The Call of the Unknown

Experienced any change recently? Yeah, me too!

Our fifth Meaning Place gathering addressed Change and its many facets on both the very personal, and the societal level.

Change comes in all shapes and sizes: good and bad, incremental and monumental, easy and gut-wrenchingly difficult. We were quick to find out that all of us in attendance had experienced beautifully transformative moments of change as well as times when change ruthlessly destroyed all that was dear to us. We’ve all known the joy it offers and have also convulsed in the tears it brings.

Change is change; A neutral thing unto itself. It is our relationship to what is being changed that assigns its emotional charge.

Things around us are constantly changing, such as cells, bodies, seasons, landscapes, etc. We are, therefore, pretty well predisposed to go with the flow of these anticipated changes. But throw an unexpected change at us or superimpose it on us and we have ourselves a crisis. Break one of our carefully constructed categories (be they constructed by ourselves or our ancestors/culture/institutions) and we start to see the Unknown lurking around every corner.

Picture this: You are walking down a well-trodden path, flanked by nice sturdy walls. The walls are your categories and known constants. They keep you on your path, and keep anything new/unexpected/threatening at bay. But every so often, you pass areas where the wall is crumbling. You may see beautiful pastures on the other side or intimidating darkness, maybe there are some small tracks visible or it may be completely uncharted territory. At times the holes are so big that what is on the other side spills onto your path and engulfs you. Those holes are change. You can even choose to make those holes yourself.

Image by Mariana Cook, via http://www.cookstudio.com

The questions we as travelers might want to ask ourselves, however, are these:

Do I believe myself capable/worthy/adequate of exploring one of these unknown paths?
Do I trust myself?
Can I allow myself to be curious about this new option?

You’ve all seen The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, right? Remember the scene when the little girl first goes through the wardrobe and finds herself in the snowy park with the goat-person walking around? The ante room to Narnia?! That’s what it feels like when you decide to become curious about one of those holes, aka a new option. You are not in Kansas anymore, but you also don’t know yet what the new world is like and what it will have in store for you. It’s that moment when a friend all of a sudden becomes a love interest and 20 years later you find yourself married, living a life that only exists in this form because you are with them. The smallest switch can lead to enormous consequences, and that my friends, is some hopeful sh*t.

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The Chronicles of Narnia; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

But as my friend-turned-husband pointed out to me, once you have entered the anteroom you have also, knowingly or not, agreed to give up control, especially the further in you go. You’ve taken the risk of exploring the new, and since we don’t yet know the rules and customs of this strange world, who are we to impose our foreign laws unto it? And as much as I hate to admit it, this goes both ways. The more we want to be in control, the less adventures we will have.

What is this control we are so attached to anyways? A walled-in road? If we know that all roads, paths, and thoroughfares lead to the same destination, let’s be wise in choosing our route.

So take heart, and ask yourself what you are curious about these days. Change won’t be denied. All we can do is to grow our hearts so we may weather the inevitable storms.

Save the date for Meaning Place round 6, PLAY (thank god!) on June 18th, 10-11.30am.

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So, the Dalai Lama and a bunch of western psychologists walk into a bar . . .

by Laura San Nicolas

Ok, well, not a bar exactly. Or even close. But they did all sit down together, along with other western Buddhist teachers, at a conference in Dharmsala, India, in 1990. When it was esteemed American Buddhist teacher, Susan Salzberg’s turn to ask a question of His Holiness, here’s what she recalls:

“What do you think about self-hatred?” I asked when it was my turn to bring up an issue for discussion. I was eager to get directly to the suffering I had seen so often in my students, a suffering I was familiar with myself. The room went quiet as all of us awaited the answer of the Dalai Lama, revered leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Looking startled, he turned to his translator and asked pointedly in Tibetan again and again for an explanation. Finally, turning back to me, the Dalai Lama tilted his head, his eyes narrowed in confusion. “Self-hatred?” he repeated in English. “What is that?”

Yep, that’s right. The Dalai Lama didn’t get it. And despite repeated explanation and examples of the type of issues we are so familiar with in the West, he could only conclude, “I thought I had a very good acquaintance with the mind, but now I feel quite ignorant. I find this very, very strange.”

