In the world of the lovingly kind
I’ve found myself caught in a bind:
Consumed by my hate
It made my gut ache
’Twas a matter far over my mind.
Of course I can always deep breathe
Whenever I’m starting to seethe
But hate’s the wrong path;
There’s just too much wrath,
So my ideals I tried to retrieve.
This effort is surely ongoing
The seeds of contempt could keep growing
As malevolent eyes
Ignore COVID’s new highs
And the pain in the streets’ overflowing.
But one thing I’ve learned is that thoughts
If dwelt on can leave one distraught;
Accept that they’re there,
Make space for more air,
And allow them to flutter aloft.
Thus I’ve moved beyond being whiny
And reduced trump so he’s quite tiny He’s gone from my head, I don’t hear what he’s said…
My plan, on Day Two’s, working finely!
And, because my inner critic suggests this reflection is self-indulgent when there’s so much grief in the world, I’m adding a delightful, gently philosophical video that I hope you haven’t seen before and I think is guaranteed to make you smile.
Its title: “Amazingly simple theory for a happy life.”
Here’s how I would reallyreallyreally like to feel when I think about Donald Trump, his Senate Republican enablers, and the thugs who are using the pandemic to terrorize and strut around with their AR-15s and shotguns:
“Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your neighbors.”
“Do not allow your anger to control your reason, but rather your reason to control your anger.”
“As I walked out the door toward my freedom, I knew that if I did not leave the anger, hatred, and bitterness behind me, I would still be in prison.”
In other words, I would like to have the heart and patience and wisdom of Nelson Mandela.
I am—or have been—a conciliator by nature. I’ve never tried to paper over people’s differences of opinion—and how those differences play out in their actions. But I’ve always sought to search for the commonalities among us.
(This blog began with the goal of finding common ground, and I wrote a post early on explaining why I wouldn’t deal with the Elephant in our national living room. But when babies were put into cages and other offenses defying human decency became evident, I found that orientation unsustainable. I’d love to get back to it at some point.)
Through practicing the lovingkindness aspect of meditation, I still try to wish us all well—everyone and every living thing. Even…this President and his enablers. But I repeatedly fall short. Extremely short. Earth to Saturn kind of short.
What to make of all this? I just listened to another tenpercenthappier.com meditation (I’d written about these helpful sessions previously) in which Sebene Selassie, a meditation teacher, explored the various ramifications of anger in our current bizarre environment.
“Anger can be an intelligent emotion,” she said. “It shows us what’s wrong with the world and is a motivation for action.”
I like that assessment. I’d just finished hand-writing a bunch of postcards to Democrats living in a state that will be important to the November election outcome.
These are folks who have spotty voting records, and our purpose is to urge them to sign up for vote-by-mail ballots so they can vote safely and comfortably from their homes.
It was an annoying task that left me with a neck ache and cramped fingers, but I’ll be doing it every week because—as I wrote repeatedly on those cards—“the stakes are very high; protect our democracy.”
That concrete action, multiplied by all the volunteers doing it, could have an impact. So perhaps when I’m so engaged, my reason controls my anger.
Some months ago, I printed on this blog the contact info for all the Class of 2018 Democratic members of Congress who had won in swing districts and then bravely voted for impeachment, knowing they could be jeopardizing their reelection.
These courageous souls are now being targeted for defeat by the Republican National Committee. I was encouraging people to send them donations and/or volunteer with their campaigns. (If you’re interested, you can find the list here.)
.One of my friends from across the aisle let me know he thinks there’s something underhanded about dabbling in politics beyond one’s own district.
But since the voters in the targeted state will play a significant role in a decision that will ultimately affect my family and me directly, I have zero qualms about such efforts.
Selassie also talks about “taking action without taking sides.” That brought me up short. How do we do that? A viewer at the end of her session asked that very question:
How can we not take sides when our politics are so polarizing?
Selassie’s answer was that this is a perfect time for us to recognize our interconnection. “One thread over here can unravel on the other side of the world,” she said.
Pondering our interconnection, which I do from time to time, provides a welcome respite from ranting. It happens when I disagree with my friend from across the aisle. I get angry, but I know he’s a good person with strong values who just happens to view the world differently.
When I get angry–furious, really–at the terrible toll this pandemic is taking because of our dreadful national leadership, I also think about all the generosity and kindness shown by individuals helping others—solid evidence of our interconnections.
I just read an article that I think exemplifies Selassie’s point about interconnections. A 13-year-old Israeli Jewish boy was gravely wounded in 2002 when he stepped on a land mine. Until last year, he was in agony, his foot constantly feeling as though it was on fire.
Then, at age 31, after years of harboring hatred for the Arabs for what they’d done to him, he was operated on by a Palestinian Arab surgeon, an expert in the intricate nerve pathways involved in his injury.
The surgery was a complete success, and a bond has formed between surgeon and patient. (This story is considerably more complicated; if you want to read the details, click here.)
Selassie points out that if we look beneath our anger, we see the fear, anxiety, and grief that’s there. And I know that’s true too.
But we needn’t banish our anger, she says; we can accept it, checking in with our bodies to make sure we’re not permitting the anger to turn into the constant stress that we know can be so damaging.
(A quick inventory would involve relaxing tense shoulders, clenched jaws, tight stomach, and the like.)
So I realize I can hold two concepts simultaneously. One is that it’s important to focus on all the people who have chosen to demonstrate their better selves at this critical time for all humanity.
The other is that I am channeling my anger into actions that I hope will ultimately result in the removal of the forces I find so terribly destructive. Anger leading to action: that feels just right.
Donald Trump and his enablers won’t be with us forever. I remain hopeful that in the near future, the lessons of this pandemic will lead to competent government delivering a much stronger safety net.
We’ll always have our differences, but they’ll be less raw if people are less fearful and anxious about their economic insecurity and lack of healthcare. I believe we can reduce the tensions that have been worsening our political polarity.
It seems appropriate to end with another nod to Nelson Mandela:
“A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of.”
These are times that are creating great and widespread anxiety, to be sure. Many people report experiencing nightmares. Few of us can remain fully unscathed as we’re forced to change our routines and cut ourselves off from the people and places that have offered comfortable reassurance.
And being alone with our thoughts does not, as Anne Lamott cleverly suggests, always provide us with the best company. We can be hard on ourselves by ruminating on our plights and getting stuck in a cycle of worries.
For me, mindfulness meditation has a very calming effect, and I’ll share with you below one particular resource I find helpful—whether or not you are a meditator, and even if you’re a “fidgety skeptic.”
I also love these wise words from the renowned meditation teacher Jack Kornfield, which underscore so much about being human:
“If you can sit quietly after difficult news,
If in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm,
If you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy;
If you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate;
If you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill;
If you can always find contentment just where you are…
…..You are probably a dog.”
It’s a tough time for the two-leggeds, as Internet sensation Pluto the Dog refers to us. (She seems to be having the time of her life; so far there’s been no interruption in her treat supply chain…) And if you haven’t seen her and need an instant lift, I encourage you to look for her repeat performances on YouTube.
Fortunately, there’s also a treasure trove of free material on the Internet to help us get through this terribly difficult time.
