How do we define our values after an election that tested them?

It’s been hard not to think a lot about values during these days following the election. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that “If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values…all reality hinges on moral foundations…” With those moral foundations so profoundly shaken, can Americans still believe in shared values?

Difficult times test people’s values, and the election proved to be one of those times. Many of us trusted that shared values of love, respect, kindness and honesty would guide people’s decisions. But as I wrote several weeks ago, people often vote with their toddler brains, not their adult brains. Competing values, or alternative interpretations of values, prevailed.

Values can be organized a couple of different ways. We can talk about core vs. satellite values, with core values being the ones you are most strongly attached to, the ones you would fight or die for; and satellite values being ones that are more loosely held and amenable to change. We can also define values as being either instrumental or terminal. Instrumental values are those personal characteristics and traits that guide us, such as honesty and courage, while terminal values are those related to goals or outcomes like having a job that will allow you to support your family.picture1

People’s core values usually don’t change much over time; they are central to who you are. But what if you have to choose between upholding one or another of your core values? Then what? That collection of core principles must be subject to some sort of hierarchy of importance. Is having enough money more important than religion? Some people make that choice when deciding whether to work on the sabbath. Is spending time with your family more highly valued than your career? Many of us have to make that choice.

In much the same way, if we look at values using the instrumental/terminal construct, there might come a time when you perceive that a choice is necessary between upholding an instrumental value, such as respect for others or yourself, and a terminal value, such as getting the job you want.

What do we do when we are tested like that? I could say that I would never sacrifice my core values of respect for others, belief in religious freedom, and teaching our children  loving kindness — no matter which other core value was at risk. But perhaps not everyone feels they have that luxury. Or maybe they just see it through a different lens.

When they cast their votes, did people think that they could temporarily set aside the values of respect, knowledge, inclusiveness and truth, and get them back later? Did they realize that they were making that trade-off for only a promise of something better, not a guarantee? What happens when we are tested again?

This might be a good time for all of us to consider the constitution. Not the U.S. Constitution, but our personal constitutions. A personal constitution is a written clarification of values, a way of identifying and prioritizing core and satellite values.  Your constitution can be just a paragraph that describes in your own words what you believe in and what it means to live by your values. That statement, says Stephen Covey, “becomes the criterion by which you measure everything else in your life.” It’s your guidebook for challenging times and moral tests.

If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values. Start with the constitution, your constitution. Let it be your foundation for the next four years and beyond.

 

 

“We write to taste life twice”

Mark Zuckerberg looks forward to the day when the camera, rather than the text box, will be the main way we share on social networks. What would that mean for the future of words and the experience of writing?

When I read Zuckerberg’s comment, I had already been thinking about how less rich our communication is now that we so rarely write letters to each other anymore. Handwritten letters were on a list of objects and ideas in American Magazine last November that are “teetering on the edge of extinction” (along with cursive handwriting and proper grammar!) I realize that communication consists of a myriad of nonverbal elements, and that a picture is often “worth a thousand words”, but do we value words, especially written words, enough anymore?printed words

In the American Magazine piece, Amy Burroughs writes that letters have been a rich historical source of “information about the way people lived, loved, learned, fought, created, and died…In their own words, in unguarded candor and confidence, letters reveal the day-to-day experience of real individuals.” I know from my own experience that I communicate differently in writing than I do when speaking. I am more likely to say what’s in my heart and to express my emotions, and less likely to worry about sounding “cool.”

When I was a young adult, I moved across the country a couple of times, leaving friends and family behind. In those days shortly before the internet exploded onto the scene, we wrote letters back and forth to stay in touch. Two years ago, when I was moving yet again, I spent some time going through a huge box of those letters that I had saved. The thing that struck me the most was how thoughtful all of my friends were. They spent a considerable amount of time, and care, writing their letters, and it shows. The letters are smart, funny and clever. Many of them are several pages long. Some of them are from younger people I worked with, which touches me now, realizing that I must have had some impact on their lives.

