The Purpose of the Moment

In The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, authors Berg and Seeber remind us that academia used to be a place where faculty had time to think and reflect.  Academic research was once done for the sake of expanding our general understanding of the world and ourselves, and not necessarily reduced to a commodity as it is today.  This is referred to as “research capitalism”, originally put forth by Coleman and Kamboureli, where academic researchers are in the business of new knowledge, a market driven by the funding agencies.  Academic focus is no longer on scholarship, they argue.  Instead, the priority is “faculty compliance with institutional imperatives,” which is increasingly involved with raising grant money.

This erosion of reflective inquiry to the tide of academic goals and imperatives parallels a much larger loss from our lives.   Our modern selves subscribe to the virtue of busyness, where we seem to equate busy or productive with important.  You may be familiar with the Covey Time Management Grid, where we have urgent/not urgent and important/not important forming a grid that helps us to gain clarity on how we should prioritize our tasks and To Do lists.  Simply noticing when we are prioritizing urgent/not important or not urgent/not important is the first step toward effective time management.

prioritygrid

Important/urgent grid

, where we seem to equate busy or productive with important.  You may be familiar with the Covey Time Management Grid, where we have urgent/not urgent and important/not important forming a grid that helps us to gain clarity on how we should prioritize our tasks and To Do lists.  Simply noticing when we are prioritizing urgent/not important or not urgent/not important is the first step toward effective time management.

Productivity is important.  We all have important tasks that should be completed.  However, I also agree with Berg and Seeber that we need to slow down.  Paradoxically, sometimes what is most urgent/important is what you should not be doing.  Sometimes, we should not work, not try to achieve, to fix, to create, to accomplish, to read, to write, to plan or to calculate.  A constant stream of busyness around tasks, whether important or unimportant, leaves out something very essential, ie just being.  By incessantly working on our To Do list and our urgent/important tasks, we’re missing out potentially on our best, most creative work, and our most beautiful, joyous moments.    We give away those moments, one at a time, for the next item on our To Do list.

As part of slowing down, Berg and Seeber talk about being more mindful teachers, having a reflective approach to scholarship and connecting with our colleagues.  I would expand the notion further to say that this type of reflective inquiry is important in all aspects of our lives.  Our inner world unconsciously drives so much of our perceptions and beliefs and is the source of our creativity.  When we are constantly in action-mode, we neither access our inner wisdom, creativity, and intuition, nor can we really examine our subconscious beliefs to understand how they drive our understanding of ourselves and our world.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes our unconscious self as System 1 and our conscious, rational self as System 2.   The problem, according to Kahneman, is that we tend to over-use System 1 intuition, confidently believing our subconscious guesses and shortcuts to be accurate representations of complex situations.   In essence, System 1 interprets our world using heuristics and biases, and System 2 tends to be lazy and simply rationalizes the beliefs of System 1, instead of taking the effort to think things through carefully.

It doesn’t have to be that way;  we need reflection to intentionally listen to System 1 in an objective way, yet recognize that its messages and beliefs are often flawed.  We can then use System 2 to re-evaluate System 1 information and find a wiser course.    Thus, reflective inquiry allows a dialogue between both System 1 and 2 so that we can make the most of our intuition and wisdom and to find our creativity. This reflective inquiry requires down time and is not on most people’s To Do lists, yet is arguably both urgent and important.

Maybe it’s worth putting reflective inquiry in the urgent/important category, and a regular entry on our calendars.  What does your System 2 think about that?

Part 3: Thinking-Feeling Spectrum: Befriend Your Alien Brain

In Parts 1 and 2, I wrote about the thinking-feeling spectrum and how our tendency to prefer T or F leaves a shadow tendency that seems to play a strong but invisible role in how we feel and behave.    I likened it to an ambivalent, sometimes hostile alien that resides within us, sometimes exerting a negative influence on us, without our knowledge.