I don’t want to oversimplify this issue. Andrew Solomon, a professor of medical clinical psychology at Columbia University who has written about his struggles with serious mental illness, observed in The New York Times that nearly everyone he knows “has been thrust in varying degrees into grief, panic, hopelessness, and paralyzing fear. If you say, ‘I’m so terrified I can barely sleep,’ people may reply, ‘What sensible person isn’t?”
If you’re feeling the way Sullivan describes, you may need professional help. Even if you’re just seeking some reinforcement, I won’t pretend the resource I’m recommending will banish your psychological or physical pain—or make it easier for you to ignore your sudden or worsening economic problems.
But I hope if you’re looking for some way to help you better adapt to our truly bizarre situation, you’ll give it a look.
And you needn’t be a meditator to appreciate its offerings and to find these common sense approaches helpful.
The source is Ten Percent Happier: tenpercenthappier.com. I actually paid a discounted price for a phone app last year.
Now, and for the duration of the quarantine at least, the content is available for free on YouTube.
Live sessions featuring some of the most prominent teachers in the world are aired at 3 pm weekdays and are subsequently available on video. I listen to them (I don’t always watch) each morning before I get out of bed.
Dan Harris, a correspondent for ABC News, is the founder. Harris has explained that he turned to meditation after suffering a paralyzing panic attack on the air. He’s since become immersed in mindfulness and has developed strong friendships with a number of the leaders in the field.
But he remains ever the “fidgety skeptic” (his words) and is clear when he’s asked to recite or act in a way that doesn’t come naturally to him.
He will repeatedly interject about the scientific grounding of certain practices. I think this approach makes him a perfect host for a program that is far more universal than it might otherwise be.
Each session begins with Harris talking with the guest speaker, who briefly describes her/his background. The speaker then gives an explanation preceding meditation lasting about five-minutes—suitable for those who’ve never meditated before as well as more practiced folks.
And then the speaker answers viewers’ questions—often my favorite part of the session, as the questions, while unique, underscore so many similarities in what we’re all experiencing. And the answers are invariably helpful. In their entirety, the sessions run for about 20 minutes.
The goal, Harris says, is to bring some sanity into this rocky time, and to build a community, realizing the loneliness experienced even by those of us who are not quarantined alone—because we’re cut off from so many whom we care about.
Today I heard Rev. angel Kyodo williams (sic), trained as a Zen priest, describe ways to recognize the importance of being in the present moment by trying to look at things in a different way.
She used the acronym SKY, suggesting boundless spaciousness, to counter the constraints of both being so isolated and experiencing fear in these unprecedented times.
S is for Self-care: We should radically protect our own health and well-being, assess our own situation and take steps to protect ourselves, such as practicing social distancing. She noted that since her health situation puts her at risk, she has become considerably more aware of the need for self-care.
K is for Kindness: That means being kind to both ourselves and others—for example, accepting the annoyance we may feel toward people who seem oblivious to the 6-feet distancing advisory, but not being rude to them.
Y is for Yearning: We tend to contract with suffering, but if we acknowledge that we wish things could be different and are hopeful people take care, we can move out of that mindset. She suggests writing down our yearnings in order to breathe space into our perspectives.
I have been so pleased with the sessions to date that I’m doing what Harris suggests: spreading the word to help build a community when many people are feeling cut off. I hope if you think you may need something like it—or just want to investigate—you’ll give it a try.
I reallyreallyreally do not like inanimate objects talking to me. I avoid Siri, preferring to do my own research than to hear her voice—or to have her record my every Internet search (though I hold no illusions about privacy anymore…). I am not tempted to invite Alexa into my home to find that old Sinatra record for me, thank you very much.
And back in the day when we actually got into cars and drove places, I always resented the high-pitched voice of that GPS woman, who on occasion directed us to dead-end streets and once recommended that we exit sharply to the right when we were in the middle of a bridge.
I’m not accusing her of malicious intent, but her satellite-guided bumbling was not a confidence-builder. I am perfectly capable of bumbling on my own.
Why then, do I invite the man-in-the-box into my life practically every day? It’s because he’s integral to The Device, which shall go nameless so that I’m not guilty of unintended promotion—or worse.
Let me sidepedal a bit here and note that I am very receptive to integrative medicine, whichbrings together the best from East and West. My daily meditation, linking me to the Buddhism of 2500 years ago, has been a great help.
I do try to stick with practices that are evidence-based, and to maintain a healthy skepticism about things that sound extreme to me—Eastern or Western.
When several people whose opinions I respect raved about a physician who practices integrative medicine, I made an appointment.
I wanted to see whether she would offer me new, preferably non-pharmacologic approaches for handling my chronic conditions: specifically migraines that I know have an anxiety component, and mild hypertension.
Well, some of what she suggested made no sense to me. But she recommended The Device, which she felt might help alleviate these issues. And it turned out that she was right.
It wasn’t inexpensive—costing several hundred dollars—but it involved deep breathing, so I felt it was sufficiently safe and akin to the meditation that’s a valued part of my life.
The beloved neurologist who treats me for migraines thought it was a good idea, as it’s a form of biofeedback, which is an evidence-based method to alleviate migraines.
A description: An elastic belt holding a sensor is attached to a computerish small box, as is a pair of earbuds. I snap the belt around my torso and insert the earbuds. Then I listen to the instructions that the little man-in-the-box provides. Note: I am substituting The Device for its brand name.
Here’s how a session begins:
“Lean back and relax and listen to the music as The Device detects your individual breathing patterns,” he tells me.
If I perform that difficult task to his satisfaction for several seconds/minutes, he says, “The Device has detected your individual breathing patterns. Now breathe according to the guiding tones.” I hear sounds—bom, bom—and I match my breath to the tones.
Sometimes, as in this morning, he immediately tells me I’ve reached the “therapeutic breathing rate,” which means I’m really cookin’. More often, seconds/minutes pass as he goads me with that familiar refrain: “Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out” before I reach that coveted goal.
Once there, I continue breathing in and out in sequence with the tones for another 14 “therapeutic” minutes (not sure why it’s that time length, but it always is) until he says, “The Device is turning off. Bye for now.” Let me tell you, I’m never sorry to part with him at that point.
And then I get to see how well I’ve performed by clicking on the box’s levers. Here’s where I realize my slight touch of OCD kicks in. I’m back in school, and I really want to do well.
In fact, I usually do. The range deemed acceptable for the initial breathing rate is between 6 and 30 breaths per minute—the lower the better. I’ve never gone above 7.2; this morning’s readout was 5.2, which I guess means I had a pretty restful night’s sleep.
The recommended final breathing range is 5-10 breaths per minute, and I’m nearly always below that—usually 4.8-4.9. Occasionally, I’ve gotten to 4.3, which is nearly Yogi territory, I think. More about that shortly.
The Device also reports my synchronization rate (how well I synchronize my breathing with the tones) and my breath detection rate (how well the sensor can recognize my in-and-out breaths).
I’m usually right where I should be with those as well. Except if I cough or sneeze. Or hiccup. Then all bets are off.
But I’ve learned one especially bitter lesson. If my initial inhalations are too long while the sensor is assessing my pattern, once the tones begin, I wind up struggling to match them. And the man-in-the-box knows it. He chides me: “Don’t hold your breath!”
Try breathing in for longer than you possibly can—and continue for 14 minutes—and you’ll see what it’s like. (Actually, just take my word for it; it’s not something a sensible person would do.)
The lesson I learned: When using The Device, never-ever breathe in for long, lest the sensor monster constantly remind me of my failure.
