Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Free Day!

Today is February 29! It’s just what I’ve been longing for – extra time. Maybe the day still has only 24 hours, and maybe the week still has only 7 days, but by golly, this year has a extra day in it. What a gift!

I’m torn between two options for today. I could use it to get extra things done. Or I could use it as day of rest and reflection. Is it a Mary or a Martha day?

For those unfamiliar with that last reference, there is a story in the Bible of Jesus visiting the home of sisters Mary and Martha. While Martha busied herself cleaning and preparing food, Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to his teaching. When Martha complained that Mary was not helping her, Jesus defended Mary’s choice.

This is a difficult story for many, especially women. After all, someone had to get food ready. Someone had to be sure that guests were comfortable and cared for. Was Martha wrong?

I don’t think it is a story about the right choice or the wrong choice. I think it is a story about the different ways we are mindful, the different ways we show devotion, the different ways we are present.

So what does that mean for me today? How will I use this free day? Maybe I’ll be a little bit Mary and a little bit Martha. But whatever I choose, I will be grateful for the gift of this day.

What will you do with this free day?

Related posts: Butterfly Time

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Words Do Make a Difference

In my recent guest post on The BridgeMaker, I referred to the common call and response in church when the minister says, “This is the day the Lord has made,” and the congregation responds, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I bemoaned what I perceived as the congregation’s lack of enthusiasm in the often rote, monotone response, instead of what should be, in my thinking, a glorious affirmation of the miraculous gift of each precious day.

Rose Byrd very tactfully took me to task in her gracious comment. “Just saying the words may take a few moments to ‘sink in,’ but I have found over the years that the simple words DO make a difference!” She’s right, of course.

I can immediately think of two examples proving her point.

When my foster daughter Grace joined the family, she and Mia enjoyed only a brief honeymoon period before the fur started flying. Over time, their animosity became so entrenched that their attacks were automatic. They seemed incapable of seeing, let alone respecting, the other person’s perspective. Each saw herself as the victim of the other, on the receiving end of unwarranted meanness, self-righteous in retaliation.

I did everything I knew to do. We processed ourselves silly, went to counseling, discussed to exhaustion. Finally, I realized that getting them to understand the situation was a futile endeavor. Each was dug in too deeply. I decided I didn’t really care anymore if they “got it.” I needed the behavior to change, regardless of their understanding.

So I sat them down at the table and made a proposal based on the only thing I thought might motivate them – money. I promised to pay each of them $1 a day to get along. They had to be affirmatively nice to each other – ignoring each other was not enough. Only I got to decide at the end of the day if they earned the money. And either they both earned it or neither did. They would make money or not as a team.

The next day was a pleasure. They said please and thank you to each other. They offered to help each other with chores. They complimented each other. They were totally insincere, you understand. I didn’t care. Peace was restored.

By the time the novelty wore off after a few weeks, they had broken their habit. Over time I saw that they changed at a deeper level. They became genuinely kind to each other. The words that initially were spoken with thinly veiled contempt became words spoken in true friendship and affection.

Another time, it was I who was entrenched in hostility. I blamed someone for causing me so much stress and anguish that I thought I was going to die of it. I’ll call this person Fred. I blamed Fred for everything that seemed wrong with my life at that time, which was a lot. I hated Fred. I wanted bad things to happen to him. I fantasized about terrible things I’m too ashamed to describe. I felt no mercy. I wanted vengeance.

I repeatedly revisited all the wrongs I thought I had suffered at the hands of Fred, like watching news accounts of some horrible crime or natural disaster over and over. It was an addiction – a habit I couldn’t stop. And like any addiction, it was becoming unmanageable

My brain needed a new habit. Every time I thought about Fred, at the very instant I began to repeat my habitual pattern, I substituted a new thought before the emotions started churning. Before I was hooked. “God bless Fred and please help me mean it.” Let me be clear. I did not mean it. Not for a second. I did not mean the “God bless Fred” part, and sometimes I didn’t even mean the “please help me mean it” part.

Nevertheless, over weeks and months, very slowly, the blame loosened its grip. My heart began to soften. My feelings didn’t boil when thoughts about Fred crossed my mind. The thoughts didn’t come so often. By then, the prayer had become a habit, so that when a thought of Fred popped up, the blessing was automatically triggered. Sometimes I hardly noticed it. And finally one day I said it and gasped in amazement. I really did mean it. I really, truly wished Fred well. It was a miracle.

So my thanks to Rose, who reminded me of the innate power of words.

Let the weak say, “I am strong.” –Joel 3:10

Related posts: Kindness Pays; God Bless That Ol @#&!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Feelings on My Mind

Or I should say feelings in my mind. You might already know about the research of Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley, but if you don’t, the current issue of Newsweek has an interesting article about it. Click here to read it.

