Our Relationship with a Self

I am reading “Technologies of the Self,” a lecture by Michel Foucault given at the University of Vermont in 1982. It is surprisingly interesting. What Foucault is talking about is how we have understood the ways we ought to have a relationship with ourselves. He goes back to the Greek and Roman philosophers to explain what they told us. What is interesting about this explanation is the distinction between “Knowing oneself,” and “Caring for oneself.” Foucault shows that originally the advice was to care for ourselves and in order to do that we have to know ourselves, but then this advice was reduced to “Know yourself.” And we lost the “caring for oneself” part, which was the point of it all.

By caring for oneself, the ancient philosophers meant seeking “wisdom, truth, and the perfection of the soul.” Embedded in the philosophical tradition is the assumption that taking care of oneself is part of a contribution to the larger community. The traditional notion of self care has been reduced in modern life to taking a day off, getting a massage, or buying something. But what was meant was caring for the deeper parts of ourselves: our larger commitments, goals, and our sense of meaning and purpose. Caring for oneself meant refining ourselves by seeking a more clear resonance with our most important ideals.

Over a lifetime we are perfecting ourselves in one way or another. If we have a reflective awareness of what matters to us, it is easier to make choices that match our values or ideals, which leads to a deeper sense of life satisfaction. That is where “Know yourself,” comes in. First we have to figure out what exactly are our ideals. But that intimate relationship with ourselves is just step one. After that it is the self compassion, self regulation, and self aspiration that form the quality of our seeking. It is the choices we make and the actions we take that create ourselves as we go.

When we can step back and see that much of our worry and busy-ness and distress represents a dissociation from what matters to us internally, we can attain a kind of inner freedom. Of course we will be impacted by and react to the vicissitudes of life, but what is important is not controlling the outside world but choosing where we put our resources of time and attention and how we choose to respond to what life throws at us. Our most intimate relationships are with ourselves. Are we satisfied with the choices of thought, feeling, and action that we are making? Even though we are social animals and we learn so much in our outside relationships, all of our subjective experience is filtered through our internal relationships with ourselves. And that relationship can be built and polished.

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Say It Out Loud

When you say something out loud, it reminds you of that observation, and it also joins with other people who have the same experience. We are aware that putting our feelings into words is important and that naming our pain and reflecting on it is part of a process of growth and healing. But we don’t always realize it is equally important to say out loud what is working well, what we are enjoying or appreciating, what we are noticing about the people and relationships that are important to us.

“I always enjoy our conversations.” Or “We have such a sustaining relationship.” Or “I love my home.” The person who does this absolutely the best is Jessica from Youtube. When we say out loud what we appreciate, enjoy or recognize, we affirm it to ourselves, we make it more conscious and more real. And we get a little boost of the good feelings associated with that good thing.

I met a man once who told me when he was 8 or 9 his uncle used to come over to his house and they would sit in the back yard and barbecue with his family. HIs uncle would lean back in the lounge chair and say, “It just doesn’t get any better than this.” He told me that he had learned then, and practiced his whole life, stopping and appreciating good moments.

It is not merely affirmations or positive thinking. It is about pausing to recognize the good in the current reality. Even when it seems very difficult. Recognizing those good moments gives us a more balanced view of our experience. Life itself is mixed. There are good parts and parts we don’t like. We pay a lot of attention to what we don’t like, which makes sense because we want to improve that part. But the motivation and energy to keep growing and building comes from our successes and progress. And saying it out loud makes it more powerful.

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Radical Responsibility

Because we are social animals, much of our experience and attention focus on our relationships. We try to make relationships, improve relationships, analyze relationships, and worry about relationships. We worry about losing the people we care about one way or another. We react to who they are and what they do. We appeal to them and try to manage them. We look to their reflections to understand ourselves.

Here’s the thing. Each person is a center of agency. That means each person is in charge of his or her own life, and therefore responsible for it. We cannot prevent our children or friends from experiencing pain in life. And we cannot blame them for our own pain. We cannot take responsibility for their decisions or their feelings. And we do have responsibility for our own.

We live autonomous lives in the context of a web of connections. The quality of caring and connection we have form the fabric of our lives and sustain us through the inevitable vicissitudes of life. Our very survival, but also the quality of that existence, rely absolutely on the people around us.

The paradox is that no matter how central our relationships are to our feelings of safety, well-being, and peace of mind, we ourselves are responsible for our internal state. We develop allegiance to our values, we interpret other people and our connections to them, and we assign meaning to what we experience.

As we understand our experience in one way or another, we strengthen the meaning structures we are building. Each choice or perception is added to some belief we have about ourselves, other people and the world. We create layer upon layer of support for the structure of reality we picture.

There is no “there” there. Our lives are wonderful, difficult, stressful, glorious, or peaceful because we see them that way. It is not denial to be grateful to be alive, even in the face of extreme difficulty. Other people have their own paths. They will be selfish and generous, smart and not so smart, interesting and boring. Just like us. They have their own karmic homework in this lifetime.

Too abstract? Ok. Here’s the thing: so many people that I take care of tell me that if someone else were just different somehow they would be happy. When we do this, and we probably all do this at some time or another, we are assigning control of our lives to someone else. Not only does this not work, it is destructive all the way around. Other people impact us profoundly, this is true, but taking charge of our own minds is where we find freedom.

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So I was thinking this morning that everything seems a little bit surreal. Then I was thinking about what makes something “surreal,” and I think it is the putting together of things that don’t seem to go together. Or it is things not behaving the way we expect them to. So I began thinking about expecting things to be a certain way. And that, of course is based on how they have been in the past. And that is not working.

It’s amazing the many, many predictions both from experts and laypeople about what is going to happen–over the short term and the long term. It seems reasonable to look at what we know and at what has happened in the past and make our best guess about what is going to happen next. We want to make choices that will be useful in the context of that prediction.

So just as your stomach is an organ that takes food, breaks it up, and builds your body, your brain is an organ that takes data (information) and looks for patterns and makes predictions. We want to be happy and healthy, and we know that our choices affect our outcomes. So we are very, very serious about figuring out what is going to happen so we can figure out the best choices.

I think that is part of what makes this time so difficult. While there are many people who are suffering concrete life problems, like job loss, illness, bereavement, and inequity, there are many other people who are not dealing with those kinds of losses. If you can point to something and say, “this is why I feel so untethered,” it feels more reasonable somehow.

But the stress of uncertainty is hard to define. We can’t really figure out what is going to happen over time, and we are left with very short term choices or very speculative long term choices. As current events unfold, we are continually surprised and trying to make sense of them. But nothing prepares us for what we are experiencing, and we don’t know what is going to happen next.

So one of the big losses of this pandemic year is the comfort of certain kinds of predictability in our lives, which we used to have. None of the measures we had put in place was able to prevent the level of destruction and social disorganization that we have encountered. How do we regain a sense of calm in the midst of such a great unknown?

For each person our strategy for re-centering ourselves and re-establishing some stability will probably vary. We can move our bodies, connect with other people, look for the anchors in the world–whatever they are for us. And we can learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, with the inevitability of loss, with the limits of our own power, without becoming bitter, pessimistic, or despairing. That is the job.

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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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