Unplugged: Connectivity and Connection


One of my favorite assignments to give to my college students is a 24-hour media fast.  I ask them to refrain from using technology (their computers, cell phones and televisions) for 24 hours.  I ask them to disconnect from their devices and connect to their inner selves.  I ask them to put down social media and embrace social interaction.  And then, I ask them to write about their experiences.

I have been giving the assignment for many years, and each year it gets harder for my students.  For my student born in the digital age, the cell phone has become an extension of their bodies and their identities.  The internet, with its infinite information and endless opportunities for distraction, is always available to them.  They are in constant contact with friends and family, and yet they are oddly isolated, terrified of being alone.

I always find the papers deeply moving.  For most of my students, the experience is difficult and eye opening.  They come to appreciate the many ways that technology facilitates their lives and many of them begin to see the ways in which the same technology may be a hindrance to a more meaningful life.

Freed from their cell phones, they notice their surroundings more.  They have to find ways of entertaining themselves without a screen.  They have meaningful conversations with the people in front of them and discover that it is frustrating to have a conversation with someone who is simultaneously texting other people. They learn that talking to a stranger in line at the market need not be terrifying and that there are many different sounds in a city- not just the wailing of sirens.

Beyond the noises of the city, they begin to hear other things.  They experience silence.  And it scares them.  Many of my students discover that when they are silent, they can hear their own thoughts and get in touch with their own emotions.  They write to me about feeling overwhelmed by sadness and loneliness and fighting the urge to turn on their devices to distract them from the pain.

But for those students who are able to resist the pull of technological morphine, they discover something important.  They find that they can make it through the pain.  They discover catharsis in feeling something deeply and authentically.  They discover that the pain passes and that happiness and calm follow.  They get in touch with their own humanity.

Despite gaining insight from the experience, my students tell me they will never really be able to attain those feelings again. Without the outside pressure of the assignment, they doubt their own ability to go technology free.  They are struck by the realization that even if they chose to limit their own use of media, they would still find themselves immersed in a culture that demands electronic inter-connectivity.  They know that their friends will all be texting and updating status reports during conversations.  My assignment opens them up to new insights, and yet they feel powerless to do anything with their new-found knowledge.

Completely unplugging may not be an option, but I do offer my students some suggestions.

  1. Set aside time every day to be media free. During this time, avoid multi-tasking. Read a book.  Sit quietly and think or meditate.  Go for a walk.  For 30 minutes, be fully present in an endeavor.
  2. Make a deal with friends or family to turn off cell phones during meals.  Use meal times to interact and converse with the people in front of you. You can text and respond to social media and email later.
  3. Figure out which apps you use the most on your phone (usually social media such as Facebook or Instagram), and move them into a separate folder. By making it slightly more difficult to access the apps, you will be less likely to mindlessly turn to them.
  4. Turn off notifications on some of your applications. We are inundated by the sounds of our phones- from social media to texts, our phone are always buzzing, dinging and vibrating. We become like Pavlov’s dogs, conditioned to respond to the sound of the phone.  Turn off notifications and limit the number of times you check your applications a day.

Gone are the days when we could imagine a life completely media free.  To live in the modern economy requires an engagement with technology.  However, we can set the terms by which we engage.  We can decide to use our tools and not be used by them.

If my students (and others) are able to unplug from their devices for just a little time each day, they will find more room in their lives. Less concerned with wireless connectivity, they may actually find connection.

Recipes for Resilience: Ideas in Opposition

Resilience
I was recently asked to speak at a local high school on the topic of resilience. I was flattered by the request, but my first thought was; “sure I know things about resilience from my professional life, but I may not be the best person to speak with in terms of personal experience.” And then I paused and laughed. I realized that I could come up with at least ten things in my life that had required resilience including the murder of a family friend, a major professional transition and having a child with a serious medical condition.

The fact that I could not come up with these examples instantly was not a sign of creeping senility (though I am not ruling it out), but actually part of resilience. The fact that these episodes in my life no longer define me and that I do not carry them with me every moment of every day, showcases my resilience- my ability to bounce back.

This moment of forgetting made me think about resilience in terms of ideas in opposition. When I spoke to the students, I explained the four sets of tensions in the following way:

  1. Letting Go & Remembering. Resilience is about being able to let go of past trauma and move on. If we carry our burdens around with us all the time, they are simply too heavy and we will not be able to move forward. Resilience requires a little bit of forgetting or letting go.However, this letting go is not about repressing bad memories. It is about integrating them. It is important to remember so that when we encounter difficult situations, we can access our own learning from the past. Resilience is about remembering the past in order to avoid that which we have learned is toxic and utilizing our hard won skills to handle what cannot be avoided.
  2. Knowing Who You Are & Being Able to Change. Resilience is about knowing who you are and what is important to you. Life is challenging and it’s a good idea to spend some time figuring out your values. What is important to you? Where do you want to go? Who do you want to be? Your answers will help guide you as you move through life. If you have thought about these things in advance, when you encounter difficult choices or problems, you will be able to make decisions that are in line with your values and who you are.However, the other side of the tension or opposition is the importance of being able to change. Life will inevitably challenge you and throw road blocks in the path you have chosen. Sometimes, resilience is about persevering and moving those boulders out of the way. But other times, resilience is about deciding that it’s time to chart a new path; that the rocks are too heavy or perhaps not worth moving in the first place. Life changes us and we should not be afraid to change course simply because it is different than the plan we once made.
  3. Connections and Being Alone. Resilience is about connections. Studies show that having deep personal connections with friends or family help foster resilience. It is essential to cultivate such relationships so that when life knocks you down, you have someone to give you a hand up (even if the hand is really just an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on).But resilience is also about the ability to be alone. It is about being able to sit with yourself, enjoying solitude and quiet. It is about sitting quietly without having to reach for your smartphone to text or post on social media. It is about being whole on your own without needing another person to fill you up.
  1. Feeling Deeply and Humor. Resilience is about being able to feel powerful emotions- from love to sorrow, from joy to pain, from passion to fear. Resilience is about being able to sit with these deep emotions- even the uncomfortable ones. You can never outrun those feelings. It may take a little while- a week, a month, a year, a decade- but eventually the things you run from will catch up to you. Being able to sit in sadness and feel it- really truly feel it- allows you to move on. Deep emotions are where resilience (and our very humanity) is cultivated.In opposition to this is the importance of being able to insert just enough distance between you and the emotion to laugh. I have come to believe that humor is an essential part of resilience. Being able to laugh at absurdity and pain is an important coping skill. There are certainly people who use humor as a way of not coping- and I am not speaking of this type. Humor, at its best, allows you to see something from a slightly different perspective. This slight shift can take enough of the edge off a situation to allow you to stay and be present. Your humor can be snarky and sarcastic or light and fluffy- but laughter is truly one of the best medicines.

The last piece of wisdom I offered the students was that although I had highlighted these four tensions as keys to resilience, the truth is that there are as many variants as there are people in the world. What works for one person may not work for another. But cultivating resilience is about trial and error. And the startling thing about resilience is that one must encounter adversity to cultivate it. So the next time you find yourself knocked down by life, realize that life has offered you an opportunity to expand your resilience and if you need to say something snarky to life for that, go right ahead.

Paying Attention to STOP Signs

Stop

Before my children could read, they knew what a STOP sign looked like. The bright read octagon with the bold four letters called out to them as a symbol long before they could match the sounds to letters. It’s a sign we all recognize, and I suggest today, one we should bring more readily into our daily lives.

For me, the STOP sign is tied up with the practice of mindfulness. In mindfulness, STOP is a powerful acronym used to help interrupt the cycle of reactivity and bring attention back to the moment.

In mindfulness the acronym has the following meaning:

S = Stop (or pause)
T = Take a breath
O = Observe
P = Proceed

How does this work? Imagine yourself, if you will, in a moment of strong emotion; perhaps your coworker has bailed on a project- leaving you with an extra five hours of work, or maybe your child has forgotten his homework for the 3rd time this week and is giving YOU attitude when you suggest he should be better organized, or perhaps you are at the store and you see the latest technology gadget and you are overcome by the desire to own it. Ordinarily you might find yourself sending out a nasty email to your colleague, yelling at your child or purchasing an expensive product that you do not really need and cannot afford. This is where the STOP practice can help you.

As you get ready to send the email, yell at your child, or head to the check-out counter, take a moment and Stop. Press pause before you move into action. Now that you have stopped, Take a deep breath. Observe yourself. How is your breathing? Notice how your body feels. Notice your feelings and name them (Frustrated, Angry, Desirous). Once you have observed these things, Proceed.

You will be surprised by the power that the STOP method has. By inserting a pause between stimulus and action, we are able to pull ourselves back from actions and words that we might later regret. Additionally, the very acts of pausing and noticing can short-circuit strong emotions and empower our prefrontal cortexes thereby engaging executive functioning skills that manage planning and emotional regulation. Stopping in such a manner often ensures that the way we proceed is more thoughtful and in keeping with our own best interests.

By using this method you may find that the email you send to your coworker is more courteous and productive. You may notice that you are able to diffuse the situation with your child, helping him brainstorm ways in which he can take control of his homework. You may discover that you do not really need to buy the product today and that by waiting a day or two to think over the purchase, you avoid an unnecessary expense.

So next time you are feeling overwhelmed by powerful emotions, summon up your personal STOP sign. Stop. Take a breath. Observe. Proceed. You’ll be glad you did.