Their research shows that we all have an “emotional style” that can be traced to patterns of activity in the brain, creating for each of us a unique emotional profile. Our emotional style includes the elements of resilience, outlook, self-awareness, social intuition, attention, and sensitivity to context.

Some of this is not new. We all know, for example, that different people have different emotional responses to the same event. We all know that some people are more emotional than others, and that different people have different dominant emotions. We might, for example, describe one person as being a happy person and another as being angry.

We might explain all this by saying that that’s just the way we are. We might think we have no control over our individual emotional make up, or over the fleeting, transitory feelings that we experience as we go through our days. And this is where we would be mistaken. Although it’s true that our basic, primal instincts of fight or flight are triggered in the more primitive part of our brain, the thinking part of our brain can create neural patterns that will override or temper the intense, stressful reactions of what is sometimes referred to as our “lizard” brain.

Scientists no longer see our brains as hard wired at an early age. The term “neuroplasticity” describes the brain’s life long ability to change its actual structure and function. We see this happen when someone who has suffered a brain injury is able to train other parts of the brain to take over the tasks of the injured area. The same is true for our emotional patterns.

Two forms of mental activity are especially helpful in training our brains to rewire our thinking patterns, to enhance our emotional well being. Both of these activities are techniques we’ve discussed on this blog. See the related posts listed below.

The first is cognitive behavior therapy, which is a fancy phrase for paying attention to our thoughts. Our feelings are based on underlying thoughts and beliefs. Let’s say, for example, that I left a message for you and you didn’t call me back. I might feel upset or hurt or angry. But look deeper. Underneath those feelings I will find thoughts. For example, you are being rude by ignoring my message. You think you are so important that my message doesn’t matter. You are upset with me and you’re giving me the silent treatment.

You get the idea. We often don’t examine the reactionary thoughts we have. But if we did, we might see that we are telling ourselves a story that might not be true. I don’t know why you didn’t call me back. Maybe your phone doesn’t work. Maybe you are crazy busy and will call me when you can. The point is that my feelings are based on faulty thinking. If I found out that you didn’t call back because you were in a car accident, my feelings would be very different even though the event – your not calling back – was the same. Questioning our basic assumptions can help us shift away from feelings that cause us distress.

The other mental activity highlighted in the article is meditation, especially mindfulness meditation. Meditation helps us become more self aware of our internal chatter, as we watch our thoughts come and go without getting hooked into our emotional reactions to our thoughts. Brain studies of Buddhist monks who spend a lot of time meditating show increased activity in the part of the brain that promotes well being. Through meditation, they have actually restructured their brains to increase joy.

Through these methods, and other forms of mental activity, we can strengthen the thinking part of our brain and increase the pathways to the primitive part of our brain, allowing our higher consciousness to calm our instinctive stress reactions and enhance equanimity.

Now that’s something worth thinking about!

Related posts: Feeding the Wolf; Transforming Our Feelings; The Hidden Life of Minds; The M Word

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Butterfly Time

The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough. –Rabindranath Tagore

When Bob Lowry wrote on his blog Satisfying Retirement about the surprises he has encountered in his 11 years of retirement, I started thinking about the one big surprise I’ve encountered since I retired less than a year ago. You’ll laugh when I tell you.

I'm surprised that there are still only 24 hours in a day.

I thought that when I retired I would have enough time to do all the things I want to do. I thought that the days would stretch invitingly before me with endless hours to fill up with all those things on my when-I-have-more-time-I’m-going-to list. Here are some of the things from my list.

When I have more time, I’m going to:
–learn a new style of martial arts
–finish my book
–start baking bread again
–spend hours puttering around in the garden
–spend hours sitting in the garden after I’ve puttered
–read as much as I want to
–get serious about learning Chinese
–relearn Thai
–polish my French
–learn some other languages I haven’t even decided on yet
–spend more time in meditation every morning
–write more short pieces for magazines and anthologies
–keep up with my blog
–spend more time with friends and with people I hope will become friends
–cook more often (and better)
–spend more one on one time with each of my kids
–spend as much time as I want with my grandkids
–stay at the cabin more often and for longer periods
–be a better blog friend
–take the dog for more walks
–drink as much water as I should
–reconnect with folks I’ve lost touch with
–organize and deep clean the house and keep it clean and organized
–use more moisturizer
–did I say read as much as I want to
–and have plenty of time left over to just relax and do nothing

Yep, I really thought I would have time to do all these things. But I don't. I still have to make choices. I still have to postpone or let go of things I can't fit in. That is just so wrong. I feel cheated.

I heard someone say recently that lack of time was the biggest obstacle to her happiness. I so easily saw myself in her harried exertions, looking for that elusive peace we think more time will bring. But it won’t. As long as we think the answer to our happiness is out there, in the ticking of the clock, the sweep of the secondhand, the turning of the calendar page, we will always be chasing the shadow of our joy.

