Happy Happy, Joy Joy, Spring is here!

Google Spring doodle

Spring has arrived! If you opened your computer, iOS or Android device this morning and clicked on Google to search something out, you saw the image above. It’s animated, so check it out on Google! Seldom has a Google Doodle lifted my spirits as much!

This has been the most horrendous of winters in the Northeast that most of us can remember. Oldtimers have told me they can’t remember such a span of unending winter misery in New York. It has felt as if the cold and snow and ice would never end. But with the arrival of the vernal equinox today at about 1:00 pm EDT, officially, winter is over! Oh sure, we may get more cold days and even some snow before summer hits, but basically, we’ve made it through the worst, and bluer skies and warm weather await.

Why does it matter so much to us? How much it matters has a lot to do with our biology (genetics predominately) and our temperament. If we are active people who enjoy winter sports, the advent of snow can be cause for celebrating.

snowshoes

We have snowshoes and have been enjoying them this winter, but care must be taken always to be moving forward and use the poles. Failing to do either of these can mean falling into hip-deep snow with virtually no way to get upright again. Nevertheless, I love snowshoeing and look forward to getting to use them again. We may still have sufficient snow in the country to use the snowshoes, but if we have to wait until next winter, I won’t be sorry.

Genetically, we may be prone to depression in the form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Many of my clients struggle with this every year, and sometimes the best we can do about it is to acknowledge that eventually it will end. Some people have told me that in late December when the days grow imperceptibly longer again, they can start to feel that depression lift. There are full-spectrum lighting devices available that mimic sunlight, and a few people I have treated claim they help, but of course, only if they use them. Because it means sitting by the light source for 30 minutes or so, many people don’t find them practical.

If our temperament is anxious, it may have begun to seem that this winter is a personal affront to us, a scheme designed to thwart our best efforts and consign us to misery, forever and ever, amen. If our temperament is depressive, we may feel dumped on by the universe and believe that despite winter always coming to an end in the past, this year, and maybe due to the wacky weirdness of climate change, it will never leave. We may imagine ourselves peering out onto an icy front walk in July. Depression has a way of lying to us and convincing us that whatever misery we currently experience is interminable, permanent.

Life is actually pretty short, in the scheme of things. It seems just as if it were yesterday that our adult kids were babies, for example, or that we ourselves were young and had a vast lifetime of possibilities stretching ahead of us. If we don’t live in the now, we miss our lives. Here’s where mindfulness offers us so much. We need to move with all deliberate speed, meaning proceed on the path without withering by the wayside for too long. Meaning we need to understand what our priorities are because they are what drive us. Meaning we need to go slowly enough to savor the life we are living, even the suffering which is such a great teacher that makes the sweetness in life so much more delicious. “No mud, No lotus”, as Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us.

more to life Gandhi

What have you hoped to accomplish in this life? Have you started to go after the things you still fervently wish for? No? Start now. Begin to write, take a painting class, start a blog, take photographs with your phone and have fun playing around with them on your computer or tablet. Take a class, begin to meditate. Whatever it is, there is a way you can begin to do it, if even only a little bit. Do it! Let go of what anyone else thinks you should or should not do. Listen to your heart and try to let it guide you into a positive new direction, one which aligns with your values and your dreams.

life is short

Those of us who have sat by the bedside of a dying loved one know how short life is. So let’s begin to nail down some goals and take steps toward reaching them. We just don’t know how much time we will have if we delay.

do it now

May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.

And today, this is my practice.

Namaste

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Being the Change We Wish to See in the World

Image

As Mahatma Gandhi said to us, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” What does this mean? Figure out what you feel needs to change in your world and change yourself and your life with its thoughts, intentions and actions accordingly. For example, if we abhor the degrading of our environment, wreaking havoc with our climate, we do what we can to change it. We advocate for sustainable energy and recycle or reuse metal, glass, paper and plastic objects to avoid consigning them to the rising refuse piles on the planet, and we minmize buying products that waste our precious resources. Here in New York City many residents can now compost much of what once ended up in landfills. If we grieve the suffering of farmed animals in the factory production of meats, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products, we buy only humanely raised foods, or as some would deem to be even better, switch to vegan or vegetarian eating, easier to do today than ever. I know, because I have been a fat and sassy vegan for years with no harmful health effects. If we aim to live in a peaceful and conflict-free world, and to be free from anger in the Metta sense, we practice compassionate listening, and we resist the seductive lure of defensiveness and even of playing devil’s advocate, as well as avoiding blatant arguing, righteous indignation and ego-driven defiance. Of course, we may fall short repeatedly, but we can try again and learn over time to eliminate our knee-jerk and hair-trigger reactions to bombast, offensiveness, false accusations and rage, stepping aside to avoid engagement with the fire of that anger lest our own be ignited as well. Fiery anger spreads rapidly through the tinder-dry undergrowth of mindless existence, running along the ground, up tree trunks, onto roofs, and into untended hearts and minds.

