Sunday, September 25, 2011

No Easy Exit

I once read about a study on marital stability as predicted by facial expressions. Researchers examined videos of married couples second by second, frame by frame to identify facial expressions. It was claimed that the expressions allowed researchers to predict with 90% accuracy which couples would be divorced in the next four to six years and which ones would still be together. The study found that the biggest marital killer is contempt. If contempt was expressed, even minutely in the videos of conversations between married couples, the couple was almost certainly doomed. While it may make sense to separate yourself from a contemptuous marriage, I have been thinking that having to deal with contempt or unpleasantness in other areas of our lives might actually be good for personal growth.

While we don’t have to stand for contempt or unpleasantness from our friends and spouses, we often don’t have a choice in the rest of the world. We encounter contemptuous people in school, work, the neighborhood, and within families. In some of these scenarios where there is no easy exit, we may be forced to figure out how to live with it and even be authentic and happy in that situation.

I worked for a small telecom company for more than a decade and felt deep respect and affection for many of my co-workers. My boss felt we needed to expand the sales team to include a database administrator, taking that off of my plate so that I could get back exclusively to the sales role I had had before. He told me it was really important for me to get along well with this person in order for it to go well. The woman that was chosen for the job turned out to have a problem getting along with other women. I tried to bond with her right from the beginning but was rebuffed by her every time. She had no interest in getting along well with me or any other woman in the company. One day I passed her in the hallway and she smiled at me in fake, sacchrine-sweet, sarcastic smile that conveyed nothing but contempt. I uncharacteristically returned one of the same back at her and kept walking. Oddly, from that moment on our work relationship was much easier and more pleasant. From then on I decided to stop trying and just accept the fact that we would not be friendly but that we WOULD continue to work together. It could be acrimonious or not, depending on how I chose to make it. My goal was somewhere between pleasant and neutral. Although we were never friends, we seemed to be able to work together fine after that. I think she was surprised that I had that in me and had confused my friendly overtures with neediness or weakness. I am not sure what she thought, but I know that radical acceptance of the way things really were dramatically improved my work life.

I saw a movie called “Away From Her”, about a couple that deals with Alzheimer’s disease. The husband does not want to send his wife to an assisted living facility but she insists. After a short time in the facility, she no longer remembers who her husband is, despite his daily visits. She and another man in the facility become very affectionate and spend all of their time together. At first the husband is upset and resistant, trying to control things, but gradually he starts to accept what is and even reunites the two when they are separated and they both deteriorate in their grief. The husband, once accepting what is, begins to work out for himself a life that includes loyalty and commitment to his wife, as well as a personally fulfilling relationship with someone else. It was that radical acceptance that helped him maneuver through such a challenging time, with full presence and integrity.

In both of these cases, leaving was not the best option and facing up to the way things are with radical acceptance was critical to finding contentment in the midst of a difficult situation. When we choose not to leave (or can’t), HOW we show up makes all the difference. These two examples surfaced to remind me in a timely way that when faced with a difficult person that is here to stay, I will accept what IS and stop trying to make it be something different. Learning to show up with full and equanimous presence and integrity might just be the gift that an easy exit can't give.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What Do Camping and Christmas Have in Common?

This winter I diligently booked three summer camping trips after researching the best campsites within a few hours of where we live. I planned them about a month apart, figuring that if we wanted more camping we could always do the first-come, first-served visits without reservations. We were only able to do two as a family and that was more than enough. I am burned out on camping.

I did not grow up camping but when I met John he introduced me to the outdoors and I was smitten! It was a big part of our relationship right from the beginning. We once camped our way from Chicago to Seattle and back over a month during our first summer together. We have always preferred to camp in remote areas, carrying everything we need and eating oatmeal and dried soups along the way. We love hiking and John loves the goal of getting to the top of a mountain, while I am content staying below tree line with a book. When we meet back up we resume our hiking together and share the highlights of the summit and the book as we go. We never understood the point of camping in sites that are so close to each other, where everyone arrives and sits around drinking beer all day and blaring music late at night. Our kind of camping was more like church, I suppose - quiet, reverent, inspiring, and bonding.

And then came our children. We couldn't wait to share camping with them. We took Jude when he wasn't even able to walk yet. However, by necessity, camping with children has brought us back down from the top of the mountain and well into the tree line, in the tent-ready sites where you pull up your loaded vehicle, drag all of your stuff out and set up your home away from home. Our children have fundamentally changed what camping is for us.