I want to be like a butterfly. I want to shift my perception of time to realize that whatever time I have is perfect. I want to enter into the eternity of every moment, blessed by its beauty, grateful for its gifts, humbled by its grace.

Ah, I’m embarrassed by my frantic selfishness in the face of such riches. Time hasn’t changed at all. I’m just greedy for more of it. I may not have enough time for all the things on my list, but I’m fortunate to spend the time I have doing what I like to do. Moreover, I have all the time in the world for the only thing that really matters, loving and being loved.

It’s enough, after all.

He who knows enough is enough will always have enough. –Tao Te Ching

Related posts: Man Plans, God Laughs; Our Treasurest Place

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Be Glad In It

[This is a guest post on Alex Blackwell's blog The BridgeMaker.]

This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. –Psalm 118:24

Often in church our minister will speak the first sentence of this verse. The congregation responds with the second. It’s an automatic response, intoned in unison, without audible enthusiasm or intention. Blah blah blah.


It’s raining outside. My dog is getting old. My spouse doesn’t understand me. I have a stack of bills on my desk. I have too much to do and not enough time. The kids are driving me crazy. I’m worried about the stock market. I feel despair about our political climate. And our environmental climate. The birds don’t visit my birdfeeders in the garden. A friend isn’t returning my calls. I haven’t had a vacation in ages. Can’t afford one anyway. Dad’s mind is slipping.

What is there to rejoice about?

Please click here to read the rest of the post.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

No One Wins in Court

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. –Shakespeare, Henry VI*

As someone who spent her career as a lawyer, I’ve heard all the lawyer jokes. Some are actually funny. And while there are lawyers who undeniably give lawyers a bad name, in my career I found most lawyers to be exactly what they should be – healers. That’s right. Healers.

Someone said once that there are three healing professions – medicine heals the body, ministry heals the soul, and law heals society. As a law professor, I had a standard welcome speech for first year students. “Your professional responsibility doesn’t begin when you pass the bar exam. It begins today. The people who will be coming to you for help are depending on your expertise, your integrity, and your effort. Your education up till now has been about you, but beginning today, it isn’t about you anymore. It’s about them.”

Most of the lawyers I encountered during my career had what I considered the right stuff. They served with dedication, compassion, skill, and for the most part, not lots of money, certainly not as much as the general public thinks. I always felt pride in my profession and sober humility with the awareness of my responsibility to my clients, my students, and my society.

One of the classes I taught was a seminar on drafting contracts. Students come into law school full of a lifetime of TV shows about lawyers in court. They think in terms of drafting a contract that will “hold up” in court. Imagine their surprise when I tell them that if their contract ever ends up in court, they’ve already lost. A successful contract is not one that “wins” in court. It’s one that promotes a good relationship between the parties, that allows them to perform willingly and to receive something they value in return. If the parties end up in court, our adversarial system results in a winner and a loser, but both parties have lost the relationship they initially envisioned, not to mention the practical losses in time and money.

The United States is known, justifiably so, as a litigious society. We look to the courts to settle all sorts of disputes, from presidential elections to environmental cleanups to neighbors fighting over fences. All these lawsuits have one thing in common – other modes of resolution have failed. And while it may be true that more often than not, justice is served by the outcome in court, something perhaps more precious has been lost. An adversarial dispute costs us the opportunity we have as individuals, organizations, companies, and governments to find a way to maintain our connection with each other, to have an open hand rather than an upper hand, to find common ground rather than legally superior ground.

Justice is sometimes a sad victor.

Therefore when the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is kindness.
When kindness is lost, there is justice.
When justice is lost, there is ritual.
Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion
–Tao Te Ching

*This line is often taken out of context and used as a pejorative against lawyers. In fact, the speaker was a follower of an anarchist seeking to overthrow the government and install himself as king. The speaker was not criticizing lawyers. On the contrary, he was observing that any tyrant wannabe would have to eliminate the front line defenders of order and justice, that is, the lawyers, before proceeding with his evil plans.

Related posts: I’m Right – So What, One Hand Clapping, Ego Knickers

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Kindness of Strangers

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. –Matthew 25:35

I was reading a news story recently about a passerby who pulled an accident victim from a burning car. That reminded me of a video I saw some months back about a group of people who ran to the aid of a motorcyclist who had been hit by a car and was trapped underneath. The car was on fire. The people actually lifted the car up enough for someone to pull him out from under the car and to safety before the car exploded.

The term “good Samaritan” comes from a story in the Bible about a man who was mugged on the road and left to die. Many people passed by, but then a Samaritan stopped and helped him. He took the man to an inn and paid the innkeeper to nurse him back to health. There are many levels to the story, like the fact that Samaritans were not popular in that area and yet it was a Samaritan who stopped while the victim’s countrymen ignored his plight. The point, though, is that a stranger stopped to help.