In my life, my mother was my chief teacher and model of compassion, the recognition of our shared humanity, the response to the suffering of others, and a desire to help them. “Jesus, Mary, Joseph, have mercy,” she would say whenever we passed an accident or heard a siren, or saw a news story on TV of someone committing violent crimes, going to jail, or being put to death. Compassion didn’t just extend to the times when bad things happened to good people, but to the bad people as well.

My favorite recollection of my mom’s tendency toward compassion was directed toward a character in a favorite soap opera we faithfully watched every day—Dark Shadows. A Gothic saga of a vampire returning to his family home after being imprisoned for hundreds of years, Barnabas Collins didn’t start out loveable in any way, but as anti-heroes tend to do, he tried to come around in time, or at least we wanted him to. Unfortunately, when he did find his lost humanity, he basically aged hundreds of years in a couple of seconds, and was left in a pile of ash on the floor. “Poor Barnabas,” I’d hear my mom saying for days, if not weeks, after that episode, standing in the kitchen chopping carrots, or even reading the paper as she paused to shake her head and sigh, “Poor Barnabas. Poor, poor Barnabas.”

Dark Shadows, Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins

I’ve been forever grateful for the example my mom set for me, but I eventually noticed that while she encouraged compassion for strangers, it stopped short when it came to herself—and by extension, to me. Self-compassion has remained as elusive and confusing to me as the idea of self-hatred was to the Dalai Lama. And so, I was primed to become a therapist at a pretty early age.

Like the western therapists and teachers who sat with the Dalai Lama in India so many years ago, a lack of self-compassion and compassion to others is a centerpiece of the work I do with clients as a therapist. “I’m not worthy,” “I don’t deserve happiness,” “It’s everyone else’s fault,” are laments I hear on a daily basis. This illustrates itself in depression, anxiety, anger, and blame, and effectively blocks us from experiencing the present moment in favor of what has been or what we fear is coming. Helping to remove that block from others is my daily work. Learning to remove that block from myself is my life’s work.

In his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, psychologist Christopher Germer tells us that although our personal experience may tell us otherwise, self-compassion is the “most natural thing in the world.” Deep within all sentient beings is the wish to be happy and free from suffering. The Buddhists’ (they seem to know a lot about this stuff—remember, no word for self-hatred) Metta or Lovingkindness Meditation is a tremendous tool to increasing our ability for self-compassion, by simply recognizing the common desire in all of us to be safe, happy, and free from suffering. Try it:

Lovingkindness Meditation

Set aside up to 20 minutes a day for formal practice.

Take a few deep breaths and state the intention:

Just as all beings wish to be happy and free from suffering, may I be happy and free from suffering.

Repeat the following phrases over and over for the duration of your meditation:

May I be safe.

May I be happy.

May I be healthy.

May I live with ease.

Good work! What did you notice? Any tension or resistance in your thoughts or in your body? If it seems hard to direct this energy to yourself, don’t worry. Just start with a subject that you feel no tension toward—your puppy, a baby, a tree. Just replace the word “I” with “my puppy,” etc.

Better? Fantastic! And here’s the really good news: when we practice the Lovingkindness Meditation, whether we direct compassion toward ourselves or to others, it all comes back to us if we are willing to receive it (I wish mom had known that part). And if we direct compassion to ourselves, we will naturally develop more compassion for others.

Feeling daring? Once you become proficient at self-compassion and puppy dog compassion, you can do the world a favor and try directing it toward more difficult subjects. Your nosy neighbor, perhaps? President Trump? Kim Jong Un? The insurance companies? Remember, it all comes back to you, and I think we can all agree we could use a kinder, gentler world right now.

Here’s what compassion is NOT, by the way. Compassion is not a virtue. It is not forgiveness or an excuse for bad behavior. It is not a command, and it does not preclude boundaries. Researcher Brene Brown, who has authored numerous books on self-compassion, vulnerability, and what she calls “Wholeheartedness,” lends us this reminder:

“Compassion is not a virtue—it is a commitment. It’s not something we have or don’t have—it’s something we practice.”

