The Pause

The way meditation works still freaks me out. I’ve been practicing with more or less consistency for a couple of years now, and the part that is consistently weird — like in a good way — is that the benefits of meditation sneak up on you. During meditation you just sit there focusing on your breath and trying to get your brain to shut up. Its not profound. Its not even particularly interesting. If nothing else, I’ve discovered how perfectly boring my head is most of the time.

The cool part of meditation doesn’t happen during meditation. It happens when you start noticing the pause. It is the little space between one thought and the next. Between one thought and an action that follows it. It’s a space I have been searching for my whole life.

One of my great struggles in life has been wrestling down my “big feelings.” I remember so many times expressing my frustration in counseling sessions — how the strategies I tried to manage my feelings amounted to trying to corral wild horses with a three foot fence. Even when I wanted to slow down or tame my feelings, it was so difficult. I felt I failed more often than not.

Meditation seems to do the trick here in ways nothing else has. Mostly it is subtle. I’ll catch myself having a shitty feeling or thought, and its followed by a little space where I can check the thing out and ask if it is useful. Most always it isn’t. And then you re-frame the thought or forget about it.

There are two reasons in particular that this makes me happy. The first is that I don’t get sucked into vortexes of crappy feelings like I used to. The second is that it is easier to be kind. I don’t know if I have any fewer unkind or judge-y thoughts about other people than I used to; they always just seem to pop in to one’s head. But there’s the pause again where I can replace the petty unkind appraisal with something. It goes like that:

Bitchy Me: “Wow that’s a skanky top she’s wearing.”

Pause: “That’s a mean thing to think about a perfect stranger. What the hell?”

Better Me: “She looks like she is enjoying feeling sexy. She looks confident and happy. Good for her! ”

Better me is much better than bitchy me.

So the thing is, this happens to me all the time now. I think it is because when you meditate you get used to seeing your thoughts and feelings and (usually boring) stories much more objectively. So if things pop in to your head you don’t have such a sense of attachment to them. Instead, you can choose who and how you want to be in the world instead of just “you happening to you” all the time.

I am profoundly grateful for this turn. For the pause. It’s a work in progress of course. But it does yield some little rewards most days, and I think it’s helping me to be more calm and more compassionate. I really value these things even if I can’t live up to them all the time. So progress is good.

 

 

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A Funeral in S-Town

Spoiler alert! If you haven’t listened to the S-Town series and don’t want details revealed prematurely, please move along. I’ll be discussing the full series here.[1]

It is impossible to listen to S-Town without being moved because the story of its central character, John B. McLemore, it is so intimate. John B. was: brilliant but combative; gregarious but cynical; a man who could talk to friends for hours yet still remain deeply lonely. It’s a complex portrait of a human being that is only achieved because S-Town’s narrator and producer, Brian Reed, so carefully weaves a narrative of many threads: friends near and far, lovers, and John B.s rambling exchanges with Brian.

Once you grasp the richness of McLemore’s life, you can appreciate that among the tragedies documented in the series — and there are many — John’s B.s funeral is the greatest tragedy of them all. Continue reading

The Conversations We Never Had

Death-the-Maiden-by-Marianne-Stokes_-web
Death and the Maiden — Marianne Stokes

March 4th, 2017 marked the second anniversary of the death of my doctoral supervisor. As professors go, she was not typical: she didn’t speak or act in some of those “rarified” ways that cause people to think of academics as elites. She grew up in a working class neighbourhood, and worked “in the trenches,” so to speak, as a social worker before pursuing her PhD in Education, after the birth of her only child.[1] She was a single mother. She fought for society’s underdogs, and for a more just society. If injustice made her angry, she confronted it with a combination of determination and tough optimism. She was a fighter.

