A Case for a Daily Reflective Practice

We all have our routines each day: brushing our teeth, dressing ourselves, exercise perhaps, making our coffee. Those routines are largely around caring for our physical selves.

Some may also have a cognitive routine, such as reading the paper, watching the news, reading their book, or a relational practice, such as checking in with a loved one or playing with the dog.   Many have a spiritual routine, such as prayer, meditation or even enjoying being outdoors, or an environmental routine such as tidying the kitchen, checking the weather, closing a window.

In other words, our lives have many facets, and I imagine that few of us actually attend to each domain on a regular and frequent basis. Fortunately, each domain probably does not need daily attention – I’m not going to check my checking account balance every day – but perhaps our routines merit some consideration. For example, we all attend to our physical health every day. Why not our emotional/psychological? Isn’t that equally important?

I never really gave a reflective practice, one where I check in with myself on a psychological, emotional and spiritual level, much thought until the last few years. I was fiiinnne, until I wasn’t. Now I find that some kind of reflection at least 3-4 times per week is not only SOP but also necessary for my psychological well-being. It’s not so much I need my happy-exercise. I find reflection is also important for my learning and processing.

In the old days, I was pretty much in my head 24/7, thoughts whirling constantly.   Now I try to stay present with my mind clear most of the day, with periods where I am still and quiet, and just invite thoughts to enter. Some thoughts I will reflect upon, others I will discard. That reflection time allows my inner thoughts, ideas, and connections to be recognized and processed.

Modern best practices also incorporate reflection into the education process. Part of my education was recent enough to include reflection but part was not. Though the content was vastly different in each case, I do feel that reflection does impact my ability to learn, process and integrate both academic and personal lessons alike.

Those personal lessons may not necessarily come in the form of books and lectures these days. But my life lessons are equally important: What did I learn about myself/others/our world today? How do those lessons impact me or others? What can I do differently or better? What’s a more constructive or productive perspective? How can I help?

I know in our busy lives we don’t have time for one more thing on our To Do list. But I argue: What is really more important than psychological and emotional housekeeping and maintenance? You don’t want your physical (house), financial (bank account), or physiologic (your body) homes crashing down upon you. They each deserve your time and attention. And so does the inner you.

How We Appear To Others

Connections via FaceTime

Connections via FaceTime

Recently, I was talking to Chris on FaceTime and I wasn’t feeling in the best of spirits. I was annoyed and in a pissy mood. I was aware of it but wasn’t at a stage that I wanted to discuss it or where I was able to deal with it to make it go away. So I just thought that I’d put on a cheery face and fake it until I make it.

The connection we had was pretty poor, never helpful for communication even under the best of circumstances and moods. In some kind of cruel, karmic lesson, every word I said came echoing back to me.   Though I felt from my end that I was doing a good job masking my mood, I heard my snippy tone echoing back to me every time I spoke.

I always thought Chris was like a scent hound, picking up parts per million of mood even when I felt I was doing a good job covering it up. I still think he is. But probably equally true is that I’m not as good at that cover up or emotional self-management as I believe myself to be. Then I’m upset or confused when I’m called out on bad behavior when I’m trying so hard to be good.

And so it goes folks. It just doesn’t matter how well you think you’re covering your emotional tracks, your tone, selection of words, body language or energy is going to betray you. Not that you shouldn’t get brownie points for making an effort. Just don’t think you’re getting away with it.

Fortunately for me, I’ve gotten somewhat better over the years at resetting my internal stage. It’s still never as fast or efficient or effective as I’d like it to be, but at least I can do it in a matter of minutes or hours instead of hours and days. If I quit fooling myself into believing I can take a shortcut and fake it so that I can deal with it later, I can actually be more effective at managing my moods in a timeframe that’s helpful.

It’s just like doing my taxes or any other unpleasant task. I’m going to have to do it anyway. I might as well do it right up front instead of creating damage (like incurring late fees or additional paperwork) and fall out, which then gets added to that unpleasant task.

So here’s to a tiny bit less denial about my emotional management and hopes that I can do better the next time. And the time after that. We’re works in progress, after all. That effort to progress is the work that really matters.

Growth and Change a la Scrooge

scrooge

Scrooge

I love the holidays because of the family gatherings. I see my nieces and nephews, and sisters for that matter, all too infrequently and so this sacred tradition means so much to me.   This year I marvel at how much the young people have grown and matured but also at the absence of Mom at the stove and table this year.   Not all the change feels good, but it is necessary.

I’ve written before about change relative to the growth vs fixed mindset. Growth mindset folk believe they can change and adapt, but fixed mindset folk believe they are who they are and that is pretty constant. The former, perhaps unsurprisingly, is more adaptable and resilient. Fixed mindset folk have the belief that they can’t change in response to a challenge and so tend to get stuck following a setback.

I know some folk who are somewhat proud of being of fixed mindset. One in particular felt he was pretty happy with who he was by age 22 and I think mentally and emotionally settled into that developmental stage for the long haul. I’m sure he was terrific at that age since he was pretty terrific 20 years later. But still, now that I’m looking at family members who are currently at that age, it sort of makes me wonder.

