Perseverance

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~ The Endurance trapped in the Antarctic ice

“You can get used to anything – haven’t I already said that?

Isn’t that what all survivors say?” 

― Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Good morning friends,

I believe we are somewhere around week ten with respect to how long we have been living a significantly altered life. Although we are all affected by the same virus, the ways we are affected differ dramatically. The notion of perseverance, however, is surely applicable to the majority of us. After all, everyone is persevering in the direction of an unknown future. Perseverance will be the theme of this week.

Also, considering that with every week to come more perseverance will be needed, I’m going to make perseverance a sub-theme of every week. On Monday’s and Friday’s I will include an excerpt from the book Endurance, written by Alfred Lansing. Endurance is the tale of Shackleton’s ill-fated attempt to cross the Antarctic continent in 1915, and is often referred to as the greatest survival story of all time. This book was first recommended to me by a brilliant young person two years ago. He planted a seed in my heart to read it, and I find it interesting that it dropped in my lap, and I felt compelled to read it, now. As I have been reading I have found that following Shackleton’s story while living a story of endurance of our own, has been powerfully comforting. I hope you find the same over the weeks to come.

We join the crew of the ship, Endurance, on October 27, 2015 after they have already been trapped in the ice for 9 months. Upon initially becoming trapped, the decision had been made to wait until the spring thaw, when hopefully the ice would melt and the ship would be freed. However, no one counted on the immense pressure that the ship would experience as massive ice floes compressed one another in the wake of the antarctic storms and gales. Eventually, the ship was unable to withstand this pressure. Huge cracks developed in the hull of the Endurance, allowing water to flood in at a rate too rapid for the crew to manage. Eventually, the order was given to abandon ship. This is where we join the story:

The Writing: Alfred Lansing (From Endurance)

“The order to abandon ship was given at 5pm. For most of the men, however, no order was needed because by then everybody knew that the ship was done and that it was time to try to give up trying to save her. There was no show of fear or even apprehension. They had fought unceasingly for three days and they had lost… She was still being crushed. Not all at once, but slowly, a little at a time. The pressure of ten million tons of ice was driving in against her sides…

They worked with a deliberate urgency, hardly speaking to one another. There was no display of alarm, however. In fact, apart from the movement of the ice and the sounds from the ship, the scene was one of relative calm. The temperature was 8 1/2 degrees below zero, and a light southerly wind was blowing. Overhead, the twilight sky was clear…

The general feeling of relief at being off the ship was not shared by one man – at least not in the larger sense. He was a thickset individual with a wide face and a broad nose, and he spoke with a trace of an Irish brogue… His name was Sir Ernest Shackleton, and the twenty-seven men he had watched so ingloriously leaving their stricken ship were the members of his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition… The position was deep in the icy wasteland of the Antarctic’s treacherous Weddell Sea, just about midway between the South Pole and the nearest known outpost of humanity, some 1,200 miles away.

Few men have borne the responsibility Shackleton did at that moment. Though he certainly was aware that their situation was desperate, he could not possibly have imagined then the physical and emotional demands that ultimately would be placed upon them, the rigors they would have to endure, the sufferings to which they would be subjected.

They were for all intents and purposes alone in the frozen Antarctic seas. It had been very nearly a year since they had last been in contact with civilization. Nobody in the outside world knew they were in trouble, much less where they were. They had no radio transmitter with which to notify any would-be rescuers, and it is doubtful that any rescuers could have reached them even if they had been able to broadcast an SOS. It was 1915, and there were no no helicopters, no Weasels, no Sno-Cats, no suitable planes.

Thus their plight was naked and terrifying in its simplicity. If they were to get out – they had to get themselves out…

The nearest known place where they might at least find food and shelter was tiny Paulet Island, less than a mile and a half in diameter, which lay 346 miles northwest across the heaving pack ice. There, in 1903, twelve years before, the crew of a Swedish ship had spent the winter after their vessel, the Antarctic, had been crushed by the Weddell Sea ice. The ship which finally rescued that party deposited its stock of stores on Paulet Island for the use of any later castaways. Ironically, it was Shackleton himself who had been commissioned at the time to purchase those stores – and now, a dozen years later, it was he who needed them…

The plan, as they all knew, was to march toward Paulet Island, 346 miles to the northwest, where the stores left in 1903 should still be. The distance was farther than from New York to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and they would be dragging two of their three boats with them, since it was assumed that they would eventually run into open water.

McNeish and McLeod began mounting the whaler and one of the cutters onto the sledges. The boats and their sledges would weigh more than a ton apiece, and nobody had any delusions that it would be easy to drag them over the chaotic surface of the ice, with its pressure ridges occasionally two stories high.

Nevertheless, there was a remarkable absence of discouragement. All the men were in a state of dazed fatigue, and nobody paused to reflect on the terrible consequences of losing their ship. Nor were they upset by the fact that they were now camped on a piece of ice perhaps 6 feet thick… There was even a trace of exhilaration in their attitude. At least, they had a clear cut task ahead of them. The nine months of indecision, of speculation of what might happen, of aimlessly drifting over the pack were over. Now they simply had to get themselves out, however appallingly difficult that might be.

That’s why I want to speak to you now. To say: no person, trying to take responsibility for her or his own identity, should have to be so alone. There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors… I make up this strange packet for you, threaded with love. I think you thought there was no such place for you, and perhaps there was none then, but there is now. We will have to make it, we who want an end to suffering, who want to change the laws of history (the patterns of our ancestors, of our past), if we are not to give ourselves away.”

~ Adrienne Rich

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The Poetry: Robert Frost and Maya Angelou

STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING

By Robert Frost

 

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

***

CONTINUE

By Maya Angelou (Thanks, Amy)

My wish for you

Is that you continue

Continue

To be who and how you are

To astonish a mean world

With your acts of kindness

Continue

To allow humor to lighten the burden

of your tender heart

Continue

In a society dark with cruelty

To let the people hear the grandeur

Of God in the peals of your laughter

Continue

To let your eloquence

Elevate the people to heights

They had only imagined

Continue

To remind the people that

Each is as good as the other

And that no one is beneath

Nor above you

Continue

To remember your own young years

And look with favor upon the lost

And the least and the lonely

Continue

To put the mantel of your protection

Around the bodies of

The young and defenseless

Continue

To take the hand of the despised

And diseased and walk proudly with them

In the high street

Some might see you and

Be encouraged to do likewise

Continue

To plant a public kiss of concern

On the cheek of the sick

And the aged and infirm

And count that as a

Natural action to be expected

Continue

To let gratitude be the pillow

Upon which you kneel to

Say your nightly prayer

And let faith be the bridge

You build to overcome evil

And welcome good

Continue

To ignore no vision

Which comes to enlarge your range

And increase your spirit

Continue

To dare to love deeply

And risk everything

For the good thing

Continue

To float

Happily in the sea of infinite substance

Which set aside riches for you

Before you had a name

Continue

And by doing so

You and your work

Will be able to continue

Eternally.

 

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~ Grand Canyon, East Rim

The Science: William James (From The Energies of Men)

**William James, often called the father of psychology in North America, is considered to be one of the most brilliant minds to have lived. Although this excerpt, from his essay, “The Energies of Men” is not an account of modern psychological research, it does reflect observations of an expert deeply immersed in the field. Considering that exercise science still does not know precisely why we get tired, I think that these points by James are of greater value to us today than any study.

“Everyone knows what it is to start a piece of work, either intellectual or muscular, feeling stale… And everybody knows what it is to “warm up” to his job. The process of warming up gets particularly striking in the phenomenon known as “second wind.” On usual occasions we make a practice of stopping an occupation as soon as we meet the first effective layer (so to call it) of fatigue. We have then walked, played, or worked “enough,” so we desist. That amount of fatigue is an efficacious obstruction on this side of which our usual life is cast. But if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed… In exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue-distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own — sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.

It is evident that our organism has stored-up reserves of energy that are ordinarily not called upon, but that may be called upon: deeper and deeper strata of combustible or explosible material, discontinuously arranged, but ready for use by anyone who probes so deep, and repairing themselves by rest as well as do the superficial strata. Most of us continue living unnecessarily near our surface…

Of course there are limits: the trees don’t grow into the sky. But the plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.

The organism adapts itself, and as the rate of waste augments, augments correspondingly the rate of repair. I say the rate and not the time of repair. The busiest man needs no more hours of rest than the idler… Anyone may be in vital equilibrium at very different rates of energizing [but] a man who energizes below his normal maximum fails by just so much to profit by his chance at life.

In measuring the human energies of which I speak, qualities as well as quantities have to be taken into account. Everyone feels that his total power rises when he passes to a higher qualitative level of life.

Writing is higher than walking, thinking is higher than writing, deciding higher than thinking, deciding “no” higher than deciding “yes”—at least the man who passes from one of these activities to another will usually say that each later one involves a greater element of inner work than the earlier ones, even though the total heat given out or the foot-pounds expended by the organism, may be less… We need a particular spur or effort to start us upon inner work; it tires us to sustain it; and when long sustained, we know how easily we lapse.

Inner work, though it so often reinforces outer work, quite as often means its arrest. To relax, to say to ourselves … “Peace! be still!” is sometimes a great achievement of inner work…

Every one is familiar with the phenomenon of feeling more or less alive on different days. Every one knows on any given day that there are energies slumbering in him which the incitements of that day do not call forth, but which he might display if these were greater. Most of us feel as if a sort of cloud weighed upon us, keeping us below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.

As a rule men habitually use only a small part of the powers which they actually possess and which they might use under appropriate conditions…

The human individual thus lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum. In elementary faculty, in coordination, in power of inhibition and control, in every conceivable way, his life is contracted like the field of vision of an hysteric subject — but with less excuse, for the poor hysteric is diseased, while in the rest of us it is only an inveterate habit — the habit of inferiority to our full self — that is bad…

We are each and all of us to some extent victims of habit-neurosis. We have to admit the wider potential range and the habitually narrow actual use. We live subject to arrest by degrees of fatigue which we have come only from habit to obey. Most of us may learn to push the barrier farther off, and to live in perfect comfort on much higher levels of power.”

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The Spiritual: Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and Yann Martel (From The Life of Pi)

Just over four years ago, I was sitting at Hypo2 Sport (when it used to be beside Summit Gym, Flagstaff people). It was late, and I was working, and also worrying about something that meant a lot to me. Out of the blue, my friend, Danny sent me this transcript of a speech given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland at Brigham Young University in 1999. I’m not sure what moved him to do it, or maybe I am 😉 But, it came at the right time. Today, I am pleased to broaden our spiritual sources for these emails to the LDS church with this powerful message. I hope, regardless of the specifics of your faith, that you will feel as encouraged by reading it as I was that evening.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland: “Cast Not Away Therefore Your Confidence”

Beware the temptation to retreat from a good thing. If it was right when you prayed 

about it and trusted in it, it is right now.

There is a lesson in the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision which virtually every Latter-day Saint has had occasion to experience, or one day soon will. It is the plain and very sobering truth that before great moments, certainly before great spiritual moments, there can come adversity, opposition, and darkness. Life has some of those moments for us, and occasionally they come just as we are approaching an important decision or a significant step in our lives.

In that marvelous account which we read too seldom, Joseph said he had scarcely begun his prayer when he felt a power of astonishing influence come over him. “Thick darkness,” as he described it, gathered around him and seemed bent on his utter destruction. But he exerted all his powers to call upon God to deliver him out of the power of this enemy, and as he did so a pillar of light brighter than the noonday sun descended gradually until it rested upon him. At the very moment of the light’s appearance, he found himself delivered from the destructive power which had held him bound.

Most of us do not need any more reminders than we have already had that there is one who personifies “opposition in all things,” that “an angel of God” fell “from heaven” and in so doing became “miserable forever.” What a chilling destiny! Because this is Lucifer’s fate, “he sought also the misery of all mankind,” Lehi teaches us.2

The Fight Goes On

An entire article could be devoted to this subject of the adversary’s strong, preliminary, anticipatory opposition to many of the good things God has in store for us. But I want to move past that observation to another truth we may not recognize so readily. This is a lesson in the parlance of the athletic contest that reminds us “it isn’t over until it’s over.” It is the reminder that the fight goes on. Unfortunately we must not think Satan is defeated with that first strong breakthrough which so dramatically brought the light and moved us forward.

To make my point a little more vividly, may I go to another passage of scripture, indeed, to another vision. You will recall that the book of Moses begins with him being taken up to “an exceedingly high mountain” where, the scripture says, “he saw God face to face, and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses.” What then followed was what happens to prophets who are taken to high mountains. The Lord said to Moses: “Look, and I will show thee the workmanship of mine hands. … Moses looked, and … beheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold, discerning it by the spirit of God. And he beheld also the inhabitants thereof, and there was not a soul which he beheld not.”3

This experience is remarkable by every standard. It is one of the great revelations given in human history. It stands with the greatest accounts we have of any prophet’s experience with Divinity.

But Moses’ message to you today is, Don’t let your guard down. Don’t assume that a great revelation, some marvelous, illuminating moment, the opening of an inspired path, is the end of it. Remember, it isn’t over until it’s over.

What happens to Moses next, after his revelatory moment, would be ludicrous if it were not so dangerous and so true to form. Lucifer—in an effort to continue his opposition, in his unfailing effort to get his licks in later if not sooner—appears and shouts in equal portions of anger and petulance after God has revealed Himself to the prophet: “Moses, … worship me.” But Moses is not having it. He has just seen the real thing, and by comparison this sort of performance is pretty dismal.

“Moses looked upon Satan and said: Who art thou? … Where is thy glory, that I should worship thee? For behold, I could not look upon God, except his glory should come upon me. … But I can look upon thee in the natural man. …Where is thy glory, for it is darkness unto me? And I can judge between thee and God… Get thee hence, Satan; deceive me not.”

The record then depicts a reaction that is both pathetic and frightening:

“And now, when Moses had said these words, Satan cried with a loud voice, and ranted upon the earth, and commanded, saying: I am the Only Begotten, worship me. And it came to pass that Moses began to fear exceedingly; and as he began to fear, he saw the bitterness of hell.

Nevertheless, calling upon God [the very phrase used by Joseph Smith], he received strength, and he commanded, saying: Depart from me, Satan, for this one God only will I worship, which is the God of glory.

And now Satan began to tremble, and the earth shook… And it came to pass that Satan cried with a loud voice, with weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth; and he departed hence,”4 always to come again, we can be sure, but always to be defeated by the God of glory—always.

Do Not Draw Back

I wish to encourage every one of us regarding the opposition that so often comes after enlightened decisions have been made, after moments of revelation and conviction have given us a peace and an assurance we thought we would never lose. In his letter to the Hebrews, the Apostle Paul was trying to encourage new members who had just joined the Church, who undoubtedly had had spiritual experiences and received the pure light of testimony, only to discover that their troubles had not ended but that some of them had just begun.

Paul pleaded with those new members in much the same way President Gordon B. Hinckley is pleading with new members today. The reminder is that we cannot sign on for a battle of such eternal significance and everlasting consequence without knowing it will be a fight—a good fight and a winning fight, but a fight nevertheless. Paul says to those who thought a new testimony, a personal conversion, a spiritual baptismal experience would put them beyond trouble—to these he says, “Call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions.” Then this tremendous counsel, which is at the heart of my counsel to you:

Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward.

For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. …

In Latter-day Saint talk that is to say, Sure it is tough—before you join the Church, while you are trying to join, and after you have joined. That is the way it has always been, Paul says, but don’t draw back. Don’t panic and retreat. Don’t lose your confidence. Don’t forget how you once felt. Don’t distrust the experience you had.

I suppose every returned missionary and probably every convert reading these words knows exactly what I am talking about. Appointments for discussions canceled, the Book of Mormon in a plastic bag hanging from a front doorknob, baptismal dates not met. And so it goes through the teaching period, through the commitments and the baptism, through the first weeks and months in the Church, and more or less forever—at least, the adversary would pursue it forever if he thought he could see any weakening of your resolve, any chink in your armor.

This opposition turns up almost anyplace something good has happened. It can happen when you are trying to get an education. It can hit you after your first month in your new mission field. It certainly happens in matters of love and marriage. It can occur in situations related to your family, Church callings, or career.

With any major decision there are cautions and considerations to make, but once there has been illumination, beware the temptation to retreat from a good thing. If it was right when you prayed about it and trusted it and lived for it, it is right now. Don’t give up when the pressure mounts. Certainly don’t give in to that being who is bent on the destruction of your happiness. Face your doubts. Master your fears. “Cast not away therefore your confidence.” Stay the course and see the beauty of life unfold for you.

The Spirit of Revelation

To help us make our way through these experiences, these important junctures in our lives, let me draw from another scriptural reference to Moses. It was given in the early days of this dispensation when revelation was needed, when a true course was being set and had to be continued.

Most Latter-day Saints know the formula for revelation given in section 9 of the Doctrine and Covenants—the verses about studying it out in your mind and the Lord promising to confirm or deny. What most of us don’t read in conjunction with this is the section which precedes it: section 8. In that revelation the Lord has said, “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.” I love the combination there of both mind and heart. God will teach us in a reasonable way and in a revelatory way—mind and heart combined—by the Holy Ghost. “Now, behold,” He continues, “this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground.6

Why would the Lord use the example of crossing the Red Sea as the classic example of “the spirit of revelation”? Why didn’t He use the First Vision? Or the example from the book of Moses we just used? Or the brother of Jared’s vision? Well, He could have used any of these, but He didn’t. Here He had another purpose in mind.

Usually we think of revelation as a downpour of information. But this is too narrow a concept of revelation. May I suggest how section 8 broadens our understanding, particularly in light of these “fights of affliction” we have been discussing.

Questions Often Precede Revelation

First of all, revelation almost always comes in response to a question, usually an urgent question—not always, but usually. In that sense it does provide information, but it is urgently needed information, special information. Moses’ challenge was how to get himself and the children of Israel out of this horrible predicament they were in. There were chariots behind them, sand dunes on every side, and a lot of water immediately ahead. He needed information to know what to do, but it wasn’t a casual thing he was asking. In this case it was literally a matter of life and death.

You will need information too, but in matters of great consequence it is not likely to come unless you want it urgently, faithfully, humbly. Moroni calls it seeking “with real intent.”7 If you can seek that way and stay in that mode, not much that the adversary can counter with will dissuade you from a righteous path. You can hang on, whatever the assault and affliction, because you have paid the price for real conviction.

Like Moses in that vision, there may come after the fact some competing doubts and confusion, but it will pale when you measure it against the real thing. Remember the real thing. Remember how urgently you have needed help in earlier times and you got it. The Red Sea will open to the honest seeker of revelation. The adversary has power to hedge up the way, to marshal Pharaoh’s forces and dog our escape right to the water’s edge, but he can’t produce the real thing. He cannot conquer if we will it otherwise. If we exert all our powers, the light will again come, the darkness will again retreat, the safety will be sure. That is lesson number one about crossing the Red Sea by the spirit of revelation.

Do Not Fear

Lesson number two is closely related. It is that in the process of revelation and making important decisions, fear plays a destructive, sometimes paralyzing role. To Oliver Cowdery, who missed the opportunity of a lifetime because he didn’t seize it in the lifetime of the opportunity, the Lord said, “You did not continue as you commenced.” Does that sound familiar to those who have been illuminated and then knuckled under to second thoughts and returning doubts? “It is not expedient that you should translate now,” the Lord said in language that must have been very hard for Oliver to hear. “Behold, it was expedient when you commenced; but you feared, and the time is past, and it is not expedient now.”8

Everyone runs the risk of fear. For a moment in Moses’ confrontation with the adversary, “Moses began to fear exceedingly; and as he began to fear, he saw the bitterness of hell.”9 That’s when you see it—when you are afraid.

That is exactly the problem that beset the children of Israel at the edge of the Red Sea, and it has everything to do with holding fast to your earlier illumination. The record says, “And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid.” Some (just like those Paul described earlier) said words to this effect: “Let’s go back. This isn’t worth it. We must have been wrong. That probably wasn’t the right spirit telling us to leave Egypt.” What they actually said to Moses was: “Wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? … It had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.”10 And I have to say, “What about that which has already happened? What about the miracles that got you here? What about the frogs and the lice? What about the rod and the serpent, the river and the blood? What about the hail, the locusts, the fire, the firstborn sons?”

How soon we forget. It would not have been better to stay and serve the Egyptians, and it is not better to remain outside the Church, nor to put off marriage, nor to reject a mission call or other Church service, and so on and so on forever. Of course our faith will be tested as we fight through these self-doubts and second thoughts. Some days we will be miraculously led out of Egypt—seemingly free, seemingly on our way—only to come to yet another confrontation, like all that water lying before us. At those times we must resist the temptation to panic and give up. At those times fear will be the strongest of the adversary’s weapons against us.

“And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord. … The Lord shall fight for you.” In confirmation the great Jehovah said to Moses, “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.”11

That is the second lesson of the spirit of revelation. After you have gotten the message, after you have paid the price to feel His love and hear the word of the Lord, go forward. Don’t fear, don’t vacillate, don’t quibble, don’t whine. You may, like Alma going to Ammonihah12, have to find a route that leads an unusual way, but that is exactly what the Lord is doing here for the children of Israel. Nobody had ever crossed the Red Sea this way, but so what? There’s always a first time. With the spirit of revelation, dismiss your fears and wade in with both feet.

God Will Help Us

The third lesson from the Lord’s spirit of revelation in the miracle of crossing the Red Sea is that along with the illuminating revelation that points us toward a righteous purpose or duty, God will also provide the means and power to achieve that purpose. Trust in that eternal truth. If God has told you something is right, if something is indeed true for you, He will provide the way for you to accomplish it. That is true of joining the Church or raising a family, of going on a mission, or any one of a hundred other worthy tasks in life. Remember what the Savior said to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove. What was the problem in 1820? Why was Joseph not to join another church? It was at least in part because “they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”14 God’s grace is sufficient! The Lord would tell Joseph again and again that just as in days of old the children of Israel would “be led out of bondage by power, and with a stretched-out arm. … Therefore, let not your hearts faint. … Mine angels shall go up before you, and also my presence, and in time ye shall possess the goodly land.”15

What goodly land? Well, your goodly land. Your promised land. Your new Jerusalem. Your own little acre flowing with milk and honey. Your future. Your dreams. Your destiny. I believe that in our own individual ways, God takes us to the grove or the mountain or the temple and there shows us the wonder of what His plan is for us. We may not see it as fully as Moses or Nephi or the brother of Jared did, but we see as much as we need to see in order to know the Lord’s will for us and to know that He loves us beyond mortal comprehension. I also believe that the adversary and his pinched, calculating little minions try to oppose such experiences and then try to darken them after they happen. But that is not the way of the gospel. That is not the way of a Latter-day Saint who claims as the fundamental fact of the Restoration the spirit of revelation. Fighting through darkness and despair and pleading for the light is what opened this dispensation. It is what keeps it going, and it is what will keep you going. With Paul, I say to all of you: “Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise.”16

I acknowledge the reality of opposition and adversity, but I bear witness of the God of glory, of the redeeming Son of God, of light and hope and a bright future. I promise you that God lives and loves you, each one of you, and that He has set bounds and limits to the opposing powers of darkness. I testify that Jesus is the Christ, the victor over death and hell and the fallen one who schemes there.

“Fear ye not.” And when the second and third and fourth blows come, “fear ye not. … The Lord shall fight for you.”17 “Cast not away therefore your confidence.”

Yann Martel, Life of Pi

“Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love- but sometimes it was so hard to love. Sometimes my heart was sinking so fast with anger, desolation and weariness, I was afraid it would sink to the very bottom of the Pacific and I would not be able to lift it back up. At such moments I tried to elevate myself. I would touch the turban I had made with the remnants of my shirt and I would say aloud, “THIS IS GOD’S HAT!” I would pat my pants and say aloud, “THIS IS GOD’S ATTIRE!” I would point to Richard Parker and say aloud, “THIS IS GOD’S CAT!” I would point to the lifeboat and say aloud, “THIS IS GOD’S ARK!” I would spread my hands wide and say aloud, “THESE ARE GOD’S WIDE ACRES!” I would point at the sky and say aloud, “THIS IS GOD’S EAR!” And in this way I would remind myself of creation and of my place in it.

But God’s hat was always unravelling. God’s pants were falling apart. God’s cat was a constant danger. God’s ark was a jail. God’s wide acres were slowly killing me. God’s ear didn’t seem to be listening.

Despair was a heavy blackness that let no light in or out. It was a hell beyond expression. I thank God it always passed. A school of fish appeared around the net or a knot cried out to be reknotted. Or I thought of my family, of how they were spared this terrible agony. The blackness would stir and eventually go away, and God would remain, a shining point of light in my heart. I would go on loving.”

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Today, wrapping up our theme of the week, perseverance, we will return to crew of the ship, The Endurance, who have recently abandoned their ship and are setting up camp on the ice next to where she has been frozen:

“‘May the Lord help you to do your duty & guide you through all the dangers by land and sea. May you see the Works of the Lord & all His Wonders in the deep.’

These words were written on the flyleaf of a Bible given to the expedition by Queen Mother Alexandra of England. Shackleton carried the Bible in his hand as he left the Endurance and walked slowly across the ice toward the campsite.

The others hardly noticed his arrival. They were busy crawling in and out of tents, trying, numbly, to create some degree of comfort with what energy remained in them. Some arranged pieces of lumber to keep themselves off the snow-covered ice. Others spread pieces of canvas on ground-covers. But there was not enough flooring for everybody and several men had to lie directly on the bare snow. It made little difference. Sleep was all that mattered. And they slept – most of them embracing their nearest teammates to keep from freezing.

Shackleton did not even try to sleep. He paced continually around the floe. The pressure was still intense, and several times the campsite sustained a violent shock. The dark outline of the Endurance200 yards away rose against the clear night sky. About 1am, as Shackleton walked back and forth there was a jolt; then a thin ribbonlike crack snaked across the floe among the tents. Almost immediately it began to widen. Shackleton hurried from tent to tent, waking the exhausted sleepers. It required an hour’s tricky work in the dark to transfer the camp to the larger half of the floe.

Thereafter all was quiet in the camp, though just before dawn there was a loud report from the Endurance. Her bowsprit and jib boom had broken and dropped into the ice. For the rest of the night, Shackleton could hear the ghostly rhythm of the chain from the martingale boom being slowly dragged back and forth by the movement of the ship.

When morning came, the weather was dull and overcast, but the temperature had climbed to 6 above zero. The men turned out stiff and cold from sleeping on the ice…

The plan, as they all knew, was to march toward Paulet Island, 346 miles to the northwest, where the stores left in 1902 should still be. The distance was further than from New York City to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and they would be dragging two of their three boats with them, since it was assumed that they would eventually run into open water.

McNeish and McLeod began mounting the whaler and one of the cutters onto sledges. The boats with their sledges would weigh more than a ton apiece, and nobody had any delusions that it would be easy to drag them over the chaotic surface of the ice, with its pressure ridges occasionally two stories high.

Nevertheless, there was a remarkable absence of discouragement. All the men were in a state of dazed fatigue, and nobody paused to reflect on the terrible consequences of losing their ship. Nor were they upset by the fact that they were now camped on a piece of ice perhaps 6 feet thick. It was a haven compared with the nightmare of labor and uncertainty of the last few days on the Endurance. It was quite enough to be alive – and they were merely doing what they had to do to stay that way.

There was even a trace of mild exhilaration in their attitude. At least, they had a clear-cut task ahead of them. The nine months of indecision, of speculation about what might happen, of aimless drifting with the pack were over. Now they simply had to get themselves out, however appallingly difficult that might be.”

The Cinematic: My short film featuring two friends who understand better than most how to persevere. This is set to the song, “Worn Out Shoes” by Flagstaff band, Towrs.

The Musical: ‘Don’t Give Up On Me’ By Andy Grammar

I wish you all a wonderful weekend.

Sincerely,

Shannon

 

Cracks

 

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~ Grand Canyon, North Rim

“Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

~ Leonard Cohen

Good morning friends,

Thanks to all of you who have followed these emails for the past seven weeks. Beginning today, I’m going to make a change to how I compile them. Up until now I’ve included seven artistic sources on the same theme each day. From today forward, I’m going to pick a theme for the week and then share one artistic source per day. Mondays I will share literature, Tuesdays poetry, Wednesdays science and strategies, Thursdays spirituality, and Fridays a movie, music, and info for our zoom conversation. On Saturdays I will post the whole week’s content on my website.

If you would like to request changes to how you receive these emails please feel free to reach out to me. If I hear nothing from you I’ll keep you on the daily list. If you’ve had your fill of daily emails and would like to be removed from the list altogether that’s no problem. Just let me know.

This week we’re going to explore the concept of cracks – and in particular, how they let light in. Today’s writing will have a Japanese focus. Enjoy 🙂

The Writing: Maria Popova summarizingIn Praise of Shadows: Ancient Japanese Aesthetics and Why Every Technology Is a Technology of Though (Full Brain Pickings article here)

At least since Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we’ve seen shadows as a metaphor for the illusory and wicked aspects of life, for that which we must eradicate in order to illuminate the truth and inherent goodness of existence. And yet we forget that the darkness they cast evidences the light — palpable proof without which we might not appreciate or even notice the radiance itself.

The 1933 gem In Praise of Shadows (public library) by Japanese literary titan Junichiro Tanizaki (July 24, 1886–July 30, 1965) belongs to that special order of slim, enormously powerful books that enchant the lay reader with an esoteric subject, leaving a lifelong imprint on the imagination.

Tanizaki, translated here by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker, examines the singular standards of Japanese aesthetics and their stark contrast — even starker today, almost a century later — with the value systems of the industrialized West. He writes:

  “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”

At the heart of this philosophy is a fundamental cultural polarity. Unlike the Western conception of beauty — a stylized fantasy constructed by airbrushing reality into a narrow and illusory ideal of perfection — the zenith of Japanese aesthetics is deeply rooted in the glorious imperfection of the present moment and its relationship to the realities of the past:

     “The quality that we call beauty … must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows toward beauty’s ends.”

One of the most enchanting celebrations of shadows is manifested in the Japanese relationship with materials. Tanizaki writes:

“Japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose… Western paper turns away the light, while our paper seems to take it in, to envelop it gently, like the soft surface of a first snowfall. It gives off no sound when it is crumpled or folded, it is quiet and pliant to the touch as the leaf of a tree.”

Although Tanizaki is writing at a time when a new wave of polymers was sweeping the industrialized West, he paints a subtler and more important contrast than that between the Western cult of synthetics and the Japanese preference for organic materials. This elegant osmosis of art and shadow, he argues, is to be found not only in what materials are used, but in how they are being used:

“Wood finished in glistening black lacquer is the very best; but even unfinished wood, as it darkens and the grain grows more subtle with the years, acquires an inexplicable power to calm and sooth.”

This temporal continuity of beauty, a counterpoint to the West’s neophilia, is central to Japanese aesthetics. Rather than fetishizing the new and shiny, the Japanese sensibility embraces the living legacy embedded in objects that have been used and loved for generations, seeing the process of aging as something that amplifies rather than muting the material’s inherent splendor. Luster becomes not an attractive quality but a symbol of shallowness, a vacant lack of history:

“We find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter. The Westerner uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a fine brilliance, but we object to the practice… We begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina. Almost every householder has had to scold an insensitive maid who has polished away the tarnish so patiently waited for… We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.”

Tanizaki speaks affectionately of “the glow of grime,” which “comes of being touched over and over” — a record of the tactile love an object has acquired through being caressed by human hands again and again. But nowhere does Tanizaki’s ode to shadows flow more melodically than in his writing about Japanese lacquerware:

“Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware… [Traditional lacquerware] was finished in black, brown, or red, colors built up of countless layers of darkness, the inevitable product of the darkness in which life was lived.”

But lacquerware, Tanizaki notes, isn’t merely a visual delight — its magic is multi-sensory, amplified by a sense of mystery:

“I know few greater pleasures than holding a lacquer soul bowl in my hands, feeling upon my palms the weight of the liquid and its mild warmth. The sensation is something like that of holding a plump newborn baby… With lacquerware there is a beauty in that moment between removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl, its color hardly different from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm senses the gentle movements of the liquid, vapor rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapor brings a delicate anticipation. What a world of difference there is between this moment and the moment when soup is served Western style, in a pal, shallow bowl. A moment of mystery, it might almost be called, a moment of trance.”

This mysterious mesmerism of well-placed darkness is especially vital in the culinary experience:

“It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten. I would go further and say that it is to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark…

     With Japanese food, a brightly lighted room and shining tableware cut the appetite in half.

     Our cooking depends upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness.”

Indeed, he argues that excessive illumination is the most atrocious assault on beauty in the West. A mere half-century after Edison’s electric light shocked American cities with its ghastly glare, Tanizaki contemplates this particularly lamentable manifestation of our pathological Western tendency to turn something beneficial into something excessive. Decades before computer screens and Times Square billboards and the global light pollution epidemic, he writes:

“So benumbed are we nowadays by electric lights that we have become utterly insensitive to the evils of excessive illumination…

     In most recent Western-style buildings, the ceilings are so low that one feels as if balls of fire were blazing directly above one’s head… One of these balls of fire alone would suffice to light the place, yet three or four blaze down from the ceiling, and there are smaller versions on the walls and pillars, serving no function but to eradicate every trace of shadow. And so the room is devoid of shadows…

     Light is used not for reading and writing or sewing but for dispelling the shadows in the farthest corners, and this runs agains the basic idea of the Japanese room.”

His inquiry into the origin of these cultural differences, paradoxically enough, calls to mind both Buddhism’s basic teaching of acceptance and the memorable words of one of the West’s greatest thinkers — Albert Camus’s observation that people often “refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.” Tanizaki writes:

“We Orientals seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are, and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light — his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.”

But Tanizaki’s eulogy to this setting world of shadows transcends the realm of material aesthetics and touches on the conceptual sensibility of modern life in a way doubly relevant today, nearly a century later, as we struggle to maintain a sense of mystery in the age of knowledge. He remarks in the closing pages:

“I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration… Perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”

Like its subject, In Praise of Shadows derives its splendor from smallness and subtlety, distilling centuries of wisdom and bridging thousands of miles of cultural divide in an essay-length miracle of a book. Complement it with the breathtaking Little Tree, a pop-up book celebrating the Japanese reverence for darkness and impermanence — one of the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books that help kids process loss and mourning — then revisit this rare look at Japan in hand-colored images from the 1920s.

Teresita Fernandez on Kintsugi (Full speech here)

“In Japan there is a kind of reverence for the art of mending. In the context of the tea ceremony there is no such thing as failure or success in the way we are accustomed to using those words. A broken bowl would be valued precisely because of the exquisite nature of how it was repaired, a distinctly Japanese tradition of kintsugi, meaning to “to patch with gold”. Often, we try to repair broken things in such a way as to conceal the repair and make it “good as new.” But the tea masters understood that by repairing the broken bowl with the distinct beauty of radiant gold, they could create an alternative to “good as new” and instead employ a “better than new” aesthetic. They understood that a conspicuous, artful repair actually adds value. Because after mending, the bowl’s unique fault lines were transformed into little rivers of gold that post-repair were even more special because the bowl could then resemble nothing but itself.

Here lies that radical physical transformation from useless to priceless, from failure to success. All of the fumbling and awkward moments you will go through, all of the failed attempts, all of the near misses, all of the spontaneous curiosity will eventually start to steer you in exactly the right direction.”

Fernández extends gentle assurance that art, like science, is driven by “thoroughly conscious ignorance”:

“In those moments when you feel discouraged or lost in the studio, or when you experience rejection, rest completely assured that what you don’t know about something is also a form of knowledge, though much harder to understand. In many ways, making art is like blindly trying to see the shape of what you don’t yet know. Whenever you catch a little a glimpse of that blind spot, of your ignorance, of your vulnerability, of that unknown, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to stare at it. Instead, try to relish in its profound mystery. Art is about taking the risk of engaging in something somewhat ridiculous and irrational simply because you need to get a closer look at it, you simply need to break it open to see what’s inside.”