In such instances, my synchronization rate would ensure a “needs additional work” message on my school report card.
He (my electronic tormenter) has also on more than one occasion said: “Try to breathe more evenly.” I make an effort not to take offense that he’s dissatisfied with my performance.
And he is oh-so picky about that sensor. “Tighten the sensor,” he’ll command. Or “loosen the sensor.” Even “reposition the sensor.” His standards are high. I scramble to do his bidding.
I used to strap on The Device just before bedtime, but I found all kinds of reasons not to go through the process then. So it’s now the first thing I do upon awakening—after taking a long drink of water to prepare my dry mouth for the routine.
Sometimes I wonder, as you may well, why I subject myself to this regimen-with-verbal-abuse on a daily basis. Of course, I always have the option of shutting the darn thing off.
But, while The Device hasn’t totally replaced medication, it really has done what the doctor said it might: migraine frequency diminished, blood pressure low-normal, anxiety lessened.
So I’m locked in to this challenge. Plus, in these pandem-icky days, I figure it’s not so bad to give my lungs a bit of a regular workout.
And then I meditate and express lovingkindness for all the nasty thoughts I’ve had about the bossy little man-in-the-box.
Note: Sharon Salzburg, a pioneer in American mindfulness education, is a regular contributor to Ten Percent Happier and the author of nine books. I’ve quoted her previously in my discussion of lovingkindness in this post.
Everywhere I teach, people describe being exhausted by the mounting anxieties of contemporary life, from political uncertainty to climate change and now, the rapid spread of the Coronavirus. Now more than ever, we need to remain calm and composed amid so much danger, real and perceived. But how do we do that?
Here are two steps that I recommend.
1. Distinguishing Anxiety from Fear
The first step in coping is to learn to distinguish anxiety from realistic fear.
Fear is immediate: a threat right in front of you that requires a swift response. My dear friend Sylvia Boorstein uses the example of finding yourself driving through a blinding snowstorm that prevents you from seeing even a few feet ahead. Without needing to think, all your senses focus so that you can respond in a way that ensures your survival and that of the other people in the car. This is a useful response to a dangerous situation.
On the other hand, Sylvia uses the example of trying to reach her son, and not being able to do so. “There could be a thousand reasons he is not answering the phone,” she told me once. “He’s in the shower. He fell in love. He’s sleeping. But my mind goes to the worst extrapolation of that. If I phone my son and he doesn’t answer, that means he must be dead.”
And so her eyes widen and her heart races, as she escalates into a state of hyper-alertness — even though all of this is only taking place in her imagination.
Even worse, anxiety feeds on itself. Sylvia describes it as a “free-floating hyperactivity of the mind.” I would add that anxiety doesn’t just float; it intensifies, building one conjecture upon the next. It can be very harsh. You might even feel anxious about having anxiety, and it gets stronger. A friend sent me an old Peanuts cartoon of Charlie Brown sitting up in bed in the middle of the night saying, “My anxieties have anxieties.” That captures the proliferation of anxieties perfectly.
Now, of course, sustaining ourselves requires vigilance, and the fear response accelerates you — heightens awareness, focuses the senses and alerts the reflexes.
But when those senses are piqued by imaginary threats, we become consumed by anxiety. The fact that anxiety grips the body in the same way as fear gives anxiety more credibility than it deserves. When your body reacts this way, it believes anxiety is alerting you to a genuine threat.
And when the brain is spinning out one horrifying outcome after another, it does not have enough space to clearly perceive the world around us as it is, and make careful, appropriate choices to protect ourselves and others.
So, first step: start by taking a breath or two to ground yourself so that you can determine if the threat you feel is real or a conjecture from circumstances. Is this a real threat? Or is my mind making it up, or perhaps exaggerating what’s actually there? Don’t try to forcefully calm yourself down — that’s too much. Just try to determine if this is a real fear, or an anxious conjecture.
2. Applying an Antidote
Next, once you know that what you feel is anxiety, consider an antidote.
One of my favorites is to cultivate some lovingkindness for yourself: both the chant-like nature of that practice, and the generation of lovingkindness will help. There are guided lovingkindness meditations on the Ten Percent Happier app, and on the internet. They’re very simple – often just chanting to yourself “May I be free from harm. May I be strong and healthy. May I be happy. May I live a life filled with ease.” And then extending those same wishes to the people you love and to the wider world.
When you say those wishes sincerely, every element of the practice is a relief. The phrases channel the energy instead of allowing it to proliferate. As you do this, you are back in charge and you can feel the body relaxing as the space around your anxiety opens up and releases. When you release control, you are free to choose how to react rather than being inhibited by frightening conjectures.
Another effective tool is to simply change your physical surroundings. Get out of the house, if there are things triggering your anxieties there. Go for a walk. The tools are simple – the key is knowing when to reach for them.
Let me conclude with another story from Sylvia Boorstein. Recently, Sylvia was walking through Costco and found herself in an aisle surrounded by big-screen televisions all of which were displaying news about politics.
Instantly her pulse started to race, and all her fears for the future ricocheted inside her mind, so much so that she had to stop shopping and pause.
First, Sylvia took a breath and then another to bring herself out of her mind and back to her body — in the here and now. Then, she could see that she was in a big public place, and she was safe. There was no immediate threat.
From that, she expanded her thoughts to her reliable car in the parking lot, her home where she has lived comfortably for decades. Rooting herself in the present — and in her larger context — shrunk the anxiety and thereby weakened it, allowing her to go about her errand.
Sylvia’s story illustrates the two elements of coping with anxiety. The first is recognizing it. Is the threat in the moment, or is it in the mind? Once you name it, it’s easier to address it. You, like Sylvia, can reach for a number of tools.
Now, nothing in life is a straight shot. Sylvia is in her 80s now, and she still works with anxiety all the time. We go forward, we fall down, we have to pick ourselves up or let someone help us up — we go forward again. That’s how change happens, that’s how progress is made — through resilient effort, not through self-punishment or judgment.
But change is possible. You can live a life that keeps anxiety in perspective.
Did you find Sharon Salzburg’s guidance helpful? Can you relate it to your own life?
Well, sure: the holiday season is, ironically, a time of stress. But we know there are high levels of anxiety that have preceded this supposedly joyous time and will surely follow us into the New Year/decade.
I don’t have to itemize the list: it’s as close as your newspaper or electronic device. All sorts of problems and calamities—natural and manmade—have been occurring just about everywhere.
We can’t change the world, but we do have some control over how we view the world and our place in it. And if enough of us exercise that control, we can make a difference.
How Can We Do That?
By learning from the fortunate fusion of Buddhist practice—validated and adapted by Western scientists. Science writer Daniel Goleman, who was interviewed in an article titled “Can Compassion Change the World?,” collaborated with the Dalai Lama on a book called A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World.
Long a collaborator with scientists, the Dalai Lama set forth his views on how to improve the world with the help of science. When the interviewer asked Goleman why compassion is so important, he said the Dalai Lama wasn’t speaking from “a Buddhist perspective; he’s actually speaking from a scientific perspective. He’s using scientific evidence…which shows that people have the ability to cultivate compassion.”[emphases mine throughout]
“This research is very encouraging, because scientists are not only using brain imagery to identify the specific brain circuitry that controls compassion, but also showing that the circuitry becomes strengthened, and people become more altruistic and willing to help out other people, if they learn to cultivate compassion—for example, by doing traditional meditation practices of lovingkindness. This is so encouraging, because it’s a fundamental imperative that we need compassion as our moral rudder.”
