Through A Glass Darkly

Cleanliness becomes more important when godliness is unlikely.


— P. J. O’Rourke

I was in my freshman or sophomore year of college — it is all just a blur, now — when I got my first pair of eyeglasses.  I had been sitting in a large, lecture-style class when I noticed that I could not make out the words that the professor was writing on the chalkboard in the front of the room.  My peers were not having the same difficulty.  I tried sitting in a number of seats, hoping that a change in lighting or in my distance from the front of the room would help, but nothing made much of a difference.  The course was one in music history and appreciation, and for a couple of weeks, I was playing my own game of musical chairs!  When it was clear that moving around the room, developing a French-Stewart squint, wasn’t helping me decipher the writing on the chalkboard, off I went to see an optometrist.

Because I knew that both of my parents had gotten glasses as children, I was not surprised by the idea that it might finally be “my time”; truthfully, however, I had been hoping that I had escaped any genetic predisposition to need corrective eyewear, and had even managed to pride myself on getting through my childhood and teenage-years without the slightest indication of trouble with my vision (as if I had anything to do with it!).  As much as getting glasses was a blow to my pride, though, wearing them was a greater blow to my vanity; I did not see myself as one of those people so easily able to pull off the look that we would later call “geeky chic.”  Worst of all, perhaps, was that I had not yet matured out of exceptionally oily adolescent skin, and I was always navigating the world, then, through lenses that were covered with smudges.

We See the World through Lenses

Given my own experience with eyeglasses, I have often found the image of eyeglasses helpful in explaining the idea that, as human beings, each of us views our world through a specific set of lenses.  These lenses are comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have developed over time out of our individual experiences, and in the context of constructing meanings of those experiences in our conversations and relationships with other people.  I think of everyone as wearing a pair of invisible eyeglasses — glasses of perception — all of the time.  Some of the lenses in these invisible glasses (such as the lenses that I had in college, covered with smudges) limit our vision, restrict what we’re able to see, and so reduce the range of ways in which we’re able to show up in our lives. Other lenses (think of those that are clean and clear) augment or otherwise expand our vision.  These latter lenses help us to see more of what is possible, and support our focus on whatever we decide matters most to us in our lives — by opening up options of conscious emotional and behavioral response to situations that we encounter.

Please understand that I am not proposing the notion that we can have direct, unmediated (godlike?) access to the “reality” of things (which could be one interpretation of having glasses of perception with crystal clear lenses), or even that we judge the “dirty” set of lenses as “bad” and the “clean” set as “good.”  I am suggesting that the clear or unsmudged set of lenses (having thoughts and beliefs that help us rather than hold us back) offers us increased opportunities to perceive a wider range of possibilities for feeling and responding in any given circumstance, and so the freedom to pick which feelings and behavior we think will work best, or how we want to show up as we move in the direction that we want to go.

Our Lenses Make a Difference

Imagine, for a moment, that you are seated in a crowded cafe and think that you may see a friend at a table across the room.  You are wearing a pair of eyeglasses with smudged lenses (or perhaps regular sunglasses with smudged lenses, if you do not wear prescription eyewear).  You can’t see very clearly with dirty lenses, and feel less certain, less confident, as a result.  You mutter under your breath, a bit perplexed and disgruntled, “Now, is that Susie over there?”  You respond tentatively, even anxiously — finally deciding that because you can’t really tell if that woman is Susie or not, you are not going to approach her, call out, or wave (the cafe is pretty casual!).

If, on the other hand, you are wearing a pair of glasses with clean lenses, you will likely feel less anxious in this same situation, saying to yourself, “Hey, that’s my friend, Susie, across the room there!”  You will move with greater confidence, deciding to get up from your own table to pay her a visit, perhaps, or to call out to her — waving, and smiling widely — “‘Hey, Susie!  Over here!'”

Now, most of us, I would imagine, prefer the vision of clear, confident energy in the second of these two responses.  We can call this energy “anabolic” since we so often experience variations of it as “building us up.”  We may be so used to looking through dirty lenses in our invisible glasses, however, that we do not even realize how much these lenses — the often unconscious thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world in general — dim our view, and so our experience of life, with the effects of a very different energy.  We can call this latter energy catabolic” since it is often constrains us, drains us, and “breaks us down.”  In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider talks about examples of what I’m describing here — the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses — as falling into four main categories of “energy blocks”: limiting beliefs, interpretations, assumptions, and “gremlins” (with “gremlin” being one way to reference what we also often call our inner critic).

Are Your Lenses Helping or Hurting You?

