Joy and sorrow

What’s Your Natural Disposition?

“Good morning, Eeyore,” said Pooh.
“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning, which I doubt.” —A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

PoohAs you start the New Year, do you see your life circumstances optimistically or pessimistically? What is your natural disposition? How do you really want to view yourself in the world? I think of myself as a relatively optimistic person, but as I write this, I ask myself, Do I always think positively? What about my doubts and fears? No; I am not a card-carrying optimist. Nor do I believe there are absolute pessimists. We are much more complex creatures. But our disposition can help us realize our goals and live a fulfilling life—or it can hinder us.

A movement known as Positive Psychology touts the benefits of optimism and positive thinking. Research has shown that an optimistic disposition helps us cope with stress and build resilience. Further, it affects our physical health (it helps strengthen the immune system and prevent chronic diseases). And our mental/emotional well-being (it might, for example, help us cope with bad news). It goes without saying that optimists are generally happier than pessimists. But can pessimists flip to purely optimistic thinking? And should they?

Optimism/pessimism

Optimism is derived from the Latin optimum, meaning “best.” Being optimistic means one expects the best possible outcome from any given situation. For optimists even setbacks are viewed as learning experiences. Pessimism comes from the Latin word pessimus, meaning “worst.” A pessimist has a cynical, hopeless, or fearful perspective; anticipates undesirable outcomes; and believes that life is full of hardship.

optimismAccording to psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D., who is considered the father of Positive Psychology, and is the author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, pessimists have three thinking styles that surface when something bad has happened or didn’t go their way. They react automatically, believing the cause is either permanent (“this change can never be undone”; pervasive (“this will spoil everything”); or personal (“this happened because I made the wrong call and I have no skills”).

Wiring paradox

The fact is that humans are wired biologically to be fearful, which triggers the fight or flight response. While this negativity bias has helped humans meet hardships across the millennia, unfortunately, it has become the way many of us experience the stress-producing challenges we face in modern life. Optimists, on the other hand, respond to stress by focusing on the potential to create something better.

But there is a paradox because we are also wired for positivity. We are more likely to remember pleasant experiences than negative ones. We even remember neutral events as more positive than they really were. Being hopeful and trusting, optimists continuously create positive memories. Sometimes, however, this high level of trust can result in extreme disappointment.

scientistThere are actually advantages to being a pessimist. A pessimist who is naturally skeptical generally needs proof before he or she gets on board. Scientists, necessarily, are constantly questioning and reluctant to accept findings that cannot be duplicated. While optimists tend to be risk takers and may make fanciful leaps in thinking, pessimists may help keep their unrealistic ideas in check. Winston Churchill said: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Both perspectives help us to see the whole.

Realism, optimism with a caveat

None of us live entirely as idealistic optimists or fatalistic pessimists. There is a middle position: realism. William Arthur Ward, an often-quoted 20th century American writer, noted: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

During the Vietnam War, many US soldiers were held captive for long periods. Once the prisoners were rescued, the ones who made it were often realists. It was discovered that usually pessimists died first. Surprisingly, they were followed by optimists, who often lost hope over time and gave up. Mostly the realists made it because they lived one day at a time, making the most out of each day.

James Stockdale

James Stockdale

In the book Good to Great, author James Collins recounts a conversation he had with James Stockdale, a U.S. Navy commander who was held captive in Hanoi for seven and a half years, where he was tortured, locked in leg irons, denied medical attention, and kept in solitary confinement. Stockdale told Collins, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When asked which prisoners did not get out, he replied, “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. . . . they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’” And so on and so forth. Ultimately, said Stockdale, “they died of a broken heart.”

Stockdale paradox

Though Stockdale’s outlook sounds optimistic, he emphasized that it was not. He remained realistic about his situation; he didn’t give up because he looked at the big picture, and he had no expectations about when he would be freed, whereas the optimists held on to unrealistic hopes. This is what is known as the Stockdale Paradox.

A realist is someone who sees things in the moment and takes each day as it comes. Realists are grounded and adaptable; they are able to cope with the negative while still enjoying the positive. A realist hopes for the best and is prepared for the worst. Like pessimists, realists base opinions and decisions on analysis, though they tend to be more objective.

Realizing the best you

best possible selfPositive Psychology believes people can boost their positive emotions, happiness level, optimism, and coping skills. It recommends this exercise: Visualize yourself at a future moment in time—such as six months, one year or five years from now—having accomplished your goals. Consider the character strengths you’ll need to make that vision a reality. Imagine that in this vision of your future you are expressing your Best Possible Self. You might think of it as reaching your full potential, achieving an important milestone, or realizing one of your life dreams. This vision should be attainable and within reason. Writing it down can help you grasp the character strengths that will help you realize your Best Possible Self.

