July 7, 2014
There must be something going around. Over the last month many of us are having big changes enter into our lives… sometimes quite dramatically. We humans aren’t well known for liking all this change. But like it or not, if it is here it is here. It might feel like much is out of your control right now, but what is in your control is how you choose to deal with things that are coming your way. When change enters our lives we are being offered two paths: a path of growth into greater resiliency and meaning or a path of deepening habits that are not helpful.
If you are also experiencing big changes rolling through, remember that this is an opportunity to experience significant growth in ways that will lead to greater comfort and a deeper understanding of who you are in the future. But like all rapid growth, there will be growing pains. When unexpected change comes into our lives we are being invited to let go of all habits that are no longer working for us, and letting new habits grow in their place. This invitation requires a leap of faith as you jump into the void. You will need to make a jump into the unknown BEFORE growth can happen. It can be no other way. I see a lot of people right now trying to see what is ahead before they move forward, holding on to old habits and patterns like a life preserver after they have been thrown overboard. Only you aren’t holding onto a life preserver. You are holding onto the anchor. You’ve got to let go before you can find new land.
Setting your intentions can help as you practice letting go of what needs to be let go, so that they new growth can have the space to come in. Here are my suggestions for you. Have patience — you can’t rush growth in yourself any more than you can rush growth in an oak tree. Have trust — it can feel scary to shed old skin, but know that letting go ALWAYS has to come before new growth can come in, and so there is ALWAYS a time of uncertainty but that time will pass. And if you can, have a sense of humor — life often has a funny way of bringing change into our lives. Often the ways we are being invited to grow have a poetic edge to them, a wink of knowing that you are being invited to do the very thing you have been most afraid of doing. You’ve got this. The key is to relax and let things unfold as they should, without pushing away the discomfort or pushing ahead unskillfully. Your mind will make stories about what these things mean, but as you are always being invited to learn, minds make up stories about a lot of things and 95% of the time your mind gets it wrong because it is just talking from your fears and insecurities.
This I can promise you: Your mind does not know the way. You can can stay skillful with this new invitation for growth by staying present and living within your heart as you start out on your new path.
February 16, 2014
Scientists Are Not Soothsayers or Truth Sayers
I love behavioral science, I love how many people it can help, and I am grateful to have been trained as a behavioral scientist. I want to start there, because for the rest of this post I am going to trash on the way behavioral science is presented in our culture. Our culture confuses knowledge with wisdom. In this knowledge-heavy culture, we have started turning to the scientists as keepers of knowledge about our souls. This habit of seeing scientists as experts on our souls makes for a culture that is completely FUBARed.
Here is a current favorite example of this bad habit. UCLA is publicizing a recent study that has found women show fluctuations in their attractions to masculine characteristics over their menstrual cycle. The headline reads “What do women want? It depends on the time of the month.” We are reassured:
“Women sometimes get a bad rap for being fickle, but the changes they experience are not arbitrary,” said Martie Haselton, a professor of psychology and communication studies at UCLA and the paper’s senior author. “Women experience intricately patterned preference shifts even though they might not serve any function in the present.”
I am going to give three reasons why this study description should make you skeptical. In truth there are at least three dozen reasons why you should be skeptical.
1. Be skeptical of how scientific studies are summarized in the media.
Who said women are fickle? I didn’t. Did you? And why are changes in some women’s attractions over the month getting a bad rap. And who said fluctuations in desire is appropriately described as fickle??? That’s a can of worms that I shall leave closed for now.
We are told that “women” get a bad rap for being fickle, and are then reassured that the bad rap is false. Hooray – the changes in attraction over the month are “not arbitrary”! Rejoice! But what the heck does “arbitrary” mean? That word is just a judgment from someone playing expert over another person.
People, we live in a cause and effect universe. (At least our perceptions live there. Let’s leave quantum physics aside for now.) In this universe, using the word “arbitrary” in a scientific context is usually just a word meaning, “I think I can understand everything and I don’t understand that pattern yet so I am declaring that there is no pattern. I decree that your behaviors are arbitrary.”