The Call of Stories

Storytelling
The first time I taught an interpersonal communication class I assigned the opening chapter of The Call of Stories by the great child psychiatrist, Harvard professor, and writer, Robert Coles. In the thirty pages I assigned, Coles lays out a compelling argument for medical practitioners to hear the stories of their patients and not just reduce them to jargon and theory. I asked my students after reading the chapter to tell me a story about themselves that would let me get to know them (without disclosing deeply personal information.)

We are all born as storytellers. Some are more skilled, more descriptive etc, but we are each the protagonist and the narrator of our own lives. In trying to make sense of the day to day and the random, of the trajectory of our lives, we build narratives. Our stories are filled with primary, secondary and tertiary characters, characters who play pivotal roles and then recede and characters who stay in our lives, changing and remaining constant.

At the time, I conceived of the exercise for my students as a way for me to get to know  them and for them to engage in some introspection. And I did learn some fascinating things about my students- I got to know them much better than I would have if I had asked a more directed question. But what I also learned was that many of my students did not trust their own ability to be story tellers.

My students, who had undoubtedly told friends and families numerous stories in their lives, had difficulty crafting a story about themselves. Some came to me struggling with such an open ended instruction. I began to feel that somewhere along the way my students had learned to accept other people’s narratives about them and lacked confidence in their ability to construct their own. Throughout the class I encouraged them to find their own voices, craft their own narratives and I knew that part of my job was to listen.

I learned a lot about my students that semester.  I also learned the importance of listening to stories. When I saw each student through their stories- in their own voices- they were more vibrant and alive than my gradebook suggested. When my students were empowered to tell their own stories, they grew in confidence and as people.

A common coaching tool is to ask clients to write their own stories- designing a narrative that stretches from the past into the future. The practice of consciously telling your own story can be transformative.

But as we craft our own stories, it is important to remember that everyone else is engaged in a similar act. Everyone you meet has a story- with joy and pain, triumphs and defeats. Being aware of this fosters greater understanding. The first step in creating that understanding is remembering that each person is a product of their stories and the second step is remembering to listen.

Just Begin Again

Meditation can be hard. Sitting still, focusing on your breathing… in and out, in and out. It’s easy for your mind to wander. Indeed, the practice of meditation is not really about having a blank mind, but about controlling the wandering of your mind when it inevitably strays. There are some mornings when my meditation practice (and there is a reason they call it practice) does not seem to be going well- when my mind is so crowded with lists and worries, and my allotted meditation time feels like an eternity that  I contemplate getting up and just getting on with my day.

At these moments, the voice of my teacher comes to me. “Just begin again” she tells me. No judgment, no recrimination, just begin again. And I return to my breathing. In and out. In and out.

Just begin again. Her words are powerful and grounding. And truly, they are important outside of the confines of meditation. Life is about trying and failing and trying again. When we fail, and we all do, we must begin again.

Psychologists refer to this ability as resilience. Some people are naturally resilient while others must work at it. Some people are able to rise over and over again and claim victory from defeat. But for others, through learned helplessness and difficult life circumstances, they get stuck.

We attach so much shame to failing that sometimes the process of beginning again feels like an admission of defeat and not a sign of resilience and triumph over circumstances. At these moments, it is important to find the strength to begin again. Just begin again- because that is what life is about. In my teacher’s suggestion is kindness and gentleness. Her voice in my mind urges self-forgiveness and quiet urging to continue.  We can train ourselves to become resilient, by getting up, and beginning again.

Just begin again. It is simple and difficult at the same time. We must begin again because there truthfully is little alternative.

Just begin again. When love withers, when a career falters, when health fails, just begin again. The rhythms of life tell us this is possible, from the sun rising every morning to the changes of seasons to the ebb and flow of the tides and the moon. Just begin again.

Just begin again, knowing that you will do so many times in your life. Meditation is the art of calming a busy mind- of starting over again and again. One of the reasons that meditation has such powerful effects on our lives is because if we practice the art of beginning again in meditation, it makes it easier (not easy) to begin again when life is tough.

So, just begin again. Without judgment. Without recrimination. With gentleness and kindness. With love. Just begin again.

What Was the Best Part of Your Terrible Day?

We’ve all had that day. The one that begins with the horrible realization that you have overslept, and then proceeds to the coffee machine malfunctioning, an angry email from the boss about a project that is running 6 months behind, progresses to your getting stuck in a 2 hour traffic jam (that you usually avoid because your alarm gets you up to be on the road before the chaos of rush hour), and results in spilling drive-through coffee down your shirt. This is the day when the local sewage main ruptures and begins spewing waste into your basement which you find upon your return home as you stand in a foot of filth, calculating the cost of this to your already tight budget.

If you haven’t had that day, you’ve had your version of it. So let me ask you, what was the best part of that day?