Goleman speaks of “muscular compassion,” and he explained that the term is necessary to demonstrate that
“compassion is not just some Sunday school niceness; it’s important for taking social issues—things like corruption and collusion in business and government, and throughout the public sphere…for looking at economics, to see if there is a way to make it more caring and not just about greed, or to create economic policies that decrease the gap between the rich and the poor. These are moral issues that require compassion.”
The Buddhist term for practicing compassion is Metta—and mindfulness meditators call it lovingkindness meditation. Sometimes lovingkindness appears as one word; sometimes two; sometimes it’s hyphenated. In the scientific literature, it’s abbreviated as LKM. My personal preference is lovingkindness, so for consistency, that’s what I’m using throughout this post.
A Quick Look at Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation per se, scientific studies have found, regulates attention to create a calm mind, and varied areas of the brain have been identified as showing changes (including increases in gray matter) among those who are regular practitioners—experts—as compared to novices.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who coined the term mindfulness and developed an eight-week course on Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction that is widely used, defines it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Practitioners, of whom I’m one, use a focus on the breath to calm the mind. Sometimes people get discouraged meditating and give up too soon because their minds wander, but expert meditators will tell you that every time the mind wanders, you’re becoming aware that it’s happening, and that’s a good thing. You simply return to breathing in and out.
There are many techniques to help you stay on track. That’s a quick look at a complex process that has been scientifically validated to reap benefits as you explore your internal self–mind and body–and your place in the world.
And Now, Lovingkindness…
Lovingkindness is an associated practice to mindfulness. Specific studies have also shown that practicing lovingkindness reduces stress, helps those in the helping professions prevent burnout, aids veterans with PTSD, and possibly even extends life.
One study found that the telomeres—the ends of the chromosomes that prevent deterioration and whose length is associated with longevity—were longer in women who routinely practiced lovingkindness than in those who didn’t.
The Goleman article led me to the work of Tania Singer, formerly the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science in Germany. (There’s an irony here that I’ll detail shortly.) Her professional life has been devoted to studying empathy and compassion.
I learned from her that the empathy I’ve always valued isn’t always such a good thing. Empathy, the ability to feel another’s pain, is clearly important for interacting with other humans.
But it can have a stressful side—empathic distress—that leads to potential burnout and a lessened desire/ability to help. The high rates of physician burnout and suicides are examples.
Compassion, on the other hand, doesn’t involve sharing another’s suffering, Singer has observed.
“Rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s wellbeing. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”
In fact, Singer and her group have found that the apparently similar traits of empathy and compassion involve different, and not overlapping, structures in the brain.
What’s more, because of the brain’s neuroplasticity (ability to change based on training), compassion training can lead to positive results.
“Compassion may, therefore, represent a very potent strategy for preventing burnout. In light of high prevalence rates of burnout and stress-related diseases in Western societies, we anticipate that the present findings will inform other intervention studies on the plasticity of adaptive social emotions….[and] hopefully help to design new training programs aimed at increasing resilience and coping strategies in many domains, including health care, educational settings, and high stress environments in general.”
I watched two videos of Singer, a prominent neuroscientist. describing her work, which includes programs with economists to try to draw up models that more closely adhere to the compassion that Goleman described. She was a compelling and delightful speaker.
However, In 2018, this woman whose life’s work has focused on empathy and compassion resigned as director of the Max Planck Institute after eight colleagues accused her of bullying them and some said she’d reduced them to tears.
Alas! She practiceth not what she preacheth! Hard to fathom, but her poor behavior doesn’t detract from the validity of her research findings.
And it certainly doesn’t seem indicative of what I’ve heard and read about leaders in the field of lovingkindness.
I consider Sharon Salzburg, one of the most respected and beloved teachers and authors on the topic, a personal guru on the journey into lovingkindness that I’ve been taking for a couple of years now.
I believe she’s a reliable guide into how the practice can help us all, physically and mentally, improve our relationships—and even help us enrich the lives of strangers.
Want to Try It?
Though Singer’s neuroscientific experiments took practitioners nine months, it doesn’t take that long to get the hang of it. For those who’d like to try it, here’s what you do.
Because so many of us are our most severe critics, traditionally, we begin by offering these unconditional good wishes to ourselves: “May I be happy, healthy, live with ease.”
We then draw an ever widening circle, extending these sentiments to those we love, to friends and acquaintances, to problematic people whom we wish we could more readily accept, to strangers, and finally, to the entire world.
And the practice of lovingkindness is portable: traditionally, you sit on a cushion, but you can just as easily be walking on a crowded street.
Jack Kornfield, another leading educator, has written that some people find it difficult to begin with themselves:
“We may feel that we are unworthy, or that it’s egotistical, or that we shouldn’t be happy when other people are suffering.”
If that’s how you feel, Kornfield says,
“Rather than start lovingkindness practice with ourselves, I find it more helpful to start with those we most naturally love and care about.” [Start where it’s easiest, he suggests.] “We open our heart in the most natural way, then direct our lovingkindness little by little to the areas where it’s more difficult.”
If you choose that sequence, you might then circle back to yourself after that. Or move on to people whom you find difficult. Eventually, you open your heart to strangers and to all living beings.
How can this approach affect our everyday behavior? Salzburg has a short series of videos depicting various scenarios. In “Street Lovingkindness,” she hones in on Grand Central Station in New York City, a hectic place, during Rush Hour.
But, says Salzburg, “Don’t rush. Take in the world. Look at the people,” and silently send your good wishes to strangers, possibly adding “May you be joyful, peaceful, contented.”
She has also noted: If you’re stuck in traffic because an emergency vehicle is snaking through, you might say to yourself “I hope whoever needs that vehicle is OK.”
Standing in line, she acknowledges, can be frustrating. You want to move faster, to get somewhere. Instead of fuming,
“take a breath, savor the moment. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice those in front and behind you. Fully acknowledge each person [mentally]: ‘May you be joyful, peaceful, contented.’ Just as we seek happiness for ourselves, may all beings be at peace.”
Suppose you’re sitting in your car, in a traffic jam.
“It’s stop-and-go, you’re making no progress. You’re frustrated, annoyed, stressed out, tired of being stuck. Pause, take a breath, feel your body being seated, your hands on the wheel. Look at the others, all moving together. ‘May we be safe, healthy, happy, be at ease.’”
Salzburg speaks of compassion to self as being restorative, rather than allowing ourselves to be overcome by events. She explores our thought processes: “I’m a terrible person.”
How is my holding onto negative thoughts healing me?, she asks. Detaching and running doesn’t work.
We can’t automatically make our pain—physical or emotional—go away, but holding on to our fear and projecting into the future adds to our suffering.
(There’s an oft-repeated phrase among mindfulness folks: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”)
Compassion, she says, is a unifying experience. It sparks the impulse to help someone else: we’re all vulnerable in some way.
“When a person says, ‘I’m overwhelmed,’ having a sense of community is a tremendous asset. Doing it all alone is hard. That’s the context for this practice.”
If you’d like to listen to a delightful interview with Salzburg, click on this link. Sarah Jones is a gifted actor who creates believable, very diverse characters with her voice and motions. She interviewed her friend Salzburg, asking questions as several different personae.