2. Be skeptical of someone scientifically validating your experiences.
In this UCLA article, no one is claiming to have said the changes were arbitrary. We are only reassured that “the changes they experience are not arbitrary.” That word “arbitrary” only serves to prime our minds to believe we need a scientific explanation for our experiences in order for our experiences to be valid. In this case, it’s “fickle” for a woman to have fluctuations in attraction without a scientific explanation. But don’t worry, “women”! Scientists have saved the day! You may now accept your fluctuating desires as scientifically validated! Well, your desires are scientifically validated so long as these desires are for masculine characteristics that shift predictably with your menstrual cycle.
3. Be skeptical of how scientists hide the true variation that exists in the humans around us.
I don’t know you, but I am guessing that you have some pretty varied personalities in your family. What if I came along with my measuring stick and measured every single person in your extended family on their musical preferences? I could then publish a study declaring that your family has a bad rap for being fickle in your changing desires for music but I can disprove this misunderstanding with science.
For my family the headline might read, “The Ulman family gets a bad rap for being fickle in their musical tastes, but their tastes aren’t arbitrary. They listen to electronic dance music with a predictable pattern linked to the winter music festival schedule.”
I could scientifically validate this finding as true because my sister and I like EDM, but this study would hardly capture my father’s tastes for Barbara Streisand.
This UCLA study is doing this same error when describing “women” as if such a varied group can be described so easily. Who the heck are these “women” who are all so similar to each other? I know women who are attracted to feminine characteristics, or who are asexual, or who are attracted to folks who identify as neither male or female. I know some women who don’t have a uterus. And I know a lot of women who have had shifting attractions over time.
Martie Haselton seems to have selected studies that only look at women with similar bodies and similar desires. My guess is that she was limited in the data she could consider. I bet if we looked at the original studies we would see that many women were disqualified to participate, thus narrowing group variation. Haselton’s study actually found considerable variation even with these biased samples, as acknowledged when the article says ‘The strength of women’s preference shift proved to be statistically significant, although “small” to “medium” in size, relative to most findings in the field.”
Be skeptical of studies that are summarized in ways that suppresses true group variation. The scientific research might even be sound, but by the time it reaches our eyes and ears the findings have become greatly skewed.
Be Skeptical of the Science of You
I am not critiquing this scientist. Dr. Haselton is not being sinister in her actions. She is just doing her job, and probably doing it well. But that does not mean we should not still be skeptical of the story that is being painted for us.
I am not anti-science. I love science. I am critiquing how science is misunderstood in our culture, particularly as scientific findings are described in the media. You are actually thinking like a scientist when you develop the habit of being skeptical of the numbers being presented to you. Question them, question the assumptions behind them, and don’t confuse numbers on a page with a truth about you.
Always remember that scientists know numbers. They don’t know you. It doesn’t matter if you find yourself sexually attracted to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches once every 3-7 years. There is no study to explain why that might be, but it is valid because it happens to you.
Looking to scientists for validation in WHY you are can slow down your journey in learning WHO you are.
You are the Only Expert on You
We live in a culture that has told you and me that we can learn about ourselves by looking outside of ourselves. This myth has profoundly impaired our ability to do the hard work of learning who we are by looking inward – with curiosity and without judgment. Some of us can barely stand to sit still for one minute and look inwards. This difficulty looking inward does not come from what is there to find. This difficulty looking inward comes from living in a culture that has told you comparison is a method of learning about yourself. Comparison turned inward becomes judgment. And there is plenty in there to judge if you think judging is the thing to be done. When we judge what is inside we can become overwhelmed and so we have developed the habit of looking outside of ourselves to learn who we are.
Making matters worse, if you have lost the ability to look inward with curiosity instead of judgment, then you have been disconnected from your emotions. You might therefore live only in your reason mind, trying to Figure-Things-Out rather than stay open and curious about what patterns might arise in your mind and in your life. You have succumbed to our cultural demands to hold reason on a pedestal, while avoiding emotions like that one relative who is always saying just the wrong thing at the wrong time. This over-attachment to reason and discomfort with emotions makes for a very wonky internal compass.
