A “small” thing

I’ve read about this, but it never happened to me before.

Late yesterday afternoon I was driving home from the bay area. I’d been up at 6:30 to attend a second day of Dharma teachings. The weather was fine, traffic was moving, I was listening to a decent audio book, but a wave of fatigue overtook me, and all I could think of was stopping for a stretch and caffeine at a Starbucks up the road.

I pulled up behind a small truck and half a dozen cars at the Benicia Bridge tollbooth. The truck seemed to take forever getting through, as if there was an argument about the toll. With some mixture of fatigue and (hopefully) the wisdom I had absorbed from the teachings, I waited patiently, and finally reached the window. I handed a five dollar bill to the cashier.

“No need, sir,” she said. “The lady ahead of you paid your toll.”

As I said, previously, this was something I had only read about before. I was suddenly wide awake, wondering how I could pass the gift on. Carry $10 next time I came to that bridge and pay for the stranger behind me, yes, but what about day to day actions? I don’t cross toll bridges often, and as I felt the effect of that small gesture ripple through me, all I could think of was how to pass it on.

“Don’t bother trying to save the world,” one of the lamas had said. “What right choice is in front of you now?”

What a powerful question, and how worthwhile it is to keep it in mind!

Posted in Buddhism, Culture, Inspirational, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

Imagining outcomes

This morning, I attended the funeral of a friend’s mother. She lived to be 92, had 14 great-grandchildren, was happily married for 49 years, and was lucid and even cracking jokes with those at her bedside until almost the end.

Almost everyone I talked or listened to commented on her outlook – positive, even when facing adversity. How central that seems to have been to this life well lived!

I’ve been thinking a lot about attitudes recently – actually almost daily, without coming to any clear conclusions. Through the course of the year, documented in various posts, I’ve been looking at views and outlooks, my own and others, from the perspective of which are helpful and which are not.

It’s easier to see in others. My mother lost her father when she was in grade school, as the result of a freak accident. I remember my mom in adulthood with a certain wariness, a backward glance over the shoulder, as if wondering when or how the next blow would fall. Be it nature or nurture, I’m coming to see how I carry the same trait, without even any such clear reason why. The good news is that when such things come to consciousness, we can look at them, and in observing they begin to change.

Along these lines, I remember an irreverent joke my father used to tell:

“Once there was a study to determine which children were optimistic and which were pessimists,” my father would begin. “One day a group of observers came through for a tour. In the first room they visited, a boy was crying his eyes out, even though the room was a virtual toy store, with shiny new bikes and every kind of playing you could imagine.

‘What’s wrong?’ one of the observers asked.

‘Everything’s so nice,’ the boy said. ‘I’m afraid I might break something.’

The group moved on to the next room, where they came upon another boy who smiled and sang as he shoveled his way through a mountain of horse manure.

‘How can you be so happy in all of this mess?’ an observer asked.

‘Easy,’ the boy said. ‘With all this shit, there’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!'”

I know which boy I have been for most of my life. I also know which one I aspire to be!

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Character

Morgan Mussell:

Here is a wonderful meditation on character, both general and personal, from Debra, who shares with me a keen interest in the writings and world view of James Hillman. It makes a great companion piece to my previous post on Hillman. Thanks Debra!

Originally posted on The Ptero Card:

“A man’s character is his fate.” Heraclitus (540 BC – 480 BC), On the Universe

“If the final purpose of aging is character, then character finishes life, polishes it into a more lasting image.” James Hillman

Anna Rebecca Smith

If I have felt compelled towards living life closer to the margins, seeking out what is obscure, liminal, or for understanding more deeply the nature of life, I might trace these loose threads back to childhood and the memory of my dear Great, Great Aunt Bunny. The family myth taking root early in my life often compared my oddness to hers. Maybe another child would not have taken the myth to heart and some may say a child should be left without a myth or vision handed down by an ancestor, but I remain grateful.

Although long since passed on, her presence fosters in me a love of life’s oddness. Through the legacy…

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The Soul’s Code by James Hillman

the soul's code

James Hillman (1926-2011), a prolific post-Jungian psychologist, thinker, and cultural critic, wrote more than 20 books, but The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling (1997) is probably his best known work.