I also have the privilege of being in possession of much older letters, some written by distant family members back in the 1800s, others by parents, grandparents and cousins. The letter that my father-in-law wrote as he shipped out of New York harbor on his way to fight in Europe during World War II is especially poignant. He reflects on his entire life as he departs, not knowing when he will see his family again. More quotidian are the letters from my mother-in-law to her mother while she was living in Toronto and expecting her first child (my husband). They detail her struggles with making friends, her shopping and decorating of their apartment, and of course her pregnancy, including the choice of baby names.

jrcletterThe letters are a way for me to know people I never met, or to know the younger selves of people I only knew when they were older. The letters sometimes reflect an optimism that was missing later in their lives. Often the change from optimism to discouragement is recorded in the letters, as with the relative who between the 1830s and 1840s lost 11 of 12 children, divorced his wife, and thought his brother had forgotten him. I’m fascinated by these people, and I wonder if my children and grandchildren might feel the same if they ever come across my old letters and my younger self.

The thing is – I have a lot of old photos too – pictures that might be posted on Facebook if they were taken today. But they only tell me so much. Sometimes I don’t even know the names of the people in the photos, or when exactly they were taken. That wouldn’t be a problem with Facebook tags, but still…what was going on when the photos were taken? What was in their minds, their hearts? We just won’t know without the words to go with them.

People want very much to be heard, not just seen, by others. They want to tell their stories. When Burroughs speaks about the “unguarded candor and confidence” of letter writers, it’s the desire to be heard and known, a desire for intimate retelling, that inspires it. Or as Anais Nin said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

 

 

 

Wouldn’t it be more pleasant to ask for nothing?

Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that the “Santosha” of my blog name means contentment. I write about the struggle to find contentment more than what it means to have it. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca said that “We never reflect how pleasant it is to ask for nothing.” Now I see that I’ve been asking for contentment more than discovering it right here.

One of my favorite yoga teachers, Jo Tastula, says that we tend to focus a lot on what we want to receive, rather than what we want to let go of. She relates this to the season of Fall, and recommends that we consider the image of the tree dropping its leaves. What does that perspective look like? From up in the branches, perhaps it is a relief, or a comfort, to let go of what’s been weighing us down; to be bare and pared down to essentials. The fullness of Fall (imagine a nice round pumpkin or apple) gives way to completion (harvest, year-end). It’s a time to rest, to renew, and to strive less and prepare more.pumpkinsWhile Seneca has a somewhat mixed historical reputation, he is still considered to be one of the first great Western thinkers, and much of what he had to say about emotions is relevant to us today. When he said that “Contentment is achieved through a simple, unperturbed life,” he was talking not only about emotional regulation, but also gratitude, because contentment is impossible without feeling grateful for what we have already. Contentment requires us to stop asking for things, so that we can reflect on what is present. Thanksgiving_23

A recent episode of the comedy TV show “Blackish” demonstrated this idea in a gently humorous way. The main character, Andre, is upset to learn that his daughter is questioning her belief in God. But his own belief often consists of prayers that are requests  — asking God for some action or some thing that he thinks will make him happy. Later in the episode, after a moment of crisis for the family, he realizes the value of what he has and what he almost lost. Then his prayers change, and are about gratitude and thanks. In that moment, he stops striving, knowing that he has what is essential to him.

What would happen if you stopped striving for a while, maybe even shed some dead leaves? Perhaps you’d have time to nourish the truly important parts of your core. Or maybe just have time to breathe, and in that moment, discover santosha.

It seems to me that contentment is about satisfaction, and happiness is about satisfaction-plus. The plus is extra joy, extra pleasure. It’s like dessert at the end of the meal – it’s nice, but you don’t need to have it every day. I’m reminded of two books that I used to read to my kids when they were little. One was called “More, More, More, said the Baby”, and the other was titled “Just Enough is Plenty.” It’s nice to have more, but on many days, simply to be satisfied is enough, in fact it’s plenty.