Over the years I have noticed a phenomenon I have dubbed "equipment creep". We started out with a small tent, sleeping bags, and bare essential cooking equipment. Because we no longer have to carry everything on a long hike to a camping site, we have started to be more indulgent about what we take. Now we have added chairs, a stove, a shade canopy, a huge tent, a cooler and bags of groceries, among other amenities. It takes some time to shop, prepare and pack all of that (and remember to bring each thing). It takes even longer to clean up after a camping trip. We can't do the long hikes we like to do because our kids are not interested or willing to do it. We know from experience that it is not worth it to drag them out and fill the woods with whining. We can't leave them and go off on our own as they are still far too young for that. We do go exploring together and let them do so on their own. Last time we took them to a stream where we played for a few hours and climbed up (shhh, don't say "hike") to the top of rocky hill near our campsite. Our kids do enjoy those times. I encourage John to go on his long runs up the mountain and back while I stay with the kids, but I don't like to hike alone so I don't take my turn when he gets back.

So what do camping and Christmas have in common? A lot of people complain about the way Christmas so often gets reduced to being all about things: presents and food in this case. Whether Christian or not, many lament the holiday's missing sense of meaning, spiritual feeling, connection or community. The quiet reverence and gentle light of Christmas get buried under all that wrapping paper and honey baked ham. Kids (and many adults) get so caught up in the orgy of consumption that they miss the opportunity to appreciate that holiday's spiritual essence and its unique opportunity for equal parts of deep introspection and connection.

And so it is with camping for me. Gone are the days of testing our physical endurance limits accompanied by long philosophical talks or companionable silence. And, I confess, the days of being able to sleep comfortably on rocks have passed now too. For me, camping has been reduced to stuff and I don't enjoy it any more. To my children it is less about exploring, climbing and playing (thought they do that too) and more about eating and playing with fire and knives. They would gladly sit around a campfire all day and well into the night throwing stuff in the fire and whittling sticks and eating from our extensive Whole Foods Market stash. Even with this I still hear how bored they are and their seemingly rhetorical question, "what can we do?" never meets with an answer they like. Sitting around for two days eating and supervising fire and knife activity is really not fun for me. Like those that struggle with unearthing and preserving the meaning in Christmas, I am struggling with how to reinvent camping with children.

I want my kids to have these fun outdoor experiences and I want to be there to share it with them, but I also want it to be fun and worthwhile for me too. I have tried planning games and scavenger hunts with them but they are not all that interested. I have tried camping with other families or even organizing large groups, thinking everyone will have playmates and couples can take turns heading out for a hike alone, but we've found that the more people we add to the campsite, the more the focus is on food and beer and sitting. Don't get me wrong, I do like the community it fosters (and I do like that beer), but I can get that at home without having to do a mountain of laundry afterwards!

At this point in my posts I normally share the life lesson I learned and from this challenge and how it is even applicable to other areas of my life. But alas, this time I have not yet worked out the lesson or solution. I welcome suggestions.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Contentment for the Now

I was recently at my alma mater, Michigan State University visiting a friend who lives near by. I had some time on my own so I went to my old favorite Mexican Restaurant, El Azteco, ordering the same Topopo Salad I always used to get. I remember it tasting better back then, though I did manage to eat plenty of it anyway. After that I went for a long walk around campus. I started out near my old dorm and walked all the way to the other end, following the Red Cedar River, passing my old haunts along the way. I felt oddly disconnected though. The place did not feel like mine in any way. True, I am now old enough to be a parent to the students that were hanging out playing volleyball or headed to the library. But I don't think I felt alienated for that reason.

My college years were among the best of my life. I had a wonderful time there with friends, roommates, and even the job I had at the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts where I actually got paid to see shows and sell coffee and desserts to patrons. My academic experience was also rewarding. Although the school is huge (it was said to have 60,000 students my freshman year there), my particular college in the Language Department was small and intimate and I enjoyed what I learned. Yet, as I walked around the beautiful campus, I felt no reminiscent pull or much feeling at all. This really puzzled me and had me wondering about it for days. I even went back for another walk there a few days later, but again it didn't feel much more than a pleasant place to get some exercise.

When I was there as a college student 20 years ago, it was my whole world. My friends, my job, and my studies were everything to me and it was difficult to picture what the "real world" would be like when I left this transitional haven between childhood and adulthood. Having been in this real world for two decades now, with marriage, children, mortgages, and real world jobs, I would think this foray back into my college years would be filled with fond memories and nostalgia. Although I have plenty of fabulous memories, I didn't feel nostalgia. Maybe it's just that I am abundantly happy in this stage of my life and didn't feel the pull of the "good old days" on campus.

