First, read Antifragile (Nassim Nicholas Taleb). This is an important book sharing an important idea: When unexpected change happens–and it always happens–some systems are fragile and break, some systems withstand the pressure and do not break, and some systems actually become better, stronger, or smarter in the face of challenge. Effort equals growth.

Too much challenge breaks things, but too little challenge robs a system of adaptation and growth. Taleb says we often talk about the benefits of resilience, which is the capacity to withstand stressors. But resilience just means we can stay the same in the face of challenge. His contention is that organic systems in particular need challenge to become stronger and better. We don’t just want to stay the same, we want to grow. We try to predict and control stressors or challenging events, but what we ought to be doing is building antifragility so that we can use those stressors and events to get smarter, stronger and better.

We struggle with the reality that change is inevitable. We fight to hold onto the familiar when we know that is impossible and not even desirable. But we worry about uncertainty and the unknown. We implicitly question our ability to deal with future difficult experiences. Rather than telling ourselves, “whatever happens, I’ll handle it,” we strategize to avoid any risk. And when life deals us an unexpected blow, we rage, protest, and despair about the unfairness of it. We tell ourselves we cannot do things because we have had a hard time in the past or we are dealing with too much right now.

Everyone needs compassion and understanding. Everyone needs a chance to cocoon and heal. But we don’t need to stop there.  Ultimately, we would like to build the confidence, competence, and optimism to engage with life as it really is and to celebrate our wins and mourn our losses. A self is a series of experiences and part of our experience is how we direct our own growth and learning. For a long time, we devalued how we were feeling and tried to buck up, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and carry on. Sometimes we overcorrect for this tough approach and get bogged down in our feelings and difficult experiences as reasons for why we cannot do things.

If we can simultaneously have compassion for ourselves and other people and at the same time confidence in our ability to become stronger and better, we can make choices that promote constructive well-being, both for the short term and the long term.

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Self-Rage is not Remorse

It is extremely difficult to face our own missteps, limitations, and selfishness. That awful feeling of not liking ourselves is incredibly unpleasant. It’s really tempting to make sure we don’t have to feel that way. So it’s nice if we don’t have to know about the parts of ourselves that we do not like so much. Most of the time our social environment is constructed around an accepted set of manners that protects us from other people’s critical observations and protects other people from our critical observations.

It’s hard to tell someone when you think they have made choices in error. It is hard to hear from other people when they think this about us. There are lots of ways we make it hard for people to be honest with us. We get wounded by criticism; we get angry at people who disagree with us; we avoid people who are too honest with us.

I’m not talking about people who are destructive. I’m not talking about people who are hurtful and competitive. I’m talking about good friends and family who have a privileged understanding of us and who can give us some helpful feedback from an outside perspective. I’m talking about the people who want to be close to us and who are willing to let us know when they believe we have been unskillful.

Sometimes our response to this feedback is a fit of self-rage. Either overtly or in our minds, we criticize ourselves with a fierce frenzy. We remind ourselves of everything terrible that we have ever done or said. We become discouraged or distressed. We feel worthless and we lose our motivation. We fight with despair.

This kind of self-rage is a way of not hearing the message. Once we get caught up in that kind of self-flagellation, we can no longer reflectively consider the information we are getting. Self-rage feels like genuine remorse, but it isn’t. It is a way to reinforce our painful avoidance of knowing how imperfect we are. It’s a way to avoid paying serious attention to what someone is trying to tell us.

Genuine remorse contains compassion–for ourselves and other people too. It contains appreciation for being able to recognize where we need to grow. It respects people who care enough about us to try to be authentic with us. Remorse allows us to recognize the hurt that we may have caused another person without it reducing our own sense of self-worth. Remorse is tricky. It feels unpleasant but it is not self-destructive.

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The Feeling Versus the Effect

Sometimes the feeling of the thing does not match the effect of the thing. Some things that are pleasurable have negative effects, short term or long term, and some things that are effortful,  or difficult, have positive effects. Sort of obvious. Eating too much rich food? Lots of fun, but long term not too healthy. Avoiding housework? Easier than doing it, but ends up being messy, or worse, unsanitary. That’s why we remind ourselves to act like a grown up and do the healthy thing rather than the fun or easy thing (most of the time). It’s usually an effort, but we remember that our choices have consequences. That’s the dumb thing about being a grown up. You’re responsible for your choices. Bummer.

