Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Having Second Thoughts

Our brains process tens of thousands of separate thoughts per day, about 70,000, to be more precise. In the span of 1 minute, people generally have between 35 and 48 distinct thoughts.

Some of these thoughts will germinate into great ideas. Some will simply help us get through the day. Most will bounce off around our brains and fade into nothingness, never to be acted upon, or even remembered seconds later.

Most of these thoughts seem disparate and disjointed as we think them, and many of them are. It seems like we cannot control our thoughts most of the time, at least not unless we try pretty hard. But science has shown us that we can control them. Then why don’t many of us even try?

We think the way we do most often out of habit. But habits can be broken, and changed. It’s easy to fall into patterns of thought, and eventually to believe our thoughts are true, even when they may not be. Then, we surround ourselves with like-minded people, read only like-minded websites, watch like-minded TV, read like-minded books. We can change our thoughts, but most of us choose not to. It’s comfortable to be in that cocoon, thinking you are right about pretty much everything. People don’t like to have their beliefs questioned, and often get defensive when they are. Asking them to voluntarily change their thinking, to question what they’ve always known, usually gets one rebuffed--soundly.

But I want to challenge you to do just that. Because voluntarily changing how you think can change your world, and could possibly change the world. Being able to open your mind to the possibility that there could be more than one answer to some of the biggest questions of life will strain your brain, and make you smarter and more empathetic.

Critical Thinking:  the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

Here is the challenge I make to you. It’s very, very difficult to control the initial, immediate thought you have when you meet a new person, or hear of an emotional event, or experience something out of your comfort zone. That initial thought springs up unbidden, and generally mirrors past thoughts on like events or people. Those initial thoughts are very difficult to control.

But the thought that immediately follows that one? Oh, that one you can change. And you should.

Let me give you an example. You are perusing Facebook and see a story about a skinny dog that was tied outside of a shelter during the night, and was found the next morning cold and wet by the shelter staff, who took the dog in and are now caring for it.

You love animals. You are incensed by this wanton act of cruelty. Your first thought is, “How could anyone leave a dog tied up in the rain, tossed away like trash?”

If you don’t try to change your next thoughts, they will sound an awful lot like the first one. And what good does that do you? Or the dog?

Try stopping the cavalcade of negative thoughts about this situation and attempt to see it from another perspective. After you acknowledge your anger and frustration, have a different thought.

Here are some possibilities:

“At least they left him at a shelter, instead of dumping him along the side of the road.”

“Maybe they had been evicted and were at the end of their rope, and had nowhere else to turn.”

“Maybe he bit their child, and they were scared of him.”

“Maybe he is very sick, and they panicked.”

“Maybe they actually loved him very much.”

Wait, WHAT? Do you think that I think that tying a dog to a shelter fence in the rain is a good way of showing love?

I do not.

Why, then, would I ask you to even entertain that thought, ridiculous as it sounds?

Because it could actually be true. Yes. It could.

Regardless of whether it is actually true (because, let’s face it, you will likely never know much more about this situation that this story tells you), you believing it could be true does no one any harm.

That’s right. It could be true. Why not acknowledge that, instead of just jumping right to the negativity and anger at the Whole Human Race? Having some empathy for the dog’s previous owners empowers you to act differently. You can still feel sadness for the dog’s plight, and thankfulness for the shelter staff rescuing him. You can still be angry if you want to, but why not direct that anger in a positive way? Be angry that there are no low-cost veterinary clinics in your area, or that people have misconceptions about shelters and what kinds of dogs can be found there for adoption. Be angry that existing laws don’t do enough to keep animals safer. Then, do something positive with that anger.

Assuming the worst of people in every situation doesn’t improve anyone. And the media and social media serve up tons of stories designed to evoke anger, disgust, and negativity. Sure, there are some news outlets that try to counter this trend with feel-good journalism, and that’s a welcome sight. But the negative stories always outweigh the positive. Why? Because our brains are hardwired to pay more attention to the negative.