So practice. Start today. And remember this other little tidbit from the Buddha himself:

“If you truly loved yourself, you could never hurt another.”

Your Truth, My Truth… it’s all relative. Or is it?

“Opinions are cheap. Data is cheap. Personal truths?… those are hard won.” These are all comments gleaned from our most recent Meaning Place conversation, TRUTH.

What is truth?

This overwhelming question becomes much more manageable if separated into two aspects: first, how do facts, information and “objective reality” constitute truth? Second, what are personal truths and how do they differ from hard facts or opinions?

My beloved pastime of going down the etymological rabbit hole brought up some interesting results. Truth derives in part from the Mercian word  treowð, which meant “faith, faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty; veracity, quality of being true; pledge, covenant”. Not until the 1560’s has the word truth been used to define whether something is accurate, factual, correct, or not.

Now tell me this doesn’t already open a Pandora’s Box? Well, to me it does, as it points me straight to our beliefs, values and morals. And aren’t, especially beliefs, just that? Beliefs, as in not necessarily verifiable, maybe even not real. I would argue, not so. Hear me out if you will.

Let me introduce you to Rachel Naomi Remen, an author and clinical professor of family and community medicine, who uses story as a pathway to healing. She found that in her work with cancer patients addressing merely the medical facts did little to actually heal them, in particular with terminally ill patients once all treatments had been used there was nothing left to offer (this was before hospice care). These medical diagnoses, which are momentous life facts, couldn’t just be reduced down to physical treatment. They needed to be dealt with in terms of how they affected the entire life of the ill person. What did the disease make them turn to for meaning? To Mrs Remen the facts of our lives, which for ill people is their medical diagnosis, are just the bones of the story. They don’t tell you everything, but without them the story wouldn’t exist in its current form. The facts need to be put in context of how they are being experienced.

Let’s make this concrete with a personal example!

A dramatic fact of my life is that I witnessed someone being killed right next to me, by being hit by a car, as we were walking down the street. This alone doesn’t tell you enough, however. It doesn’t tell you how it has affected the entire rest of my life. But if I go on to tell you that one of my core personal truths is that I believe life is too short to be lived unintentionally, then you see a much fuller picture of who I am. We can’t separate one from the other (facts from personal truth and vice versa).

What I am getting at here is that our personal truths are arrived at through our experiences, and have therefore been deeply ingrained into our system via intense emotions and sensations. Unlike opinions they are not just thoughts.  Therefore, if someone were to tell me that my personal truths are wrong, it wouldn’t really make a difference to me, especially since they are constantly tempered with doubt and pain for the world anyway. And yet, I arrive back at them.

Once you are aware of some personal truths I would argue it is prudent to investigate whether or not they actually serve you. Ideally, they will become strong tethers, keeping you anchored when life gets tumultuous. But they can also have the opposite effect and put you in a constant position of defensiveness if threatened by perceived contradictions. The German philosopher, Gadamer, said that it is a sign of a society’s strength how it deals with contradiction. I would add that this is true for our personal truths as well.

It bears pointing out that truth has much to do with trust and courage. Whom do we trust for information, and is this trust warranted? Can I be brave enough to truly listen well?

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that “for things to reveal themselves to us, we must be ready to abandon our views about them.” But in times like these, when so much seems at stake, it feels like an especially tall order to abandon our views to listen better.

I heard this lovely story about a Buddhist monk, who was asked why he didn’t get upset when students went off to study different meditation techniques with other masters. His answer was that the truth does not suffer from comparison.

Listening well, or like Rachel Naomi Remen puts it, “listening generously” doesn’t mean opening the floodgates and being picked up with the current, if your personal truth is a true tether. The currents of new and challenging insights might have you swaying left or right, up or down, but ideally your truth will provide you with a place from which to survey the waters around you.

As John O’Donohue points out ”we have unlearned the patience and attention of lingering at the thresholds where the unknown awaits us.” So here are three concrete things that have helped me with this predicament.

Mu, Yoga and Beauty.

Say what?