Twenty year olds are still mostly “all about me.” It’s about their immediate needs and gratifications, their feelings and desires. They are not financially independent and pretty much do what they want whenever they want.   Most of them still cannot manage their own affairs, like filing their taxes or arranging to get their car fixed. Their relationship management skills can be excellent in some ways, especially socially. However, they are also trying to figure out the balance between intimacy and isolation and learning to create successful relationships. Some may be trying to still identify their sense of self.   They are becoming more conscious.

Imagine a 40- or 50- year old with skills at this level.

A 40 year old normally would be trying to create and nurture things to last, primarily at work and with their children, during this generative stage of life. A successful adult will feel a sense of accomplishment and contribution and eventually will lead to a sense of life fulfillment.

I have no doubt that my young family members will turn out to be pretty amazing at any age, regardless of growth or fixed mindset.   However, the risk to fixed mindset and failure to progress through these developmental stages successfully can result in a shallow existence resulting in bitterness and despair in their old age (think: Ebenezer Scrooge). I hope these kids will learn to continue to grow and create a prosperous life full of meaning. Also, I’m hoping they’ll start to help us do stuff like make appointments or solve complex relationship issues instead of relying on us  into our golden years for daily life management. I also want them to be the kind of people that others can rely on and trust for their growing wisdom, compassion, maturity and resilience.

There’s no need for a crystal ball or a hallucination to know what’s in store for us if we choose to live a shallow and superficial life characterized by self-gratification and isolation. Change is not easy, but it sure beats the alternative.

Merry Christmas everyone.  May your holiday and life be blessed with love, meaning and gratitude, every day.

Resilience Squared

Never underestimate the enemy, as they say. I will add: Never underestimate your loved ones.

I don’t have any enemies that I know of, but even if I did I wouldn’t spend a lot of time thinking about them. Maybe I need to spend more time thinking of my loved ones and their capacity for growth.

I think I’m pretty good at that, generally. But I realized today that I have had a blind spot when it comes to the elderly. My assumption had been that after 50-60 year marriages, the widowers would simply wither away after their wives died.

Anecdotes of this nature abound, but stories of rebirth and flourishing, not so much (at least in my circles). I have witnessed now in 2/3 cases, these widows in their 80’s experience a resurgence in their well-being (the 3rd instance, I just don’t know enough about). It’s not so much that I didn’t think they had it in them, or that people can’t bounce back. Not at all. I just didn’t realize that it can happen late into the golden years.

My sense is that both men have always been pretty resilient. Both were pioneers and adventurers, setting off to unknown and far away lands to start a new life. Both were dutiful husbands for decades in a way that fills me with admiration and wonder.   Both were suddenly on their own rather unexpectedly. But after an adjustment and mourning period, something changed.

Grandad, still mobile and energetic, created a new life at the senior center. Soon he began hitting the town with his buddies. He continued to bake bread for the ladies, and pretty much had a great time.   He created a new life centered around his friends in the community, and lived a very full life for several more years until he passed.

We are almost at the 1 year mark since Mom died. After a difficult year of declining health, Dad had a little procedure that seemed to reverse the course of the illness, rewinding the clock by at least a year. He’s not as mobile as Grandad was, but today his spirits may never have been higher. He’s made a host of new friends and has a cadre of devoted caregivers that literally dote on him. He’s going to be 86 this year.

Dad and I talked about perseverance last night. He and Mom had ventured to this country on their own, knowing no one, mustering internal and external resources that I’m not sure that I possess. That they had the courage to create a prosperous life here with no money and no friends is a testimony to their grit and courage.

I tell my students that we faculty are really no different from most of them. The main characteristic for professional success, in my opinion, is just not giving up. My Mom used to call that stubbornness. I call it grit and perseverance.

Grit has gotten some good press lately. Angela Duckworth, positive psychology professor at University of Pennsylvania, reports that grit is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. I suggest that it’s a predictor for life success as well, as evidenced by our little family. It’s never too late for us to remake our lives and flourish after a setback. That’s living (though aged) proof.

When You Screw Up

“To err is human, to forgive divine”

Yes, both parts of that statement are really really true. But to me, there’s something missing.   It has to do with taking responsibility for our mistakes.

We all make mistakes, but how we respond to the mistake matters. A mistake could be viewed as a temporary setback and localized to that particular incident or types of incidents. This mindset is characteristic of optimists who are  happier (not surprising) and more successful (maybe surprising) compared to pessimists. Pessimists, in contrast, will view mistakes or setbacks as permanent and pervasive. They tend to get discouraged after a mistake and don’t try to make changes because they view those mistakes as permanent flaws rather than something that can be changed.

Regardless of how one views a mistake, the response to the mistake is critically important. One who is resilient will learn from the mistake and grow, while one who is not might wallow in self-pity, martyrdom, anxiety or depression.