Your alien thoughts/feelings can actually work for you, but you have to befriend it and become its ally.  Like a temperamental child, the alien within wants to be recognized and heard.  Failure to do so means the alien will ramp up the stakes, screaming and thrashing at me until I acknowledge its needs. Like an unruly toddler, that internal tempest wreaks havoc and damage until it is heard.

The hardest part is acknowledging the alien’s existence and dysfunction.  But have you noticed that when you listen to a toddler and truly try to understand their world, they get strangely calm and cooperative?  You can then negotiate with them, “I know you want to go have an ice cream sundae but we don’t have time to do that now.  How about I give you an apple right now, or a cookie when we get home? Which do you want?”

Our inner alien is the same way.  “I know the way your co-worker talks to you makes you feel unimportant and inferior, just the way your parents did when you were a child.  You can believe it and feel angry and resentful, or you can go to the gym and work through your frustration and realize that this isn’t about you.  Which would you prefer?”  Suddenly, inner alien is cooperative, because she just wants to be heard and acknowledged.   She’s your Lifelock monitor who alerts you issues (have you seen those commercials?) but it’s your responsibility to deal with the problem.

Make no mistake: she will scream in my head until I do.  Furthermore, I’ve learned that she’ll scream at others through my tone, behavior, perspective and choices without my knowledge.  Others can sense her, even if I can’t.   Others refer to my alien as the b***.  Now you know what I’m talking about.

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way as I’ve spent many years in denial about my aliens.  I don’t always know they’re there, or if I do, sometimes I just can’t quite wrangle and calm them.  It gets easier with practice and time.  Now, I feel like I mostly have cleaned house, though I do still relapse and invite those crazy little devils back into my life.  Living without them though is an amazingly light and freeing feeling.  There are few things that I have done that have had such a profound impact on the quality of my life.  And like all things I have been afraid of, shining a light on them always seems worse at first than it really is.  They’re not scary in others.  You see them.  You know what they need to do.  Do the same for yourself and exorcise that troublemaker.

Lessons From the Cycle of Life

We begin life as babies completely dependent and vulnerable, relying on others for our most basic needs and survival. Babies are completely present since the concerns of the future and past are nonexistent. They take nothing for granted. Even the existence of the sun, the birds, internal sensations, fingers and toes are subjects of fascination. What’s important at this stage? Nutrition. Sleep. Staying clean and dry. A little entertainment. Perhaps a little exercise. Lots of attention and love.

Necessity and human development eventually expands one’s world to include concerns beyond the necessities of basic survival: how we look, what others think of us, when and how to work or study, home or car maintenance, or our bank balance.   The more we become consumed with concerns, the more the basics get overlooked or pushed to the limits. Nutrition may become fast or junk food, alcohol or caffeine. Sleep is an afterthought and stress is a fact of life. Our relationships may be about obligation, status, or convenience and only pursued when all else is done. We’re progressive. We’re evolved. We’re wise. We’re successful. We no longer require others to care for us.

Empowering though it may seem, this stage cannot last forever.  We eventually return to the basic needs stage, a fact all too evident at my father’s senior living community. Leaving behind our lives of productivity, independence and concerns, we regress back to the place where the basics once again are paramount. For some, walking or eating feel like victories and become the basis for celebration. There, I am moved or almost moved to tears on a regular basis. Of course. Catastrophic illness or death is a fact of life as the facility also includes assisted living.

But no.   There is much more at play in this senior community than physical victories or struggles.   What touches my heart is the humanity and gratitude of the residents and staff. While my father and other residents, for example, are physically dependent on a small few in that community, the sense of mutual dependence and support extends into the community at large for both staff and residents alike. The staff takes care of the residents, but they also take care of each other. The residents take care of each other, but also nurture the staff.   Outsiders such as myself get to revel in the micro- and macro-moments of love that occur in abundance each day.

This stage of dependence may be as much about attending to the physical as the baby stage. However, it also seems to broaden the element of love and attention to the level of community that somehow seems comparatively diminished in the independent phase. I can’t help but wonder if those so-called concerns (our mortgage, our appearance, our jobs) all too easily disconnect us from our humanity and sense of community.