Without this compass, we look outward to try and Figure-Things-Out. We seek reassurance that we are “normal.” And in a culture that confuses knowledge with wisdom, we have started turning to the scientists as people who can tell us if we are okay as we are.
The truth is that you are okay right now AND you are a ball of contradictions and hopes and dreams and fears and desires at the same time. You have a complicated story that gets minimized each time you try to tell it coherently to one person at one time. That’s what it is to be human. We are complicated beings. People who have developed a habit of looking inwards with curiosity (not judgment!) learn to grow comfort around this paradoxical truth. And they learn to love the mystery of the journey, largely by celebrating the fluctuations along the path.
February 1, 2014
Last Chance. I will be taking down the Perfectly Normal survey soon!
I have had this survey up for almost a year, asking people about their experiences trying to find meaning and happiness in a culture that is not particularly worried about you finding either of these things. So far I’ve had over 1,200 people throw in their voice. Please consider contributing your perspective. I am hoping to hear from as many people living in as many communities (or sub-communities) as possible. Unlike the game of normal, no one gets left behind!
WHY AM I DOING THIS SURVEY?
As many of you know, I am writing a book about how our culture contributes to us feeling bad about ourselves and disconnected from others. The results of the survey will be part of the book. I will also share survey results through places including my her and my facebook page. No one else has access to the survey, and I won’t share individual responses with anyone. I will only talk about patterns across groups.
HOW’S PARTICIPATION GOING?
I have now heard from people in every state but North Dakota. I’ve had lots of responses from Canada and England. A few from Sweden, Germany, and the Netherlands. Even heard from at least one person in Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Bahrain! Lots of variance in age, gender, and sexuality. Decent variance in amount of schooling. Racial diversity is still struggling. Any suggestions about how to hear from more people of color would be very appreciated. Fun fact: over 200 people identify as bisexual!
Thanks, y’all. Keep ‘em coming!
I would be so grateful if you’d consider passing this request along!
I love this new post on Everyday Feminism on Transmisogyny. Please consider taking a moment to read the whole post!
“Why Does Transmisogyny Exist?
Transmisogyny is based in the assumption that femininity is inferior to masculinity.
It relies on an understanding of all those qualities that are associated with ”femaleness” and devaluing them, viewing them as less than those qualities associated with “maleness” and therefore as deserving of hatred, mockery, and violence.
This sounds a whole lot like sexism, doesn’t it?
Why should there be a specific word used to describe the experience of trans* people who are specifically feminine? How is this different from sexism and transphobia?
Trans* women experience a particular kind of sexist marginalization based in their unique position of overlapping oppressions – they are both trans* and feminine. They are devalued by society on both accounts.
Trans* people experience transphobia, or cissexism, due to a cultural and systemic obsession with the gender binary: the idea that there are two types of people – men and women – who are born, raised, and naturally associate with that gender and its accompanying characteristics. Our cultural and political institutions are based on this premise.”
The full article provides a lot more great information!
January 22, 2014
Some Daily NecessitiesExert taken from
“Awakening The Buddha Within”
by Lama Surya Das
pgs. 49 – 50
Be aware / Stay awake
Breathe and smile
Relax / Enjoy / Laugh / Play
Create / Envision
Let go / Forgive / Accept
Walk / Exercise / Move
Work / Serve / Contribute
Listen / Learn / Inquire
Consider / Reflect
Cultivate oneself / Enhance competencies
Cultivate friendship and collaboration
Open up / Expand / Include
Celebrate and appreciate
Share / Give / Receive
Walk softly / Live gently
Expand / Radiate / Dissolve
Surrender / Trust
Be born anew
December 28, 2013
New Year’s Resolutions Often Create the Opposite of Change
The tradition of setting New Year’s Resolutions has taken many different forms since it began over 2,000 years ago. Today’s resolutions seem inevitably to address some perceived personal flaw or imperfection. The underlying message is often, “Next year I will do better.” Setting a goal to do “better” only continues a cycle of not feeling worthy or good enough in the moment. It perpetuates the habit of scanning yourself for ways you are failing. Only two outcomes are possible with this kind of resolution:
- You reach your goal and believe in the notion of a temporary feeling of worth for yourself (meaning you believe you are okay now that you reached your goal of becoming “better,” but this worth could be lost as soon as you perceive evidence that you aren’t maintaining the “better” you.)