I was in a bad car accident once. I was driving on a two lane highway in Arkansas at night. As I approached a curve on the outside, a pickup truck driving too fast in the other direction on the inside lane swung wide into my lane. I veered off to the shoulder, but lost control in the gravel and plunged off the road. My car flipped over down an embankment and ended up upside down. I was on the roof of the car in the dark, disoriented and in shock. I was most concerned for my two dogs. I found them in the rear of the car and managed to climb out one of the doors with them and scramble through the brush back up to the road.

By that time, several cars had stopped and people were coming down the embankment to help me. In a daze, I was aware of people asking me if anyone else was in the car and if I was all right. I felt a twinge in my shoulder and when I reached to touch it realized that my collarbone was smashed. I calmly said I needed a ride to the hospital.

There was some discussion among my rescuers. One young couple was headed in the direction of the nearest hospital. They loaded me and the dogs in their car and off we went. At the hospital, they came in with me. Once they saw I was in good hands, they took my dogs home with them. When friends were able to pick me up hours later, they brought my dogs back to the hospital. (They must have given their phone number to someone at the hospital.) In my shock and by that time drugged state, I didn’t even get their names.

Strangers helping strangers. In dramatic ways and everyday ways. My daughter was walking home from high school one day. She saw a woman who looked lost and distressed. Mia offered to help. The woman clearly had some sort of mental disability and had gotten off at the wrong bus stop. She was able to give Mia her address. It was a long detour for Mia, but Mia walked her all the way home and made sure there was someone there for her. Mia has done many wonderful things in her life, but I count that as one of the things I’m most proud of.

At some point in our lives, we all find ourselves, as Blanche so famously said in A Streetcar Named Desire, dependent on the kindness of strangers. Sometimes, we are that stranger offering kindness to someone else. And in those moments, whether giving or receiving help, we realize something that at other times we so easily forget.

There are no strangers.

Related posts: The Kindness Game, Mi Casa Es Su Casa, A Few Leaves, There is No Them

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Burning Tree?

I am going to digress from my usual themes to tell you about something that has me flummoxed. On Friday, I was on a train going to Seattle. The weather was mild and sunny. We were delayed on a side rail for about thirty minutes, waiting for a train to pass from the other direction. We were stopped in a business district of some town. Next to the tracks was a street. Across the street was a four or five level office building with a small parking lot in front. Next to the parking lot was a grassy area with one tree positioned about forty feet in front of the building. The tree was some kind of bushy evergreen and grew slightly taller than the roof. There were no people around, only cars driving by on the street.

Someone remarked that there was smoke coming from the tree. Sure enough, smoke was curling from the top part of the tree. As we watched, the smoke rapidly increased in volume and we soon saw flames licking the uppermost branches. The fire rapidly expanded until the entire top of the tree was on fire and the flames started making their way downward.

By then, a man standing in the parking lot was on his cell phone, and moments later, a fire truck pulled up. The flames were now a third of the way down the tree. The fire fighters hooked up the hose and within minutes there was only a little steam still drifting from the tree. Police had also arrived. Officers and fire fighters and a couple of people from the building talked together, but soon everyone left.

From our perspective on the train, there was no visible damage to the tree. The top branches still looked full and green. During the fire, a few ashes flew into the air, but nothing fell to the grass underneath. There was no sign that the fire ever happened.

All of this happened in about twenty minutes. No one on the train could explain what we had seen. Can you?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

They’re Baaaaaack!

It happened again, just as it does every winter. Here is the post I wrote a year ago. Some things have changed. I’m retired, so I wasn’t driving to work. It was a sunny, cold day instead of a rainy day. But some things don’t change, like my delight every year when I see them....

Winter Surprise

I was driving to work this morning and there they were, like they are every year. The January daffodils. Not just a green sprout tentatively peeking through the dirt. A whole corner covered with bright yellow blossoms. A small field of sunshine.

If you live in my part of the world you know that the last month has brought record rainfall. The only sunny days have been the below freezing days around New Year’s. Water is rising in basements. Creeks and rivers are spilling over their banks. Everybody is feeling mossy and mildewed.

But these daffodils don’t care. They bloom in January every year. Ice and snow do not deter them. Gray soggy days do not dampen their spirits. They do not bow to pouring rain. They stand straight up on the corner singing and dancing, heralding the life gestating in the winter dark.

Every year I forget about those daffodils. By January, winter is in full force, and I’m hunkered down with my mug of hot tea, wrapped in my comfy robe, waiting.... Every winter I forget until the day I am walking or driving by and there they are, laughing at my surprise.

And I laugh with them.