No. Senior living is not depressing to me at all. The seniors inspire me to live my life as if every day and every person, including myself and the most disabled or ill, count.

My likely aging cycle

My likely aging cycle

The Noise In Your Head

Romeo on a tear

Romeo on a tear

Do your thoughts race constantly? Do you have a hard time quieting your brain? Do you sometimes have a hard time focusing on the subject at hand?

You might be ADD, but you also may have let your mind get out of control.

My little schnauzer-poodle pup is the same way.   He will literally run in circles on the leash or chase his tail all day, probably like many of our brains. If you think about it, your brain in that state is probably as productive.

When I ask Romeo to sit or stay, he can actually do it. He can’t do it for long, but experience tells me that his ability to do so will grow with practice.

Just think what your brain can do if you practice your self-discipline. You’re not even a dog.

If you’ve gotten this far in this blog, you probably sense that your racing brain is a problem. It’s hard to focus. It’s hard to relax. It’s hard to enjoy yourself. That’s because when you’re wrapped up in your thoughts, you can’t feel your emotions. You’re either in your head, or you’re in your heart. The two can communicate, but you tend to focus only on one or the other.

By focusing on your thoughts, you may be able to ignore the sadness, despair, resentment or fear that you feel. But you are also ignoring the sense of peace, inspiration, love and joy that you feel.

Furthermore, the thoughts in our head are usually not very helpful or constructive.   Usually that voice is full of must and should statements, or statements of judgment and negativity, all of which generally create unhappiness. That unhappiness then reinforces our desire to stay in our heads and out of our hearts.   That’s an awful downward, yukky spiral.

Reverse the spiral. Go up! Yes, you may open yourself to sadness or anger, but it’s better than that emotional purgatory where your mind is trapping you. Here are a few ideas for shutting down that annoying brain:

  • Lose yourself in something you love to do – You know what that is. Go do it.
  • Do yoga – Whether you love it or not, yoga teaches one to be mindful and present with one’s body.
  • Meditate – Yada yada yada, I know you hate this, but do it anyway. Shirzad Chamine, author of Positive Intelligence advocates that we meditate 100 times per day in 10 second intervals. If you can’t sit for an hour, be mindful for 10 seconds at a time. Even Romeo can do that.
  • Be mindful – You don’t have to meditate to just be mindful with your task. Next time you take a walk (or any other activity that doesn’t require your concentration), focus on one of your senses at a time for as long as you can manage.
  • Brain dump – Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, suggests that we write without thinking for 3 minutes per day. She says it’s the equivalent of the brain dump and helps to empty the brain and creates space for thought and inspiration.
  • Connect with something greater than yourself – Pray. Commune with nature. Play with a baby. Savor the love you feel for your family. Do whatever it is that makes you feel connected.

If you commit to a practice of accessing your spirit/emotions/body rather than your mind, you may find a more peaceful, centered, and effective you. What do you have to lose? Except your mind?

The Hidden Costs of Worrying or Ruminating

I’m not talking about the health issues. I don’t need to lecture anyone about that and turn myself into an ever bigger hypocrite. God knows, I’ve spent enough time taking years off my longevity and turning myself into a physical wreck as a result of worrying.

And I’m not even talking about giving up such a beloved habit. After all, that worry or rumination often leads to action and to positive change. I’m talking about when that worrying goes beyond productive. I can’t let go. I can’t let it go. I can’t stop fretting or beating myself or someone else up (in my mind, not literally).

We know it’s not healthy. But worrying also takes a psychological toll on your perception of well-being and life satisfaction. For example, if I’m focused on the future or the past I can’t be present in the moment, enjoying the company of my family or friends, savoring the beautiful day or scenery, or tapping into my inspiration and creativity. My whole life will pass me by and I’ll have been mentally elsewhere.