- You don’t reach your goal and continue to feel bad about your perceived “imperfections”
In short, many New Year’s Resolutions only serve to reinforce our habits that keep us feeling lacking in some way.
Rebuilding our Foundation: A New New Year’s Resolution
Such New Year’s Resolutions also perpetuate what I call the Home Improvement Myth. When we view our bodies and our lives as something that needs constant improvement and upkeep, we miss out on how we humans actually learn and grow. The truth is much more complicated and beautiful. Just as a tree is complete in the moment and still continues to grow, so too are you complete and growing at the same time. To see beyond the Home Improvement Myth try this:
Replace “better” with “growth.”
Replace “goal” with “intention.”
These small changes in words can create large changes in how you view yourself and your life. By swapping “better” for “growth” you can let go of the idea that you aren’t okay in the moment and have somewhere to go, yet still hold your dreams of continuing to develop who you are. By swapping “goal” with “intention” you can let go of the threat of failure, yet gain a guiding star for more skillfully navigating each present moment. By swapping these words you gain a kinder more comfortable existence in the moment without giving up any of your ambitions.
Building A Tree House By the Light of Your Guiding Star
For the last couple of years I have celebrated the New Year by choosing an intention rather than a resolution. The intention acts as a guiding star to move towards rather than a measuring stick for judging myself. My intention is a word I take with me for the next 365 days. To keep the word safe and shiny I usually don’t share it with anyone. Choosing a word has been an interesting and rich experience, leading to a lot more change than I would have expected before I tried this myself. Here is what has happened when I have carried a word with me for the year:
- I’ve gained new insights into how the mind works over time. Deep meaningful change occurs on a different time scale than we usually acknowledge in this culture. Holding a single word rather than a to-do list of change gave me to a deeper appreciation for how humans grow. We can’t rush change. But if we are lucky we can observe it.
- I’ve gained new insights into how knowledge slowly matures into wisdom. Reflecting on one word for the year, I can look back and see how the meaning of the word is so much deeper and layered than I ever could have guessed at the beginning.
- I’ve gained new insights into the power of priming the mind. We see what we look for. When looking for evidence that we aren’t good enough, we will always find it. But this “evidence” is actually just an illusion. It no more true than saying our skin isn’t green enough. Choosing a word can help us reorient what we look for, and help us see the moments when we are already accessing the wisdom we carry within us.
- “Fall down nine times, stand up ten” says a Chinese proverb. I’ve deepened my understanding that we can’t fail. “Failure” is just a judgment. Saying we have “failed” comes mostly from two bad habits. First, we say we failed when we carry an expectation that things should be different than they are. Second, we say we failed when we have given up. Having a word as a guiding star can help us create new good habits of always standing up and moving forward, no matter how many times we fall down.
Choosing Your Word
Take a few quiet moments and close your eyes. Take a few slow deep breaths. Allow your mind to wander over the past year without judgment. Some memories may be wonderful. Some may make you wince. No need to linger on any one memory. Just allow thoughts and feelings to arise. Now gently open to the deep part of who you are (it’s there, even if you’ve never seen it before) and allow it to share a word that could be used as a guiding star for the next part of your journey. The word may first come as an image or a color. Stay present, breathing slowly and deeply, for whatever arises.
Now this is your word so chose whatever your heart desires. But I suggest you push yourself to have a word more substantial than “Fabulous” “Glittery” or “Fierce.” (Lovely words, of course! Perhaps just not what is best suited for a New Years Intention.) My favorite intention words or phrases are descriptors instead of directives, although some directive phrases are also wonderful. Descriptors create good habits of gently reorienting us to the present moment rather than harshly jerking our mind to the present. How we do something is as important as what we do. So for example:
Be Still Stillness
Pay attention Paying attention
Be grateful Gratitude
Here is what I have seen. You may have found your word when you think of one and then feel a twinge of dread around it. I have seen that happen many times, to myself and to others. I think this happens because there is a part of you that already knows your word – that’s your wisdom and inseparable goodness that lives within you. And there is another part of you that wants to choose ANYTHING other than your word – that is the part that’s fearful of change and challenge.
So choosing a word may take a bit of bravery. But remember. This activity is the opposite of a goal. You can’t fail. This activity is creating a guiding star to have with you for the rest of the year. If you have having trouble finding your word, here are some you may want to consider:
This too shall pass
There is no right answer
Mind Clear, Heart Open
Back to the present moment
Letting go of what is ready to be let go
Fearlessness means going through the fear
In this moment I have everything I need
Observation without judgment
Lean into life
Lean into fear
Relax, Relate, Release
Harmony instead of resolution
My body knows things my mind does not
Will this next action expand or shrink my horizons?
Choose one and be done
Be with what is
Always move forward
Once you have your word or phrase, just hold it with you. Consider how it might apply in different situations. Be curious about it. Consider how you might act differently depending on whether you are thinking of this word. There is no right way to use a guiding star. For one of my words I made a little doodle so I could just draw it in front of me when I was bored or feeling a bit lost. Just observe how your mind moves when you bring your attention to your word. The good news is you can’t fail. But you can grow.
Happy New Year, everyone!
December 10, 2013
The Eight Vicissitudes of Life
Pleasure and Pain
Praise and Blame
Ill repute and Fame
Loss and Gain
Life is always going to be filled with these eight experiences. Do not confuse the vicissitudes of the moment with the definition of how things always are. Whether your day is good or bad, the experience is just temporary.
Don’t Try to Change the Weather
The nature of things is a constant experience of shifting between the eight vicissitudes. Do not try to change the nature of things. Do not cling to the weather of the day and say, “This is it! All of life is like this day!” That is ignoring the nature of things. Calm is possible, even during a passing storm. Change your relationship with the nature of things. Imagine you are a large, sturdy oak tree and the vicissitudes are the wind. Some days are calm. Some days are stormy. If you rest your attention on your leaves then your life will feel chaotic and out of control. If you rest your attention farther below then you will find a sturdy self, aware of the weather of the day but not swept up by it.
Change How you View the Weather
A peaceful life is not attained by trying to control the weather. Trying to change what is out of your control will only serve to make you feel more out of control. A peaceful life is attained by learning to rest your attention on your sturdiness, something that is always present no matter the weather of the day. For many, practicing sitting calmly and follow the breath leads to the awareness of something sturdier – something that is always present and unmoved by the weather of the day. Others find their sturdiness through yoga, going for a walks, petting their pets, or curling up with a good book. You need to find your path to shifting your attention away from your leaves and towards your unwavering core. It’s there, even if you have never seen it before.
Do not confuse shifting your attention with ignoring the weather. Attempts to ignore the weather of the day will only make you feel more out of control! Find your sturdiness and use it as a base to observe what is going on. From your base, observe what is and then just shift your attention back to what you are doing in the moment. It is a matter of moving your attention back and forth between your base and the weather. From your base, look at the weather of the day. Then label it. Then let it go.
Label it. Let it go.
Label it. Let it go.
Label it. Let it go.
No matter the weather, remember it is just passing through. Enjoy the weather when it is nice. Keep yourself company when it is a rainy day. And remember to take a slow breath in and out. All weather passes with time.
November 12, 2013
Your Attention, Please.
The mind is constantly in motion. Left on it’s own, the mind often spins stories about why things are happening and who we think we are. When the mind is spinning stories we are unable to be present with what is actually happening in the moment. A mind that is spinning stories is a mind that is not present. When we aren’t present, we aren’t effective. To be more effective in your daily life, you need to pull out of these stories and see more accurately what is happening in the present moment.