Mu is a concept from the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which encourages you to ask a better question in order to get to a fuller truth. In essence, don’t repeat the same old questions folks in your echo chamber have been throwing at the other side. Instead, ask yourself what it is you are truly curious about and what question might be generous enough to elicit a fuller answer.

And yoga? Yes, we have all taken a class by now. I know! But at its best, yoga makes you more attentive and curious by encouraging you to turn toward the most annoying of sensations. It tells you not to curse the instructor inwardly for putting you in a difficult pose, or to mentally check out and just go through the motions, but instead to ask good questions. “What do I feel? Burning, throbbing, stinging? Where? Will it go away if I breathe more deeply, if I shift, or do I have to get out of the pose and get back into it more carefully?” This level of courageous curiosity will start to spill into many more aspects of your life.

Lastly, I wanted to point to art and the fact that some truths can be stated so much more poignantly in a poem, story, or piece of music than through the mere recitation of facts.I believe it is beauty that facilitates that. And by that, I don’t mean “pretty” beauty, but “awe inspiring” beauty.

There are so many people who have made major contributions to the understanding of our species who all bring beauty into the mix. Scientists for example will judge the soundness of their equations based on how beautiful they are, as in, how “simple and without complication”.

The poet John O’Donohue offers insight again by remarking that “our deepest self-knowledge unfolds as we are embraced by beauty.”  And Keats takes it home by letting us know that “Beauty is truth, Truth is beauty- that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”
To sum all of this up, it strikes me that imagination, curiosity, attentiveness, and beauty are the great revealers of Truth. Let’s use them!

Treasure List

In our last gathering we were reminded that life’s fickle, unstable and finite nature has unsettled humans for ages. Traditions come to the rescue! They have evolved to help us feel safe. But not only do they comfort ourselves, they also are a way of caring for each other.

Traditions can range from personal things we do to feel grounded to global practices that connect us to broader group of humanity.

Here are some of our favorites from our 2nd Meaning Place meeting:

Children playing tug of war
Sports minus the competitiveness

Robin H. shared that coming from a family that has always been involved in sports, she had to reevaluate what about this family tradition she cherishes. Discarding the often competitive nature of sports has allowed her to retain physical activity as a big part of her life, which now has a replenishing effect.

Audience at business conference.
Higher education as a means to measure your passion.

Andrew O. shared that returning to college as an adult learner has become a way of proving to himself his commitment to his field of interest. This connects him to the age old tradition of truly pursuing ones passion through formal education.

Specific foods and full meals with friends, and family were mentioned by physical, and remote Meaning Place participants alike. Catherine said that food has always been an easy way for her to connect with strangers and neighbors, while sharing her own ethnic background with them. Katlin and Sandra mentioned how taking time for a full, sit-down meal with their friends is always restorative, as it will most likely result in a meaningful conversation.

Sunrise on Round Bald Panorama
A trail for every occasion

Having different hiking paths for different occasions has become an almost ritualistic choice in Robin S.’s life, when she feels the need for comfort. A specific view or scenery can provide the necessary component for our inner lives to settle again.

There were many more big and small traditions we shared. Add onto our list with your personal favorites in the comment section!

  • Marriage
  • Oscar nominee movie marathon
  • Honoring elders
  • Birthdays
  • Quiet contemplation

 

What the @#?! Is Normal?

by Laura San Nicolas

Traditions help establish a stable foundation for our lives, provide structure and comfort, and give us a sense of connection to generations past and yet to come. But if we look at Tradition in its largest sense, as part of our cultural/societal norm, we come up against the sticky question, “What the @#?! is normal anyway? If I’m “normal” does that mean I have to be like everybody else? Who determines what is “normal” and what is not?”

When I was growing up in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, it was pretty much considered bad form to be “normal.” Normal seemed to mean cosigning the outdated behaviors of our parents and government during a time of tumultuous change. At the same time, parents and government seemed to take glee in pointing out that we of the younger generation were just being conformist to ourselves. We all wanted to look the same, act the same, and take up the same passionate arguments as each other. The older generation felt that the very fiber of our way of life was under attack. The younger generation felt we couldn’t afford not to challenge the status quo if we were to become a more equality-based society. Neither side liked the way the other was going about making their respective points.