In a head-on attack upon the reductionist nature of both the nature and nurture camps of western developmental psychology, Hillman proposes a view of individual destiny based on Plato’s Myth of Er. Are we nothing but helpless products of our mothers in the first year of life or our luck-of-the-draw genetics? Or is there a deeper meaning to how we grow and unfold?

Hillman proposes an “acorn theory,” arguing that each acorn holds the pattern of the oak it may become, just as each soul that enters the world may bear a destiny shaped by intelligence rather than random chance: “what is lost in so many lives and what must be recovered [is] a sense of personal calling, that there is a reason I am alive.”

Hillman expounds his theory in a number of biographical sketches. He writes of Manolete, the most famous bullfighter of 20th century Spain. As a child, he was sickly and frail. “He stayed so much indoors and clung so tightly to his mother’s apron strings that his sisters and other children used to tease him.” Then, at the age of 11, he became fascinated with bulls.

Current psychology theory would hold that Manolete chose a macho vocation to compensate for his mama’s-boy childhood. Hillman wonders if somewhere deep inside, was “the acorn” that realized his destiny was to face down charging, thousand pound bulls, including the one that gored him to death at age 30. Of course that was too frightening a vision for a boy of 8 or 9 to hold!  Of course he held tight to his mother!

Hillman also discusses the childhood of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the 20th century’s most influential women. As a child, Eleanor was “funny,” as well as “sullen, stubborn, spiteful, [and] sour…She lied; she stole, she threw antisocial tantrums in company.”

She lost her mother, a brother, and her “playboy father” before she was nine, but all the while carried on a vivid fantasy, “the realest thing in my life,” in which she lived with her father in a large household and traveled the world with him.

Psychotherapy would have regarded her fantasies as delusions and prescribed psychotropic medications to try to return her to normal. But what of the possibility that her visions meant something? What if her fantasies were “invented by her calling,” Hillman asks, and “were indeed more realistic in their orientation than her daily reality.”

“Imagination acted as a teacher, giving instruction for the large ministering tasks of caring for the welfare of a complex family, of a crippled husband, of the state of New York as the governor’s wife, the United States as its first lady, and even of the United Nations. Her fantasies of attending to “Father” were a preliminary praxis into which she could put her call, her huge devotion to the welfare of others.

Hillman is always provocative, inviting us to look deeper into, or “see through” the ideas that limit soul and it’s individual expression. Psychological literalism is often in his crosshairs, as when he says, “Our lives may be determined less by our childhood than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods.”

James Hillman, 1926-2011

James Hillman, 1926-2011

The Soul’s Code is a challenging book, but valuable as it sheds new light on many unquestioned assumptions about development, the individual, and destiny that need to be questioned.

Posted in Authors, Book Reviews, Books, Imagination, Myth, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The end of Longmire?

From the A&E Longmire Facebook page

From the A&E Longmire Facebook page

I’ve devoted only one of 645 posts to a television show, Longmire, because the series is exceptional. Walt Longmire, a rural Wyoming sherif, is haunted by his wife’s murder. Each week we see him try to keep peace with his own demons, with his daughter, his employees, and the neighboring Cheyenne reservation, while solving crimes and capturing desperadoes.

Though the show has a solid viewer base, A&E cancelled the series two weeks ago. TV Guide reports that Longmire viewers are too far over the hill. With an average age of 61, apparently we don’t by as much stuff as the sought-after 19-49 year old demographic.

“It was losing money for us,” said one A&E executive. “It’s a business.”  No one thought the decision was based on quality…

All may not be lost. As one of the top 25 television shows of the summer, Warner Brothers is putting together a presentation to other cable networks to continue with a fourth season for Longmire. I hope they succeed so I don’t have to spend my “golden years” recalling the good old days when television was occasionally intelligent.

Posted in Culture, Entertainment, Television | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Lend a hand—49 things you can do to make a difference

Morgan Mussell:

Russel so often brings us magnificent photos, but here he gives something else – suggestions that are in reach, things we can do in the face of the glut negativity that greets us each morning in the papers and the news.

Originally posted on Russel Ray Photos:

Inspiration

For those who continue to rant about things over which you have no control, I would suggest getting out in your community and volunteering.

