Aside

Recently, someone spoke to me of walking in the park during her lunch hour, being passed by the runners and racers who occupy Prince’s Island Park on weekdays over the noon hour. Her initial thought was that she needed to up her exercise game, rev up her pace to keep up. The feeling was a kind of sadness that she wasn’t perhaps fit enough, that she was out of the mainstream, and that she should somehow be striving harder. Reflection on this, though, led her to realize that her natural pace, not just walking but in life, is slow, and to question why her pace should be judged by anyone, let alone herself.

As I contemplated her story, thinking about my own sojourns in the same park, sometimes on foot, sometimes on my slow cruiser bike. Yes, I too am going at a slow pace, and while I may not be burning as many calories, building as much muscle or training for a race, I do gain something others may not. I can absorb the experience of the park with all of my senses – its’ smells, sounds, sights, the feel the air, warmth or coolness, even the taste of the air. I can share a smile with another stroller, laugh with a child, and contemplate the amazing stories which arise from the diversity of human, animal and plant life which inhabit this space. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a walk in the tradition of “forest bathing”, which I’m told originates in Japan (although fair to say, probably many cultures have some form of the same experience). Basically, it was a guided walking meditation, feeling the variations of the ground, its’ texture beneath one’s feet, focusing in turn on each of the senses. As we each individually focused on these experiences, the only instruction was to allow our thoughts to go unanswered, to accept that thoughts will enter our minds, but needn’t be chased or analyzed, and that those thoughts can leave as easily as they come. The walk was immensely relaxing. I felt happy not about anything in particular, just calm, well and centered.

These days we hear a lot about mindfulness. I bring it into my work, teaching and trying to model its’ benefits. There are courses, workshops and books galore to develop the practice. Online resources can be accessed without much effort. We are told of the myriad benefits it brings to physical and mental health. But so many people tell me they’ve tried it and couldn’t do it, their minds are too busy and their bodies too fidgety. I think, though, that we are treating it often as a task, a skill to be learned, a challenge to be attained. So we try too hard, analyze our process and judge our progress. We think it is something that would be nice to do, but believe we don’t have time, what with endless to do lists and tasks to accomplish first. Sometimes we even think of it as something of a luxury or indulgence, practiced by people who don’t work that hard, don’t have so many stresses, or even who are maybe just kind of lazy. So in the end, we may just give up on the idea.

I will argue that mindfulness is probably the singular thing that anyone can do, which requires nothing but a moment in which you just choose to be, not do, when you just breathe, when a thought which distracts you doesn’t have to be answered right now. It can be experienced in any setting, but none in particular. For some it might be while walking, others while eating or drinking, still others in a hug or cuddle with someone you love, or doodling with pencil, pen or paint, or during a mundane household chore, or in the moments after you wake or just before you sleep. Perhaps it occurs in a creative activity, listening to or making music, seeing or making art, or maybe petting an animal. The key is simply to be in that moment and the reward is to have been in that moment completely. And, the hardest part of being mindful is to accept that you may very well be bombarded by thoughts, random or repetitive. Those who study mindfulness call it “monkey brain” and we all have it. Fair enough, don’t judge it, just don’t chase thoughts or try to shut them down. Let thoughts come, acknowledge them and let them pass. If they are important thoughts, they’ll come back at another time when you’re geared up to manage them. You may feel anxious when you seek to be mindful. That’s pretty normal too, just know that your brain isn’t accustomed to being calm, so it can overreact when you are trying to change the pattern. That too will pass.

Coming back to my original thoughts about this post, there’s room in all our lives for some changes of pace. Slow has its’ place, but in busy, productive, stressed lives we often ignore slow in favour of pushing to the next goalpost. I think we often have the notion that slow pace and relaxation will be easy once everything else is taken care of . For many of us though, we won’t get there or we won’t know how to slow down when we do. 

Aside

It’s that time of year again – when it’s good, it’s very very good, and when it’s bad, it’s, well, much much worse. We see great acts of kindness and goodwill, and when there’s conflict or sadness, we feel it deeply. I see a lot of conflict in my work lately, which comes from many issues, which are unique to each situation, but there is one common element which is possible to change with one small act.

A gift, really, appropriate to the season, of benefit of the doubt. It can turn around a conversation going from bad to worse, can lighten your own load, and change your relationships. It’s simple, really, just a choice to assume better than you automatically would. Your friend, partner, or even a perfect stranger, says something that stings, brings out your own worst assumptions about who they are, what they always (or never) do (or fail to do), and what they really think of you. Perhaps you are right or nearly right, but going that direction in your thoughts and reactions, is definitely going to make it so. However, what if you’re mistaken about their intent? What if you don’t really have the capacity to mindread? What if they have something going on that you know nothing about? Worse, what if something you did or said mindlessly just before they responded, was misunderstood, taken wrong or somehow just didn’t come out quite right?

Benefit of the doubt has many virtues, but my favourite is that it costs nothing! It is simply a question, formulated quietly in your own mind, that can allow you to pause and respond reflectively, rather than reflexively. The difference is that you choose to act or speak as though the other person is well intended (maybe illspoken, or distracted), rather than assuming that they have nothing but disdain or disrespect for you. If the latter turns out to be true (and I truly believe this needn’t be a forgone conclusion), you have lost nothing but a gesture, and can still choose to remove yourself from their company. However, if it’s not really true, you have taken a step to move yourself back from a potential conflict, and may have rescued a relationship.

This holiday season, take a step back, breathe, and give yourself and others the benefit of the doubt. The best ever gift, which suits anyone, from your loved ones to the stranger on the street. Happy Holidays!

When I follow the rules, things should work, right?

I’ve had a few incidents recently where I found myself frustrated with how things work. They had a similar theme – I thought I was following the rules to get things done and it didn’t work! Because this is not infrequent, and I hear the same from others, I’ve been reflecting on what I can do to reduce my own frustration. While what triggered this post is more about business, the same challenges exist and are maybe more important to pay attention to in relationships with people important to us.

To put this in context, I’m a bit of a detail person – not that I love details that much, but I can’t seem to ignore them, especially when it seems to me that if I don’t  take care of them, someone else might be affected or there would be consequences to me. I have come to understand that we don’t all see the same thing. My brain that recognizes detail is my own quirky blessing/annoyance (equal parts of both!). My natural temperament most enjoys ignoring the detail and letting things unfold as they may, but my brain wants to follow the rules. Others have their own particular blend of skills, preferences and capacities.

Here are some basic principles that I’m trying to put into practice:

  1. Remember that all of us are following values that matter to us. Just because I value service to others and put it into play by paying attention to details, doesn’t mean that someone else who misses the detail or communicates it in a way I don’t understand, doesn’t care. Yes I can call them (hopefully with my inside voice!) all kinds of unkind names, but I can also assume that they don’t see things in the same way I do, don’t have the same priorities, don’t have the same information at hand, are having their own bad day, or lack the resources to cover the bases that affect the particular issue I’m facing.
  2. We all have our own internalized “rules” that tell us what is nice, kind, respectful, funny, helpful, etcetera. If I follow my rules and someone else takes it wrong, feels hurt or angry, reacts to what they assume about me, I have a choice. I can make my own assumptions about them, react and escalate the conflict. Or, I can back up a bit and assume a misunderstanding, try to find out what went wrong, ask some genuinely curious questions, and maybe improve the situation.
  3. All of us have the natural limitations of how our brains organize information and rules. This also applies to information that ends up on our computers and other electronic devices. As much as it might be nice, there is no universal standard of how to do things right. My failure to understand how someone organizes their thinking, is my problem and one I’m usually able to solve, even if it takes some time and effort. If I don’t get someone’s logic, chances are they don’t get mine either. Who’s to say which of us is right?
  4. Yes it is entirely possible to come to the conclusion that those who don’t see things the way I do are just wrong (or lazy, or immoral, or flawed in some way).  But, you know, if I conclude that, I’m less happy and peaceful than I’d like to be. Can we assume at the outset that we just have different influences (capacity, experience, temperament, upbringing, culture, and biology – basically both nature and nurture)? I might actually have the opportunity to add positively to those influences if I’m willing to be respectful, or add negatively to those influences if I let myself become disrespectful or abusive.
  5. Curiosity is a wonderful tool to work through differences in communication, processes, and lack of understanding. Genuine curiosity means being able to step back for a moment and ask respectfully for clarification, maybe look for an example, and consider different ways of communicating. Some people communicate better in written form, or visually, or in spoken words. Try to be creative in how you illustrate your concerns. If you are building a piece of furniture and the tool at hand doesn’t fit, it is always easier to find a better tool than it is to fix what you broke by forcing a square peg into a round hole.

My bottom line here is that there always is a choice about how we deal with interactions or processes that seem to go wrong. I choose to believe that if I assume the best of others, we can work towards resolve our differences. While I don’t know for sure that I’ll get what I want in any given situation, I do know for sure that positive assumptions, slowing down the process and not getting caught up in needing to be right, is more rewarding to my soul.

Aside

On the weekend, I did something new to me – I had a yard sale. Actually not on my own, but with a couple of my neighbours. Not a big deal, perhaps to many, but for me, somewhat anxiety provoking. First off, needing to go through my home and decide to rid myself of stuff. Stuff, as I’ve talked about before, carries memories and responsibilities. As a child of parents who grew up in the Great Depression, and the grandchild of prairie farmers, keeping things that are “perfectly good, just with a bit of fixing” comes naturally. I also innately attach meaning to all that I acquire, even the mistakes, so find it difficult to part with things. Secondly, worry that nobody would actually want my stuff. What if the things that have had meaning for me, are just junk to others?

Well, I learned (or relearned!) a couple of things. Letting stuff go feels good, removes the weight of clutter, much as letting go of preoccupations, worries and responsibilities for the narratives of our pasts feels good. The second learning is that neighbourhoods are important. Yes, some folks came from other parts of the city, but many of our customers were from down the street and around the corner. In the end, a day that sounded like a lot of work, was actually a day of conversations, stories and laughter. I learned a little more about the history of my neighbourhood, some personal habits and hobbies and life experiences of people I otherwise would not likely have met. They didn’t all buy from me, but most did converse, given the opportunity presented by a bunch of stuff set out on the lawn.

I realized that we often are so busy going somewhere, doing something, that we don’t pause and chat. Yes, there was a purpose and an activity of buying and selling going on, but somehow that was just in service of sharing some time amongst neighbours. Stuff was re-allocated, from my basement, bookshelves and cupboards, to the homes of people who can create new uses and memories for it. Prices didn’t in any way represent the actual value of the items, but were simply the currency of sharing and helping each other out. I feel today more a part of my community, and I am happy to know that my stuff has gone where it is needed and wanted.

I think of this blog as a way to share a little life learning, so what is my lesson for today? Have a yard sale? Well, sure, if that makes sense for you. But really, it is to take the opportunity to share a little bit of your story, your thoughts and experiences, and yes your stuff, with people around you. Stop hanging onto things that no longer serve you, including worries, unnecessary sense of responsibility for matters that are past, and enjoy the people, experiences and life in front of you right now!

In Remembrance…….. Once Again, and Still

In light of recent events, and as Remembrance Day approaches, I thought to write a new post, but find that this post from 4 years ago still resonates for me. I hope that it can find a place in your thoughts as well:

“In remembrance of those who serve, this post is more personal than some, a reflection on two brave men who served in our country’s armed forces: my grandfather who was in the trenches of World War I, and my father who was a fighter pilot in World War II.  Both volunteered for reasons of their own, which, like many reasons for actions we take in our lives, were undoubtedly complex. I choose though to focus on the one reason I do understand: they believed. Believed in a better world, in doing the right thing whatever that may have seemed at the time, in participating in something bigger than themselves, in honour and responsibility, and in their own capacity to survive (as young men often do) the risks of war. Both came back injured, carried scars and pain which never fully receded.

In honour of them, I want to remember the lessons they taught me. That’s hard in the case of my grandfather, as I barely knew him. A quiet man who died when I was eight, eclipsed by the far more vocal presence of my grandmother, he did show me how to quietly love, usually without a lot of words, but always with his presence, a scratchy whiskery chin to rub against my cheek. What I didn’t know then was that he persevered in constant pain from shrapnel embedded in his leg, working every day until turning the farm over to my uncle. So my lesson from him is to be present in the lives of your family and community, participate in your role to the best of your ability, and accept that your private pain, whatever it may be, is simply a part, not the determinant of your life.

My father was gravely wounded, burned when his fighter plane was shot down, pulled from the flames by another brave man, an Italian farmer. He didn’t speak of his experiences, but we know from letters to my grandparents which my mother shared after his death in 1992, that he was, at first, a typical young man of the time. He wrote of his excitement learning flying maneuvers, until the letters changed and he wrote only of small matters, inquiring and commenting on family, the farm and people from home. After his injuries, he wrote, through the pen of a priest, because he didn’t have the use of his hands, as though all was fine, which it was not.

A year and a half in hospital in East Grinstead, England, many surgeries, then another year in and out of hospital in Toronto, gave him a new face, and salvaged the skin of his hands and legs. More importantly, it gave him the experiences that made him the man I knew. There he became a member of a club no-one wanted to join, the Guinea Pig Club, where not only bodies and faces were recreated by experimental, daring and desperate advances in reconstructive surgery, but lives were reclaimed. The surgeons, Sir Archibald MacIndoe and Dr. Ross Tilley (read and see documentaries about them and the club for a fascinating piece of living history) believed that these scarred, misshapen and hurting men, needed not only their bodies restored, but their rightful place in the community.

Their surgeons sent them out into the village, some wheeled, some under their own steam,  frightening of appearance, with partial grafts and odd appendages (pedicle grafts growing skin from one part of the body to another), to face the world. An experiment to be sure, as the villagers of East Grinstead could have rejected and run screaming from the strange sights. But it worked …….they were welcomed, poured beer (quite a bit I think) and fed, became beloved sons of the village, welcomed back year after year, to reunions, which continued until very recently, as the club has wound down, most members having died in the intervening years.

As a child, I didn’t know my father was scarred…….he was just my Dad, but I remember visits from his fellow Guinea Pig Club members, some of them with more graphic facial scars, odd versions of hands which were functional but twisted. As an adult, I met many more of them, priveleged to attend a reunion in East Grinstead with my parents,before my father’s death. It was there, I believe, that I truly understood the lesson of this story.

Recovery of the spirit is as important as recovery of the wounds. Understanding of the contributions a community makes to rebuilding a life is as meaningful as understanding of the contributions the wounded and persevering make to the community. The small acceptances and kindnesses mean as much as the big gestures. Looking beyond appearance allows you to see so much that is brave, proud and redeeming. Everyone has a story worth telling and worth hearing.

As you read this and in the days to come, I hope that you will look for those stories, some older, as my father’s and my grandfather’s. Some newer, the stories of the men and women who serve today. Many are the stories of those who were and are served………all of us in this great country. They serve and did serve. We don’t have to understand all of the reasons, but we can all believe that we can be a part of building a better world.

In Remembrance……………”

Aside

I have been dealing with some frustrations recently, insurance issues mainly, which don’t require detailing here, except to say that communication between a number of different parties with competing interests is, to say the least, a delicate matter. So I found myself expressing myself less than adequately with a friend, over something that didn’t need to be a problem. Dealing with business matters, I seek to contain my own frustrations in order to get the business done, so those feelings can get set aside only to re-emerge later in the wrong context. In this situation the general theme was “You’re not hearing me!”We have, as friends do, sorted out the miscommunication, but in the process I recognized something I’d like to share.

As an introvert (something I’ve written on before – see Introvert Express), I do much of my thinking, analyzing and making sense, internally. If you’re not familiar with introvert and extrovert traits, the processing of ideas is most comfortably done introspectively for introverts, while extroverts do most of their best processing of thoughts in interaction with others, out loud. Both traits have upsides and downsides, and all of us can and do stretch beyond that comfort zone, in the process expanding communication skills and perspectives. What is important to understand here is that when we are just a little fragile or sensitive, either on the particular topic or because of outside factors, we tend to retreat back well inside our comfort zones. That makes it more difficult to deal with differences in communication styles or ways of seeing the world. Hence, for me, at this particular time, “You’re not hearing me” really reflected that I wasn’t fully able to develop my thoughts, let alone express them. 