She also fought cancer. Her second bout with breast cancer occurred in 2013. Continue reading

On Celebrity Culture versus Real Bodies: Viva The Locker Room

realbodiesI’ve been enjoying Tim Caulfield’s Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? Caulfield is a University of Alberta guy — gives me a rarely felt twinge of alumni pride, actually. Maybe I’m proud because he wrote a well researched book that is really easy and fun to read. Gwyneth is his poster girl for all the weird intersections between celebrity culture and our endless quests to improve ourselves — through diet and alternative medicine for example — or to achieve “fame.” (On the latter point, some of his stats on your odds of making it big in music or sports are truly alarming.) The overall point of the book is that celebrity culture has a symbiotic relationship with a lot of the human qualities that we can all be, shall we say, less proud of: Continue reading

Drinking Our Post-Truth Kool-Aid

It is intriguing, if terribly, sad to see a stark shift to pessimism and fatalism in the wake of the US election. I’ve noticed, and felt in myself, a kind of despair and helplessness as developed countries across the world turn to poisonous authoritarian political leadership.

My deeper sadness and frustration, though, comes out of what appears to be the rapid waning of a reflective moment in which people seemed to be taking a collective responsibility for this. “Gee, maybe we missed something,” said Democrats and liberals. There were a few voices suggesting that slagging Republicans might not be in our collective interests, and that maybe the mean-spiritedness of our politics was something that everyone owned — not just Trump supporters.

I saw a flicker of hope in calls for reason, solidarity and empathy as political values to replace the toxic soup we’re in. Alas we seem instead to have either accepted “post-truth” politics as inevitable, or worse yet, legitimate because our “outrage” excuses us from being civil or reasonable. So we inflame hostility instead of seeking to heal it. We love what makes us feel justified and morally superior, more than we love the pursuit of truth, or indeed the pursuit of much of anything that might serve our collective best interests. It’s a big, enthusiastic march to hell.

“Drinking the kool-aid” is common vernacular for accepting an idea with a kind of religious fervor that dampens reason. Some (but not all) may be aware that it alludes to the Jonestown Massacre of 1978: the staggering mass suicide of some 900 religious cult members some of who — yep — drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid to end it all. While evidence and survivors’ accounts suggest that many died under duress, others committed suicide willingly. Thus “drinking the kool-aid” doesn’t just describe buying in to a cult-life belief as an individual. Drinking kool-aid isn’t a lone act. It’s a social one. Mass delusion followed by mass suicide.

How have we become convinced, en masse, that disrespect and vitriol make for good politics? There are two forms of delusion at work here: the delusions of the embittered who think they will be saved by authoritarian leaders, and the delusions of those who believe that effective opposition to this movement takes the form piling on to the existing wealth of ad hominem memes and snarky commentary on the internet.

There are many possible explanations for our lining up at the Kool-Aid cauldron of political incivility. I’d like to offer one: a loss of collective memory. We’re losing the stories we need to connect our political behaviours to their consequences. I was born 25 years after the end of World War 2, and have some recollections of Remembrance Day as a visceral experience for the adults around me. I was a kid and I didn’t really get it. But there were people in my family and immediate circle who could speak of world wars in ways that ingrained a healthy respect for what is at stake in armed conflicts. [1] My own kids and their cohort are that much further removed from the influences of veterans, family members, teachers and public figures who could communicate, widely and in intimate terms, the real costs of violent global conflict. Lost children. Lost husbands. Rations of goods that we take for granted every day. PTSD. Imminent fear of violent death, rape, poverty, starvation and cold.

In the West, as the stories of veterans and other real people affected by the real consequences of global conflict fade, we’re left with an unacknowledged, collective sense that war is a kind of video game. There have been studies and accompanying commentary that video games do not cause players to become more violent.[2][3][4] If this is the case — if we indeed do not translate screens to reality — there’s no reason to think that we translate real events on screens to reality either. So violent conflict is readily abstracted to “something that happens to people in Syria.” It’s accompanied by a vague and helpless kind of empathy, but it’s an abstract empathy. It doesn’t carry the weight and power of having stories of human suffering — your own family’s suffering, or that of people you meet and talk to every day.