I learned a similar approach in my coaching training, called “Future Self.” Meeting a vision of the Self I would like to become, I asked questions such as what important steps had she taken to achieve her goals. This exercise helped me create a positive direction for my life, with realistic steps that I am still taking to become what I consider my Most Satisfied Self.

 Mindfulness disposition

minduflnessIn my own experience, meditation and mindfulness practices have fostered my own realism. Ellen Langer, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Harvard University and author of Mindfulness, has conducted research that has found that mindfulness results in better health, more competence, and greater happiness. She suggests that mindfulness makes us more optimistic because we are open and attentive to possibilities.

On the other hand, mindless optimism or pessimism may prevent people from being present with reality itself. For example, a pessimist may mindlessly relinquish control of his health to the doctor, accept whatever diagnosis is given, and take whatever medications are prescribed rather than participate in his own health care. Whereas an optimist may read about his symptoms online, question the doctor about the prognosis and what side effects the medications might have, or ask whether there are alternative treatments.

Langer’s approach to mindfulness includes five steps:
  • Seek out, create, and notice new things.
  • Realize how behavior can be understood differently in different contexts.
  • Reframe mistakes into learning experiences.
  • Expand your mindset and perspective to gain control of emotions.
  • Be authentic.

Such a disposition of mindfulness encourages you to be an observer of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. That process helps you learn what aspects of optimism, pessimism, and realism are beneficial for you and ultimately find fulfillment in life. So, what’s your natural disposition? As Oprah Winfrey once said: “When I look at the future, it’s so bright, it burns my eyes.”

listening in nature

Listening as Presence: Learn How

“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

Listening to pianoI recently viewed a TV special with a segment from the PBS children’s television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in which Nick, a young boy, was invited to play the piano. As Nick played a Bach minuet, Mister Rogers listened in a way that suggested he was not just hearing the notes but actually experiencing them in the same way his young player did. He watched Nick’s facial expressions, not his hands, and was thoroughly present and connected in his listening. Indeed, a Mister Rogers hallmark was encouraging kids to connect with others, especially those different from them. That passion for connection is reflected in the title of both the song for which he is best remembered and the recent documentary film about him: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Passive and active

How often are you really present with what is happening in your life? Do you find yourself easily distracted while engaging in activities or listening only partially when people are speaking? Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions have always had their power to distract us from the present moment. But nowadays texts, emails, and various social media have become all consuming, taking us away from what is before us, and even what is inside us. Yet with all this connectivity, research reveals that Americans feel more isolated and disconnected than ever before. All these electronic distractions interfere significantly with our ability to truly listen, focus, respond—and even to feel fully alive.

Hearing is generally a passive experience. We are bombarded with a myriad of sounds as we move through our daily lives and simply cannot be present to all of them. But how often do we really stop to listen?

Listening is not limited to hearing through our ears. We have the capacity to listen with our whole body, heart, and mind. Although hearing depends on the transmission of vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear, sound vibrations also produce a felt sense in the body. I once attended a conference at which the entire audience was deaf. To my surprise, the event ended with a dance; the participants’ bodies moved with exhilarating joy to incredibly loud music. So loud it felt like my eardrums might burst. But I also felt its deep vibration throughout my entire body.

listening to cicadas

cicada

As I write this, the hissing sound of cicadas is present outside and I occasionally pause and listen. I feel it vibrating inside and around me. Listening can be an active inner experience that that requires our full presence and fosters openness and absorption.

Connection

We all have a need to tell our story and truly be heard. Our minds often ruminate over stories of our daily experiences as well as our life challenges, which can cause us to feel stuck or blocked. Sometimes just letting it out verbally can release some of what is pent up inside. But that may only provide a temporary fix. We all need a Mister Rogers–like listener. When someone truly listens to us, a powerful human connection is created. We depend on and thrive as a result of such inter-relatedness with others.

listening through journaling

Anne Frank

When no one is available to listen, journaling can be a meaningful outlet. Some people keep a journal as if they are opening up to another person. Thirteen-year-old Anne Frank was forced into hiding with her Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in 1942. For two years she kept a diary in which she shared her deepest thoughts and feelings with an imaginary friend she called Kitty. Kitty became Anne’s safe and intimate confidante. Her diary, subsequently published as The Diary of a Young Girl, has become a classic that continues to inspire countless readers.