A resilient and optimistic person may even turn the mistake into an opportunity. I’ve made many many mistakes in my life, like many folk. However, my better self can sometimes rise to the occasion and respond with integrity, courage and wisdom and perhaps even gain the respect of someone who could’ve become a critic.

What do you do when you make a mistake? Be honest with yourself.

  • Cry
  • Complain
  • Blame yourself
  • Feel bad about yourself or become devasted
  • Hide/avoid or ignore the person that was injured or adversely impacted
  • Blame the person that was injured or adversely impacted
  • Forget the whole thing and move on
  • Apologize endlessly until the injured party is uncomfortable and has to comfort or reassure you
  • Explain and justify your actions
  • Offer a succinct and sincere apology
  • Acknowledge the feelings of the other
  • Do whatever it takes to make it right, going above and beyond if possible

I wish I could say that I always do the bottom 3, but it’s not always the case. However, I do believe I do the right thing sooner and more frequently than I did in the past, though excuses or blame may happen at least fleetingly in my head initially.   Those types of reactions are natural, but most of them are either unhelpful or actually counterproductive. In the moment, they’re psychologically because we can avoid feeling responsible or guilty.  But if we can muster the courage to admit our share of the responsibility and then act accordingly, it is an opportunity to grow both ourself and the relationship.

So perhaps we should recoin that phrase to: “To err is human, to take responsibility divine.”  Only then, can we actually forgive ourselves for being human.

Ripple Effect

Causing waves

Causing waves

I’ve known about the ripple effect for some time now but haven’t given it a whole lot of thought until recently. Here’s an example of the ripple effect: I may decide to change my dress right before I leave for an interview across town, leave a bit later, then get caught right behind an accident that just happened, and then miss the interview, which then impacts my future. A seemingly harmless decision, but with significant downstream consequences.

Another type of ripple is when something seemingly small happens that may affect a lot of people. For example, penicillin was serendipitously discovered by Alexander Fleming. Fleming’s astute observation then changed the course of medicine and pharmaceutical drug discovery.   Climate change is another example of a small shift (say, a 1 degree change in temperature) having far-reaching consequences.

I think back on my life on the events that rippled through my life: A supporting or loving gesture from someone influential in my life, like a loved one or a mentor. The receipt of a grant or award. Failure to get a grant or award. Running into someone at the store. An introduction by a colleague.   Most such ripples were positive, but not all of them.

I now think back on my life and sometimes hear about the ripples I have unwittingly caused. Most often they come from students or my children, but sometimes my friends or family. Usually they mention a conversation or advice that has stayed with them over the years and that has influenced their thinking or course of action.   You never know when something you say or do strikes a chord, good or bad.

Or do you?

I think we can be really much more intentional and proactive about creating the type of ripples that we want to perpetuate. It’s taken me a long time to figure this out since, as an ethnic minority growing up in Texas, I felt mostly invisible and insignificant most of my life. But now that I feel powerful and strong, I know that I have the ability to create lots of small ripples every day.

It’s my responsibility to make sure they’re positive ripples. It’s also my responsibility to use my strengths, talents and passions to do good every day. Blogging is one example of how I try to create positive ripples every day. Helping others along their personal journey through mentoring, teaching and training is another.   So is showing my love to those around me, and being the best possible role model that I can be.

The benefit to me is a feeling of deep meaning and connection to those around me. I feel woven into the fabric of several communities.   Also, the recipients of the ripples reach back to me and create ripples in my life, thus strengthening our connection. Ultimately, I hope to better our little corner of the world, just a smidge. One ripple at a time.

Listening to Your Heart

The scientist in me is unsure about where the voice deep inside me originates.   That voice is different from the part of my brain that thinks and thinks and thinks, sometimes incessantly. I know it’s different because I can only hear it when I shut off the brain.

That deep voice is accessed through quiet reflection. I sit quietly until the noise in my brain subsides, and then I wait.   I’m open to the messages that emerge from within. I examine those messages, and realize that once again that they are my truth.

I have always trusted that voice as my truth and know that this voice is the one that really matters. When I have tough decisions to make, I start with the head, but decide with the heart. I’ve learned long ago that once I hear that inner voice, I am compelled to obey it. I have never regretted the choices or doubted the wisdom that comes from within.

That inner voice used to be used mainly for big decisions, but now that I’ve decreased the ongoing, seemingly endless running dialog in my brain, the wisdom of my heart is more evident each day. I also go into the quiet reflective space more frequently and intentionally to access my creativity. For example, when I sit down to blog and don’t know what to write, there I go. After over 2 years of blogging, I never have writer’s block when I can access that voice.

Given how much I rely on that inner voice, looking back I feel somewhat embarrassed for having ignored her for so long. My head makes pretty good decisions most of the time. The problem though is that my head is often hijacked without my knowledge by my irrational emotional self. In this event, that irrational self is making the decisions but the head is justifying and rationalizing the crazy as something sane. My inner self sees through all the BS and senses the truth.

Now you think I’m schizophrenic. Now I think I’m schizophrenic. That’s OK, my inner voice tells me that’s what makes being human so darn interesting.