It’s great fun to listen to. In something many of us can relate to, one of the points she made was “Most days I can barely stand to read the news. But when I do lovingkindness, there’s a shift.”
Salzburg stresses that practicing lovingkindness doesn’t always mean saying “yes.” If you see a street person asking for money,
“whether or not you feel giving the cash would be useful is one thing, but whether you look at that person as a human being is another.”
It’s not new that we feel good about ourselves when we show kindness to others. But it’s something to relearn. In the supermarket where I shop, a tall, thin man is responsible for herding all the shopping carts.
I assume his job is simply to bring order to the carts that shoppers leave wherever they choose (usually not where the sign says “Return carts here”).
But he goes well beyond that job description. He is unfailingly gracious, smiling pleasantly and offering everyone a cart who approachesthe store, or relieving us of the need to return them to the intended area.
Last week, as I was walking to my car, I had a sudden impulse. I turned around and walked toward him. He thought I needed a cart and was about to give me one. “I’m done shopping,” I said. “But you’re so good at your work, and so gracious and helpful, that I wanted to give you this.”
I won’t miss the money, and I’ll long remember the look on his face as he thanked me profusely and blessed me. It was a small act in the scheme of things, but it made both of us feel pretty darn good.
Salzburg has heard it all, and she says there’s a common idea that lovingkindness is stupid, or gooey, or yucky. I like Daniel Goleman’s term: Muscular compassion. And that should lead to action, Goleman said:
“The Dalai Lama often talks to people with great aspirations, and, after he’s gotten them all roused up, he says, ‘Don’t just talk about it, do something.’ That’s part of the message in my book: Everyone has something they can do. Whatever means you have to make the world a better place, you need to do it. Even if we won’t see the fruits of this in our lifetime, start now.”
My Wish for Each of You–and for Us All
As the new decade dawns, I repeat, as I did at the end of 2018, the words I’ve learned from Jack Kornfield and other mindful meditators:
May you be filled with lovingkindness;
May you be safe and protected;
May you be well in body and mind;
Strong and healed;
May you be happy.
And may 2020 find us in a country and world of greater unity, peace, greenness, and kindness. We can make small gestures to move us in that direction.
We know that the US is riven by deep divisions—and that other countries are going through similar struggles. We also know that most people are unhappy with the anger and hostilities—and anxiety about politics and world events is high.
Against this backdrop, I found the final question in the fourth Democratic Presidential debate, held in Ohio on October 15, instructive. Moderator Anderson Cooper asked each of the 12 candidates (the largest group of debaters ever) this question, involving Ellen Degeneres, a popular US talk show host who gained praise in 1997 when she publicly announced she is gay:
“Last week, Ellen Degeneres was criticized after she and former President George W. Bush were seen laughing together at a football game. Ellen defended their friendship, saying, we’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK that we’re all different.”
“So in that spirit, we’d like you to tell us about a friendship that you’ve had that would surprise us and what impact it’s had on you and your beliefs.”
I’m touching on the responses that I found most relevant (regardless of my opinion of the candidates who voiced them). I’ve shortened them from their verbatim rendering in The Washington Post’s transcript.
Julian Castro: “Some of the most interesting friendships that I’ve had have been with people…who thought different from me…and I think that that should be reflected more in our public life. I believe that we should be more kind to other folks. And there are people, whether it’s our former president, George W. Bush, or others…just as we should be kind, we shouldn’t be made to feel shameful about holding people accountable for what they’ve done.”
Amy Klobuchar: “For me, it’s John McCain, and I miss him every day…I remember being at his ranch when he was dying. He pointed to some words in his book because he could hardly talk. And the words say this: ‘There is nothing more liberating in life than fighting for a cause larger than yourself.’”
Cory Booker: “The next leader is going to have to be one amongst us Democrats that can unite us all,…teach us a more courageous empathy, and remind Americans that patriotism is love of country, and you cannot love your country unless you love your fellow countrymen and women.
“And love is not sentimentality. It’s not anemic. Love is struggle. Love is sacrifice. Love is the words of our founders…the end of the Declaration of Independence that if we’re ever going to make it as a nation, we must mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Pete Buttigieg: “I think about the friendships that I formed in the military, people who were radically different from me, different generation, different race, definitely different politics. And we learned to trust each other with our lives…It’s also about building a sense of belonging in this country, because I think that’s what friendship and service can create.
“I think we have a crisis of belonging in this country that is helping to explain so many of our problems, from our politics being what it is to the fact that people are self-medicating and we’re seeing a rise in the deaths from despair…The purpose of the presidency is not the glorification of the president. It is the unification of the American people [to] pick up the pieces and guide us toward a better future.”
I’m focused on these responses because they capture what I believe is the most important and difficult task our next president will have: uniting us as a people. And that effort is needed in many other areas throughout the world.
Cory Booker’s exhortations to love reminded me of an exchange I had with one of my fellow bloggers: Gary Gautier, who blogs as Daedalus Lex and calls his blog “Shake My Head Hollow.” Gary is a very thoughtful guy who often examines philosophical and ethical concerns on his blog. (He also writes wonderful poetry).
Gary’s recent post–which stimulated this inquiry–was titled:
“The political thing no one wants to hear”
The post itself consisted solely of a quotation from Ram Dass, a revered spiritual leader (and former Harvard psychologist, then known as Richard Alpert) who has pursued numerous spiritual approaches, including Hindu, Zen Buddhism, Sufi, and Jewish mystical studies, according to his biography. His most influential work is the book Be Here Now, which has been called “the Western articulation of Eastern philosophy and how to live joyously a hundred percent of the time in the present, luminous or mundane.”
Here’s the Ram Dass quotation, followed by my discussion with Gary, who has graciously agreed to my including our exchange as well:
“You can only protest effectively when you love the person whose ideas you are protesting against as much as you love yourself.”
My Query to Gary:
I saw Ram Dass interviewed a while back. His stroke seriously impaired him, but as I recall, he reflected that he has been happier since then because now he really has time to observe and reflect.
I am having difficulty envisioning the kind of protest he describes. Did Martin Luther King and John Lewis love their oppressors? Forgive? Probably. Understand? Very possibly. But love? And Mandela? Same question.
Can anyone protesting the people who put babies in cages and open the gates to genocidal acts feel love for those they’re protesting against?
What am I missing here, Gary?
Gary’s Response (with citations):
When Mandela entered the prison on Robben Island, his white guards were predictably brutal, and yet he never gave up on them; he engaged them, believing that “our occupation of the moral high ground could make it possible for us to turn some of the warders round,” and as years passed he won many of them over into “appreciating our cause,” and several of those guards became allies and attended his first inauguration. (Anthony Simpson’s biography, 214, 275, Part II).
And how, Gandhi asked, could he be angry with his colonial oppressors when “I know that they sincerely believe that what they are doing today is right” (Autobiog, 166). Gandhi’s bottom line is that “it is quite proper to resist and attack a system” but one should never “attack its author” (242).
I think both had found Ram Dass’s truth – that beneath vicious action is generally a confused or mangled soul. Fight for what you know is right, fight against those who wreak havoc on humanity, lock them up if you have to, but don’t give up on the spiritual imperative to help those who are most morally fallen – from people on death row to the politicians whose actions you find vicious.