the_path_of_life_by_uktara

What is the path we are walking in our lives today? Are we part of the solution, or are we by our advocacy, silent assent or apathy being a part of the very problem we seek to change for the better? When we decide to no longer be a part of angry interactions, inflamed rhetoric, and the need to be right above all else, or the abuse of our fellow sentient beings and the world we share with them, we step onto the path of peace.

TNH beautiful path

Let us find and keep on the beautiful path of peace with every step. Naturally we will stray in our steps, especially at first, but we can with each moment of awareness step back where the peace is, where the love is, where the healing is.

Namaste

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Glass Half Empty, Glass Half Full

Glass-of-water     ruler

How often we assess our assets or liabilities by an arbitrary yardstick. Maybe it’s our finances, or our looks, or perhaps our health. It could be the status of our relationships, or lack thereof. We tend to see ourselves in comparison to others, as well as in comparison to our hopes or expectations for ourselves.

What do we accomplish by judging ourselves by such a yardstick? Does doing so spur us on towards achievement? Or does it contribute to shame and guilt that we do not measure up? Whose yardstick are we using? Our mother’s? Our father’s? Our best friend’s? Or is it our wife’s or husband’s yardstick by which we judge ourselves?

Moviemag

For many of us, we see public figures and have feelings about how we compare to them. We may bemoan our belief that we aren’t as successful, happy or attractive as the people we look up to in this way. Or we might gloat that at least we don’t have a life as filled with unmanageability and disaster as a movie star with many unhappy marriages or a prominent substance abuse problem.

In recovery there are a few pithy slogans worth using by anyone:

              • Identify, don’t compare
              • Compare and despair
              • Don’t compare your insides to anyone else’s outsides

The idea is that we will do far better to see what we have in common with others than to assess whether we are better or worse than they are on any given scale. When we identify, we may feel more empathy and kindness towards others, rather than feeling either smugly superior or sheepishly less-than.  The more we hold another up to ourselves in comparison, the more likely we will feel we fall short. This is in part due to the fact that we know our own shortcomings and deficiencies intimately, whereas we see the best put-together façade the other can possibly put forward.

The half glass of abundance is more than enough when you need less than half a glass. A huge glass half full is more abundant than a tiny glass filled to the brim. What do you need? Can you get what you need through your own efforts or by asking for help? When you keep your needs reasonable and your aims realistic, you will be more likely to have a sense of contentment than if you harbor intense and extreme needs and if you aim for the impossible.

How do we know when we have enough and when we need to keep striving for more of anything, be it love, money, material possessions, power, or acclaim? The answer is a complex one. A monk has his bowl, a robe and perhaps a warm, dry place to lay his head. Anything beyond this may be seen as luxury. Most of us will not live a monastic life, but learning to be content with less can be a gift. During the Great Depression and into WWII, this phrase was popular, and we would do well in this age of diminishing resources to consider it.

Use it Up

Or wear it out,

Make it do

Or do without

Life is short, much shorter than we realize, so let’s see what we can do with what we have. It is far more important who we are than what we have. Our principles and values determine our thoughts, intentions and actions. Living wisely, and helping others to do the same may be the only lasting legacy we leave. Our memory will live on in the minds of our descendants long after our bodies have returned to the earth. Will we be remembered for the good we did, the life we lived, or the things we acquired?

As for me, I am trying each day, imperfectly but sincerely, to live by the Eight Noble Truths. More about them next time!