In short, because the real consequences of violent conflict are not part of our lived experience, and are no longer a part of our collective memory in the West, we’ve gotten really stupid. Like drinking-the-Kool-Aid stupid. Like kids playing shooter games, we engage in all manners of incivility and violence, and then turn the screen off and go get ourselves some lunch. As if the satisfying game of slagging our political opponents is not contributing to a downward road from incivility of words to incivility of deeds.

Endnotes

[1] I am also old enough to remember a kind of heavy fear around the Cold War and the prospect of nuclear attacks. A blast from my past: The 1983 movie, “The Day After.” It is one of a number of many movies and documentaries reflecting the public fear and pessimism of the era. It was controversial when released.

[2] I don’t know enough about these debates to weigh in on the evidence, one way or another, but it’s out there for those who would pursue it. Here’s a popular press article, anyway: The Truth About Video Games and Gun Violence.

On Authenticity

I have been thinking a lot about authenticity of late. Lots of triggers here:

First, I’ve been doing all this reading and contemplating about coaching relationships and coaching support groups, and the thing is that you can’t get anything out of these relationships without being vulnerable. People who are truly open to change will, with very rare exception, find they have to be themselves before they can find themselves. Man, that is hard. It takes real courage.

Mulling holiday excess. I wrote earlier about holiday celebrations that are motivated by the joy of sharing versus those that are motivated by “display.” I’d mentioned that there are no simple dividing lines here, because it is pretty natural for us to both love pulling out our best stuff for people we care about and to get caught up in caring about what strangers think. Continue reading

Why So Many Coaches?

questionsI’ve been mulling the proliferation of ADHD coaches. I always want to err on the side of thinking people are well-intentioned, so I attribute this in part to what I think is really a wonderful impulse: the desire to “pay it forward” when you have experienced support yourself. But this alone can’t account for the crazy-ass, exponential growth of all kinds of different coaching — not just ADHD coaching. You can hire a coach for most anything, from a generic “life coach” down to niches like parenting coaching, or even coaching to get laid (aka a “dating coach.”) The International Coaching Federation grew tenfold in a decade: from about 1,500 members in 1999 to 16,000 in 2011.[1] So what’s going on?

We’re confused. If you’re old enough to read non-fiction voluntarily, “constant change” and “complexity” are probably part of your vocabulary for describing the world you live and work in. Nothing is simple, dammit. Part of this is an unfortunate general by-product of adulthood, but in fields like psychology, sociology and economics, writers talk about the particular effects of a modern life that constantly demands complex decisions on the part of ordinary people.[2] Presented with an endless array of decisions to make — from biggies like what career to pursue down to picking the “right” running shoes from umpteen brands, we get tired, stressed out and confused. A coach, consultant, or Lululemon “educator” (I shit you not) becomes a welcome friend/expert who helps you bear the cognitive load of a world that demands your active attention at every turn.[3] Continue reading

On Not Taking Things Personally

I read Don Miguel’s The Four Agreements about fifteen years ago. It really is a lovely book, with self-evident wisdom in its four big ideas:

  • Be impeccable with your word
  • Take nothing personally
  • Don’t make assumptions
  • Always do your best

Like much of what constitutes genuine wisdom, the Four Agreements are deceptively simply. And that deceptive quality is important to acknowledge because it can be a real source of frustration when you are trying to use guidelines like this to “self-improve.” It’s certainly frustrated me over time, anyway.

But something nice crystallized for me in a recent podcast. Sharon Salzberg (she’s an American Buddhist teacher) was talking about how unsatisfying it is to practice meditation or loving kindness and it is so… wow. Nothing. No deep insights. No rush of enlightenment. Lots of times, not even the compassion or calmness that one kind of hopes will come out of such activities. Lots of days it’s just… nothing. But, she says, it’s really important to remember that the evidence of growth doesn’t reside in those moments, but in how you later show up in the world.

