Thinking Like an Alien

Every once in a while it is helpful to take some time to listen to what our own minds can come up with. There are several ways to do this. The main thing is that we are trying to avoid derivative thinking: that is, taking ideas that we have read or heard, using perspectives that have been given to us, and fashioning solutions that are just reworking other solutions from somewhere else.

This is tantamount to Elon Musk’s idea of first principles thinking. Instead of assuming any facts or historical solutions are accurate, we ask ourselves: If there were no limits of time or space, money or expertise, how might we go at this problem? Much like an alien visiting the earth, we try to avoid assuming we know anything about the situation and see if we can look at it with fresh eyes.

Anthropologists do this when they visit another culture. They don’t know why the people of that culture do what they do, so they ask them and they try to understand how it all works together. They cannot use the assumptions of their own culture because they do not apply. We can be so embedded in the ways we see the world that we cannot invent new perspectives, processes or solutions because we only rehash the old ones.

We can energize our thinking by asking questions about what the goal is: What is the real problem we are trying to solve? What are the characteristics of the outcome that we want? For Musk it was inventing an electric car. This meant figuring out how to power the car in a cost effective way. He started with the problem of automobile design. He could have started from the problem of human transportation.

So first, we have to be able to define the problem we are trying to solve. Then we have to take time to generate ideas. This is the old technique of brainstorming, but that often becomes another way of rehashing. There is no substitute for taking uninterrupted time to allow our minds to float. Surprisingly, what floats up are often new ideas that are unexpected even to ourselves.

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Pay Attention to the Cause, Not the Symptom

If we were to identify our inner experience as either wanted or unwanted, pleasurable or painful, we might think of unwanted inner experiences as signals that some part of our lives needs attention and possibly change. In other words, our inner experience could be seen as a guide toward better self care-taking or toward what might result in our growth, inner or outer. The unpleasant inner experience is the messenger. The Buddhists say that if you see someone pointing at the moon, you are supposed to look at the moon, not at the finger of the person pointing toward it. Sort of the same thing: The important thing is the message, not the messenger.

What happens often, though, is that we try to alleviate the unpleasant feeling without thinking about the message it carries. This approach leads to forms of pain relief that stop us from feeling the bad feelings, but ultimately do not change the reality of what is not working in our choices, behaviors, or thoughts. Of course we want to feel better but there can be a pause where we allow ourselves to be curious about why it is that those bad feelings are getting generated in the first place.

Because so many of our assumptions about our inner states rest on the idea that our brains are broken, our chemistry is off, or we are somehow defective, we do  not respect the information that those feeling-states are pointing toward. We assume there is no good reason for how we are feeling and that the bad feelings themselves are the problem. The damage of this view is not only that the causes remain unaddressed but that we have profoundly disrespected our own minds. Over time we turn toward other people to tell us what to do and how to think and we rely on chemical intervention to regulate our inner states.

There is nothing good about being in pain. It makes sense to try to feel better. It is just that if we are only concerned with feeling better and do not make some effort to understand the causes of those feelings, we may be ignoring an important message. Our perceptions are an attempt by our minds to let us know about parts of our experience that we have not thought about. We may be distorted in our understanding of those perceptions, but it does not mean the perceptions themselves should be thrown out.

The balance is in respecting our own experience and also being willing to listen to other perspectives, question our assumptions, and make effort to understand in a more nuanced, complex way what our experience is trying to tell us. We choose the people we listen to, we are open to different views, and at the same time we respect that our own minds have a privileged and reasonable perspective on our own unique lives.

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Even though we do not always want to admit it, some of the advice from previous generations is accurate. When I think about the people I talk with every day, I see that everyone has difficulties, unexpected losses, and internal conflicts of one kind or another. Some people seem to withstand distress with less destructive outcomes than other people. From what I can see, the basic difference is an internal decision of determination. People may have similar kinds of loss, but the people who tell me “I am determined to make my life the best it can be, no matter what,” seem to do much better.

We have many cultural expressions to encourage determination: “Hang in there.” or “Never give up…” This persistence in the face of stress is a kind of wisdom that we have heard from our parents and grandparents. It seems simplistic and also obvious. The interesting point, though, is that determination is not about our emotional state. It is not about what we think we can do. It is not about our resources or capabilities. It is about an internal type of commitment to ourselves and our own well-being.

A while ago I was talking with the father of a young adolescent. She wanted very much to be an artist, but she was really in the middle of the class in terms of talent. Her father was struck with a sincere admiration of her spirit as she has persisted over years to become good at what she does and she is now working with some of the best teachers. He thought maybe because she was coming from behind she had to try harder and maybe that is why she did so well. It was surprising and delightful for him to watch her.