“I am an explorer, then, and I am also a stalker, or the instrument of the hunt itself. Certain Indians used to carve long grooves along the wooden shafts of their arrows. They called the grooves ‘lightning marks,’ because they resembled the curved fissure lightning slices down the trunks of trees. The function of lighting marks is this: if the arrow fails to kill the game, blood from a deep wound will channel along the lighting mark, streak down the arrow shaft, and spatter to the ground, laying a trail dripped on broad-leaves, on stones, that the barefoot and trembling archer can follow into whatever deep or rare wilderness it leads. I am the arrow shaft, carved along my length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky, and this book is the straying trail of blood.”

~ Annie Dillard

 

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~ Colorado River from Navajo Bridge

      Sometimes we like to know an author’s interpretation of their poem, and sometimes we like to enter it blind and free to find our own meaning. For those who would like to know the meaning of this one I’ve included it in this after the poem itself.

FAULT LINE

By Shannon Thompson (2017)

 

Have you ever watched yourself

change,

like a storm

cresting the mountain?

Have you

noticed the dark cloud coming, and

wished for the wind

to alter its course,

sparing the sun?

Have you ever

believed the story

your emotions wrote,

only to learn

that night,

we were all as lonely as you?

Have you ever watched the

ground when your genius is praised,

crediting another, luck, or secretly

a voice deeper?

“It’s not me,” you’ve said.

It’s not me.

Have you avoided eyes,

ashamed of what you believe your darkness

alone

has done?

Nothing, my friend, is ever yours alone.

Were you a child hurt

when you were too young

to know language to

shield you?

Did you watch

without the

words to tame

the grown-up gale that

scarred your fresh, new

openness?

Were you left again

and again, and

too early

for understanding

to stand up for

your baby mind?

To explain, and

make sure you didn’t

grow up believing

any of that was because

of you?

Have you learned to hide deep inside –

The only way to survive then –

Where within this

fault, between a man and Earth,

you were made.

Beautifully made

Have you ever looked into

another, revealing the hope

that you know is Truth?

Because your pain has drawn

you deep enough to hear it?

Have you known when to call his name,

the second before he stopped

believing?

Because you remember when you

needed someone to call your name?

Have you ever told a story of the earth

from so deep within you

that others stood

speechless?

I know you have. I’ve watched you.

Because in your hiding, held,

the center spoke to you,

and still does.

Have you ever kept secrets that ravaged you?

Or lied and stolen another’s kindness

over and over?

I have too.

All we are – mess and masterpiece,

just like all that lives and grows,

expands and contracts,

explodes and nourishes;

random havoc and

unspeakable grace.

You are of the earth,

as chaotic

and as sublime.

Have you ever made a brave choice

toward your own peace?

You have, you’ve told me.

I’m afraid,

and maybe you are too, that

this is the only way through the night.

Have you ever looked into the blue

of the boy you were?

The way you draw your chair

around to others?

Has he begged you to

speak with him

about what is real?

Have you ever truly realized,

my friend,

always,

you’re just a man?

I believe in real conversations like

damn you, God.

I’ve said it many times.

For your set up,

and your silence,

and your secrets.

For failing fathers,

and a lost little brother,

and confused loves

without answers.

And I concede to moments of true

awareness;

angry tears useless in my eyes,

rage exhausted,

turning round before the beauty

of things;

the unimagined

unearned moments;

the speaking wild

that never leaves.

I need you to know that

I heard a promise within the fault

of my making.

That’s all,

and everything.

There’s more goodness than we can know,

in you,

and I,

and every dying leaf

that blows past this window.

And whatever God is

will continue

flowing like tears,

singing something staggering

and indiscernible

within the blood of our veins.

***

I wrote this poem for one of my friends a few years ago. Basically it describes a person who was caught within adult difficulty as a child, and was impacted greatly by that difficulty (probably like many of you reading this). The poem attempts to highlight that many of this person’s strengths – his gifts to others now, as an adult – are the result of the difficulty he experienced in his youth (again, probably like many of you reading this). I wrote this during a time when the immense challenge of being a person, and the incredible odds stacked against some people, were clearly apparent to me, perhaps more so than ever before. This is where the short rant at God comes from.

Screen Shot 2020-05-23 at 5.27.07 PM~ The Grand Canyon

The Science: Scott Barry Kaufman (From Wired To Create) – On Posttraumatic Growth

The trials to triumph narrative is far from idealism or watered down self-help inspiration. The idea of growth after adversity has been touted by not only ancient and modern wisdom traditions but also recent psychology research. In the past twenty years, psychologists have been studying this phenomenon, known in the scientific community as posttraumatic growth. The term was coined in the 1990’s by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun to describe instances of individuals who experienced profound transformation as they coped with various types of trauma and challenging life circumstances. It’s now been observed in more than three hundred specific studies, and research has found that up to 70 percent of trauma survivors report some psychological growth…

Growth after trauma can take a number of different forms, including a greater appreciation for life, the identification of new possibilities for one’s life, more satisfying interpersonal relationships, a richer spiritual life and a connection to something greater than oneself, and a sense of personal strength… Psychologists have found that experiences of trauma also commonly result in increased empathy and altruism, and a motivation to act in the interest of the good of others…

Tedeschi and Calhoun explain that posttraumatic growth, in whatever form it takes, can be ‘an experience of improvement that is for some persons deeply profound…The two University of North Carolina researchers created the most accepted model on posttraumartic growth to date, which holds that people naturally develop and rely on a set of beliefs and assumptions that they’ve formed about the world, and in order for growth to occur after trauma, the traumatic event must deeply challenge those beliefs. By Tedeschi and Calhoun’s account, the way that trauma shatters our worldview, beliefs, and identities is like an earthquake – even our most foundational structures of thought and belief crumble into pieces from the magnitude of the impact. We are shaken, almost literally from our ordinary perception, and left to rebuild ourselves and our worlds. The more we are shaken, the more we must let go of our former selves and assumptions, and begin again from the ground up.

‘A psychologically seismic event can severely shake, threaten, or reduce to rubble many of the schematic structures that have guided understanding, decision making, and meaningfulness.’ They write. ‘One’s safety is challenged; one’s identity and future are challenged.’

The physical rebuilding of a city that takes place after an earthquake can be likened to the cognitive processing and restructuring that an individual experiences in the wake of trauma. Once the most foundational structures of the self have been shaken, we are in a position to pursue new – and perhaps creative – opportunities.

The ‘rebuilding’ process looks something like this: After a traumatic event, such as a serious illness or loss of a loved one, individuals intensely process the event – they’re constantly thinking about what happened, and usually with strong emotional reactions. It’s important to note that sadness, grief, anger, and anxiety of course, are common responses to trauma, and growth generally occurs alongside these challenging emotions – not in place of them. The process of growth can be seen as a way to adapt to extremely adverse circumstances and to gain an understanding of both the trauma and its negative psychological impact.

Rumination – stewing over negative thoughts and emotions – naturally occurs after a traumatic event, and counterintuitive though it may seem, this kind of repetitive thinking is a crucial step toward thriving in the wake of a challenge. When we mull over a negative experience, we’re working hard to make sense of it and to find a place for it in our lives that still allows us to have a sense of meaning and purpose. After the experience of adversity, the mind is actively dismantling old belief systems that no longer hold up and creating new structures of meaning and identity.  Perhaps most fundamentally, trauma challenges our belief in a benevolent and predictable universe. The illusion of control is shattered and must be released, as it no longer accords with the individual’s experience of the world, which now appears capricious, unpredictable, and seemingly beyond human control.

While rumination often begins as automatic, intrusive, and repetitive negative thinking, in time, the individual’s way of thinking about the traumatic event and its impacts become more organized, controlled, and deliberate. It starts to act as a process of meaning making. The search for meaning is the essential element of posttraumatic growth, and particularly of creative growth.

Rebuilding can be an incredibly challenging process. As we’ve seen, the work of growth requires detaching from and releasing deep-seated goals, identities, and assumptions, while also building up new goals, schemas, and meanings. It can be grueling, excruciating, and exhausting. But it can open the door to a new life. The trauma survivor begins to see herself as a thriver and revises her self-definition to accommodate her new strength and wisdom. She may reconstruct herself in a way that feels more authentic and true to her inner self and to her own unique path in life.”

Scott Barry Kaufman (From Ungifted) – On Dyslexia

“In recent years, the ‘neurodiversity’ movement has been gaining a lot of traction… The term gained wide wide exposure in a 1998 article in the Atlantic written by Harvey Blume called ‘Neurodiversity.’ In the article, Blume remarked, ‘Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of writing will prove best at any given moment? Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favor a somewhat autistic cast of mind.’

Consider dyslexia – one of the most commonly diagnosed specific learning disabilities. As Brock Eide and Fernette Eide note in their recent book The Dyslexic Advantage, ‘Overlooking the talents that mature individuals with dyslexia characteristically display is like trying to understand caterpillars while ignoring the fact that they grow up to be butterflies.’

Without a doubt: for the 15 percent of the human population who have dyslexia, learning can be difficult, particularly when intensive and rapid reading is required. They require interventions and strategies, and thankfully many strategies out there have proven effective. But people with dyslexia are far from disabled as human beings. In fact, in some contexts they may even appear to be – dare I say – gifted.

Reading requires a complex integration of visual and auditory sensory processing. The reader must recognize letters and their combinations, convert them to speech sounds, and then extract meaning. Every step of the process is important, from the precognitive to the higher-level stages. Research shows that people with dyslexia are less aware of sounds in words (phonological awareness) and have difficulties connecting visual and verbal information (rapid naming). But these learning difficulties may have some advantages in the visual domain.

[Researchers] argue that dyslexic individuals may excel at visual-spatial tasks that rely on the right hemisphere, because the right hemisphere tends to process information holistically… This suggests one upside of poor reading skills: rapid and accurate ‘holistic inspection.’ It appears that dyslexics have a wider visual perceptual mode than typical readers. This was of seeing the world could make reading difficult for dyslexics because of their inability to perceive individual words without interference from the surrounding text. Nevertheless, this can serve as an advantage in situations that require identifying information in the periphery… If you tend to have a narrower focus of attention, like many typical readers, you will be better at noticing small, isolated features near the center of gaze. In contrast, if you focus on the periphery like some dyslexics, you will be more likely to notice the holistic patterns. Schneps and colleagues suggest that college students with dyslexia should be encouraged to enter careers in which sensitivity to low spatial frequency scenes is particularly valued, such as radiology, astronomy, cellular microscopy, and other scientific fields. Indeed, Nobel laureates with dyslexia include Carol W. Greider and Baruk Benacerraf…

People with dyslexia may compensate in many ways, sometimes developing enhanced communication skills, the ability to delegate responsibilities, or even the ability to read nonverbal facial expressions. These can be particularly important skills for entrepreneurship. Julie Logan investigated the coping strategies and business skills of a sample of 139 entrepreneurs and corporate managers in the United States. She found a much higher incidence of dyslexia among the entrepreneurs compared with the corporate managers and the general population.

While 15 percent of the general population has dyslexia, 35 percent of the entrepreneurs in her sample reported dyslexic characteristics. In contrast, less than 1 percent of the corporate managers reported dyslexic characteristics. Tellingly, people with dyslexia grew their own companies more quickly, and showed greater oral communication skills compared to those without dyslexia. Logan concluded that ‘dyslexic entrepreneurs may be more comfortable in a start-up or a serial entrepreneurial role so they are able to do things their own way. Virgin Atlantic mogul Richard Branson has dyslexia, so does the CEO of Cisco Systems, John Chambers, who allegedly can’t even read his own email.

The truth is that people with dyslexia thrive in many fields. Famous dyslexic artists include Pablo Picasso, Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Chuck Close, and Andy Warhol… Sculptor John Mishler once wrote, ‘Being dyslexic has given me an enhanced imagination… in my head I see visual images that are often turned into sculptures without any drawings on paper. It took me a long time to realize that being dyslexic was a gift.’..

Also, the written word need not always bar the dyslexic from achieving greatness. Many famous writers have not only compensated for dyslexia, but used their reading difficulty as a driving force… “We may be short-changing students who have reading difficulties. These students have strengths for visual learning that we could be building on.’ Perhaps instead of labeling dyslexics as learning disabled, we should call them visually gifted.”

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“Among the Navajo, the land is thought to exhibit sacred order…each individual undertakes to order his interior landscape according to the exterior landscape. To succeed in this means to achieve a balanced state of mental health…Among the various sung ceremonies of this people-Enemyway, Coyoteway, Uglyway- there is one called Beautyway. It is, in part, a spiritual invocation of the order of the exterior universe, that irreducible, holy complexity that manifests itself as all things changing through time (a Navajo definition of beauty).” 

― Barry López, Crossing Open Ground

The Spiritual: SPIRIT LINE: A NAVAJO WEAVING PATH TO CREATIVE RENEWAL

By Artist-Writer Donniece Smith

     “A recent visit to the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico set me on a search to learn more about a Native American weaving custom called a spirit line.

The exhibit Nizhoni Shima’: Master Weavers of the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills Region filled the museum gallery with beautiful rugs and tapestries woven by Navajo women of the Two Grey Hills region of New Mexico between 1910 and the present.

     Each tapestry was of the highest quality woven by a master weaver of the highest skill, yet all contained an obvious out-of-character thread.  In the upper right corner, a strand of the central background color wove through the contrasting border and extended to the outer selvedge. If you were to only see one rug, you could easily assume the contrasting thread was a mistake in the weaving.  This obvious thread is deliberately woven into the rug per tradition and is called a spirit line or weaver’s path.

     The practice signifies the release of the weaver’s spirit from the weaving so that the artist’s creativity can escape the woven web to be renewed and freed to begin another weaving.

     A Navajo woman told this story documented in the oral history project by Paul Begay, Voices for the Colorado Plateau, Southern Utah University:

     So, my grandson,” my grandmother says. “When you look at a spider web somewhere, in your home or someplace, look closely, and if you don’t see a spider there, you’ll see a line, the direction that the spider departed.  That’s why when you make a rug, in one corner of the weave, there should be a line that comes out to the end of the rug, we call it the spirit line….

When you leave this line, that means that you will leave your mind open to think of new designs.  If you don’t leave the line in there, you close the rug, then you’ve enclosed your mind, and you will have a hard time thinking of new designs.  New techniques, new designs will be gone.  And so this is the reason why the line should be there.”  So it is the Spider Woman, this is the spiritual woman that we learned how to weave from.

     Native American weavers of the past probably felt the same conflict as artists do today when the time comes to sell one’s creative work. Three or more years of a family’s life and energy were required to complete a woven rug.  In addition to weaving, the creative and commercial commitment included tending the sheep to provide the wool, along with spinning the wool into yarn.

     The spirit line custom is a significant reminder that upon completion “closure” is not the same thing as “enclosure.” When we consciously create a path outward to the world, we escape the entrapment of a closed mind and a closed heart.

     Consider incorporating your own symbolic spirit line as a bridge of movement between commerce and creativity, daily tasks and dreams, hopes and heartaches.By caring for our spirit, we create movement towards the future with greater flow of creativity, innovation, and freedom.”

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The Cinematic: Leonard Cohen singing “Anthem” live in London (the source of the line, “forget your perfect offering, there’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”)

The Musical: Wounds by Toby Johnson

I wish you a weekend of shining through cracks.

Sincerely,

Shannon

Excellence

 

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~ Mt. Robson, British Columbia

“All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

~ Edward Abbey

May 12, 2019

A few weeks ago I was talking with a violinist who was trying to master a song. She’s part of an orchestra, and the other violinists already play the same song proficiently. I asked if it’s hard for her to be the only one struggling with the song. She said, ‘oh, no… if you are part of humankind excellence performed by anyone enriches you.’ You won’t be surprised to learn that she now plays the song beautifully.

***

This email focuses on the concept of excellence. I am a mental performance consultant, so the pursuit of excellence is my world. Also, as a former professional athlete and occasional artist I have great respect and even reverence for excellence in countless forms. Yet,  as I prepared this email, something that I found greatly frustrating, and also intriguing, was that I struggled enormously to find a poem about excellence. In fact I could not find one anywhere. I also couldn’t find excellence as we know it in the western world within spiritual writings (unless one includes virtue as a form of excellence). Poetry and spirituality tend to reflect what is in the hearts of people. Does this mean that the concept of excellence doesn’t strike the heart? Or at least to the degree that other concepts do (like love, friendship, nature, struggle, and God in numerous forms – all about which there are countless poems written).

Perhaps, for those of us who value excellence, what we are valuing is not the performance or the achievement itself. Maybe we value are contributors to, or elements of that achievement. Maybe we know while witnessing excellence the commitment, the struggle, and the attention invested to attain it. Maybe the beauty of the action is what captures us.

As you move through this content it is elements like these we will visit. Olympic skiier, Peter Vordeman, speaks of the “perfect one”, the perfect race, as when one is completely present in the moment; Glenn Kurtz highlights the joy of practice. My poem on grit and flow (yes, that’s the closest I could find!) speaks of the marriage between perseverance and focus. Dan Chambliss, in his sociological study, “The Mundanity of Excellence,” explains that the common factors among world class swimmers are refinement of technique, joys within the everyday, and meticulous commitment to mundane details.  Mastery expert Scott Barry Kaufman and neuroscientist, David Epstein converse how everyone is different regarding how they respond to practice. There is no one formula that fits all. Excellence, according to Zen priest, Shunryu Suzuki is the maintenance of beginner’s mind – a fresh, open perspective, unobscured and unencumbered by notions of expertise. I’ve included the preview to the movie, Jiro Dreams of Sushi which is a visit to Jiro a ten seat sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station that has been awarded the Michelin 3 stars (given only to restaurants deemed good enough to warrant a trip to that country to visit the restaurant alone).

I think that each of these shine a light on elements of excellence, and excellence as we know it is present within each of these.

The Writing: Peter Vordeman (From Momentum: Chasing The Olympic Dream)

“Barb and I are standing at curbside. There is a man standing next to us. His nose is bent, and gray hair swoops from his temples. He is standing on the curb waiting for the long-term parking shuttle as we are. He reaches into his jacket, pulls a pack of cigarettes out, eyes it with disdain and shakes one loose. He finds a book of matches in his other pocket. I eye him with disgust. Barb pays no attention. I zoom in. The flame leaps to life, the match rises, the cigarette lowers. The flame touches the end. Cheeks collapse as lungs suck, the flame pulls into the cylinder, paper burns, tobacco ignites, glows. There is no smoke but there is fire. The eyes close with the inhalation, there is a pause and then two fingers pluck the cigarette from between the lips in an easy motion and a damp pop. Smoke oozes from the nostrils, floats upward and then, whoooo, shoots from the mouth in a ling sigh. It rises and disappears, and the man watches it with a curiously sublime look on his face.

‘Every once and awhile you get the perfect one.’ He says absently, indicating the cigarette. Has he seen me watching him? Is he talking to me?

‘Most of them suck,’ he says, making eye contact with me to express his point. His lids are half shut. ‘Most aren’t worth shit, but every now and then…’ He closes his eyes and inhales, looking as though he were sucking on joy itself.

‘Every now and then you get the perfect one. Sometimes it’s after a cup of coffee in the morning, or watching a sunset. Sometimes it’s, I don’t know, it’s not about the time or the place, Maybe it is – I don’t know – but sometimes you get the perfect one.’ He smiles at me, a man with the perfect one between his fingers.

I’m just nodding to get rid of him, not really listening, and thinking, It’s my air too asshole.

     ‘Racing is like that,’ says Barb. I glance at her, surprised. The man gives her his attention, interested. ‘Racing?’ He asks.

‘Races are mostly okay, sometimes great, often they just suck.’

‘Mmmm,’ the man says nodding, sucking. He pulls the cigarette out. ‘Yeah, and it’s the perfect one that keeps you lightin’ up.’ Whooo. The smoke leaves his mouth, swirling inside itself, rising.

‘So,’ he starts, ‘is it an addiction, racing?’

‘Probably,’ says Barb. ‘In skiing it is the perfect races that are addictive. Most of them are good, a lot are ok, some of them suck, but you do it for the perfect ones’…

I Always Wanted to be a Cowboy

Picture the Hollywood cowboy. He’s alone on his horse trotting around sage, between juniper. His hat is tipped back. There’s a sandstone cliff above him and a trail of dust behind. He’s a dark outline against a fading sunset, with a long shadow resembling Picasso’s Don Quixote.

Ignore that he is rising into the sun, for all cowboys know to keep it at their back. Ignore too the realities of the cowboy life, for it is this moving image that I wanted to be – this snapshot in motion, self-sufficient and confident and heroic. And surrounded by wild country, wild animals, and wild people.

The fact that cowboys ride all day in the dust kicked up by cows is not relevant and never was. What I wanted was the Hollywood perfection and the ideal I sometimes glimpsed in the Colorado Rockies. The image wasn’t so much a perfect lifestyle as a perfect moment.

Like the realities of being a cowboy, the few unpleasant realities of a ski racer’s lifestyle are easy to ignore while in motion – while doing the actual thing that defines you.

In a fraction of a second a skier applies his weight to the center of a single ski, and in an instant presses the grip wax into the snow, and is gone. The skier propels himself forward and onto the other ski and rides it down the trail, gliding, free, flying. And before the momentum dies he sets the wax into the snow again, applies his weight and strength and power and is gone again, fast and seamless. Broken down, the technique is intricate. The skier propels himself down the trail, using poles and legs working in timed coordination. The skier’s weight must be perfectly balanced on a ski for the wax to stick to the snow. On arm swings, the other pushes, one leg swings, the other propels you forward. The whole body is engaged in the act, but it is so practiced as to be mindlessly fluid and simple, subtle and lithe, and beautiful to see and much more beautiful to do.

It’s the whole thing that makes the snapshot, the moment. It’s not each individual movement but the collaboration of all the motions combined to create movement, momentum, and perfection.

The image of a cowboy-at-sunset is a moment captured. The image of my ski hero, Gunde Sean in the 84’ Games is a moment captured. So, too, is a tape of Jimmy Hendrix on guitar or Janis Joplin shaking and yowling, or even a shot of Ansel Adams focusing on his subject from behind the lens – in all cases it is the artist at work, involved in a moment of perfection, and in these images and sounds I find inspiration.

The gold medal, the music, and Ansel’s photograph are only products of the moment. These things represent it, but it is the moment itself that matters.

I raced all the way through the 2002 season. At the U.S. National Championships in 2002, I finished fourth in the 50k classic, a good result, but by then I had come to define a great race in a new way. Results were one thing, but for a race to be great it had to fit my description of a perfect moment. My last great race, great as I’d come to define it anyway – was at the 2000 Nationals in Soldier Hollow, Utah, on the courses used for the 2002 Olympics. I was a ski coach and a student at the University of New Mexico, and I was racing for the pure enjoyment of it. I had no expectations and, as at the 1992 Olympic 30k, I wanted only to ski as well as I could.

It was my last perfect moment as a ski racer. It was not perfect because of how I finished, though I took second, but because of how I skied and how I felt doing it.

The moment. It’s like being in love for the first time: total immersion in a feeling of helpless bliss. It hurts, too, but just right, with a sort of subconscious yearning, a longing, because it won’t last forever, and you miss it already. Like writing or painting, doing anything with inspiration delivered by lightning,  muse who might escape. And so you sink fully into it, the act, and you do not let go, do not come up for air, you cannot press pause, because it will be gone – this moment.

And it’s fun. Above all else it’s fun. And for the thousands of words given it by Zen masters and pop psychologists, war historians and Little League coaches, the final word is fun.

To get there takes effort, but once there is becomes effortless. At first glance it seems all Ansel did was push a button – click – to make a pretty picture. But it isn’t so.

Many years of training and hard work took me a long way and enabled me to enjoy the sport at its fullest, to taste the perfect moment – in this case for the first time as a racer…

Perfection is not being perfect, but being completely there. In the race I was not perfect, but I was perfect as I could have been, as perfectly present as it was possible for me to be.

Skiing takes me there, as does writing, drawing, snowboarding, hiking, and woodcarving. With skiing I am so practiced that it takes me there often. It’s my sure ticket to being right there – right here. Skiing does this for me. And Barb Jones does too…

In all cases experiencing this perfection is active, it’s a matter of gaining and maintaining momentum. Skiing takes energy and effort, but returns your energy investment twofold. And so does dreaming.

I crossed the finish line at the 2000 Nationals, in love again with the sport of ski racing. When a guy named Kris Freeman crossed the line with a time one second better than my own, it didn’t get me down. I didn’t win, but how I felt about my race remained unfazed. I had done what I came to do. I came to ski as well as I could, and I was happy.

As a younger skier I would not have found the same satisfaction in having raced as well as I could if I didn’t achieve my goal. That’s a good thing, too, for to be great not only by your own measure, but also on the results page, you have to want to win. That desire – the thing a ski racer needs most – is what I lost, and is why I quit racing. With that I’ll call the 2000 National 30k my sunset event, the moving image I want playing as the curtain closes on my career that was not everything I dreamed it would be, but which was, as I’ve come to measure it, still great.

I told Barb that I would do it all over again, and in writing this book I feel like I have. Both living and writing the ski racer’s life were fun, and they are both over for me now, but riding into the sunset is not the end. When the movie cowboy disappeared over the horizon and the audience got to their feet, my imagination always went on. To me a movie was only a chapter in a life that continues off screen, a segment worthy of putting between opening and closing credits, and of spending five bucks to see, but that cannot tell the whole story.

You should count on getting only one chance to be great, for that is the only way to chase a dream, but catch it or not, you’d also better count on the sun coming up the next morning and a new adventure with it. So keep the sun at your back and make sure you have all six pills in your pistol, because tomorrow is a new day. No time for doubt. Game on.

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~ Wicox Pass, Icefields Parkway, British Columbia

Glenn Kurtz (From Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music)

Every day felt like the waste of my entire life. For fifteen years I had practiced to become an artist. But I’d misunderstood what that meant… Most people give up their fantasies of art, exploration, and invention. I was furious at myself for having believed I was different, and even more furious that I wasn’t.

There was more movement, more intense ambition and envy in one block of New York City than in all of Vienna. But I had no part in it. There was nothing here that I wanted. I was walking home from a boring job, lost in a crowd of blue, gray, and brown business suits, skirting oncoming cars like a scuttling pigeon, because I had given up. My fingers were not to blame; nor were my parents, my teachers, music history, or my instrument. With every step I felt more harshly how I had failed, how fundamentally I had betrayed myself. Out of fear of being mediocre, I’d listened to the wrong voices. I’d been practicing all the wrong things…

Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream — of becoming an artist, a doctor, an engineer, an athlete — lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs…

Only a very few loves can disappoint you so fundamentally that you feel you’ve lost yourself when they’re gone. Quitting music wounded me as deeply as any relationship in my life. It was my first great loss, this innocent, awkward failure to live with what I heard and felt. For more than ten years I avoided music. It hurt too much. My anger went as deep as my love had gone. I suppose this is natural. In the aftermath of something so painful, we subsist on bitterness, which sustains us against even greater loss.

[So he did something few have the courage to do — after a fifteen-year detour from his true calling, he decided to let his life speak and face that menacing what-if head on by returning to his great love. That homecoming to music was made possible by his deep commitment to practicing — “a process of continual reevaluation, an attempt to bring growth to repetition,” a delicate act that “teaches us the sweet, bittersweet joy of development, of growth, of change” — day in and day out.

Indeed, anyone who has ever experienced the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow can relate to Kurtz’s electrifying account of this transcendent process-state and easily substitute his or her instrument of choice — the pen, the camera, the keyboard — for his guitar: Each note rubs the others just right, and the instrument shivers with delight. The feeling is unmistakable, intoxicating. When a guitar is perfectly in tune, its strings, its whole body will resonate in sympathetic vibration, the true concord of well-tuned sounds. It is an ancient, hopeful metaphor, an instrument in tune, speaking of pleasure on earth and order in the cosmos, the fragility of beauty, and the quiver in our longing for love.

I concentrate on the simplest task, to play all the notes at precisely the same moment, with one thought, one motion. It takes a few minutes; sometimes, on bad days, it takes all morning. I take my time. But I cannot proceed without this unity of thought, motion, and sound…

I play deliberately, building a triangle of sound — fingertip, ear, fingertip — until my hands become aware of each other.

My attention warms and sharpens, and I shape the notes more carefully. I remember now that music is vibration, a disturbance in the air. I remember that music is a kind of breathing, an exchange of energy and excitement. I remember that music is physical, not just in the production of sounds, in the instrumentalist’s technique, but as an experience. Making music changes my body, eliciting shivers, sobs, or the desire to dance. I become aware of myself, of these sensations that lie dormant until music brings them out. And in an instant the pleasure, the effort, the ambition and intensity of playing grip me and shake me awake. I feel as if I’ve been wandering aimlessly until now, as if all the time I’m not practicing, I’m a sleepwalker…

Listening, drawing sound, motion, and thought together, I find my concentration. My imagination opens and reaches out. And in that reaching I begin to recognize myself. It’s dangerous for a musician to philosophize instead of practicing. The grandeur of music, to be heard, must be played.

Each day … practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture — reaching out for an ideal, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers. Together this pleasure in music and the discipline of practice engage in an endless tussle, a kind of romance. The sense of joy justifies the labor; the labor, I hope, leads to joy. This, at least, is the bargain I quietly make with myself each morning as I sit down. If I just do my work, then pleasure, mastery will follow. Even the greatest artists must make the same bargain…

Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.

Practicing is training; practicing is meditation and therapy. But before any of these, practicing is a story you tell yourself, a bildungsroman, a tale of education and self-realization. For the fingers as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage. You must feel you are moving forward. But it is the story that leads you on…

From the outside, practicing may not seem like much of a story… Yet practicing is the fundamental story. Whether as a musician, as an athlete, at your job, or in love, practice gives direction to your longing, gives substance to your labor.

Every day you go to the gym or sit down at your desk. The work is not always interesting, not always fun. Sometimes it is tedious. Sometimes it is infuriating. Why do you continue? Why did you start in the first place? You must have an answer that helps you persevere… Without telling yourself some story of practicing, without imagining a path to your goal, the aggravation and effort seem pointless. And without faith in the story you create, the hours of doubt and struggle and the endless repetition feel like torture…

Practicing is a story, but not one in “square time,” not a simple path to perfection. Instead, it is a myth you weave to draw up the many strands of your doubt and desire… The story you tell yourself … must embrace everything you experience when you sit down in the presence of your ideal.

When you sit down to practice, however casually, you cast yourself as the hero and victim of your own myth. You will encounter obstacles; you will struggle, succeed, and struggle some more. The story of your practice weaves all this together, absorbing what is within you and making it productive. Because when you truly believe your story of practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue.

Artistry may seem divine, but practicing is always mundane. Practice immerses you in your daily self — this body, these moods… You struggle with mistakes and flaws. The work is physical, intellectual, psychological. It can be exhilarating and aggravating, fulfilling and terribly lonesome. But it is always just you, the instrument, and the music, here, now. Practicing is the truth of who you are, today, as you strive to change, to make yourself better, to become someone new. The goal is always to bring old notes to life. Even so, while you sit down to work every day, it may take years before you know what you’ve practiced.

Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.

I sit down to practice the fullness of my doubts and desire, my fantasies and flaws. Each day I follow them as far as I can bear it, for now. This is what teaches me my limits; this is what enables me to improve. I think it is the same with anything you seriously practice, anything you deeply love.”

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~ Patch and I, Blenheim Castle, England, 2000 (one of the 3 truly excellent horses of my life)

“Without doubt I praise the wild excellence.”

~ Pablo Neruda

The Poetic: My Own

** I wrote this poem during grad school. My assignment at the time was to compose a paper that described the relationship between the concept of grit (passion and perseverance toward long term goals) and flow (full immersion in the task at hand – an optimal mental state for excellence). This poem was my paper.

GRIT AND FLOW

By Shannon Thompson

The first stone almost placed itself. There was nothing in the way. The field was soft and level, and it sunk deep in the clay. Sunlight slid upon the grass that sweet and windless day, when Grit set forth to build the home in which he dreamed to stay.

He’d chosen this location from a calling in his heart. The home of his imagining was his own work of art. Grit had a deep resolve to build it from the start, every beam and floorboard, each immense and tiny part.

Hours in, he wiped his brow; many stones lay at his feet. The surface wasn’t level, and the edges didn’t meet. The morning glean of sunshine gave in to late day heat, but Grit refused to slow his pace, or breathe, or take a seat.

But now he was exhausted. The first floor wasn’t right. His mind knew how the walls should look, but life didn’t match that sight. If only he could move one stone to allow a bit more light, but he’d have to lift it powerfully, and well above his height.

Grit closed his eyes and heaved it back, reaching higher than he feared. And as he strained and balanced, that’s when he felt her near. She reached her arms around him; light, nimble hands on his; later he would wonder what this presence is.

But now she drew his focus to every rising stone, and hours felt like minutes as they worked upon his home. It was impossible to distinguish between motion, skin and bone. He didn’t hear the mixing surf, or church bell’s evening tone.

Such was Grit’s immersion in this new inspired dance, there was no stone too heavy; with each he took his chance. She breathed in him a knowing calm, a feeling of control. Grit balanced every rock with ease, and stopped all that might roll.

Only when his body gave, did he collapse upon the clay; he realized with all his strength had gone the light of day. He looked around; he was alone. Wherever could she go? He hadn’t caught a glimpse of her, but he knew her name was Flow.

Morning sun found Grit renewed and lifting stones with ease. On and on he toiled away as summer fell as leaves. Flow came to him often, as dew alights on reeds, reliably when struggle reigned and grit appeared in need.

Once or twice he paused to look upon the fruits of all his labor, admiring the carpentry, sitting back so he could savor. Once Grit lay, admiring, well into the night. But Flow was never present there, which just didn’t feel right.

So, even with his house complete, Grit goes in search of her. He ventures into dreamers hearts, pushing them for more than what they were. He finds her in the swimmers stroke, the skiers fastest run; She’s bright within the painter’s brush, and the gymnast’s sort of fun.

Little does Grit know, but Flow’s searching for him too. She lies in wait and only shows when hours of work are through. She loves him when he’s tired, but gets up one more time. She meets him where the poet finally grasps a phrase to rhyme.

Grit and Flow, they travel through many human lives. Find them in songs and friendly laughter, steep climbs, and deepest dives. The criteria is challenge for any place they go. This is the secret to the union that is the marriage of Grit and Flow.

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~ Brodey Hasty shoveling the NAU outdoor track, March, 2019

 

 “Running is not about working harder. It is about working harder to stay at peace… You have to learn a way of being that can be applied to anything. The learning has to transcend the activity to have real value.”

~ Jerry Ziak

 

The Science: Dan Chambliss (From The Mundanity Of Excellence – full article here)

** Dan Chambliss is a sociologist who spent six years observing world class swimmers. This is his finished work which summarizes his observations.

“By ‘excellence’ I mean ‘consistent superiority of performance.’

‘Excellence is not, I find, the product of socially deviant personalities. These swimmers don’t appear to be ‘oddballs,’ nor are they loners. If their achievements result from a personality characteristic, that characteristic is not obvious…

Excellence does not result from quantitative changes in behavior. Increased training time, per se, does not make one swim fast; nor does increased ‘psyching up,’ nor does moving the arms faster. Simply doing more of the same will not lead to moving up a level in sport.

Excellence does not result from some special inner quality of the athlete. ‘Talent’ is one common name for this quality; sometimes we talk of a ‘gift,’ or of ‘natural ability.’ These terms are generally used to mystify the essentially mundane processes of achievement in sports, keeping us away from a realistic analysis of the actual factors creating superlative performances, and protecting us from a sense of responsibility for our own outcomes.

So where does excellence – consistent superiority of performance – come from?

  1. Excellence Requires Qualitative Differentiation (quantitative means the mount of something. Fr example going from practicing 2 hrs/ day to 4 hrs/ day would be a quantitative change. Qualitative change means to modify how something is actually being done, not simply doing more or less of it.)

Excellence in competitive swimming is achieved through qualitative differentiation from other swimmers, not through quantitative increases in activity. This means, in brief, that levels of the sport are qualitatively distinct; that stratification is discrete, not continuous; and that because of these factors, the swimming world is best conceived of not as a single entity but as multiple worlds, each with its own pattens of conduct…

Olympic champions don’t just do much more of the same things that summer-league country-club swimmers do… while there may be quantitative differences – and certainly there are, for instance in the number of hours spent in workouts – these are not, I think, the decisive factors at all.

