and appreciate our experience in a different way.

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Imagination

Recently in talking with students about future goals, thinking about the complexities of modern life and political stresses, and looking at the outcomes of choices made by friends and colleagues, it has seemed to me that many of our limitations are more a limitation of imagination than of circumstances or capabilities. We can do more than we think we can, and we can expect more than we think we can for the most part. We can expect more of ourselves than we think we can.

I tell my students over and over, “Your future is limited only by your imagination.” That doesn’t mean that anything is possible, but it does mean that possibilities could be anything. By that I mean that with sufficient imagination, we can manage any bends in the road we set off on. The whole business of visualization and mental rehearsal, which seems a bit of delusional magical thinking, actually is one way to unleash our imagination–at least a little bit.

We rein ourselves in so that we will not be disappointed when we fail to reach our goals. We establish limits so that we don’t seem selfish, or grandiose, or crazy. Hedging our bets, playing it safe, sitting on the sidelines. Yes, we avoid some losses, but we do without a lot of gains that we don’t even know we are missing. We short-circuit joyful abandon and silly immaturity.

What would happen if we spent time daydreaming pictures of what we really want instead of being mature and figuring out what might be possible. What distances might we go if we didn’t have goals, but fantasies?  What if we dreamed the dreams that freed our imaginations to puff up into light, beautiful clouds of possible pictures? Now that might be interesting.

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Our Wish to Downplay

One of the most important wishes for people is to be heard and taken seriously: to be believed and respected. But we tend to hear what people tell us through the filters in our own minds. One filter is the wish for reality to be a certain way: For example, if someone we care about tells us they are sad, we do not want to know their reality. It is worrisome and makes us sad. So we tell them it will pass, cheer up, or distract yourself. We have a hard time sitting with the unhappiness of the people we love. We interpret reality in ways that will make us feel more comfortable. We want to believe it is not that bad.

A second filter is understanding another person’s experience as it would feel to us. When that loved one is sad, we reference our own experiences of being sad and believe that it is the same for that other person. But we don’t really know. And sometimes we don’t really want to know. We don’t want to feel bad, and so we negotiate with reality: It’s not that bad. It will pass. I’ve been there. You just have to….work through it, go for a run, go out with friends.

Each of those “solutions” may be valid and useful, but they are also ways of not being able to deeply listen to another person’s experience. Life is complex, difficult, and uncertain. We don’t like to acknowledge that truth. And we don’t like to sit with another person who is struggling with their own experience of truth. It is hard to stop and listen to what is real for that person.

Instead we veer between over-reacting by listening to our own fears about the situation and under-reacting by trying to get pain relief for our worry. It is difficult to stop all that internal noise and be curious, open to another person’s experience, and patient about allowing space and time. What is it really like for that person? How does it feel to be in the middle of that other life? We do not have a privileged understanding of reality or truth. We have our own filters from our own histories. And, of course, the same is true for the other person. We can only truly be together with another person if we are willing to work at understanding our own inner reality and being genuinely open to theirs.

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Taking Care of People

The drama in Thailand with the rescue of 13 boys from a flooded cave is a stark lesson for us as world citizens. As the world waited, over one thousand people from all over the world amassed at the site of the trapped boys and created strategies and logistical efforts to free them. The cooperation, courage, and effort that was required to bring them all safely out of the cave is inspiring and moving.

It is fitting that Thailand would be a world leader in ethical behavior. Almost every young man there spends at least some time as a Buddhist monk, learning the rules and ethical systems of that way of life. In fact, the soccer coach who was with the boys was a monk for 8 years. The monks in Thailand have to learn and follow over 200 rules of behavior and ethics. The fact that families in Thailand value learning ethical thinking to the extent that almost all of them send their young boys to monasteries is a great statement about the importance of  values in living.

It is also moving to know that half of the boys were immigrants from Myanmar. In fact, when they were first found, by a British diver, only one of the 13 spoke English: a young immigrant who spoke 4 languages. Some of the boys had been thrust over the border from Myanmar by their parents in hopes that they would have a better life and avoid the danger of where they were living. The coach himself was orphaned and sent to live in a monastery, which explains his eight years of training as a monk

The fact that the coach could teach the boys to meditate so that they remained calm and did not use too much oxygen; that he knew to tell them to drink only the water dripping from the top of the cave, which was rain water and cleaner than the water on the bottom of the cave; that he could provide strong leadership; these qualities are part of what helped the boys survive. It is a great advantage that he had this knowledge.

