Wait, What Am I Trying To Do?

Ok, so the truth is, I don’t really want to be MORE productive. I get a lot of emails from productivity gurus: how to do more, how to clean more, how to make more, or how to work harder in the same amount of time. How to be better at doing whatever it is that I am already doing.

This reminds me of the time when I was living in Japan and I talked with my neighbor. We both had four year old children who were going to the same preschool. This is how the conversation went:

me: “Since our children are going to the same preschool, why don’t I walk them to school and you can pick them up?”

She: “Why would we do that?

me: “Well, it would be more efficient.”

She: “Why would we want to be more efficient?”

Me “Well, then you could save time.”

She: “Why would I want to “save time?”

Me: “Well, then you could have some time to yourself; you could do what you want to do.”

She “What I want to do is spend time with my child and walk her to and from school.”

End of conversation.

There is a sort of driven quality that can happen when we are focused on some goal or on doing more. We can end up pushing ourselves and trying to learn how to produce more. We can forget why we are doing that. What are we trying to get? And then why are we trying to get it? We look for problems: too little, too slow, too uncertain. But in all the busyness, we lose sight of the point of it.

Maybe we could start with what we want more of in our lives and create an approach that builds those things into our lives. Maybe what we want is not more, but better or deeper or slower or more creative. In Spanish, there is an expression: “La vida es corta pero ancha,” which means “Life is short, but it’s wide.” I can go with that.

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You Can, You Know

When you get to a certain point in your life, you can see that the power and responsibility for everything moves to the next younger generation. The older people become advisors and cheerleaders, but they don’t have the strength or stamina to carry the whole world on their shoulders the way they have been doing. They aren’t the parents any more. They are the grandparents. Grandparents love you to bits, but they have no authority and they aren’t very good at making you shape up.

The power shift is poignant. Some older people feel they are not useful any more. This is wrong. Some younger people think they are not ready to take on all that responsibility. This is wrong too. If we can’t see the value of our elders, no matter their condition, we are lacking depth and imagination. And if we can’t see the deep competence of the youngers, well, we are way too anxious.

Recently I have spoken with a number of young adults who are afraid to be adults. They are afraid they are not as competent as their parents. They feel flawed and limited. They want to be children. Not because they are lazy or self-indulgent but because they are worried. They see their parents or older adults as competent and wise and themselves as clumsy and awkward. They see the stable lives their parents have built and they think, “I won’t be able to do that!”

But they haven’t seen the messy process it took for their parents to get where they are. The many, many mistakes, unskillful actions, and abject failures that happened along the way. They don’t see the ways their parents felt, and feel, inadequate or worried, just like they do. They don’t see the hardscrabble beginnings of building a life. They don’t realize it is scary and hard for everyone.

There’s no guarantee you will be able to do what you try to do. There’s no guarantee your life will turn out the way you want it to. There’s no guarantee about anything. No net. Just the tightrope…. But, oh, the exhilaration of trying! The surprise of realizing there are helping hands all around you. And you will need them. The unexpected redirections that turn out to be paths.

You can trust the universe. Even with no guarantees. Life wants to live itself. Flowers come up through concrete. We don’t build through brute force, but through sustained, even effort, grace and good luck. It’s not so hard. We just keep on keeping on. Don’t worry. You can, you know.

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Reflecting on 2020

At the end of the year, many people take some time to reflect on the previous year and to plan for the coming year. One template that is quite helpful is called the Year Compass. It gives you a list of questions and prompts for last year and for the coming year. Someone recommended it to me and I began to try to fill it out. But the items did not resonate for me, although many people find them helpful. So I made a list of questions that I would be willing to think about. Here it is:

My questions for reflecting on last year. Answer in as much detail as you would like to. Allow yourself as much time as you would like.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who are alive.”—Howard Thurman