Placing our mind into the present moment is a matter of shifting our attention. Attention is the brain system that selects which data will be analyzed. We need this attention system because in all moments the mind has access to more information than it can process. It is as if our minds have access to several television channels at once. We are constantly receiving external channels of information through each of our senses. Our mind simply can’t attend to everything. Therefore, the mind must prioritize which channels of information to “view” over other channels that will remain unprocessed. Attention is the process of choosing what we will perceive. We need to train our attention to be able to put our mind in the present moment.
Training Your Attention: The Skill of Mindfulness
You have already become an expert at training your attention system. By the time we are adults we have become such experts at using our attention system that we are no longer even aware that this system exists at all. Here is an example of a trained attention system in action. Imagine if we tried to drive a car while paying attention to every single house and sign and person we passed. We wouldn’t get too far before we ran into something or someone. But most of the time we do just fine when we drive. We are able to drive because we get pretty good at knowing where to place our attention when driving. It becomes natural to look ahead most of the time, while briefly shifting our attention to our mirrors or perhaps looking at something that catches our eye as we drive by. Everyone who drives a car has learned how to train their attention system.
Now lets get back to those stories our minds are spinning. A mind’s stories acts as filters on the streams of external data coming in. For example, if a mind is busy telling itself, “I am not good enough yet,” then this statement will act as a filter for incoming data. Priority will be put on any data that fits this belief, which results in distorting the reality of the moment. For example, imagine a person looking at you with an odd expression. If your mind has a “not-good-enough” filter then you will likely read the expression as a critique about you. If your mind does not have this filter then you will be able to see that there are an infinite number of possible explanations for that expression, and most of them have nothing to do you with you. (They may be feeling sick, they may be thinking about a fight with a loved one, they may have a “not-good-enough” filter and are looking around for confirming evidence….). A mind that can turn its attention to the present is no longer distorting reality through these filters.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” — Mr. Fred Rogers
Two Kinds of Minds
Let’s look at the characteristics of these two kinds of minds:
A Mind Spinning Stories
A Mind Settled in the Moment
|Stuck in its own thoughts.
(These thoughts often take you to the past, future, or how you wish things were in the present.)
|Aware of the senses, body sensations, or the breath.
(The breath is one of the best ways to anchor a mind in the present.)
|Stuck in its own story.
(Things that occur in the world are often experienced as something to do with you personally.)
|Ability to see the bigger story of each moment.
(This eventually includes history, personal contribution, and interconnectedness)
|Sees a dualistic world.
(Events are experienced as good/bad, for/against, accepted/rejected.)
|Sees a holistic world.
(This eventually includes seeing the history and interconnectedness present in each moment.)
|Feelings of distress when things don’t go “your way.”||Feelings of patience and acceptance when things don’t go “your way.”|
|Frantic or Fatigued||Solid and Energetic|
|Feels a drag on effectiveness||Experiences a sense of clarity, movement|
|Opinions about Everything (like, dislike)||Appreciation and Gratitude|
Attention is the Arrow. Gentleness and Kindness are the Bow.
Turning our attention to the present is as easy and as hard as this:
With gentleness and kindness, rest your attention on something that is happening now.
Really, that is it. But the trick is you need to do it over and over and over again, until it becomes a habit. Mindfulness mediation is a useful way to train your attention on the present. You’ll need gentleness and kindness to effectively move your attention. Attention is the arrow. Gentleness and kindness are the bow. If you try to move your attention without kindness and gentleness then you will be lost before you begin. Without gentleness and kindness, working with your attention becomes just one more way to judge yourself, resist the truth of the situation, get stuck in your own story, and eventually feel discontent. You will be strengthening those spinning stories, rather than resting your mind in the present. Gentleness and kindness are a necessity.
In each moment we can choose which mind we want to have – a mind clouded by stories or a mind resting in the present. With practice, you will begin to experience the contentment that comes from being in the present. With a lot of practice, the mind will have the chance to see that at our core all humans carry an inseparable goodness and worthiness that is always present. And that’s when the mind will begin choosing to be in the present on its own.
“It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.”
- Mr. Fred Rogers
October 22, 2013
October 20, 2013