 

If only this were a Mel Brooks movie

Each new day of the 2016 presidential election campaign makes me feel more as if I’m in some sort of psychocomedy like the movie “High Anxiety“, only instead of a hospital for the “very, very nervous” we have an entire nation on the edge of its seat, unsettled, uncertain, unhappy and yes, very nervous.

Plato said that “a good decision is based on knowledge,” but he also said that “human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowedge.” And when it comes to elections, emotion might have the upper hand. Psychologist Steven Sosny, writing in Psychology Today, says that we suffer from election stress partly because the “toddler brain” hijacks the “adult brain.” Adult thinking is rational and calm, while toddlers make impatient and sometimes greedy choices based on emotions.

A lot of people are already locked in to their candidate. Often such certainty is emotional, says Sosny, not intellectual. That’s why it’s becoming virtually impossible to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you politically. In fact, just today in The Washington Post, there was an article about how geographically and socially polarized we are politically. People who would have discussed the elections with friends and co-workers in prior years are staying strictly away from such conversations this year.

A study of the 2012 presidential election found that voters don’t always want to feel responsible for the outcomes of elections, especially independent and undecided voters. The harder it was for a person to decide on a candidate, the more likely they were to ascribe the outcome of the election to fate.  In addition, stress hormone levels might even impact voter turnout. Research published in 2014 found that people who have higher baseline levels of the stress hormone cortisol are less likely to participate in voting, while those with lower baseline levels are more likely to vote. In other words, people who have a lower tolerance for stress don’t want to engage in what is an inherently stressful process.door-number

The stress continues into the voting booth. Israeli researchers found that cortisol levels just prior to casting a vote were twice as high as people’s baseline levels and even higher in people whose candidate was predicted to lose. This year, with the rollercoaster we’ve been on, it’s hard to say when we last experienced baseline stress levels. No wonder I’m hearing more and more people say, “I just wish it were over!”

Following a 2004 election in Taiwan, about 10% of the population was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, labeled “post-election stress syndrome.” And in this country, we usually see advice after election day on how to deal with these “blues”. This year, however, our high anxiety and election coverage fatigue might call for some pre-election stress relief. So what might help?

  • Going on a complete media “fast” for a few days.
  • Getting your news from print sources rather than TV or radio, which tend to be more hyped.
  • Focusing on your own life. The truth is that the election outcome won’t affect your day-to-day routine at all, at least not right away. So take comfort in that and use your emotional resources there.
  • Doing a loving kindness “just like me” meditation. The hardest thing for those of us who feel passionate about a candidate is recognizing that those on the “other side” want the same things we want, deep down. Focusing on the ways that they are “just like me” can help.

If the election really were a Mel Brooks movie, it would end with all the bad guys getting their comeuppance and all the good guys living happily ever after. In real life and politics, it’s not that simple. But at least we know that we can do it all over again in 4 more years.

Give up or let go? What’s the difference?

Why do we give up? Why do we surrender, admit defeat, part ways with somebody or something, or stop hoping for a positive outcome? Maybe it’s because sticking with it is too hard, or it takes too long, or because we’re tired of failing. Sometimes we decide that we’re just not strong enough to see something through, or we just don’t care enough.

That’s very different from letting go, at least in the Buddhist sense of letting go. Letting go means easing up on the tightness with which we hold onto people, things or ideas. It means relinquishing our hold on how we want things to be, and instead knowing that we have given our best effort and now we accept what happens. Thich Nhat Hanh has written:

…for many of us, even when we are most joyful, there is fear behind our joy…We are afraid of things outside of ourselves that we cannot control…We try to hold tight to the things we care about — our positions, our property, our loved ones. But holding tightly doesn’t ease our fear. Eventually, one day, we will have to let go of all of them.

Letting go can be a lot scarier than giving up. When you give up, you can stop thinking about the person, thing or  idea, and just eliminate it from your life. Letting go, on the other hand, means realizing that you don’t have control over everything, and you might have to live with and accept an outcome that is different than what you hoped for. You don’t stop caring when you let go of the outcome.

How can the feelings of caring very deeply about something, while at the same time having no control over it, co-exist? To Jon Kabat-Zinn, letting go is “allowing things to be as they are.” That means being a witness to one’s fears and insecurities, being fully aware of those feelings, and being able to live peacefully with them. How hard is that?!

Without a doubt, a really strong mindfulness practice is a good place to start the process of letting go: The practice of looking deeply inside and not being afraid of what arises, but rather noting it and letting it go by. But that’s not enough. We also have to be able, in that stillness, to move from worry and unease to comfort and joy. Not an easy task!

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that instead of running from the present moment because of the difficulties we face there, we instead try to remember all the positive things in life, which usually are greater. Maybe it’s the smiling face of a loved one, a particular place that brings you peace, or some accomplishment of which you are proud. There is an exercise in a stress workbook that I have, which can help identify both the things in life that drain your energy (the difficulties and worries) as well as the things that fill you with energy and revitalize you. These are the things you want to bring attention to:

Drainers and Fillers

Once you go through this process of identifying what aspects of your life are either filling you with joy and energy, or sapping your strength, you can make decisions. There might actually be things on the left side (drainers) it would make sense to give up on. There will be others on which you’ll want to loosen your grip and try to live with more peacefully. The fillers will help you do that — you’ll remember who is there to support you, what brings you joy, and where you find meaning in your life. The fillers will provide the images you turn your thoughts to during meditation. They will help you remember the wide open space in front of you, and all of the possibility that exists beyond your fears.

Six ways to tend your emotional garden

Emotional wellbeing depends on regular nourishment, not unlike a flower or vegetable garden you cultivate. While vacations, sabbaticals and spa days are great, they’re the emotional equivalent of trying to maintain a garden just on the weekends or at the change of season — things might look okay, but they’re not thriving spectacularly with just that level of care. Most of us require more routine weeding and watering to maintain a high level of emotional wellness.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that our consciousness exists as seeds and as the manifestation of those seeds. We may have seeds of happiness, seeds of anger, seeds of sadness. But it’s the ones we “water” that manifest, and when they manifest they plant more seeds like themselves. Whatever is manifested the most takes up more space in the garden. Do you want it to be weeds or flowers?2016-07-21 16.59.10

You plant seeds during your own life, and also may have inherited seeds from previous generations. You may have a legacy of sadness or anxiety in your family, as well as seeds of joy or peace. Because of this blend of both inherited tendencies, and personal ones, the actions we take make a difference. Can you live in a way that will nurture the positive, healthy seeds rather than the negative ones?

People often overseed their lawns in the fall, so that new grass will come up in the spring and crowd out the weeds. So should we look for ways to overseed with the more positive emotional states that we desire, or as  Thich Nhat Hanh says, build “a strong storehouse of healthy seeds” to help us during times of trouble. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Have a place (a sort of safe space) that you go to regularly to re-generate. A special room in your home, a park, a church, a meditation space. I often regard the yoga studio this way – someplace where the outside world does not intrude, and the surroundings are peaceful.
  • If you are lucky, you’ll have at least one person in your life that you can confide in without judgment or recrimination. Sometimes we need to express things that are painful, shocking, or even hateful. Just because you have nasty emotions sometimes doesn’t make you a nasty person. It helps to have a space where you can rid yourself of these weeds.
  • If you don’t have such a person, or even if you do, you can also engage in expressive writing for health. Writing your story, for your eyes only, can be very healing. There’s some recent research from John Evans showing positive benefits.
  • Practice acts of kindness toward others. Seeing yourself in the eyes of someone you help or treat with love, feeling their gratitude, will scatter more seeds of love and kindness in your life and the lives of those around you.
  • And as for those around you, to the extent possible, surround yourself with people who are positive and loving. Yesterday, when I started to write this, I got a call from a friend who is one of the friendliest, most positive people I know. We made a plan to meet later in the week. When the call was ending, she said, “You’ve made my day!” but I was thinking, “No, you made my day.”
  • Practice living more mindfully and being present to the people and opportunities around you. Even when you are with loving friends and family, it’s important to be with them mindfully. Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to “practice full awareness in each precious moment” you are together, so that your friend isn’t just “ameliorating your suffering” but also planting a strong image in your mind that you can call upon to sustain you later on when you are not with her.

These practices become even more important when we are surrounded by so much turmoil 4-Co. Kerry-Killarney NP (10)and angry rhetoric in our world. The volume of that discourse could easily fertilize the seeds of anger, hate and misunderstanding within us if we let it. Change has to begin within each one of us, planting seeds of love instead. Remember Gandhi’s words, “There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.”

 

Warning: This could be habit forming

There are many people I know who subscribe to the belief that if you want to establish a particular daily habit, it’s best to do it as soon as you get up in the morning. A teacher of mine has the habit of writing first thing in the morning, my husband insists that exercising in the morning is the only way to make sure he does it, and most regular meditators say that it’s important to establish that practice upon rising. You could say it’s the Nike model: Just do it.

But here’s my typical morning when I don’t have to rush out: get up, drink a cup of coffee while reading the newspaper, eat breakfast with a second cup of coffee, have more coffee while doing the crossword puzzle…you get the idea. Can I possibly get into a different morning routine that allows me to accomplish more?

It’s tough to change habits. What we forget when we talk about establishing a “good” habit is that we usually have to eradicate a “bad” habit first. As a health educator, I’m frequently advising people on healthy eating, exercise and stress management, but even though they may have an intention to change, their habits of mind get in the way. If I examine my own life, and think about changes I’ve wanted to make, how often have I made progress? How often have I achieved my goal? And how often have I done that on my first try? Rarely, if at all.

Research has shown that as much as 40% of our daily activity is performed in exactly the same way each day. In other words, much of our time is spent acting automatically. This is great, in the sense that you don’t have to think about how to brush your teeth every time you do it, but it makes it tough if you actually do want to change how you brush your teeth!geisha

We have two parts of our minds competing against each other. One is the intentional mind, which is goal-directed. This is the part we want to activate if we’re trying to lose weight, finish a project, or train for a marathon. The other part is the habitual mind, and it operates mostly outside of our awareness, helped by neurochemicals in the brain that allow habits to take over. We need the goal-directed part to be in charge long enough to get a new behavior established, then hope that the habitual mind kicks in and makes the behavior automatic. But how can we accomplish that?

According to social psychologist Wendy Wood, we first have to derail the existing habit and create an opening for a new one to take root. Because habits form through associative learning, a change in environment can often be a way to derail an old habit because  the cues for the behavior disappear. Some examples might be moving, changing jobs or hanging out with a different group of people.

What are some of the things that cue behavior? Many smokers say that they always have a cigarette when they have a drink. The drink is the cue for the cigarette – take away the drink, and maybe they are less likely to smoke. For others, watching TV is a cue to start snacking. So if you substitute another activity for TV viewing, you derail the snacking habit.

After creating opportunity and letting the intentional mind set a goal, it’s all about repetition. Studies show that it can take anywhere from 15-254 days for a new habit to be established. So repeating the behavior frequently is important, as is creating a consistent context in which it happens. In other words, we need to have new cues in the environment that trigger the new behavior.

It can take a while to figure out the new cues. When I moved a couple of years ago, I found that my writing habit was disrupted because my desk suddenly wasn’t a place where I could write anymore. Only after I began writing at the kitchen table was I able to consistently be productive. Then I could let repetition turn it into habit.chains

The theologian Tryon Edwards once wrote,

Any act often repeated soon forms a habit; and habit allowed, steady gains in strength, At first it may be but as a spider’s web, easily broken through, but if not resisted it soon binds us with chains of steel.

While chains of steel sound a little scary, they’re exactly what our healthy habits need. Unfortunately, they’re also what makes it so hard to break the bad ones.