I realized later why this mild alienation felt so unsettling to me. It made me wonder what is so important and all-encompassing in my life right now that a few decades from now will yield hardly any emotional tug from my future self? That perspective felt discomfiting to me. It sparked an exploration of my current attachments. Although I like my neighborhood and feel great affection for my current friends, I don't feel like they define me. Not the way it used to in my college years. Obviously my children are a huge part of my life at this stage and they will grow up and move out on their own, again altering my life immensely, just as they did with their arrival. It is stunning to me that Ronan is already half way there. I am certain, though, that I will look back on my time with them with intense nostalgia and no alienation (well, depending on how the teen years go, perhaps!).

It's possible that the perspective-broadening experience of adulthood makes me less prone to view my world with such intensity as the young are apt to do. It does take a certain amount of maturity to see yourself in the phases of life and be a witness to it, rather than be so fully consumed by it that there is little recognition of the phases at all, let alone a healthy sense of unattachment to them. The relationships and challenges at this point of my life don't have the same sense of drama that they used to and the high points feel less manic. Life is not boring though. There is a different kind of richness in life now that comes from being both the experiencer and the observer. It could be called contentment or equanimity. Maybe it's just a phase I am going through (and witnessing), but it certainly beats pining for the old days that are long gone.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Being Right

To illustrate a point, my husband told me a story about playing Euchre in college. During a game with his fellow classmates who were in varying degrees of inebriation, he realized that as the game was progressing (as was the inebriation) some players were laying down random cards and bogusly claiming the win. Some of the players noticed this and others didn't. A remarkable thing happened at this point in the game. Those that were aware that a player was cheating cooperated with that player, allowing him to win that hand and each person who was aware of the cheating started participating in it too, alternately taking turns arbitrarily winning and losing. To a rule-obeying, fair-play kind of person, this would create conditions that would be problematic, but maybe because of the substance abuse, that need for "doing it right" was briefly suspended. To him, it was amusing and interesting to watch human nature play out in that room, making the whole interaction richer. He was making this point to try to show me that letting go can be rewarding in its own way. Letting go of the need to control, have your way, or be right can have surprising benefits.

"The customer is always right." This expression encourages us to let go of that need to be right, but at the same time it serves as evidence that most of us think we are right and we will occasionally allow someone else to temporarily labor under the illusion that he is right. In this expression, the need to be right is deferred for a purpose, such as being nice, avoiding conflict, or making a sale. In the past I have sometimes unconsciously regarded this as lacking integrity or being a pushover, but now I feel differently about it.

I have several "teachers" in my life that have shown me by example for many years that being right is less important than higher goals, like happiness. I have not been a good student though. In my 40s I am just now coming to the awareness that my claims of integrity and strength are really more about ego. If I am always in control and always right, my ego is happy, but the cost is high. If my happiness depends on you being wrong, how well are we going to get along?

For two gloriously fun years in college I lived in an apartment with three other women. One of them was very religious and did not believe in pre-marital sex. We got along well but we had significantly differing beliefs and values. She held the view that her self-discipline and piety would bring her great reward. The dualistic implication was that the rest of us would not get that reward. Two years later when I happened to be the first of the roommates to send out wedding invitations, it effectively ended that friendship. It seemed that she couldn't accept that I, who had sinned in her mind, would get the first shot at happily ever after. That was supposed to be her reward! Mine should have been hell, I guess. This example convinces me that if we think we are better or right and we refuse to believe that others might be worthy, we will be shown as many times as it takes, in progressively more painful ways that we are wrong!

I heard an interview with my personal hero, Ken Wilber, a modern day philosopher describing Integral Theory . Ken said something to the effect that we all have some portion of right and being mindfully inclusive and holistic can give us a more complete "right" that can also be "nice" and dissolves conflict.

I am happiest when I am connecting with someone. If I think about my highest aspirations in any relationship, it is harmony and happiness for everyone. If that really is my goal, then being right, however good that feels briefly, undermines my true goal. The better expression for me to remember is "Would you rather be right or happy?" I am going to go for happy. I am hopeful that having finally identified my highest intention in an interaction, I can actually achieve it, putting some of Integral Theory into action with very minimal collateral damage to my ego with full integrity.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Hot Button

It’s a Saturday morning and Jude is in his room singing a new song for the thirteenth time.