Instead they do things differently. Their strokes are different, their attitudes are different, their group of friends are different; their parents treat the sport differently, the swimmers prepare differently for their races, and they enter different kinds of meets and events.

Consider three dimensions of difference:

  1. Technique

     The styles of strokes, dives and turns are dramatically different at different levels… Not only are the strokes different, they are so different that the ‘C’ level swimmer may be amazed to see how a ‘AAAA’ swimmer looks when swimming.

2. Discipline

The best swimmers are more likely to be strict with their training, coming to workouts on time, carefully doing the competitive strokes legally, watch what they eat, sleep regular hours, do proper warm-ups before a meet, and the like. Their energy is carefully channeled. Diver Greg Louganis, who won two Olympic Gold medals in 1984, practices only three hours each day – not a long time – divided up into two or three sessions. But during each session he tries to do each dive perfectly. Louganis is never sloppy in practice, and so is never sloppy in meets.

3. Attitude

     At the higher levels of competitive swimming, something like an inversion of attitude takes place. The very features of the sport which the ‘C’ swimmer finds unpleasant, the top-level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring – swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say – they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging or therapeutic. They enjoy hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions, try to set difficult goals… It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.

I am suggesting here that athletes do not reach the top level by a simple process of ‘working their way up,’ by accumulating sheer time in the sport; improvements across levels of the sport are not generated through quantitative changes. No amount of extra work per se will transform a ‘C’ swimmer into a ‘AAAA’ swimmer without a concurrent qualitative change in how the work is done. It is not by doing increasing amounts of work that one becomes excellent, but rather by changing the kinds of work.

II. Why ‘Talent’ does not lead to Excellence

‘Talent’ is perhaps the most pervasive lay explanation we have for athletic success. Great athletes, we seem to believe, are born with a special gift, almost a ‘thing’ inside of them, denied to the rest of us – perhaps physical, genetic, psychological, or physiological. Some have ‘it’ and some don’t…

But talent fails as an explanation for athletic success on conceptual grounds… On at least three points, I believe, ‘talent’ is inadequate:

Factors other than talent explain athletic success more precisely.

We can, with little effort, see what these factors are in swimming: geographical location, fairly high family income, ones height, weight, and proportions, the luck or choice of having a good coach…To subsume all of them, willy-nilly, under the rubric of ‘talent’ obscures rather than illuminates the sources of athletic excellence.

Talent is indistinguishable from its effects.

One cannot see that talent exists until after its effects have become obvious… [Many] hold to the belief that there must be something inside the athlete that precedes and determines success, only later to be discovered. But the recurring evidence he finds suggests a different interpretation: perhaps there is no such thing as talent, there is only the outstanding performance itself. We success and immediately infer behind it a cause, a cause for which he has no evidence other than the success itself.

The ‘amount’ of talent needed for athletic success seems to be strikingly low.

Most Olympic champions, when their story is studied, seem to have overcome sharp adversity in the pursuit of success… While some necessary minimum of physical strengths, heart/ ling capacity, or nerve density may well be required for athletic achievement (I am not denying differential advantages), that minimum seems both difficult to define and markedly low, at least in many cases. Perhaps the crucial factor is not natural ability at all, but the willingness to overcome natural or unnatural disabilities of the sort that most of us face…

The concept of talent hinders a clear understanding of excellence. By providing a quick yet spurious ‘explanation’ of athletic success, it satisfies our causal curiosity while requiring neither an empirical analysis nor a critical questioning of our tacit assumptions about top athletes…

Still, we want to believe in talent. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it, ‘what people would like is a coward or hero be born that way,’ knowing that it protects us by degrading the very achievements that it pretends to elevate; magically separating us from those people who are great athletes, ensuring that we are incomparable to them; and relieving those of us who are not excellent of responsibility for our own condition.

The Mundanity of Excellence

Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or super-human in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence…

So the ‘little things’ really do count.

Motivation is mundane too

Swimmers go to practice to see their friends, to exercise, to feel strong afterwards, to impress the coach, to work towards bettering a time they swam in the last meet. Sometimes, the older ones, with a longer view of the future, will aim towards a meet that is still several months away. But even given the longer-term goals, the daily satisfactions need to be there. The mundane social rewards really are crucial. By comparison, the big, dramatic motivations – winning an Olympic gold medal, setting a world record – seem to be ineffective unless translated into shorter-term tasks. Viewing ‘Rocky’ or ‘Chariots of Fire’ may inspire one for several days, but the excitement stirred by a film wears off rather quickly when confronted with the day-to-day reality of climbing out of bed to go and jump in cold water. If, on the other hand, that day-to-day reality is itself fun, rewarding, challenging, if the water is nice and friends are supportive, the longer term goals may well be achieved almost in spite of themselves.

Mary T. Meager: “I never looked beyond the next year, and never looked beyond the next level. I never thought about the Olympics when I was ten; at that time I was thinking about the State Championships… Things can overwhelm you if you think too far ahead.”

This statement was echoed by many of the swimmers I interviewed. While many of them were working toward the Olympic Games, they divided the work along the way into achievable steps, no one of which was too big. They found their challenges in small things: working on a better start this week, polishing up their backstroke technique next week, focusing on better sleep habits.

In the pursuit of excellence, maintaining mundanity is the key psychological challenge

In common parlance, winners don’t choke. Faced with what seems to be a tremendous challenge or a strikingly unusual event such as the Olympic Games, the better athletes take it as a normal, manageable situation… Standard rituals are ways of importing one’s daily habits into the novel situation, to make it as normal an event as possible…

The mundanity of excellence is typically unrecognized. I think the reason is fairly simple. Usually we see great athletes only after they have become great – after the years of learning the new methods, gaining the habits of competitiveness and consistency, after becoming comfortable in their world. They have long since perfected the myriad of techniques that together constitute excellence. Ignorant of all the specific steps that have led to the performance and to the confidence, we think that excellence sprang full-grown from this person, and we say he or she ‘has talent’ or ‘os gifted.’.. But of course there is no secret; there is only the doing of all those little things, each one done correctly, time and time again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of one’s everyday life.”

The Strategy: Scott Barry Kaufman and David Epstein

** For a time, psychologist Anders Ericksons’s “deliberate practice” was considered to be a reliable path to excellence. Deliberate practice is defined as practice that focuses specifically on one element of skill and works to improve that skill by challenging it outside of one’s comfort zone. Deliberate practice theory advocates for the presence of a good teacher and immediate feedback on one’s progress. Below, Scott Barry Kaufman and David Epstein explore the limitations of this theory and share evidence that deliberate practice is not a guaranteed method by which to gain expertise. Instead, they explain, the path to expertise is slightly different for everyone.

Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect: Scott Barry Kaufman and David Epstein Reconsider the Science of “10,000 Hours” to Greatness

Scott Barry Kaufman is the scientific director of the Imagination Institute and a researcher at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of two books on intelligence and creativity, Ungifted and Wired to Create, and his essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Scientific American, Psychology Today, and more. He recently joined David Epstein, an investigative reporter for ProPublica and the New York Times bestselling author of The Sports Gene, for a Heleo Conversation about the complex science of expertise. They argue for why we need to move beyond just “deliberate practice” when we talk about achievement, consider why certain theories reach peak popularity, and discuss why imagination matters immensely to achievement.

Scott:

I’d like to talk to you today about the complex interplay of nature and nurture and what the latest science shows. You’ve done some research looking within the sports domain, so I thought we’d start there and build up to other fields.

Within sports, there’s this model of deliberate practice that Anders Ericsson has been studying for many years. I think that Anders’ research program has been tremendous in showing us that there are things we can do deliberately to increase our skill acquisition, to become better at almost virtually anything. It also shows quite clearly that despite our genes, or despite our innate endowments, the environment has a huge impact on our efforts. Nevertheless, there is accumulating research showing that you could still practice in exactly the right way for 10,000 hours, or as many hours as someone else, and yet there would still be variability in outcomes. Is that correct?

David:

That’s correct. In fact, the more complex the skill, people typically get more different rather than more the same as they practice. In some domains—not in all, but in some—and especially at the highest level skills, practice actually pulls people apart rather than bringing them together. There was a recent review that looked at evidence that would test Ericsson’s model, and the model didn’t hold up. There hasn’t been a perfect test, but that’s what the available work found.

Importantly, we’re learning that there are actually some drawbacks to suggesting a one-size-fits-all model of development. I know it seems like a great thing to tell everyone that the same kind of practice gets everyone to the same place, but it turns out that personalizing people’s development can often help them realize their strengths or formulate their practice in a particularly useful way. This one size fits all or almost-all deliberate practice model actually doesn’t fit any of the demonstrated skill development pathways in almost anything, save maybe very constrained sorts of activities, like golf, or activities that are more static and often formulaic perceptual tasks.

Scott:

Yes, this emerging understanding of the nature-nurture interactions is pointing us to a more nuanced view than the practice model. Indeed, It’s a very complicated issue. The popularity of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, reflected society’s desire to soak up a particular message, which is that we can pretty much accomplish whatever we want by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and putting in a magical number of practice hours. That there’s a formula for success. Since then, I would say that other bestselling books like The Talent Code and Talent is Overrated— further indicate that society is really hungry for a particular message. Unfortunately, science doesn’t care about a message. It cares about the truth.

Trust me—as someone who grew up being told that I was less intelligent based on my test scores, when I entered the field, I had the same level of desperately wanting that message to be true. After over a decade of research on all the nuanced areas of this, it has become clear to me, however, that the nuanced truth is far more interesting—and I would even say more hopeful—than what the general public realizes, and what I even wanted to believe when I first went into this field.

The truth is that we all vary on a multitude of dimensions and, for better or worse, the development of those dimensions are influenced by a mix of nature and nurture. There are a wide range of cognitive and physical variables, as is becoming quite clear through various methods like twin studies, as well as directly looking at the genes and mutations and a range of genes. Our innate endowment does influence our development and the environment plays an essential role in sculpting and determining what pathways those genes go down. Ignoring those individual differences, I think, ignores what it means for you to be you. A purely deliberate practice model to me is very mechanistic; it treats us as machines: if we put in a certain input, we’ll get a certain output. I think it strips away our humanity.

David:

You touched on a lot of really interesting things. Let me go through a couple of them. With respect to the deliberate practice model, or the so-called 10,000 hour rule, again that’s something proposed as a theory and, as you know in the scientific method, you propose a theory or a framework that makes predictions and then you test those predictions. And they must be falsifiable, or else it isn’t really science. Many, or most of those predictions of this famous model were left untested for years. But a recent meta-analysis looked through over 9,000 relevant publications and identified studies that included measures of deliberate practice and measures of skill. What it found was that for certain types of skill, accumulated hours of deliberate practice mattered more and for other types it mattered less, but it never accounted for nothing and it certainly never accounted for everything. It usually accounted for somewhere between a medium-low and medium-high amount of skill difference, to put it colloquially.

David:

I also think this relates to some of your own work. When you look at creativity, there are things that are clearly not deliberate practice that are really important. How far could daydreaming—which you’ve written about in relation to creativity—be from what qualifies as deliberate practice? I’d say quite far.

Where does your work with creativity fit into what would be considered deliberate practice under that model of one-on-one, hyper-rigorous feedback?

Scott:

I’m glad you brought that up because I saw an interview where Anders said, “Deliberate practice is very different from play… Play is not a contributor to expertise, skill development.” I couldn’t disagree more. I think that people who really have fallen in love with a domain, or a method, to them what may appear like deliberate practice often feels like play. It really depends on how you define play; I define play as something deeply, intrinsically enjoyable, where you have a spontaneity to it, where there isn’t necessarily a direct goal. Deliberate practice is so strict, it’s all about the goal, and if it’s the only tool in your toolbox, you are really limiting the chances that you’re going to be creative.

David:

It’s one of the reasons why we see this interesting pattern in the sports realm—in non-golf sports—where kids who get highly technical instruction early in life in a single sport don’t go on to become elite. It’s completely the opposite of what you expect from a deliberate practice framework. It’s the Roger Federer model, the kids who play a bunch of different sports, learn a whole variety of skills, a lot of improv, who delay focusing, actually go on to become elite more often. Of course, there are a million different pathways. Steve Nash didn’t play basketball until he was 13. They’re behind in technical skills early on, but they get this broad exposure and range of skills so the thinking is they tend to be much more creative and able to transfer their skills.

Scott:

Moving to creativity, not just expertise, let me mention one of my favorite longitudinal studies. The E. Paul Torrance studies followed kids starting in elementary school and they’re still following them 50 years later. It found quite clearly that there are a wide range of characteristics that predicted life-long creative achievement—a lot more factors than just persistence or practice.

In fact, they found one of the most important characteristics was the extent to which kids fell in love with a future image of themselves. That has passion, but it also has an imagination component to it. Openness to experience, for instance, we’ve found is the best predictor of publicly recognized creative achievement, even better than conscientiousness.

David:

I think we should note before moving on that the emphasis on the quality of practice is a tremendously important contribution. You don’t get better at golf by just going to the driving range and swatting a bunch of balls without being cognitively engaged, you have to work on stuff. But golf isn’t a good model of most things that humans want to excel at. Certainly not the creative domains.

I have a friend who just became the first curator at a major U.S. museum of what’s called “outsider art”, which are basically people who retired from their profession, took up art as a hobby, and it turned out they had a lot of ability and unique expression and they end up having things that are being auctioned for enormous amounts and hung in museums. I would hate to think that people like that would be influenced by a model that says it’s too late for you to start this, don’t do it.

I spent time out running in the countryside of Kenya, and I saw, unbeknownst to me at the time, a guy who had walked off a farm at age 26 and just started training, and two years later was a world record holder, Dennis Kimetto. Good thing he didn’t think that he had started too late to do that.

Scott:

Great point. There’s a lot of variability around the mean and, in fact, Dean Simonson’s found those who make the history books in various fields like leadership and music composition, even psychology, actually took the least amount of time to get the prerequisite expertise in the domain.

David:

Writing The Sports Gene was a little bit tough for me because I consider myself to be preaching the gospel of practice. I went from a walk-on to university record holder in track and field. I think I can get any human being who doesn’t have serious cardiovascular disease to run a marathon within six months. Not in 2:10, but to run a marathon, so it was weird to feel like I was being put in the place of being a spokesperson for talent.

I think you’ve done a good job of showing some of the cases why aspects of a one-size-fits-all model isn’t as happy of a message as you might think. It isn’t as productive for everyone as you might think, if you look at how it plays out in realms of creativity or the reverse corollaries of it, which is, well, if something didn’t work out for you that’s because you’re too lazy or you didn’t practice right. In many cases we know that the same kind of practice isn’t necessarily right for everybody, and the same path isn’t right for everybody. I think that’s an important message, and not one that should be deemed negative.

Scott:

I couldn’t agree more. On a related note, Angela Duckworth’s research—she’s a friend and colleague of mine and I respect her work immensely—showing that stick-to-it-ness and not giving up or having the right mindset are immensely important. I think that a full, comprehensive understanding of the development of greatness is going to require more of a “yes and” approach than a, “It’s this or it’s that” approach. That’s really what I’m calling for, more of “yes it’s grit, but it’s also imagination, it’s also curiosity, it’s also all these things that make you unique as a human being in this world.” I think that way of looking at things is actually more hopeful and exciting because it recognizes the importance of individuality.

David:

I agree, and it also happens to be the way that the evidence is pointing. I think it’s great that Anders Ericsson is engaging the public and causing people to have conversations like this. I think a real contribution that science can make is to help people realize that we have to think about how does this and that interact in this particular situation? The influence of one aspect doesn’t crowd out the other. That just doesn’t look like it’s how reality works.”

 

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~ The truly excellent, NAU XC, 2019

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

~ Shunryu Suzuki

 

The Spiritual: Shunryu Suzuki (From Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind)

People say that practicing Zen is difficult, but there is a misunderstanding as to why. It is not difficult because it is hard to sit in the cross-legged position, or to attain enlightenment. It is difficult because it is hard to keep our mind pure and our practice pure in its fundamental sense.

In Japan we have the phrase shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind.” The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind. Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it. The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices. For a while you will keep your beginner’s mind, but if you continue to practice one, two, three years or more, although you may improve some, you are liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind.

For Zen students the most important thing is not to be dualistic. Our “original mind” includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This doesn’t mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.

In the beginner’s mind there is no thought “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless.

Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice. So the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind. There is no need to have a deep understanding of Zen. Even though you read much Zen literature, you must read each sentence with a fresh mind. You should not say “I know what Zen is,” or “I have attained enlightenment.”

This is also a real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very, very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner’s mind. It is the secret of Zen practice.”

The Cinematic: Jiro Dreams of Sushi This is a trailer for a beautiful film about

The Musical: Scotland’ By The Lumineers

The Question: How do you define personal excellence for yourself?

I wish you all an excellent weekend regardless of how you define it.

Sincerely,

Shannon

The Body

 

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“Yes, you are a marvel.”

~ Pablo Cassels

Good morning friends,

This morning’s email explores our relationship with the marvelous instrument that is our body. I’ll begin with my own essay on the relationship between fitness, functionality, beauty, and the power of caring for oneself. Next, cellist, Pablo Cassels will insist that we are all marvels in his poem with the same title (thanks, CM, for this one). From there we’ll move on to the transcript of an On Being podcast with trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk (I have included both the audio link and the entire transcript. It’s long, but I suspect each part will have value to someone out there). He will explain how trauma lives in the body and often requires methods outside of talking to heal. Then, we’ll learn the strategy of focusing with Dr. Eugene Gendlin, which involves uses our attention to work with uncomfortable emotions in the body. I have included my own focusing meditation that I use with athletes. Next, Krista Tippett will share her spiritual perspective on the body. We’ll conclude with a moving short film about beauty by Dove, and the song, “The Body Of Love” by Ben Lee.

** I want to make a comment directed in particular to the sections featuring Bessel van der Kolk and focusing. This content speaks of trauma and therapy, which may not initially feel relevant to us everyday folk who are interested in high performance. However, Dr. Van der Kolk explains in his book, The Body Keeps The Score (a truly incredible read) that 75% of us have experienced some form of trauma, and currently experience moments in our lives when intense emotion impedes our preferred way of being in the world.

So, my purpose for including this info is as follows: first, if you have experienced trauma and have not found a satisfactory method to work through it, this content will present further options for doing so that you may not have known exist. In this case, seeking out expert help in these methods is recommended. Second, for those who have not experienced severe trauma but still find themselves dealing with thoughts and emotions that prevent them from being who they want to be, the focusing exercise can really help grow self-understanding and ease these difficult feelings.

The word, “therapy” still has stigma surrounding it – namely that if you are receiving therapy there is something wrong with you. As someone who works with a counselor myself, and counsels others, therapy has revealed itself to me to simply be a method to understand ourselves more thoroughly and interact with ourselves more effectively. The processes within the counseling I receive and offer are more affirming of my own and others’ wisdom and wellness than the identification of weakness. This fact makes them absolutely applicable and necessary for high performance.

The Writing: My own

October, 2019

On my last night in Philly I went for a walk on the river trail alone. When I was in school I was out here countless times, under the old trees, alongside the lights of the bridges and boathouse row. The place is indescribably dear to me. I sat down and did the focusing exercise – where you ask your body what needs to happen to be free of this feeling. [Included in this email below] I heard my body speak back to me that the demands I’m putting on it are still too high – that despite the fact that I’m not running, more needs to change. How inconvenient. And how peaceful I felt, and how peaceful I feel now as I write this.

It’s occurred to me before, but it really hit home that night – sometimes our feelings of stress are not about problems in our lives. Instead they are simply the body saying that the demands upon it are too high, or we are not caring about ourselves enough to meet the demands. Stress can be a physical call for care that shows up in emotional fragility. We can make the mistake of thinking we need to improve something about external circumstances in order to feel better, but, the case might be instead that we just need to rest more, pause more, sleep, eat better food, and in my case to make sure that my blood sugar stays steady all day (when I addressed this is made a massive impact on my emotional well-being). I realized that my low-grade emotional stress was a physical call for care.

Love Your Body; Love Yourself

Shannon Thompson (Oct 2018)

Self-image, self-esteem, self-concept, self-love, self-compassion, self-forgiveness. Self. Is there any person with whom we have a more challenging and mysterious relationship than ourselves? Self is with us throughout our lives, and yet can be incredibly difficult to know. Self sometimes speaks reason, sometimes love, and other times fear. One moment self is peaceful and content; the next she is upset and despairing. Self is always growing, always changing, and rarely provides a clear plan or due warning of her shifts. Self incorporates the spirit, the mind, and the body. The body, and its relationship with the rest of the self is what this essay will focus on.

Our sense of self is shaped in part by how we believe other people perceive us. How we believe we physically appear to others is a large component of how we believe people see us. Body image is a major issue for many people. I suspect there is almost no one in modern society who has not experienced insecurities about how he or she appears.

Methods to improve self-image abound. Some focus on acknowledging that the body is beautiful regardless of shape, size, or color. Many utilize positive self-talk, and affirmations. Eating healthy food and exercising can positively influence one’s self-perception, health, and body shape for the better. But, even after applying all of these methods, we can still feel inadequate. Therefore, I want to add one more method to the mix when it comes to improving your feelings about your body: loving actions toward your body.

Here is a personal story about how this strategy gained prominence for me. I have been an athlete all of my life. My relationship with my body has always been dependent on how well I am performing in my sport, and how fit I look in comparison to athletic ideals. I have always battled insecurities regarding the appearance of my body. This does not make me special.

Throughout my time as a runner I have been sidelined with an injury or illness numerous times. While recuperating I would cringe at the softness I was sure I could see creeping into my peripheries, and I would exercise to the max of whatever exertion was permissible at that time. My measure of physical worth was proportionate to the miles I ran or the hours that I worked out. No doubt as a result of my tendency toward excess, I have struggled with energy related problems, and still do. During these times I just could not run as much anymore, nor maintain prior levels of intensity. I’ve been working with a naturopathic doctor to figure out what’s wrong. After identifying some hormonal imbalances I am on the path to slow recovery. I have been informed that my recovery would be precisely that – slow. Also, my doctor stressed that I listen to my body and avoid stressing it. I decided that it was high time I listened.

I have always been one to complete my prescribed miles regardless of fatigue. Now, having decided to respect the wishes of my body, I am leaving the house and checking in with it. I am asking my body if it wants to run today, and if so how far. I am realistically assessing how my legs are feeling, the way my breath is sounding, and the honest source of my motivation. Over several months of this I’ve slowly learned how to hear my body speak.

This past weekend I caught a mild illness. My throat was scratchy, and my lungs felt thick. I went for a light jog, but my body was exhausted. I decided to lay low. It occurred to me as I did so that this decision was an example of truly loving my body. I was caring for its health as if it were an important person in my life. By resting appropriately I communicated that how my body felt was more important than how toned it was, or how fast it ran. By doing so my perception of my body shifted. I felt a greater affection for my body, and in turn greater compassion for myself. The shift was subtle and unfamiliar. In the past I’ve rarely made a health related decision that was not driven by performance outcomes. This health related decision was for the well-being of my body alone.

Love for oneself is a sensitive topic. Our inner lives can be a complicated mix of positive perceptions of ourselves, and the most cruel, despairing, beliefs. For many, the practice of loving oneself can seem impossible. There are people for whom I have suggested self-compassion strategies, who reject them vehemently.

Self-compassion is a worthwhile ability to develop. Psychologist, Kristin Neff has found that those highest in self-compassion have a greater focus on mastery goals (goals focused on improvement) than performance goals (goals focused on a specific outcome), and a lower fear of failure than those who scored lower in self-compassion. Researchers have also found that self-compassion is related to lower self-criticism, a contributor to depression. Learning to care for one’s body can be a first step in growing self-compassion.

The Role of Beauty

At the heart of our insecurities about our body is the desire to be beautiful. We perceive so many benefits to being beautiful. Beautiful is attractive, successful, safe, desirable, and within some contexts even divine. It’s no wonder we wish to be beautiful. We forget that true beauty goes far deeper than the eyes can see. It is complexity, it is functionality, it is fragility. Your body is all of these things, and it is the only body you will ever have.

By treating your body in a way that demonstrates your love for it in areas outside of its appearance, you can deepen your perception of your own beauty. When I turn around on a run because my body feels unhealthy, I communicate to myself that the health of my amazing body is more important than it being perceived as fit or fast. In caring for my health I communicate to myself that I have intrinsic worth. More important than what other people say about us is what we say to ourselves. By caring for my body I was communicating to myself that I am of value.

Think about those you love the most. There are probably few messages that you want to convey to them more strongly than your belief in their intrinsic worth. Your love for them is not contingent on their appearance, or their performance in a profession or craft. Why should our relationship with ourselves be different? When you care about the health and happiness of a person before their appearance or accomplishments, you are communicating enduring love, and you are enabling them to feel beautiful for the qualities within them that should truly be considered as such. People thrive when you love them in this way. We thrive when you love ourselves this way.

The day that I missed my run due to my scratchy throat I curled up on the couch. I worked on a piece of writing that I’d been trying to complete for some time. Later, I attended a relaxed function with a group of friends. I enjoyed getting ready to go out. Instead of agonizing over my less-fit body I took pleasure in coordinating the colors of my outfit to my eyes and my hair. I looked forward to conversing with my friends about what my writing had inspired in me. My pleasure was derived from anticipated interaction, and not because my body met some standard, but because it was uniquely mine.

The next time that you want to feel beautiful, or feel willing to offer yourself self-love, try caring for your body. There are numerous actions that this form of care could entail. You could prioritize sleep, eat nourishing food, or look after a sore area. You could ask your body what it craves – perhaps a rest, a walk, or a stretch. You could tell your body that you understand why it’s tired, or express gratitude toward it for feeling so energized. By doing so you will communicate love toward yourself. You will improve your self-image, self-esteem, and self-concept without lifting a weight, or running a mile, or depriving yourself of anything. For anyone who would like to grow self-compassion, loving your body can be an ideal beginning.

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“And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.”

~ John O’Donahue

The Poetry: Pablo Cassels

YOU ARE A MARVEL

By Pablo Cassels

“Each second we live in a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and will never be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two makes four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all of the world there is no other child exactly like you. In the millions of years that have passed there has never been another child like you. And look at your body — what a wonder it is! Your legs, your arms, your cunning fingers, the way you move! You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must cherish one another. You must work — we all must work — to make this world worthy of its children.”

The Science: On Being Interview with Bessel van der Kolk (Listen to this podcast here)

The psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk is an innovator in treating the effects of overwhelming experiences on people and society. We call this “trauma” when we encounter it in life and news, and we tend to leap to address it by talking. But Bessel van der Kolk knows how some experiences imprint themselves beyond where language can reach. He explores state-of-the-art therapeutic treatments, including body work like yoga and eye movement therapy. He’s been a leading researcher of traumatic stress since it first became a diagnosis in the wake of the Vietnam War, and from there was applied to other populations. A conversation with this psychiatrist is a surprisingly joyful thing. He shares what he and others are learning on this edge of humanity about the complexity of memory, our need for others, and how our brains take care of our bodies.

Bessel van der Kolk is a professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School, and he helped found a community-based trauma center in Brookline, Massachusetts. As medical director there, he works with people affected by trauma and adversity to re-establish a sense of safety and predictability in the world, and to reclaim their lives. Bessel van der Kolk was born in the Netherlands. His own father spent time as religious prisoner in a German concentration camp during World War II. I spoke with him in 2013.

Ms. Tippett:

This field you’re in of trauma, traumatic stress, nowadays, this language is everywhere, right? This language of “trauma” and “traumatic stress” has made its way into culture, movie, TV scripts, the news, public policy discussions. I’ve read a few different accounts of how you stumbled into this field. How do you trace the beginnings of your research into traumatic stress?

Dr. van der Kolk:

Well, it starts in a very pedestrian way. I mean, as characters from a generation that it was generally recommended that people have their own heads examined, which, I think, is sort of a good idea if you try to help other people. So psychoanalysis was the way to do that back then. And the only program that paid for that was the VA. So I went to work for the VA for the same reason that soldiers go to the VA, namely, to get their benefits package.

Ms. Tippett:

This was in the 1970s? Is that right?

Dr. van der Kolk:

It was in the 1970s, yeah. And like many of my colleagues, I was just there to — as a step in my career. And then the very first person I saw was a Vietnam veteran who had terrible nightmares. I happened to have studied nightmares up to that point and some sleep studies, and I knew a little bit how to treat it, so I gave him some medicines to make the nightmares go away.

Two weeks later, he came back, and I said, “So how did the medicines work?” And he said, “I did not take your medicines because I realized I need to have my nightmares because I need to be a living memorial to my friends who died in Vietnam.” And that statement was the opening of my fascination about how people become living testimonials for things that no longer exist but they need to hold it in their hearts and minds and bodies and brains. The loyalty to the dead, the loyalty to what was, just blew me away. And the veterans really touched me very deeply both for what they had done, how ashamed they were about what they had done, how they went in idealistically, how they came back broken, how they relied on their comrades. And they reminded me, I think, of the uncles and my father, who I grew up with in the Netherlands after the Second World War. So it resonated with me.

Ms. Tippett:

At that time, I believe there was no formal connection made between military service and problems after discharge, right? This diagnosis hadn’t happened?

Dr. van der Kolk:

Well, it comes and goes. I became quite interested in history of how Western culture has looked at trauma. And people were very aware of it in the 1880s and after the Civil War and during the First World War and during the Second World War. And then, in between, it gets forgotten. And so, the way — the time that I got into the field, happened to be a time of ignorance again. It was come and go.

Ms. Tippett:

After the Vietnam War.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Yeah.

Ms. Tippett:

And my understanding from your writing that this diagnosis of PTSD, the term we use now, came about because of post-Vietnam War advocacy.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Yeah, absolutely. And so later on, I became aware of all sorts of colleagues who had been working with abused kids and rape victims. And they had been trying to get a diagnosis in. And that group was too small to have any political clout. And it’s really the Vietnam veterans that brought this in and the power of the large numbers of psychiatrists and patients at the VA. That was strong enough to make it an issue and a diagnosis.

Ms. Tippett:

So I think that language you used a moment ago about that first veteran you spoke with, that he was a living testimonial to his memories and to something that had happened, which no longer was happening but utterly defined him, is a good way in to how you define trauma. So I’d like to spend a moment on that. I mean, start with me: How do you describe what this is, trauma, as you deal with it, as you study it, as you treat it?

Dr. van der Kolk:

What I think happens is that people have terrible experiences and — we all do. And we are a very resilient species. So if we are around people who love us, trust us, take care of us, nurture us when we are down, most people do pretty well with even very horrendous events. But particularly traumas that occur at the hands of people who are supposed to take care of you, if you’re not allowed to feel what you feel, know what you know, your mind cannot integrate what goes on, and you can get stuck on the situation. So the social context in which it occurs is fantastically important.

Ms. Tippett:

Something that’s very interesting to me in how you talk about trauma, the experience of trauma, what it is, is how the nature of memory is distorted, that memories are never precise recollections, but that in general, as we move through the world, memories become integrated and transformed into stories that help us make sense. But in the case of traumatic memories, they’re not integrated, and they’re not even really remembered as much as they’re relived.

Dr. van der Kolk:

That’s correct. There’s actually a very old observation, and it was made extensively in the 1890s already by various people, including Freud. That’s really what you see when you see traumatized people. Now, these days, the trauma is a popular subject. People say, “Tell me about your trauma.” But the nature of our trauma is that you actually have no recollection for it as a story, in a way.

Many victims, over time, get to tell a story to explain why they are so messed up. But the nature of a traumatic experience is that the brain doesn’t allow a story to be created. And here, you have an interesting paradox that it’s normal to distort your memories. Like, I’m one out of five kids. When we have a family reunion, we all tell stories about our own childhood, and everybody always listens to everybody else’s stories and says, “Did you grow up in the same family as I did?”

Ms. Tippett:

Right. There are five versions of every story.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Yeah. There’s all these very, very different versions, and they barely ever overlap. So, people create their own realities in a way. What is so extraordinary about trauma is that these images or sounds or physical sensations don’t change over time. So people who have been molested as kids continue to see the wallpaper of the room in which they were molested. Or when they examine all these priest-abuse victims, they keep seeing the silhouette of the priest standing in the door of the bathroom and stuff like that. So it’s these images, these sounds that don’t get changed. So it’s normal to change.

My old teacher, George Vaillant, did a study that you may have heard about. It’s called the Grant Study. And from 1939 to 1942, they followed the classes at Harvard every five years [Editor’s note: The study followed participants from the Harvard classes of 1939-1944.], and it’s going on to this day. Most of them went off to war in 1942, and almost all of them came back in 1945, and they were interviewed. And then they have interviews in 1989, 1990, 1991. [Editor’s note: Questionnaires were administered every 2 years and interviews were conducted every 5 years. Learn more about the methodology here.] It turns out that the people who did not develop PTSD, which was the vast majority, tell very different stories, let’s say, in 1990 than back in 1945. So now it was a glorious experience, it was a growth experience, and how good it was, how close they were to people, and how patriotic they felt. And it’s all sort of cleaned up.

Ms. Tippett:

Right. But it’s become a coherent narrative.

Dr. van der Kolk:

But it’s very coherent, and it’s a nice story, and it’s good to listen to it, and relatives have all heard it a million times, because we make happy stories in our mind. People who got traumatized continue to have the same story in 1990 as they told back in 1945, so they cannot transform it. When we treat people, you see the narrative change, and people start introducing new elements.

I compare it very much to what happens when people dream. Maybe dreaming is very central here, actually, in that the natural way in which we deal with difficult stuff is we go to sleep and we dream, and next day we feel better. It’s very striking how we get upset and say, “I’m going to move to Florida on a bummer day in Boston in the winter.” And the next morning, you wake up, and you shovel out your car, and everything’s fine. And so sleep is a very important way in which we restore ourselves. And that process of that restoration that occurs during REM sleep — dream sleep — is probably an important factor in why traumatic memories do not get integrated.

Ms. Tippett:

And also, that gets at the fact that it’s not just cognitive, right? It’s not just a story that you could tell. I mean, it may eventually become a story, but that it’s body memory. It’s a neural net of memory. It’s not just about words that you can formulate.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Yeah. It’s amazing to me what a hard time many people I know have with that. This is not about something you think or something you figure out. This is about your body, your organism, having been reset to interpret the world as a terrifying place and yourself as being unsafe. And it has nothing to do with cognition, with — you can say to people, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” or, “You’re not a bad person,” or, “It wasn’t your fault.” And people say, “I know that, but I feel that it is.” It was very striking in our yoga study because we see yoga as one important thing that helps people who’ve been traumatized because they get back into their bodies. How hard it was for people to — even during the most blissful part of the yoga practice called Shavasana — what a hard time traumatized people had at that moment to just feel relaxed and safe and feel totally enveloped with goodness, how the sense of goodness and safety disappears out of your body, basically.

Ms. Tippett:

I want to talk about yoga in a minute. That’s really — I mean, as you said, people were talking about this in the late 19th century. Freud talked about it, and I guess his phrase was “hysteria.” But something that you seemed to have noticed early on is that traditional therapy was ignoring this sensate dimension of these experiences in trying to reduce it to talk therapy, which absolutely didn’t fit with the experience.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Right. There’s a few people here and there in the last 150 years who do it. The great Frenchman Pierre Janet did, Wilhelm Reich, of course, who then went crazy afterwards. Here and there, people noticed the somatic dimension of it, but by and large, I think psychology training really breeds the tensions of body out of people. It’s a medical training. It’s amazing. Psychiatrists just don’t pay much attention to sensate experience at all.

Antonio Damasio, in his books, The Feeling of What Happens, in books like this, really talks about a core experience of ourselves is a somatic experience, and that the function of the brain is to take care of the body. But it’s a minority voice. It’s a small voice.

Ms. Tippett:

But it seems to me that what we’re learning from brain imaging is bearing out these kinds of observations. I mean, what are we learning? Is any of this surprising to you?