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Rennie Ellis, Generation Gap, Kings Cross,Sydney, Australia 1970-71

So there was a stalemate that became known as “the generation gap.” But that’s a whole other blog post. What the real fight here was about was Normal vs. Average.

A norm is a standard, model, or pattern of what is agreed upon in a society. It is what most people over time have decided best suits the long-term, peaceful survival of us. Norms tend to stay stable over time; changes in the way a society behaves come slowly.

The “normal” we’ve based most of our behavior on in today’s society comes from age-old concepts like The 10 Commandments (don’t kill each other), the Bill of Rights (we should be equal under the law), and good manners (saying please and thank you really helps in getting along with others). It gives us a standard to test our new ideas against that is not just based on how many people are doing whatever. For example, there have been times and places in our history where it was “average” to keep slaves. Those folks might’ve even argued it was “normal,” because “everyone was doing it.” But from the broader perspective, what with all of us being human, it was eventually decided that buying and selling other people was not within our norms–so much so, that we decided it should no longer be allowed to be “average.”

Average, can have a tendency to get us into trouble. . The word “average” is defined as what is considered typical, common, or ordinary. An “average” is a quantity or rating that determines an arithmetic mean; for our purposes, what most people are doing as opposed to what is expected people do as determined by time-tested tradition and behavior. When  an “average” becomes strongly held by most people over time, it may indeed become “normal.” For example, women have always been part of our society. In fact, there tend to be more of them than men! And they can even make other humans! But it took a lot of them to get together and make a lot of noise, to convince enough of us that their voice and presence had an equal right to be heard as voters, something so “normal” today we now take that right for granted.

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Republican [National] Convention, [Chicago, Illinois,] 1920

As a whole,we get concerned about things that fall outside the norm. Things outside the norm can range from curious to  sub or supernatural to even life threatening.  By contrast, however, things inside the norm do not have to be bland, restrictive, or ordinary. It turns out, it is “normal” to be different from each other.

I found someone else struggling to determine the difference between Normal vs. Average on http://english.stackexchange.com, an English language and usage forum. According to member, Tom Au:

An “average” person is a normal person BY DEFINITION.

“Normal” means “close to” average (in statistics), but plus or minus. It is this “plus or minus” part that allows “normal” to be NOT average. Even so, it would mean that the deviation from average is a “normal” or usual amount, and not “way out.”

Thanks, Tom!

The “plus or minus” Tom speaks of is the standard deviation of the subject at hand, in our case, “normal,” and could look kind of like this:

bell_curve

Please note that the norm allows for 2 standard deviations above and below the mean. That means that our mean, “normal,” has a pretty wide berth. Everything that falls between -2 standard deviations and +2 standard deviations is some expression of normal! So while most people may cluster around the mean (or average) we can see it is “normal” to have a wide range of individual differences before we get into the dread areas of “ABnormal.” Within the range of what we consider normal, there is plenty of room for traditionalists and rebels, extroverts and introverts, hippies and their parents, millennials and everybody else. Nobody has to surrender their individualist card; nobody needs to call anybody names.
At this time in history, we are challenging all kinds of basic concepts, both average and normal. And there are A LOT of loud voices trying to convince us of who is right and who is not and how we should change or stay the same.  I think we would be well advised when listening to these voices, to look at the norms (the importance of truth, for example) we’ve set up for ourselves as a society, and at the averages (is climate change a real threat or not? Should we do something about it?) that are grabbing our attention over time. Because when voices are especially loud, we don’t want to just be average; swept up in emotion or anger, we need to remember to ground ourselves in normal.