Ronan (nine years old): JUDE! STOP SINGING THAT SONG!

Jude (five years old): I can sing if I want to. You’re not the boss of me!


Jude continues, ignoring Ronan


When words fail to yield compliance, Ronan goes into Jude’s room and shakes him by the shoulders, causing Jude to cry and hit Ronan. Ronan retreats but not before calling him more demeaning names and is now tattling. No one is actually hurt but pride and feelings are damaged. What ensues is a loud summary of who said what, and who did what first, told in the most flattering version by the person doing the telling. Since I heard the whole battle the first time, I don’t need to hear slanted reports of innocence and victimhood now as I talk to them both.

I ask them how they each could have handled things differently for a more peaceful outcome. They decide that Jude could have shut his door, sung more softly, or stopped singing for awhile. Ronan could have shut his door, went somewhere else, or asked more nicely. They both agree that yelling, hitting, and name calling were not good choices for resolving this conflict. They know, conceptually at least, what the better choices are and if those failed, that they could come to a parent for help. Ronan acknowledges all this but is incredulous that I am not giving Jude a consequence for hitting him and for “being annoying”. He accuses me of generally doling out more consequences to him than to Jude and assumes it is because he is older and he should “know better”. From this argument and conversation, we each learn our “hot buttons”, meaning what it is that elicits a strong emotional reaction in each of us.

After thinking about it, I realize that I am very sensitive to unkindness. Kindness is a very important value to me and I easily am moved to tears by many simple acts of kindness. I feel angry when I see someone purposely hurt someone with words or actions and feel justified in handing out consequences for that kind of offense if it comes from my children. Considering other scenarios, we conclude that Ronan’s hot button is not having someone respect him, his feelings or his wishes. This is what sets him off predictably in any kind of conflict. In further discussion, we agree that Jude’s current hot button is being bossed around or treated like a baby. We share these later with Dad when he comes home but characteristically he cannot be pegged down on a single hot button issue, claiming he has hundreds of them. Later, though, he decides that his hot button is more of circumstance: it is not getting exercise. When he has the time and energy to invest in exercising, he is happy and patient. It takes a lot to upset him. When he doesn’t, virtually everything is a hot button for him. Thankfully, he exercises almost every day.

Knowing what it is that will predictably cause strong emotions (and likely unpleasant behavior) in those we are close to is of tremendous value. It helps us avoid pushing those buttons and gives us a short cut in talking about them. When tensions are flaring I calmly remind everyone about our hot buttons and it seems to diffuse the situation. When it’s too late for that and there are claims of unfairness and unjust consequences being meted out, I mention the hot buttons that were trespassed and it stops the whining and objections quickly. I wish I could say this has stopped all quarreling in my house. It hasn’t, or course, but it does give me perspective and equanimity much faster when I realize that our reactions are tripped up by our own sensitivities. That equanimity can be contagious!

I did a poll of my friends on this topic. Their hot buttons varied and included lying, passive aggressive manipulation, cruelty, emotional blackmail, rudeness, arrogance, and judgmental attitudes. To me they all seemed like variations of unkindness, as could be said of Ronan’s and Jude’s sensitivities as well. What causes a strong negative reaction in you?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Meeting in the Middle

My husband and I are different from each other. When we first started dating one of his friends had trouble understanding my allure because I didn't play volleyball and this friend thought that was an indispensable attribute for any partner. Luckily John was willing to overlook this character flaw in me. John is sporty. I am bookish. John tends to solidly occupy the lower three Chakras. He is grounded, secure, physical, confident, and practical. The closer his connection with the earth, the better he feels. So he runs, climbs, hikes, and camps among other very physical outdoor experiences. He even works in construction, though he hasn't done the physical work in many years. His bond with our sons is very physical - he wrestles with them and plays catch.

I tend to live in the upper three Chakras. I am concerned more with feelings, kindness, learning, introspection, and spirituality. I am happiest connecting with others through words, both written and spoken. I am far more likely to be drawn to reading, writing, meditating, or talking than I am to moving. My specialty in parenting involves communication: setting expectations, discussing feelings, talking with teachers, reading stories, and that kind of thing.

You could say that we complement each other in our differences. In the 17 years that we have been together these differences have sometimes been challenging, but for the most part it has encouraged both of us to dwell comfortably in areas that wouldn't initially seem attractive to either of us. For example, I am inspired to keep physically fit because I live with a multi-sport athlete who is in fabulous shape. I love how I look and feel because of that. Before meeting John, I had never been camping and now I love it and initiate multiple camping trips every summer. Our family time in nature is where we are all happiest. John grounds me and provides a base of stability and security.