Dr. van der Kolk:

What we see is that the parts of the brain that help people to see clearly and to observe things clearly really get interfered with by trauma and the imprint of trauma is in areas to the brain that really have no access to cognition. So it’s in an area called the periaqueductal gray, which has something to do with the sort of total safety of the body. The amygdala, of course, which is the smoke detector, alarm bell system of the brain — that’s where the trauma lands, and trauma makes that part of the brain hypersensitive or renders it totally insensitive.

Ms. Tippett:

And the Broca’s area?

Dr. van der Kolk:

Well, in our study and some others, I mean, for me that was really the great finding early on, is that when people are into their trauma, Broca’s area shuts down. That is something that almost everybody has experienced. You get really upset with your partner or your kid, suddenly you take leave of your senses and you say horrible things to that person. And afterwards, you say, “Oh, I didn’t mean to say that.”

The reason why you said it is because Broca’s area, which is sort of the part of your brain that helps you to say reasonable things and to understand things and articulate them, shuts down. So when people really become very upset, that whole capacity to put things into words in an articulate way disappears. And for me, that is a very important finding because it helped me to realize that if people need to overcome the trauma, we need to also find methods to bypass what they call the tyranny of language.

Ms. Tippett:

Don’t ask to be verbal, to verbalize it.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Or to be reasonable. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett:

Right. [laughs]

Dr. van der Kolk:

The trauma is not about being reasonable or to be verbal or to be articulate.

Ms. Tippett:

So it seems like there are all these impulses that we have that we’re working with all the time that get so out of whack with trauma. So I’ve understood that it’s not just that we have memories and that we process them in different ways, but also that we are constantly rationalizing, that we have this impulse to rationalize. But then when people are traumatized, they are actually — they also have this impulse to rationalize and then become unable to grasp the irrelevance of that memory and that feeling to the present moment.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Yeah. So we have these two different parts of our brain, and they’re really quite separate. We have our animal brain that makes you go to sleep and makes us hungry and makes us turned on to other human beings in a sexual way, stuff like that. And then we have our rational brain that makes you get along with other people in a civilized way. These two are not all that connected to each other. So the more upset you are, you shut down your rational part of your brain.

When you look at the political discourse, everybody can rationalize what they believe in and talk endlessly about why what they believe is the right thing to do while your emotional responses are totally at variance with seemingly rational behaviors. We can talk till we’re blue in the face, but if our primitive part of our brain perceives something in a particular way, it’s almost impossible to talk ourselves out of it, which, of course, makes verbal psychotherapy also extremely difficult because that part of the brain is so very hard to access.

Ms. Tippett:

Yeah. We’re pretty fascinating creatures, aren’t we? [laughs]

Dr. van der Kolk:

Fascinating, disturbing, glorious, all those things. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett:

All those things all at once. So I do want to talk about yoga now, which is something very important to me as well, something I’ve discovered in the last five or six years. How did you get interested — how did you discover yoga and then make that part of this kind of work?

Dr. van der Kolk:

We actually got into yoga in a very strange way. We learned that there is a way of measuring the integrity of your reptilian brain, i.e., how the very most primitive part of your brain deals with arousal. And you measure that with something called heart rate variability, and it tells you something about how your breath and your heart are in sync with each other. It turns out that the calmer people are, and the more mindful people are, the higher their heart rate variability is. And then we were doing that on some traumatized people, and we noticed that they had lousy heart rate variability. Then I thought, so how can we change peoples’ heart rate variability?

Ms. Tippett:

And is this something you’d naturally be aware of or not? You wouldn’t know if it was in sync or out of sync?

Dr. van der Kolk:

No, but you can measure it, and it’s fairly easy to measure it. There are like apps for your iPhone on which you can measure them. But, of course, we do it in a more sophisticated way. So we found this very abnormal heart rate variability in traumatized people. And then we heard that there were 17,000 yoga sites that claimed that yoga changed heart rate variability. A few days later, some yoga teachers walked by our clinic and said, “Hey, do you think you can use this for some project?” And I said, “We sure can. We’d love to see if yoga changes heart rate variability.” This whole yoga thing also fits very well with the increasing recognition that traumatized people cut off their relationship to their bodies. And I have to give a little bit of background here. Way back already in 1872, Charles Darwin wrote a book about emotions in which he talks about how emotions are expressed in things like heartbreak and gut-wrenching experience. So you feel things in your body. And then it became obvious that if people are in a constant state of heartbreak and gut-wrench, they do everything to shut down those feelings to their body.

One way of doing it is taking drugs and alcohol, and the other thing is that you can just shut down your emotional awareness of your body. And so a very large number of traumatized people whom we see — I’d say the majority of the people we treat at the trauma center and in my practice — have very cut off relationships to their bodies. They may not feel what’s happening in their bodies. They may not register what goes on with them. And so what became very clear is that we needed to help people for them to feel safe feeling the sensations in their bodies, to start having a relationship with the life of their organism, as I like to call it.

And so a combination of events really led us into exploring yoga for them. And yoga turned out to be a very wonderful method for traumatized people to activate exactly the areas of consciousness, areas of the brain, the areas of your mind that you need in order to regain ownership over yourself. I don’t think that yoga would be the only way to do it, or I think if you only do yoga, that you can totally take care of it.

But yoga, to my mind, is an important component of an overall healing program and, again, not only yoga. You could do maybe martial arts or qigong, but something that engages your body in a very mindful and purposeful way — with a lot of attention to breathing in particular — resets some critical brain areas that get very disturbed by trauma.

Ms. Tippett:

Do you also have a yoga practice?

Dr. van der Kolk:

I also have a yoga practice. I do. Not enough, of course. None of us ever does enough. But I try to start every day with a yoga practice.

Ms. Tippett:

Now, did I read somewhere that you also found that your heart rate variability was not in sync and was not robust enough?

Dr. van der Kolk:

[laughs] I like to keep quiet about it. That’s true, that’s true.

Ms. Tippett:

And do you know if yoga has helped your … ?

Dr. van der Kolk:

Yeah, I have a nice, even heart rate variability now.

Ms. Tippett:

I wonder if you have ever heard of somebody named Matthew Sanford, who I’ve had on my program. He’s actually …

Dr. van der Kolk:

No.

Ms. Tippett:

He’s a very renowned yoga teacher. He’s been paraplegic since he was 13, and he had no memory of the accident in which he was disabled, and his body remembered it. He talks about body memory. It’s the same thing you say, this imprint that trauma has not just on your mind. The other thing that he’s doing recently is actually working with veterans and also working with young women suffering from anorexia and understanding also that, although that seems to be so much an obsession with the body, they are really in a traumatic relationship with their own bodies.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Absolutely, yes.

Ms. Tippett:

Some of the things he’s doing, which he actually did for me — I did a class with him, like just putting these very comforting weights on certain muscles, so you feel sunk into your body in a way. And I just was thinking — I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been reading about your research.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Huh. It sounds very sympathetic and very right. The sense of the experiences, of feeling weight and feeling your substance …

Ms. Tippett:

Yes, feeling your substance which is bigger than just feeling a weight on your muscles, isn’t it?

Dr. van der Kolk:

Yeah. Really feeling your body move and the life inside of yourself is critical. Personally, for example, when people ask me, “So what sort of treatments have you explored?” — I always explore every treatment that I explore for other people — what’s been most helpful for me has been rolfing.

Ms. Tippett:

Has been what?

Dr. van der Kolk:

Rolfing. Rolfing is called after Ida Rolf. It’s a very deep tissue work where people tear your muscles from your fascia with the idea that, at a certain moment, your body comes to be contracted in a way that you habitually hold yourself. So your body sort of takes on a certain posture. And the idea of rolfing is to really open up all these connections and make the body flexible again in a very deep way.

I had asthma as a kid. I was very sickly as a kid because I was part of this group in the Netherlands. Finally, after the war in the Netherlands, during which I was born, about 100,000 kids died from starvation, and I was a very sickly kid. I think I carried it in my body for a long time, and rolfing helped me to overcome that, actually. So now I became flexible and multipotential again.

And for my patients, I always recommend that they see somebody who helps them to really feel their body, experience their body, open up to their bodies. And I refer people always to craniosacral work or Feldenkrais. I think those are all very important components about becoming a healthy person.

Ms. Tippett:

But they’re not that easy to find. They’re still kind of around the edges, Feldenkrais and craniosacral. Isn’t it strange how, in Western culture, in a field like psychotherapy — or even I see this a lot in religion — in Western culture, we turn these things into these chin-up experiences. We separated ourselves; we divided ourselves. I see this — I mean, yoga is everywhere now, right? And people are discovering all kinds of ways, as you say. There are all kinds of other ways to reunite ourselves, but …

Dr. van der Kolk:

But it’s true. Western culture is astoundingly disembodied and uniquely so. Because of my work, I’ve been to South Africa quite a few times and China and Japan and India. You see that we are much more disembodied. And the way I like to say is that we basically come from a post-alcoholic culture. People whose origins are in Northern Europe had only one way of treating distress. That’s, namely, with a bottle of alcohol.

North American culture continues to continue that notion. If you feel bad, just take a swig or take a pill. And the notion that you can do things to change the harmony inside of yourself is just not something that we teach in schools and in our culture, in our churches, in our religious practices. And of course, if you look at religions around the world, they always start with dancing, moving, singing …

Ms. Tippett:

Yeah. Crying, laughing.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Physical experiences. And then the more respectable people become, the more stiff they become somehow.

Ms. Tippett:

I also would like to ask you just about this EMDR because I had not heard of this before.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Oh, really?

Ms. Tippett:

No, I hadn’t.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Well, EMDR is a bizarre and wondrous treatment. And anybody who first hears about it, myself included, thinks this is pretty hokey and strange. It’s something invented by Francine Shapiro, who found that, if you move your eyes from side to side as you think about distressing memories, that the memories lose their power. And because of some experiences, both with myself, but even more with the patients of mine who told me about their experiences, I took a training in it. It turned out to be incredibly helpful. Then I did what’s probably the largest NIH-funded study on EMDR. And we found that, of people with adult-onset traumas, a one-time trauma as an adult, that it had the best outcome of any treatment that has been published.

What’s intriguing about EMDR is both how well it works and then the question is how it works, and that got me into this dream stuff that I talked about earlier, and how it does not work through figuring things out and understanding things. But it activates some natural processes in the brain that helps you to integrate these past memories.

Ms. Tippett:

I mean, it sounds so simple. And even when I was reading about it, moving your eyes back and forth — I mean, is this something that you can do for yourself? Or is there something more complex going on?

Dr. van der Kolk:

I imagine it can be done, but it’s usually better if you do it with somebody else who sort of stays with you, helps you to focus, makes eye movement for you by having somebody else follow your fingers. But it is astoundingly effective treatment. And it’s interesting that, even in the most biased studies, EMDR keeps coming up as this very effective treatment. It’s been very difficult to get funding to find out the very intriguing underlying mechanisms of it. And I think if we really find out the mechanism for EMDR, we’ll understand how the mind works much better. It’s an outstandingly effective treatment. So if people have had one terrible thing that they cannot get out of their minds, that, for me, is the treatment of choice. Of course, the people who come to see me in my practice oftentimes have had multiple traumas at the hands of their intimates also, so then it gets much more complicated than just a memory issue. But if it’s just a car accident or a simple assault, it’s astoundingly effective.

Ms. Tippett:

That’s fascinating. Something else I read is you were reflecting on Hurricane Hugo — hurricanes in general or natural disasters — this phenomenon we see of people helping each other, of getting out there and helping each other — and you also look at that and see that it’s not just that people are helping each other; they’re moving their bodies. Again, there’s this physical involvement kind of as antidote to the helplessness of the situation, which is so manifest.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Good. I’m really glad you read it because people talk a lot about stress hormones. Our stress hormones are sort of the source of all evil. That’s definitely not true. The stress hormones are good for you. You secrete stress hormones in order to give you the energy to cope under extreme situations. So it gives you that energy to stay up all night with your sick kid or to shovel snow in Minnesota and Boston and stuff like that. What goes wrong is, if you’re kept from using your stress hormones, if somebody ties you down, if somebody holds you down, if somebody keeps you imprisoned, the stress hormones keep going up, but you cannot discharge it with action. Then the stress hormones really start wreaking havoc with your own internal system. But as long as you move, you are going to be fine. As we know, after these hurricanes and these terrible things, people get very active, and they like to help, and they like to do things, and they enjoy doing it because it discharges their energy.

Ms. Tippett:

So we are healing ourselves. We don’t realize that, but we know how to …

Dr. van der Kolk:

We are using our natural system, basically. We’re not only healing; we’re coping. We’re just dealing with what we need to cope with. That’s why you have that stuff. That’s why we survive as a species. What was disturbing in Hurricane Hugo, which was my first encounter quite a long time, and what we saw again in New Orleans, is how these victimized populations were prevented from doing something, and that’s really what the observation was.

Ms. Tippett:

Right. And that that compounded the trauma.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Yeah. So I get flown into Puerto Rico after Hurricane Hugo because I’ve written a book about trauma. I knew nothing about disasters, but nobody else knew anything either, so they flew me in. And what struck me — I landed in Puerto Rico, and everybody is busy doing stuff and building things, and everybody’s too busy to talk to me because they’re trying to do stuff. But on the same plane that I flew in with, officials from FEMA came in, who then made announcements, “Stop your work until FEMA decides what you’re going to get reimbursed for.” And that was the worst thing that could have happened because now these people were using the energy to fight with each other and to pick war with each other instead of rebuilding their houses. That’s, of course, similar what happened in New Orleans, where people also were kept from being agents in their own recovery.

Ms. Tippett:

I wonder how you look at this world we live in now where it feels like there’s an acceleration of what you might call collective traumatic events or tragedies. It seems to be more and more predictable that around the corner there will be a bombing or a school shooting or a terrible event that’s involved with the weather. How does what you know about trauma help you think about this or … ?

Dr. van der Kolk:

I’m not sure if I share that view with you. I think there’s so much more news, so we’re much more aware of whatever happens at any particular moment. And of course, the news media, when you wake up in the morning, find the worst thing that happens somewhere in the world to serve it to you for breakfast. So we get served much more. I don’t think there’s more trauma, actually.

Ms. Tippett:

You don’t think more bad things happen? You just think that … ?

Dr. van der Kolk:

When I read about how Abe Lincoln grew up — he’d lost his mother, and they moved to houses all the time, and they were starving, and he had nothing. I mean, you read the stories about all the immigrants, all those people who died, and the number of assaults in New York City and around the country. I don’t think we live in the worst world. And I think people are also much more conscious today than they were, let’s say, 100 years ago. No, I really have studied the history of trauma. My favorite human folly is the First World War. If you think the world is bad right now, think about the First World War. Unbelievable. So I don’t think things are necessarily worse, and I think — when I go around the country, and I see the number of programs that very goodhearted people have for school kids, etc., I’m continuously astounded by the amount of integrity and creativity and good will that I see everywhere around me. At the same time that you see something as horrendous as in Philadelphia — the school system of the public schools in Philadelphia abolished arts programs, gymnastics, counseling, and music programs. I go, “Where have these people been in order to have a mind that focuses?” You need to move your body. You need to sing with other people. And if you think that your kids are going to do better if you keep them stock-still in a classroom taking tests, you don’t know anything about human beings.

So you still hear about horrendous things all the time, but I see a great deal of consciousness at the same time. And I see that people are really trying to carve out more consciousness and more democracy in various places around the world.

Ms. Tippett:

I mean, you’re right. It’s all these things at once. But let’s say — something I’m aware of is how — and this would be different from the First World War era where we get these pictures, these vivid images with this immediacy brought to us, right? And I personally — and I think this is true collectively too — I don’t know what to do with those images. And what I often — it’s so disturbing, and then there’s also this impulse that you just have to cut yourself off from that feeling because I can’t do anything for that particular picture. And then there’s this guilt and this feeling that that’s not a satisfactory reaction. I mean, it’s altogether…

Dr. van der Kolk:

See, there’s a very dark side to this also and that is that there’s a certain tropism, a movement towards misery in our lives so that, if things become too quiet, it becomes boring. When you see the preview of coming attractions in the movie theater, you go like, “Oh my god. What are these people watching?” People are drawn towards horrendous stuff all the time. So it is part of that dark side of human nature to want to live on that edge. It’s very hard. It’s hard to deal with.

Ms. Tippett:

It’s very hopeful that you spend your life working with trauma, with victims in this research. But you have a pretty refreshingly hopeful feeling about us as a species.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Well, you see, part of that I get from my patients. What is so gratifying about this work is that you get to see the life force. People go through horrendous stuff everywhere all the time, and yet, people go on with their lives.

Ms. Tippett:

And you see that, you experience that again and again.

Dr. van der Kolk:

I see it all the time. I see kids who grew up under terrible circumstances, and some of them do terribly. But then last week, we had our conference here, our annual conference in Boston, and somebody presented her work on doing meditation in maximum security jails. And you see these really bad-ass guys come to life because of this meditation program. And I see people getting better with another program that I’m involved with is a Shakespeare program for juvenile delinquents here in Brookshire County where the judge gives kids a choice between going to prison or being condemned to be a Shakespeare actor. And, I go to the Shakespeare program, and these actors do a beautiful job with these kids, and you see these kids come to life as they’re being valued as an actor and a person who is able to talk. What I see is the huge potential that people have to crawl out of their holes.

Ms. Tippett:

I read your research, and I think about this whole picture that we’ve been discussing of all the different ways people are reaching out for methods to become more self-aware — yoga, meditation, using these insights of neuroscience. Sometimes I wonder if, 50 years from now or 100 years from now, people might look back on therapy, the way we’ve done it for 50 years or whatever, and see it as a really rudimentary step towards a much more profound, reaching for awareness and consciousness, mindfulness.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Well, I think people have always done good therapy, and our culture and our insurance structure is not really geared towards really very good therapy, nor is our psychological training, which is there to fix people and get rid of their disorder as fast as possible. But therapy as in people really getting to know themselves very well and examining themselves and being seen and being heard and being understood has always been around. And I think it will always be around.

And I don’t think we’ll ever talk about it as necessarily primitive because the intimate interchange of people really talking about their deepest feelings and their deepest pain and having persons listen to it has always been, and I think it always will be, a very powerful human experience.

Ms. Tippett:

So the language people sometimes use about trauma would be — there’s a lot of spiritual language that we intuitively grasp for, “soul stealing.” I wonder how you think about the human spirit in the context of what you know about trauma and resilience and healing.

Dr. van der Kolk:

That’s a very tough question.

Ms. Tippett:

I know. [laughs] I think you’re up to it, though.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Something that I tended to stay away from. But, I think trauma really does confront you with the best and the worst. You see the horrendous things that people do to each other, but you also see resiliency, the power of love, the power of caring, the power of commitment, the power of commitment to oneself, to the knowledge that there are things that are larger than our individual survival. And some of the most spiritual people I know are exactly traumatized people, because they have seen the dark side. And in some ways, I don’t think you can appreciate the glory of life unless you also know the dark side of life. And I think the traumatized people certainly know about the dark side of life, but they also, because of that, see the other side better.

Ms. Tippett:

You said somewhere that PTSD has opened the door to scientific investigation of the nature of human suffering. That’s a profound step, right? I mean, to me, that’s the spiritual way to talk about this field with a profound understanding of what the word “spiritual” means.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Yeah. Well, I think this field has opened up two areas. One is the area of trauma and survival and suffering, but the other one is also — people are studying the nature of human connections and the connection between us, also, from a scientific point of view. As much as trauma has opened up things, I think the other very important arm of scientific discovery is how the human connection is being looked at scientifically now and what really happens when two people see each other, when two people respond to each other, when people mirror each other, when two bodies move together in dancing and smiling and talking. There’s a whole new field of interpersonal neurobiology that is studying how we are connected with each other and how a lack of connection, particularly early in life, has devastating consequences on the development of mind and brain.

Ms. Tippett:

And it’s true, isn’t it, from your study that, that if people learn to inhabit their bodies, to be more self-aware, that these qualities and habits can serve, can create resilience, can serve when trauma hits. Is that right?

Dr. van der Kolk:

Absolutely. There’s two factors here. One is how your reptilian brain — if you breathe quietly in your body and you feel your bodily experience and stuff happens to you, you notice that something is happening out there, and you say, “Oh, this really sucks. This is really unpleasant.” But it’s something that is not you. So you don’t necessarily get hijacked by unpleasant experiences.

The big issue for traumatized people is that they don’t own themselves anymore. Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves. And so what we have learned is that what makes you resilient to trauma is to own yourself fully. And if somebody says hurtful or insulting things, you can say, “Hmm, interesting. That person is saying hurtful and insulting things.”

Ms. Tippett:

But you can separate your sense of yourself from them.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Yeah, but you can separate yourself from it. I think we are really beginning to seriously understand how human beings can learn how to do that, to observe and not react.

Ms. Tippett:

I think I just want to come back as we close to this idea that somehow, the point of all of this, the take-home for you, and I’m not finding the quote, is that we have to feel safe, that we have to feel safe and that we have to feel safe in our — that has to be a bodily perception, not just a cognitive perception. And that somehow everything comes back to that.

Dr. van der Kolk:

It is the foundation, but you need to actually feel that feeling. You need to know what is happening in your body. You need to know where your right toe is and where your pinkie is. You need to sort of be aware of what it’s doing.

Ms. Tippett:

It’s very nitty-gritty. Is that what you’re saying?

Dr. van der Kolk:

It’s very basic. But sorely lacking in our diagnostic system is simple things like eating and peeing and pooping because they’re the foundation of everything — and breathing. These are foundational things, all of which go wrong when you get traumatized. The most elementary body functions go awry when you are terrified.

So trauma treatment starts at the foundation of a body that can sleep, a body that can rest, a body that feels safe, a body that can move. And I love the example of your guy who’s paraplegic and who does yoga because, even when your body is impaired, he can still learn to own it and to have it.

Ms. Tippett:

Yes. He says he’s not cured, but he’s healed. And here’s a striking statement you’ve made that “victims are members of society whose problems represent the memory of suffering, rage, and pain in a world that longs to forget.”

Dr. van der Kolk:

Did I say that?

Ms. Tippett:

You did.

Dr. van der Kolk:

That’s brilliant. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett:

[laughs] And I find that so worthy of reflection.

Dr. van der Kolk:

Well, that’s the literature we read, that’s the movies we watch, and that’s what we want to be inspired by. That’s what we observe is that spirit. Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou and these people can talk very articulately about having dealt with and stared adversity in the face and still maintain that humanity and faith. That’s what’s it all about.

Bessel van der Kolk is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts. He’s also a professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School. His books include Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on the Mind, Body, and Society and The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.

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“Like any child, I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in a pool. Her fingertips enter the fingertips on the water, her wrists slide up her arms. The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after.”

~ Annie Dillard

The Strategy: FOCUSING by Eugene Gendlin (Website with more info on focusing here

FOCUSING THEORY

Grounded in the person-centered approach to treatment, focusing therapy holds that individuals possess within themselves the answers they are seeking and is founded on the concept that individuals know themselves better than a therapist could ever hope to. This “knowing” refers to the knowledge of the body (the body’s awareness), however, not the knowledge of the thinking brain. In focusing therapy, therapist and person in treatment work to reaffirm the bodily knowledge a person has and allow the body to steer a person within future situations.

Also influencing the approach is the concept that change is more than a verbal process. Often, the concepts and ideas addressed in therapy are emotions and feelings, things that often cannot be easily put into words. Though a person might be easily aware of these emotions, thoughts, and behaviors on a surface level of awareness, and may even experience some level of insight into them, focusing therapy aims to help them target the deeper “felt” sense. Practitioners of the approach believe that those who are able to access and target this felt sense may be better able to achieve results in therapy, work through the issues concerning them, and produce physical change in the body through the release of chronic tension.

Short, excellent audiobook on focusing here

This is my focusing mediation that I use with athletes

Recorded introduction to focusing part 1 by Psychologist Eugene Gendlin

Recorded explanation of focusing part 2 by Psychologist Eugene Gendlin

  1. Find a quiet, peaceful place.
  1. Let any issues or sensations that are bothering you come to mind. Pick the one that is bothering you the most.
  1. Ask yourself, where do I feel this in my body? Give the “felt sense” of the issue time to surface. This can take 30 seconds or more.
  1. Once you’ve found the felt sense of the problem in your body, step back and see how large the problem feels. How far does this issue spread throughout your body?
  1. Once you have a sense of the whole felt sense, narrow in again on the worst of it. What part of the whole sensation calls your attention the most?
  1. Ask yourself, what word(s) or image perfectly fits this felt sense in my body?
  1. Let words or images come to you, and move your attention back and forth between the word/ image and the felt sense until the match feels just right. Often this results in a tiny shift in the felt sense.
  1. Ask your body, what do you need to release this feeling?
  1. Listen for the answer in your body (do not listen for instructions in words). The answer will come in a shift or an image. Be patient. Give the body time to answer.
 
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“The ‘night sea journey’ is the journey into the parts of ourselves that are split off, disavowed, unknown, unwanted, cast out, and exiled to the various subterranean worlds of consciousness… The goal of this journey is to reunite us with ourselves. Such a homecoming can be surprisingly painful… In order to undertake it, we must first agree to exile nothing.”

~ Stephen Cope

The Spiritual: Krista Tippett (From Becoming Wise)

We are matter, kindred with ocean and tree and sky. We are flesh and blood and bone. To sink into that is relief, a homecoming. Mind and spirit are as physical as they are mental. The line we’d drawn between them was whimsy, borne of the limits of our understanding. Emotions and memories, from despair to gladness, root in our bodies. Bone-deep love, heartbreak, the ‘hardened heart’ of Pharoah – we’ve used language like this forever and now we grasp its sense. Our brains lay physical pathways and take bodily direction. Our bodies are longing and joy and fear and a lifelong desire to be safe and loved, incarnate…

I taste, touch, smell, see, and hear, and my mind entwines with my senses and experiences. I live and move and have my being, as the Book of Common Prayer more lyrically describes it. Therein, I become…

For most of history, religion was a full-body experience, a primary space in common life where we danced and sang and laughed and cried and ritualized the passages of our lives. Rituals are sophisticated ancient intelligence about the body. Kneeling, folding hands in prayer, and breaking bread; liturgies of grieving, gathering, and celebration – such actions create visceral containers of time and posture. They are like physical corollaries to poetry – condensed, economical gestures that carry inordinate meaning and import. Rituals tether emotion in flesh and blood and bone and help release it. They embody memory in communal time.

And all of the traditions that give us meaning and morality have an incarnation, fully human heart. Buddhism carries the enlightened being and the lineages of teachers. Hinduism has its emotive, carnal deities. In Judaism and Islam, there are the prophets and the texts themselves with a kind of embodied presence across time and generations. Christianity, most literal of all, proclaims God entering the fray of physical existence with us, taking on joy and tears and the flu, our flashes of glory, our relentless return to helplessness…

I’m drawn to the Jewish notion of the soul, nephesh, which is not something preexistent but emergent – forming in and through physicality and relational experience. This suggests that we need our bodies to claim our souls. The body is where every virtue lives or dies, but more: our bodies are access points to the mystery. And in some way that barely makes sense to me, I’m sure that we have to have feet planted on the ground, literally and metaphysically, to reach towards what is beyond and above us.

Our bodies tell us the truth of life that our minds can deny: that we are in any moment as much about softness as fortitude. Always in need of care and tenderness. Life is fluid, evanescent, evolving in every cell, in every breath. Never perfect. To be alive is by definition messy, always leaning toward disorder and surprise. How we open or close to the reality that we never arrive at safe enduring stasis is the matter, the raw material, of wisdom.

So many of the wise teachers among us apprehend truths of life from an edge of illness or crisis, where the view is suddenly so stark and so clear. They come back wounded and more whole than before, all at the same time – not cured, but healing, and embodying mystical ideas that seemed strange as abstractions and turn out to be common sense. The core of life is about losses and deaths both subtle and catastrophic, over and over again, and also about loving and rising again. The cancer, the car accident – these are extreme experiences of other trajectories we’re on – aging, the loss of love, the death of dreams, the child leaving home. They’re entwined and grow from and through each other, planting us, if we’ll let them, more profoundly in our bodies in all their flaws and their grace.

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Your body, for as long as it possibly can, will be faithful to living, that’s what it does.”

~ Matthew Sanford

The Cinematic: Dove Beauty Sketches: You’re More Beautiful Than You Think

The Musical: The Body of Love by Ben Lee

The Question: When you feel love, where do you feel it in your body? When you feel fear where do you feel it in your body?

I wish you a day of noticing and appreciating the marvel that you are.

Sincerely,

Shannon

Pain

 

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~ California condor, Marble Canyon, Arizona

“Take your pain, make it beautiful, make them dance.”

~ Neil Hilborn

Good morning friends,

Pain… It’s possible that those of you who are endurance athletes knew (hoped?) this one was coming. I learned a lot in the composition of this piece, which makes me very excited to share it with you. In particular, I came across the most fascinating account of what goes on in our brain when we are in pain and why mindfulness is so powerful in managing it. Scroll down to the science section to the heading “Rick Heller” for that one. We’ll begin with Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron – no one, by the way, knows pain like a Buddhist teacher. Then we’ll hear Neil Hilborn’s spoken word poem, Motown, which provides one view of the issue of racism, and whose closing lines are some of my favorite in poetry period (thanks for this one, JS). I’ve also included an excerpt from a longer poem of mine. Then we’ll dive into a whole bunch of fascinating, exciting, hopeful science beginning with Alex Hutchinson’s excerpt from Endure. Following Rick Heller we’ll hear from another Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach. Then mystic Simone Weil will speak on the concept of affliction. We’ll finish with the music video of Johnny Cash singing NIN’s “Hurt.” A more powerful and raw music video would be hard to find.

The Writing: Pema Chodron

On a very basic level all beings think that they should be happy. When life becomes difficult or painful, we feel that something has gone wrong. This wouldn’t be a big problem except for the fact that when we feel something’s gone wrong, we’re willing to do anything to feel OK again. Even start a fight.

According to the Buddhist teachings, difficulty is inevitable in human life. For one thing, we cannot escape the reality of death. But there are also the realities of aging, of illness, of not getting what we want, and of getting what we don’t want. These kinds of difficulties are facts of life. Even if you were the Buddha himself, if you were a fully enlightened person, you would experience death, illness, aging, and sorrow at losing what you love. All of these things would happen to you. If you got burned or cut, it would hurt.

But the Buddhist teachings also say that this is not really what causes us misery in our lives. What causes misery is always trying to get away from the facts of life, always trying to avoid pain and seek happiness—this sense of ours that there could be lasting security and happiness available to us if we could only do the right thing.

In this very lifetime we can do ourselves and this planet a great favor and turn this very old way of thinking upside down. As Shantideva, author of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, points out, suffering has a great deal to teach us. If we use the opportunity when it arises, suffering will motivate us to look for answers. Many people, including myself, came to the spiritual path because of deep unhappiness. Suffering can also teach us empathy for others who are in the same boat. Furthermore, suffering can humble us. Even the most arrogant among us can be softened by the loss of someone dear.

Yet it is so basic in us to feel that things should go well for us, and that if we start to feel depressed, lonely, or inadequate, there’s been some kind of mistake or we’ve lost it. In reality, when you feel depressed, lonely, betrayed, or any unwanted feelings, this is an important moment on the spiritual path. This is where real transformation can take place.

As long as we’re caught up in always looking for certainty and happiness, rather than honoring the taste and smell and quality of exactly what is happening, as long as we’re always running away from discomfort, we’re going to be caught in a cycle of unhappiness and disappointment, and we will feel weaker and weaker. This way of seeing helps us to develop inner strength.

And what’s especially encouraging is the view that inner strength is available to us at just the moment when we think we’ve hit the bottom, when things are at their worst. Instead of asking ourselves, “How can I find security and happiness?” we could ask ourselves, “Can I touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with suffering, both yours and mine, without trying to make it go away? Can I stay present to the ache of loss or disgrace—disappointment in all its many forms—and let it open me?” This is the trick.

There are various ways to view what happens when we feel threatened. In times of distress—of rage, of frustration, of failure—we can look at how we get hooked and how shenpa escalates. The usual translation of shenpa is “attachment,” but this doesn’t adequately express the full meaning. I think of shenpa as “getting hooked.” Another definition, used by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, is the “charge”—the charge behind our thoughts and words and actions, the charge behind “like” and “don’t like.”

It can also be helpful to shift our focus and look at how we put up barriers. In these moments we can observe how we withdraw and become self-absorbed. We become dry, sour, afraid; we crumble, or harden out of fear that more pain is coming. In some old familiar way, we automatically erect a protective shield and our self-centeredness intensifies.

But this is the very same moment when we could do something different. Right on the spot, through practice, we can get very familiar with the barriers that we put up around our hearts and around our whole being. We can become intimate with just how we hide out, doze off, freeze up. And that intimacy, coming to know these barriers so well, is what begins to dismantle them. Amazingly, when we give them our full attention they start to fall apart.

Ultimately all the practices I have mentioned are simply ways we can go about dissolving these barriers. Whether it’s learning to be present through sitting meditation, acknowledging shenpa, or practicing patience, these are methods for dissolving the protective walls that we automatically put up.

When we’re putting up the barriers and the sense of “me” as separate from “you” gets stronger, right there in the midst of difficulty and pain, the whole thing could turn around simply by not erecting barriers; simply by staying open to the difficulty, to the feelings that you’re going through; simply by not talking to ourselves about what’s happening. That is a revolutionary step. Becoming intimate with pain is the key to changing at the core of our being—staying open to everything we experience, letting the sharpness of difficult times pierce us to the heart, letting these times open us, humble us, and make us wiser and more brave. Let difficulty transform you. And it will. In my experience, we just need help in learning how not to run away.

If we’re ready to try staying present with our pain, one of the greatest supports we could ever find is to cultivate the warmth and simplicity of bodhichitta. The word bodhichitta has many translations, but probably the most common one is “awakened heart.” The word refers to a longing to wake up from ignorance and delusion in order to help others do the same. Putting our personal awakening in a larger—even planetary—framework makes a significant difference. It gives us a vaster perspective on why we would do this often difficult work.

There are two kinds of bodhichitta: relative and absolute. Relative bodhichitta includes compassion and maitri. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche translated maitri as “unconditional friendliness with oneself.” This unconditional friendliness means having an unbiased relationship with all the parts of your being. So, in the context of working with pain, this means making an intimate, compassionate heart-relationship with all those parts of ourselves we generally don’t want to touch.

Some people find the teachings I offer helpful because I encourage them to be kind to themselves, but this does not mean pampering our neurosis. The kindness that I learned from my teachers, and that I wish so much to convey to other people, is kindness toward all qualities of our being. The qualities that are the toughest to be kind to are the painful parts, where we feel ashamed, as if we don’t belong, as if we’ve just blown it, when things are falling apart for us. Maitri means sticking with ourselves when we don’t have anything, when we feel like a loser. And it becomes the basis for extending the same unconditional friendliness to others.

If there are whole parts of yourself that you are always running from, that you even feel justified in running from, then you’re going to run from anything that brings you into contact with your feelings of insecurity. And have you noticed how often these parts of ourselves get touched? The closer you get to a situation or a person, the more these feelings arise. Often when you’re in a relationship it starts off great, but when it gets intimate and begins to bring out your neurosis, you just want to get out of there.

So I’m here to tell you that the path to peace is right there, when you want to get away. You can cruise through life not letting anything touch you, but if you really want to live fully, if you want to enter into life, enter into genuine relationships with other people, with animals, with the world situation, you’re definitely going to have the experience of feeling provoked, of getting hooked, of shenpa. You’re not just going to feel bliss. The message is that when those feelings emerge, this is not a failure. This is the chance to cultivate maitri, unconditional friendliness toward your perfect and imperfect self.

Relative bodhichitta also includes awakening compassion. One of the meanings of compassion is “suffering with,” being willing to suffer with other people. This means that to the degree you can work with the wholeness of your being—your prejudices, your feelings of failure, your self-pity, your depression, your rage, your addictions—the more you will connect with other people out of that wholeness. And it will be a relationship between equals. You’ll be able to feel the pain of other people as your own pain. And you’ll be able to feel your own pain and know that it’s shared by millions.

Absolute bodhichitta, also known as shunyata, is the open dimension of our being, the completely wide-open heart and mind. Without labels of “you” and “me,” “enemy” and “friend,” absolute bodhichitta is always here. Cultivating absolute bodhichitta means having a relationship with the world that is nonconceptual, that is unprejudiced, having a direct, unedited relationship with reality.

That’s the value of sitting meditation practice. You train in coming back to the unadorned present moment again and again. Whatever thoughts arise in your mind, you regard them with equanimity and you learn to let them dissolve. There is no rejection of the thoughts and emotions that come up; rather, we begin to realize that thoughts and emotions are not as solid as we always take them to be.

It takes bravery to train in unconditional friendliness, it takes bravery to train in “suffering with,” it takes bravery to stay with pain when it arises and not run or erect barriers. It takes bravery to not bite the hook and get swept away. But as we do, the absolute bodhichitta realization, the experience of how open and unfettered our minds really are, begins to dawn on us. As a result of becoming more comfortable with the ups and the downs of our ordinary human life, this realization grows stronger.

We start with taking a close look at our predictable tendency to get hooked, to separate ourselves, to withdraw into ourselves and put up walls. As we become intimate with these tendencies, they gradually become more transparent, and we see that there’s actually space, there is unlimited, accommodating space. This does not mean that then you live in lasting happiness and comfort. That spaciousness includes pain.

We may still get betrayed, may still be hated. We may still feel confused and sad. What we won’t do is bite the hook. Pleasant happens. Unpleasant happens. Neutral happens. What we gradually learn is to not move away from being fully present. We need to train at this very basic level because of the widespread suffering in the world. If we aren’t training inch by inch, one moment at a time, in overcoming our fear of pain, then we’ll be very limited in how much we can help. We’ll be limited in helping ourselves, and limited in helping anybody else. So let’s start with ourselves, just as we are, here and now.

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~Buffalo Park, Flagstaff, Arizona

“Don’t turn away. Keep your eyes on the bandaged place. 

That’s where the light enters you.”

~ Rumi

The Poetry: Neil Hilborn (The live spoken word poem is here) and my own

MOTOWN

By Neil Hilborn

Roger Quenveur Smith said, “They like black music, but they hate black people.”

They like black music, but they hate black people.

Growing up I liked black music and did not know any black people.

In the suburbs of Houston, your only black friends are Diana Ross, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding.

So here’s what I knew about black people: They like to be in love (if someone would love them back, that was even better), they like to do the twist, they liked Jesus just as much as Jesus liked them, they ended up on a lot of chain gangs, but at least it’s work and at least you get to sing, and they’re waiting on… some kind of change to come…

But no one would tell me what that change was. So, I knew somewhere in Georgia, a man’s screaming. But no one is holding a gun to his head.

See, Lee Moses is in love. And his woman been running around on him. Now, the bass is going into it’s 5th bar, the guitars have already been playing for three, and the horn players are spitting on their valves. And Lee’s gotta tell em’. He’s gotta let em’ know. His momma was right, she ain’t no kind woman. And the horns are screaming now, Lee’s screaming now.

This is what falling out of love sounds like!

Ma Rainey said, “White people love how the blues come out, but they don’t know how it got in there.”

High school was the first time I saw the Birmingham fire hoses, the first time steel awaited Jesus meant anything more than quiet prayer.

Now, when Sam’s having a party, everybody’s swinging. Sounds like “Thank God, let’s dance ’cause the white people ain’t here yet.”

Sounds like “Tomorrow I might get shot or arrested, so please, mister DJ, keep those records playin'”

I still sing along like no one ever died, like I can scrub away white guilt with a soft shoe shuffle.

But Sam…could have been singing about me. Could have been singing about my parents.

I don’t know if my ancestors posed in some swamp in white robes with burning crosses, so tell me… can I sing about a chain gang if I’m the one holding the whip?

When I do the twist in my kitchen, am I Jumpin’ Jim Crow?

When I sing about strange fruit blowing in the wind, am I singing about my family tree?

So I went home to Texas, I turned on the radio. Otis was still on that dock in that bay.

I cannot understand the pain that made the artist.

This does not mean I can’t understand the art.

We, poets, we people of the lamp and lighters of dark places, this is what we know: Take your pain, make it beautiful, make them dance.

It’s so hard to hate something beautiful, it’s so hard to hate someone who’s capable of love, it’s so hard to hate someone…

When they’re singing.

***

THE SHOW (excerpt)

By Shannon Thompson

Once I answered the desert drum

and my feet beat deep into that land so lonely.

An echo of emptiness,

an aching persistence,

the call of the crater,

my view of her blood.

Crouched on the edge of pressure released

I felt my mystery storm inside me.

Let it be

said she.

Only through is the sweetness.

Egg shell

Orange peel

Grape skin

Fish scale.

Through…

Only through is the sweetness.

Heart pain

Dark wall

Hot fear

Sad soul

Through…

Only through

Is the sweetness.

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~ Brodey Hasty and Jack Shea

I’ve been bloodied and mauled, wrung, dazzled, drawn. I taste salt on my lips in the early morning; I surprise my eyes in the mirror and they are ashes, or fiery sprouts, and I gale appalled, or full of breath. The planet whirls alone and dreaming. Power broods, spins, and lurches down. The planet and the power meet with a shock. They fuse and tumble, lightning, ground fire; they part, mute, submitting, and touch again with hiss and cry.”

~ Annie Dillard

 

The Science: Alex Hutchinson (From “Endure”)

From the very start of the very first stage of the 2014 Tour de France, which that year traversed the rugged moors of Yorkshire, Jens Voight was on the attack. At forty-two, the German veteran was the oldest rider in the race, competing in his record-tying seventeenth straight Tour. But his presence, he seemed to be saying was not merely ornamental. He and two other riders quickly broke away from the peloton, opening up a gap as they climbed toward the first climb of the day. With more than 100 miles to go from the finish, it was highly unlikely that the trio would manage to stay ahead of the peloton – but such brazen, long-odds attacks were exactly what turned a modest journeyman like Voigt into a cult figure among cycling fans.

At the top of the first climb, however, reality intruded. His two breakaway companions easily gapped him by a few bike lengths to claim the points for best climber, and he realized that he wouldn’t be able to outsprint them in subsequent climbs or at the finish. His team director, over the radio, suggested that he drop back to conserve energy. ‘I said, No no no, the other way around! If I want the mountain jersey, I have to go now,’ Voigt recalled after the race. So he redoubled his efforts, dropped the other two riders before the next climb, and – while he was eventually caught by the peloton – ended up claiming the polka-dot jersey for best climber as well as the stage’s most combative rider award. All in all, it was a vintage performance for the man whose trademarked catchphrase, coined when a Danish television reporter asked how he handled the fatigue of his characteristic breakaways, is “Shut up, legs!”

While great riders are often distinguished by the extremes of their physiology or their grace in the saddle, Voigt’s singular characteristic during  an eighteen-year professional career was his appetite for suffering… Voigt himself believed that his struggles to make the cut in the rigorous elite sports academies of his East German youth left a long-lasting mark: ‘I think that over all these years, I learned to set my pain threshold higher than most people’s, I think I have a pain threshold that is 10 to 20 percent higher than most others, I don’t know if you can scientifically prove it, but I totally believe it.’…

For cyclists and other endurance athletes, pain is unavoidable, and how you handle it is intimately tied to how well you perform. In 2013, Wolfgang Freund published a telling study on the pain tolerance of ultra-endurance runners competing in the TransEurope Footrace, an epic pain-fest in which participants covered 2,789 miles over 64 days with no rest days. He asked eleven of the competitors to dunk their hands in ice water for three minutes; by the end, they rated the pain as about 6 out of 10 on average. In contrast, the non-athlete control group gave up after an average of just 96 seconds when their pain maxed out at 10; only three of them even completed the test.

Such findings reinforce the idea that, all else being equal, the gold medal goes to whoever is willing to suffer a bit more than everyone else. Freund isn’t the only one to find that well-trained athletes can tolerate more pain; others have shown that regular physical training, especially if it involves unpleasant high-intensity workouts, increases your pain tolerance. But the link between what’s happening in your muscles and what you feel in your head turns out to be much more indirect than you might assume. ‘Pain is more than one thing,’ says Dr. Jefferey Mogil, the head of the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University. It’s a sensation like vision or touch; it’s an emotion, like anger or sadness; and it’s also a ‘drive state’ that compels action, like hunger. For athletes, the role of pain depends on how these different effects mingle together in their specific situation. Sometimes pain slows them to a halt; other times it drives them to even greater heights…

Among the first to study pain perception in athletes was Karel Gijsbers, a psychologist at the University of Stirling, in Scotland, who (with a graduate student) published an influential paper in the British Journal of Medicine in 1981. He put 30 elite swimmers from the Scottish national team through a series of pain tests, and compared their results to 30  club-level swimmers and 26 nonathletes. The protocol involved cutting off circulation to the subjects’ arm with a blood-pressure cuff, then having them clench and unclench their fist once per second. ‘Pain threshold’ was defined as the number of contractions needed to produce a sensation that registered as pain rather than merely discomfort; ‘pain tolerance’ was quantified as the total number of contractions before the subject gave up.

The first finding was that pain threshold was essentially the same in all three groups, starting after around 50 contractions… top athletes are not immune to pain; they feel it like everyone else. But there were dramatic differences in pain tolerance: the national-team swimmers endured an average of 132 contractions before calling for mercy, compared to 89 in the club swimmers and 70 in the nonathletes. The differences, Gijsbers suggested, must result from the systematic exposure to intense but intermittent pain during training – perhaps by harnessing brain chemicals like endorphins, or perhaps simply thanks to psychological coping mechanisms. ‘It it reported,’ he noted drily, ‘that pain can be strangely satisfying to the highly motivated athlete.’

Rick Heller

“While many religions value introspection, scientists often view it with skepticism. After all, if something is subjective and cannot be measured, how can you be sure it’s true? The insights of the Buddha were produced by self-observation. Thus, until recently, they fell outside the realm of scientific verification. But with the development of brain imaging technology such as functional MRI, it is now possible to carry out introspection and scientific observation in parallel, and to assess how well self-observation stacks up with objective methods of inquiry.

Among the Buddha’s first teachings after his awakening were the four noble truths. The first three, regarding the ubiquity of suffering, its origin, and its cessation, find strong support from neuroscience research. In particular, the Buddha’s views on suffering associated with physical pain appear to be valid, and perhaps more advanced than those in the West—especially prior to the new scientific theories on pain that were introduced in the 1960s.

In the last fifty years, and especially in the last decade, brain scientists have explored the origin of suffering and discovered something strikingly similar to the parable of the two arrows, which the Buddha offered to convey a skillful way of encountering physical pain. Physical pain, the Buddha taught, is like being shot with one arrow. The person who does not resist physical pain feels only that arrow. However, the average person who experiences pain also adds a layer of emotional suffering. Anguishing over pain is like being shot with a second arrow.

Although we commonly experience physical pain as a single phenomenon, it is actually composed of distinct elements that include the sensation itself and an aversive element we call suffering. Not only does aversion create suffering—the second arrow—it’s increasingly clear that a person’s attitude can affect the first arrow, the pain sensations themselves.

Ronald Siegel, a Buddhist practitioner and a psychologist on the clinical faculty of Harvard Medical School, says the practice of mindfulness can alleviate suffering and, in some cases, it can reduce the volume of physical pain sensations. Siegel is a specialist in the treatment of chronic back pain. Most cases of chronic back pain, he believes, are caused by muscular tension rather than structural problems in the body. Back pain and many other pain disorders stem from a feedback loop stirred by fear and negative thoughts that makes muscles tight.

“Once we experience a pain sensation that we are afraid is due to an injury, we bring all of our attention to it. And simply the bringing of fearful attention to pain increases the experience of pain,” Siegel says. “These disorders are maintained by fear of the disorder.”

In such cases, he believes that not only suffering but the amount of muscle pain itself can be reduced by a change in attitude. “By turning our attention toward the phenomenon that we’re afraid of and trying in essence to say ‘yes’ to the sensations, that whole aversion response tends to drop away,” he says.

Siegel cautions that people with unexplained pain should first consult a physician to make sure the pain is not a symptom of a serious illness. But if a physician finds nothing threatening, and the aches and pains themselves are the chief issue, then mindfulness may be an appropriate treatment.

Mindfulness, however, is not a panacea. Ironically, Siegel was already a Buddhist practitioner when he was struck down by back pain that left him mostly bedridden for months. As he describes in his book, Back Sense, it was only when he learned about the approach he now teaches that he was able to free himself from pain and resume a normal life.

“I totally worked myself into the syndrome despite the meditation practice,” Siegel says. “I did try meditating with the pain, but I believed that I was going to injure myself if I moved freely.”

That mistaken belief was enough to maintain his pain disorder. “That’s where the cognitive understanding is critical,” Siegel says. “It did help to have the practice once I learned what was really the matter.”

It may seem strange that we can feel intense pain sensations without anything major being wrong. In the West, until recently the standard view has been that physical pain is a warning sign of tissue damage, and that the greater the pain, the greater the damage. Called specificity theory, this model grew out of the ideas of French philosopher René Descartes. The theory came under challenge after World War II because of anomalies like the observation by U.S. Army doctor and Harvard Medical School anesthesiologist Henry K. Beecher that some soldiers who were severely wounded in battle appeared to suffer surprisingly little pain from their wounds.

The key figure in the modern understanding of pain was Ronald Melzack, a psychologist who did his research at McGill University in Montreal. In the 1960s, together Kenneth Casey, Melzack proposed that the experience of pain was composed of distinct elements, including both a sensory component and an emotional one. As well, Melzack and his MIT colleague Patrick Wall proposed gate control theory, which explains how pain sensations can be amplified based on the amount of attention paid to them.

Melzack gained his insight into the distinction between pain sensations and suffering by paying close attention to the words his patients used to describe their pain. noticed that people employed words like“shooting” or “cramping” that described sensory qualities, and other words like “punishing” or “terrifying” that described their emotional reactions. From his word list, Melzack developed the widely used McGill Pain Questionnaire and the notion that pain was a multidimensional experience.

Subsequent research verified Melzack’s hypothesis about the composite nature of pain. Modern scientists no longer refer to a “pain center” but to a “pain matrix” in the brain, reflecting the understanding that several different brain regions contribute to the experience of pain.

Nerve fibers carry pain signals up the spine to a key branching point in the brain called the thalamus. From there, pain signals travel along one pathway to the somatosensory cortex, a brain region that contains a map of the human body. It records the sensory aspects of pain, and tells us where it hurts. Another pain pathway from the thalamus leads to the cingulate cortex. This region specializes in the unpleasantness of pain—telling us that it hurts.

Amazingly, people with damage to the cingulate cortex often report that pain doesn’t hurt. That is, if they choose to pay attention, they can identify sensations in the body that correspond to pain. But to them, pain lacks the urgent quality that demands attention. “They used to do limbic leucotomies for pain, which is basically zapping the anterior cingulate,” Alice Flaherty, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, told me. “People would say, ‘I don’t care about the pain anymore. I still feel it, but it’s not so obnoxious.’”

The cingulate—the word is derived from the Latin for “belt”—is a complex region with a number of different functions, but brain scans and anatomical studies indicate that one of its functions is to act as a neural alarm. It’s activated by physical pain, but also, as shown by the research of UCLA psychologist Naomi Eisenberger, by emotional distress like the sting of social rejection. The aversive component of both physical and emotional pain is perhaps best captured by the word suffering.

Our response to fear and our response to pain overlap in a subregion of the cingulate. This area prepares the body to flee. When alarmed, we tense our muscles so we can get away quickly. But as Ronald Siegel warns, if our muscles stay tense for a long time, this can lead to additional pain.

The good news is that although the feeling of alarm arises automatically, we can allow it to pass. Scientists like Naomi Eisenberger, among others, are finding that prefrontal regions of the brain, which are associated with conscious thought, are connected to the emotional areas and regulate them. When our senses take in something that might be threatening, the cingulate region generates the experience of suffering to force us to pay attention. The prefrontal regions then assess whether there really is a threat. If there is no threat—if what’s going on is acceptable—the prefrontal regions seem to inhibit the neural alarm in the cingulate. We relax our muscles, take a deep breath, and feel relief.

Thus, when we experience pain sensations without fear, the sense of suffering falls off. This is the physiological foundation of the parable of the two arrows. The impact of the second arrow is due to our resistance. With acceptance, it disappears.

This understanding informs Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, the program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn that is now offered at many health care centers. Carnegie-Mellon research psychologist J. David Creswell has reviewed studies of MBSR and its effect on pain.

“There seems to be a fairly consistent pattern of effect showing that mindfulness meditation is effective for reducing pain symptoms in chronic pain populations,” Creswell says. However, he points out that mindfulness may not necessarily reduce the actual sensation of pain. “In fact,” he says, “I think that when you’re more mindful of pain, you’re actually experiencing the pain in a more direct way.”

Instead, mindfulness reduces the emotional suffering that normally accompanies pain, the second arrow in the Buddha’s parable. “I think that’s where the action is,” Creswell says. “There’s sort of a decoupling of one’s sensation of pain and the emotional response to that pain when you’re mindful.”

Creswell has some indirect evidence for this from a brain imaging study he conducted to test how mindfulness affects emotional pain. Creswell used a metric called the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale. It measures how predisposed a person is to focus on the present, based on answers to a series of questions such as, “I find myself listening to someone with one ear, doing something else at the same time.” Volunteers who were measured on this scale then had their brains scanned as they played a computer game designed to be emotionally distressing. Those more predisposed to be mindful rated the experience as less upsetting. Furthermore, the brain scans showed they had less activity in a subregion of the cingulate associated with suffering.

This is likely the target area where mindfulness has its impact on the second arrow, the aversive reaction to physical pain. Creswell is currently involved in a study to look at precisely this by testing people’s reactivity to physical pain before and after they complete an MBSR program.

It might seem like bare attention is too passive to affect our emotional reactions, but the brain is very active when we’re paying attention. “Just by simply observing and noticing how you’re responding, you are actually enlisting resources to regulate that response,” Creswell says.

Creswell attended a December 2008 meeting in Toronto that brought together about thirty-five clinicians and neuroscientists to discuss future directions for mindfulness research. Among those in attendance was Harvard Medical School neuroscience researcher Catherine Kerr. While Creswell sees mindfulness as protective against the second arrow of emotional suffering, Kerr thinks that mindful awareness of the body may have some impact on the first arrow, the pain sensations themselves. She’s done a pilot study that takes brain images of subjects as they mindfully shift awareness from one part of the body to another. One of the techniques taught in an MBSR program is the body scan method. This practice involves progressively bringing attention to the individual parts of the body, from head to toe.

“When you’re doing the body scan you focus on the toes and then you release the toes and you focus on the ankle or the bottom of the foot and you release it, and so on,” Kerr says. “The critical thing there is that you’re taking up the body part and then you learn to let it go. What you’re learning to do is to focus, maybe amplify the body part, but you also learn to inhibit it. The inhibition might be just as important as the amplification, especially for people with different types of chronic pain.”

Kerr cites evidence that the map of the human body within the brain’s somatosensory cortex reorganizes, based on the amount of attention paid to each body part. For instance, people who read Braille have more sensory territory devoted to the hand. Similarly, people who experience chronic back pain may have more neurons devoted to monitoring the back. Picture a distorted map in which a state’s size is based on the electoral votes it possesses, and so New Jersey looks bigger than Alaska. The distorted sensory map of a person in chronic pain would exaggerate the body parts in pain. Paying equal attention to all areas of the body using the body scan method may undo distorted body maps.

“Our theory is that meditation actually fine-tunes that ability to maintain sensory equanimity,” Kerr says. “That’s what we’re testing.”

There are at least two other ways by which our attention can affect the first arrow, the pure sensation of pain. Ronald Melzack and his colleague Patrick Wall described how pain signals from the extremities are filtered at the spine before they ever reach the brain. Like partygoers lined up before a nightclub’s velvet ropes, pain signals clamor to get through. Whether the spinal gatekeepers admit them depends on instructions from on high. In the case of pain, signals from the brain pass down to the spine and tell the gatekeepers how exclusive they should be. “The descending pathway is usually a regulatory pathway. It could facilitate or it could inhibit,” says Tarek Samad, a pharmaceuticals researcher and former assistant professor of anesthesia research at Harvard Medical School. “This is where emotional states or situations or environment affect the pain sensation.” Depending on attitude and expectations, therefore, we can actually filter out pain before it reaches our consciousness. When we pay fearful attention to pain, however, we instruct the gates to open wide. As a result, we feel more intense pain.

The other way we can amplify pain is through the loop described by Ronald Siegel. When we experience fear, the brain sends signals to our muscles that tense them. When muscles are tensed for a long time, they start to hurt. When something starts to hurt, we become fearful, and we tense our muscles further.

The old Cartesian model of the pain system is simple but misleading. The real way the pain system works is not intuitively obvious, which makes the Buddha’s insights into it all the more startling. Reya Stevens is a Boston-based practitioner of Theravada Buddhism who teaches Buddhist approaches to dealing with illness. “Clinging,” Stevens says, referring to the Buddha’s second noble truth, “is all about not wanting something to be the way it is, or wanting something to stay the way it is—which can’t happen because everything is constantly changing.” It’s natural to reject what’s unpleasant, but this often boomerangs. “If you get into a struggle with something, like trying to get rid of something or push it away, it has a tendency to actually make the thing worse,” Stevens says.

Psychologists such as Harvard’s Daniel Wegner have studied what happens when we try to suppress thoughts. Our brains operate in a continuous loop in which we check our present state for conflicts with our goals. This can have a paradoxical effect when the goal is to control your own thoughts. Normally, you don’t think about pink elephants. When trying notto think of them, however, you periodically ask yourself, “Am I thinking of a pink elephant?” The question itself produces the unwanted thought. Dartmouth researchers found that this checking behavior involves brain cells in the cingulate, though how it relates to the pain system is unclear.

Researchers at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and elsewhere have found that trying not to think about pain actually leads to more thoughts about pain. Feeling negative about pain makes pain hurt more. In mathematics, negating a negative produces a positive. Not so with pain. Pain serves as an alarm, and feeling alarmed about pain just piles it on.

If trying to suppress pain has the effect of magnifying it, can paying attention to pain actually alleviate suffering? Yes, but the results may not be instantaneous, says Stevens. “The issue for some people is they’re starting meditation at a time when their pain is high and they don’t have the luxury of building up slowly,” she says. “Many meditators will not do well by just starting to be mindful of the bare sensations of pain right from the get-go because there is too much aversion. They’ll have to start by being mindful of the reactivity to pain.”

Another starting point is to be mindful of things that, although not physically painful, are often experienced as unpleasant, like road noise. “Is it noise or is it sound?” she asks. “Inherent in the word ‘noise’ is your aversion to it. You’re labeling it as unpleasant.”

Stevens herself lives with considerable pain due to a chronic illness she’s had since childhood.

“I recall a number of nights where I had a lot of burning pain in the body, but it was only on the right side,” she says. “I sunk my attention into the left side of my body and really stayed mindful of the left side of the body. The distress that I felt over the pain in the right side of my body disappeared because my attention was able to settle itself into the left side to relax and let go. I fell asleep, pain and all. Many, many nights I’ve gone to sleep that way.”

Shinzen Young, a mindfulness teacher based in Burlington, Vermont, is noted for his work with people in chronic pain. In his book Break Through Pain, Young describes his own breakthrough during a hundred-day retreat in primitive winter conditions at a Buddhist monastery in Japan. He found that with concentration, the pain dissolved into a sort of energy he compares to a runner’s high.“It’s almost certainly the case when a person is having a dramatic experience of pain breaking up that their endorphins are through the roof,” Young says.

A brain imaging study conducted on athletes in Munich has shown that the euphoria that comes with vigorous exercise is due to the transmission of internal opioids such as endorphins to the cingulate and other regions. Placebos, which can be quite effective against pain, have also been shown to increase the body’s flow of these morphine-like chemicals. So while Young’s hypothesis has yet to be demonstrated in the laboratory, it may well be that we can release these pain-killing substances with sufficient mindfulness practice.

Young says that to deal effectively with pain, we need three things: the clarity to untangle the individual sensory elements, concentration to focus on each element, and the equanimity to experience each element without suffering. In addition to pain’s sensory and emotional components, Young adds self-talk and the mental images that arise with pain. If we can apply mindfulness to each element, we can pick them off one by one.

Turning toward pain with acceptance is a key strategy that Young teaches. But he also says we can turn away from pain and concentrate on a more pleasant object, like the breath. Unlike a distraction strategy for coping with pain, which can be fleeting, with sufficient practice concentration can be more enduring. Young says that while mindfulness is often defined as “nonjudgmental awareness,” more precisely it’s a question of equanimity.

“Nonjudgmentalness can be a factor of equanimity, but equanimity is broader concept,” he says. Equanimity does not mean passivity. So when one has a physical injury, or even the kind of pain that might indicate a heart attack, instead of panicking, one can mindfully apply good judgment and do what needs to be done. “You can have equanimity with the physical sensations, the thoughts, and the feelings,” Young says, “while you take objective action.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with taking a pill to relieve pain. One can mindfully lay a tablet on the tongue, sip from a glass of water, and swallow. But if mindfulness can relieve the suffering from pain, and sometimes even pain sensations themselves, doesn’t it make sense to give it a try? Mindfulness can also work as a complementary therapy in conjunction with medication. In cases of severe pain, drugs often fail to block all the pain. Mindfulness can help when drugs fall short. The best time to learn how to apply mindfulness toward pain may be before one is in severe pain. It’s like having an emergency kit available with you just in case you break down. We are all of the nature to grow old, to become ill, and to die. Few of us will escape from experiencing significant physical pain at one time or another. It helps to be prepared. Dodging one arrow is enough.

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~ NAU XC 2019

You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation… and that is called loving. Well, then love your suffering. Do not resist it, do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.”

~ Herman Hesse

The Strategy: Tara Brach (From True Refuge)

“Some of the same questions about working with emotional pain also come up with physical pain. Students want to know if they should stop meditating when their pain is intense and distracting… ‘What should I do if my body’s pain feels like too much?’

Sometimes the notion of pain itself is a set up for assuming that the experience is bad or too much. When I teach about being with pain, I encourage students to investigate the dance of sensations they have labeled as ‘pain.’ Under the solid concept of pain is a changing constellation of experience – burning, pinpricks, twisting, pressing, soreness, stabbing. Simply bringing interest to how these sensations move and unfold, how they become more or less intense, can make the experience less personal, and will enlarge your sense of presence.

I often recommend widening the attention before contacting unpleasant sensations. Pain can narrow our focus so much that we lose contact with what else is present. At these times it’s helpful to scan the body for neutral and pleasant sensations, and to rest in those areas for awhile. Then experiment with moving back and forth between the neutral/ pleasant sensations and the pleasant ones. Alternately, you might stay in contact with a neutral/ pleasant anchor like the breath as you investigate the difficult spots.

Yet there are times when attempting contact with any pain has diminishing or negative returns. If you are reacting with agitation or distress, it is usually best to take a break. Switch to a concentrative practice with a pleasant or neutral anchor – such as resting on the breath… When you feel more equanimity, then you might bring a soft attention back to the stronger sensations…

Being present with difficulty is not an endurance test… all that matters is that you are relating to pain. Refuge is always waiting for you; it is here in the moments that you regard what is happening with a kind and gentle presence.”

Below are links to a meditation session on pain that I did with NAU Track and Field:

Here is the explanation of the meditation

Here is the meditation itself

Here is a mediation for pain given by Tara Brach

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~ Darjeeling, India

The Spiritual: Simone Weil (From Waiting For God)

** From Wikipedia: Simone Weil was a French philosopher, mystic, and political activist. Taking a path that was unusual among twentieth-century left-leaning intellectuals, she became more religious and inclined towards mysticism as her life progressed. Weil wrote throughout her life, though most of her writings did not attract much attention until after her death. In the 1950s and 1960s, her work became famous in continental Europe and throughout the English-speaking world. Her thought has continued to be the subject of extensive scholarship across a wide range of fields.[13] A meta study from the University of Calgary found that between 1995 and 2012 over 2,500 new scholarly works had been published about her. Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times.

“Over the infinity of space and time, the infinitely more infinite love of God comes to possess us. He comes at his own time. We have the power to consent to receive him or to refuse. If we remain deaf he comes back again and again like a beggar, but also like a beggar one day he stops coming [I disagree on this – I think he never stops coming].

If we consent, God puts a little seed in us and he goes away again. From that moment God has no more to do; neither do we, except to wait. We have only not to regret the consent we gave him, the nuptial yes.

It is not as easy as it seems, for the growth of the seed within us is painful. Moreover, from the very fact that we accept this growth, we cannot avoid destroying whatever gets in the way, pulling up the weeds, cutting the good grass, and unfortunately the good grass is part of our very flesh, so that this garden amounts to a violent operation. On the whole, however, the seed grows of itself.

A day comes when the soul belongs to God, when it not only consents to love but when truly and effectively it loves. Then in its turn it must cross the universe to go to God. The soul does not love like a creature with creative love. The love within it is divine, I created; for it is the love of God for God that is passing through it… we can only consent to give up our own feelings so as to allow free passage in our soul for this love. That is the meaning of denying oneself. We are created for this consent, and for this alone.”

[This quote is about lasting pain – without an obvious way out or a foreseeable end. Weil calls this pain “affliction.”]

“When we hit a nail with a hammer, the whole of the shock received by the large head of the nail passes into the point without any of it being lost, although it is only a point. Extreme affliction, which means physical pain and distress of soul, all at the same time, is a nail whose point is applied at the very center of the soul, whose head is all necessity spreading throughout space and time.

Affliction is a marvel of divine technique… The man to whom such a thing happens has no part in the operation. He struggles like a butterfly pinned alive to an album. But through all the pain he can continue to want love. There is nothing impossible in that, no obstacle one might almost say, no difficulty. For the greatest suffering does not touch the most cherished part of the soul, consenting to a right direction. It is only necessary to know that love is a direction, not a state of the soul. If one is unaware of this one falls into despair at the first onslaught of affliction.

He whose soul remains ever turned toward God though the nail pierces it, finds himself nailed to the very center of the universe… in the very presence of God… It is at the intersection of creation and it’s creator. This point of intersection is the point of intersection of the arms of the cross.

Difficult as it really is to listen to someone in affliction, it is just as difficult for him to know that compassion is listening to him. The love of our neighbour is the love that comes down from God to man. It precedes that which rises from men to God. God is longing to come down to those in affliction. As soon as a soul is disposed to consent, even if it were the last, the most miserable, the most deformed of souls, God will enter himself into it in order, through it, to look at and listen to the afflicted. Only as time passes does the soul become aware that he is there. But, though it finds no name for him, wherever the afflicted are loved for themselves alone, it is God who is present.”

“Pain and suffering are a kind of currency passed from hand to hand until they reach someone who receives them but does not pass them on.”

~ Simone Weil

The Cinematic and the Musical: “Hurt” by Johnny Cash

I wish you a day free from arrows, but if arrows must be than may there be only one 🙂

Sincerely,

Shannon

Listening

 

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~ Buffalo Park, Flagstaff, Arizona

 

“There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.” 

–Rumi

 

Good morning friends,

Today’s email is about listening – an experience, a skill, a gift when done well. We’ll begin with my own essay that relates quality listening to the flow of water. Then we’ll proceed to the story of Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen and what she learned about the power of listening from renowned psychologist, Carl Rogers. Then Mary Oliver will share her poem, “Listen.” This will be followed by another revered psychologist, Eric Fromm with his 6 guidelines for effective listening. We’ll conclude with 8 TED Talks on the power of listening and “Listen To The One Who Loves You” by the Roo Planes.

The Writing: My own and Rachel Naomi Remen

Are You Listening? How Water Can Teach Us This Powerful Life Skill

By Shannon Thompson

     I want to talk about water – but not the kind you’re thinking – the water of words and the motion of listening and presence. Speech and body language are like water; they flow between us and carve our moments and connections. The practice of deep listening (listening with the primary purpose of understanding another person, as opposed to listening with your primary focus on your response) is possibly the most powerful tool for forging strong relationships. Deep listening cultivates feelings of safety and trust, essential for secure human bonds. Secure bonds are obviously what close intimate relationships are built on, but the same could be said for any situation where people need to interact, communicate, educate, learn, and perform together. Deep listening is also a skill, and takes time and attention to learn.

My work as a mental performance consultant has provided me with many opportunities to learn to listen. I’ve found the metaphor of flowing water to be a very useful model in my quest to listen more deeply. The metaphor of water has taught me to pause, question, and share, ebbing and flowing with my people. Slowly, I’m following the contours, finding the speed, feeling when to press, when to yield, and when to just leave space in silence for the wind to move across the plateau. For a long time I’ve wanted to write about communication, about interaction, about appropriate intimacy. But, what I’ve learned is more in feeling and a sense of space than in words. It can all be summarized by learning to listen like water moves.

Listen like water moves? You ask. How? What do you mean? Let me explain: like water, take only the space that is given to you (let the other person tell his story); follow gravity (follow subject matter that the speaker wishes to share – at least at first). Be still sometimes and move slowly others. Only when the moment feels right run quickly (express your thoughts). But, only run if the ground drops to allow you (if the speaker offers more or asks for feedback), and keep your eyes on your feet, for the trail can turn suddenly. Pay attention. Be open to what you will notice. There are grasses and daisies and flowering cactus as well as a view that stops your heart. Anything can be encountered in our explorations of each other. Pay attention. Move like water, and slowly, at least to begin with.

I’ve made mistakes with people by making presumptions too quickly.  I’ve greeted them with enthusiasm, jumped to quick conclusions, and hastened them along my trail. I’ve told them who I think they are, and sometimes I’ve been wrong. The belief that you can see people is a dangerous confidence. I’m learning to begin by sitting down at the beginning, where the ground is a still pool. Not everyone wants to run, and this space we’re in, it belongs to us both.

Share the space

    This has been a helpful analogy for me. Water runs on a streambed and follows gravity. Both the water and the stream bed holds its space. Share the space, and by that I mean occupy only that which is yours. When wishing to understand another that’s not very much. Thoughts and ideas come fast to me like rapids. But this venture is not about covering terrain. Beginning a conversation is like sitting down on the first rock at the trailhead and looking around. It’s a willingness to ask the landscape where to go. Here’s an example:

“I have some thoughts regarding what we could discuss today, but I want to ask you first, what’s foremost on your mind?” I asked the singer.

(I’m surprised at least fifty percent of the time by the answer to this question. I might have sworn that the river began straight ahead, but no, it’s through the opening I didn’t see to my left. Good thing I asked; we might have been lost from the get-go.)

The singer asked, “Is it ok if I use my anger about my ex-boyfriend to energize my performance?”

“Maybe,” I said. “Can you tell me more about that?”

“Well, the thought of singing badly because I’m sad about him makes me angry, so can I use that to fire myself up?”

I needed further clarification: “So the anger is a rebellion against a side of yourself? It’s a conviction to be your best regardless of the circumstances? You’re not describing anger at him?”

“Yes, that’s it. The anger is fueling a determination to be my best.”

“Go for it.” (Anger at an individual is a distraction, anger for oneself is a focus tool)

Follow gravity

When your company is telling her story, be still and listen, like water pooling. Hear everything she has to share. As her story slows ask kind questions that might help you explore all the “eddies” – all the details of her story. Now you’re flowing slowly forward, but only as fast as she allows you.  “Can you tell me more about that?” and, “is there anything else you want to add?” are good questions to make sure you have explored the space and to help her feel thoroughly heard. Often there will be something in what she has said that will help you know where to flow next.

For example, regarding the singer above, at one point she said of her boyfriend, “he still texts me you know.”

“How do you feel about that?” I asked.

“I don’t know. It’s kind of nice to hear from him.” She sighed. “It’s ok for now.”

“Ok, if more comes to your mind about that later feel free to bring it up.”

“Ok,” she told me. It was time to flow on.

Believe their story

When you are listening deeply to someone, believe what he tells you about how he sees the world right now, at least at first. This is his current reality. Let him deviate to the left – let him show you what his world is like. I see, down this way, even though its dark, this is the only way you know. You might object to some of the stories that this person tells about his life. You’re aware of an easier route, but the only path you can walk together right now is this one. Water cannot demand that the streambed change shape immediately. Go with him. Let him show you around. This is a very narrow channel, and you’re right it’s hard to see; I can understand why you’re scared; I’m scared too. Let me tell that back to you to make sure I’ve got it right – so we can stick together and no one gets left behind.

The practice of understanding another person’s emotional experience is called empathy. Empathy is a skill that is able to be cultivated, which is fortunate, for strong levels of empathy are a major contributor to long-lasting relationships.

Here’s an example:

“No one here likes me,” said the young man seated across from me.

“How can you tell that no one likes you?” I asked.

“Well, no one says ‘good morning’ when I arrive, and one group always have their coffee break together, but they never invite me.”

“Ah,” I grimace, “that’s hard. How do you feel when you watch them leave?”

“I just think, ‘there they go again!’ and I feel angry, honestly.”

“What kind of thoughts go through your mind when you feel angry like that?”

“Just that I’m strange, and I never fit in,” he said softly, looking down.

“I hear you,” I told him, “I’ve felt like that before too.”

Now, in all likelihood this young man’s co-workers don’t have a particular dislike for him. They probably don’t say good morning when he passes them because they’re focused on their work. They possibly don’t invite him for coffee because they don’t feel like he wants to go. His body language is withdrawn, and he rarely stops to talk with any of them. But, in order to help him in the long run, this person must feel heard. He must trust that I’ve seen through his eyes for a little while before I try to change what he sees.

Interestingly, when I’ve listened really patiently to someone who is describing a negative personal circumstance which is probably exaggerated, he often re-balances himself before I need to try. As he comes to the end of telling his story, and a few pauses are allowed between us, this young man might say, “You know they used to invite me for coffee, months ago, but I always said no. That might be why they don’t ask anymore.” This is a very helpful broadening of perspective, and an invitation to offer more support of this way of thinking.

Fall Where There’s Space

Usually, someone’s story has an ending. You’ll feel it when you get close. The person’s energy will subside. There will be longer silences before someone speaks.  You’ll catch a glimpse of the cliff where the streambed tips, and the water pours faster over a ledge. Their gravity has begun to drop, and now you can follow faster. Like this:

“I hear you that you feel like no one likes you at work. That’s a tough way to feel. But you know what? Most of us humans are too busy worrying about our own lives to put any real thought into disliking a co-worker. Are you sure they don’t like you? You arrive at work later than them, right? How do you feel about initiating the morning hello?”

“I guess I could give that a try.” He looked unsure.

I continued: “people read others’ body language very quickly. If you’re feeling like your co-workers don’t like you, you might be unintentionally displaying body language that causes them to feel like you don’t like them. Interestingly, we tend to like people who like us. So, if you want to feel more liked try appearing as if you like them first.” He nodded with understanding.

Fly Above the River

Upon the conclusion of our conversation (and sometimes while we’re still together, near the end). I’ll “fly above the river” and try to view it as a whole. I do this by asking myself this question: “why is he telling me this story? What is he hoping I will hear? What is he hoping I will see?” When you’re in the river of listening it’s easy to get swept up in the emotions and details. Flying above the river can provide a better view when trying to understand a person. It’s taken me time to learn that some people don’t come to me to solve their problems, they come to me to have someone to speak their problems out loud to, and this enables them to solve them themselves. Here’s an example:

“You know, in the second set, I lose focus and I go to my backhand, but I know I shouldn’t do that! My forehand is way stronger. Next time I need to remember that when I’m nervous I need to stick with my forehand no matter what.”

This tennis player is visiting me for his monthly appointment. I’ve learned over time that the way I can help him the most is by just listening to him talk through his matches. I have little technical knowledge when it comes to tennis, and I’ve tried to ask questions to understand, but this just seems to frustrate him. My questions and solutions come up against him like waves against stones. After one meeting, where I’d said almost nothing and was feeling like I hadn’t helped him at all, he said: “You know Shannon, it really helps me just to talk through this stuff. I feel so much better now.” Sometimes the greatest help you can give someone is to just listen. Nothing more.

Over time I would learn to listen for those wonderful moments when people spoke a kind of personal music, which left a rhythmic architecture of who they were. I would be much more interested in those rhythmic architectures than in the information they might or might not reveal.

~ Anna Deveare Smith

     The next time you stand before someone who wants to talk, remember to be like water. Share the space between you; follow gravity; believe her story, at least at first, then pour what you have to say when the space appears. Finally, fly above the river; ask, why is she telling me this story, and remember, often listening is enough. If you’ve listened well the next time you meet this person she will look at you differently. In fact she will look for you. Something will have changed in her eyes. You see, few people know how to listen like water. Few want to hear everything she has to say. It’s always in the next visit – the next meeting of eyes – that you see her relief that you did.

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~ Flagstaff, Arizona

Rachel Naomi Remen (From Kitchen Table Wisdom)

“While I was still part of the Stanford faculty, I was one of a small group of traditional physicians and psychologists invited to a day-long master’s class with Dr. Carl Rogers, a pioneering humanistic psychotherapist. I was young and proud of being an expert, sought after for my opinions and judgments. Rogers’s approach to therapy, called Unconditional Positive Regard seemed to me to be a deplorable lowering of standards. Yet it was rumored that his therapeutic outcomes were little short of magical. I was curious and so I went.

Rogers was a deeply intuitive man, and as he spoke to us about how he worked with his patients, he paused often to put into words what he did instinctively and naturally. Very different from the articulate and authoritative style of presentation I was accustomed to at the medical center. Could someone so seemingly hesitant have any expertise at all? I doubted it. From what I could gather, Unconditional Positive Regard came down to sitting in silence and accepting everything the patient said without judgment or interpretation. I could not imagine how this might prove helpful.

Finally, Dr. Rogers offered us a demonstration of his approach. One of the doctors in the class volunteered to act as his client and they rearranged their chairs to sit opposite one another. As Rogers turned toward him and was about to begin the demonstration session he stopped and looked thoughtfully at his little audience of experts, myself among them. In the brief silence, I shifted impatiently in my chair. Then Rogers began to speak. ‘Before every session I take a moment to remember my humanity,’ he told us. ‘There is no experience that this man has that I cannot share with him, no fear that I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever his story, he no longer needs to be alone with it. This is what will allow his healing to begin.’

The session that followed was profound. Rogers conducted it without saying a single word, conveying to his client simply by the quality of his attention a total acceptance of him exactly as he was. The doctor began to talk and the session rapidly became a great deal more than the demonstration of technique. In the safe climate of Rogers’ total acceptance, he began to shed his masks, hesitantly at first and then more and more easily. As each mask fell, Rogers welcomed the one behind it unconditionally, until finally he glimpsed the beauty of the doctor’s naked face. I doubt that even he himself had ever seen it before. By that time many of our own faces were naked and some of us had tears in our eyes. I remember wishing that I had volunteered, envying this doctor the opportunity to be received by someone in such a total way. Except for those few moments with my godfather, I had never experienced that kind of welcome…

What Rogers was pointing to is, of course, a very wise and basic principle of healing relationship. Whatever the expertise we have acquired, the greatest gift we bring to anyone who is suffering is our wholeness.

Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. It is often through the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that we are able to effect the most profound changes in the people around us. When we listen, we offer with our attention an opportunity for wholeness. Our listening creates sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person. That which has been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and by others. That which is hidden.

In this culture the soul and the heart too often go homeless. Listening creates a holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear truth in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.

Not long ago I was walking in the rain in the place where I was born, New York City, thinking of the green place where I now live, grateful for the ease in which things grow there. Not all things have room to grow and fulfill themselves. The rain made me intensely aware of the hardness and grayness of this world of cement and brick and the awesome capacity of human beings to prevail over what is natural and bend it to their will. For miles and miles there seemed to be nothing living that could respond to the rain. But the important thing is that the rain comes. The possibility of growth is there even in the hardest of times. Listening is like the rain.”

“When you listen to someone, you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions; you should just listen to him, just observe what his way is. We put very little emphasis on right and wrong or good and bad. We just see things as they are with him, and accept them. This is how we communicate with each other. Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it or you may not even really hear it.” 

~ Shunryu Suzuki

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The Poetry: Mary Oliver

LISTEN

By Mary Oliver

Listen

Everyday

I see or hear

something

that more or less

kills me

with delight,

that leaves me

like a needle

in the haystack

of light.

It was what I was born for —

to look, to listen,

to lose myself

inside this soft world —

to instruct myself

over and over

in joy,

and acclamation.

Nor am I talking

about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,

the very extravagant —

but of the ordinary,

the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.

Oh, good scholar,

I say to myself,

how can you help

but grow wise

with such teachings

as these —

the untrimmable light

of the world,

the ocean’s shine,

the prayers that are made

out of grass?

 

“Good listeners are unfussy about the chaos which others may for a time create in their minds; they’ve been there before and know that everything can eventually set back in its place.”

~ Alain De Botton

 

The Science and the Strategy: The 6 Rules of Listening by Psychologist Eric Fromm (From The Art Of Listening)

  1. The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.
  2. Nothing of importance must be on his mind, he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.
  3. He must possess a freely-working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
  4. He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.
  5. The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him — not in the erotic sense but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.
  6. Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.

 

“Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.”

~ Ernest Hemingway

 

The Spiritual: Pastor Eugene Peterson in This On-Being podcast with Krista Tippett

Ms. Tippett: 

Something you said about prayer also strikes me as — it strikes me that when you talk about the power of words, the importance and care with them, it’s not just speaking, it’s also about reading, it’s also about listening. You talk about if we pray without listening, we pray out of context. It seems to me the same thing kind of comes through about speaking. If we speak without listening, we speak out of context, and listening also doesn’t accompany a lot of our public speech now.

Mr. Peterson: 

And I have — people have taught me this. But one of the best teachers for me has been Karl Barth.

Ms. Tippett: 

Yes.

Mr. Peterson: 

And he’s just adamant about when you pray you don’t ask God for things. You pray to listen, and then when you’ve listened, you can hear God speak, and take you into paths you never thought about.

Ms. Tippett: 

You propose quite a different relationship. I mean,

you say, “God speaks to us. Our answers are our prayers.”

Mr. Peterson: 

Mm-hmm. Does that not make sense?

Ms. Tippett: 

Yeah, no it does. It’s just a — it’s a whole different way to — entry point to thinking about what’s happening in prayer to, I think, kind of a Protestant, Western Protestant approach that’s been there in many churches for a while.

Mr. Peterson: 

But for years I have — the first thing in the morning, I have about an hour of just quiet and coffee. And — but I picked seven Psalms that I thought were, kind of covered the waterfront of what’s going on. And I memorized them. And I picked pretty long Psalms, so I’d have to work at it. And so, on Sunday, I do Psalms 92, which is a Psalm for the Sabbath. And then I go to Psalms 68, which is kind of a — it’s a collection of pieces of Psalms from different kind of settings, but when you read through the whole thing, and that’s a pretty long Psalm you realize all of these things kind of fit together if you’re paying attention.

Ms. Tippett: 

When you say all these things, do you mean all the different moves, all the different moves that a Psalm makes from praise to fury to desolation?

Mr. Peterson: 

Yeah, right.

Ms. Tippett: 

Is that what you mean? That…

Mr. Peterson: 

Right. They’re not logically connected. But then with an imagination, they start to fit together. That’s what I mean. And then Psalm 18 is a Psalm just full of metaphor. And just — you’re just overwhelmed by all the ways in which you can reimagine God working in your life. And on the just — I do seven of those. And I’ve been doing that for years. And so, then — you want to know the whole story?

Ms. Tippett: 

Yeah.

Mr. Peterson: 

Then I shut up.

Ms. Tippett: 

[laughs] Mr. Peterson: 

And I just breathe deeply and for another 15, 20, 25 minutes, just try to empty myself of everything. But there’s enough going on through that first entry that it seeps into your imagination. And so you’re not really just emptying yourself, you’re emptying yourself of a certain amount of clutter so that the words you really need to know kind of fit in. I don’t think it’s a very good idea to give people a pattern to work with in prayer. We’re all a little bit different. And I did that myself. I just figured out what I seemed possible to do, and I did it. But, when I was a pastor, I would spend time with people figuring out what to do.

Ms. Tippett: 

Helping them…

Mr. Peterson: 

Helping them.

 

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~ The Painted Desert, Arizona

The Cinematic: TED Talks about the power of listening

The Musical: “Listen To The One Who Loves You” by The Roo Planes

The Question: Can you remember a time when you felt truly listened to?

Friends, may you listen and be heard today.

Sincerely,

Shannon

Stories

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~ Old Delhi, India

The authentic mining of stories from one’s own life and the lives of one’s own people, and the modern world as it relates to one’s own life as well, means that there will be discomfort and trials. You know you are on the right path if you have experienced these: the scraped knuckles, the sleeping on cold ground – not once, but over and over again – the groping in the dark, the walking in circles in the night, the bone-chilling revelations, and the hair-raising adventures on the way – these are worth everything. There must be a little, and in many cases a good deal of blood spilled on every story, on every aspect of your own life, if it is to carry the numen, if a person is to carry a true medicine.I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you, and that you will work with those stories from your life – your life – not someone else’s life – water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till yourself bursts into bloom. 

That is the work. The only work.”

~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Good morning friends,

     Today we will explore the power of stories. We’re living one right now, aren’t we? We’ll begin with Donald Miller who will present the experience of living a story in terms of crossing a great body of water. Next, Robert Penn Warren and TS Eliot will offer their poetic accounts of story. Following these I have included one of my own essays that encourages us to choose carefully the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. Next, Donald Miller will return with his spiritual perspective on the stories of our lives. We’ll conclude today with a handful of TED Talks on the value of fiction, and the song “Hymn” by Fleurie.

The Writing: Donald Miller (From A Million Miles in a Thousand Years)

The Thing About a Crossing 

It’s like this when you live a story: the first part happens fast. You find yourself thrown into the narrative and you’re caught in the water. the shore is pushing off behind you and the trees are getting smaller. The distant shore doesn’t seem so far, and you can feel the resolution coming, the feeling of getting out of your boat and walking the distant beach. You think the thing is going to happen fast, that you’ll paddle for a bit and arrive on the other side by lunch. But the truth is, it isn’t going to be over soon.

The reward you get from the story is always less than you thought it would be, and the work is harder than you imagined. The point of a story is never about the ending, remember. It’s about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle. The shore behind you stops getting smaller and you paddle and wonder why the same strokes that used to move you now only rock the boat… the far shore doesn’t get closer no matter how hard you work.…

The shore you left is just as distant, and there is no going back; there is only the decision to paddle in place or stop, slide out of the hatch, and sink into the sea. Maybe there’s another story at the bottom of the sea. Maybe you don’t have to be in this story anymore.

It’s been like this with all my crossings. I have a couple of boats, and every couple of years I take them to Orcas Island and make the crossing from Orcas to Sucia, and it’s always the same about leaving the shore so fast and getting to the middle and paddling in place for hours…

The night we left Bob’s dock, I didn’t want to paddle through the night or across the wide inlet. We didn’t leave his dock until after midnight, and we had to paddle for hours through the pitch black, and in the middle the inlet was so large and the dark was so dark we couldn’t make out either shore. We had to guide ourselves by stars, each boat gliding close to one another, just the sound of our oars coming in and out of the water to keep us close.

It is as if the thing is teaching you that the story isn’t about the ending but about the story itself. About your character getting moulded in the hard work of the middle.

The shore behind you stops getting smaller and you paddle and wonder why the same strokes that used to move you now only rock the boat… the far shore doesn’t get closer no matter how hard you work.

We had to go for hours into the pitch dark. The inlet was so large and the dark was so dark we couldn’t make out either shore. We had to guide ourselves by stars, each boat gliding close to another – just the sound of our oars coming in and out of the water to keep us close.

I think this is when most people give up on their stories. They get into the middle and discover that it was harder than they thought. They go looking for an easier story.

You have to go there, you know. You have to take your character to the place where he just can’t take it anymore.Writing a story isn’t about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn’t think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it’s conflict that changes a person.” His voice was like thunder now. “You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That’s the only way we change.

If it weren’t for the other guys on the kayak trip I would have quit that night. But hours after I thought we’d arrive I made out the grey wall of a cliff face on my right.

Then one of the guys pointed out that bioluminescence was happening. He dropped his paddle into the water, and what looked like sparks splashed, and some of them floated like embers on top of the water. We all looked at our paddles and stirred them around in the water, and there in the darkness the ocean glowed. The farther we paddled into the opening, the darker the water got and the brighter the bioluminescence became. We could see each other now because there were comets coming off our boats and there were sparks flying off our bows and our spray skirts so bright you had a thought you needed to wipe them off for fear they would burn the fabric.

It was four in the morning but we were energized by the ocean. As we got closer to the other shore, there were a million fish swimming beneath our boats, each leaving a trail, and the ocean was flashing beneath us as though fireworks were going off in the water. ‘I’ve never seen it like this,’ one of our guides said. When we were a hundred yards from shore and paddling into the lagoon, the whole ocean glowed like a swimming pool. None of us wanted to get out of our boats. I paddled around in circles in the lagoon, watching the fish streak beneath me like a meteor shower.

It’s like this with every crossing and nearly every story too. You paddle until you no longer believe you can go any further. And then suddenly, and well after you thought it would happen, the other shore starts to grow, and it grows fast. And then the shore starts to reach out to you as if to welcome you home. The first act of the story is fast, as is the third. It’s the middle part where the character arc happens. It’s the middle arc that you have to bog through to make the story happen and it’s always harder than you thought it would be. But before you know it, the waves lift you and wash you up on the shore. It’s a thrilling moment standing up in the water, sliding the boat up on the rocks.

Once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time.

If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers. You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on to think about the story you’d seen. The truth is, you wouldn’t remember that movie a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back. Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.

But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to be meaningful. The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.

We live in a world where bad stories are told, stories that teach us life doesn’t mean anything and that humanity has no great purpose. It’s a good calling, then, to speak a better story. How brightly a better story shines. How easily the world looks to it in wonder. How grateful we are to hear these stories, and how happy it makes us to repeat them…

Here’s the truth about telling stories with your life. It’s going to sound like a great idea, and you’re going to get excited about it, and then when it comes time to do the work, you’re not going to want to do it. It’s like that with writing books, and it’s like that with life. People love to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen. But joy costs pain.

Robert McKee says humans naturally seek comfort and stability. Without an inciting incident that disrupts their comfort, they won’t enter into a story. They have to get fired from their job or be forced to sign up for a marathon. A ring has to be purchased. A home has to be sold. The character has to jump into the story, into the discomfort and the fear, otherwise the story will never happen.

Life has a peculiar feel when you look back on it that it doesn’t have when you’re actually living it. It’s as though the whole thing were designed to be understood in hindsight, as though you’ll never know the meaning of your experiences until you’ve had enough of them to provide reference.”

And once you know what it takes to live a better story, you don’t have a choice. Not living a better story would be like deciding to die, deciding to walk around numb until you die, and it’s not natural to want to die.”

Writing a story isn’t about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn’t think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it’s conflict that changes a person.” His voice was like thunder now. “You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That’s the only way we change.”

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~ Montana

“As you make those daily choices about what to spend your time on and which possibilities to pursue, the author and consultant John Hagel suggests you ask yourself this question: When I look back in five years, which of these options will make the better story? As Hagel points out, “No one ever regrets taking the path that leads to a better story.” 

― Warren Berger

 

The Poetry: Robert Penn Waren and TS Eliot

TELL ME A STORY

By Robert Penn Warren

 

Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood

By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard

The great geese hoot northward.

I could not see them, there being no moon

And the stars sparse.  I heard them.

I did not know what was happening in my heart.

It was the season before the elderberry blooms,

Therefore they were going north.

The sound was passing northward.

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,

Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,

But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

***

LITTLE GIDDING (excerpt – FULL POEM HERE)

By TS Eliot

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make and end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from. And every phrase

And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,

Taking its place to support the others,

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new,

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together)

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,

Every poem an epitaph. And any action

Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat

Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

We die with the dying:

See, they depart, and we go with them.

We are born with the dead:

See, they return, and bring us with them.

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree

Are of equal duration. A people without history

Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern

Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails

On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel

History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

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~ Varanasi, India

      “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.”

~ Neil Gaiman

 

The Science and The Strategy: My Own

Choose Carefully: The Power of the Stories We Believe

Shannon Thompson (August 2018)

     This June I set out on a backpacking adventure. Somehow I’d already known that this summer would be a meaningful one. Wildly meaningful, as in I would seek some personal meaning through time in the wilderness. I wasn’t clear where precisely I’d go, or specifically what I hoped to learn. I really craved distance from convention. I wanted to be stretched, a little scared, close to something True. I wanted to surrender to the flow within the vein of the natural world, and see where it would carry me. I wanted to listen, or honestly more so, to hear.

I’m going to use the story of my summer adventure as a means through which to discuss the use of stories on a larger scale. In particular, our personal stories – the ones we create, and choose to believe.  I’ll share with you what the wilderness taught me regarding the great care we must take when deciding which stories we call true. I’ll introduce you to the work of James Pennebakerand John Evans, who have developed a narrative strategy to improve our lives through stories, and also to treat trauma. My intent is to help you spot the wrong stories, and to write the right ones, and then to live the right ones. We must live the right stories.

First, lets return to the mountain…

I decided to travel alone into the wilderness for three days and three nights. I would venture into Yoho National Park, high in the Canadian Rockies. I found a space to pitch my tent above tree line, and about three kilometers from a trailhead. The view from my campsite was astounding. My little home was tacked loosely within a scruffy grove of trees – a short, gnarled family who had likely clutched to this shale slope longer than humans had been questing. The mountain vista across the valley stretched from horizon to horizon. At center left poured the 700ft Takakkaw Falls; her waters leaped jubilantly into oblivion. Silent and seamless, the evening light caressed the ancient glacier that fed her. I was high enough to witness each soft, sure goodnight.

Night. Prior to departing, night was what I was fearing. I’ve always been unwilling to confine my life with overblown fears. I’ve felt rebellious against suggestions of over-vigilance and over-safety that could keep me from beautiful experiences. I consider walking alone at night to fall into this category, and traveling alone. I realize something bad could happen to me by doing these things, but the odds of such an occurrence are far smaller than the degree by which doing them enriches my life.  The Canadian Rockies are home to grizzly bears and cougars. I think what concerned me most as I considered my backpacking adventure, was my lack of knowledge of the magnitude of risk I was actually assuming. How concerned should I be about a bear or cougar encounter? I’d run and hiked the trails in these mountains extensively. I’d encountered bears – but always black ones. They’d always run away faster than I do when we lock eyes. How afraid should I be?

In an attempt to gauge the risks I’d explored information online. Harrowing tales of tents stalked at night were followed by stats expressing how rare animal attacks actually are. I realized prior to heading out that the odds of problems are low, and that I was actually more afraid of being afraid than of being maimed. But, once I was actually on the mountain, watching the shadows slowly creep up the valley walls toward my tree grove, my fear rose. Several times I stepped out of my tent to look around, stiffly balancing within shoes untied, teetering on the shale. My heart hammered so hard I could barely hear anything else. Yet, the silence insisted, and the stillness soothed – there are no bears and lions here. Not tonight.

Yet, my fear continued to escalate. The night settled lovingly, kindly, around me, but I sat rigidly on edge. Straining for danger, I flinched and suffered. In my mind I could see a bear surfacing from the trail below, or a cougar the same color as the shale emerging from his crouch. I could hear the sniff of curiosity as each examined this strange illuminated rock pitched within their home. A breath, a warm movement, I heard it! I’m sure that’s what I heard… Over and over, this was the story I would look for and would rapidly construct. Now there’s something outside the tent. I’m sure of it.

Lets come down from the mountain for a moment. I could use a pause. Could you? Lets temporarily change our focus to the work of James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas. Dr. Pennebaker’s research has focused on the stories humans construct about their lives. He is the founder of narrative therapy – a process through which people write about their lives (often about trauma) in an attempt to alleviate the problems these unexpressed stories can cause. Through numerous studies, Dr. Pennebaker has found that those who write constructively about trauma in their lives also experience fewer illnesses and visit the doctor less often than those who do not have an outlet to express these events. But, even more relevant to our topic here, Dr. Pennebaker recommends a program for people who want to change their lives by changing their stories.

Transform Your Health: Writing to Heal is a six week program developed by John Evans, and recommended by Pennebaker. The curriculum of this program includes six stages. The main purpose of the program is to help people work through traumatic events. However, the steps described here could be used to successfully navigate anything that keeps you up at night. Also, they help you construct a narrative that serves the life you want to live. The program helps you write your story and live it.

However, before beginning it is important that we visit the “flip-out rule:”

The Flip-Out Rule

Dr. Pennebaker advises that if you’re afraid you might “flip out” by attempting to write about a particular topic, don’t write about it. Perhaps you’re not ready to face that story directly yet. Perhaps in time you will be. These writing exercises are intended to be gentle, and to progress at the rate you can comfortably progress.

Week One: Expressive Writing

The expressive writing exercise instructs participants to write continually for twenty minutes about “whatever keeps you up at night.” This writing should focus primarily on your emotions. Negative feelings should be expressed, but not dwelt upon. Each time you sit down to write during this week, try to consider new thoughts and ideas related to what is most emotionally pressing for you. Try to construct a story with a thread that can be followed through your thoughts. Changing perspectives within your story (for example, considering the thoughts of others in the tale) appears to be particularly beneficial.

Week Two: Transactional Writing

The purpose of this stage is to exchange thoughts or feelings with someone, even if this is just a part of yourself.  You might address your letter to someone in your life (although you are not required to deliver it). The transactional letter almost always conveys feelings of compassion, empathy or gratitude. Consider the parts of you that have been brave, or curious, or open throughout the events that are keeping you awake at night. Or, consider those in your life who have been helpful and kind. The expression of these loving emotions can be very therapeutic for the writer.

Week Three: Poetic Writing

Depending on your relationship with poetry, this stage of the program will elicit a wide array of feelings. The purpose of poetic writing is to use figurative language. Poetic writing need not assume the framework of a traditional poem. Rather, you are simply encouraged to utilize metaphor, analogy, imagery, and your imagination in the description of your topic. Unless you choose to share your poetry you’re the only one who will read it. There are two aspects to the poetic writing component: The first is a mindfulness stage, where, following a few deep breaths you simply write the thoughts that come to you, without censoring them. The second is a mind/ body stage where you describe how you feel within your physical body, and how your emotions are experienced within this body. Avoid judging your thoughts or your body. Avoid labels like “good,” “bad,” or evaluative comments like “fat,” and “short.” How would you describe your body in terms that are not judgmental or evaluative?

Week Four: Story Telling

The next stage to Evans’ program involves reading some creative non-fiction, and then writing some of your own. Choose a short piece of creative non-fiction that interests you and read it carefully. Notice the language that describes emotion and metaphors used. Then, choose a story from your own life that contains some emotional events (Evans suggests writing about a time in your life when you were able or unable, willing or unwilling to fulfill family expectations.). Complete a piece of 300 – 500 words, and utilize emotionally descriptive words and metaphor as much as possible.

Week Five: Affirmative Writing

The affirmative writing stage involves drawing upon positive thoughts and emotions about one’s strengths and capabilities. Evans suggests considering your future hopes and goals, and writing about what you are like at your best on the path toward those goals. Within the context of this article we are discussing how to change the way you feel about a distressing scenario. With that in mind I would recommend writing about all of the positive possibilities you can consider within the context that is keeping you awake at night. What qualities do you possess that increase the likelihood it will turn out well?

Week Six: Legacy Writing

Legacy writing is the final stage of Evans’ program, and is completed just as it sounds: you will ask yourself, what will my legacy be? Pennebaker’s explanation of how to consider this exercise is particularly eloquent:

“What will your legacy be? Do the significant people in your life know what you have valued most, what you thought was your purpose, or what you learned about life as you lived it? Do they know how you navigated life’s challenges, do they know how you used your moments of reflection to make life-course corrections?”

The summary above is an incredibly brief overview of a much more detailed program. Numerous people have been helped to become more aware and intentional about their inner life and their stories by completing it. Full instructions can be found in Pennebaker and Evans’ book, Expressive Writing: Words That Heal.

Every once and awhile, we’re fortunate enough to experience a revelation that instantly accelerates our awareness and motivation for change. For my personal experience of this form lets return to the mountain…

Suddenly, after quaking for hours in my tent a realization came to me. I can’t tell you precisely what stimuli shook me to sense. Perhaps the green of the darkening forest slowly lulled my fears into submission. Or, maybe the stars were bright enough to illuminate my mind. But at some point I realized that there were no bears or lions outside my tent. There are no bears or lions outside your tent! I realized with a start that the only true change that had occurred between noon and midnight was within me. The hillside was just as still as it had been during the grey hour I pitched my tent. Each rock outside rested in the same place it had all afternoon. Across the valley the glacier’s weight held as constant as it had for centuries. The only storm, the only wild, the only threat near me was my thinking. The only danger to my experience was my story.

Think about that for a second. How often does a story that we create in our own mind affect our lives for the worse? How often do we jump to a conclusion about the critical thoughts we’re sure so-and-so is having about us? What about demeaning stories about our worth, our competency, or our ability to change? What about tales of our powerlessness, or the love we perceive to be absent in our lives? Do stories like these show up for you in your daily life? Do they inhibit positive action? Do they consume your irretrievable time? They have for me – with a frequency I’m embarrassed to admit.

I’ve never noticed the power of my own narrative more clearly than on that mountain that night this summer. I was up there. It was dark. I was not coming down. I could choose to trust that there were no lions or bears, or I could continue to be terrified. The quality of my experience depended on how I chose. Since returning to the city I’ve noticed the opportunity to choose again – to believe self-generated stories that upset me, or to turn away, to get on with a task, or to write a different story. Choosing to disbelieve your scary story is never easy. But we’re here. It’s light and it’s dark, and we’re living. You’re not going down now. Trust me. There are no lions or bears outside.

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~ Cairns on the beach, Vancouver, BC

“Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: “Who has earned the right to hear my story?” If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky. If we have a friend, or small group of friends, or family who embraces our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power, and fills us with a sense of belonging, we are incredibly lucky.” 

― Brené Brown

 

The Spiritual: Donald Miller

“I like the part of the Bible that talks about God speaking the world into existence, as though everything we see and feel were sentences from his mouth, all the wet of the world his spit. I feel written. My skin feels written, and my desires feel written. My sexuality was a word spoken by God, that I would be male, and I would have brown hair and brown eyes and come from a womb. It feels literary, doesn’t it, as if we are characters in books.

You can call it God or a conscience, or you can a dismiss it as that intuitive knowing we all have as human beings, as living storytellers; but there is a knowing I feel that guides me toward better stories, toward being a better character. I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a  better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness.

If I have a hope, it’s that God sat over the dark nothing and wrote you and me, specifically, into the story, and put us in with the sunset and the rainstorm as though to say, enjoy your place in my story. The beauty of it means you matter, and you can create within it even as I have created you.”

If a man’s senses are either sharpened or dulled by how he rubs against time, mine have become increasingly sharp over these last three weeks… I’ve learned too that I don’t really know very much about anything. I thought I had everybody figured out, even God, but I don’t. I think the woods, being far away from that clingy sort of commercialism have taught me that life is enormous and I am very tiny in the middle of it. And yet the chemicals in my brain that make me feel beauty when I look up at the stars and when I watch the sunset indicate I must be here for a reason.

I think I would sum it up this way: life is not a story about me, but it is being told to me, and I can be glad about that. I think that is the why of life and in fact the why of the ancient faith I am caught up in. To enjoy God. The stars were created to dazzle us, like a love letter. Months ago I would have told you that life was about doing, about jumping through religious hoops, about impressing other people,… but I don’t believe that any more. I think we’re supposed to stand in deserts and marvel at how the sun rises. To sleep in meadows and watch stars dart across space and time. I think we are supposed to love our friends and introduce people to the story – the peaceful, calming why of life. I think life is spirituality.

If I could, if it could be responsible, I would live in these woods forever. But I know these days are passing. But I hope I’ll never lose this perspective. I promised myself that if I ever get frustrated with life again I will sell it all and move out into the woods. I’ll find some people who aren’t like me and learn to love them, and do something even harder – let them love me. I will sleep beneath the stars and whisper thank-you to the creator of the universe as a way of reacquainting myself to an old friend. A friend who says you don’t have to be smart, or good-looking, or religious, or anything, you just have to cling to Him, love Him, need Him and listen to Him while he tells you His story.

I don’t wonder anymore what I’ll tell God when I go to heaven when we sit in the chairs under the tree, outside the city……..I’ll tell these things to God, and he’ll laugh, I think and he’ll remind me of the parts I forgot, the parts that were his favorite. We’ll sit and remember my story together, and then he’ll stand and put his arms around me and say, “well done,” and that he liked my story. And my soul won’t be thirsty anymore. Finally he’ll turn and we’ll walk toward the city, a city he will have spoken into existence a city built in a place where once there’d been nothing…

I’ll tell you how the sun rose a ribbon at a time… It’s a living book, this life; it folds out in a million settings, cast with a billion beautiful characters, and it is almost over for you. It doesn’t matter how old you are; it is coming to a close quickly, and soon the credits will roll and all your friends will fold out of your funeral and drive back to their homes in cold and still silence. And they will make a fire and pour some wine and think about how you once were… and feel a kind of sickness at the idea that you never again will be.

Soon you will be in the part of the book where you are holding the bulk of the pages in your left hand, and only a thin whisp of the story in your right. You will know by the page count, not by the narrative, that the Author is wrapping things up. You begin to mourn its ending, and want to pace yourself slowly toward its closure, knowing the last lines will speak of something beautiful, of the end of something long and earned, and you hope the thing closes out like last breaths, like whispers about how much and who the characters have come to love, and how authentic the sentiments feel when they have earned a hundred pages of qualification.

And so my prayer is that your story will have involved some leaving and some coming home, some summer and some winter, some roses blooming like children in a play. My hope is your story will be about changing, about getting something beautiful born inside of you about learning to love a woman or a man, about learning to love a child, about moving yourself around water and , around friends, about learning to love others more than we love ourselves, about learning oneness as a way of understanding God. We get one story, you and I, and one story alone.”

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~ Idaho

Which story do you prefer? So it is with God.”

Yann Martel, “The Life Of Pi”

 

The Cinematic: This is a link to TED talks that outline the power of fiction.

The Musical: Hymn by Fleurie

The Question: What story are you living?

I hope today adds a beautiful chapter to your story.

Sincerely,

Shannon

Dreams

 

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~ NAU XC, Woody Mountain Road, Flagstaff, Arizona 2019

“To know that you can do it is a terrible thing to know.”

~John Parker Jr.

Good morning friends,

First, here is the info for our zoom call that will take place at 5:30pm PST. All are encouraged and welcome to attend.

Zoom link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81302669217?pwd=V2hYamw2c3UwVUFlU1BQaHBiRjI2dz09

Here are the questions around which our conversation will be loosely structured:

  • When has your intuition served you well?
  • How could you deepen your relationship with the dark?
  • What have you learned about yourself during periods of sadness?
  • Tell us about when a dream of yours came true.

This email is late in coming. What could be more important to discuss than dreams? Dreams of a beautiful future, I mean. I took this one seriously, so it took time. We’ll start with a little story of my own. Next, we’ll read Olympic ski racer, Peter Vordenberg’s account of witnessing a dream come true. Then, Walter Lippmann will follow with his lyrical piece about why chasing personal dreams is of value to all. From here we’ll hear why it’s important to fall in love with something from psychologist, E.P. Torrance. Next, we’ll read the tale of Black Elk, whose vivid visions and efforts for the Lakota people are moving and thought provoking. We will conclude by revisiting one of the more memorable athletic victories that I have ever witnessed, and the song “Times Like These,” by The Foo Fighters.

The Writing: My own, Peter Vordenberg and Walter Lippmann

January 20, 2018

Here’s a story for you that I didn’t expect to be telling…

My cousin, Tavish, who I went to see in concert last night, grew up in Vancouver with me. He’s the middle of three brothers. We were a very tight extended family, regularly getting together. Very sadly their wonderful Mom died of cancer when Tavish was nine.