The researcher Carol Dweck at Stanford has spent a career studying people’s understanding of what they can do. She says some people think you are naturally good at things and so when they have difficulty, they believe they are not good at what they are doing and they stop. But other people recognize that capability is developed through effort. When something is difficult, they feel gratified by making the effort to develop themselves because they believe growth comes through effort. She calls this a growth mindset. In other words, if something requires effort, this type of person believes he or she will gain something from the effort.

So, really, it is a matter of deciding what we want to grow in ourselves and persisting in developing those parts. The persistence comes from determination, not motivation, not feelings or ideas. It comes from making a decision to conquer a challenge. We get to choose where we put our hours, and then, having decided what is important, we get to pour our energy into those pursuits.

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In Case of Emergency: Turning Unhappy to Happy

“Happiness, that is, true well being is not just a mere pleasurable sensation, it is a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment, a state that pervades and underlies all emotional states and all the joys and sorrows that come one’s way… It is a state of being; it is not fleeting…Just as the ocean has depth and the waves are on the surface, we have deep consciousness and the feelings and experiences are temporary.”

—Matthieu Ricard TED talk: “The Habits of Happiness 

Here is the beginning of my list. Add to it as you figure out what works for you. Share your ideas in the comments if you’d like.

Try One or  Try One a Day:

Imagine something that makes you feel better, even if it is only for ten minutes. Do ten minutes at a time.

Take A Shower And Brush Your Teeth

Take A Walk

Clean Your Room

Talk To Someone Who Loves You

Do Something For Someone Else

Take Care Of Yourself:

“The Greatest Gift You Can Give Somebody Is Your Own Personal Development. I Used To Say, ‘If You Will Take Care Of Me, I Will Take Care Of You.’ Now I Say, ‘I Will Take Care Of Me For You, If You Will Take Care Of You For Me.’”—Jim Rohn

List Everything You Have Succeeded At In Your Life

Be Busy: Schedule Activities

See An Inspiring Movie

Activate A Relationship: Reach Out

Write In A Journal

Read A Book

Join A Group


Enjoy Small Indulgences

Do Yoga

Get A Massage

Find Deep Conversation

Plan Interesting Experiences

Use Phone Apps And Websites Such As Itsallgoodhere.Com

Visit New Places, Even Locally

Distract Yourself From Negative Thoughts And Bad Habits: Stop Yourself from Ruminating

Express Appreciation, Through Words, Gestures Or Notes

Do Tai Chi

Look At What Other People Do To Be Happy

Change Your Interpretation From Negative To Positive: Reframe

Do What You Are Good At And Get Better At It

Make Open-Ended Goals And Do One Small Step

Work Out: Exercise

Take Action About Something You Care About

Say A Prayer

Tell The Truth

Write Down What Makes You Feel Grateful

Meditate On Compassion

Go Where There Are People:



Shopping Malls

Sports Events

Recite A Mantra

Remember That Whatever You Are Feeling Or Experiencing, There Are Other People In The World Feeling The Same Way

Get Outside In Nature

Recognize We Cannot Control What Is Outside Of Us, Only What Is Inside Of Us

Learn a hobby or craft

A musical instrument, like piano, violin, accordion

A physical activity or sport, like ballroom dancing, skateboarding or circus arts

An art form like painting or sculpture

A craft like knitting, crochet, or sewing

Remember all the difficult emotions and experiences you have already conquered in the past, make a list

Put on energizing music and dance an improvisation

Talk to a wise counselor: a pastor, spiritual advisor, or therapist

Visit an elderly person and ask about their life

Play with children

Watch stand up comedy online

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Character sometimes seems like a notion from the 1800’s. You judge a person by his or her character. There are probably different meanings for the  notion of character, but mostly it has a fuzzy connection with “being a good person.” We need to be able to live with ourselves, and believing we are good persons makes that way more comfortable. So we care about what it means to be a good person.

Character is about moral stance, and over time, psychologists have come to understand that a person’s moral stance is created as the result of a developmental process. Lawrence Kohlberg, as part of a 1958 dissertation, described six stages of moral development that people pass through. These stages provide moral reasoning that makes the person increasingly successful at resolving moral dilemmas. This is why they are considered linear stages. Different people move through all of them, but some people seem to get to a certain stage and stay there.