To his own surprise, John has become spiritual, without any of the gagging that he thought might accompany such beliefs. We now enjoy talking about spiritual and philosophical topics, though the transition to this level of comfort was not easy. A couple of years ago we had a long road trip alone together as marital medicine because we felt disconnected. On the way to Pagosa Springs and back, we listened to Ken Wilber, an author who writes about the meeting point of developmental psychology, philosophy, ecology, sex, and spirituality. It gave us a meeting point. It was through Ken Wilber's words that we found common ground and language, putting us back on track. In John's car right now is a CD of the Irish poet, philosopher and former priest John O'Donohue, talking about wisdom, spirituality, and connection. He enjoys listening to it on his drive and then sharing the highlights of it with me when he gets home. It's been wonderful to share my interests with him and I appreciate seeing that side of him.

John's glass of wine is half empty and mine is half full. We are Yin and Yang. We give balance to each other and to our family when we are balanced ourselves. After so much time together, we are each better balanced and better at meeting each other halfway in mind, body, and spirit. Of course there is the physical meeting of masculine and feminine, fitting together right at that half way point that blissfully strengthens our connection as well! There is much to be said about meeting in the middle!

Friday, April 15, 2011

How Wind Chimes Can Make You a Better Person and a Better Neighbor

I live in the city, in a townhome surrounded by houses, condos and apartments. A few of my neighbors have wind chimes, which sound lovely during the day. Their tinkling evokes harmony with Nature. However, they are not harmonious with the actual nature of living in a high-density neighborhood where many, many others who would prefer to be about the business of sleeping are instead forced to contemplate those wind chimes by night. This is no different than my feeling about music. By day, I too appreciate Eminem but I dislike hearing “3 A.M.” emanating loudly from your balcony at 3 A.M. At best it shows a lack of awareness for others. At worst it shows a lack of concern or respect for anyone but yourself.

A friend of mine reminded me to consider what Osho said about resistance. Osho is an enlightened mystic and prolific author from India and in one of his teachings he said if you are irritated by something (say a noisy machine), then become one with that object because resistance creates unrest. I admire this way of thinking and, when I remember to employ it I find it to be very helpful, especially with people who own viewpoints that differ radically from my own, or situations where I have no control. If I can’t do anything to change the external circumstances, then learning to accept it and changing how I react to it is important. I will even try it on my refrigerator some time if it ever bothers me. However, sometimes employing a contemplative response to a situation, when action would more easily and quickly solve the problem is not wise.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a spiritual, introspective person, so I typically appreciate this kind of thinking, but sometimes common sense dictates a solution that is more practical. A contemplative, introspective approach to this problem is not going to get you a good night’s sleep, and that is what is at stake here, not so much your deep-seated, unexamined feelings to this particular sound and how you might change those feelings. That is a wonderful solution if there is no other choice. There are other options in this scenario that could be in perfect alignment with your spiritual ideal. Directly communicating with your neighbor in a non-violent, kind, and honest way might get the noise to stop quickly. It may also bring awareness to your neighbor and even strengthen your relationship.

I’ve gone to my neighbor’s house in the middle of the night and plucked the offending wind chime off the hook and gently set it down on the ground to silence it for the night, leaving a note on the door that said something like “I have been having trouble sleeping because the wind chimes keep waking me. I am sorry for the imposition, but would you be willing to take them down? My family and co-workers like me better when I am well-rested.” The neighbor acquiesced. I have also waited until the next day and directly talked to a chime-loving neighbor about it in a gentle, humorous way with the same outcome that seemed to make us both happy. I realize it doesn’t always work and the neighbor could refuse your request, but I would prefer to assume the best of my neighbors and try to solve the problem in the most expeditious and direct way. In the rare case where it doesn’t go the way you had hoped it would, then you have to explore other options that are within your control, the legal limits, and your spiritual ideal. This can become challenging when you are sleep deprived. Osho’s teachings might come in handy then, along with a white noise generating fan in your bedroom.

Fond as I am of introspection, I don’t believe suffering in silence unnecessarily is spiritual if there is a way to solve a problem. Avoiding conflict is not spiritual. Handling conflict mindfully and making your needs known in a skillful way is a perfectly valid choice and an ability that is necessary to cultivate, assuming you do not live alone, isolated from others. Our neighbors provide the perfect scenario for the practical application of the spiritual lessons we learn and idealize.