I believe Martin Luther King had reached the same transcendental space of love. In contrast to today’s woke crowd, who all-too-enthusiastically reduce people to “enemies” and “racists,” King saw white people as much more than just racists and was ultimately much more optimistic about America’s founding principles and about the American people — including white people.
This is all hard to see as we duke it out at street level, but these spiritual masters were able to view it from a million miles above, from the perspective of unlimited compassion, viewing themselves below fighting the good fight in the trenches, and viewing their opponents and all others in the same light.
I’m sticking with Baba Ram Dass on this one.
And My Response…
I thank you, Gary. I practice mindfulness meditation, and an important aspect of that is lovingkindness: “May you/I/we be filled with lovingkindness.” I have often sought common ground in my blog posts. I do try very hard to walk in the other person’s shoes, so I don’t rail against the folks at the hate-filled rallies with the vehemence of many people I know.
But I am a long way from loving those in power whose cruelty and/or indifference is damaging so many individuals and our society/world.
I shall try to dig deeper—without faulting myself if I fail. The Ram Dass bar is exceedingly high for us mere mortals.
My Questions for You, Dear Readers…
We are all tearing ourselves apart with our political hatreds now. It’s no good for us as a country, as members of the world community, and certainly as individuals: think of the levels of stress-induced cortisol coursing through our bodies. We need a better approach.
Can we get beyond this point via the Ram Dass message? Regardless of which side of the political divide we’re on, can we “hate the sin but love the sinner”?
If you share my strong feelings about this president and those complicit in his actions, can you and I, personally, look beyond all the devastation that we feel President Trump is wreaking on people and nations and try to find compassion for the clearly damaged, wretched soul that resides within him—and the frightened, worried people working with him or supporting him? (That doesn’t mean we don’t hold him/them responsible for their actions!)
If you’re on the other side of the political divide, can you find it in your heart to feel that those of us who differ with you politically are not your enemies? That our wants and needs as human beings are, on the most basic levels, quite similar to yours?
(I realize I’m leaving out the vast middle here, those who are just unhappy that things in their personal lives aren’t going as well as they’d like—and are simply trying to make do from one day to the next.)
Can we all shift our focus from people to problems, and work together for the greater good?
Just days ago, we lost an invaluable American statesman: Congressman Elijah Cummings from Maryland, who died at age 68. “A Pillar of Baltimore Who Was ‘Loved by All,’” wrote The New York Times. In his years in Congress, he worked assiduously across the aisle to get things done for the people he represented and the country he loved.
Apparently, when President Trump attacked him on Twitter this summer, calling his district a “rodent-infested mess,” some of Cummings’ constituents wanted a full-throated response. Instead, Cummings calmly observed: “Mr. President, I go home to my district daily. Each morning, I wake up, and I go and fight for my neighbors.”
Being “nice” to the President was an example of the spirit that made him unique, according to his friends. His church pastor said Cummings was…
“…so much larger than what he was…He was something so different. He was not the angry protester. He was not the passive peacemaker. He was the deliberate man who stood for right and wrestled wrong until right became the natural winner.”
I have a strong sense that Congressman Elijah Cummings was the embodiment of the Ram Dass credo that Gary Gautier has brought to our attention.
Tell me, please: What do you think of all this—as political strategy and/or guidance for life? Can you accept the concept of loving the person whose ideas you are protesting against as much as you love yourself? Even embrace the idea and consider/try putting it into practice? Feel it’s a fine idea, but…?
Or does this concept strike you as naive and unworkable? Do you think I’m nuts to even raise the issue in today’s political climate?
If the latter, do you have any other ideas concerning how we as individuals move ourselves out of our current angry divisiveness?
Did you know that Facebook Addiction Disorder is really a “thing”—and not a FAD? (Sorry, another bad pun—and so soon!) It’s not in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but it, and obsessive Internet use in general, is increasingly drawing the attention of psychiatric researchers.
I plead guilty. Not to checking Facebook frequently, though I do look at it most days. But I am heavily Internet-dependent—so much so that I recently had to upgrade my iPhone because I ran out of space and couldn’t get access to many of my apps (including my mindfulness app, which is, coincidentally, supposed to keep me in the moment).
There’s just so much stuff out there to learn, including what all the wonderful bloggers I’ve become acquainted with are up to, and why the plural of octopus is octopuses, not octopi (which I’ve written about), and what’s the name of that movie I saw years ago/last week, and, in truth, how many people are visiting my current post?
(My new phone has a feature that I could live without—almost as though it’s in league with these researchers [?]: it tells me my average daily screen time from the previous week, in hours and minutes.)
None of this may sound very serious, but it’s all tied up with how our brains function. And, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s connected to all those other areas of our lives that we know we should better control—such as overeating, smoking, and stressing about things real or imagined.
Why, if we’re so smart, and we know what we should do, is it so hard for us to follow through? Are there ways that we can take better control of our lives—without investing a fortune of time, money, and energy?
Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, thinks there are. Brewer is an addictions expert, an associate professor in psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Brown University, where he serves as the Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center, as well as a research affiliate at MIT.
He’s the author of a book with the less-than-succinct title: The Craving Mind: from cigarettes to smartphones to love, why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits, published by Yale University Press in 2017.
Brewer has successfully used mindfulness training to get people to stop smoking, lose weight, reduce anxiety, and break all sorts of bad habits. I haven’t read his book, and none of the three videos of him that I watched mentioned “love,” so I regret that I can’t enlighten us in that regard. The quotations in this post are primarily from a TEDMED Talk he did in 2015. The bolding for emphasis throughout is mine.
If you’re thinking, “Oh, Annie, not another thing about mindfulness,” I can tell you that although I am a practitioner and I believe both individuals and the world would be better off if more of us were, I think you can put some of Brewer’s insights to work without getting deeply involved in the practice.
Let’s start with the brain because that is, of course, central to this approach. The prefrontal cortex, which Brewer points out is “that youngest part of our brain from an evolutionary perspective,” is where cognition resides.
So we can figure out, for example, that having a dozen brownies in a single sitting is not a smart thing to do. But they taste so good, and if we’re sad, or stressed, we just keep that hand-to-mouth action going. Sometimes we don’t feel very good afterward, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it again.
This behavior is linked via evolution to our needs for survival. In a convoluted way, here’s how we get to that dozen brownies. Calories equal survival. And sugar, as we’ve increasingly learned, holds a special allure. As Brewer explains, our bodies send a signal to our brains:
”Remember what you’re eating and where you found it…See food, eat food, feel good, repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward.”
Then we learn that the food we began eating for survival can serve other purposes:
“You know, next time you feel bad, why don’t you try eating something good so you’ll feel better? We thank our brains for the great idea…and quickly learn that if we eat chocolate or ice cream when we’re mad or sad, we feel better.”
What began as survival has become something more complex.
“We’re fighting one of the most evolutionarily conserved learning processes currently known to science, one that’s conserved back to the most basic nervous systems known to man.”
That is positive and negative reinforcement. And the problem is that, as sharp as our thought processes may be, they’re simply not strong enough to hold back the forces of stress. As Brewer says:
“We’re using cognition to control our behavior. Unfortunately, this is also the first part of our brain that goes offline when we get stressed out.”
Of course, the process is more complicated than this, involving the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, as well as other portions of the brain, but I think we can get the idea without a detailed neurology lesson.