Scott #2039 VoluntarismMy life has been full of volunteerism, so much so that too often I let the unpaid volunteer job interfere with the paid professional job. I started with Key Club in high school, then Alpha Phi Omega National Co-ed Service Fraternity at Texas A&M University, and then to Red Cross, American Heart Association, Special Olympics, Muscular Dystrophy Association, and many, many others.

Following are 50 things you can do to help the world. I have done them all at some point in my life. Don’t let your ego get in the way of contributing to your neighborhood and city. Keep in mind that businesses have liability concerns, so the type of services that you’re allowed to volunteer for might be limited in some circumstances.

  1. Scott #1788 Special OlympicsPick a…

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About Affirmations

“Affirmations are simply the practice of repeating to yourself what you want to achieve while imagining the outcome you want.” – Scott Adams

For a long time, the word “affirmation” brought to mind, “Every day in every way, I am getting better and better.” When you see it in print like that, it’s hard to believe and easy to dismiss. The phrase was created by Emile Coué (1857-1926), a French psychologist and pharmacist who developed a method of psychotherapy based on autosuggestion.

Later, when I studied the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, I found a broader concept of affirmations and why certain types of suggestions work for certain types of people.  In Scientific Healing Affirmations, (1925), Yogananda wrote:

“Imagination, reason, faith, emotion, will, or exertion may be used according to the specific nature of he individual – whether imaginative, intellectual, aspiring, emotional, volitional, or striving. Few people know this. Coué stressed the value of autosuggestion, but an intellectual type of person is not susceptible to suggestion, and is influenced only by a metaphysical discussion of the power of consciousness over the body. He needs to understand the whys and wherefores of mental powers. If he can realize, for instance, that blisters may be produced by hypnosis…he can understand the power of the mind to cure disease. If the mind can produce ill health, it can also produce good health.”

Recently, I found an even simpler testimonial to the power of affirmations in Scott Adam’s book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. Discussing affirmations in an earlier book, Adams drew negative email from people who claimed he believed in magic. In two chapters of his latest work, Adams lays out the principles of affirmations without venturing any guesses on why they have worked for him, with the exception of one simple principle:

“The pattern I have noticed is that the affirmations only worked when I had a 100 percent unambiguous desire for success.”

He then summarizes his experience with affirmations, leading up to the big one in his life: “I, Scott Adams, will be a famous cartoonist.”  As the book makes clear, he was already working in the field and committed when he practiced this suggestion.

I recommended How to Fail when I reviewed it, and the chapters on affirmation alone are worthy of another recommendation.

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TED Talks on happiness

Last Friday, August 15, the theme of National Public Radio’s “TED Radio Hour” was “Simply Happy,” and carried the message that “finding happiness may be simpler than you think.” Narrator Guy Raz reviewed the ideas of five speakers whose TED presentations focused on happiness as something that can be cultivated.

Matt Killingsworth, a researcher at UC San Francisco, gathered real-time input from 35,000 people via a simple smart phone app one can register for at trackyourhappiness.org. Several times during the day, volunteers receive three questions on their phones:

1) How do you feel right now?  (on a scale from very good to very bad).
2) What are you doing? (check one of 22 choices).
3) Are you thinking about what you are doing? (as opposed to “mind wandering”).

Killingsworth discovered that 47% of the time, people are thinking of something other than what they are doing (ranging from a high of 65% when taking a shower, to an interesting 10% whose minds wander while having sex).  His finding, across all activities is that “people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering.”  This includes even unpopular tasks like commuting to work.  He concludes that mind wandering is a cause rather than a consequence of unhappiness.”

Though he doesn’t cite the growing interest in mindfulness meditation practice, it’s significant that recent articles in Scientific American have mentioned studies of this practice, including Is Mindfulness Good Medicine, which appeared on the Scientific American blog the day before NPR posted Killingsworth’s findings.

Carl Honore is a journalist and the author of In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed (2005). He claims our world is “addicted to speed” and living “the fast life rather than the good life.” He says his wakeup moment came when he realized he was speed-reading bedtime stories to his young son, compulsively rushing through one of the richest times of his day.

Honore says we are “so marinated in the culture of speed that we almost fail to notice the toll it takes on every aspect of our lives – on our health, our work, our relationships and our community.” For one thing, speed and adrenaline can be exciting. For another there is a strong cultural bias that equates slowing down with being a slacker. One common meaning of “slow” is “not very bright.”