But we don’t always realize the more subtle ways this reality carries out. For example, we might have a friend whom we really enjoy spending time with but afterwards, when we go home, we feel unhappy, unmotivated, or self critical. We might have another friend who is not  as interesting, maybe not as exciting, but after we spend time with that person, we feel motivated, empowered and competent. We don’t always recognize those after-effects. We remember the feelings, but we don’t connect the experience to its effects.

The only reason we know that eating an unhealthy diet leads to an unhealthy life is that some wonderful people did research to figure that out and told us. Even though the advice might change over time, at least we know that what we eat now affects our future health. That’s important. And, in a larger sense, all of our current choices affect our future life. We are each of us a  single subject experiment to ourselves, figuring out as we go what makes our lives enjoyable, and equally importantly, what makes our lives healthy.

Relationships form the fabric of our lives. They are at least as important as what we eat. Ironically, even though people impact us and we impact them, we are still responsible for how we manage those relationships. We pay attention to how we take responsibility for our own impacts on other people and how we manage or limit their impact on us. Because our relationships form the internal and external environment in which we make choices, they are critical to our well-being. And because of that, we are responsible for choosing the relationships into which we invest our time and energy and for investing in those relationships.

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The Doing

Aspiration, intention, commitment, determination. These words form a sequence toward doing what we value. An aspiration is an ideal to work toward. I may have an aspiration to be kinder or more organized. It is not something we achieve, but something that guides our movement, like a lighthouse guides a ship. We are not trying to hit the lighthouse, even if that were possible. We are using it for direction.

An intention is a specific or series of acts, thoughts or feelings that we decide to engage in for the purpose of moving toward our aspirations. Sometimes we form intentions and do not carry them out. This leads us to distrust ourselves and to assume we are incapable of acting on an intention. Intention is not enough.

But after intention, there has to be a commitment. Not only an idea of what I want to do, but a promise to do it. We make that promise to ourselves. Whatever means we use to check that we are following our commitment, whether it is an “accountability partner,” a log, or a coach, ultimately the promise is to ourselves. The commitment stands as a reminder of our intention and behind that our aspiration and behind that what we value. In this way, we make our lives match our values.

And with commitment, we begin. But somewhere along the way, and possibly not too far along the way, our motivation flags, our commitment feels like a burden and our everyday life distracts us. And this is where determination comes in. Determination is the inner strength we bring to doing what is difficult, whether it is the last push up or forgoing a desire. Determination is the very ordinary, flawed, human effort that keeps pushing toward what we have decided to do even when that effort seems inadequate or off-base.

In Japanese there is a term–kessen–which means the last battle or the decisive battle. And through our values, our aspirations, our intentions, our commitments, and our determination, we are finally struggling with ourselves to become our own version of an ideal version of ourselves, and this idea is specific to each of us. Fortunately, it takes a lifetime to work at this refinement of ourselves. And really, we need a lot of time to practice.


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Like most primates, for human beings our superpower is our capacity to join with others to accomplish tasks, maintain safety, and become our best selves. We do not have wings, or prehensile tails, or claws. We have cooperation. We know how to band together to do what will enhance our lives, ensure our safety, and promote the development of our families.

Unfortunately, we have come to the idea that we are supposed to be independent and we should not need help. We are usually pretty ok with helping other people, but we often feel diminished when we need to turn to other people to help us. When that happens, we have to recognize our vulnerability in an impersonal, uncertain world. And because we have a fantasy that the best people succeed through their own individual effort, vulnerability brings with it the shame of our limitations, what feel like inadequacies.

It is, however, the strongest, most adaptable and most competent people who know that together we are better than we are alone. It takes a village to make one life work, and fortunately we are each a part of many other people’s villages. We offer to each other our knowledge, our strength, our perspectives, our wisdom, and our helping hands. This is reciprocal, but not directly so. My dentist fixes my teeth. I do not fix his teeth. But I help my community in the ways I know how to do. And my community helps me.

Being able to engage with the people who enhance our lives and to enlist their help and care is our human superpower. It is not platitudes and lip service but a deep and lasting reality that we need each other. This is not because we are inadequate. We do better when we get over our egoic need to go it alone and realize after all, we have to get some help. We have hands and language and a yearning for connection that arise from our capacity to work together to manage this beautiful, uncertain reality of being alive.