When you start to change your Second Thought, you begin to strengthen your empathy muscle. Anger can indeed drive us, but empathy can drive us to more positive change. Be angry at systems and bureaucracies and gridlock and partisanship. Heck, be angry at some individuals, if you must. But try to stretch your brain around the idea that most everyone is doing the best they can with what they have in that moment. You are free to disagree with their choices. You are free to place blame, even.

But what if you first acknowledge that you don’t have all the facts, and that, in and of itself, should stop you from continuing your initial train of thought.

I’m not telling you that you must always think the best of people. People often make crappy decisions; rotten ones, even. People act stupidly, and selfishly. I’m not telling you that positive thinking can erase all the bad in the world, because it can’t.

What I am saying is that you can hold opposing thoughts in your head about people and situations without your brain exploding. You can alter your initial perception of events and the people involved, and you should at least try. What will it hurt?

Instead of believing that bad things happen because people are evil, or stupid, or ignorant, why not blame the situation? The person who just cut you off in traffic could be a sociopath, but what is more likely is that he or she is dealing with a situation (about which you know zilch) that caused him to act that way, in that moment. Have you never driven recklessly? Does the fact that you have, even just once, make you stupid?

What if just 10% of the population tried this? What do you think would happen? Maybe the course of events might not change, but could the aftermath?

Start a trend. Change your Second Thought.

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”  ~William James

Friday, October 24, 2014

Want Happiness? Flex Your Gratitude Muscle

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
                                                                                                   ~Max Planck

When was the last time you said “thank you”?

Was it earlier today, when your spouse handed you a bagel as you ran out the door? Was it said to your child because they got dressed on time, or picked up a toy? Did you say it to the barista at your favorite coffee shop, to a customer who dropped a dog off for training, or grooming; or within the confines of your car, sarcastically, of course, when another driver finally hit the gas?

If you had any interaction with other human beings today, you probably said “thank you” at least once.

But I’ll bet you didn’t really mean it.

Okay, I take that back. Maybe you really did. Maybe you weren’t just saying it as a friendly rejoinder, or making small talk. Maybe you really were thankful for your customer, your spouse, your coffee.

If so, you are probably a happier person than most. If you actually write down those incidences where you felt grateful, you’d be even happier.

In one study on gratitude (Emmons and McCullough), participants kept weekly journals, and were told to write down five things that made them grateful the previous week. Other participants wrote five things they considered hassles, and the last group wrote about things that had affected them, but were not told to focus on the positive or the negative.

After 10 weeks, the first group reported significantly more happiness than the other two (25%), fewer health complaints, and more desire to exercise.

That’s a positive finding, but a later study by Emmons revealed something even better: different participants were told to write down daily (instead of weekly) what they were grateful for. This activity led to greater increases in gratitude than the weekly journals had, but it got better. These participants also reported offering others more assistance with a personal problem, or emotional support, indicating that the gratitude exercise increased their goodwill towards others.  A third study, conducted on patients with physical disabilities, revealed the same conclusion, and its participants also reported that they slept better, had more optimism in general, more life satisfaction, and more connectivity to people in their lives.

“If you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude, you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness.” ~Anonymous

Gratitude helps lower depression, and keeps marriages from crumbling, too. Those who practice it consistently and truthfully report higher levels of life satisfaction.

And why not? To be grateful means to acknowledge that you are rich—if not in monetary wealth, in personal happiness wealth. The idea that we are the product of our thoughts and feelings, and that we can steer our own outcomes with those thoughts, is no longer considered "New Age." If you have been fortunate in any way, you increase your wealth by being grateful for what you have. This, in turn, makes you happier.

Expressing real gratitude doesn’t just make your life better, either. It enriches those around you. You know how it feels to be warmly thanked, right? Spread that feeling around. Don’t be stingy with it. It costs you virtually nothing in time or energy, but it gives back multi-fold.

While I was putting myself through graduate school, I worked a series of retail jobs as Cashier Supervisor or Customer Service Manager. I’d always said that if you want to learn to hate people, work in retail—you’ll get a great education in the worst aspects of the human race, and get paid for it. But I was surprised that my own retail experiences did not, in fact, teach me to hate people.

When I started at a large humane society, I just knew that the work there would seal the “people are horrible” deal. I waited for the anger to come, to make me wary, even bitter (the sheltering/rescue field is one of the “top” fields for compassion fatigue). But it didn’t happen as I expected.