Honore says he still enjoys the fast pace of life as a journalist in London, but he is now “in touch with his inner tortoise,” and doesn’t unconsciously overload himself. “I feel like I’m living my life rather than actually just racing through it. So is it possible? That’s really the main question before us today. Is it possible to slow down? And I’m happy to be able to say to you that the answer is a resounding yes.”

Graham Hill was an early ’90’s internet millionaire by the age of 30. He sold the company he had built with friends, and then filled “the void” he felt inside with stuff:  “I bought a 3,600 square foot home, Volvo sedan, tons of furniture, gizmos, technology, stereos, probably had one of the first MP3 players. You can’t believe how much stuff.”

Unlike most of his wealthy peers, Hill realized his stuff wasn’t making him happy so he got rid of most of it. He now lives in a custom designed, 420 square foot New York City apartment that is wonder of space efficiency:

Hill notes that Americans use three times as much space as we did 50 years ago, yet we have still spawned a $22 billion dollar, 2.2 billion square foot self-storage industry. Other consequences include, “Lots of credit card debt, huge environmental footprints, and perhaps not coincidentally, our happiness levels flatlined over the same 50 years. Well, I’m here to suggest there’s a better way – that less might actually equal more.”

Dan Gilbert, Harvard Psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness (2007), spoke in his talk of the many ways in which our happiness does not depend on circumstances or getting what we want. Humans are resilient enough, he says, to recover from serious trauma, though imagination generally tells us otherwise. Gilbert cited three cases, drawn from a single edition of the New York Times.

Jim Wright, Speaker of the House of Representatives before Newt Gingrich, resigned in disgrace after a scandal involving “a shady book deal.” He lost his position, reputation, and money, but now says, “I am so much better off physically, financially, mentally and almost every other way.”

Pete Best, The Beatles’ first drummer, was replaced by Ringo Starr just before the band became world famous. Still a drummer and studio musician, Best says, “I’m happier than I would’ve been with The Beatles.”

And most dramatic to me was Moreese Bickham, 78, released from prison because of DNA evidence after serving 37 years for a crime he did not commit. Upon release, Bickham said, “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.”

Baring “extraordinary” people like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, we can hardly imagine prison as being worthwhile, let alone “glorious,” but Gilbert uses these and other examples to underline the power that “reframing” events has on our outlook. The stories we tell and the meaning we find in experience are critical. “It is wrong to say that we have no control over our happiness. It is wrong to say that we have complete control over our happiness. We have some input into how happy we will be…We can learn to see events in a constructive and positive way.”

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, has devoted himself to interfaith dialog and the interaction of religion and science. His TED topic was gratitude, as one might expect of a man whose home page is gratefullness.org. He says most people think we are grateful when we are happy, but the opposite is true: gratitude leads to happiness.

He outlines a simple way to cultivate gratitude, beginning with stopping our minds and our busyness to reflect that “You have no way of assuring that there will be another moment given to you. And yet, that’s the most valuable thing that can ever be given to us. We say opportunity knocks only once. Well, think again – every moment is a new gift, over and over again, and if you miss the opportunity of this moment, another moment is given to us, and another moment. We can avail ourselves of this opportunity or we can miss it. And if we avail ourselves of the opportunity, it is the key to happiness.”

Such a simple step, repeated, carries great weight, for Steindl-Rast reflects that grateful people are not fearful, and if we are not fearful, we will not be violent.  “If you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not from a sense of scarcity, and you’re willing to share.If you’re grateful, you’re enjoying the differences between people and you’re respectful to everybody, and that changes this power pyramid on which we live. And it doesn’t make for equality, but it makes for equal respect, and that is the important thing. A grateful world is a world of joyful people, grateful people are joyful people. And that is what I hope for us.”

***

The question of attitudes and habits that lead to wellbeing has emerged as the key theme of theFirstGates this year. I’ve posted ideas from Carl Jung, the Dalai Lama, and Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. Here are five more voices (and more to come) saying that happiness is not an accident, not given to a few select or fortunate people. It is a choice we can all make, a direction we can aim for at any given moment

Posted in Culture, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments