flowing motion

Archive for the ‘positive psychology, wellbeing & poetry’ Category

If

    If freckles were lovely, and day was night,
    And measles were nice and a lie warn’t a lie,
    Life would be delight,–
    But things couldn’t go right
    For in such a sad plight
    I wouldn’t be I.
    If earth was heaven and now was hence,
    And past was present, and false was true,
    There might be some sense
    But I’d be in suspense
    For on such a pretense
    You wouldn’t be you.
    If fear was plucky, and globes were square,
    And dirt was cleanly and tears were glee
    Things would seem fair,–
    Yet they’d all despair,
    For if here was there
    We wouldn’t be we.
    e.e. cummings

Teaching the challenge of morality

I’ve spent a lot of my life teaching young adults.  Once we have gone beyond the “declarative knowledge”, the labels for things, we move on to “procedural knowledge”, getting our hands dirty.

At school, a friend of mine didn’t  like putting sulphuric acid on zinc chips  She was convinced that she could hear them squeal with pain.

In social sciences, we are required to considered to fill in forms in lieu of considering ethics.  We even go to great lengths to remove the effects of what we do from experiments.

Of course, all this is a nonsense. Everything we do affects people we do it with.  And we are affected in turn.   This is the lesson that students should learn.  They need to learn to listen and to understand how other people are affected by their even seemingly innocuous actions.

And then they must decide.  Are they going to act anyway, and why?

Somewhere buried in there is a hard lesson of life – that are our actions and circumstances don’t always reflect well on us ~ and that we are never comfortable with that.  The day that we are uncomfortable with the uncomfortable,  then we have lost it.  We should feel bad about bad stuff.

But we also have to make choices despite the fact we are not going to feel good.

I like that Cummings ends with We wouldn’t be we.  Because the journey that brought us together into this uncomfortable place is our shared journey.  Our discomfort is a product of our shared journey.  I may not like that I am in this bad place with you, but I am.   That cannot be denied.  And I have to act anyway. I just try to act thoughfully, knowledgeably, fairly.  Often I don’t even achieve that, but I try.

And that I act does not deny that all this is bad.  It’s bad.  I act.  That is.

And that it is bad does not change that tomorrow may not be bad.  With you or without you.  That is too.  It just is. And to pretend that we don’t have agonizing choices to make denies that We are We. That is bad.  Very bad.

The defining moment is how we react, not the tragedy

I heard these key words a moment ago on a program about Poland on BBC Radio 4.

The words are true.  We know it.  We are just not well practiced in dealing with tragedy.

  • It feels sick to rehearse dealing with tragedy.  It follows that we are not ready when we are called to be.
  • When we cope well, we suffer ‘cognitive dissonance’.  If we aren’t falling apart, then surely events are not so bad after all?
  • Alternatively, if we cope well, maybe that means we don’t understand.  Maybe we simply insensitive.

Tragedy messes with our heads because we don’t know how to behave or how to tell our story.

The world doesn’t respond to blackmail

But sulking is a poor story too.   It’s silly because the world doesn’t care.  And it doesn’t respond to blackmail.  The world doesn’t care if we don’t like it.

It’s also self-destructive. We give away initiative to events.

Let me try explaining again.

From loser to hero

Sometimes a tragic story, or potentially tragic story, can be turned into a hero’s story.

A journalist on BBC4 this morning got back from Norway by getting a ride on a container boat and then a train.  Another took a taxi.  Angela Merkle flew back to Portugal.  The Noregian Prime Minister was last seen using his iPad sitting calmly in an American airport.   Our story is “what we did when . . .”

People who are enjoying the quiet of English birds singing in the early spring, feel apologetic.  I know I shouldn’t be enjoying this but . . .  They are feeling guilty because their story defines the cancellation of all flights as an advantage.

We hate it just as much when we miss events.   When the great volcano erupted, I was, well, I wasn’t doing anything sufficiently important to be interrupted.  I wasn’t important enough to be inconvenienced or be involved.   Oh, we don’t like that at all.

We cannot have a hero’s story without a push-off event.  We need a conflict or obstacle to have story and our reaction to the event is the story that we choose.  And we hate it when life doesn’t give us push-off events.  Do you get our screwy psychology?

What do we do our lives are turned upside down?

Let’s play this along a bit more.  In the early hours of flights being cancelled, we heard clips of people at airports who were disappointed.

I am sure their heads were reeling.  Could they make alternative arrangements?  They would have been blaming themselves for not travelling a day earlier.  They would be hastily making other arrangements (including getting home again) and calculating the costs.  They would be annoyed with their insurers who are very likely trying to get out of paying up.

There is a real story in their confusion, their choices and their actions.

Hassles show we are alive

Sadly, we heard them being angry.  With whom exactly?  They talked and spoke as if someone had done something to them.  One man even cursed the Icelanders?  Huh?  Badly expressed irony?  Professor Brian Cox mildly explained that we need volcanoes. If there were no volcanoes, the planet would be dead and so would we.

OK, volcanos are “natural”.  They clearly aren’t people.

But airlines are people.  Traffic controllers are people.  Aeronautical engineers are people.  That we travel by air is a people-thing. It isn’t natural.

We got into our situation by being human. By doing people things. It is part of being alive in 2010.  Should we refuse to travel by air?  Should we refuse to take part in life?

Of course not.

We don’t measure up when .  .  .

But shit happens.  How we cope with shit is the story.  We don’t measure up when

  • We refuse to acknowledge the shit.  It happens. Call shit, shit.
  • We refuse to learn.
  • We refuse to work with others.
  • We have no interest in what is happening to anyone else.
  • We don’t help anyone else.

We don’t measure up when we refuse to respond to life.

That doesn’t mean the story will be the one we prefer

Yup. We might not be able to change a particular story into a hero’s story because no one wins.

To change my metaphor, sometimes life is like a game of rugby when someone breaks his neck.  We don’t carry on playing.  We might play again tomorrow, but not today.

If the game is so rough that the chance of someone breaking their neck becomes to high, we stop playing.  We switch to another sport.

The story of life is not always gratifying.  Sometimes we even wonder why we bother.

What do we do when there are no heroes because we are all losers?

We aren’t always heroes because sometimes no one wins.  There are only losers.

The only story is damage control, be calm, work with others.  That is the only story.

It’s when we still try to be a hero that we lose.   Sometimes we have to accept that life is out of our control.

No one promised  . . .

No one promised we would be in control.  No one promised that we would be heroes.

We were only promised a chance to be alive on a planet with angry volcanoes, people jostling for advantage, hare-brained human ideas like air travel. I like hearing the birds and walking in the fields but I wouldn’t have any of that if the volcanoes died, no one made enough money to ship food across the world, and there weren’t daft engineers making metal birds to fly through the sky.

No one promised that I would always have it good. No one promised that I would always come out ‘looking good’.  No one promised I would always feel good about my efforts and reactions.

There is only an open invitation to take part

There is only an open invitation to take part every day in whatever part of the world that I find myself.

An open invitation to take part. That’s all.

I don’t have to feel gratified.  But I can be grateful.

Lifestyle design

Baby boomers thumbed their noses at authority.  Gen X tidied up after them.  Gen Y experiments not with authority but with reality.

Gen Y is into lifestyle design.  Look at Tim Ferris.  He chose the title for his book ‘The Four Hour Work Week” by buying the domain for each possible title, paying for a Google Ad campaign, and counting how many people were sufficiently curious to click through to the domain.

Simple, straightforward, realistic, evidence-based.

Lifestyle, design, experiments

Don’t turn hamburgers into sausages

I like this approach. I like the article in The Burger Lab a few days ago on cooking hamburgers.  Don’t put salt on meat before your mince it or when you’ve minced it.  Put salt on just before you cook the burger.  Otherwise you get sausage.  All demonstrated with a documented experiment; not asserted by an expert

But can I turn sausages into hamburgers?

Now I like to the do the opposite. I take sausage recipes and make hamburger.

For example, I take the famous South African boerwors that is seasoned with heaps of coriander, and sprinklings of nutmeg, cloves and vinega,r and I make a patty.

The question is this.  If I marinade my mince in spices and vinegar, will I get a congealed patty?  Or is that what I want?

Hmm, I can see a summer of experimentation coming up.

Take a journey in your life

journeys bring power and love back into you.

if you can’t go somewhere

move in the passageways of the self

they are like shafts of light,

always changing,

and you change when you explore them

Rumi

Be not the traveller who takes their world with them

I caught something interesting on BBC4 yesterday.

Two travellors were walking all day, around the Cape Town area as it happened.  They were tired and very hungry.  One said to the other:  I must eat lest I faint.

The other said:  I am hungry too.  But I don’t find it uncomfortable.  I find it interesting.

The first travellor thought:  If he does not feel his own hunger, then how can he feel the hunger of another.

For some of us, entering into the moment is hard.  We watch.  We observe.  Even when we are abroad, we are distant from our our own emotions and feelings.   We travel, yet never experience anything new because we cannot leave our world’s behind.

Be the privileged who travels at home

It’s an interesting idea then to simply explore the passageways of the self.

Be like the first travellor who engages directly with the world and listens for its response?

Be the poet who describes his life and changes his poem as he reads it to his audience?

Riff rather pontificate?

Accept the demands of the moment and our response?  Perceive the limitations of others as part of the situation.  And act?

As Joseph Campbell said:  The greatest privilege of a life time is to be ourselves.

Gen Y or age?

There is so much talk about Gen Y (shortly to be displaced by Gen i).  Unless we are a 12 year old at TED, we rarely talk about age anymore.

What it means to be twenty something

Increasingly, I’ve found myself entertaining the idea that in our twenties, we particularly like solving task problems.  Sacha Chua in Canada posts a great account of sewing clothes.  I remember that!  The triumph!  (Great blog, btw. Subscribe!)

Task triumph palls!

I don’t like doing that anymore.  I just “want it to work”. I am tired of clothes shops without clothes that please at price that is sensible.  Just how many pounds a day should we spend on clothes?

I am tired of having to trawl through websites to find what I want.  That is the retailer’s job.  Yes, when I was younger beating the retailer was a thrill.  Doing a better job than them by finding what I wanted elsewhere always delivered a frisson of delight.  I felt competent. I probably felt that I was asserting my immortality.

Existential crisis or not?

It’s great to feel competent.  It’s great to feel agentic.  But I also feel tired.  Is it an existential crisis to want the person who pulls coffee to be able to make coffee?  Is it an existential crisis to want the people to run the bus to keep it clean and safe and come when they say (to the schedule if there is one and whenever they promise if there is not)?

Is the best part of being 20 something discovering our own competence?

Is not the case that 20 somethings, in our system, have a grand time proving they can work our system? Is there a age-thing working here, mixed in with a residual need to prove we are better than our teachers?

Happiness is a choice

With apologies to Joseph Campbell:

When you are in a place

Defined by fear or desire

Then you are self-exiled from your own immortality.

Entertain fear or ambition, and you have exiled yourself from your own immortality.

Is it possible to escape fear and desire?

If you were brought up in the west, you probably think my assertion is absurd.  So I’ll break it down logically.   The statement seems to have 3 logical parts.

  • We do this to ourselves
  • There is something called our own immortality
  • Fear and ambition have the same effect

Our own immortality

Let’s define immortality simply.  When you are exiled from your own immortality, you feel a sense of not belonging and being uncomfortable “in your own skin” and “in this world”.    You feel restless, dissatisfied and disrespected.   Of course, that does not mean there is anything called your own immortality, but that is enough for now.  You would simply prefer not to feel restless, dissatisfied and disrespected!

We do this to ourselves

Yup, fear is real.  Desire is quite fun when we don’t over do it.  Ambition is cool.  We can imagine relinquishing ambition, but relinquishing desire and fear?  The big test is to prove to you that fear is a choice.

Fear and desire have the same effect.

I need to show you that they both have the same effect.  Let’s see if I can!

#1  Fear and desire are both about what is not rather than what is

With fear, we fear not being in some way. We don’t fear being.  We fear not being.  Isn’t ambition exactly the same?  We want to be what we are not? Desire is similar.  We want what is not.

Fear, ambition and desire are essentially about nothing.  They are about absence.  We are focusing all our attention on what is not.

#2  We do this to ourselves

Why are we thinking about nothing?  Why not think about who we are and what is?

#3  Can we think about who we are when we are frighten or driven?

Yes, we can.  Indeed it is the only way to stop thinking about what we are not. Forsake fear, ambition and desire and we have time for ourselves. (TG for our small minds; we think of one thing at a time.)

Being present

It’s an odd idea, or so it seems to us in the west.  But it is a long standing idea in east.  We can call it mindfulness.  Pay attention to what is here, now.   Other religions call it giving up attachments.

In the secular world, we help ourselves move from agitation to calm thinking by making checklists and keeping gratitude diaries.  Other people meditate.  Take your pick!  If you pray or balk at prayer, try a gratitude diary on for size.

Is being present selfish and irresponsible?

The curious thing about stopping and focusing on what is closely around us is that there is an immediate effect of connecting us more fully to the world.

Paulo Coelho suggests a simple exercise of stopping to listen.  Close your eyes and listen for the furthest sound.  You thought your fear and ambition came from paying attention to the world.  Now you feel your horizon of attention recede a little and the world seems more alive, more interesting.   There is more space for you.  You come back from your self-imposed exile.  You can breathe.  Try it. It is amazing!

Yes, it seems as if our fear and restlessness came from shutting the world out, rather than letting it in. We are scared and dissatisfied because we are not paying attention.  Or rather we were attending to what is not there rather than to what is.  We drove ourselves into exile by worrying about what is not.  Nuts.

Interestingly, you can call back the fear and ambition any time you want it.  But why replace the exciting world around you with nothing?

I must get an iPad!

Gen i

Lots of buzz today about a 30 month old little girl, still in nappies, who picked up a iPad and used it immediately.   What will she be like when she gets to school?

It’s not that she will know a lot.  She will simply expect that she is allowed to act on the world and that the world will respond immediately with useful intelligible feedback.

If people think Gen Y is spoiled, what will they think of Gen i?

So much IT is sooo painful

As for me, I wish the software I’ve been using today was responsive.  One program took over my screen, crashed a live podcast, demanded I reboot my computer, crashed my print jobs, and didn’t work any way.  I queued that reinstall for last thing tonight.

Now I am using a web 2.0 drawing program.  It’s super.  But I can’t find the right order to use the controls.  It stops working mysteriously.   As if design isn’t hard enough.   Well at least we didn’t pay for this one.

Complex is good; complicated is awful

And to remind budding psychologists who stop by here.  The little girl likes iPad because it is “complex”.  The iPad gives her choice and control.  At 2.5 she was playing spelling games.

My software is frustrating because it is complicated.  I don’t have control.  The feedback doesn’t help me find the controls.  And if I have any choice, I have not the time to enjoy it.  I am messing around with controls.

I’ll be interested to see if older people respond as easily to the iPad.  I hope so.  Old computers are terrifying to too many people.

Complex is good.  It is interesting and engaging.  Complicated is bad.  It is obtuse and exhausting.

Cooks who think

Put me through a Belbin team inventory and I don’t come out cerebral at all.  I’m all action and connection.

But I am a questioner.  Is what we doing important?  Are the important things getting done?  Are the important details attended to?  Are there exciting possibilities that we would love to pursue? I organize people & things in the virtual world of my mind and allow the connections there to prompt my conversations with the world.

So I love it when people introduce me to furniture for my mind.  I can rearrange my virtual world in ways that produce ideas for acting and connecting in the real world, and my life improves in leaps and bounds.

Eating better with thoughtful experiments

Daniel Young of Young & Foodish tweeted a link today on to seriouseats on the effects of salt on meat.

Oh, I am glad that my intuitions about meat and burgers are correct!  For a moment, I thought I had it back-to-front and pressed on to read the entire series of experiments on salt and burgers.  (I did say Daniel is American?)

See for yourself. It is a good series of “lifestyle experiments”.  And st the end, you will know the difference between a sausage and a burger!

I guarantee you will have a more successful barbecues this summer.  Enjoy!

Ah yes!  And a quick subscribe to seriouseats.

Your life mission in 30 seconds

A colleague of mine at the University of Canterbury would challenge first year students: “Can you stand up and tell the class (of 400 with intranet camera’s rolling) your life mission in 30 seconds?”

No. Of course, they can’t.  None of us can.  Even if we know our life mission, unless we are running as President of the US, we aren’t likely to lay it out for inspection.

It might even be bizarre to lay out our mission for inspection because it is built as we go in negotiation with people around us.

Your current priorities in 30 seconds

What we are able to do is tell you why what we are doing now is important to us.

Let’s imagine that.

  • A student, probably wearing a baseball cap backwards, stands up and says that he is doing a commerce degree because he should have a business degree but he really likes drinking and racing cars.  That’s OK with me.   It’s trifle ordinary but there is nothing wrong with being a regular bloke.  As we take the fellow (and his mates) through various exercises, he will find that he is extraverted, quite likely a Belbin team-player, with high affiliation needs and low achievement needs.  His career will pivot around his power needs (they might be high or low) and his propensity for action (is he a doer or a people person).  Really this is no problem at all.  He is heading towards a marketing-type career.  Acknowledging his life pattern gets him there faster with less angst.  Let him enjoy himself while he has the time and freedom.
  • A young women who stands up shyly and says she is doing a commerce degree because she thinks she can.  Indeed, introverted, with higher achievement orientation than her male colleague, and probably more concientious.  Her career will pivot around her ability to do accounting and finance and her willingness to take up leadership challenges to extend her emotional intelligence.  Funny how need for power comes up so often in commerce.
  • A professor who teaches because he wants to make sense of it all.  Quite high power and achievement needs.  Probably cerebral roles.

Permission to be ourselves

The mission is so obvious to anyone listening, yet not clear to the speaker.  When our mission is reflected back to, when the world says, “It’s OK”, then we relax too, and get on with what we need to get on with.

