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.

The Waiting is the Hardest Part- and Perhaps, the Most Important

Spring

I live in the Northeast and it will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard about our record breaking winter that I am pretty tired of the snow. It feels unbelievable now that I actually welcomed the first blizzard of our season. Now as I look out on the towering snow banks and the menacing icicles hanging from my neighbors’ roofs, it easy to forget that a month ago I thought snow was beautiful. These days I dream of spring and wonder if I will ever see my lawn again. Given the sheer quantity of snow, it appears I am going to have to wait.

And waiting is hard. In our fast paced society we almost never have to wait and when we do, we measure the time in seconds or minutes. An hour wait is unacceptable to most of us. We have places to go and things to do. We have no time for waiting. We certainly have no time for winter.

We are uncomfortable with the rhythms of our ancestors who had to submit to the cycle of seasons. Indeed, merely several hundred years ago, people had to submit to the will of dark nights whose completeness was only punctured by the light of moon and stars and the flickering glow of candles and lanterns. We are now masters of the clock even as we become servants to our technology.

What we have lost is the value of rest and even hibernation. Perhaps you have experienced periods in your life where you have “gone underground” for a bit- when the demands of life seemed a little too much and too overwhelming and you responded by doing and communicating less. We are often made to feel bad about those times- as if our dropping out was cowardice or perhaps a sign of depression (and for some it may be). But for many it is actually a sign of self-care. Sometimes what is happening is that our bodies and our psyches are telling us that it is time to slow down. It may even be time for a nap…or two.

Quiet “unproductive” time is actually really important. Underneath the snow, plants and seeds are getting ready. They are gearing up for an explosion of color and life. They are gaining energy to grow and blossom. They are not dead (although perhaps just a little buried).

They are waiting.

The rest that nature takes culminates in growth and life. Similarly, the rest we take facilitates creativity and health. Sometimes we need to hibernate. We need to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world and quietly grow things within ourselves. When we are ready to shovel out and step into the sun, we will be capable of more than we knew was possible.

So as I look out the window and see the sun gently warming the snow, I must content myself with waiting and the knowledge that beautiful things are happening beneath the surface.

The Voice, Mike Rowe and the Problem of Following Your Passion

Don't Follow Your Passion
I like to watch The Voice, and not just to enjoy the eye candy. As a coach, I am always interested in the ways that the four superstars “coach” their teams. Seeing the way they nurture, critique and inspire is interesting- showing there are many different ways to be a good coach. I am also always amazed by the people on the show- young and old who are pursuing a passion. All are very talented – indeed, I appreciate the format on The Voice where only the talented appear on stage- rather than American Idol which brings on people who have no talent in order to mock them.

The contestants on The Voice are not only talented, they are driven. I am always shocked by the number of them who are so committed to their passion that they have forsaken everything else. Hopefuls confess to the camera that they have dropped out of high school or college to pursue music – that they don’t know what they’ll do if they don’t get a super star coach to choose them.

I am always amazed by this. And not in a good way. As a Jewish mother, I worry for them and as a coach, I question the wisdom of their decisions. I think Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs, captured it best recently. He explained to a fan that the worst advice he had ever received was “follow your passion”

It might seem surprising to you that as a coach I love Rowe’s statements- especially as it seems that one of the stock ideas of our work is “follow your passion.”

But the follow-your-passion-reality/talent-be-damned type of coaching has never appealed to me. Rowe eloquently states what I have always felt was missing from the discussion: “Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it. And just because you’re determined to improve doesn’t mean that you will. Does that mean you shouldn’t pursue a thing you’re passionate about? Of course not. The question is, for how long, and to what end?”

There are many people who are passionate about something but do not have the talent necessary to make it their chosen profession. Perhaps even worse is that there are many very talented people who, for whatever reason, cannot “make it” in their field. For a million and one different reasons, life doesn’t always let us pursue our passion as profession. For so many of the talented folks on The Voice, this is the case.

But Mike Rowe’s comments would be little more than a parental lecture if he didn’t also include some insight and advice. Rowe, who travels the country (and the world) profiling people in “dirty” jobs that many people shun, points to the ways in which people find passion in places they never would have thought they would find it. He highlights people who are passionate about work that even they never thought they would be passionate about. Rowe offers this advice, “Don’t Follow Your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.”

What does this mean in real terms? As a first step, figure out what your passions are. The second step is to pursue those passions- with a deadline. Determine how long you will give your dream to take off and if the time elapses, re-asses. This does not mean giving up on passion- but it does mean adjusting. That adjustment will look different for everyone. There are so many people who resist having a Plan B because they feel that even to imagine not succeeding is to give into failure. But having a Plan B is not a sign of weakness.

I wish for all of those contestants on The Voice who do not make it to the winner’s circle that they find ways of channeling their passions that leave them feeling whole and satisfied. I wish for them lives that are full and meaningful. I hope that they allow themselves to develop new dreams and passions. I hope they bring their passion with them, wherever it is that they go.

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.

Freedom on the Fourth

Statue of liberty
As we approach the 4th of July, American Independence Day, I have been thinking of what it means to be free. Freedom, of course, has different meanings to different people. There is freedom on the level of nations and the rule of law- a freedom fundamentally concerned with rights, but there is also freedom on a more personal level.

What does it mean to be personally free? Is freedom about the absence of constraints? Are we free only when no others have a claim on our lives, our allegiances, our affections? Yes- certainly that is a type of freedom and one perhaps that we wish for when we are feeling overwhelmed and pulled at from all directions.

But I think for most of us, that type of freedom would quickly grow tiresome. If freedom is only about being free of constraints, we will find ourselves isolated and alone. However, freedom can also be about the opportunity and the room to grow into the best versions of ourselves- to fulfill our unique potential and purpose[1]. And often this means being in connection with others and connection can mean constraints.

As a wife, mother, friend, daughter, sister,  coach and teacher, there are many constraints placed upon me. I am not free to pick up and travel to exotic locales on a whim as no one would be there to pick my kids up after jujitsu or tuck them into bed at night. Nor am I free of financial or emotional obligations or those associated with my work. But if I define freedom so narrowly I will never be free.

For me, freedom is in the broader choices I have made and the way in which I choose to live my life. I have entered into these obligations freely and happily. I have bound my life to others in service of something greater- a higher calling than just my individual desires at a given moment. I have freely chosen to participate in the world in a certain way and it has led to an expansiveness of spirit and a great deal of joy.

My freedom is my own and deeply fulfilling for me. For others, the choices I have made may seem confining (or perhaps not confining enough!) but personal freedom means the ability to pursue your own path- making the choices that are right for you.

To be sure- there times when we make choices that do not feel like our own- they are the ones we make trying to please others that also require us to sacrifice some essential part of ourselves. Indeed, one of the regrets that people most often have at death is that they did not follow their own dreams- that they did not pursue the opportunity to become the best versions of themselves.

Thus freedom is a balancing act (and what in life isn’t?). But the first step to achieving this balance is to imagine what the best versions of ourselves look and feel like and then pursue opportunities to become that. Make no mistake- personal freedom is not always easy to achieve, but it is always worth the effort.

So on this 4th of July while you celebrate and honor the ways in which you are free, take a moment to declare your personal independence and honor your path to personal freedom.

 

[1] Isaiah Berlin discussed this in his influential essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” in which he defined the two types of freedom as positive and negative liberty. Berlin was writing about political philosophy and was concerned about the excesses of positive liberty as applied at a state level. But my remarks here are more confined to the personal level- leaving macro analysis for another time and place.

 

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.