How to listen to another

I believe that most of us listen to one another halfheartedly, or, more colloquially speaking, we are half-assed listeners! When someone is speaking, a transient thought may surface in our mind, and we stop listening. We may think we’re listening, but we get busy thinking about what we want to say in response and become focused on when we might have the opportunity to interject our thoughts. The result is a fragmented conversation that does not provide the sense of connection we all need.

How do we listen? You might practice the following exercise with a friend or partner. Choose a time and place away from conflicts when your stress hormones are not activated. As one person shares something important to him or her, you, the listener, should slow down and breathe deeply. Perhaps evoke Mister Rogers! Become calm and absorb what the other person says—like a sponge. Set aside judgement and assumptions; don’t analyze and don’t interrupt. This is especially important when listening to someone whose views don’t agree with yours. Notice if you become triggered by what is being shared. Stay grounded and present with your breath while continuing to remain open and accepting; maintain eye contact.

Rather than wanting to fix, change, or give advice, be curious. Respond with nonintrusive, clarifying questions. For example, paraphrase what you’ve heard and ask, “Did I get it right?” Ask the speaker to “say more.” Ask about their feelings, which will allow them to know you care; they will feel validated, something we all seek.

Listening in nature

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “In listening in naturenature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.” Nature may be our best teacher for learning to listen. As the cicadas continue to hiss outside my window, I feel their presence subtly vibrating in my body, calling me to go outside and walk amongst the trees. According to biologist David George Haskell, author of The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, “There is no such thing as an individual within biology…. Instead, the fundamental unit of life is interconnection and relationship.” A tree shares the sounds of its leaves rustling in the wind; the insects and birds inhabiting its branches make their own unique and beautiful sounds. Nature’s sounds can help lure you away from your busy thinking mind. When you relax into listening, it’s possible to empty your mind of unnecessary thoughts. When you are deeply present, you experience the sound of silence and feel its peace and equilibrium. Listening can become your best companion.

As the spiritual philosopher Jean Klein, author of numerous books including The Book of Listening and The Ease of Being, said: “When you come to innocent, unconditioned listening, your body goes spontaneously into deep peace.”

 

 

heart

Embody The Five “A”s of Love

I was inspired to explore the five “A”s of love after attending a performance of Chicago’s Natya Dance Theatre’s new work, “The Seventh Love.” Based on the ancient Buddhist discourse known as “The Five Aspects of Love,” a narrative was brought to life through expressive East Indian dance and dialogue. The message: learning to embody these five aspects—attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowancehelps one attain a sixth, perfect love. Continue reading

lifespan

Whole and Complete as You Are

Not long ago, I read that our average lifespan is 30,000 days. How many days have you already used up and how many might you have left?

Life is so precious. Each day is a blessing that holds a responsibility to express your special gifts into the world. What would your days be like if you weren’t bogged down by the past, reacting emotionally in the present, or anxious about the future? What if you could feel really at home and at peace in your skin, be in tune with the deepest desire for your life and express your best self in the world?Continue reading

Generosity of Our Best Selves

Third in a three-part series

In this series I’ve been exploring how consumerism has come to dominate our culture in the form of craving, getting, having and hoarding. We’ve lost touch with our best self that is concerned not just for the individual, but for all people. The sense of “other-serving has taken a back seat to, What’s in it for me.” Yet when we begin to shift our consciousness to unconditional giving we are showered with incredibly valuable gifts that can feed our spirit for a lifetime.

powerhalfPower of half
One family chose a novel approach to assume the role of good citizen. In their book, The Power of Half, Kevin Salwen and his daughter, Hannah, share their story. Stopped at a traffic light with a Mercedes in front of them and a homeless man begging for food on their side, Hannah found herself saying to her dad, “If that guy didn’t have such a nice car, the man over here could get a meal.” While this prosperous family was already volunteering to help the needy, with Hannah’s persistence, they downsized, sold their house and donated half the proceeds ($800,000) to The Hunger Project to help villagers in Ghana. (visit their websiteThe Power of Half for more information)

While most of us may not be in a position to do as much, everyone does have time or resources to give. By cutting back half your precious time spent on the internet, TV or various devices, you would have time to dedicate to a worthy cause. Imagine if everyone donated half a paycheck, or half a day’s wages. Imagine if you moved through your day looking for ways to express random acts of kindness. Try it for a day and record your feelings at the end.

When the next fundraiser comes around, why not refuse the premium, forget the tax write-off and allow the currency to flow freely toward others? Again, notice how you feel.