The whole family is musical. The three boys, aged 7, 9, and 11, with their Dad played “This Is How We Learn To Live Again” by the Foo Fighters at her funeral.

Two of the boys pursued careers in music. For a time my brother joined them. I went to watch them sometimes. I think the last time that I saw Tav perform was on the street in Vancouver with a dark haired girl about eight years ago.

Tavish co-wrote a song with that girl, who interestingly is now very blond! Her name is Carly Rae Jepson, and the song is called “Call Me Maybe.”

And my mind was unexpectedly blown last night – or maybe more so my heart. Partly because this was someone’s dream come true, which was now before my eyes (seeing a dream come true is far different than just knowing that it did). But mostly my heart was blown because I could still see the nine year old singing, “This is How We Learn To Live Again” in the man on the stage.

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~Carly Rae Jepson and Tavish Crowe, Phoenix, Arizona
 

“All of our days are numbered; we cannot afford to be idle. To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all because the worth of the idea never becomes apparent until you do it. Sometimes this idea can be the smallest thing in the world, a little flame that you hunch over and cup with your hand and pray will not be extinguished by all the storm that howls about it. If you can hold on to that flame great things can be constructed around it that are massive and powerful and world changing – all held up by the tinniest of ideas.” 

 ~ Nick Cave

Peter Vordenberg (From Momentum: Chasing The Olympic Dream)

“Dan Ray leaves you with two options. Either Bigfoot exists or Dan is a lunatic. The summer prior to the ’94 Games, Cory and I were back in Trout Lake, training as usual. Dan Ray lived by chasing dreams as well. He was living on the road, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, searching for Bigfoot.

Cory and I knew Dan from our first year at Northern Michigan University. Dan was a legend, not just in northern Michigan, but wherever he went, and his legend was due mostly to… searching with a startling earnestness for Bigfoot…

We knew Dan was living out West somewhere, so we were only mildly surprised when, early one morning, a car riding low with gear pulled up to the house, and Dan got out…

‘Hello Dan.’

‘Gosh, can you believe it?’ He grinned, strode forward, filling the door, then the house… ‘I knew you guys were up here, but where? And I just stopped at the gas station and asked for you, and they knew right away where you were. Small town, huh? And here you are, eating – what – oatmeal? Gosh, you have any more of that?’

He shared stories as we ate, and when Cory and I said we were heading out for training after breakfast, Dan, who quit ski racing a few years before decided to join us. For the rest of the week he trained with us two or three times a day, every day, which is impressive for someone who hadn’t trained recently. He was easily assimilated into the household.

After four days, however, Dan was wearing on us. Early Saturday morning Cory, Dan, and I piled into my Subaru and drove to a footrace in Portland about an hour away. The Bigfoot talk never stopped. He was obsessed. We drove and Dan talked Bigfoot. We jogged our warm-up and Dan talked Bigfoot…

Through it all, the really impressive thing is that, for a week straight, Dan did not stop talking and his topic never wavered. Dan talked about Bigfoot for seven unrelenting days, and his storytelling was so impassioned and sincere I couldn’t tell if he had lost it or if Bigfoot was really out there.

Sunday morning, Cory, Dan, and I woke up groaning from the race. It was our first real hard run on pavement for the summer, and we were unbelievably sore… But because Dan was leaving the next day we decided to go for a long run up Mt. Adams, where we could scout around for Bigfoot…

‘Night’s really the only time to see Bigfoot,’ Dan announced. ‘I’ve got night-vision goggles in the car, but we can just look for signs, tracks, and stuff…’

We hiked until our muscles loosened up and then started running. We ran upward until we were among the small wood-twisted and weather-stunted trees just below the snow line. An hour from our car, and running steadily uphill at about 8000 feet elevation, Dan still did not stop talking even to breathe, or, that I could tell, to look for tracks… After a week of Bigfoot stories I was starting to tune Dan out. Cory was completely fed up and would run ahead, trying to get out of range, but Dan would just run faster, talk louder, and Cory, like a Caribou driven mad by spring mosquitoes, would run harder. I silently concluded that Bigfoot could very well exist, but Dan was definitely crazy…

Then again, maybe not. The Olympics were my Bigfoot. Since the seventh grade, I had done little that did not connect in some way to my quest to make the Olympic team. I had trained and dreamed, traveled to races, raced, won. a few, lost a lot, and trained more. Now, ten years of training and dreaming later, I was headed for my second Olympics with the belief that I was one very important step closer to my ultimate goal… At the ceremony in Anchorage where the teams selected to compete are announced, I am standing on a stage in front of the press, my teammates, my coach, and my friends. The loudspeaker rumbles: ‘And these are the members of the 1994 U.S. Olympic team to Lillehammer, Norway!’ I found myself stiff with fear – for it is one thing to say you are looking for Bigfoot and another to actually find one.

Mt. Adams is but one in a widely spaced string of volcanoes. The whole string is covered in deep snow year round. With the warm summer days and cold nights, the snow goes through a daily freeze-thaw cycle and so is rock hard in the morning until the sun can melt the top layer and loosen it up. So Dan, Cory and I had to kick steps in the hard snow on the steeper pitches, which is a toe-busting proposition in running shoes. But we made Adams’ summit, and for once, Dan shut up…

‘No Bigfoot up here, Dan’ It was about the first thing Cory had said all day.

‘Nothing much they could eat,’ answered Dan.

Dan didn’t seem to hear the tone of Cory’s statement. ‘I’d say there’s little reason to come up here, except to call to a mate, like to lunch or something. From here a Bigfoot could be heard from a long way off. They make a scream-like sound, real loud, just one loud scream. I’ve never heard it, but I’ve been told that it can give you a heart attack. Scariest sound ever.’ And Dan set off talking again.

‘Dan. Please. Leave it alone,’ Cory begged. ‘I just want to hike down in quiet, okay?’

‘Okay,’ he said, momentarily disappointed. ‘Anyway, we’re more likely to see something if we’re quiet.’

And so, except for the wind and the clunking ice chunks, all was quiet. We reached the edge of Adams’ flat summit and began the descent using the steps we had kicked in the snow earlier. It was like walking down a steep stairway, and all three of us immediately realized our legs were in for it… We were tired, and the severity of the pitch put the adrenal gland at the ready. This, combined with Dan’s persistent storytelling and Cory’s steadfast refusal to believe a word of it, put us on edge. So when we heard the scream – and we did hear a scream – we froze. And I swear my heart shuddered at the inhuman sound… Cory launched himself sideways, spun around in mid-air, took two very long steps downhill and commenced sliding… Dan knocked me down, and I slid on my back until, like a first-time water-skier yanked vertical by the boat, I regained my feet and took off after Cory and Dan. All I could see were the rooster tails of snow kicked up behind them. We didn’t stop where the snow ran out; we just kept running all the way back to the car.

In spite of Dan’s success in locating Bigfoot, we got in his car that afternoon and disappeared. Cory and I watched and waved good-bye. There was an unmistakable look of fear on Dan’s place – his dream had come true.”

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~ NAU XC, Buffalo Park, 2019

Walter Lippmann

“I cannot quite remember whether Miss Earhart undertook her flight with some practical purpose in mind, say, to demonstrate something or other about aviation which will make it a little easier for commercial passengers to move more quickly around the world. There are those who seem to think that an enterprise like hers must have some such justification, that without it there was no good reason for taking such grave risks.

But in truth Miss Earhart needs no such justification. The world is a better place to live in because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing. They help to offset the much larger number who are ready to sacrifice the ease and the security and the very lives of others in order to do what they want done. No end of synthetic heroes strut the stage, great bold men in bulletproof vests surrounded by squads of armed guards, demonstrating their courage by terrorizing the weak and the defenseless. It is somehow reassuring to think that there are also men and women who take the risks themselves, who pit themselves not against their fellow beings but against the immensity and the violence of the natural world, who are brave without cruelty to others and impassioned with an idea that dignifies all who contemplate it.

The best things of mankind are as useless as Amelia Earhart’s adventure. They are the things that are undertaken not for some definite, measurable result, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor, the compulsion to invent or to make or to understand. In such persons mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in its habitual ways. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves.

Such energy cannot be planned and managed and made purposeful, or weighed by the standards of utility or judged by its social consequences. It is wild and it is free. But all the heroes, the saints and the seers, the explorers and the creators partake of it. They do not know what they discover. They do not know where their impulse is taking them. They can give no account in advance of where they are going or explain completely where they have been. They have been possessed for a time with an extraordinary passion which is unintelligible in ordinary terms.

No preconceived theory fits them. No material purpose actuates them. They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky!”

The Poetry: John O’Donahue and Stephen Spender

BLESSING FOR LONGING

By John O’Donahue

 

Blessed be the longing that 

brought you here and quickens 

your soul with wonder.

May you have the courage to

listen to the voice of desire

that disturbs you when you

have settled for something safe.

May you have the wisdom to

enter generously into your own unease

to discover the new direction

that your longing wants you to take.

May the forms of your 

belonging – in love, creativity,

and friendship –

be equal to the grandeur and 

the call of your soul.

May the one you long for long 

for you.

May your dreams gradually

reveal the destination of your desire.

May a secret Providence guide

your thought and nurture your feeling.

May your mind inhabit your life

with the sureness with which

your body inhabits the world.

May your heart never be

haunted by ghost-structures of

old damage.

May you come to accept your

longing as divine urgency.

May you know the urgency with

which God longs for you.

***

THE TRULY GREAT

By Stephen Spender

 

I think continually of those who were truly great.

Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history

Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,

Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition

Was that their lips, still touched with fire,

Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.

And who hoarded from the Spring branches

The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious, is never to forget

The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs

Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.

Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light

Nor its grave evening demand for love.

Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother

With noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.

 

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,

See how these names are fêted by the waving grass

And by the streamers of white cloud

And whispers of wind in the listening sky.

The names of those who in their lives fought for life,

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun

And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

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~ NAU XC, Buffalo Park, 2019

“…Or we can blaze! Become legends in our own time, strike fear in the heart of mediocre talent everywhere! We can scald dogs, put records out of reach! Make the stands gasp as we blow into an unearthly kick from three hundred yards out! We can become God’s own messengers delivering the dreaded scrolls! We can race dark Satan himself till he wheezes fiery cinders down the back straightaway….They’ll speak our names in hushed tones, ‘those guys are animals’ they’ll say! We can lay it on the line, bust a gut, show them a clean pair of heels. We can sprint the turn on a spring breeze and feel the winter leave our feet! We can, by God, let our demons loose and just wail on!” 

― John L. Parker Jr.

The Science and the Strategy: EP Torrance – The Importance of Falling in Love With Something

THE IMPORTANCE OF FALLING IN LOVE WITH SOMETHING

By E. Paul Torrance

My experience and research have increasingly made me aware of the dreadful importance of falling in love with “something” –a dream, an image of the future. I am convinced that the driving force behind future accomplishments is the image of the future of people. Positive images of the future are a powerful and magnetic force. These images of the future draw us on and energize us. Giving us the courage and will to take important initiatives and move forward to new solutions and achievements. To dream and to plan, to be curious about the future and to wonder how much it can be influenced by our efforts are important aspects of our being human. In fact, life’s most energizing and exciting moments occur in those split seconds when our struggling and searching are suddenly transformed into the dazzling aura of the profoundly new, an image of the future.

During recent years, scientists have accumulated considerable evidence that our image of the future is a powerful motivating force and determines what we are motivated to achieve. In fact, a person’s image of the future may be a better predictor of future attainment than his past performances. Several scholars (Polak, 1973, Bundy, 1976) have pointed out that societies have always been dependent upon a creatively gifted minority for their images of the future. History also warns that societies that lack vigorous, realistic images of the future perish. Certainly, we need new, positive images of the future throughout the world, ones that are compelling and exciting to the imagination. Each unique, creative individual also needs such an image.

FALL IN LOVE WITH YOUR DREAM

If you have a dream of the future and have fallen in love with it—if you are committed to this dream and willing to persist with it, you are doubly lucky. One of the most powerful wellsprings of creative energy, outstanding accomplishment, and self-fulfillment seems to be falling in love with something—your dream, your image of the future. The autobiographies and biographies of many of those who have produced the ideas that have changed the world and made it a better place to live in reveal that the wellspring of the creative energy that produced their achievements was their being in love with something, usually at an early age and persisting throughout their lives.

Strong research evidence for this conclusion emerges in a 22-year longitudinal study I am now completing of elementary school children I began studying in 1958. In the third, fourth, and fifth grades, I asked these children what they were in love with, what they wanted to do when they grew up. Some of them consistently said, “I don’t know.” Others were inconsistent, changing their future images each year. Most of these continued to change and are now in careers different from any of these that they mentioned as youngsters. Surprisingly, about half of them were consistent in their choices and have persisted in careers consistent with the future career images they expressed as children. Using five different sets of criteria or indicators of creative achievement, ranging from the number of publicly recognized and acknowledged creative achievements to the number of unrecognized creative style of live attainments, the childhood future career images proved to be a significant predictor of each of these five indexes of creative adult achievement. As a matter of fact, this indicator (having or not having a future image that they were in love with) was a better predictor of adult creative achievement than indexes of scholastic promise and attainment in school.

YOUR SEARCH FOR YOUR IDENTITY

Many people have no dream, no clear image of the future. Some have a dream, even a clear image of the future but they are not in love with it—they may feel that it is not really them. How might one search for her/his identity and discover a dream and fall in love with it? In my opinion, this search for identity is one of the most important things that a person ever does. It has been a basic concern of my research.

Sometimes a story—even a fantasy—can capture the essence of a problem such as this and distill the truth more powerfully than our most sophisticated researcher and our fastest and most complex and ingenious computers. Lloyd Alexander (1967) in his story, Taran Wanderer, has accomplished just such a feat regarding a gifted young man’s search for his identity. In this delightful fantasy, Taran, the hero, goes forth to come to grips with a merciless opponent, the truth about himself, and to reshape his life out of his own inner resources.

The dreadful importance of finding one’s identity is reflected in the following speech Taran made when a king, recognizing Taran’s giftedness for leadership, offered to make Taran his own son and turn his kingdom over to him:

‘It is my heart to learn the truth about myself. I will not stop short of it. Were I to do so, who I am would forever be unknown and through all my life I would feel a part of me lacking.’

The king was sad but recognized the truth that Taran spoke. After a moment he clapped

Taran heartily on the back and cried:

‘My breath, blood, and beard! You’ve a will to chase the wild goose, will-o-the-wisp, or whatever it may be; and I’ll say no more to keep you from it. Seek it out, lad! Whether or not you find it, come back and Cadiffor will welcome you.’ But hasten,Taran was able to do something that many talented and gifted young people are never able to do—walk away from the games that others try to impose upon them. Some of the world’s greatest tragedies are the lives of gifted young people who never find the courage to walk away from the games others want to play, when these games are not really theirs.

In the story about Taran, there is a beautiful description of Taran’s struggle in deciding

whether to set out on the search for his identity. The orchards were white with fragrant blossoms. The newly planted fields were light as green mist. These sights and scents gave Taran no joy. His world was empty. He carried out his tasks of weeding, cultivating, and tending the white pig as carefully as ever, but he went about his tasks distractedly. His supervisor tried to help him “snap out of it” by offering to teach him “the high secrets of planting turnips, raising cabbage, or whatever he might want to know.” Taran wanted to know who he was and he knew that his supervisor could not tell him.

Taran’s search for his identity and something he could fall in love with was a long one. He was a gifted person so he was able to succeed in many occupations. While others tried to influence him to stay with these occupations, each time he would say, “It is not me. My heart is not in it.” For example, when he left his apprenticeship with a craftsman, he said:

‘By rights, I should be more than happy to dwell here all my life. I’ve found peace and friendship—and a kind of hope, as well…Yet, somehow this way is not mine. A spur drives me to seek more than what Small Avren brings. What I seek, I do not know. But, alas, I know it is not here. (p.218)

After this, Taran was apprenticed to a masterful swordsmith, the best in the land. The swordsmith passionately loved what he did. It was his life. While Taran loved his teacher and excelled as a swordsmith, he finally said:

‘But I know in my heart your craft is not mine. A spur drove me from Small Avren, and it drives me now. And so must I journey, even if I wished to stay.’

Taran also became an excellent weaver, but this too was not his game, not his way. Then

he was apprenticed to a famous potter, a man who was truly in love with being a potter, Taran was captivated by the possibilities of life as a potter. About this, he said:

‘When my hands touched the clay, I knew I would count myself happy to be a potter. More than smithing, more than weaving—it’s as though I could give shape to what was in my heart I understand what Annlaw meant. There is no difference between him and his work. Indeed, Annlaw puts himself into the clay and makes it live with is own life. If I, too, might learn to do this’

However, this was one kind of giftedness that was denied Taran. In parting he cried. ‘What lacks? I could forge a sword well enough and weave a cloak well enough. But now, what I truly long to grasp is beyond my reach. Must the one skill I sought above all be denied me? Is the gift forbidden?’

The understanding potter comforted Taran, saying. There are those who have labored all their lives to gain the gift, striving until the end only to find themselves mistaken, and those who had it born in them yet never knew: those who lost heart too soon, and those who should never have begun at all. Count yourself lucky that you have understood this now and not spent your years in vain hope. This much you have learned, and no learning is wasted.’

Although Taran’s story is a fantasy, his story—the struggle for identity—the search for

one’s dream—is repeated in each person’s life I would like to share with you some of the “real life” stories of the young people in my longitudinal study of creative behavior.

TWO CONTRASTING SEARCHES

First, I shall describe two contrasting cases, one the son of physicians and surgeons and the other the son of musicians. Naturally, the physicians and surgeons thought their son was a physician and the musicians thought their son was a musician. Both the surgeons and the physicians and the musicians loved their work and their lives. They could think of nothing better for their sons. At first, their sons agreed or seemed to agree.

First, let’s look at the story of the son of the surgeons and physicians. He is now quite successful as a creative musician in Hollywood and New York. He completed the follow-up questionnaire for my study just after he completed work on the music for The Rose, starring Bette Midler. He wrote asking if there was anything about his creativity tests in elementary school that would have caused me to predict a successful career as a creative musician. While we have never tried to predict a specific creative career, I was curious to examine his responses to the creativity tests he took in elementary school. His scores on the tests each year were quite high and one would certainly see in his responses much creative potentiality. Each year, when asked about his dream for the future, he said that the wanted to be a physician or surgeon. Yet, his responses were filled with thoughts of music and musicians. When asked to “make objects” from two pages of circles, he drew the beatles, drums, horns, and other symbols of music. It was clear that “music was on his mind,” even though he said that he wanted to be a physician or surgeon. In the fifth grade, he obtained a scholarship to a summer music camp and slowly began to realize that he was really in love with music and being a musician. Fortunately, his parents became reconciled to their son’s walking away from the dream they had for him. He seems quite happy in living his own dream, something he is in love with.

PERSISTENCE OF CHILDHOOD DREAMS

Many of the young people in my 22-year study, however, fell in love with something in the second or third grade and have persisted with these early dreams to create highly successful careers. For example, Mack began making science fiction drawings in the second grade and in the third grade he was writing science fiction stories and writing space dramas that his classmates enacted. He was also gifted in music, art, science, and many other fields. His interest in science fiction has persisted. While in high school, he organized the Minnesota Science Fiction Society which still publishes a science fiction magazine and holds annual meetings. He has completed a Ph.D. degree with a dissertation on utopian political theory. His list of awards, creative musical and acting performances, musical compositions, business entrepreneurships, and art works is most impressive. He has earned money through illustrating, composing and producing music, editing, working as a forecaster in a large business, and the like. However, he never forgets that his real love is writing—something he discovered at least by the time he was in the third grade. Being able to do these other things gives him financial security and provides him with much of the raw materials with which his imagination creates science fiction and other kinds of literature.

Robert, one of Mack’s classmates, fell in love with inventing in the third grade and kept the classroom cluttered with his inventions, just as Mack kept things covered with his space age drawings. He has a PH.D. degree in engineering and is still inventing with a corporation on the forefront in his field. At the time he completed his follow up questionnaire, his aspiration was to become an independent inventor. This would free him to “play his own game in his own way” to a greater degree. A couple of months after he had returned his questionnaire, he had an inventive breakthrough that he believes will make him an independent inventor.

Karl. Another member of this class, had fallen in love with acting in the third grade. He played leading roles in Mack’s space dramas. His academic performance, however, was disappointing to his parents who were university professors. Karl’s great talent as an actor and his love for it was not noted and acknowledged, however, until he was in the fourth grade. His fourth grade teacher recognized this and helped his parents to recognize it. When his parents showed pleasure in Karl’s newly-recognized talents, Karl began to feel better about himself and his success in academics began to soar. He holds graduate degrees, is a successful repertory theatre actor, and theater director in a large city. He has received acclaim for his acting in the United States, London, Edinburgh, and other theatre centers.

Some of the girls in this same class had also fallen in love with things by the time they were in the third and fourth grades and have persisted in them. Alice was in love with words and each year said she wanted to be a semanticist. Drawing pictures was not her “game,” and her fourth grade teacher’s efforts to get her to express her creativity through drawings were disasters. After a very successful college and graduate school career and a brief career in advertising and public relations, she is now rearing a family. However, she continues to be a semanticist by operating an editorial business in her home and keeping several typists busy with the dissertations, books, and other literary works of graduate students and faculty in a large, prestigious university, a very fitting outlet for her love of words.

Just as Alice was in love with words, Katie was in love with pictures and making pictures tell stories. In the fourth grade, her art work was of professional quality. It was easy for her to get a job as an illustrator of children’s books. However, her fourth grade teacher had interested her in writing and illustrating children’s stories. She fell in love with this and has come back to it only recently and is doing just this.

The struggle to play their own games and pursue their dreams, however, has not been easy for some of the girls in this study. Patricia is a good example of this. Year after year, her scores on the creativity tests were consistently high, yet she felt that she must hide her creative talents from her teachers and classmates. On the follow up questionnaire she described her plight back then as follows;

‘I am a writer today, but not until college did I realize I had any unusual ability. My elementary school experiences were awful. I got perfect marks for organization, spelling, and punctuation, but was graded down for having lousy handwriting I also was never told that anything I did was original…My father was mentally ill and most of the things I could have written about I knew were different form what the other kids would write…I wanted to be creative, but I was terrible in art, and thought I was a dud…If somebody had told me back then that I was “creative” I would have had something to hold onto. All I knew was that I was different.’

CONCLUSION

All of the young people in my 22-year study have exciting stories to tell of their search for identity and their struggle to find ways of “playing the game” and doing the thing that they are in love with. Some of their stories are heartbreaking, yet we learn important lessons from them. Many of them have had the good fortune of having teachers, parents, or mentors who understood their dreams and respected the things that they were in love with. These teachers, parents, and mentors helped them learn how to “play their games” and this has made a difference in their lives and in their achievements. These people helped them free themselves of the expectations of others and the “games” that others expected them play so that they could pursue the thing that they are in love with and make useful social contributions.

I believe that these young adults would now give advice that would add up to something like this:

1. Don’t be afraid to fall in love with something and pursue it with intensity and depth.

2. Know, understand, take pride in, practice, develop, use, exploit, and enjoy your greatest strengths.

3. Learn to free yourself from the expectations of others and to walk away from the games that others try to impose upon you. Free yourself to “play your own game” in such a way as to make good use of your gifts. Search out and cultivate great teachers or mentors who will help you accomplish these things.

4. Don’t waste a lot of expensive energy in trying to do things for which you have little ability or life. Do what you can do well and what you love, giving freely of the infinity of your greatest strengths and most intense loves.

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~ NAU XC NCAA Championships 2019

“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be…There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the center, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.”

~ Joseph Campbell

The Spiritual: Black Elk (From Black Elk Speaks)

**A Note on who Black Elk is from history.com:

As a young member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe in 1876, Black Elk witnessed the Battle of Little Bighorn, in which Sioux forces led by Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse dealt a crushing defeat to a battalion of U.S. soldiers led by Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer. In the 1880s, Black Elk toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show before returning to the Pine Ridge Reservation established for the Oglala in South Dakota. After the massacre of more than 200 Sioux at Wounded Knee Creek in late 1890 effectively put an end to Native American military resistance in the West, Black Elk remained at Pine Ridge, where he later adopted Christianity. In 1930, he began telling his story to the writer John Neihardt; the result was “Black Elk Speaks” (1932), a vivid and affecting chronicle of Lakota history and spiritual traditions.

“My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like heavy snow? So many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills.

It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing it with the four-legged and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one spirit.

This then, is not the tale of a great hunter or a great warrior, or of a great traveler, although I have made much meat in my time and fought for people both as boy and man, and have gone far and seen great lands and men. So also have many others done, and better than I. These things I shall remember by the way, and often they may seem to be the very tale itself, as when I was living them in happiness and in sorrow. But now that I can see it all from a lonely hilltop, I know it was the story of a mighty vision given to a man too weak to use it; of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people’s heart with flowers and singing birds, and now is withered; and of a people’s dream that died in bloody snow.

But if the vision was true and mighty, as I know, it is true and mighty yet; for such things are of the spirit, and it is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost…

[In his vision] Now I knew the sixth Grandfather was about to speak, he who was the Spirit of the Earth, and I saw that he was very old, but more as men are old. His hair was long and white, his face was all in wrinkles and his eyes were deep and dim. I stared at him, for I seemed to know him somehow; and as I stared, he slowly changed, for he was growing backward into youth, and when he became a boy, I knew he was myself with all the years that would be mine at last. When he was old again he said, ‘my boy, have courage, for my power shall be yours, and you shall need it, for your nation on the earth will have great troubles.

Then a voice said: ‘behold this day, for it is yours to make. Now you shall stand upon the center of the earth to see, for there they are taking you.’

I was still on my bay horse, and once more I felt the riders of the west, the north, the east, the south, behind me as before, and we were going East. I looked ahead and saw the mountains there with rocks and forests on them, and from the mountains flashed all colors upward to the heavens. Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I could tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree too shelter all the children of one mother and one father…

I was sixteen years old and more, and I had not yet done anything the Grandfathers wanted me to do, but they had been helping me. I did not know what they wanted me to do. A terrible time began for me then, and I could not tell anybody. I was afraid to see a cloud coming up; and whenever one did, I could hear the thunder beings calling to me: ‘behold your Grandfathers! Make  haste! Its time! It’s time!

Time to do what? I did not know. Whenever I awoke before daybreak and went out of the teepee because I was afraid of the stillness when everyone was sleeping, there were many low voices talking together in the east, and the daybreak star would sing this song in silence:

‘In a sacred manner you shall walk! Your nation shall behold you!’

I think I have told you, but if I have not, you must understand that a man who has visions is not able to use the power of it until he has performed the vision on earth of all to see… and if the great fear had not come upon me, as it did, and forced me to do my duty, I might have been less good to the people than some man who never dreamed at all, even with the memory of so great a vision in me. But the fear came, and if I had not obeyed it, I’m sure it would have killed me in a little while…

Another vision came to me. I saw a flaming rainbow, like the one I had seen in my first great vision. Over me there was a spotted eagle soaring and he said to me: ‘Remember this.’ I have thought about this much since, and I have thought that this is where I made my great mistake. I had had a very great vision, and I should have depended only upon that to guide me to the good. But I followed the lesser visions… The vision of the flaming rainbow was to warn me, maybe, and I did not understand. I did not depend on the great vision as I should have done; it is hard to follow one great vision in this world of darkness and many changing shadows. Among those shadows men get lost…

I did not know then how much was ended. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, – you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer and the sacred tree is dead.”

Author’s postscript:

     “After the conclusion of the narrative, Black Elk and our party were looking off across the badlands (‘the beauty and strangeness of the earth,’ the old man expressed it)…Black Elk said, ‘I wish I could stand up there before I die, for there is something I want to say to the six Grandfathers.

     So they went, and on the way Black Elk said, ‘If I have any power left, the thunder beings of the west should hear me when I send a voice, and there should be at least a little thunder and a little rain.’

     It was a season of draught. Black Elk stood and dressed himself, and called and cried to the four corners of the Earth. ‘Today I send a voice for a people in despair. At the center of this sacred hoop you have said that I should make the tree to bloom… with tears running I must say that the tree has never bloomed. A pitiful old man, you see me here, and I have fallen away and have done nothing.’

     We who listened now noted that thin clouds had gathered about us. A scant chill rain began to fall and there was low, muttering thunder without lightening… for some minutes the old man stood silent, with face uplifted, weeping in the driving rain.”

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“The sincerity in your longing will lead you home.”

~ Tara Brach

The Cinematic: Canadian Hockey Olympic Gold 2010

     I have been privileged to witness some incredible dreams come true: NAU XC NCAA National Championships x 3, NAU XC women making it to Nationals for the first time in twelve years, Aliphine Tuliamuk winning this years’ US Olympic Marathon Trials, and so so many more private, personal triumphs. I cannot rank any above another.

However today I feel like highlighting this one. The year was 2010. The Winter Olympic Games were wrapping up in Vancouver. I will never forget the energy on the Vancouver streets throughout those Games. I have chills now, ten years later thinking about it. But, the pinnacle moment came when Canada won Olympic Gold in hockey. I was on the streets in Vancouver that day, and the city went nuts in the most good-hearted way. I had never experienced collective joy to that magnitude. This movie captures a little of the essence.

Reaction to Canada winning Olympic gold in hockey 2010

The Question: Tell us about when a dream of yours came true.

The Musical: “Times Like These” The Foo Fighters

This version of this song is filmed live at a concert in Reading. The story that precedes the song is worthwhile. If you’d rather skip straight to the song go to 6:30.

Friends,

“It’s times like these we learn to live again.

It’s times like these we learn to give again.

It’s time like these we learn to love again…”

Sincerely,

Shannon

Night

 

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To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”

~ Wendell Berry

Good morning friends,

This morning I present to you night 🙂 We’ll begin with a lyrical appreciation of the night by Paul Bogard. Next, we’ll visit David Whyte’s poem ‘Sweet Darkness.’ Following this we will explore the science of why it as dark at night, as well as why we need the dark in order to optimize our health and well-being. Tara Brach’s sleep mediations will compliment this. Next, I’ve included Elie Wiesel’s searing account of his dark night(s) of the soul during his years imprisoned in Auschwitz. To conclude we will visit the cinematography of the night sky, and listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s tribute to the dark, ‘The Sound of Silence.’

The Writing: Paul Bogard (From The End of Night)

“I had travelled from Spain into Morocco and from there south to the Atlas Mountains, at the edge of the Sahara Desert…one night, in a youth hostel that was more like a stable, I woke and walked out into a snowstorm. But it wasn’t the snow I was used to in Minnesota, or anywhere else I had been. Standing bare chest to cool night, wearing flip-flops and shorts, I let a storm of stars swirl around me. I remember no light pollution, heck, I remember no lights. But I remember the light around me-the sense of being lit by starlight- and that I could see the ground to which the stars seemed to be floating down. I saw the sky that night in three dimensions- the sky had depth, some stars seemingly close and some much farther away, the Milky Way so well defined it had what astronomers call “structure”, that sense of its twisting depths. I remember stars from one horizon to another, making a night sky so plush it still seems like a dream.

It was a time in my life when I was every day experiencing something new. I felt open to everything, as though I was made of clay, and the world was imprinting on me its breathtaking beauty (and terrible reality.) Standing nearly naked under that Moroccan sky, skin against the air, the dark, the stars, the night pressed its impression, and my lifelong connection was sealed…

With my naked eye, on nights the moon climbs slowly, sometimes so dusted with rust and rose, brown, and gold tones that it nearly drips earth colors and seems intimately braided with Earth, it feels close, part of this world, a friend. But through the telescope, the moon seems- ironically- farther away…the gray-white moon in a sea of black, its surface in crisp relief, brighter than ever before. I am struck too, by the scene’s absolute silence…

These are maybe the most exciting stars, those just above where sky meets land and ocean, because we so seldom see them, blocked as they usually are by atmosphere…and, as I grow more and more accustomed to the dark, I realize that what I thought were still clouds straight overhead aren’t clearing and aren’t going to clear, because these are clouds of stars, the Milky Way come to join me. There’s the primal recognition, my soul saying, yes, I remember…

My feeling is that an observer needs to see four hundred and fifty stars to get that feeling of infinitude, and be swept away…and I didn’t make that number up arbitrarily, that’s the number of stars that are available once you get dimmer than third magnitude. So in the city, you see a dozen stars, a handful, and it’s attractive to no one. And if there’s a hundred stars in the sky it still doesn’t do it. There’s a certain tipping point where people will look and there will be that planetarium view. And now you’re touching that ancient core, whether it’s collective memories or genetic memories, or something else form way back before we were even human…

One night David Saerte was ten years old and walking home at night in the dark, and he walked into the Lutheran church where his family worshiped. The church was unlocked, dark; there was no one there. He walked right up to the altar. ‘I was still pretty young,’ he says, ‘because I knew that all the alters in the church were ‘the holy.’ You didn’t go there. As far as I knew I might be struck down dead, I might be violating something sacred. I remember feeling the paradox of exhilaration and fear. Much, much later, the first time I read Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, in which he describes religious experience as the mysterium tremendous et fascinates – that is, the encounter with the mystery that causes you to tremble with fear and yet is so fascinating or compelling that you cannot help being called to it – I said, ‘I know what that is.’ To stand in the presence and tremble and remain fascinated without being consumed, that is just the classic religious experience of holy fear.’

‘Does that relate to our fear of the dark?’ I ask.

‘It is precisely pertinent to how we regard darkness,’ he explains, ‘because it was represented, especially in the West, the ultimate encounter with the dark and our need to again find an unambiguous light so that we don’t have to face the kind of holy fear of death. What I would call a necessary fear.’

‘Could you say ‘good fear?’’

‘Yes, good fear, valuable fear. It makes me think of the No Fear brand of clothing that was so popular awhile back. I asked a student one day, ‘What does that mean too you? Why are you wearing that logo?’ And some of the students then started talking about taking risks, and to be really alive you have to have no fear. And I said, ‘Bullshit. If you are really, really alive, you are scared shitless and you do it anyway. You get on that surfboard, you climb that wall. If you have no fear, you have no experience. So absolutely take the risks: Go backpacking, go whitewater kayaking, and know the fear. In fact, put that on your shirt: Know Fear.’’

‘It’s the same thing with sadness,’ I say.

‘Instead of no sadness it is ‘know sadness,’ If you don’t become intimate with sadness, you cannot be intimate with yourself or others or the world.’

‘Know darkness?’

‘Absolutely.’”

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~ Near Zion National Park, Utah

 

“They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.” 

― Cormac McCarthy

 

The Poetry: David Whyte

SWEET DARKNESS

By David Whyte

When your eyes are tired

the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone,

no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark

where the night has eyes

to recognize its own.

There you can be sure

you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your home

tonight.

The night will give you a horizon

further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.

The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds

except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet

confinement of your aloneness

to learn

anything or anyone

that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

 

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“Let your darkness be your candle and your boundaries be your quest.”

~ Rumi

The Science:  Hugh Wilson and watch this sweet little film about The Surprising Science of Why It’s Dark at Night.

THE POWER OF DARKNESS (From The Guardian)

By Hugh Wilson

     For many of us, night has become day. We work, travel, shop, exercise and socialize in hours that used to be reserved for relaxation and sleep. Time is a limited resource and, to make full use of it, the night has been illuminated and occupied. Even when we do sleep, street lamps and security lights pierce the darkness.

     But our freedom from the natural constraints of day and night may have come at a price. According to a growing band of scientists and doctors, many of us are no longer getting enough darkness in our lives. The theory is based on a simple premise. Our biological rhythms evolved in a time before artificial light, to take advantage of both bright days and dark nights. By succumbing to the temptations of 24-hour living, and ignoring or reducing our natural dark time, we could be putting our health at risk.

     “A number of health and environmental problems are due to a loss of darkness,” says Dr David Crawford, executive director of the International Dark-Sky Association, a group that campaigns against light pollution. “And it will get worse as we creep – or rush – to a 24/7 world. All of life, all of it, has evolved with a day/night cycle – the circadian rhythm. It’s essential to good health. Many studies are now showing that those who go without a true day/night cycle are adversely impacting their immune systems, and that’s not good.”