The divers individually worked their way into the cave and brought out the boys one by one, four hours in and four hours back, under water, climbing over obstacles, squeezing through narrow passages. They taught the boys to breathe using the oxygen tanks. Then each diver carried his own tank and the tank for one boy and led the boy to safety. These divers were from all over the world, not just from Thailand. One diver lost his life in this effort.

The miracle of rescuing these 13 boys out of a flooded cave, in a journey that took close to four hours each way,  and involved over one thousand people from all over the world, is a stark lesson in the necessity of community. We cannot succeed in our lives alone, no matter how many resources we have. We need the many other people in the community and in the world who are working and growing and developing qualities and skills in order to function together. Our world has become completely interdependent. We have problems to solve and a future to build. This can only happen when we understand that we are all, all of us, in it together.

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Sturdy is the Goal

As we travel through our lives, we know that we will encounter ups and downs, joy and grief, pleasure and pain. We get better at life as we go along. We get life experience. We understand that we cannot control everything, but it is also true that our efforts will help us lean in the direction of the outcomes we  want. So it matters that we keep trying to be better and do better. We know that it matters how we go at our lives.

There is no secret that will once and for all provide us with certainty about our own well-being or about our safety, health or happiness. We have no guarantees about the well-being of our loved ones, either. The truth is that we are in an ongoing, uncertain, and fluctuating reality. Our best bet is to remain flexible, keep learning new skills and systems, and develop our understanding of the current reality.

What we want to develop is the capacity to be sturdy. To trust in our own competence and values, and to engage with what life throws at us. It is not possible to avoid pain and not wise to simply seek pain relief. We cannot prevent losses or unexpected change. What we can do is build our robust sense of  optimism, take the best care we can of ourselves and our loved ones, and trust in the inherent reasonableness of the larger picture. The wonderful book Unraveling the Mysteries of Health, by Aaron Antonovsky,  describes salutogenesis, a sense of robust well-being, which rests on 3 concepts: Life is Comprehensible, Life is Manageable, and Life is Meaningful.  If we can arrive at a place of endorsing those ideas, we can develop an internal health that will be constructive both in our psychological and our physical experience.

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Epistemic Trust

Epistemic is a term that means anything that relates to knowledge and our assessment of how believable it is. When we have epistemic trust in another person, we accept that their knowledge is reliable, and we can allow ourselves to be influenced by the way that person sees the world. This kind of trust is fundamental to healthy human relationships, and, at the same time, requires careful discernment to recognize with whom  we should have epistemic trust.

The previous post explained the concept of mentalization: the capacity to accurately understand and reflect our own mind experience and that of another person. When we have a relationship within which we believe we are accurately seen, we can have epistemic trust with that person. In other words, we know intuitively if that person has an accurate judgement about us, they will likely have accurate judgements about other things too. We can allow ourselves to consider their perspectives, points of view, and opinions about reality. In other words, epistemic trust is a kind of indirect intimacy which reflects respect, connection, and vulnerability.

Trust in another person does not require that that person be right all the time, or caring all the time, or grown up all the time. It does require, however that that person is serious about him or herself, serious about other people, and recognizes the importance of authenticity and openness to change. Anyone can make mistakes or have a bad day. What we would like to believe is that the people who care about us and about whom we care, can recognize and take responsibility for their unwanted and/or destructive  emotions, motives and actions,  can tolerate engaging with us to understand the process between us, particularly when it is off track, and can commit themselves to continual growth as a person in the ways that matter to them and to us.

Epistemic trust is important. It is worth looking for and building. And it is precious. Trust of any kind is easily broken and very difficult to create. We are trusted based on our way of being in the world; based on the story our history tells about us; based on the values our choices demonstrate. We don’t create trust as a main goal but as a side effect of being the kind of person we want to be. And that process of being is created by our relationships with ourselves.