  1. Do you think last year was an overall good year for you?
  2. Do you think last year was an overall good year for the people you care about?
  3. Do you think last year was an overall good year for your community, nation, and planet?
  4. What were some of the contrasts last year between good things and undesirable things?
  5. If you could go back and tell yourself something at any point(s) in the year, what would it be? In other words, what do you wish you had known?
  6. What choices did you make that turned out to be a good idea?
  7. What choices did you make that had outcomes that you didn’t want?
  8. If you look at the major areas in your life right now compared to the beginning of the year,  do they look better or worse? You can use a Wheel of Life for this too.
  9. How are you different now than you were a year ago, in any or all areas? How have you changed?
  10. Is there anything you learned that you think is important?
  11. Do you have any other thoughts about the past year since last year at this time?
  12. Thinking about life as a road trip where the goal is to enjoy the trip, not to get somewhere, what could enhance the part of the journey over this coming year?
  13. Knowing that true joy is the result of pursuing interesting aspirations, not achieving something, what aspirations would be fun, fulfilling, meaningful, or interesting in the near term? Do you have ideas for the longer term?
  14. Understanding that the process of living is a combination of or alternation between action and rest, what blocks during the year can you design as restorative time? When will they be and what would you like to do?
  15. What experiences or activities create a state of flow for you? Flow is when you are doing something and you lose track of time because you are so absorbed in the activity. This can be solo or with people. How could you get more flow experiences into your life on purpose?
  16. What experiences or actions create a sense of peace of mind for you? Peace of mind is contentment at the moment, in the moment and with the moment.  Would it be helpful to be more intentional about making space for peace of mind times or set-ups?
  17. Overall, would you like to increase your contemplative, restorative parts of your life, or your productive, active parts of your life? Or both? How?

Remember to enjoy the journey:

You are enough.

You do enough.

You have enough.

Relax and enjoy the ride.

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Trust Is Essential

The Washington Post published an essay by George P. Schultz, a former government official who held various positions including Secretary of State. He is now 100 years old and he writes about his experience of the fundamental significance of trust.

Schultz writes: “Trust is the coin of the realm. When trust was in the room, whatever room that was — the family room, the schoolroom, the locker room, the office room, the government room or the military room — good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details.”

We know that we cannot indiscriminately just trust everyone. Sometimes we need to protect ourselves. So we have to decide who to trust and in what ways to trust that person or organization. We might trust our doctor for medical advice but not for home repair advice for example. And we have to distinguish between people who are trustworthy because they have integrity and people who are trustworthy because they have knowledge. My doctor has medical knowledge and I trust his training. But integrity is about who the person is fundamentally.

According to one dictionary, integrity is honesty plus moral principles: what is described as “moral uprightness.” We decide we can trust that person’s intentions, even though we know they could be wrong or make mistakes, we know that they intend to be honest and intend to be helpful. When we believe we can trust another person, this alters the relationship and makes our interactions easier and less worrisome.

We trust people and organizations that adhere to some kind of moral code instead of the drivers of efficiency, profit, or expedience. Many years ago, corporations adopted policies that promoted the well-being of their workers. They took responsibility for the quality of life of their employees, including their salaries. For example, Henry Ford wanted his employees to have adequate income and access to social workers. This did not need to be justified by economic arguments but by human ones. And as a result, employees were loyal and hard working.

Not that everything was wonderful back then. But even so, it matters how we understand the vision behind our choices. Our own integrity–trustworthiness–is built bit by bit, by being reliable, by keeping our focus on what we think is right, and by recognizing we are part of a larger community. We can remember our own values and connect with other like-minded people to build a successful and constructive life.

Trust takes time to build and even longer to repair. Organizations and countries with untrustworthy systems may work in the short run, but over time they develop destructive systemic flaws. Schultz is right, if a community has trust, a lot is possible and if it does not, it gets built on shifting sands.

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Worry Meter is Topped Out

So I’ve been reading this online newspaper called “The Correspondent,” which is out of Denmark. Very progressive. Kind of interesting perspectives on things. After a while I realized all the headlines were sources of worry: global warming, racial tension, unequal resource distribution. I finally wrote to them and told them, “I do not have any more space to worry about stuff.”

There is a lot to worry about. The pandemic. The economy. Conflicts in politics. Racial tensions. Global warming. Just to start the list. Whew. I’m trying very hard to fix all of them, and particularly to “stay informed.” But the list keeps growing. We have a lot of work to do to address the “issues.” Then I noticed that they developed at least 5 vaccines without my help. I didn’t even have to oversee what they were doing! They just went ahead and did it on their own!