Kohlberg’s stages start with small children who do the right thing to avoid punishment. As they grow a little bit, they follow rules because it will benefit them personally. As adolescents, people want to fit in and so they follow norms of their group and by adulthood, they understand that rules are necessary for society to function. The fifth stage is recognizing that different people might have different ideas of what is right and wrong, and rules might not always be useful or applicable.

Kohlberg’s sixth and final stage of moral development is a universal ethics orientation where people can empathize with other people’s thoughts and feelings and they make decisions based on their own internal sense of ethical right and wrong. They develop a sense of universal ideals. For people who are able to mature to this stage of moral reasoning, the standards of what they believe is ethical are carried as thoughtful, reflectively chosen ideals. They make decisions and take actions in line with those personal ideals, whether or not anyone else knows they are doing this.

This is the important point. For a person with character, it is not the judgements of other people, the rules of their organizations or the laws of their community that regulate their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, it is their own judgment. This does not mean that that person ignores social mores or disregards the opinions of other people. On the contrary, he or she is more tuned in to the ideas of other people because learning and growing are part of that ongoing developmental process. And because each of our choices continues to create us as people.

So this comes back down to the conversation between me and me. Only I will know if I have done the difficult, but better, thing. Only I will see my choices in the context of my ideals. So ultimately, character is something I create decision by decision and something only I can truly know about myself.


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Dragged by Karma or Led by Vow

Shohaku Okumura, a great zen teacher, has said you will either be “dragged by karma or led by vow.” In psychological terms this means you will live out the imprinted patterns of behavior, thought, feeling and belief that you are used to or you will live out a commitment to the ideals of a self that you aspire to be. In other words, you life will be mindless reaction or conscious proaction. To put it yet another way: You are, at every moment, living through habit or through choice.

Each action you take, each thought you endorse, each feeling you believe strengthens a perspective–a world-view–that is one of many possible world-views you hold. Those perspectives are built and solidified by repetitive attention and action. If you are not reflectively recognizing what you are choosing, you are left with an increasingly rigid default point of view. Ultimately, with a commitment to a conscious, thoughtful effort, you can become truly liberated from unseen self-sabotaging motives. At least most of the time.

We want to be in charge of our lives, the agents of our actions, and the decision-makers for our choices. Sometimes without realizing it, we see ourselves replaying old habits, or even more frustrating, habits of people in our families. Genuine change, and therefore genuine freedom, is possible with a serious decision to get to know what we care about, what we want, and what we are able to do. And then reconnecting with that decision every time we get off track. We really can become the people we want to be by incrementally building our self of the future and not getting stuck in our self of the past.


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The Courage to Know

When you decide to engage in long-term therapy with a good therapist, you are entering into an ongoing dialogue which has as its focus in the internal workings of your mind. It is a route toward increased intimacy with yourself. It is often emotional or psychological pain that drives us to this project, but once there, we begin to learn the wonder of the complexity of our own minds. There is more to us than we think!

So first, we create a relationship with a therapist who is patient, kind, and thoughtful. We have to have that chemistry that we have with people we want to be friends with. In other words, we don’t feel alienated from that therapist. We begin to feel safer. More complicated feelings, thoughts, and ideals begin to surface. The relationship becomes calmer, even mundane at times.

We have a fear. Perhaps subtle. That what we will find inside of ourselves will be messy, broken, or destructive. We get to the threshold of deeper connection with ourselves and we hesitate. Do we want to know about our own inner pain? What if we hate ourselves as people, or worse, what if we have mean and hurtful motives? The relationship with a stable  accepting person creates a psychological space in which we can discover our true selves–if we have the courage to do that.

We will encounter parts of ourselves that we wish were better. We will find that we are not as perfect or as good as we wish we were. Somehow we come through that disappointment in ourselves and find that we are part of a larger reality. We can come to appreciate ourselves as we are, integrating those different parts into a whole person. And by extension, we can appreciate and accept other people wth their anxieties and their imperfections. We get to a place of no longer feeling bad. No longer feeling disappointed. We begin to see the complex miracle of ourselves as whole persons.


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The Fork in the Road

We are always faced with so many forks in the road. Right? Decisions that will take us one way or another. The particular fork in the road I am talking about here is the one that is relevant to our subject: Long-term Psychotherapy. Because as it stands, people, therapists and laypeople alike, can conflate two completely distinct notions of what psychotherapy is and what it should do.

On one side of the fork, there is the rationalist view. We are solving a problem, curing a defect, or pursuing a goal. In this view, psychotherapy is a science, its effectiveness should be proven through scientific inquiry, and its process should be evidence based. The client is the consumer and the therapist is a service provider. We diagnose problems; we measure outcomes and results; we evaluate effectiveness; we fix what is broken.