It’s the equivalent of being on PlayStation or Facebook your entire vacation. You might as well stay on the couch at home. The same is true for our lives. If we desire, we can view our daily lives as the vacation we’ve always longed to take.   Every day can be filled with spectacular sunsets, romantic walks, deep and interesting conversations with loved ones or a talented acquaintance, and discovering new ideas, experiences, people. But whether at Disneyland, our desk or our couch, we need only to choose whether to view our daily life as vacation or drudgery.

I also find that my life simply goes better when I’m present. I get more out of what I do, not only in terms of enjoyment, but also out of engagement, productivity, and creativity.   People like me better when I give them my undivided attention and, accordingly are also more likely to give me their full attention. I make fewer mistakes and just feel happier and more satisfied in general.

I’ve gotten better about getting myself out of the ruminating cycle too. Sometimes it feels impossible to stop worrying, but taking intentional action to be present helps to break the cycle: taking a walk, meditating, working out, taking a hot bath, listening to inspiring music, pausing to feel my heart energy, smiling at a child, writing a blog, or expressing appreciation or gratitude. Then I do it some more, for good measure. When my life seems to get back on track as result, it’s all the more reinforcing.

My old left-brained-dominated self wouldn’t have believed this, but my wiser, more balanced self believes that being present is essential to my emotional, physical, and professional well-being. And I’m just easier to live with, and in doing so, decrease the stress for those who love me.

Now, please excuse me. It’s time for me to get back to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.

Another Day in Eden

Sunrise in Eden.  Photo Credit:  tonyconigliophotography.com

Sunrise in Eden. Photo Credit: tonyconigliophotography.com

Recently, I had the rare delight of watching the sun rise, marveling at the drama and spectacle of something that happens every day. The changing colors. The clouds chasing each other across the sky. The sound of the doves and cicadas. The sun rays reflecting off the tops of the clouds. A perfect, balmy temperature. Something so spectacular only happens in Eden.

Indeed, I was in Eden. I was spending the weekend on this beautiful, vast property in the Texas countryside.  Cows, lakes, and nature galore.

But what was it that I was enjoying? Sunrise, trees, sounds? The ingredients of Eden are present everywhere, whether from the deck of my house, or on a bench in Manhattan. Wherever we go, beauty, wonder and plenty abound.

We need not travel to Eden. We are IN Eden. We were banished from Eden only in our minds.   And just as easily as that, we can go back. We only need to stop and make the choice.

A Profound Good

I’ve made a lot of changes in the last few years, mainly in terms of trying to be more mindful. I think I’m driving more mindfully, sitting more mindfully, conversing with others more mindfully.   I simply do not spend as much time in the future or past I as I used to, and I’m so much more at peace.

But I’ve discovered (yet another) area of my life that I have been living somewhat mindlessly. Ironically, for me to be mindful in this area requires a bit more intentional planning. Yes, mindfulness is a balance between planning (looking forward) using history as a context (looking backward) and being mindful and present in the moment.

The area I’m referring to is doing good.

I think I do good every day. At least that’s my intention. I work hard at my job, my coach and training practice and blog each day to try to serve others and improve their lives. I try to walk through this world with awareness and respect for my fellow man.

But stopping to think specifically how I can do some profound good each day? I got this idea from Catherine Ann Jones’ book Heal Your Self With Writing, which she credits to Benjamin Franklin.

I’m mindless enough (a recurring theme) to not be able to remember to practice this each day, but the days that I have done it have either touched someone else (I made a loved one cry), or made me feel euphoric.

This is not rocket science. We already know that one of the best ways to find positive emotion is by giving of yourself to others. A dear friend, Mimi Cox has a practice on her birthday to perform an act of kindness for every year she has spent on the earth. She anonymously leaves gift cards or flowers for strangers, volunteers, and writes gratitude letters. She inspires me to be a thoughtful and creative giver, a skill I have not really tried to develop until now.

Thank you Mimi and others like you who seem to just be oozing kindness and generosity. I can only strive to follow your footsteps.