And then I thought, oh, right. We are part of a larger human community. We are all trying to do our best. We are trying to solve problems, take care of ourselves and take care of each other. Oh. Right. We are, as we speak, being taken care of by all the many, many people who contribute to making our lives work. Maybe the task is to learn to trust that larger body and make the contributions that we can.

Life is hard enough without scaring the wits out of ourselves, without assuming everyone else is only self-interested, without envisioning disaster. We are not being “realistic” when we are pessimistic. We can’t prevent struggle by being hyper-alert to problems. Worrying is just not a very constructive way of life.

We cannot prevent problems by worrying about things. That is not planning, that is just suffering. If we truly want to address a problem that we can do something about, we can build a strategy and execute it. Otherwise, we can trust that the people who can address those problems will do that. We just can’t control the whole world.

There is much to worry about, but there is also much to appreciate. We can be mindful of our own circle of influence, do the work that only we can do, and enjoy the moments that we can enjoy.

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Holding the Center

This is such a hard time. Just managing our own mind state is difficult. Attending to our physical self-care is difficult. We try to sleep well, eat right, and move. We manage our households and our finances. We have lost the continuity of our pasts, and we are trying to predict the future.

We find our ikigai, our reason for living, in helping other people. It seems pathetically inadequate. Or perhaps wasted. Our wisdom is not recognized. Or perhaps we are deluded, and we have been wrong about everything. We make small efforts. The problems seem insurmountable.

So we try to live in the moment. Appreciate the small things. Give our attention where it is sought. We try not to worry about bigger problems, the uncertain future, and the unfolding lives of the people we love. It feels effortful to avoid despair. We think of nature. Of how the animals live without worry. And we keep reaching toward equanimity.

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I was talking with a young woman of Thai descent recently, and she was explaining to me the concept of katanyu. Katanyu is the action that you take to repay the people who have helped you in your life. She said that in Asian cultures, respect is an extremely important and central value, especially respect for your elders and everyone who has come before you. It is a deep recognition that all of your success and gains in your life are only possible because of the efforts of people who cared for you, educated you, and helped you and even before that, people who cared for them.

Katanyu applies to your parents, your teachers, your doctors, and all of the many, many people who have made your life possible. Katanyu is not just a feeling of gratitude, it is what you actually do: It includes respect, taking care, and showing appreciation through action to the people who have helped you. You must take action to express appreciation to your benefactors, not just feel gratitude toward them.

She gave as an example that she had moved across the country to help her mother start a business. She gave up her career, her friends, and her home to support her mother’s work. In her community, this action was recognized as katanyu. Parents teach children the importance of respect and gratitude toward other people from a very early age, and katanyu is part of this teaching.

In Thai culture, people assume that katanyu benefits the younger person taking the action as much as it benefits the person receiving it. It is thought that when people fail to recognize the support and benefits they have received, they will be unhappy and their development will suffer. So there are reciprocal benefits to being katanyu.

Respecting and appreciating the efforts of the people who have come before you does not negate the efforts you have made or the difficulties you have faced. It is possible to have self respect at the same time you have respect for other people. We know that we need other people to make our lives work, but sometimes in our attempts to shore up our own self confidence, we dismiss the reality that everything we accomplish is on the shoulders of the people who have come before us.

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Guest Post: Lessons I Have Learned So Far, by Jizo

Lessons I Have Learned So Far

by Jizo*

*Jizo is a ten-week-old Labradoodle puppy owned by Dr. Margaret Syverson, the head zen teacher at the Appamada zen center in Austin, Texas (https://appamada.org).

  • Maybe you just need a nap.
  • Even if you have a lot of toys you can still be bored.
  • Wholesome food is bland and uninteresting compared to junk food you eat on the run, like a discarded gum wrapper, a bandaid, or cigarette box. 
  • When you get all crazy you may need a time out to reflect on what matters.
  • For some reason it is terribly exciting for the humans if you sit, something you do anyway thousands of times a day.
  • Let’s have another nap.
  • You can’t just bite people, no matter how much they exasperate you.
  • But you can kiss anyone.
  • When in doubt, wag your tail.
  • Don’t just bark for no reason; silence is golden.
  • When in doubt, wag your tail.
  • It’s ok to get crazy occasionally, especially if you just dug up a fire ant nest. Next time be more mindful.
  • You don’t have to come every time you are called; you may have more important things to do, like watch a bird.
  • Did I mention you can nap almost any time?
  • Even if they put you in prison you can still love them. They are just daft and don’t know what they are doing. 
  • Make time to just sit in the grass and watch the sunset.
  • Sometimes you just have to bite something!
  • Other dogs might just not be that into you, no matter how cute and fun you are. 
  • Do you ever just want to run and run and run until the human collapses? 
  • Humans like throwing things. If you bring them back it makes them so happy. You can amuse them for hours that way.
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It’s Not That Different