Sure, people made me angry, but instead of holding on to that, I tried to see things from their point of view. Much as I do when working with dogs, I decided to assume that resistance and poor behavior were due to a lack of clarity, not a personality flaw. A lack of clarity is a problem that can be rectified! And once I embraced that idea, my anger dissipated. I actually gained an empathy for people that I had never had before. Most were not bad people at all. They were just struggling, trying to cope with limited information, and unable to distance themselves emotionally from their pets.

Not only did I not hate them, I began to thank them for giving me the opportunity to serve them. I started to see what they were presenting as a gift, and when I expressed true gratitude for it, my mindset changed.

Do people still do dumb things when it comes to pets? You bet. Can I reach all of them? No. Do I thank the ones I cannot reach? Not to their faces. But I do thank them. I would not be who I am right this minute if it weren’t for them, and everyone in my life who has helped me in some way.

Gratitude is like a muscle: if you don’t use it, it atrophies. I’ll bet you can think of no fewer than 5 people right now who have helped you, molded you, made you better, or improved your life—just today, or for a while now. Why not reach out and thank them? Write them. Call them. Text them, or thank them on Facebook if you must (the best way to express gratitude is through the means with which your recipient, not you, is most comfortable), but do it sincerely, and with feeling. Don’t allow them to brush it off; push on with it until they’ve truly heard you, and they believe you.

Lather, rinse, repeat—daily, weekly, or monthly, make it a habit to express gratitude.

It just may change your life.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Do You Mind? Part II

Mindfulness: paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. This is the definition I like the best (I'm pretty sure I got it from Sarah Wilson). The “without judgment” part can get a little hairy, as we humans are masters at narrating our lives as we go, and focusing more on the negative than the positive.

It’s a very satisfying concept at its core. And I’ve been studying it for years in some form or another, through lots of reading, through my successful 15-year dog (and people) training business, through my work at the Atlanta Humane Society, and through my consistent need for alone time and silence.

In 1986, at the know-it-all age of 20, I went to a 2-day Transcendental Meditation (TM) seminar with my girlfriend. I don’t recall whose idea it was (probably hers). What did I know about TM? Not much; at the time I don’t even think I knew it was a fad popularized by the Beatles. I was sort of in a spiritual “woo” phase at the time, having thrown off the shackles of a Catholic school educational upbringing but not quite ready to dismiss the idea that “there might be something out there.” (The more people I meet, the more I’m convinced that the best way to turn people agnostic/atheist is to send children to Catholic school.)

So, we went to this seminar, and they taught us how to do TM, not as a group, but individually. I actually practiced it, albeit spottily, for a few years before giving up on it. But I still remember my mantra to this day (I can never tell you; it’s a secret for me only and it is not to be shared--I take that spiritual shit SERIOUSLY). I never gave it enough of a shot to get good at it, so I can’t really say how well it would have worked for me if I’d worked it. It has mostly fallen out of favor, from what I can tell, probably because of a lack of science showing it was the miracle many expected it to be.

So when I signed up for the MBSR course, I wasn’t a complete stranger to meditation. I was happy to learn, however, that there really isn’t a “woo” aspect to MBSR. I specifically wanted a secular experience, and that’s exactly what I got. I also got reacquainted with yoga practice, if only the basics, because 10-15 minutes of basic yoga moves is a really good way to prime yourself for 45 minutes of sitting and meditating. It makes one a lot less fidgety.

I hadn’t done a lot of research into MBSR before deciding to take the course, partly on purpose. I made sure my teachers were qualified to teach it, but that was about it. Of course, it’s like buying a car: after you own the one you buy, you see the same make and model everywhere (the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon). After I started taking the class, I started seeing news reports of the efficacy of mindfulness all over the place.

Luckily for me, the venue shifted the second week of class to a more open space with properly-working heat. (See my problems with hot, small spaces in Part 1.) By week 3, we were doing mostly sitting meditations, which was pretty helpful in keeping me awake (but not foolproof).