An ode to our life mission

So knowing that we can follow a plan without really knowing what the plan is, I’ll point you to a fantastic poem by Josephine Johnson that is circulating in poetry week.

Just remember when you read this poem “your barn” is “your unspoken barn”.  Don’t try to make an architectural plan of your barn (unless your are an architect or barn-builder).    Just admire the barn that emerges out of your life work.

Just say in 30 seconds why your current priorities are important to you.  The great and good around you do understand.  Don’t worry about defining you 30 second talk of next year.  It will be time enough then to set your priorities in the time and place that you live.

PS My colleague knew he was setting an impossible target.  But he also knew that students worry that they haven’t got their life mission nailed down.  By putting the goal on the table, he met them on the ground of their own concerns.   Then he led them towards that more nebulous place where we confidently build “our barn”, reassured by the feedback of respected others, and taking the time to stand back from time-to-time to look and say “what is this barn that I am building“?

Offer your problems to God, and they may open opportunities that you never imagined.

I am not religious, and if they haven’t clicked away already, my friends who are ‘evangelical atheists’ will think I’ve taken leave of my senses

Management theory is reconsidering its philosophical rots

[Yes, I did mean roots but the typo is apt.]

I heard the idea of presenting one’s problems to God from a Rabbi on Radio 4 today and it is an idea that has been forgotten by management theorists for a long, long time.  It is being actively and vigorously revived though, and if you want to be involved in modern management education, “opening yourself to the imagination of the universe” is an idea that you have to get you head around.

Old school management sucked the life juices out of us

“Old school” management is goal-oriented, and fundamentally arrogant and negative.  It goes like this. “I define the goal and until you have completed it, you are not up to scratch.”

We might even say that old school management is evil. It is even evil even when we are setting our goals for ourselves and not others.  It’s  arrogant to believe that we know what is right, not only for today, but for tomorrow whose shape we barely know.  It is very arrogant to believe that we know and the other does not.  It is evil to undermine the worth of other people and to daily put ourselves and others in situations where we are not up to scratch.

But how do we open ourselves to the imagination of the universe?

For all my exploration of modern management theory, I am still a psychologist and I want to know “what am I going to DO?

“offering a problem to God”, as I understand it, does not mean letting go.  It means beginning where we are, with our sense that the present does not meet our sense of what is right and wrong.   We begin by accepting our negative evaluation, our arrogant assertion that on this matter we believe we are right,  and our overbearing willingness to judge others.  We accept that this is ground we stand on at this moment.  This is our reality at the minut.

Then, we put this evaluation on the table, probably privately, it is offensive after all.  And at last,  we listen to what the universe has to say.    What does the universe have to say about this problem?

We’ve raised the flag.  We’ve said we will hear.   Now we listen!

But are we predisposed to listen?

The difficulty is though, that in this mood, when we feel the world is wrong, and we are right and that we are allowed to tell others they are wrong, in this mood, listening to anyone is far from our minds.

Positive psychology, an overlapping school of positive organizational scholarship, kicks in now and has a lot to say on how to reach a point that we can listen and hear.

We begin by reminding ourselves that it is quite natural, housed in a human body, to feel alarmed when we notice something is wrong.   Our biology is programmed that way.  It is natural .  .  .  well .  .  . to exaggerate.  When times are rough, and we reel from trauma to trauma, or just from hassle to hassle, it is not long before we begin to shut down and focus solely on what threatens us, or simply annoys us.

Positive psychologists help us stay out of this zone of despair, cynicism and negativity.  We look to them to keep us in that positive space where we can notice that something is wrong (or a least not to our taste) and listen to the universe.  It is a tough balancing act.

Positive psychologists are not our only resource, though. Most world religions have rituals to manage this emotional housekeeping.   Balancing our ‘alarm systems’ and listening to others is such an important skill that all cultures have ways of explaining the challenge.    What is saying a brief prayer before a meal but a momentary regaining of balance where we take stock in an appreciative not panicky way?

In our secular world, we explain every thing more wordily but we are not necessarily wrong.  Just ploddy.   Two other very important factors in maintaining ’emotional tone’ are exercise and friends.

The contribution of positive psychologists

Positive psychologists advocate a simple ritual of a gratitude diary.  A few brief notes at the end of each day makes the difference between believing that we have to solve every problem ourselves and “hearing” what the universe has to offer.

Offer your problems to the universe and allow yourself to be delighted by opportunities you never imagined.

And to my evangelical atheist friends, if you are such an objective scientist, try it before you knock it.


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