Find meaning
True generosity is without ego or judgment, yet seems to give the givers a sense of meaning and purpose. Generosity can help you to become more attuned to the real you, make better life choices and create intentions around what you want to invite into your life. Choose causes and volunteer activities that are meaningful to you or that make you feel a sense of purpose. It’s not unusual for this to open new life pathways you never dreamed of.

There is scientific evidence that we are born to be kind and generous. However, growing up in an environment that conditions us to believe in scarcity and limitation creates fear that blocks our generosity current. Getting outside yourself and engaging in generous activities takes you out of your funk and provides a positive perspective on your situation.

generosityWith the best models, generosity recipients can be given a sense of hope, feel empowered and truly cared for. When we see a grateful face light up, we can begin to let go of our own lack and limitation fears and find gratitude in our lives. The law of attraction can then kick in, opening up currents of unimagined abundance.

The best way to express your best self and build a generosity consciousness is to give of yourself. Wherever you can conjure up your caring and compassionate nature, whether it is for a civic cause you believe in, a friend, relative or child whom you can help, it will come back to you in multiple ways. Be your best self and partner up to make the world a better place.

“I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one.” ~ John Lennon, “Imagine

See also: What Happened to Our Best Selves & Generosity Consciousness

Generosity Consciousness

newworld1

Currency of Our Best Selves

Second of a three-part series
(See part one – What Happened to our Best Selves)

Imagine a world where generosity became as important a currency as the dollar, the currency of commerce. This currency would not wait until a natural disaster struck, a local fundraiser’s direct mail appeal arrived or a friend reluctantly asked for help. It wouldn’t expect anything in return. It would be the natural way for doing the world’s business and for manifesting our best selves’ nature.

Utopia? I think not. We are in the midst of a cultural evolution where old values that ultimately produce greed and self-interest are showing their true faces and new core values of equality, caring for the human community and our Earth are emerging. In this world, we’ll be known as good citizens versus consumers.

Currency as energy
Giving and receiving is an energy exchange. In the world of commerce, when you give money, you generally receive a product or service in exchange. When I donate money and receive a premium tote bag, mug, CD or event tickets in return, I am participating in this exchange. My donation then becomes attached to the expectation of getting something that I will ultimately consume – or stuff in a closet.

A Dictionery.com definition of currency is, ”the fact or quality of being widely accepted and circulated from person TO person” (my emphasis). In this case, there is no expectation of receiving something back from the source, but rather starting or keeping the flow moving.  A power plant sends an electric current to your home. Turn on the light switch and electric current flows to the bulb. The bulb gives off light, which helps you to see, then read, better understand, ultimately transmit your knowledge to others.

open hand - heartConditional giving
With any energy exchange, there is always something to receive. However, when currency is received from unconditional generosity (nothing expected in return), it generally comes in unexpected or intangible ways. Research has shown that giving a part of yourself, particularly in volunteer work, can build new relationships and community. It can enhance your health – immune system, cholesterol, heart – and reduce stress. A sense of empowerment, pride and accomplishment tops this exchange.

So much of the giving in today’s world has strings attached. When I give, currency returns to me as a tax write-off or premium. Though we are known as the most giving nation in the world, why are so many people in need? Our government has built-in provisions for funding not-for-profits –- public services, arts and community organizations. But whenever the economy is in jeopardy, a lot of this funding goes south causing many to suffer the consequences. Most of today’s business models have a component of giving back to the communities where they do business, which generally becomes a promotional scheme. (I’m always intrigued with those anonymous donors.)

Generosity Consciousness
How can we manifest our better self and give back unconditionally to society? It requires a shift in consciousness. True generosity asks for nothing in return. Rather it gives freely from a compassionate heart. It is aware of a need and finds a way to fulfill that need in what I term is “Generosity Consciousness.”

To manifest “Generosity Consciousness” means to be open-handed and open-hearted in giving. When it comes to stuff we accumulate, there certainly is a feeling of freedom, of letting go when you give it away. It lightens the load and provides space to invite in new opportunities, situations and people into your life.

The root of the word “generous” also means noble – of high moral character, courage and honor. How noble and honorable it is to help others!

Being called
In the past year, I’ve been called several times to be with my elder family friend in the ER and hospital. In situations like this or when someone is in distress, and I can be of service, I don’t even think about myself. I feel compelled to open-heartedly be there and create a loving container, a larger, fuller space to hold them. When you care about others, you make them feel special and show that they have worth.

My friends, Mary Jane and Louis, who regularly give of their time, money or wisdom both shared that they feel no division between giving and ordinary life. There is a seamless quality between the two. It just doesn’t occur to them that they are doing anything extraordinary. Whenever there is a need, they willingly try to fill

Your generosity reflections
Reflect back on your life to times when you gave freely without conditions – in your family life, school, workplace or community. How did your feel afterwards? What were the outcomes for others involved? What are you doing now or what would you like to do to express your best self?