I’m not going to try to tell you how to perfect communication, because as human beings we are both blessed and burdened with quirks and imperfections. There is something to be learned through the ways we stumble through difficult interactions, and it has the potential to bring us closer. What I would like to share are some things to remember:

  • lots of  factors affect how easily and clearly we communicate in any given situation, and many of them have little to do with the situation itself. Be patient and remember that the relationship is more important than this particular misunderstanding.
  • if you’re an introvert, know that you may not always give the other person the benefit of knowing how you arrived at the words you are sharing, or why you are silent. If you need, ask for some time to process and make sure you come back. Your extroverted friend can’t read your mind.
  • if you’re an extrovert, understand that  an introvert may not be stonewalling you, and may need to process things differently than you. Ask open questions, don’t make assumptions about what silence means, and respect each others boundaries.
  • if you don’t know whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, it might be interesting to read up a little more on it. But in the meantime, what’s most important is to remember that we each communicate in a unique and imperfect way. Assumptions about what the other person means are usually wrong to some degree, if not completely. The best way to improve understanding is to be curious, open and interested in how another person experiences the situation, allowing them also to learn more about your experience.
Aside

Since my last post (has it really been a few months?), I continue to work away at de-cluttering, a task that raises more questions than solutions. A conversation this morning about life stresses seemed to echo my own challenges with letting the details obscure what is more central and real. Do you find yourself getting caught up in details, in the process losing track of the big picture? Or, worrying about things that you don’t have control over? Or, convincing yourself that you can force round pegs into square holes, to get a result you want?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then I have a solution! Just kidding, I really can’t give you a simple answer to the complexities of our lives today. What I can do is encourage you to focus where you can have impact, by some version of the following:

  • Make yourself a nice cup of tea, pour a tall glass of cool refreshing water or your own favourite beverage (probably non-alcoholic as I’m writing this in the early afternoon, but whatever works for you!)
  • Sit in a comfortable chair, with phones, computers, tablets, bills, post-it notes, whatever else distracts you, moved out of your field of vision. Have a piece of paper or notebook, along with a pen or pencil available beside you.
  • Make yourself comfortable and just breathe quietly for a few minutes and gradually allow your most current or pressing challenge to come to mind.
  • Observe how you are feeling right now – if there’s tension, just breathe for a few more minutes until you can comfortably write down the essence of the challenge, and what it is that you most hope for. Ask yourself the following questions and make notes:
    • Have I been in a situation like this before? Did I resolve it then? If yes, what skills and resources helped me? If no, am I willing to change my interpretation or my responses to it this time?
    • Do I believe that a good outcome is possible? If yes, consider what it would feel like to have it resolved. If no, am I fighting acceptance of a truth I don’t like, or am I afraid of disappointment?
  • The answers to those questions may help to clarify what direction you want to take from here. If you are becoming aware that, as you see it right now, you cannot solve the problem, then consider letting go of it, or redefining it to something you do have the capacity to deal with.. Yes, I know that’s easier said than done, but making the statement to yourself that you’re ready to let it go, surprisingly helps. “I’m sad (hurt, angry, disappointed…) about this, but right now it is not within my power to change it. So I want to focus my energy on whatever aspect of it I do have some ability to affect”.
  • Assuming that you feel you can address the challenge, start to make some notes, addressing the following questions:
    • What do I know about the situation?
    • What do I need to know? List the questions to ask others, research, and gather info on.
    • Who else is involved in this? Do I need to inquire further into their perspective?
    • What resources do I have (information, skills, money, material, etc.)?
    • What resources do I need? How can I get them? Can I ask a favour of someone, or trade favours, or pull resources from somewhere else?
    • Realistically, what is my time frame? Do I need to create a timeline of do-able tasks to handle? If I have certain goals or tasks to accomplish, am I willing to put them in my schedule and give them priority?
    • How will I know if I am making progress? Am I measuring my progress fairly and reasonably, given the answers to some of the above questions?

Hopefully by now, you will have some concrete aspects of a workable challenge written down. If you need to refine your notes into a plan, do that, and then place it somewhere that you can refer back to it. Remind yourself that you have chosen this challenge because, first, it matters to you, and second, it is within your capacity. Talk to someone you trust and let them know that you would appreciate their support, and feedback if it would be helpful. Unless you actually want it, don’t ask for advice, or if you do want it, keep it focused on your actual goals. If you get unsolicited advice or criticism, thank them for caring. Unless the other person has a stake in the problem, you have no obligation to choose their way over your own.

Finally, the essence of this approach is to move all the thoughts and conflicting feelings of fear, obligation, regret, worry and uncertainty out of your head onto paper, and direct them into a focused plan to act on your goals, aspirations, wants and needs. When you find yourself scattered and overthinking again, as undoubtedly you will, refer back to the work you’ve done on this today and steer your energy back to the commitments you’ve made to yourself.