     It’s not good, but it’s becoming the norm. More than 20% of the working population now work at least some of the time outside the 7am-7pm day. Global travel, the internet, job insecurity, 24-hour shopping and TV, and – coming soon – late-night pubs and bars, all help to push back the boundaries of the active day. To remain active at night we need light, with the result that the natural circadian cycle of day and night, light and dark, is becoming perilously unbalanced. We are creating a conflict between what we want to do, and what our internal timekeeper – the body clock – prepares us for.

     “Our biological clock has been likened to the conductor of an orchestra, with the multiple rhythms of the body representing the various sections of that orchestra,” says Russell Foster, professor of molecular neuroscience at Imperial College, London, which later this month hosts the first international sleep conference. “The body clock adapts us for the varying demands of activity and rest. It ensures our internal synchronicity: that our various internal systems – temperature, alertness, blood pressure and so on – are working together. And the body clock sets itself using the light/dark cycle. By moving to 24-hour living, and reducing or ignoring the dark bit, we are effectively throwing away the advantages of millions of years of evolution.”

     The effects of screwing up our body clocks are most readily observable in the growing army of night workers. Studies suggest that, even after years of night shifts, many workers never adjust to a regime that pitches them against our basic and hard-wired biology. Instead, they head wearily home to bed just as the morning light is prompting their body clocks to prepare for activity, and back again when the gathering dusk tells them to prepare for rest.

     Once at work, overriding the craving for dark and sleep comes at a price. “They activate the ‘fight or flight’ stress mechanism,” says Foster, “and we know that stress in turn can suppress the immune system.” Bright lights, caffeine and nicotine artificially maintain stimulation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies show that nightshift workers are at increased risk of a range of health problems, from stress, constipation and stomach ulcers to depression, heart disease and cancer. For example, a 2001 study in Seattle, based on interviews with 800 women, found that females who worked the graveyard shift could face a 60% increase in the risk of breast cancer.

     There is another theory that tries to explain the high incidence of breast and colo-rectal cancers in shift workers, however. Melatonin is called “the Dracula hormone” because it always comes out at night. But its production can be severely reduced by bright artificial light. The effects of melatonin on health are not properly understood, but a number of scientists, particularly in America, are connecting low levels of melatonin with high levels of certain cancers in nightshift workers. One study presented to the American Association for Cancer Research found that melatonin can slow tumour growth by up to 70% in mice infected with human breast cancer cells. When the mice were subjected to constant light, cancer growth rocketed.

     Some have taken it further. George Brainard, a neurologist at Thomas Jefferson University in Pennsylvania, has recommended that we all exercise a “prudent avoidance” of light at night to ensure normal levels of melatonin whether we work night shifts or not. Brainard’s research has shown that the human body clock can be affected by light of short wavelength, which is more prevalent in artificial light used at night. It also showed that melatonin production was reduced by just this sort of short wavelength light. Until recently, it was believed that only daylight was strong enough to influence our internal systems.

     On the back of this, another researcher has advised parents not to let children sleep with the light on because of a potential – though unproven – connection between artificial light at night and childhood leukaemia. The incidence of leukaemia in children under five rose by 50% in the second half of the 20th century, leading some scientists to point the finger at our increased reliance on artificial light. “I would not myself use a nightlight in a kid’s bedroom unless there is a reason for it for safety,” said Richard Stevens, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Connecticut, after a conference on childhood leukaemia in London last autumn. “There is interesting evidence about melatonin having properties that would lead to reduction in cancer risks, so the possibility that this might be related to childhood leukaemia is important.”

     Foster, on the other hand, believes that many of these claims are “overselling” the evidence of melatonin’s anti-cancer properties. “It’s true that melatonin is suppressed by light, but in reality we don’t really know what effects it has on health. Its anti-cancer properties are a long way from being established as fact,” he says. “My opinion is that the suppression of the immune system is much more likely to explain cancer rates in shift workers.”

     Nevertheless, most scientists agree that our rush to turn night into day must be having some effect on our health, even if we don’t work the graveyard shift. “We now know that we are sensitive to the sort of light levels we readily expose ourselves to in the evening,” says Dr Derk-Jan Dijk, director of the Sleep Research Centre at Surrey University. “We’re not quite sure what the impact is, but we know that even ordinary room light can have an effect on our physiologies.”

A television that flickers all night in a child’s bedroom … street lighting that spills through curtains … “There’s not enough research on these things at the moment,” says Dijk, “but it’s certainly a concern. Ideally, we should all be sleeping in darkened rooms. And don’t forget, in the natural situation, in which we evolved, dark really did mean dark.”

     For the general population, the most pressing problem stemming from ubiquitous artificial lighting and 24-hour living is sleep deprivation. The absence of true, continuous darkness could be affecting the quality of our sleep. It’s certainly affecting the quantity. We are stretching the boundaries of day at one end, without being able to stretch the boundaries of night at the other.

“I think the critical issue is that sleep has been greatly delayed by our invasion of the night,” says Foster. “So we try to manipulate our body clocks with stimulants and sedatives. Caffeine and nicotine keep us awake. Alcohol and hypnotics counteract them when we want to sleep. It’s a worrying cycle and the 24-hour society promotes it.”

     Humans have known for a long time that banishing the dark from our lives has a powerful effect. “Don’t forget,” reminds Dijk, “continuous light has long been used as a method of torture.”

 

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~ New Mexico

 

“Night is not something to be endured until dawn. It is an element like wind or fire.”

~ Patricia McKillip

 

The Strategy: Sleep mediation by Tara Brach

Here is a link to more sleep meditations

“God how the stars did fall.”

~ Cormac McCarthy

The Spiritual: Elie Wiesel (From “Night”)

     “I was twelve. I believed profoundly. During the day I studied the Talmud, and at night I ran to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the Temple. One day I asked my father to find me a master to guide my studies of the cabbala.

     ‘You are too young for that. Maimonides said it was only at thirty that one had the right to venture into the perilous world of mysticism. You must first study the basic subjects within your own understanding.’ He wanted to drive the notion out of my head. But it was in vain. I found a master for myself, Moche the Beadle.

     He had noticed me one day at dusk, when I was praying.

     “Why do you weep when you pray?’ He asked me, as though he had known me a long time.

     “I don’t know why,” I answered, greatly disturbed. The question had never entered my head. I wept because – because of something inside me that felt the need for tears. That was all I knew.

     ‘Why do you pray?’ He asked me, after a moment.

     ‘Why did I pray?’ A strange question. Why did I live? Why did I breathe?

     ‘I don’t know why,’ I said, even more disturbed and ill at ease. ‘I don’t know why.’

     After that day I saw him often. He explained to me with great insistence that every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer.

     ‘Man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him,’ he was fond of repeating. ‘That is the true dialogue. Man questions God and God answers. But we don’t understand His answers. We can’t understand them. Because they come from the depths of the soul, and they stay there until death. You will find the true answers, Eliezer, only within yourself.

     ‘And why do you pray, Moche?’ I asked him.

     ‘I pray to the God within me that that He will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions.’

     We talked like this nearly every evening. We used to stay in the synagogue after all the faithful had left, sitting in the gloom, where a few half-burned candles still gave a flickering light…

     Then one day they expelled all the foreign Jews from Sighet. And Moche the Beadle was a foreigner…

[Jump to later in the book when Weisel and his father have been brought to a concentration camp]

     In front of us flames. In the air that smell of burning flesh. It must have been about midnight. We had arrived –  at Birkenau, reception center for Auschwitz..

     Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

     Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

     Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

[…]

     The summer was coming to an end. The Jewish year was nearly over.

     On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the last day of that accursed year, the whole camp was electric with the tension which was in all our hearts. In spite of everything, this day was different from any other. The last day of the year. The word ‘last’ rang very strangely. What if it were indeed the last day?

     They gave us our evening meal, a very thick soup, but no one touched it. We wanted to wait until after prayers. At the place of assembly, surrounded by the electrified barbed wire, thousands of silent Jews gathered, their faces stricken.

     Night was falling. Other prisoners continued to crowd in, from every block, able suddenly to conquer time and space and submit both to their will.

     ‘What are You, my God,’ I thought angrily, ‘compared to this afflicted crowd, proclaiming to You their faith, their anger, their revolt? What does your greatness mean, Lord of the universe, in the face of all this weakness, this decomposition, and this decay? Why do You still trouble their sick minds, their crippled bodies?’

     Ten thousand men had come to attend the solemn service, heads of the blocks, Kapos, functionaries of death.

     ‘Bless the Eternal…’

     The voice of the officiant had just made himself heard. I thought at first it was the wind.

     ‘Blessed be the Name of the Eternal!’

     ‘Why, but why should I bless Him? In every fiber I rebelled. Because he had thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept six crematories working night and day, on Sundays and feast days? Because in His great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death? How could I say to Him: ‘Blessed art Thou, Eternal, Master of the Universe, Who chose us among the races to be tortured day and night, to see our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end in the crematory? Praised be Thy Holy Name, Thou Who hast chosen us to be butchered on Thine altar?’

I heard the voice of the officiant rising up, powerful yet at the same time broken, amid the tears, sobs, the sighs of the whole congregation:

     ‘All the earth and Universe are God’s!’

     He kept stopping every moment, as though he did not have the strength to find the meaning beneath the words. The melody choked in his throat.

     And I, mystic that I had been, I thought:

     ‘Yes, man is very strong, greater than God. When you were deceived by Adam and Eve, you drove them out of Paradise. When Noah’s generation displeased You, You brought down the flood. When Sodom no longer found favor in Your eyes, you made the sky rain down fire and sulphur. But these men here, whom You have betrayed, whom You have allowed to be tortured, butchered, gassed, burned, what do they do? They pray before You! They praise Your name!’

     ‘All creation bears witness to the Greatness of God!’

     Once, New Years Day had dominated my life. I knew that my sins grieved the Eternal; I implored his forgiveness. Once, I had believed profoundly that upon one solitary deed of mine, one solitary prayer, depended the salvation of the world.

     This day I had ceased to plead. I was no longer capable of lamentation. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone – terribly alone in a world without God and without man. Without love or mercy. I had ceased to be anything but ashes, yet I felt myself to be stronger than the Almighty, to whom my life had been tied for so long. I stood among that praying congregation, observing it like a stranger.’

PRAYER By Elie Weisel (from this On Being interview in 2006.

   “I no longer ask you for either happiness or paradise; all I ask of you is to listen and let me be aware and worthy of your listening. I no longer ask you to resolve my questions, only to receive them and make them a part of you. I no longer ask you for either rest or wisdom, I only ask you not to close me to gratitude, be it the most trivial kind, or to surprise and friendship. Love? Love is not yours to give.

     As for my enemies, I do not ask you to punish them or even to enlighten them; I only ask you not to lend them your mask and your powers. If you must relinquish one or the other, give them your powers, but not your countenance.

     They are modest, my prayers, and humble. I ask you what I might ask a stranger met by chance at twilight in a barren land. I ask you, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to enable me to pronounce these words without betraying the child that transmitted them to me. God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, enable me to forgive You and enable the child I once was to forgive me too.

     I no longer ask you for the life of that child, nor even for his faith. I only implore you to listen to him and act in such a way that you and I can listen to him together.”

 

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~ Flagstaff, Arizona
“Hello darkness my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.”

~ Simon and Garfunkel

 

The Cinematic: Night Skies by Nigel Stanford

The Musical: The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel

The Question: How could you deepen your relationship with the dark?

 

Here the climax of the darkening is reached. The dark power at first held so high a place that it could wound all who were on the side of good and of the light. But in the end it perishes of it’s own darkness, for evil must itself fall when it has overcome the good, and thus consumed the energy to which it owed its duration.”

~ I Ching

 

I wish you appreciation of both and the light and the dark today.

Sincerely,

Shannon

Sadness

 

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~ Painted Desert, Arizona

 

“Someone I loved once gave me

A box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

That this too was a gift.”

~ Mary Oliver

 

Good morning friends,

Because I think it is meaningful to explore the entire human experience, we will visit sadness today. We’ll start with the beautifully unusual ideas of Mary Ruefle, and her allocation of colors to different forms of sadness. Then, we’ll read poet, Ranata Suzuki’s wishes that sadness was more visible. Next, we’ll hear two poems from Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke. Following these we’ll learn about the benefits of sadness from Dr. Joseph P. Forgas. Tara Brach and John Thomas Wood will offer methods to navigate sadness. In the spiritual vein, Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart will share his thoughts on God’s allowance of pain and sadness, and Rainer Maria Rilke will encourage us to see sadness as a process of transformation. We’ll conclude with the abstract and ethereal, “If Melancholy Were Music,” and “Through the Dark” by Alexi Murdoch.

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The Writing: Mary Ruefle (From this Brain Pickings article)

Blue sadness is sweetest cut into strips with scissors and then into little pieces by a knife, it is the sadness of reverie and nostalgia: it may be, for example, the memory of a happiness that is now only a memory, it has receded into a niche that cannot be dusted for it is beyond your reach; distinct and dusty, blue sadness lies in your inability to dust it, it is as unreachable as the sky, it is a fact reflecting the sadness of all facts. Blue sadness is that which you wish to forget, but cannot, as when on a bus one suddenly pictures with absolute clarity a ball of dust in a closet, such an odd, unshareable thought that one blushes, a deep rose spreading over the blue fact of sadness, creating a situation that can only be compared to a temple, which exists, but to visit it one would have to travel two thousand miles on snowshoes and by dogsled, five hundred by horseback and another five hundred by boat, with a thousand by rail.

Purple sadness is the sadness of classical music and eggplant, the stroke of midnight, human organs, ports cut off for part of every year, words with too many meanings, incense, insomnia, and the crescent moon. It is the sadness of play money, and icebergs seen from a canoe. It is possible to dance to purple sadness, though slowly, as slowly as it takes to dig a pit to hold a sleeping giant. Purple sadness is pervasive, and goes deeper into the interior than the world’s greatest nickel deposits, or any other sadness on earth. It is the sadness of depositories, and heels echoing down a long corridor, it is the sound of your mother closing the door at night, leaving you alone…

Gray sadness is the sadness of paper clips and rubber bands, of rain and squirrels and chewing gum, ointments and unguents and movie theaters. Gray sadness is the most common of all sadnesses, it is the sadness of sand in the desert and sand on the beach, the sadness of keys in a pocket, cans on a shelf, hair in a comb, dry-cleaning, and raisins. Gray sadness is beautiful, but not to be confused with the beauty of blue sadness, which is irreplaceable. Sad to say, gray sadness is replaceable, it can be replaced daily, it is the sadness of a melting snowman in a snowstorm.

Red sadness is the secret one. Red sadness never appears sad, it appears as Nijinsky bolting across the stage in mid-air, it appears in flashes of passion, anger, fear, inspiration, and courage, in dark unsellable visions; it is an upside-down penny concealed beneath a tea cozy, the even-tempered and steady-minded are not exempt from it, and a curator once attached this tag to it: Because of the fragile nature of the pouch no attempt has been made to extract the note…

Green sadness is sadness dressed for graduation, it is the sadness of June, of shiny toasters as they come out of their boxes, the table laid before a party, the smell of new strawberries and dripping roasts about to be devoured; it is the sadness of the unperceived and therefore never felt and seldom expressed, except on occasion by polka dancers and little girls who, in imitation of their grandmothers, decide who shall have their bunny when they die. Green sadness weighs no more than an unused handkerchief, it is the funeral silence of bones beneath the green carpet of evenly cut grass upon which the bride and groom walk in joy.

Brown sadness is the simple sadness. It is the sadness of huge upright stones. That is all. It is simple. Huge, upright stones surround the other sadnesses, and protect them. A circle of huge, upright stones — who would have thought it?

Pink sadness is the sadness of white anchovies. It is the sadness of deprivation, of going without, of having to swallow when your throat is no bigger than an acupuncture pin; it’s the sadness of mushrooms born with heads too big for their bodies, the sadness of having the soles come off your only pair of shoes, or your favorite pair, it makes no difference, pink sadness cannot be measured by a gameshow host, it is the sadness of shame when you have done nothing wrong, pink sadness is not your fault, and though even the littlest twinge may cause it, it is the vast bushy top on the family tree of sadness, whose faraway roots resemble a colossal squid with eyes the size of soccer balls.

Orange sadness is the sadness of anxiety and worry, it is the sadness of an orange balloon drifting over snow-capped mountains, the sadness of wild goats, the sadness of counting, as when one worries that another shipment of thoughts is about to enter the house, that a soufflé or Cessna will fall on the day set aside to be unsad, it is the orange haze of a fox in the distance, it speaks the strange antlered language of phantoms and dead batteries, it is the sadness of all things left overnight in the oven and forgotten in the morning, and as such orange sadness becomes lost among us altogether, like its motive.

Yellow sadness is the surprise sadness. It is the sadness of naps and eggs, swan’s down, sachet powder and moist towelettes. It is the citrus of sadness, and all things round and whole and dying like the sun possess this sadness, which is the sadness of the first place; it is the sadness of explosion and expansion, a blast furnace in Duluth that rises over the night skyline to fall reflected in the waters of Lake Superior, it is a superior joy and a superior sadness, that of revolving doors and turnstiles, it is the confusing sadness of the never-ending and the evanescent, it is the sadness of the jester in every pack of cards, the sadness of a poet pointing to a flower and saying what is that when what that is is a violet; yellow sadness is the ceiling fresco painted by Andrea Mantegna in the Castello di San Giorgio in Mantova, Italy, in the fifteenth century, wherein we look up to see we are being looked down upon, looked down upon in laughter and mirth, it is the sadness of that.

In each of the color pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.

Ranata Suzuki

     “The thing you have to understand about deep sadness is – it’s a form of pain. It’s emotional pain and it is just as real and just as detrimental as physical pain, except that it’s harder to treat and it often lasts longer.

It’s one of those things that you can so easily fall into and never climb out of. It traps you, it isolates you… and people don’t understand it. They try… but they get frustrated or hurt when they don’t seem to make a difference after a while. For some reason physical pain is far more accepted by other people because there’s often evidence of it they can physically see like a wound or a scar, whereas emotional pain is looked upon as self-indulgent or just a plain old negative attitude.

I wish it was something people could see so they could understand it better… It would be so much easier if that heaviness you feel was a physical thing, like literal baggage you had to carry around with you instead of just the emotional kind… Because if it was something sizable that physically weighed you down, people could understand why it’s so hard to get out of bed in the morning.

It would be so much easier if sadness caused your face to dry out and go brittle… just so it would crack and bleed whenever you smiled. Perhaps then people would see how much it hurts when everyone else around you to laughs and smiles and you feel you have to as well so you can fit in.

Or perhaps if sadness caused your eyesight to darken and happiness was a blinding light that burnt your eyes if you suffered from it, people would understand why we so often look away or avoid happy people altogether.

But it’s one of those things nobody can see and you can never put into words for anybody else to understand but you – and that is precisely why it is so isolating. Sometimes the most helpful and understanding thing somebody can do for you is simply accept that you suffer from something they can’t understand, and not expect more than you’re capable of. I know that without physical evidence, deep sadness is difficult to understand… but acceptance is just as helpful. To know that how you’re feeling is accepted by somebody – even if they don’t understand it – takes away that constant pressure to pretend to be how you think people want you to be so you can focus your energy into healing at your own pace.”

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~ Hope, British Columbia

The Poetry: Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke

 

HEAVY

By Mary Oliver

That time

I thought I could not

go any closer to grief

without dying

I went closer,

and I did not die.

Surely God

had his hand in this,

as well as friends.

Still, I was bent,

and my laughter,

as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.

Then said my friend Daniel,

(brave even among lions),

“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it –

books, bricks, grief –

it’s all in the way

you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,

put it down.”

So I went practicing.

Have you noticed?

Have you heard

the laughter

that comes, now and again,

out of my startled mouth?

How I linger

to admire, admire, admire

the things of this world

that are kind, and maybe

also troubled –

roses in the wind,

the sea geese on the steep waves,

a love

to which there is no reply?

 

***

 

THE PANTHER

By Rainer Maria Rilke

 

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,

has grown so weary that it cannot hold

anything else. It seems to him there are

a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,

the movement of his powerful soft strides

is like a ritual dance around a center

in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils

lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,

rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,

plunges into the heart and is gone.

 

The Science: By Joseph P. Forgas

Four Ways Sadness May Be Good for You

Sadness is not usually valued in our current culture. Self-help books promote the benefits of positive thinking, positive attitude, and positive behaviors, labeling sadness as a “problem emotion” that needs to be kept at bay or eliminated. Evolution must have had something else in mind, though, or sadness wouldn’t still be with us. Being sad from time to time serves some kind of purpose in helping our species to survive. Yet, while other so-called “negative emotions,” like fear, anger, and disgust, seem clearly adaptive—preparing our species for flight, fight, or avoidance, respectively—the evolutionary benefits of sadness have been harder to understand…until recently, that is.

With the advent of fMRI imaging and the proliferation of brain research, scientists have begun to find out more about how sadness works in the brain and influences our thoughts and behavior. Though happiness is still desirable in many situations, there are others in which a mild sad mood confers important advantages.

Findings from my own research suggest that sadness can help people improve attention to external details, reduce judgmental bias, increase perseverance, and promote generosity. All of these findings build a case that sadness has some adaptive functions, and so should be accepted as an important component of our emotional repertoire.

Here are some of the ways sadness can be a beneficial emotion:

  1. Sadness can improve your memory.

In one field study, we found that on rainy, unpleasant days that produce bad mood people had a much better recollection of details of objects they had seen in a shop. On bright, sunny days when people felt happy their memory was far less accurate in an identical situation. It seems that positive mood impairs, and negative mood improves attention and memory for incidental details in our environment.

In another experiment, my colleagues and I showed participants a photo of either a car crash scene or a wedding party scene.Later, we asked participants to recall happy or sad memories from their past, in order to shift their mood. They then received some questions about the photos,  that were manipulated so that the questions either did or did not contain misleading or false information, such as “Did you see the stop sign at the scene?”—when there was no stop sign, only a yield sign. We later tested their eyewitness memory, and found that participants in a negative mood were better able to accurately remember original details, ignoring misleading information, while participants in positive moods made more mistakes.

This experiment points to a basic psychological fact: What we remember about the past can be greatly altered by subsequent misinformation. It seems that negative mood reduces the likelihood that later false information will distort the original memory.

So, being in the right mood can help improve our recollections. Research like ours consistently finds that happiness can produce less focused and attentive processing and so increases the chances of misleading information being incorporated into memory, while a negative mood improves attention to detail and results in better memory.

2.    Sadness can improve judgment.

Humans constantly make social judgments, trying to read social cues in order to understand and predict others’ thoughts and behaviors. Unfortunately, these judgments can often be wrong, in part because of a number of shortcuts and biases that can lead us astray.

We repeatedly find that people are more likely to make social misjudgments due to biases when they are happy. When happy or sad participants in one study were asked to detect deception in videotaped statements of people accused of theft (who were either guilty or not guilty), participants in negative moods were more likely to make guilty judgments— but they were also significantly better at correctly distinguishing between deceptive and truthful suspects.

In another experiment, participants rated the likely truth of 25 true and 25 false general knowledge trivia statements, and, afterwards, they were told if each claim was actually true. Two weeks later, only sad participants were able to correctly distinguish between the true and false claims they had seen previously. Those in happier moods tended to rate all previously seen claims as true, confirming that a happy mood increases—and a sad mood reduces—the tendency to believe that what is familiar is actually true.

Sad moods reduce other common judgmental biases, such as “the fundamental attribution error,” in which people attribute intentionality to others’ behavior while ignoring situational factors, and the “halo effect,” where judges tend to assume a person having some positive feature—such as a handsome face—is likely to have others, such as kindness or intelligence. Negative moods can also reduce another judgmental bias, primacy effects—when people place too much emphasis on early information and ignore later details.

So negative mood can improve the accuracy of impression formation judgments, by promoting a more detailed and attentive thinking style.

3.    Sadness can increase your motivation.

When we feel happy, we naturally want to maintain that happy feeling. Happiness signals to us that we are in a safe, familiar situation, and that little effort is needed to change anything. Sadness, on the other hand, operates like a mild alarm signal, triggering more effort and motivation to deal with a challenge in our environment.

Thus, people who are happier will sometimes be less motivated to push themselves toward action compared to someone in a negative mood, who will be more motivated to exert effort to change their unpleasant state.

We put this to the test by showing participants either happy or sad films—and then assigning them a demanding cognitive task with many difficult questions. There was no time limit, which allowed us to measure their perseverance by assessing the total time they spent on the questions, the number they answered, and the number they answered correctly. We found participants who were happy spent less time, attempted fewer items, and scored fewer correct answers than did participants we put in a negative mood, who spontaneously made more effort and achieved better results.

This suggests that a sad mood can increase and happy mood can reduce perseverance with difficult tasks, possibly because people are less motivated to exert effort when they already experience a positive mood. Sad mood in turn may increase perseverance as people see greater potential benefits of making an effort.

4.    Sadness can improve interactions, in some cases.

In general, happiness increases positive interactions between people. Happy people are more poised, assertive, and skillful communicators; they smile more, and they are generally perceived as more likable than sad people. However, in situations where a more cautious, less assertive and more attentive communication style may be called for, a sad mood may help. In one study, participants who first viewed happy or sad films were unexpectedly asked to go and request a file from a person in a neighboring office. Their requests were surreptitiously recorded by a concealed tape recorder. Analyses showed that the sad mood produced more polite, elaborate, and hedging requests, whereas those in a happy mood used more direct and less polite strategies.

Why would this be? In uncertain and unpredictable interpersonal situations, people need to pay greater attention to the requirements of the situation to formulate the most appropriate communication strategy. They must be able to read the cues of the situation and respond accordingly. Sad people are more focused on external cues and will not rely solely on their first impressions, which happy people are more inclined to trust.

In other experiments, we found that people in a sad mood are also more persuasive, produce more effective and concrete arguments to support their position, and are better able to convince others than are people in a positive mood.

Here’s another example: In social science experiments, researchers use the ultimatum game to study things like cooperation, trust, and generosity. They give players money and tell them to allocate as much as they want to another person who has the power to accept or reject the offer. If the offer is rejected, neither side gets anything. Past research has found that those in the giver role are not simply driven by maximizing benefits for themselves. However, the impact of mood on such decisions has not been previously measured.

My colleagues and I asked participants to play the ultimatum game after they’d been induced to feel happy or sad. We measured how long it took for them to make their allocation decisions and how much they gave. Those in sad moods gave significantly more to others than did happy people and took longer to make their decisions, suggesting that they paid greater attention to the needs of others and were more attentive and thoughtful in making their decisions. In addition, when researchers looked at receivers in the game, they found that those in a sad mood were also more concerned with fairness, and rejected unfair offers more than did those in the happy condition In other words, mood can also influence selfishness and fairness.

Sadness is not depression

Though much has been made of the many benefits of happiness, it’s important to consider that sadness can be beneficial, too. Sad people are less prone to judgmental errors, are more resistant to eye-witness distortions, are sometimes more motivated, and are more sensitive to social norms. They can act with more generosity, too. The benefits of sadness have their limits, of course. Depression—a mood disorder defined, at least in part, by prolonged and intense periods of sadness—can be debilitating. And no one is suggesting that we should try to induce sadness as a way of combating memory decline, for example. Research does not bear out the benefits of doing this. But my research does suggest that mild, temporary states of sadness may actually be beneficial in handling various aspects of our lives. Perhaps that is why, even though feeling sad can be hard, many of the greatest achievements of Western art, music, and literature explore the landscape of sadness. In everyday life, too, people often seek ways to experience sadness, at least from time to time—by listening to sad songs, watching sad movies, or reading sad books.

Evolutionary theory suggests that we should embrace all of our emotions, as each has an important role to play under the right circumstances. So, though you may seek ways to increase happiness, don’t haphazardly push away your sadness. No doubt, it’s there for good reason.

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~ From “The Sad Book” by Michael Rosen

 

“Do not turn away.

Keep your eyes on the bandaged place.

That is where the light enters you.”

~ Rumi

 

The Strategy: Tara Brach and John Thomas Wood

Tara Brach (From Radical Acceptance)

     “The way begins with accepting absolutely everything about ourselves and our lives, by embracing with wakefulness and care our moment-to-moment experience. By accepting absolutely everything, what I mean is that we are aware of what is happening within our body and mind in any given moment, without trying to control or judge or pull away. I do not mean that we are putting up with harmful behavior – our own or another’s. This is an inner process of accepting our actual, present-moment experience. It means feeling sorrow and pain without resisting. It means feeling desire or dislike for someone or something without judging ourselves for the feeling or being driven to act on it.

     Clearly recognizing what is happening inside us, and regarding what we see with an open, kind and loving heart, is what I call Radical Acceptance. If we are holding back from any part of our experience, if our heart shuts out any part of who we are and what we feel, we are fueling the fears and feelings of separation that sustain the trance of unworthiness. Radical Acceptance directly dismantles the very foundations of this trance.

     Radical Acceptance flies in the face of our conditioned reactions. When physical or emotional pain arises, our reflex is to resist it… Feeling fear or anger or jealousy means something is wrong with us, that we are weak or bad.

     When we get lost in our stories, we lose touch with our actual experience… When we are caught in the trance of unworthiness, we do not clearly recognize what is happening inside us, nor do we feel kind… As we lean into the experience of the moment – releasing our stories and gently holding our pain or desire – Radical Acceptance begins to unfold. The two parts of genuine acceptance – seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion – are as interdependent as the two wings of a great bird. Together, they enable us to fly and be free.

     The wing of clear seeing is often described in Buddhist practice as mindfulness. This is the quality of awareness that recognizes exactly what is happening in our moment-to-moment experience. When we are mindful of fear, for instance, we are aware that our thoughts are racing, that our body feels tight and shaky, that we feel compelled to flee – and we recognize all this without trying to manage our experience in any way, without pulling away. Our attentive presence is unconditional and open – with whatever arises, even if we wish the pain would end or that we could be doing something else. That wish and that thought become part of what we are accepting. Because we are not tampering with our experience, mindfulness allows us to see life “as it is.” This recognition of the truth of our experience is intrinsic to Radical Acceptance: We can’t honestly accept an experience unless we see clearly what we are accepting.

     The second wing of Radical Acceptance, compassion, is our capacity to relate in a tender and sympathetic way to what we perceive. Instead of resisting our feelings of fear or grief, we embrace our pain with the kindness of a mother holding her child. Rather than judging or indulging our desire for attention or chocolate or sex, we regard our grasping with gentleness and care. Compassion honors our experience; it allows us to be intimate with this moment as it is. Compassion makes our acceptance whole-hearted and complete.”

John Thomas Wood

     “Sunday morning, Year 77.

     I come here to the edge of the continent with my canvas beach chair and my dog. I am here for my morning exercises. I am reading my own mind.

     I settle down three feet from the cliff edge, 80 feet above the ocean at Point Loma. I watch the brown pelicans gliding without an effort just two feet above the surface of the green water. I see the waves, unconscious of time, swelling, breaking, rolling in on the rocks. The surfers are here, a quarter mile out on bone colored boards wet and slick like seals, waiting for their time. Way out, a couple of miles maybe, I spot a rhythmic spray of seawater a few meters straight up. The gray whales are making their annual pilgrimage to the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez to bear their young. In and out, in and out, their breathing. I listen to my own.

     I am mindful of my experience here, looking west until I see no more. I think about the sadness enveloping loss, my own pesky expectations of others, my anger growing from hurt and I turn thoughts over in my hand like small beach rocks. Now I decide to let them go – no, to give them away.

     I give my sadness to the horizon. I watch it float away toward Japan, smaller and smaller until I can’t see it at all. I give my expectations to the pelicans and they glide away with it. My anger I donate to the waves and the waves cover it with white foam and it sinks to the bottom, sleeping with the fishes.

     Some might call this meditation, this clearing out. I don’t call it anything. I’m just improving my thinking, reading my mind.

     The ocean is SO big. There is so much room out there, to let things be. I am of so little consequence to the ocean. The sea would envelop me, absorb me, with no notice at all. This is why the ocean is of so much solace to me; it can take me without resistance, without care.

     My mind improvement this early morning is to allow my sadness, expectations and anger to be of the same tiny consequence to my bigger self as I am to the ocean.

     Breathe, I remind myself.”

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~Tofino, British Columbia

The Spiritual: Meister Eckhart and Rainer Maria Rilke

Meister Eckhart: What We Should Do When God Hides Himself and We Cannot Find Him (From Selected Writings)

     You should know too that a good will cannot fail to find God, although the mind sometimes feels that it misses him and often believes that he has departed. What should you do then? Do exactly the same as you would if you were experiencing the greatest consolation: learn to do the same in the greatest suffering, and behave in exactly the same way as you did then. There is no better advice on how to find God than to seek him where we left him: do now, when you cannot find God, what you did when you last had him, and then you fill find him again. But a good will can never lose God or fail to find him…

     However great your suffering may be, if it first passes through God, then he must first endure it. Indeed, in the truth which God is, no suffering which befalls us is so minor, whether it be a kind of discomfort or inconvenience, that it does not touch God infinitely more than ourselves and does not happen to him more than to us in so far as we place it in God. But if God endures it for the sake of the benefit for you which he has foreseen it, and if you are willing to suffer what he suffers and what passes through him to you, then it takes on the colour of God, and shame becomes honor, bitterness is sweetness and the deepest darkness becomes the clearest light… The light shines in the darkness, and then we become aware of it. But what good is the teaching or the light for people unless they use it? It is when they are in darkness or suffering that they will see the light.

Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters From A Young Poet

    “Dear Mr. Kappus, celebrate Christmas in this devout feeling, that perhaps He needs this very anguish of yours in order to being; these very days of your transition are perhaps the time when everything in you is working at Him, as you once worked at Him in your childhood, breathlessly. Be patient and without most solemn bitterness, and realize that the least we can do is to make coming into existence no more difficult for Him than the earth does for spring when it wants to come…

     I want to talk to you again for a little while, dear Mr. Kappus, although there is almost nothing I can say that will help you, and I can hardly find one useful word. You have had many sadnesses, large ones, which passed. And you say that even this passing was difficult and upsetting for you. But please, ask yourself whether these large sadnesses haven’t rather gone right through you. Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad…

     If only it were possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered into us… we can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters into us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens.

     So you mustn’t be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than you have ever seen; if an anxiety like light and cloud shadows , moves over your hands and everything that you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hands and won’t let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work those conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transition and you wished for nothing so much as to change.

     If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien … in you … so much is happening now; you must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like someone who is recovering; for perhaps you are both. And more: you are also the doctor, who has watch over himself. But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait. And that is what you, insofar as you are your own doctor, must now do, more than anything else.

     It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing. That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, — is already in our bloodstream. And we don’t know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside.

     The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate; and later on, when it “happens” (that is, steps forth out of us to other people), we will feel related and close to it in our innermost being. And that is necessary. It is necessary — and toward this point our development will move, little by little — that nothing alien happen to us, but only what has long been our own. People have already had to rethink so many concepts of motion; and they ill also gradually come to realize that what we call fate does not come into us from the outside, but emerges from us. It is only because so many people have not absorbed and transformed their fates while they were living in them that they have not realized what was emerging from them; it was so alien to them that they have not realized what was emerging from them; it was so alien to them that, in their confusion and fear, they thought it must have entered them at the very moment they became aware of it, for they swore they had never before found anything like that inside them. Just as people for a long time had a wrong idea about the sun’s motion, they are even now wrong about the motion of what is to come. The future stands still, dear Mr. Kappus, but we move in infinite space.

     We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

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~ California Condor, Grand Canyon, North Rim

 

The Cinematic: If Melancholy Were Music by Fabrizio Paterlini

The Musical: “Through the Dark” by Alexi Murdoch

The Question: What have you learned about yourself during periods of sadness?

    “And if there is one more thing that I must say to you, it is this: Don’t think that the person who is trying to comfort you now lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes give you much pleasure… If it were otherwise, [she] would never have been able to find those words.” (~Rilke)

With friendship.

Sincerely,

Shannon