Brewer doesn’t mention the reptilian brain, the oldest portion, the one that enacts the fight/flight/freeze response under stress. When we need cognition the most, the reptilian brain slithers to the forefront. (I’ve written about my personal struggle between my prefrontal cortex and reptilian brain previously. Guess who won?)
To find out how to break this cycle, it’s worth looking at the success Brewer and colleagues have had in helping patients stop smoking, which is the toughest addiction of all to overcome. They tested whether mindfulness training could help people quit.
Brewer has explained that when he started practicing mindfulness meditation, it was a terrible strain to keep his focus on his breath, to try to continue paying attention. I think anyone who’s ever tried mindfulness understands this challenge; I certainly do.
But he resolved the struggle when he realized that he needed to turn to the “natural reward-based learning process” of “trigger, behavior, reward,” adding what he called “a twist: What if we just got really curious about what was happening in our momentary experience?”
He applied the concept of curiosity to the smoking research. Instead of telling their patients not to smoke, he and his colleagues said the reverse. “Smoke, but be really curious about what it’s like when you do.” And here’s a report of how it worked. One woman said:
“Mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals. YUCK!”
“Now she knew, cognitively, that smoking was bad for her; that’s why she joined our program. What she discovered just by being curiously aware when she smoked was that smoking tastes like s—t.
“Now she moved from knowledge to wisdom….the spell of smoking was broken. She started to become disenchanted with her behavior.”
This happens over time, he emphasized: “as we learn to see more and more clearly the results of our actions, we let go of old habits and form new ones.”
Brewer refers to one study they did that found mindfulness training (MT) was twice as effective as the American Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking (FFS) treatment, which is considered the gold standard. The MT group both reduced their smoking and showed continued greater abstinence during followup.
It’s still not easy. The prefrontal cortex, Brewer says,
“understands on an intellectual level that we shouldn’t smoke. And it tries its hardest to help us change our behavior, to help us stop smoking, stop eating that second, third, fourth cookie. We call this cognitive control.”
And then we fall back into our old habits. But like the woman smoker, once we understand our habits on a deeper, more visceral level, our interest in pursuing them lessens.
With mindfulness, instead of turning away from unpleasantness or fighting it, we turn toward it and regard it with curiosity, which is naturally rewarding. And it helps us see that cravings are discrete sensations that come and go, so we can manage them from one moment to the next, “rather than getting clobbered by this huge, scary craving that we can choke on.”
In an interview, Brewer differentiates between intellectual curiosity and experiential curiosity. The one that makes a difference is the latter.
Our curiosity, he contends, permits us to
“step out of our old, fear-based reactive habit patterns, and we step into being. We become this inner scientist where we’re eagerly awaiting that next data point.”
So people who smoke or eat due to stress or feel compelled to do any of a myriad of things they know they shouldn’t can be encouraged to be curiously aware when the urge hits them. To paraphrase an old adage: Curiosity becomes its own reward.
And now we return to the Internet. Do you surf or check your email when you’re bored, or lonely, or just feel you have to? And then feel bad about all the time you’ve wasted, and what else you could have accomplished, but didn’t?
Brewer suggests trying instead to be curiously aware of what’s happening in your body and mind at that moment. You’ll have the chance either to “perpetuate one of our endless and exhausting habit loops—or step out of it.”
“Instead of ‘see text message, compulsively text back, feel a little better,’” he says, do this:
“Notice the urge, get curious, feel the joy of letting go. And repeat.”
How does all of this strike you? Do you find it feasible? Are you tempted to try it? Do you have stories to share about how you have overcome bad habits—or have failed to do so?
His blog bears the subtitle: “The Life, Thoughts, and Reflections of a Vampire Hunter,” but if that topic turns you off (my initial reaction), don’t let it. An enormously creative and well-informed mind weaves together past and present, real and unreal, mythic and surreal into well-crafted stories that are often hilarious and frequently pointed observations on the foibles and wackiness of our time.
Thank you so much for this nomination, Dracul.
WHAT IS THE MYSTERY BLOGGER AWARD?
“Mystery Blogger Award is an award for amazing bloggers with ingenious posts. Their blog not only captivates; it inspires and motivates. They are one of the best out there and they deserve every recognition they get. This award is also for bloggers who find fun and inspiration in blogging, and they do it with so much love and passion.”
Dracul, I am delighted that you think I deserve this award.
1. Put the Award Logo/Image On Your Blog. Here I feel justified in patting myself on the back. As those of you who have read my descriptions of my technical snafus well know, the fact that I have actually pulled together sufficient technical knowledge to have a functioning blog is amazing enough.
One of my first posts was published with nothing on it, and my scramble with the help of the WordPress Happiness Engineers to find the mysteriously disappearing text devolved into what I’ve described as a clash between my reptilian brain (the part that governs fight/flight/freeze, as well as hunger) and my prefrontal cortex (the part that governs complex thinking and behavior). On that particular night, I still vividly recall, the ole lizard ran rampant across my computer.
So I had little hope of actually capturing that image and importing it onto my post. But voila! There it is, in the place where I believe it belongs. And maybe, just maybe, by accomplishing this task, I’ve forged a couple more neural synapses in this non-techie brain…
2. List the Rules.
I believe I am in the process of doing that at this moment.
3. Thank the creator of the award and provide a link as well.
I think I’ve checked that box as well; see above.
4. Tell your readers 3 things about yourself (Here’s where the challenge begins. See below).
5. Nominate 10 to 20 people (See below for this one too).
6. Notify your nominees by commenting on their blog (I promise to do so).
7. Ask your nominees any 5 questions of your choice; with one weird or funny question.
3 THINGS ABOUT ME
1. I am seriously dog-deprived at present, so if you have a floppy pup or any kind of retriever, you should keep your distance from me so that I don’t accidentally walk off with him/her/them. I readily acknowledge my preference for long snouts, so you bulldog and sharpei owners needn’t worry.
2. I try to practice mindfulness meditation, but I still haven’t learned well how to deal with my “inner critic,” the judgmental voice in my head. Sharon Salzberg, a renowned mindfulness teacher, suggests naming one’s inner critic and then simply accepting the criticisms with kindness and interest. She calls her inner critic Lucy, after the Charles Schulz character who said to Charlie Brown: “The problem with you, Charlie, is that you’re you.” She gave me permission to borrow Lucy, whom I evoke when I remember. (You see, Lucy, we’re all friends here; it’s gonna be OK.)
3. I’ve long harbored the rather modest goal of wanting my words to change the world—preferably for the better. These days, if I can just make people smile, I’m happy to do so.
If you were stranded on a desert island and the film projector you miraculously managed to rescue from your sinking ship only had 5 movies available on its reels, what 5 movies would you wish they be?
Well, here we turn to mystery—or certainly miracles—presupposing that a) I could swim to safety carrying a film projector (I lift weights, but I’m not such a strong swimmer); and b) I’d have the technical expertise to run the darn thing once I got to dry land (or perhaps to a luxury yacht…that would solve concern b). And would I have to rescue the large screen as well? North by Northwest Casablanca The Lives of Others Cinema Paradiso Midnight in Paris (I know, I know, it’s Woody Allen, but I still love it.)
What would be an ideal dinner for you?
One of my most memorable meals was rijstaffel in Amsterdam: I loved the variety and deliciousness of all the small dishes. I’d really like a redo—perhaps in Indonesia…
If you could have coffee with any person in history, who would it be and why?