Noble-8-Fold-Path

Namaste

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Compassionate Listening

listen

Compassionate listening is an important tool in my toolbox, one that needs to be kept sharpened and ready at all times. When it’s allowed to get dull, I can’t be very effective.

In my work as a psychologist, one of the topics that come up most often is that of communication problems in our relationships. Sometimes it is a wife complaining that her husband misconstrues what she says. Or it’s a daughter feeling manipulated when her mother tells her, or doesn’t tell her, family news. At other times it is a woman in the hospital for a serious health problem complaining that her attempts to make herself understood and to ask for what she needs is seen as her being a difficult patient.

We can fail to get our point across, we can be misunderstood, and our motives for what we say can be criticized by those with whom we attempt to communicate. Naturally these ruptures in a true meeting of minds can be painful and frustrating, and sometimes they can trigger anger responses. Similarly, our loved ones, friends and others with whom we interact experience the same frustrations with us at times. It’s just the way it is. Interpersonal communications are often difficult and stressful, partly because we don’t always speak the same language, metaphorically. We “hear” different things than the other person is trying to say.

If we practice meditation, and if we focus on loving kindness, or Metta, towards and for ourselves as well as for others, we become better able to sit and hear what our loved one is saying to us. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested that we say something to a loved one such as, “My darling, I am here for you.”  You may wish to say it another way, but the point is to be able to invite communication from our loved one and listen as he or she speaks to us. We may be very tempted to reply to something that is said, to defend ourselves, to correct the other person, to fight back against a statement that feels harsh with harsh words of our own. But with compassionate listening, we simply hear, listen and stay aware of what we are hearing.

Later on, we may wish to correct something we heard, but during the practice of compassionate listening, we are fully present to listen and listen only. We may be quite surprised, and often pleasantly so, by what we hear. And even when the thing we hear is not so pleasant, it may be that we need to hear it, let it percolate into our being so that we might reflect upon it, and if it is true, to use the opportunity for growth and healing within ourselves.

To work on our compassionate listening skills, this sourcebook by Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Cynthia Monroe and Leah Green offers many useful exercises to help us do it.

Compassionate Listening Sourcebook

The following from Thich Nhat Hanh offers rich food for thought on this topic as well for those who wish to delve deeper:

Deep Listening and Loving Speech, Thich Nhat Hanh

UPDATE: In the two years since I first published this post, I have encountered two more potential impediments to compassionate listening and both relate to aging in my work as a psychologist practicing psychotherapy. Because I’m now a Medicare provider in an area with fewer such providers, my psychotherapy practice embraces more older men and women than ever before. As I and those around me get older I’ve had many personal experiences with these listening impediments as well.

The first impediment is impaired hearing in which the listener mishears or fails to hear all our words and “fills in” what they think we said, sometimes getting it very wrong. Later someone one tells us emphatically that we said thus and so, perhaps something very contrary to our intent or even tragically so, creating a conflict we must now try to resolve, a potential distraction to the sensitive work at hand. It can be extremely frustrating to both speaker and listener for the communicatin to break down simply because one or both parties can’t hear as well as they think they do.

The second impediment is the more frequent word-finding difficulty most older people experience. We all do this from time to time, and as we get older it happens with getter frequency. They may pause as they search for a certain word or familiar phrase, creating a gap in the narrative. A frustrated listener might quickly offer suggestions, and this is can be perceived as a failure to respect the speaker’s competency or autonomy. Another word-finding phenomenon is the speaker reaching into his or her vast vocabulary database, as it were, and pulling out a similar but incorrect word. The listener then wonders what this is supposed to mean and may ask. The response may follow, “You know what I mean!” Perhaps we do, but what if we don’t? Compassionate listening involves seeing and feeling the struggle that others are experiencing and giving them time and space to find their way. If they ask us to suggest a word, we should do so, but with the tentative deference suggesting we leave it to them to confirm or reject our suggestion. I find it helps to offer something like, “I’m having trouble hearing what you’re trying to say. My fault. Would you please try again?”

As we ourselves get older we will do the same sometimes. Our compassion for others with these difficulties will help us be compassionate towards ourselves as we fumble to express ourselves so that our listener understands. And if we have developed compassion towards ourselves by practicing Metta, or loving kindness, we will naturally feel compassion as we listen.

 

keep-calm-and-thank-you-for-listening-32

Namaste

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