I realized that this has been true for me in my life: I actually am kind of better. More patient. Less self-centered. Kinder to myself and others. Quicker to get up again after being knocked on my ass. So it was nice to have this moment of realizing that my faith has been rewarded in some modest ways. It isn’t really faith in a religious sense: It’s a faith that continued efforts to be a better person are worth it, even when they’re really hard and there is little immediate reward for those efforts.

The “take nothing personally” idea in The Four Agreements is a case in point. I’ve had a couple of pretty hurtful experiences in the past month, but was ultimately uplifted when I realized that I had achieved some capacity to distance myself — my sense of self and my self-worth — from those painful moments. Fifteen years ago, staring at Miguel’s great idea that I “take nothing personally” was infuriating because I “got it” intellectually, but it wasn’t helping me a damn bit in the moments where I was most caught up in hurt, anger, and all those other crappy feelings that come with feeling oneself the object of another’s judgement.

It’s different now though. Could I pinpoint exactly when it has changed? No. Is it perfect? No, of course not — we all have our days and moments. But it is much, much better. So I think Salszberg’s observation is another bit of wisdom that looks simple, but isn’t. It’s this: keep trying, be patient, and be gentle with yourself when the insights and changes you are seeking don’t show up right away. They will with time and practice. Promise.

 

 

The Recipe Box

Lots of us love our mum’s recipe boxes. I was pleasantly surprised about five years ago when one of my daughters asked for mine. Turns out that something of all those years I spent in the kitchen had given her a touchstone… some sense of comfort and place.

As we get older, our parents still stay our parents; our kids still stay our kids. I still rely on my folks for advice, and comfort, and feeling like I’m connected somewhere even if the rest of the world feels like it is spinning away. They’ll never claim to have it all figured out, and neither will I. Who does?

So the recipes in the Recipe Box here aren’t really recipes. They don’t guarantee perfect outcomes. This is just my best way to keep trying to give my grown up kids what I can offer in terms of meaning-of-life stuff, just as my folks have done for me.

Holiday Excess: Down, Girl

This morning I am avoiding work by cruising the internet for mocktail recipes. I thought I might take over some fixings for virgin mojitos to the Aunties’ for Christmas Eve. And as is the way with these things, I got sucked into the foodie/entertaining/fuck-stupid-Pinterest-spams-everything vortex.[1] Somehow, I ended up watching a “how to make a charcuterie platter” video and fantasizing about rolling genoa salami into fancy looking flower things.

Among its many unforeseen effects, the internet has spawned a never-ending carnival of home décor, home entertaining, home DIY and home renovation. I’m always ambivalent about this stuff. It seems to provide many people with creative outlets that they genuinely enjoy. For me it’s cooking. Not much makes me happier than a day in the kitchen because I find it grounds me. And when I have the time, trying something new and making it look beautiful is a real pleasure.

Martha Stewart. Helping all to feel just a little more inadequate. Bitch.
Martha Stewart. Helping all to feel just a little more inadequate. Bitch.

I also love sharing food with family and friends. So, all the home entertaining fodder online gets me super ambivalent. This is because it is so difficult to parse our motivations when these home events cross over the line from that genuine enjoyment of sharing with others, and a less generous desire to display status and show others how awesome we are.

For better or for worse, as a species we are driven to seek out and display our social status. This observation is consistent across different cultures and different historical periods. It’s an observation that is arrived upon consistently from different academic disciplinary perspectives: social psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, archeology, social biology. You name it.  Cheng and Tracy (2014) describe two basic ways that this stuff has been thought about historically.[2]

One is the “dominance theory,” that says, in really simple terms, that we defer to dominant others because it is natural to do so, and because from a herd perspective, it is in our best interests to do so. There is lots of evidence to support this theory, but it is a dangerous one because it can be used very easily to defend social inequality. So, if you throw a better dinner party than your neighbour or live in a better house it may be accompanied by an unstated and broad acceptance that this is because you deserve to.[3] We accept this, as a society, as reasonably fair arrangement.