I know, you think I am insane. You think I am one of those happy, cheerful people with framed posters of inspirational quotes against a beautiful natural scene hanging on my wall. I assure you I am not. I like sarcasm and snark and have at times enjoyed the nectar of my own despair.

But several years ago while taking a class on positive psychology (an area of study that was in many ways contrary to my default settings), I decided to take one of the practical suggestions from the literature. Because I am a mother, and have the natural authority to do it, I brought my family along for the experiment.

Every night at dinner, we go around the table and say the best part about our day. There is no skipping. There is no qualifying. There is no using the best thing as an excuse to talk about what you didn’t like. You must find one positive thing to say about your day- even if it was a terrible day.

In the beginning it was hard. I mean really hard. There were some days I struggled. There were some days when my kids informed me that there was nothing good about their day. This is when I told them the beauty of the exercise.

You see, you do not need to find one great thing about your day, or even one good thing. You must identify the best thing about your day. Sometimes the best part of a bad day isn’t great in and of itself. Sometimes the best part of the foot of raw sewage in your basement is that you found it before it was two feet. Sometimes the best part of your day is the two quiet moments you had when you entered the house and you actually took a deep breath and relaxed (before venturing into the sewage filled basement).

Over the years this has become a beloved part of our family meals. Some days there are multiple “best” parts of our days (yes- I know grammatically there should only be one thing that is the best- but I am going with the spirit of the exercise here). The exercise causes us to stop and take stock of our days and take us off automatic pilot.

And the effect goes beyond the dinner table. I now often find myself throughout the day noticing when I am enjoying my day. I notice the people around me and the joy that is in my life. Indeed, this simple exercise was the first step that helped me make changes in my life.

It turns out that noticing daily what is good in your life, as the research in positive psychology tells us, leads to greater happiness. I started to notice what gave me pleasure and what made me unhappy. I decided to do more of the things that made me happy and fewer of the things that didn’t. I decided to spend more time with the people who made me laugh and less time with those who made me angry or sad. I decided to notice that even a terrible day has parts that are good. It allowed me to shift and make changes in my life. It helped me begin a journey into a more positive way of living and indeed, eventually led me to mindfulness, coaching and meditation.

So, ask yourself, “what was the best part of my day?” Even if you are standing in sewage.

 

The Man in the Maze

necklace3

When I was twenty three, I went on a trip with my family to the Grand Canyon. While I was there I bought a necklace from a Native American woman from the Hopi tribe. The necklace depicts a man entering a maze. I was told that the maze and the man within it, are a metaphor for life. It is an image and idea that is common to many Native American tribes, each with a slightly different understanding of it.

The explanation given to me was that the maze represents life as journey. We spend our lives in the maze, through twists and turns we often feel lost. We want to get out of the maze- to reach the end. What we do not realize is that the end of the maze is actually death. Life is the maze.

At twenty three I loved the symbolism. I was embarking on a new journey, entering grad school, and I thought the metaphor of the life as a maze was fitting. At the time I bought the necklace, I think I thought of life as a journey and that I was entering a new phase of my life.

Years later, the symbolism is still important to me, but today it means something different. Today, I understand more fully the ways in which life truly is a maze. I am several iterations of my career beyond where I was at twenty-three. I have had two children, one of whom has had significant health issues and learning challenges. I have lost friends to illness and violence, seen friends’ marriages crumble and watched as life challenged those I love.

I have also known the extraordinary joy of motherhood, the love and support of a strong marriage, the resilience of my children. I have experienced the excitement of remaking myself and discovering new aspects of who I am. I have witnessed the incredible strength, determination and grace of those who have suffered losses and faced heartbreaking challenges. I have seen love bloom after the devastation of divorce. I have been awed by beauty, great and small, and the diversity of the human experience. Which is to say, I have traveled in the maze- with all of its variation.

I love the message of the man in the maze. Too often we spend our lives believing that if we can just get through this one thing, everything will be OK. If we can make it out of the maze, our lives will be wonderful. But for me (at this moment) the symbol means that there is no leaving the maze. If I make it through one part of the maze, if I turn the corner, I will simply arrive in another section of the maze. Perhaps it will have fewer twists and turns, but it is the maze nonetheless.

Life is the maze. It is the twists and turns; to borrow a phrase, it is the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I will not spend my life waiting to exit the maze, waiting for things to get better. I will fully live and experience the journey, knowing that not all of it will be fun.

The maze is a journey, an adventure, a voyage into oneself and the unknown. You cannot escape the maze for a better life. It is your life. You can only choose the path you take and what you learn along the way.

I do not know what the symbolism of the maze will mean to me in twenty or thirty years. I only know that the accumulated wisdom of my time in the maze will have affected and altered me. My understanding will have been transformed by further living. I will not hope for an easy path- only the wisdom and courage to grow and evolve in the maze.