And finally, when we get really confused, be sure to remember the words of our friend, Viktor Frankl:

“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”

The gist

Despite torrential rains and minor location confusions Meaning Place was off to a wonderful start last month. Our conversation stuck with me for the rest of the day and continues to make me think. Here is the gist of it:
 

Laura expertly related Viktor Frankl’s emphasis on meaning as a source for enduring taxing times. His insights and therapeutic approach being rooted in his experience of surviving internment in the Nazi concentration camps made them especially convincing. In the ensuing conversation we shared our responses and identified personal struggles of finding meaning via the conventionally promoted outlets.
A shared insight was that even though job accomplishments, material goods or academic achievements are worthwhile pursuits, their attainments still only fall into the short-lived (90 second) window of happiness, instead of a more enduring experience of satisfaction. Whether we approach our endeavors full of entitlement, in self-flagellating martyrdom or in a more healthy middle way, it appeared to us to still lead to the same dissatisfying result.

The small, yet helpful word “Why?” seems to be a key for a more rewarding path through life. “Why do I do what I do?” Especially in the apparent falling apart of traditional structures we need to become clear of our personal WHY.

It strikes me, that all along we have been searching for meaning expecting it to look a certain way and are learning now that the glasses through which we were looking hindered us from seeing it. If we equate happiness to meaning we won’t see it. Yet, maybe paradoxically, there can be happiness within meaning.

You shared that you see it hiding in plain sight at times in relationships with family, friends or students, in the realization that you are enough as you are in every given moment, in maintaining clear intentions (or a clear WHY), in cultivating stillness, and by pausing and noticing. So how do we strengthen our attunement to our personal WHY?

Having pondered all the rich things you brought up naturally makes me wonder about the relationship of tradition to meaning. Especially how traditions can help us strengthen the aforementioned attunement to our WHY. What within various traditions is worth preserving and fostering and what has become obsolete? How about we create an “endangered species list of traditions” that are meaningful to us the next time we meet?

Are you in?

We will meet Feb. 19th, 2017 for Meaning Place round 2, TRADITION at 10am-11.30am, in downtown Laguna Beach.

RSVP to themeaningplace@gmail.com to receive address and directions.

Leaving you with the brilliance of Viktor E. Frankl (video link) until we meet again.

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In Person

The year 2016 felt like a relentless year. The tense socio-political climate combined with the  never-ending stream of shocking, and sad news left me longing for a communal place to process it all and be uplifted. However, outside of traditional faith-based communities, to which I do not belong, there seemed to be nowhere to go.

Talking to family members, friends and being on social media wasn’t enough anymore. The signing of petitions and giving of money still left me sitting at home questioning if any of it will make a difference, and feeling isolated from the “rest of society”.

The missing link was a way to weave connections between all that news, the accompanying emotions, and the desire to do something meaningful. A near impossible feat on your own because it is so hard to look beyond yourself. Your own entrenched thoughts, behavioral patterns, and surrounding echo chamber, have you stuck in your old loop.

The logical answer is community.

I believe there is something special about meeting in-person and hearing each other speak. It’s not necessarily about solving something right away, but rather about witnessing each other’s presence and asking today’s hard questions together.

One of my heroes, Krista Tippett, talks about the importance of renewing “public life”:

“Public life is bigger than political life. We have narrowly equated the two in recent years, and we’ve impoverished ourselves in the process. Public life includes all of our disciplines and endeavors, including our selves as citizens and professional people and neighbors and parents and friends. The places we’ve looked for leadership and modeling have become some of the most broken in our midst. And so it is up to us, where we live, to start having the conversations we want to be hearing and creating the realities we want to inhabit.”

We all want a meaningful life but often don’t know where to begin. Maria Popova, the founder of Brainpickings.org in a conversation with Krista Tippett brings up the word TRIVIAL, which is the opposite to MEANINGful. Trivia are bits and pieces of information you glean by often impatiently skimming a source, she says. By letting this impatience be the driving force the trivia never gets assimilated or connected to the other million pieces of information we have flying around in our heads. To turn trivia into knowledge, which is the material of MEANING, in her words, you have to contemplateand that takes time.

Community helps to not let yourself off that contemplation-hook.

In the privacy of our home it is so easy not to invest the time… Hello, Netflix! But, just like we go to a yoga class, because we know 90 minutes of moving is beneficial for building strength and flexibility the same is true for building meaning.

Together we can propel each other toward the meaningful life we long for.

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