The other approach described by Cheng and Tracy is the “prestige theory.” This explanation for the pursuit of social status is that we seek it because we have lots of complicated reasons to find it satisfying to be seen well in the eyes of others. So, from this perspective, if you throw a better dinner party than your neighbour you might have put a ton of work into it because you care about what your neighbour thinks. You want to make a good impression.

The reason I find this second idea more interesting and compelling is because it helps me to understand that ambivalence I just described about entertaining excesses – holiday and otherwise. It helps to explain how we could simultaneously take sincere pleasure in putting our best foot (feet?) forward in how we arrange and open our homes to others we care about, while at the same time pursuing a largely unconscious agenda to be well regarded in the eyes of strangers that we actually don’t have any reason to give a shit about. Or to engage in subtle forms of social competition just out of habit.

Mass Media and Social Status Competition. Ugh.

The interesting thing about the internet and reality TV is that these media provide tempting opportunities for us to indulge what I’d argue are our lesser angels with regard to this “prestige” thesis of social status.

About five years ago, there was a (mercifully) short-lived show on Canadian reality TV called Dinner Party Wars. I had a friend who liked it, and I watched a few episodes, but quickly became squeamish. Because the deal was that strangers – three couples – would host dinner parties for each other, and be judged for their efforts by a panel. They would also be judged, secretly and usually uncharitably, by their guests in whispered asides from the bathroom, dutifully filmed for the show.

You couldn’t sink much lower. The very premise of the show was status competition for all the wrong reasons: the opening of one’s home and display of effort and creativity not to share the pleasure of company and good food, but to one-up strangers and display entertaining prowess for a wider audience.

If I have a point, I suppose it is that even if we accept that there are some compelling and powerful reasons for us to pursue status, we’ve still got a lot of choices about how we go about that, and to what ends. I try to be conscious of my motivations. A lot of times it helps me to make better decisions: to keep things more simple than I might have otherwise, and to focus my limited energy more on the people coming over than the stuff in my home surrounding the event. It might mean a less fancy dinner table, or fewer, less elaborate dishes, but it also means more time visiting instead of cooking, and less stress for everyone.

In fact, as I get older I more and more like the idea of keeping my home and entertaining efforts modest. It’s not always easy, because it’s not like I’m immune to status-seeking. I don’t think any of us are. But bringing some awareness to the ways in which we are seduced to seek and display “more” is also something of which we are all capable. And I think it offers us all the opportunity to slow down the damn consumption treadmill we are so caught up in.

The crap thing about social status is that it ties us together in that pernicious, endless pursuit of more. But the cool thing is that the very same forces that compel us to seek agreement and status among our social “others” can also be used to help us collectively to do better. It just requires turning the energy in the right direction. Mass social media gives us Pinterest and Dinner Party Wars, but is also gives us blog networks and virtual communities supporting the pursuit of less and better. It’s really all in our hands isn’t it?

[1] I *really* hate Pinterest.

[2] Cheng, J. & Tracy, J. (2014). Theoretical perspectives: The nature of social status and hierarchy. In The psychology of social status, Cheng, J., Tracy, J. & Anderson, C. (Eds.), pp. 3-27. New York: Springer.

[3] It’s really important here to realize that you may not being thinking this *specifically* about your neighbour, who you may quite like and respect. But if you take it out of the context of your personal relationships and think about your natural tendencies in interpreting the larger world – for example imagining the reasons why some people live in big houses and others in crappy apartments – you are likely to realize that you are unconsciously making judgements of merit. Those who have more must, we believe, have qualities that make them “good people:” hard working, intelligent, otherwise talented, self-disciplined, etc.