To be honest, I didn’t really feel stressed by life. I didn’t take the course to reduce stress, specifically, but to learn more about being mindful and living in the moment. It’s something we can all learn to access, but we rarely do—probably because it’s not simple. We are so used to living in a “want it now, get it now” world that many of us have forgotten what it’s like to wait for things, to become proficient at a skill, to enjoy the journey.

Our meditation practice started out with instructions. The very first meditation we did was a “body scan,” where the instructor guides you through focusing on every part of your body for what seems an almost agonizing period of time. Our instructions were to make note of how each part was feeling, nonjudgmentally, and then move on.

Doing it this way made it easier for us newbies to block out the “chatter” that courses through our brains constantly. Every time we started thinking of anything other than the body part the instructor was talking about, we were to direct our thoughts back to the assignment. That generally occurred about, oh, I’d say once a second. It was exhausting.

But it was also liberating in a way. When you don’t really try to control your thoughts consciously, it seems to you as if you cannot—it is impossible. But it isn’t. And once you start doing it, you get better at it. The brain is a muscle, after all.

Dog trainers have long known that mental stimulation for dogs is a powerful tool for keeping them out of trouble and out of shelters. It tires dogs out in positive ways, and makes them think. Unlike physical exercise, it has no fitness plateau, either, so it can be used daily (as long as it remains interesting and requires the dog to work at a solution).

Practicing mindfulness is mental stimulation for humans. But it doesn’t tire you out when you do it correctly—it sharpens you, awakens you, pokes you in the solar plexus and changes your brain. It also enables you to confront things about yourself that may have been buried a bit beneath the surface.

And that is where the journey starts to get interesting.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Do You Mind?

I recently attended an 8-week course on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, which I have noticed since the course began is becoming pretty popular around the country.

Several compelling studies are arriving that show that focused meditation improves our minds in a myriad of ways. (Don’tcha love that word, “myriad”?) Once thought to be the sole bastion of “woo-woo” New-Age practitioners, meditation is now “hip,” and even buttoned-up workplaces are adopting it as a way to reduce stress and improve functionality and creativity. Doctors are prescribing it to treat ADD and ADHD in children and adults.  They are also prescribing it for chronic pain, high blood pressure, IBS, and other ailments. What about therapists? More and more, therapists and psychiatrists are recommending mindfulness as a treatment for depression.

Mindfulness Meditation, as it is also called, could apparently be the Thing That Saves Humanity From All Evil. (Then again, probably not. But does it hurt to try?)

Meditation itself comes in several forms. It can be religious, spiritual, or entirely secular. It can range from simply sitting with oneself in silence, or even contemplative silence, for a few minutes a day to 3-day retreats full of little but eating, sleeping and purposeful meditating. It often conjures up a vision of patchouli-soaked rooms full of hipsters chanting and bending their bodies into various painful poses, but that shouldn’t define it.

MBSR isn’t just any meditation. The key is mindfulness, and if you think it’s a simple thing to turn off your brain for 10, 20, or 45 minutes at a stretch and focus solely on your breath, you will find out soon enough that It. Is. Not . That. Simple.

And that, my friends, is what makes it awesome.

Yes, one of the greatest things about Mindfulness Meditation is that the idea—turning off distractions and focusing on one thing—is simple, but the practice is deliciously difficult.

The first night of class, I fell asleep. And snored. And I wasn’t the only one.

C’mon, give me a break. It was evening, it was winter, and it was very, very cold outside, so the heat was up higher than I’m used to in a room that was slightly too small for the number of students present. Also, the meditation part came at the end of a 2-hour lecture, and we were instructed to lie on the floor.

You’d have sawed some logs, too.

(Thinking back on it, I am reminded of the scene in the movie G.I. Jane—an oddly entertaining/eye-rollingly bad flick mostly due to the acting chops of Anne Bancroft and Viggo Mortensen—wherein our Navy S.E.A.L. trainees have been awake for almost 24 hours and are given a “break” from their nonstop physical travails in the form of a sit-down in a classroom. They are dog-tired, starving, chafing in wet, sandy clothes, and nearly beaten down, and Mortensen tells them to “write an essay, no less than 500 words, on ‘Why I Love the U.S. Navy.’” The heat is turned up, the lights are dimmed, classical music begins playing, and it’s pouring rain outside--and they are ordered not to fall asleep.)