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Mentalization

According to Peter Fonagy, “Mentalizing is the process by which we make sense of each other and ourselves, implicitly and explicitly, in terms of subjective states and mental processes. It is a profoundly social construct in the sense that we are attentive to the mental states of those we are with, physically or psychologically.”

In other words, when we mentalize, we recognize that our own perspectives and understandings are based on our own filters and meaning structures and are very different from those of any other person. When we try to understand another person’s experience, we take into account that his or her understanding will be specific to him or her.

While this may seem like an obvious concept, we do not often make the effort when we are with other people to stop and recognize that we are operating out of our own assumptions. But the important part of this idea is that it is the way that we connect deeply with other people: It is the basis of our feeling of closeness with another person.

One of the fundamental experiences of our lives is a wish to be seen–to exist in the mind of another person or persons. This is the antidote to loneliness and despair. And the way that we get this feeling is when we are deeply understood in ways that feel accurate to who we think we are. When another person can reflect to us that they see and understand us in the way we understand ourselves.

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What You Get Is What You See

Sometimes you hear people say “What you see is what you get,” meaning the thing or person is exactly as it appears. Whatever you see is what you will get from that thing or person. But I think it works the other way around, too. What you get is often a result of what you see. If you see the world as a dangerous and discouraging place, that is what you will get–bad luck and a lot of unhappy experiences. And if you see the world as a basically good place and you assume other people have good intentions, that is what you will get more often than not. Even when a person disappoints you or exploits you, if you have a mostly trusting view of the world, you will assume that person has a lot of inner pain and his or her inborn good nature has somehow gotten distorted.

Much like the character of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, the world around us will be transformed by how we see it. You may have read or heard of the scene where Jean Valjean steals valuable silver from a priest’s home and is apprehended by the police and taken back to the home to return the silver. When they arrive, the priest tells the police that the silver is not stolen, it was a gift. By this act, Valjean is changed from a thief into a beneficiary. And at this moment, Valjean has a change of heart and begins to live into that positive view of himself.

We all have mixed motives most of the time. We want to feel good and get what we want, and at the same time, we care about other people and will make effort to promote their well-being. We have lapses and we have moments of deep altruism. When we can give other people the benefit of a more nuanced understanding of human motivation, both ours and theirs, we will see good intentions and bring good intentions, which is a wonderful perspective from which to engage with the world. And because we will see it, we are more likely to get it.

 

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Yes, but I’m not trying to mess up.

You know how you run into some obstacle in getting yourself to do something or in getting yourself to stop doing something and you complain about it to someone and they say something on the order of: “You just have to power through,” or “Make a plan and stick to it,” or “Hold yourself accountable….” You know how infuriating that is. If I could just make a plan and do it, I wouldn’t be wrestling so hard with myself, now would I.

The thing is, with all the advice out there about creating better routines, or modifying our own behavior, or, worse, our children’s behavior, you would think we believe that if we just understand the problem and think up a good solution, we’d conquer it. Like if we have the problem, we just haven’t created the right system for fixing it. And sometimes, of course, that is true.

But really what all this self improvement effort misses is that we have unrecognized meanings and identities that SEEK difficulty; we are our own worst enemy; we have unseen motives that cause us to create conflict with the people we love; we sabotage ourselves at work; and we generate unhappiness when we think we are looking for happiness. We get in our own way, and we even can see it sometimes and we still do it. How frustrating is that.

How are we suppose to befriend ourselves and take care of ourselves when we see that we make so much trouble for ourselves. And, worse, we can’t seem to stop doing that. The point is, we are extremely complex creatures, with personal history and cultural meanings and patterns of relating which are intertwined and ambiguous. We are skillful and at the same time awkward, we have moments of greatness and moments of petty selfishness. No picture of who we are that reduces us to a few motives or a few concepts or a few behaviors will be able to contain the many selves within us.

It just seems like it would be helpful for us to remember that as smart as we are in our thinking minds, there is a lot more to us than just what we can think up, and we ought to at least take that reality into account when we try to understand who we are. We are not just thoughts, and we are not just feelings or emotions. We are a complicated bundle of all the factors that combine to create a human being, and we just keep on trying to learn more about what that means and about who we are, even beyond what we can comprehend with our thinking minds.

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