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The Behavior and the Meaning

So I’ve been reading in linguistic anthropology. I know. Another rabbit hole of ideas. But here’s the thing. Every interaction with another person contains the behavior, whether it is speech or action, and the meanings that behavior carries. The meanings include what it means about you, what it means about me and what it means about the relationship between us. What sometimes happens is that each person is interpreting that meaning in a slightly different way, and that can lead to misunderstandings and bad feelings.

So if you say, “Mr. Jones, can I ask a question?” it tells you something about your relationship with the other person–perhaps he is a teacher or other expert–and it assumes he has some knowledge you do not have. Under most circumstances it represents a kind of respect to use a person’s last name. But that same statement could also be sarcastic, ironic, or inaccurate.

The same perspective applies in parenting. So recently I had the occasion to talk with a parent about how to deal with a frustrated child. With children particularly, people use compliance or “good behavior” as a measure  of the child. If that is the perspective, the adult, parent or teacher, is paying attention to getting the behavior that the adult wants to see. But if you do that with no regard for the way it feels to the child, you define the relationship in an authoritarian way. Even if you are really nice about it.

The difficult thing is maintaining our focus on our own ideals–how we want to be in the world and how we want to treat other people–rather than some external measure such as whether we get what we want, whether the other person agrees with us, or whether things “calm down.” Relationships can be stressful and messy, and that does not always mean there is a problem. People have different centers of motivation and different centers of agency and those differences can feel distancing. But the satisfying aspect of a relationship is coming to know a –different– person well over time. Not a person who is exactly like us or agrees with us about everything. Similarities can feel connecting, but differences can too.

So in a relationship, it is not so much the content of the conversation or the action of the moment, but what we are conveying to each other about mutual acceptance, appreciation, and curiosity. Our emotions get triggered by old patterns and old meanings, and that can make it hard to see the other person clearly. We attribute negative motives to them and we react to our own fantasies of what we are seeing rather than recognizing that our emotional responses are being generated inside of ourselves from meanings that are unconscious and imprinted from our pasts.

Being able to truly see and understand another person requires intentional effort to set aside our own filters about the world and other people and to be open to who that person really is. And as we practice freeing ourselves from the patterns of our own unique past experiences, we enter into the deep pleasure of connecting with another person in a real way.

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Appreciation or Gratitude

It seems to me that we should stop talking about gratitude and start focusing on appreciation. It is a small shift, but with a real difference. Gratitude is about the feeling in me evoked by something outside of  myself. That means it is about me and not really about that other thing, even though it appears to be. And it carries the connotation that I am somehow lucky (meaning undeserving) of that good thing. Gratitude has a moralistic undertone.

Appreciation, on the other hand, is not about me. It is about the qualities of the other thing that make it a good thing. It is not about the feeling evoked in me, but the recognition of the qualities of the thing outside me. There is no implied moralistic tone with it. Appreciation is recognizing the value in something, whether it is within myself or in the outside world.

Every day we wake up to a new day with the gift of conscious awareness. We can direct our attention wherever we wish. This is the freedom of being alive: choosing what we allow ourselves to be conscious about. We need not manhandle that consciousness and make it into something. We merely direct it one way or another and notice what comes into it.

All of our current reality is available to us. The quality of our lives is determined by how we use this one guaranteed aspect of being alive: being able to be aware of what we direct our attention toward. It is not about positive thinking or illusional optimism. It is about knowing that within any reality there are gains and challenges, gifts and losses. It is about being a true witness to our complex circumstances and inner experience and doing the best with what life deals us.

We can appreciate big things and small. We can appreciate people and things. We can marvel at the complex way that life insists on living itself. That people keep trying and that circumstances keep throwing us curve balls. It’s ok. We will dodge some and engage some and put our hearts into our lives and make what we can of them. Sometimes we can feel wonder about what we notice and it does not need to be about ourselves. It can just be noticing.

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What are you cultivating in yourself?

What you repeat becomes who you are. You create yourself by your choices. What are you focusing on within your own experience of yourself? What is your relationship like with yourself? How we understand who we are is fundamentally our internal sense of identity: “I am not a morning person. I like dogs. I am good at swimming….” These identifications are reinforced when we see evidence that they are true, and they also strongly influence our choices and our behavior.

