Monday, April 9, 2012

Give a Lotta Love

Discovering Gift Culture

Coming to understand and live within a gift culture has profoundly improved my life. A year ago I viewed gifts as things I wrapped up and gave to family and friends on special occasions with the expectation of receiving something in return. But a shift occurred when I started interacting with people who viewed giving and receiving as an uncalculated expression of love and trust between all of us. I was intrigued. Why were these people being so nice to everyone? The motto “Be Selfish, Be Generous” didn’t really make sense until I experienced fully giving myself. With the goal of increasing love in the world and ourselves, giving is a most excellent approach.

Embedded in a this-for-that perspective, learning about gift culture took some time and different ways of knowing. I watched others give and receive with their whole heart over and over again. I started reading about generosity, kindness, and happiness. And most importantly, I tried it out. I remember the moment when it all clicked, walking down the street in a rough neighborhood with a noble friend who sporadically decided that we would give away a bunch of yellow tulips she had just received. I smiled and handed a flower to a woman coming out of a bar. She took it, held it to her chest, and said, “You don’t know how much this means to me right now.” Well, after that I was hooked.

To reinforce my understanding, I found it helpful to have the pieces of the gifting process described. Lewis Hyde’s work, The Gift,1 provided the initial structure for this description, which helped validate my feelings and provide a foundation to build upon with my own experiences. Based on the knowledge and experience I am gaining, here is what gifts and a gift culture mean to me.

A gift arises when an offering is made from one to another with positive intentions and no direct expectations of return. A gift has two parts: the offering and the increase.

Over dinner with friends, Eric complimented Sam on his scarf. Sam unwrapped his scarf, handed it to Eric, and said, “Here, I want you to have it.”  

The offering is what is being given. Offerings can be physical objects (i.e. a book or homemade blueberry muffins) or acts of service (i.e. teaching someone how to fix their computer or even the simple act of listening). While acts of service may not be typically conceptualized as gifts, they are often the most valuable offerings we contribute. Offerings are especially meaningful when they are born from the giver’s passions and/or fill the receiver’s needs. This means finding your inner gifts, the things that make you come alive, and sharing them. This also involves seeing and listening to the receiver in order to identify their needs and understand how your offerings can help.

Leah went to a cafe, bought a cookie, and asked the barista to give it to the next person who comes in. The barista asked "Why?" She replied "Because it's my birthday and I want to delight someone!" He promised to give the cookie to the next person AND gave her a cookie too, saying "Happy Birthday!" 

Gifts are more than just offerings. Gifts propagate extra favorable outcomes, called “the increase.”1 Gifts increase feelings of happiness, create social connections, and can even grow additional physical offerings. A wealth of research has linked generosity and happiness.2 By studying populations, social and economic scientists have found correlations between well-being and volunteering3 and happiness and spending money on others as oppose to oneself.4,5 By studying the brain, neuroscientists found that giving money to others causes activation of the brain regions representing rewarding stimuli6 even greater than receiving monetary awards.7 In experimental studies, interventions from performing random acts of kindness8 to reflecting on one’s own kind acts9 increased happiness in participants. While we commonly think of the offering as the gift, the increase is the most profound part. Objects and services are consumed, but the increase stays. Giving plants seeds of gratitude. Gratitude is a powerful emotion that sparks happiness and security inside individuals and cements social relationships.10 Gratitude is the force that spreads gifts even further into the lives of others.

From one to another
Jacob was having a difficult week and feeling down. A group of his friends decided to anonymously fill his life with small joys. Fresh strawberries were delivered to his desk. He found that his car had been washed while he was at work and a homemade dinner was waiting on his doorstep. 

Gifts involve passing an offering from one entity to another. Recipients and givers can be groups as well as individuals. The giver does not even have to be known. Giving anonymously helps the receiver to feel a broader sense of gratitude, which may be paid forward to another, spreading the ripples of kindness far and wide. Many cultures also perceive the earth as an important giver and receiver. Viewing nature’s resources as gifts helps us to appreciate her abundance and to feel the responsibility of giving respect and protection to such a generous source. Gifts to the earth can include cleaning up a beach or riding our bicycles instead of cars. When we treat nature as a gift, the increase can be future resources. For example if a forest is not stripped, but respected and given care, it can bear even more gifts to our world.

No direct expectations of return
As I was preparing for a trip out of town, my friend, Shannon, happily volunteered to watch my dog. I left her $200 on the kitchen counter, but when I returned all the money remained untouched - her service was a true gift.

Gifts are given freely, without strings or expectations of a direct reciprocal return from the receiver. This lack of direct reciprocity separates gift giving from trade or market exchange. In market exchange, goods and services are traded for money or other goods, typically with one entity intending to profit from the exchange. Market exchange allows for minimal trust and lots of social distance between the two entities, which can be important and has its place in our world. However, market exchange also typically concludes the relationship and does not readily foster the increase in social connections, togetherness, and community liveliness. Research studies show that participants primed with money did not ask for or provide help to others as often, preferred to play and work alone, and put more physical distance between themselves and new acquaintances than unprimed participants.12 

In gifting, just because there is no expectation of return does not mean that gifts have NO return. It just means that offerings are given without direct expectations of the receiver. Gifts plant seeds of gratitude in the receiver. Feelings of love, trust, and abundance grow so that often the positive action of a gift is responded with another positive action, but these outcomes are not expectations.

Positive intentions
Dan, the coffee man, goes into the Michigan Cancer Institute every Thursday to deliver beverage orders to all the patients and caregivers dealing with chemotherapy purely for his love of it

Our intentions and perspectives create gifts. In order for a gift to arise, the giver intends an offering as a gift and/or the receiver perceives an offering as a gift. In intending something as a gift, I found that my perspective shifted from possessions to people, from having stuff to nourishing relationships. In receiving something and perceiving it as a gift, I found that my perspective shifted from entitlement to gratitude. Receiving was not a sterile transaction in an isolated situation, but rather an opportunity to be cared for and to recognize the rich context of my existence. Although serendipitous events also engender kindness,13 having awareness of the gifting spirit may play a role in keeping the gift moving and the spirit alive.

Contributing to a gifting culture involves shifting from fear and greed to love and trust.  Gifts are given with goodwill toward the other, not as a means of manipulation or forced obligation. Gifts are offered from a positive place, stemming from love, delight, excitement, joy, and fun. Gifts that come from a negative place, like fear or coercion, often don’t feel like gifts. Have you ever bought someone a gift out of fear that they would get you something on a holiday? Have you ever been ordered to bring a gift for someone? Something feels off in these situations, both for the giver and receiver. Gifts make community out of individuals through goodwill. Without goodwill, the increase could suffer from a lack of authentic positive emotion even though the offering is made. However, the experience of giving is transformative. Even if a gift is initially given out of fear or obligation, the feeling of providing for another or the receiver’s gratitude can help create a change of heart for the giver and transform the initial intentions.

In certain circumstances, giving a person or community aid can also create discomfort in the receiver14 or exacerbate a problem in the community. Clarifying one’s intention and using both compassion and reason to consider gifting scenarios is very important. Giving motivated by compassion allows us to identify with others as ourselves and realize our connectedness. Equally important, reasoning through the consequences of our gifts allows us to see the impacts on others more fully and decide on a truly loving action.

On an ordinary Wednesday, Mishti pulled into a parking space and the guy getting ready to leave gave her his extra meter time. After running her errands, she gifted her extra time to the person pulling in after her.

Another aspect of gifts is that they keep moving, either the offering or the increase or sometimes both. Gift movement could mean passing along a physical object when you have finished with it (i.e. receiving a book, reading the book, then giving the book away again to someone who would benefit) or knowledge when you have finished obtaining it (i.e. after being taught how to can peaches, practicing the technique and teaching another). Some physical offerings are consumed or retained (i.e. chocolate chip cookies) or are more difficult to directly give away again (i.e. plumbing help without expertise), but the “increase” can be passed along. The gratitude can lead you to give a different gift to another. By paying it forward, the gift keeps moving.

Gift movement creates a cycle.  Gifts flow through people. A stream of generosity weaves through a community. The wider the cycle, the broader the effects, the greater the increase. If only two people swap gifts with one another, the stream cannot bring new gifts in or let old gifts go and a stagnant pool forms. The cycle expands immensely when people give to people different from those they received from. As the cycle expands and reaches more people, the source of the gift is difficult to track – which is great!11 Without knowing the original source of generosity, you are filled with gratitude for everyone. The cycle imbues a blind gratitude in a community and cooperation evolves.15 Over time gift cycles can propagate a sense of broad goodwill, trust, and security in a community.

A Gift Culture
As cycles expand and include family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers, the potential for increase expands too. When gifts are encouraged to flow, they increase more, literally creating abundance. Sequestering gifts may produce scarcity and a feeling of insecurity arises even though the capacity for abundance exists. We sometimes think we don’t have enough because we think we need to have it all within our sole possession. By reinvigorating a gift culture, our gifts can move from being trapped in our own possession or a small group, to flowing to places of need in our community.

Gifts make visible our interdependence. Being supported and supporting a community can provide one with a sense of security and help develop trust. It is a means for our materials and skills to be shared. It allows our passions to be nourished and our needs to be met. If we are looking for our talents to give and are excited to receive the fruit of others’ passions, we encourage one another to do what makes us come alive. We can live authentically and surround ourselves with a truly thriving group of people.

If we look for people’s needs in our community, gifts find the “empty place.” 1 Gifts can bring forgotten individuals back into the community. Gifts work on social justice through the recognition of needs in our world without a sense of coercion. When gifts are given, they come from the intention of love and not manipulation or pity. The receiver and giver are equals because we have blind gratitude and generosity. There is no subservience or debt. Giving by helping or fixing implies inequality and judgment, but viewing giving as service embodies dignity and reflects a wholeness in life with mutual suffering and joy.16 We are all givers and receivers so there is no place for ego or shame in the gifting process. Givers have humility because they have received so much and receivers are not indebted to any one person, but the world at large. We all embody both roles with gratitude as the connection.

Community liveliness, fun, celebration, and openness result from gifting. While the lack of trust and anonymity allowed for in market exchange can be valuable, having it in so many of our interactions limits this joy and community spirit. So many of us feel isolated and lacking of resources, and the accepted response is fear and hoarding. I believe that the only way through this fear is courage to open our hearts and try an alternative path.

My personal shift
Stepping into this new perspective of a gift culture has been both an invigorating and uncomfortable process. Coming from a this-for-that perspective, I sometimes worry that my own needs will not be met or that others will take advantage of me. Without knowing what I would receive in return, I sometimes cling to my gifts. But, as I gain the courage to give them away, fear is being replaced by a growing sense of purpose, community, and happiness. I started with small experiments, like watching a friend’s child while she went to a doctor’s appointment and smiling to people I pass on the street. While I’ve helped others in the past, conceptualizing my acts as true gifts to help pay forward the support I received and to help create more ripples of kindness in the world gave the actions more meaning and imbued me with a greater sense of fulfillment. Discovering a gift culture has transformed the way I feel about the world. I am questioning what I really needed in life, and am realizing: less stuff, more love. What I am gaining by giving is far exceeding my feared loss, but I didn’t understand this until I've begun to experience it.

Accepting gifts from others is still sometimes challenging. American society encourages us to be fiercely independent, so much so that we blind ourselves to gifts we’ve received from the earth, from our family, from all who came before us. As I leave behind this perception of independence, I feel vulnerable acknowledging that I cannot truly live alone. My mind has been eased by seeing the other side of our interdependence, the abundance and support that has been provided for me all along.

The experiment is ongoing, but the effects in my life have been profound. I still feel attachment to possessions and the calculations of my efforts. I recognize this shift in perspective is a process, and I need to be patient with my growth. I am learning to recognize my own needs and establish boundaries that honor my limits. I work on observing these habits and making conscious decisions about my actions. I foster generous interactions in my life. I learn from others practicing these values around me, and I reach out to share my experiences and help the possibilities of reinvigorating a gift culture. I strive to feel the gratitude and support that fills my life, and not get stuck in fearful stories of not having or being enough. 

What do you really need in your life? Consider the paradox of receiving more by giving more. Just try it out. Start giving. Start providing love and support in unexpected ways and see what happens.

Thank you D. Scott Brown and Leah Pearlman for reading drafts and providing awesome suggestions. Thank you to my friends for agreeing to share some of your beautiful stories.

  1. Hyde, Lewis The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. New York: Random House, 1979.
  2. Anik, Lalin, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton, and Elizabeth W. Dunn. 2009. Feeling Good about Giving: The Benefits (and Costs) of Self-Interested Charitable Behavior. Working paper, Harvard Business School Working Paper.
  3. Meier, Stephan, and Alois Stutzer. “Is Volunteering Rewarding in Itself?” Economica, 75 (2008): 39-59.
  4. Dunn, Elizabeth W., Lara B. Aknin, and Michael I. Norton. “Spending Money on Other Promotes Happiness.” Science, 319 (2008): 1687-1688.
  5. Abdel-Khalek, Ahmed M. “Measuring happiness with a single-item scale.” Social Behavior and Personality, 34, (2006): 139-150
  6. Harbaugh, William T., Ulrich Mayr, and Daniel R. Burghart. “Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations.” Science, 316, (2007): 1622-1625.
  7. Moll, Jorge, Frank Krueger, Roalnd Zahn, Matteo Pardini, Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, and Jordan Gafman. “Human Fronto-mesolimbic Networds Guide Decisions about Charitable Donation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103, no. 42 (2006): 15623-15628.
  8. Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade. “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change.” Review of General Psychology, 9, no 2, (2005): 111-131.
  9. Otake, K. Satoshi Shimai, Junko Tanaka-Matsumi, Kanako Otsui, and Barbara L. Fredrickson. “Happy People Become Happier Through Kindness: A Counting Kindnesses Intervention.” Journal of Happiness Studies, 7 (2006): 361-375.
  10. Algoe, Sara B., Jonathan Haidt, and Shelly L. Gable. “Beyond Reciprocity: Gratitude and Relationships in Everyday Life.” Emotion, 8, no. 3 (2008): 425-429.
  11. Bartlett, Monica Y. and David DeSteno. “Gratitude and Prosocial Behavior: Helping When It Costs You.” Psychological Science, 17, no. 4, (2006):  319-325.
  12. Vohs, Kathleen D., Nicole Mead, and Miranda R. Goode. “The Psychological Consequences of Money.” Science, 314, (2006): 1154-1156
  13. Isen, Alice M., & Levin, Paula F. “The Effect of Feeling Good on Helping: Cookies and Kindness.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21, (1972): 384-388
  14. Fisher, Jeffery D., Arie Adler, and Sheryle Whitcher-Alagna. “Recipient Reactions to Aid.” Psychological Bulletin, 19, no. 1, (1982): 27-54.
  15. Fowler, James H. and Nicholas A. Christakis. “ Cooperative Behavior Cascades in Human Social Networks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, no. 12 (2010): 5334-5338.
  16. Remen, Rachel Naomi. “In the Service of Life.” Accessed March 28, 2012

Monday, January 30, 2012


Changing our Belief about Change

A dangerous belief in our culture is that we can't change. We’ve all heard the disempowered statements: “He’s just grumpy. He can’t change that.” or “I will always be anxious. It's the way I was born.” While we most certainly have genetic predispositions, the brains of individuals’ young and old can change in amazing ways.

Neuroplasticity is a fancy way of saying that our brains can change. We are not victims of our neurons or genes. We are empowered creators of our mental states. The erroneous belief that we are "set in stone" can stop people from trying to change and take away their responsibility. In the same way that germ theory altered the way we look at sanitation and hygiene, I think that spreading the knowledge about our brain’s ability to change can alter the way our culture approaches emotions, attitudes, and values.
Our brains can change.  
Our brains are made up of billions of neurons. Neurons connect to one another, forming pathways that relay information. We learn things by forming neural connections in response to associations in our everyday experiences1. In learning to drive a car, we experience the connection between red traffic lights and pressing the brake. We form a neural pathway for this association. Each time we brake at a red light, we reinforce and strengthen the neural pathway. As the saying goes, "Neurons that fire together, wire together." The more we practice something, the more we strengthen the pathway, and the easier the skill becomes. Our behavioral response can become almost automatic2.
Our brain can also prune old neural pathways to quiet or unlearn associations3. For example, after you move to a different home, you learn the directions to your new place and stop practicing your old path. But in those first few weeks after a move, have you ever found yourself engrossed in another thought and accidentally pulling into the driveway of your old home because your automatic pathway took over? Luckily, by refraining from the old directions and practicing the new way home, you strengthen a new neural pathway and the old neural pathway weakens. It's a good thing our brains can change, or we would still be pulling up to our childhood home.

Similar to physical skills like driving, the brain also forms neural pathways in learning and practicing emotional skills. Your emotional responses to experiences in your world are the result of well-worn neural pathways that developed over your lifetime. While our genes influence our temperament, research has demonstrated that our environment and our own mind can physically alter our brains and thus our emotional responsesThis means that emotions that we want more of in our life and our world, like happiness, patience, tolerance, compassion, and kindness, can be practiced and learned as skills. Other emotions, like anxiety, stress, fear, or anger, can be dampened3.

Keeping in the car motif, let’s talk about an emotional association: traffic and anger. When we get stuck in traffic, an automatic response can be anger or frustration. But, by feeling angry every time we are in traffic, we are strengthening that neural pathway and cementing that emotional response. When there is nothing we can do in that moment but accept the traffic, wouldn’t it be great to feel positive emotions instead? We can just observe the negative emotion that we are feeling and try practicing a different emotional response. We can start linking traffic with stillness and peace. This would be difficult at first because we want to let the well-developed neural pathway leading to anger fire, but by inhibiting that pathway, we help unwire those connections and strengthen a different response. As we practice responding with peace, we strengthen a new neural pathway and it becomes easier to choose.

Using neuroimaging, researchers have demonstrated significant success in reducing anxiety, depression, phobia, and stress with cognitive-behavioral therapy or interpersonal psychotherapy. By learning different strategies to recognize negative thoughts and emotions and practice alternative responses over time, neural pathways in the brain are physically altered4. Science has only recently recognized the value of investing in research on behaviors that promote well-being, including compassion and happiness. By comparing the brains of experts and novices in compassion meditation, neuroscientists illustrated changes in the brain region responsible for empathy during and after meditation5. Researchers are just beginning to examine the effect of training novices in skills to increase compassion. While interventions have demonstrated positive impacts on emotional states6,7 and prosocial behaviors7,8, we look to future studies to determine alterations in the structure and function of the brain in novices who undergo contemplative and emotional training. 

Let's learn and practice compassion, kindness, and happiness.
Knowing that our brains can change, we then ask, what do we want in our brains? And as a result, what do we want in our world? Most people of good will yearn for happiness, compassion, and love. Let’s start practicing.

Gratitude reflections, compassion priming, and meditation interventions are some strategies found to enhance well-being and increase prosocial behavior. Several studies have shown the positive impact of gratitude journals, which involve self-guided listing of what you are thankful for. Individuals who kept a daily gratitude journal reported higher levels of positive emotions, including feeling attentive, determined, energetic, enthusiastic, excited, interested, joyful, and strong, compared to individuals who kept a journal on daily hassles or ways in which one was better off than others (downward social comparison). In addition, individuals who maintained daily gratitude journals were more likely to offer emotional support to others and help someone with a problem7. Contemplative interventions, born from the collaboration of meditation traditions and emotion science, have centered on developing mindfulness to enhance compassion and happiness in the lives of individuals. One recent study provided an 8-week training program in secular meditation to female schoolteachers and measured their responses to stress, conflict, and compassion. The intervention significantly reduced rumination, depression, and anxiety while increasing mindfulness, empathy, compassion, and stabilizing hostility and contempt compared to a control group6.
In my experience, learning about the concept of neuroplasticity and finding the skills to change my emotional responses has immensely improved my life. Before grasping this, I thought my mind was a black box. I didn't understand why I felt certain things beyond the immediate external circumstances. I had no idea how to change things. I scoffed at seeing a therapist because I couldn't imagine what they would help me with. I had no idea what I would even say to a therapist. Luckily, the good ones can help you understand your mind and the process of change. You don't even have to know where to start; the decision to change is enough. The practice of meditation gave me the set of skills to guide my own transformation. It has been the most life altering skill that I have gained. I shifted from thinking that my emotion and thoughts owned me to feeling like I could play a role in changing my state. This is challenging work and takes patient practice, but as I am experiencing the fruits of these skills, peaceful relationships, a joyful outlook on life, and a safe harbor within myself during difficult times, I am determined to work even harder.

Neuroscience, positive psychology, and contemplative traditions have given us a roadmap. We know our brains can change based on our environment and our behaviors. What if we started building and reinforcing the neural pathways of love, cooperation, forgiveness, and kindness so that these things became our automatic response? What if we adopted and shared this belief that we can change and took responsibility for our outlook on life? What if we taught children in schools about their ability to reflect on and guide their emotions? What if we started priming those around us in our families and community with our own grateful reflections and kind actions? What if our compassionate actions in schools, families, and communities started shifting our culture? I find these possibilities exhilarating and hopeful. By learning and practicing these positive emotional responses, I think our world can discover a new way home and pull into the driveway of compassion.
Thank you to D. Scott Brown for reading several drafts.

1. Byrne, John H. “Learning and Memory.” In Neuroscience Online: An Electronic Textbook for the Neurosciences. Accessed January 18, 2012.
2. Dayan, Eran and Leonardo G. Cohen. “Neuroplasticity Subserving Motor Skill Learning.” Neuron, 72 (2011): 443-454.
3. Begley, Sharon. Train Your Mind Change your Brain. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.
4. Frewen, Paul A., David J.A. Dozois, and Ruth A. Lanius. “Neuroimaging Studies of Psychological Interventions for Mood and Anxiety Disorders: Empirical and Methodological Review.” Clinical Psychology Review, 28 (2008): 228-246.
5. Lutz, Antoine, et al “Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise.” PLoS ONE 3 (2008): e1897.
6. Kemeny, Margaret E. et al. “Contemplative/Emotion Training Reduces Negative Emotional Behavior and Promotes Prosocial Responses.” Emotion, (2011): epub.
7. Emmons, Robert A. and Michael E. McCullough. “Counting Blessings versus Burdens: Experimental Studies of Gratitude and Subjective Well-being in Daily Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (2003): 377-389.
8. Leiberg, Susanne, Olga Klimecki, and Tania Singer. “Short-Term Compassion Training Increases Prosocial Behavior in a Newly Developed Prosocial Game.” PLoS ONE, 6 (2011): e17798

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ever have your snow globe shaken?

The Bliss and Pain of Perspective Change

Certain books, interactions, and experiences have “shaken my snow globe.” They introduced many new ideas, and they shook up old beliefs and ways of viewing the world.

It feels exhilarating at first as the snow and glitter fill the air. “Wow, look at all the sparkles!” I marvel at the new ideas floating around in my mind. They pique my intellect. They speak to my heart. They show me perspectives on the world that I hadn’t experienced before. I walk around with the ideas in the air feeling the delight of curiosity and the thrill of wonder.

I remember reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, which detailed Dr. Paul Farmer’s life and service from Harvard to rural Haiti. It was the first time that my heart fully grasped extreme poverty, and I came to believe that I could do something radical about the world’s suffering. I was alight with passion, empathy, and drive to make the world a better place. I remember my interactions with my nephew in his first week of life, sitting up together at 3am so my sister could get some rest. He was so small, vulnerable, and radiant with love. These interactions sparked a small fire inside me that motherhood felt right despite my intellectualized debate –to have a baby or not to have a baby. I remember enduring a 10-day silent meditation retreat, and the sense of peaceful empowerment I gained from learning new skills to work with my mind. Returning from the retreat center, I felt like my spirit had found a way home. These catalysts in my life initially filled my mind with awe and my heart with love.

But then a pinprick of concern occurs. As the snow and glitter begin to descend I think, “Where is this going to settle? What does this mean for my life?” Many of the new ideas challenge old perspectives or habits. While I marveled at these new concepts, I still have not parted with some former beliefs that the new ones may challenge. The concern grows into strong discomfort. The new and the old are all scattered about simultaneously because for me the old does not leave as quickly as the new comes in.

The possibility of confronting global poverty, the desire of motherhood, and the power to understand my own mind – I questioned how these new perspectives fit in with my other goals and ideas. Would embodying these new ideas require me to become a world-renowned humanitarian, a stay-at-home mom, or an enlightened Buddha? These books, interactions, and experiences have given me something so valuable, but how do I incorporate them into my whole self? What about my other professional interests, my involvement with my local community, my investment in my family, my fulfilling hobbies?

Cognitive dissonance takes hold. The rational part of my mind tries to quickly solve the situation, “Ah, I see that new belief is better than the old and I will change. Done!” But the emotional parts of my mind take more time to work through the implications of change. Sometimes it happened through a toddler-style temper tantrum. Panic sets in and I am crying in snotty heap on the floor or defiantly protesting the new ideas with my arms crossed sitting in the corner of the couch. “No, I don’t wanna!!! I like the comforts of this old perspective. I will never be happy again!!” With a bit of personal growth, I have learned skills to identify the particular emotions and sit with them. “I am scared that this new belief will require me to give up something that is still important to me.” I try to distinguish between irrational fears: “I must now move to a different country, spend all my time healing the sick and digging wells, and never think about any other personal interests.” and legitimate concerns: “I feel scared about the change in my education and career path that this new perspective may lead me towards. I am not sure I am ready.”

Identifying and sorting out my fears and emotions doesn’t immediately change them. Sometimes I attempted to shovel and sweep away the new ideas as a means of dealing with the cognitive dissonance. This response seems to just repress the emotion and delay the change, but sometimes that is the only action I feel capable of. I push away the new to give myself space to deal with the old. I haven’t been able to forget my snow and glitter experiences, especially when they caused such marvel at first, but maybe some people do. Sometimes I get angry with myself for not being about to fully transform as quickly as my rational assessment. “I should be able to just embody this awesome new perspective right now!” This only makes me feel worthless or manipulates me into accepting something I don’t feel fully behind quite yet. (See “Stepping out of the Should Trap”)

After seeing this happen over and over again, I try to acknowledge the panic I feel. I then consciously recall past times when I have gradually integrated new beliefs successfully improving my life. After remembering these experiences, I give myself the safe and loving time and space needed to adjust. Rather than beat myself up for my inability to change instantaneously, I accept that shifting perspective is not like flicking a switch for me. It is something I have to slowly take hold of and gradually accept how new ideas transform all aspects of my life. Having this understanding and being gentle with myself through the process has let me enjoy the wonder of snow and glitter with less of the panic, berating, and fear when new ideas and feelings enter my world.

Since changing perspectives can cause such discomfort, it makes sense that people often get stuck in their ways of viewing the world. Maybe some people prevent future snow globe shakings after feeling the challenges that it causes. By acknowledging that change is a process and being patient with ourselves and others, maybe we can foster more flexibility in perspective. After learning to observe my own response to new ideas, provide patience for my integration, and connect the perspective change to life improvement, I more readily search out new perspectives. I think back on how many times I have scoffed at people's positions and inability to hear new ideas. Acknowledging that this process is challenging and gradual has helped me be more accepting and less begrudging of others at different stages. In the same way that I have learned to give myself space and support, I see that I can now offer that to others.

What books, interactions, or experiences have shaken your snow globe?

Photo Credit:
Snow Globe Snowman Timothy Valentine
Dhamma Manda

Monday, December 12, 2011

Stepping Out of the "Should" Trap

“I should make more money.”
“I should lose weight.”
“I should volunteer more often.”

In saying “should” so often, I found myself feeling trapped by a sense of obligation and expectation. I felt this vague pressure to conform to external standards, to be someone or do something. It felt like just being me wasn’t okay. I felt pushed to follow a particular path, behave in specific ways, and believe certain things. In observing my mind and growing towards a more compassionate life, I realized that I had internalized both the messages and the method of the “shoulds.”

“Should” messages are familiar to all of us. Our lives are saturated with societal norms of success, beauty, intellect, strength, femininity, masculinity, ad infinitum. If you need a refresher, watch an hour of television or walk around a mall. Unfortunately many of these messages didn’t align with my values.

Living in a sea of “shoulds”, I found myself in an impossible situation. I ended up being disappointed with myself or fearful of disappointing others. When I would obey the “should” in my mind, I felt far away from the ideas, needs, and values that I authentically desired. When I would choose to do something not on the “should” list, I felt guilt, shame, or fear that other people would disapprove and judge me negatively. Under the tyranny of the “shoulds,” I couldn’t find genuine fulfillment. I frequently felt lacking.

These persistent and powerful messages around us make it very difficult to listen to an inner voice. In some situations, I internalized the “shoulds” so deeply that I didn’t have the chance to discover my own independent beliefs. The "shoulds" lead one to adopt externalized values and never question the commands. By obeying “shoulds,” our belief systems could be coopted by external forces.

In addition to absorbing the messages, I also started adopting the “should” method of using one-way force to gain compliance with others and myself. "Shoulds" are rarely conveyed as a dialogue about values or a cooperative process to understand differing perspectives. Instead, they are pressed in one direction. The priorities are set and deposited on the passive receiver. The “should” method represents a way of thinking and making decisions in which you are told what to do and be rather than searching for your own authentic needs. By internalizing this method of compliance, I not only felt the external “shoulds,” but began placing “shoulds” on myself as a way to direct my own behavior. I was my own personal tyrant.

While many people may have identified the harm in the “should” messages, I think it is even more important to identify the danger in the forceful method of compliance underlying the “shoulds.” In some cases, I identified messages that I didn’t believe in and found groups that circulated alternative “shoulds” that were more in agreement with my values: “I should drive a used, biodiesel car.” vs. “I should drive a luxury SUV.” Maybe one of these statements resonates more with you than the other, but they both use a violent means of communicating. The “should” method can be used to communicate positive messages too: “You should volunteer in the community” or “You should eat fruits and vegetables.” While these may be evaluated as healthy behaviors, if they are coming from a place of obligation and external expectation, they are still doing damage. It wasn’t until I figured out that the problem was in both the messages and the method that I was able to liberate myself from the “should” trap and live a more authentic life.

Stepping Out of the Trap
Inspirational idioms such as “March to the beat of your own drum” or “Forge your own path” were so alluring and seemingly simple, but I really struggled. Breaking free of the "should" trap included five big steps for me:
  1. understanding the trap,
  2. choosing to change, 
  3. recognizing the "should" in my thoughts and emotions,
  4. releasing the "should," and
  5. looking inward to find my authentic self.
Step 1: Understanding
The first step involved intellectually understanding the problem by labeling both the messages and methods of the "should" trap. In my adolescence, I saw people’s anger at the mold that society pressed them into lead them to embrace the opposite of the norm as a means of rebellion. For example, smoking as a way to challenge the “don’t smoke” command. What I didn’t realize was that adopting oppositional positions still gives the "should" definitional power – instead of obeying the "should," people adopted the opposite, either way the "should" still set the standard. In my early adulthood, I tried shifting the should message, but not questioning the method of directing my actions with force. Recently, I recognized that both the message and the method of the trap was an important first step in freeing myself.

Step 2: Choosing to Change
The second step was to acknowledge the pain of the impossible situation that the "should" trap placed my mind and decide to change. By understanding the trap and linking the pain with the situation, I could see the damage this pattern was doing in my life. I had to choose to step out of the "should" trap. Choosing to make your own decisions and not blindly accept the norm takes courage. Removing yourself from the pattern does not stop people from judging or rejecting you. In fact, moving toward your authentic desires may even cause some to react more strongly. I found that choosing to change helped me fill my life with people who encouraged and loved my growing authentic self, and helped me gain strength in facing other’s negative reactions. Talking with patients in the process of dying, a caretaker identified their number one regret - “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” It would take courage and patience, but I was determined to live authentically.

Step 3: Recognizing the Pattern
The third step involves the daily process of observing my thoughts and recognizing the pattern. Meditation provided me with the skills to observe my mind and identify the "should" trap that ran carelessly through my thoughts. Deconditioning the "shoulds" requires practice with each thought. I had to be aware of these sneaky "shoulds" and catch myself when I started with a "should" story. Language was very useful in this process. The actual word “should” served as an instant red flag. Other phrases like “have to,” “need to,” or “gotta” can also be substituted for "should," but they still do the same damage. Of course there are other uses of the word that do not apply to this context, but I found that the trapping pattern was behind most of my “should” statements. Until I learn this new pattern, I’ve stopped using the word "should." (Note: If you change the way you speak but don’t change the underlying intention, I don’t think it will work. The important thing for me was living from an empowered position and not blindly internalizing or pushing beliefs.)

Checking in on how I was feeling was very helpful too. After observing the "should" trap, I found that certain emotions and physical responses came along with the thought pattern. When I start emotionally feeling worthless, sad, or confined, I would look to see if I was in the trap. My body would even respond. When I start physically feeling compressed, dark, and heavy, I look around for the snare that I may have stepped in.

Step 4: Releasing the "Should"
Once I understood the trap, chose to change, and recognized the pattern, the fourth step is to release the "should" story. I like to think of it as letting the thought dissolve. It is important to me that I don’t arbor anger at the "should," rebel against the "should," or feed it any more energy than it has already taken from me. I had to do more than not obey the "shoulds," I had to take their power away. Others can tell me "should" stories, but I had could choose what to believe and how to live. Sometimes I have been able to recognize it quickly and let a "should" dissolve right away . When the "should" is about something important, or something that I receive a lot of external pressure about, it takes a lot more patience and conscious work to release myself from the "should" and find what I authentically think. Through meditation, I practice noticing where my mind is, redirecting it away from thoughts, and focusing it on breath or sensations. This valuable introspection helped me realize that I am not a captive of my thoughts and gave me regular practice in releasing those sticky “shoulds.”

Step 5: Listening Inside
Since I no longer look for direction from the "shoulds," I needed to find my own path. What would I do? I had to find out what I needed and wanted in my life. After spending a lifetime in the "should" trap, I felt a bit insecure without having instructions. When I first tried to listen to my inner voice, I found lots of silence and only a few faint whispers. Compared to obeying "shoulds," finding your own direction might feel less absolute and evolves over time.

Feeling a bit scared, I was tempted to relinquish my power to someone or something else, adopt a new philosophy, a new boss, a new structure. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be easier to be told what to do!” As tempting as that may sound at times, I know that I would just re-enter this violent relation and the pain would return. For me, the real solution was self-empowerment – growing a trust in myself to think and feel for myself, taking responsibility for my actions and beliefs, and then enjoying the true freedom that this delivers.

I established a safe environment for exploration and listened to what I felt even if it sounded strange to my "should" conditioned self, “Maybe I want to become a farmer!” I explored my mind and tried on lots of different ideas. I could do anything, be anyone! I combined my hopes and aspirations with my practical needs, and slowly starting living an embodied life. This isn’t about rejecting the mainstream or railing against conformity. It’s about authenticity. I am slowly learning to weave together my intellect, emotions, and intuitions. I believe this process encompasses a lifetime of work.

This process is not necessarily linear. Sometimes circumstances around me and in my own mind send me from step 4 back to step 1. Sometimes step 5 is co-occurring with step 2. Sometimes step 2 and 3 seem to merge together, but you get the idea.  

Living Authentically
By stepping out of the "should" trap, I shifted the locus of power in my life from others to myself. I didn’t have to change anything around me, only how I responded to it. Going through this process has been liberating. I feel fulfilled much more often, and when I feel down I know it is in my hands to change. I am no longer a victim, but an engaged actor. I have more fully realized and embraced my life goals. After graduate school, I felt a lot of pressure to climb the next rung of the academic ladder, even though I knew that I could help the world and be happier working in a different capacity. The decision to move in an unexpected direction has been difficult, but with an authentic approach I see the whole picture of my decision, and can craft fulfilling work without feeling like a disappointment. Almost equally important, my approach to small tasks changed too. Since our life is filled with mundane chores, feeling trapped by them can have a big impact. My outlook shifted from “I have to do laundry today” to “I want to have clean clothes for the rest of the week, so I choose to do laundry today.” Laundry is not being thrust upon me, but I am choosing it with eyes open.

Embracing Responsibility and Generosity
Some might say that without these external obligations, people wouldn’t take responsibility or wouldn’t do things that need to be done, like follow rules or go to work. I think the opposite is true. Working within the “should” trap robs us of our personal responsibility. In the trap, you do what you are told, and not what you assess to be right. So, you could easily be swayed to do things that are not best for you or your community. Stepping out of the trap does not excuse you of responsibility. It doesn’t mean that you no longer have to do unpleasant things. Instead, it requires that you see the whole picture, the options you have, and you choose for yourself. Living authentically, you own your decisions.

Stepping out of the "should" trap and living authentically is not about being selfish, but about self-actualizing. The most compassionate people I know are the ones who live authentically. While undergoing this shift in perspective, I found that serving others felt different. When I now give, I am giving out of honest desire not obligation. Service to others now feels real and uplifting because I own the decision, rather than burdensome because it is the end product of some “should.”

Stop Trapping Others
Within the "should" trap, I filled the roles of the oppressed and the oppressor. While being oppressed by the "shoulds" around me, I also perpetuated the cycle by applying "shoulds" to others. I forcefully placed expectations on my family, my friends, and my partner. In doing so, I didn’t reach out for their understanding and experience. I spoke as though it had to be one way. In stepping out of the trap myself, I am also trying not to set it for others. I am working to request things and have a dialogue without applying obligation or limiting others’ responsibility and authenticity. Identifying the "shoulds" has been part of a larger shift in how I treat others and myself. I am working hard to remove at least one tyrant from the world. 

Bronnie Ware, “Regrets of the Dying,” Inspiration and Chai, accessed on December 9, 2011,

Many thanks to Leah Pearlman of Dharma Comics for coaching and encouraging me to make authentic little stick people.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Measuring my Meditation

An Unexpected Gift from my Family

This summer was my first time visiting home since developing my meditation practice. Through meditation, I work on observing my thoughts and emotions, creating space between my emotions and reactions, and forming new positive patterns in my life. By practicing a little everyday, I hoped to get better at this process. However, the subtle day-to-day improvements can be difficult to appreciate. Returning home for extended visits with my family this summer provided an invaluable measuring stick for my inner growth.

Since moving 3,000 miles from home, I have gained a profound appreciation of family. Family is forged together rather than selected. While there may be many differences, we share a story. We felt the excitement of childhood Christmas mornings. We all had to make ends meet when dad lost his job. We loved and lost many of the same pivotal people. My family has known me my entire life. They have seen my path unfold, my successes, my failures, my strengths, my weaknesses. They have helped (and hindered) in the process. And having survived it all, they still provide tremendous love and support.

This intimate, long-term relationship is fertile ground for both joy and conflict. Family members know each other’s vulnerabilities, and probably even helped to create some of them. For whatever reason, in defense or offense, consciously or unconsciously, we sometimes poke and prod these weak spots. In our youth, these insecurities may have been body image concerns or academic prowess. Growing up under one roof, we could not escape the friction. They were across the dinner table, at the other end of the couch, and wedged into the same station wagon. As we grow older, our vulnerabilities evolve and we gain time and distance from one another. But, when we reunite with family, it is easy to regress into old behaviors or feel the fragility of old wounds.
For these reasons, interaction with family is an invaluable opportunity to practice the mindfulness skills I have been honing, and assess my progress. It is an obstacle course for the mind. Could I observe and not react blindly? Could I provide love when I feel hurt and vulnerable? Could I practice my new emotional patterns and not revert to old habits? I was nervous.

This summer, my family celebrated an engagement, a wedding, and a birth, emotionally significant events providing ample opportunities for fun and friction. I find it just as important to observe my emotions during the happy times as it is during stressful ones. It is easy to get carried away with excitement and ignore others’ needs, even if it is their wedding or baby. In my daily practice with meditation, I had been observing my own feelings regarding these upcoming events. I was able to think through how my loved ones and myself might respond, and brainstorm what might be helpful. In this way I had time to prepare rather than get swept away with my own emotions and the swirling energy around these big milestones. I think that I was able to provide some stability to events and help foresee needs that others would have. At very least, I navigated a significant time without losing myself to the high of elation or the low of unmet expectations that have plagued me in the past.

During my visits, conflicts arose over simple things like driving, more emotionally hefty things like expected roles within the family, or the sneaky conflicts over the seemingly simple (dinner) but really about the significant (one's value as a person). Before I started meditating, I didn't have the practice in observing my own emotions, which made navigating conflicts extraordinarily dangerous. I would do what I could to avoid or appease tense situations. When avoiding or appeasement failed, I would react out of frustration, anger, or fear and say things I did not mean.

Having practiced meditation for 6 months, things were a bit different. I had a better understanding of my own emotions around contentious issues before even entering interactions. When conflicts did occur, I could see my own emotions and not react negatively. I had this feeling of observing situations from above and time seemed to slow down. I was not stifling my emotions like I might have done before. I still felt negative emotions, but rather than let those emotions ignite a fuse, I watched them and added them to the emotional equation of interaction in my head. During tense situations, rather than strike back, bring up past traumas, or press on vulnerabilities, I just observed without letting them lead to negative action.

Having the ability to sit with these volatile emotions and not explode or shut down, I could really listen to others. I could try to understand all of the pieces that I was observing. Then I could think about a way to resolve the conflict. And lastly, I could attempt to communicate my understanding and reach a peaceful solution.

This was the first time that I attempted this to some effect in the face of strong emotions. While it was not easy and I had many slip ups, I felt so empowered. I felt like I had an alternative to my old habits. I didn't need to explode or suffer in silence Even in smaller situations, when I started feeling overwhelmed by an emotion, I would just draw my attention to my breath and quickly deescalate, giving me space to think through the situation.

I have never felt this way during family interactions. I always felt that I was at the mercy of my circumstances. This was a testament to the power of my meditation practice in changing my mind. It is difficult to see the subtle change of a daily practice, but these interactions helped me see the change I was creating. There is no better incentive in establishing a healthy habit than seeing it make life better for yourself and those around you.

I found that now having space during emotional highs and lows, I could observe and listen, but I would like to improve my ability to communicate peacefully. I want to learn about and work on nonviolent communication in order to take my observations and move them more efficiently into mutual understanding and creative resolution of conflicts.

Thank you to my family for still helping me grow through the unexpected gifts of celebration and conflict. Our path together continues.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How "The Help" Helped Me

In preparing for my summer vacation, I asked around for some beach read recommendations. Girlfriend after girlfriend recommended The Help. I picked up a copy and was immediately absorbed by the excellent story.  Today, the movie adaptation hits theaters.

The story tells of a transformative collaboration between black women working as household maids and an aspiring journalist from a privileged, white background in the small community of Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s. The courageous characters work together to tell the stories of maids and the families they care for revealing the unspoken tangle of love and oppression existing in so many homes. Each woman faces social, financial, and physical threats for their efforts to speak truth during this dangerous time of racial unrest. 

The rich descriptions of the sixty-style homes, clothing, and attitudes in the characters' southern speech easily transports the reader to a different era. Our own mothers lived through this time, yet we occupy such a different landscape now. I was amazed at how easy it was for the current reader to see the injustice of the women's lives in contrast to how accepted and invisible their suffering was merely five decades ago. 

Telling this story for an audience in 2010, the author did not have to make a strong argument to change our beliefs about segregation or win our compassion for the characters' trails. We easily see the foolish reasoning behind segregation and sympathize with the pain and oppression she describes. While pulling together these stories was an extraordinarily dangerous endeavor for the characters in the 1960s, writing or reading The Help in 2010 was not. It was a #1 New York Times best-seller and a major motion picture. The danger is gone. It is easy for a reader in our era to walk away from this uplifting story feeling warm and resolved, but maybe that is the real danger. 

In the story, the journalist receives a critical piece of advice, to write about what disturbs her "particularly if it bothers no one else." This sage suggestion led the journalist to put aside obviously important, but austere issues i.e. the dismal prevalence of illteracy, escalating numbers of drunk driving accidents, and limited jobs for women. She recognized that to truly contribute she needed to dive into her own life, her own experiences, her own intimate feelings. She then sees the unseeable. She sees the injustice that unfolds in her life everyday. She sees the injustice that she lives: "These women raise white children, we love them and they love us, but they can't even use the toilets in our houses." 

This advice resonated with me and rang through my head long after the book was closed. I found myself asking, what injustices do I live? What do I see that may not disturb others? Because in finding this, in speaking about this, in changing this, maybe our daughters will not have to live with this injustice. So I look around me. But this is hard because it means seeing the unseen. I see the obvious big problems that academics, journalists, and politicians regard as pertinent issues: environmental degradation, human rights violations, world hunger, and persistent prejudices of race, religion, gender, and sexuality. I could write about these larger than life issues, but maybe I need to look closer at my own life, day in and day out. Just like mistreating household maids was unquestioned in Jackson Mississippi, what goes unquestioned today in our own hometowns and in our own homes?

Like the journalist, I live in comfort and have great privilege. I don't live in ever growing heaps of the world's waste. I don't witness ghastly child labor practices. I don't go to bed feeling pangs of hunger because of limited resources. I don't have my right to marry, pray, or go to school withheld. 

But in my everyday life, I do use countless products made from non-renewable resources; I do put my head and arms through shirts and dresses possibly made by small, exploited hands; I do buy food produced by companies that prioritize profits over famers rights and people's health across the globe; I do sit at dinner tables where some individuals resist and resent the rights of "others." While these actions and interactions are mundane and widely accepted, I realize that their connections and contributions to the larger problems frequently go unseen. My water bottle, shirt, sandwich, and dinner conversations have started to disturb me. These simple everyday actions are connected to waste islands in our oceansabused child workersfood riots, and hate crimes. My actions contribute to these large problems. This is what I wish to uncover, write about, and hopefully change. 

It is difficult to see a way forward through seemingly unsolvable problems, but the courage and honesty in looking at one's own life described in The Help offers a way forward. The book conveyed the idea that we may be involved in grave injustices, but we also have power to question and change them. So, what disturbs you? 

Stockett, K. (2009). The Help. Putnam & Sons: New York, NY. 
Photo Credit: Haiti, Tedxgp2; Gap Sweatshop Labor, The Telegraph; Food Riots around the World, Spiegel; Burger and Fries, Microsoft
Powered by Blogger.

Follow by Email

Popular Posts