The other side of the fork is the philosophical side, that of self-knowledge. In this view, psychotherapy is a continuation of a very old system of thought (back to the Greek philosophers at least) that is predicated on the idea that coming to know ourselves deeply allows us to make freer choices and construct more satisfying lives. It is a process of engaging with another person who can reflect to us who we are from an outside perspective. In this view, nothing is broken. We are building a kind of maturity and psychological freedom that cannot be created quickly or easily–and that cannot be created without the engagement of another mind.

While the first view promises certainty, simplicity, and action, the second view is more nuanced, more nebulous, and more frightening. We come to a fork in the road. Do we want to face ourselves, with the messy and discouraging tangle of motives and feelings we are wrestling with in order to have an inner freedom and connection with our own reality, or do we want to function well, feel better and get on with it? There is no right direction of course. We are always, at every moment, deciding how to use our one precious life.

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It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn

Somewhere in the past I read that it is always darkest before the dawn. I don’t know if that is scientifically  true or just a feel-good axiom, but in fact, I have found it to be always, always true in real life. Our lives have ups and downs. Sometimes the downs are bigger and seem unmanageable. At those times, as trite as it is, it can help to hang onto the idea that things will get better.

Most people have moments that they can remember, recently or more distantly, where they are faced with a true sense of sinking into despair. Everything looks hopeless, and it’s difficult to see how it could get better. There is a pull to give in to a feeling of giving up. It varies what people do at those times and how long that feeling lasts. At those times, they don’t even want to do the little things that make them feel better. It seems pointless and inadequate.

But there is a type of certainty and it is this: Everything, and everyone, is always changing. Nothing stays the same for long. That is both a good thing and a bad thing. The beautiful moments won’t last forever–and that is why we need to savor them–and the terrible moments won’t last forever–and that is why we need to withstand them. Obvious, I know. But when we are in the midst of them, we cannot imagine anything else.

The universe is infused with being alive. Living energy organizes inert matter into living organisms that have motion, purpose, expression, and time-connection. In living things the cycle of being alive moves through its course. That is the time-connection. And that is why everything changes. Because we are embedded in a developmental process from beginning to end: physically, socially, psychologically. Looking back at events in our lives we can sometimes make more sense of them, or at least understand how they have shaped us.

But we cannot make sense of the moment we are in. We can only live it. We can be curious about how this particular moment will resolve itself. It will partly be a result of what we do, but not only that. The continual movement of people, things, and time will change what things mean and how they impact us. So in moments of discouragement, sometimes all we can do is remember that it is always darkest before the dawn.

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Today we are talking about personality disorders in class. Pervasive, lifelong patterns of relating and living in the world that are destructive, dysphoric, debilitating, or demoralizing. The thing is, the personality characteristics that organize a personality disorder are, for the most part, invisible to the person who has them. They are so much a part of that person’s experience of themselves and the world that they feel normal.

What happens is, relationships don’t work or are nonexistent. Jobs are unmanageable. Self caretaking is interrupted by impulsivity, strong emotions, and disorganized thinking. There are circumstances that seem to account for these problems. We don’t see that our stance toward the world is setting us up to experience life and other people in ways that isolate us and feel unfair.

Sometimes the people in our lives, our families, our friends, or our co-workers, try to tell us we are not understanding ourselves clearly. But we just feel criticized and rejected. Our lens through which we see the world is so habitual, so long-standing, and so entrenched that we cannot imagine any other possibility.

The difficult thing is that while we need to feel we can trust our own minds, and we need to feel that we are in charge of our lives, we also need to have some place, some relationship that we trust enough to be able to imagine that we might be missing something. We might be misunderstanding what we think is real. We might be misattributing motives to other people that they just don’t have.

We can’t just accept what other people reflect to us about ourselves, because they have their own distortions. At the same time, we have to have a way of checking whether what we think is true about ourselves and each other is accurate or not. The only way to get out of the endless loop of perception-interpretation error-reaction is to have some kind of mirror, some kind of external system, some at least semi-objective mind to reflect to us a different view, a different interpretation, or at least a different possibility.

Those reliable, committed, long-term relationships are rare and precious. It is not easy to find people who are sufficiently healthy and stable to hold still when we are flailing around. People who will stick with us when we are off track or difficult or confused. Who don’t need to be right or powerful or better. Just present. Therapists, friends, significant others. Not easy. When you find them, try to recognize them and do your part to keep the engine of the relationship going.

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