The MBSR presenters are savvy, though, and they knew this would happen, and warned us about it playfully. It takes time to train your brain to do this, they said. You will fail at it constantly, but you will get better over time. And I did. And I still am.

Oh, it’s a journey. I get slack. I don’t make time for it like I should (45 minutes a day, 6 days a week, is the prescription). The trick is not to start judging yourself for skipping it, though. That’s difficult, seeing as we humans spend a great deal of time judging ourselves harshly.

Stay tuned. I need to go meditate now.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Mistakes Were Made

I've long lamented that we seem to have become a society of human beings who have no idea how to handle mistakes.

From politicians to teenagers to celebrities to world leaders, the prevalence of PR pretty much has made the true apology a dinosaur. That's actually grist for another mill, though.

The problem begins before the apology is even necessary.

Parents do their damndest to make sure their kids never make any mistakes, and it is costing us. How are they supposed to learn from their mistakes when no one will let them make any?

This blogger says it better than I can.

"The Death of the Mistake" by Rich Dlin

Monday, December 10, 2012

Waiting for Life to Begin

You've undoubtedly heard this information before, in some form.

It probably didn't sink in. It's simple, but hard to digest.

Maybe it will sink in this time. Because this is the only time we have.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

What Do You Stand For?

I stand for civility—in the spoken and written word, and in deed.

I stand for rational discourse between individuals who understand how to reason, how to see both sides of an issue, how to argue with wit and passion, and how to gracefully lose an argument.

I stand for differing opinions, stated with eloquence and fervor, that result not in heated, angry screaming matches, “unfriending,” and severed ties, but in more powerful friendships and relationships.

I stand for the people who will hold a mirror up to my actions and make sure I like what I see, and will beseech me to do the same for them.

I stand for good grammar, punctuation, spelling, and the ability to convey ideas in writing in ways that entertain, enlighten, and change hearts and minds. Want to be better at this? Read more books.

I stand for “finding flow” in one’s work, and in one’s play. Far too few of us try, and oh, what we miss!

I stand for emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and common sense all being part of what we consider intellect.

I stand for grace. I stand for maturity. I stand for personal responsibility, always.

I stand for owning up to one's mistakes. I stand for apologies—true, heartfelt apologies with only one purpose: to make the wronged party feel less so. 

I stand for telling those you love that you love them. Yes, actions are much louder, much more profound, and much more telling. But words matter, too. Putting your heart out there, putting your phone down, looking someone in the eye and telling them you love them and admire them and respect them and cherish them makes a difference. People need to hear this, or they shrivel up, and then they give up.

I stand for actions speaking volumes. I stand for action, period. 

I stand for taking a step back, for pausing, for reflecting, for gathering one’s thoughts, for asking these three most important questions internally before speaking:
  • Is it true? 
  • Is it kind? 
  • Is it necessary?

I stand for paying attention, at all times, to what you are doing.

I stand for occupying your moments. I stand for pursuing your dreams. I stand for dreaming big.

I stand for listening.

I stand for true customer service, a.k.a. excellence, where providers truly see those whom they serve, who reward loyalty with heartfelt thanks, and who always strive to make the world a better place through their products or services, no matter how small those may appear to be.

(Do you even know who your customers are? No matter what job you perform, or career you invest yourself in, or artistic talents you share with the world, you have customers--not just the obvious ones, either. Get to know them, and thank them for spreading what you do even farther.)

I stand for living this life, the only one we are guaranteed, as fully as possible. Time is so short!

I stand for beliefs that unite us, not divide us. I stand for standing up for what one believes, but also to being open to changing one’s beliefs when they no longer serve in a positive way.

Most of all, I stand for defending one’s beliefs, ideally using large helpings of reason and  logic, with a wee bit of emotion tossed in. Beliefs should be defensible, not just traditions passed down from generation to generation, with no further thought put behind them, no testing done.

Defend your beliefs from experience, not from hearsay. Never stop asking questions!

What do you stand for?