Eleanor Roosevelt because she was such an extraordinary person and had such a positive influence on her husband. I would have questions, though, such as: How could you have let Franklin exclude African Americans from the benefits of the New Deal? How could you have let him turn back the St. Louis, carrying Jews fleeing Nazi Germany? Did you try to stop the Japanese internment camps? Variations on these questions unfortunately resonate in our time.
What person in literature do you wish had actually lived in reality?
One or more of Shakespeare’s strong women: Rosalind in As You Like It; Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing; or Viola in Twelfth Night. Lady MacBeth? Not so much…
What type of water do you prefer to swim in? Fresh water or salt water?
Any water that when I stand up, the bottom isn’t slimy and little critters aren’t nibbling at my toes. I am not one who wishes to swim with the fishes, literally or figuratively.
1.What is the single thing about blogging that you value the most?
2.What episode or aspect of your life would you be most eager to “do over,” if you could?
3.What brings you the greatest personal satisfaction?
4.What musical instrument best describes your personality—and why?
5.If you could perform a single act that you felt would contribute to world peace, what would it be?
A few items before I note my nominees.
1) I know there are many wonderful bloggers out there whom I’ve never had the opportunity to come across, in part because you are so numerous; in part because I’ve been so busy writing and learning the technical aspects of this new adventure that I haven’t yet had the pleasure of your acquaintance. Thus, my nominees are people I know about because for the most part they found me–or we found each other.
2) My nominations do not necessarily mean I endorse their views. In fact, sometimes I emphatically disagree with them. But I believe they display lively minds, often tackle difficult issues, and are effective in conveying their thoughts, and I enjoy reading their posts.
Memo to all, especially my non-blogging subscribers: As you know, annieasksyou emphasizes dialogue, so although this format is different from what you’re used to, please feel free to register your thoughts and comments as always.
When the world is too much with us—as it occasionally is for me lately—we often turn to nostalgia. My fellow blogger JP recently wrote a delightful post about a childhood “Freeze” moment: while playing a piece in a piano recital, he lost his place, couldn’t find it, recovered as best he could, and somehow lived through the humiliation.
I guess we all have “Freeze” moments when we wish we could turn back the clock and get a do-over. JP’s post reminded me of mine, which occurred when I was a high school senior. My current self finds all this quite amusing, but those decades ago, my sensibilities were different.
First, some background: In my junior year, I had been a member of what our school called the “Marching Corps.” During half-time of the football games, we marched onto the field carrying large white flag/banners, which we twirled in unison to the band’s music. We assembled ourselves into various choreographed formations—sometimes spelling our high school’s initials, a welcome to the opposing team, or a similar visual. At the same time, the baton twirlers performed their routines. It was great fun.
Then an astonishing thing happened. At the end of the school year, the music director, a very tough-love but inspiring educator, selected me to be THE DRUM MAJORETTE for our senior year.
This was truly a big deal. The drum majorette led the color guard carrying the flags, the band, marching corps, and baton twirlers. It was an honor and a responsibility. My selection also evoked some envy and consternation—Josie Gorman, for one (not her real name) let me know that she was far more suited for the position than I was.
It had never occurred to me that I’d be chosen. All my predecessors had been tall, leggy, statuesque, and usually blonde. I was (e): none of the above. The uniform I inherited required extensive alterations.
And then there was the high hat, topped by a large plume. The rim rested on the frames of my thick eyeglasses. My nose was fine, but the full set of metal braces that uncomfortably filled my small mouth glistened in the sunlight in a manner bereft of any esthetic value. I sometimes worried flocks of birds would be attracted by me, shiny object that I was.
What did that heroic music director see in me when he made his decision? He certainly was far ahead of his time in terms of female stereotyping, bless his heart!
Though I never knew his reasoning for sure, I concluded it was based on his confidence that I knew my right from my left, which may not have been a universal skill among my fellow marchers. He could therefore depend upon me to get the band to its destination in a safe and timely manner. And yes, I could strut up a storm and twirl a baton, though I faked that part in a way that the baton twirling squad never could get away with.
I could do nothing about the braces—they remained with me throughout most of my senior year—but I persuaded my parents that contact lenses were essential. I’m pretty sure I paid for them from my previous summer’s earnings, but that could be a false memory arising from my sense of drama about my plight, as in: Desperate kid scraped up enough to save self from mortification.
Anyway, they agreed, and voila! I got my contacts. I not only felt better—I could also see better, thereby improving my chances of keeping the band intact. (As anyone who’s severely myopic and has been fitted with contact lenses knows, contacts—positioned closer to the eye—can sharpen vision more than glasses do.)
It was a glorious time. On Saturdays during football season, we would march from the high school to the stadium about a half-mile away. Children would line the streets to cheer, and elderly veterans would take off their hats and salute as the American flag passed by. That scene remains vivid to this day and often brings tears to my eyes. To my mind, it was a slice of Americana that holds up in retrospect. We were oblivious to the outside world; all was right in ours.
The final game of the football season was held each Thanksgiving Day, and our rivals were the team from the local parochial school. That game always received the largest attendance of the season, as many alumni returned to see old friends and cheer on their local team.
I was psyched. The weather was great, as I recall, and our practices had been terrific. Everyone looked snappy in our crisp, clean uniforms; we were all dressed up with someplace really special to go.
The first half of the game ended, and the players left the field for the locker rooms to rest. The cheerleaders, having energetically bolstered the team with physical and vocal stamina, also got a chance to recharge.
This was our moment. I blew my whistle and marched the band onto the field. Strutting my stuff, I blew my whistle again and held my baton high and to the left, signaling it was time for us all to turn and begin marching into formation.
And then it happened.
I dropped my baton. In front of the crowd in a stadium with nary an empty seat, I dropped my baton.
I quickly bent down to pick it up, but as I did, the band kept marching toward me. That’s when I froze.
Instead of turning around and continuing my strutting and twirling, I spent the rest of the time marching backward. I faced the band while holding my baton in both hands, moving it up and down to slow their advance and prevent them from trampling me. It was inglorious. My magical moment had turned into a self-preservation scramble.
Though I felt that I had disgraced myself and ruined the band’s performance, I don’t recall anyone saying anything to me afterward. Perhaps the crowd assumed I had intended to march backward, directing the band. Maybe they even thought: Look at that drum majorette—she can lead the band marching backward!
Or maybe not. But one thing was clear: nobody cared about it as much as I did—not even the music director whom I felt I’d failed.
These days, I try to practice mindfulness meditation, which encourages focusing on the moment—looking neither forward with worries nor backward with regrets. Mindfulness also urges us to respond to our “inner critic”—that merciless self-judge residing in our heads— with kind acceptance: “OK, so that happened. Interesting, isn’t it?” Though I didn’t know the term at the time, my inner critic was in full mode berating me for my personal catastrophe while most of those around me were oblivious to it.
Obviously, in the scheme of things, my youthful disappointment from dropping my baton was a small blip. And with the passage of time, it hasn’t sullied that happy memory of leading my fellow students through the children’s cheers and veterans’ salutes, never confusing my left from my right, and bringing us all—safely and on time—to our destination.
Please share your reactions, thoughts, and, best of all, your own “Freeze” moment(s) and any lessons learned. I appreciate, enjoy, and often learn from your responses.