Learn how to teach your kids to be generous

What Happened to Our Best Selves?

First of a three-part series

During the last half of the 20th century, the concept of “citizen” was hijacked and became that of “consumer.” This great loss has made it extremely challenging to exhibit our “best self”—a concept that earlier generations worked so hard to instill in us. While we may exhibit our best briefly, reaching out to help others when natural disaster strikes (as it did in January in Haiti), it mostly lies dormant. We need to feed, nurture, and reawaken this aspect of our natures.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word consumer is defined garbage heapas someone who “devours, wastes, or destroys.” Consumers focus on taking rather than giving or giving back. This is evident in our everyday accumulation and hoarding of “stuff,” our exploitation of the earth’s resources, our focus on instant gratification, and our lip-service compassion for those in need.

Don’t get me wrong. We all need to consume daily to survive–breathe in oxygen, drink water, eat the fruits of the earth, and surround ourselves with the goods and services that have extended our human lives over the millennium. But balance is necessary to maintain this multidimensional energy system we are a part of. The question is how much are we taking, and what are we leaving or giving back to enable our children and future generations to thrive?

parents-love-jpgGifts you’ve received
Much of the world envies our prosperous society. The latest fashions and gadgets can be bought by most anyone, even with minimal budgets, at Wal-Mart and Target. Yet so much of the stuff we buy for ourselves and others is superficial. We buy gifts not because others need them, but because it’s the thing to do. It makes us feel good. Yet, the recipients soon stuff them in closets, basements, and garages.

Think about the genuine gifts your parents have given you. They made a huge investment of time, money, and resources for you to have a better life than their generation. Then, there were your teachers, relatives, mentors, and even strangers. Your elders, ancestors, and a multitude of others invested in this country with their hard work, tax dollars, and even lives to provide the institutions, goods, services, and opportunities for you to live a happier, more peaceful, and productive life than they experienced. Giving and sacrifice were their core values.

Make the shift
Isn’t it time to turn away from self-serving entitlements to focus on what I call “other-serving”? Mahatma Gandhi said,”There is always enough for the needy, but never enough for the greedy.” The needy can teach us much as they somehow manage to keep the spark of life alive through life’s challenges. Witness the survivors of the recent Haiti devastation, a nation of people who have weathered many disasters throughout their history and yet always manage to adapt. The needy can also enliven the spark of giving in us when we help empower them by sharing our excess. “Less is more” is an adage that few live by.

Our country has lost much of its power due to mounting debt. We are being consumed by our own greed just as our natural resources are vanishing. More people are living on the edge. Many who were looking forward to their “Golden Years” have lost pensions, investments, and homes and see retirement pushed well beyond the horizon–if at all.

artcandy - treeWhat’s our role?
A citizen’s role is one of responsibility and partnership. A citizen cooperates in making his/her part of the world a better place–not just for the present, but for future generations. A citizen not only gives time and resources to help build safe, physically and spiritually enriching environments, but also helps the sick and less fortunate find a new path toward empowerment. It’s a citizen’s responsibility to contribute and, yes, make sacrifices when necessary for the greater good of all. The whole then becomes far greater than the sum of its parts. When we work together to create more balance–make this world a better place–we become immensely enriched. What actions are we taking, and what are we giving back to regain and maintain the balance of Life?

What is at the core of consumerism? In a heartfelt book that captured the nation, Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom shared the wisdom of a dying man.tuesdays-with-morrie Morrie believed that when one lives exclusively in a materialistic world of gadgets, conveniences, getting ahead, and accumulating money, our lifestyle is generally seeking to replace what’s missing: human relationships, health and well-being, and joy. One can fill this void by treating others with respect, kindness, love, and dignity.

Having, over the past year, spent a lot of time in a retirement/nursing home environment attending my elder family friend, Mae, I can personally vouch for the importance of these acts. While no longer surrounded by the material things that once filled her life with such importance, she is content with a few small mementos. Her face always lights up when I walk in the door. I am so impressed with how the aids treat community members with dignity and respect.

Take Stock
What’s missing in your life? What lies underneath the consumerism, hoarding, and cravings for stuff outside yourself? What gives you true meaning and purpose, and how does this feed your inner spirit? Do you have a true connection with your Higher Self?

In my next article I will be writing about ways to create a “Generosity Consciousness,” which, I hope, will help you become your best self and will enable all of us to be partners in making the world a better place.