As a young person, I was very interested in culture and the different global cultures. When I moved to Japan in 1971, I was fascinated by the many descriptions of Japanese culture written by anthropologists. Later, I decided to get a master’s degree in the anthropology of comparative cultures at Sophia University in Tokyo. Meanwhile, I was having children, creating a household, and trying to learn the Japanese language.

As I went along over 14 years living in a very, very different culture, I began to recognize that there were Japanese people who were very much like American people I knew. As I got better at speaking and understanding Japanese, I became friends with the other young mothers in my neighborhood. I saw that some people were very energetic and enthusiastic and other people were more quiet and observant. There were people who were wildly ambitious and people who were content with the status quo.

The more I studied culture, the more I understood anthropology and cultural values, and how to enter and understand a cultural milieu. And the more I learned, the clearer it became that a country, or a culture, may organize itself around certain central tenets, but that knowledge was of very little help in understanding any individual person in that culture.

Because my neighbors and I were trying to take care of our families and ourselves, we were trying to make sure we were healthy and happy and that our families were healthy and happy. Given the environment we were in, certain choices were available to us and other choices were not. Within that context, we had to decide what to choose and what to avoid. Our conversations were around getting the laundry done, the healthiest recipes that wouldn’t take too much time to make, the personalities of our children and spouses and how to interact with them. We talked about the garden and getting to it. We talked about the garbage day and who was responsible for sweeping the street because that was a shared neighborhood responsibility.

I was in Japan for 7 years and then I was back in the U.S. for 3 years and then back in Japan for 7 years. In other words, while my children were young, I lived in both places. And it just wasn’t that different. The problems of living are at base very similar in different places. It’s just that in each place, there are a different range of possibilities. In Japan at that time, people did not share child care responsibilities. The mother was the sole caregiver. There weren’t even babysitters. In the United States at that time, care of the community was not shared. No one was sweeping up after the garbage truck for example. But still, no matter where I was living, the family was organized around taking the best care of its members and raising children who could succeed in the world.

We are not that different. Human beings, no matter where they live or what they think, want to be healthy and happy, and they want the people that they love to be healthy and happy. They might have different opinions about how to pursue those goals and the possibilities for those choices are definitely shaped by the environment, but at base it is a human motivation to thrive. And all of the problem solving, whether it is individual, physical or psychological; policy level; national; or global, is about addressing that fundamental human motive.

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Making the Simple Complex and the Complex Simple

We are reductionistic in understanding human suffering, reducing distress to biological causes: chemical imbalances, brain waves, and diagnoses. But we make the response to that distress complex: instead of plain old therapy–in other words relationships of being understood and cared for–we opt for increasingly specialized “treatments,” a proliferation of psychological theories, and biological interventions: medications, ECT, or brain scans.

We have it exactly backwards. Individuals are unique and complex. The real and complete stories of how they have come to be in distress are different for each person and contain many disparate factors and experiences. In order to truly understand another person’s experience, we have to be open to learning about their world view, understanding their unique circumstances and history, and taking into account their physical gifts and limitations.

And if we want to be of assistance, if we want to contribute to their efforts to feel better, do better, and grow, we have to be willing to work at building a relationship, providing safety and building trust, and endorsing the capacity and competence of the other person. What works is what Jon Allen calls “plain old therapy:” Talking, caring, empowering, working at understanding, recognizing the complexity of the other person’s life, and engaging in a process of growth.

People are complicated. And relationships are simple. Maybe not easy. Maybe not straightforward. Maybe requiring a bit of attention and work. But if we respect the complexity of another person, and we know that we cannot fully understand their inner experience, we can meet them with respect and curiosity and with an intention to try to understand. It is what we are telling the preschoolers: we practice learning to “be with.”

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