If we want to make changes, improve our lives, we can interfere with those identifications we cling to, and we can free ourselves to leave our comfort zones. We don’t need to “think positive” or force ourselves to believe things we don’t believe about ourselves. We simply need to allow there to be some uncertainty about who we are and what we can do. We can recognize that we are constantly changing and growing, learning how to live our lives better, and moving through different circumstances.

People sometimes talk about goals as a direction we can aim for. And some types of wishes lend themselves to goal setting, such as running a marathon. But if we look back at the last five years, we can see that we have done a lot that wasn’t in response to goals. We continue to grow even when we are not forcing that growth. Because life teaches us lessons, like it or not. Sometimes it helps to take stock of how  much wiser, or better, we are than we were 5 years ago. We can see there is some kind of direction, even when we were not exactly directing it.

Every choice we make is based in some definition of who we think we are. At the same time, that choice reinforces that definition. Like everything, we get better at being who we are through practice. If we can allow ourselves freedom of choice about who we are, we can practice being the person that represents our best version of ourselves.

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Plain Old Therapy

Jon Allen has written a wonderful book called “Restoring Mentalizing in Attachment Relationships: Treating Trauma with Plain Old Therapy.” I have become enchanted with the idea of “plain old therapy.” Allen writes that in medicine we can have many specialists who are expert in the one area of disease and treatment, but we need a plain old family doc to look at the big picture: all the systems and how they work together. He sees himself as that generalist who talks to people and helps them think about the challenges they are facing, and offers whatever perspective he has from his own experience. This is plain old therapy.

Sometimes we believe we understand something because we can name it, define it, or describe it. But a lot of times that doesn’t really add anything beyond our own direct experience. This makes me think about sitting in many meetings at the high school where I worked as a social worker. The teachers, psychologist, social worker, and parents would discuss whether a student needed additional support from the school in terms of special education, extra tutoring or study skills classes.

I was always struck by the very professional report from the psychologist, with many results of testing, many numbers comparing the student to other students, and what appeared to be a comprehensive assessment. The social worker would give a developmental history. The teachers would weigh in on how hard the student was or was not working and what he or she was struggling with. And finally the parents would say, “He does better if he likes the teacher.” I always thought we could save a lot of everyone’s time and patience if we just went there from the beginning.

People do better with plain old relationships with people who care about them. Because if someone they respect cares about them, it helps them care about themselves. For our emotional, and by extension, psychological well-being, sometimes we don’t need a hyper specialized professional. sometimes we just need someone to talk to. Someone who knows how to make a relationship with us that could be the basis of more confidence, more competence, and more self compassion.

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Grandmother mind

One of the aspirations in Buddhist thought is to acquire what is called “grandmother mind.” Grandmother mind is the idea that you love unconditionally, guide and direct without judgment, share your wisdom, and accept all people with an affectionate understanding, (even when you do not collude with their conditioning or stories). Just like it sounds, grandmother mind is an indulgent, fearless interest in other people and the world.

So much of our current world is hurried, distracted, goal oriented, and fear-driven. We lose our connection with what matters to us in the busy-ness of our everyday lives. Of course, we do have to attend to the management of our lives, but we also need to attend to the quality of our time. The ongoing wish to return to “grandmother mind” is one way to keep the depth that makes our lives meaningful.

The term “grandmother mind” is taken from the Japanese expression “grandmother kindness,” which means that solicitous, slightly overly fussy attention that you get from your grandmother. In normal everyday speech it contains both the helpful aspects of this frame of mind and also the fussy over-attentiveness of it. In the Buddhist tradition, however, the focus is on a kind of non-grasping caring. It is a way of being optimistic, feeling good about our relationships with other people and the world, and also being able to allow the other person (or situation) to be what they are freely. We are not attached to other people, or aspects of the world or our lives, being a certain way in order for us to feel happy or to care about them.

Grandmother mind has a peacefulness to it, an engaged curiosity and interest, and calm good intentions or good will. Wishing you the best unfolding of your life and your circumstances, I am grateful for any time or connection I have with you, as you are. It is an aspiration, not a measure of our character. We move toward an easier, more joyful experience of ourselves moving through the world.




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