Sometimes, as happens in the story in Schneider’s book, we may find it helpful to examine our lenses with the support of another person who wants us to be able to see all the possibilities for thought, feeling, and action that are available to us, so that we can pick which among these will help us move in the direction we want to go.  With this idea as inspiration, I will be addressing in the weeks that follow each of these four obstacles to our experience of anabolic energy as topics for this blog.  I will offer further definitions and examples, explain how I see these obstacles relating to the kinds of anxious thinking identified in cognitive-behavioral therapy (as another way of thinking and talking about them), and explore ideas for how we can respond when we notice ourselves feeling out-of-focus or have the sense that the vision we want for ourselves is blurred — not on account of myopia or astigmatism — but because of smudges of unhelpful thoughts and beliefs on the lenses of our perception.  I hope that you will feel free to join me by reading along, and by offering your own thoughts as comments on the blog posts, if you are so inclined.


Updated: 03/02/2019

Featured image credit: anaken2012 / 123RF Stock Photo

Worries Dancing with the Wind

Worries Dancing with the Wind

I think of the trees and how simply they let go.


May Sarton

For many of us, our worrying parts work very hard. If asked, these parts might contend that they are helping us — protecting us, even — by keeping us thinking ahead and preparing us for what could happen.  Unfortunately, what our worrying parts do for us, and the intensity with which they do it, both frequently come at a cost — to our physical well-being, and to our peace of mind

Imagine if these parts had their own sense of performing more extreme roles in our lives than they actually wanted to play.  They would be glad to give up some of their responsibilities, if only they felt that they could.  To feel free to relax, even just a little, they would want to believe that we no longer needed them to behave in the same old, exhausting ways.  And in all honesty, wouldn’t this assessment be absolutely accurate?  We really would do fine without all that worry; we might even find ourselves thriving!

Just think: With this understanding, this new perspective, we could negotiate new roles for these long-suffering, worrying parts.  They could always return to their old jobs — temporarily — if an experience of anxiety ever really seemed necessary; otherwise, however, they could support us in ways that would leave us with a much greater sense of calm, courage, and confidence.  Perhaps they would want to serve as trusted advisors or consultants, helping us simply to notice what’s around us, and then to consider — rather than fret about — how we want to respond.  Freed at last from chronic overwork, liberated from their extreme worrying roles, these parts might celebrate!  Wouldn’t you?

What worrying parts of yourself would you like to release?  How will you know when you’re ready?  How will you proceed?

When she was ready, she let her worries go like falling leaves; released at last from their long obligation, they danced with the wind as they went.


Scott Kahler

Updated: 01/13/2019

Photo by Nine Köpfer on Unsplash

What Do You Choose to See?

What Do You Choose to See?

The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see.

— Barry Neil Kaufman
duck-rabbit_illusion

What do you see when you look at the image to the right?  A duck?  A rabbit? Both?  If you see the image as one of these options — a duck, let’s say — are the other ways in which you could see the image — as a rabbit, or as both a duck and rabbit — somehow “not true”?  If multiple ways of seeing the image are possible, which one of them do you prefer?  Which one works better for you, in a manner of speaking?

What We Choose to See Makes a Difference

While these kinds of questions may seem a bit silly when we’re talking about an image (You may be asking yourself, “Do I see a duck, a rabbit, or both … what does it matter?”), I contend that the considerations they represent have significant implications in our day-to-day lives.  To quote Barry Neil Kaufman, “The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see.”  In my own experience, I’ve noticed over and over again that what I choose to see in myself and the world around me, including other people — what they say, and what they do — has a profound influence on the ways in which I’m able to respond and interact.  Seeing multiple possibilities for meaning in any given experience gives me a wider range of possible responses; I’m often able to choose one of the more helpful options, then.

An Example of Choice

Imagine, for instance, that I am standing at the counter in a coffee shop placing my order and paying for my purchase.  The cashier doesn’t smile, greet me, inquire how my day is going, or thank me for my business.  In this situation, I could see the cashier as “rude” or “disrespectful,” and feel slighted, or succumb to my anxious thinking in the form of self-doubt, and worry that I have done something wrong.  With these interpretations as context, I might snap at the cashier for being “rude,” or keep my mouth shut and leave the coffee shop disgruntled, either way muttering under my breath as I stride out the door, vowing never to order from that person again.  I might feel embarrassed, thinking that I did something to offend the cashier, and accuse myself yet again of being a “loser” in social situations as I shuffle back to my car, berating myself.

Alternatively, I could see the cashier as not having been as courteous to me as I would have liked.  Perhaps the cashier is feeling unusually stressed, or distracted by her own worries.  If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I just don’t know what is going on for her.  Even if I did know the cashier’s story, I wouldn’t know — without asking, anyway — how the cashier would explain her own sense of her behavior in this moment.  If I could allow myself to see the cashier’s behavior as something less offensive to me than “disrespectful,” I might be able to wish her well — regardless of my discontent — and decide to address the issue of unsatisfying service the next time that I experience it, if I experience it again.

The Difference a Choice Makes

From my own perspective, one of these ways of seeing this experience at the coffee shop works better for me than the others.  If I give myself the opportunity to choose the option of softening my gaze — not looking so harshly, or even looking kindly, on the cashier and myself — I will leave the coffee shop in a better mood, feeling good about myself and how I responded, with a sense of calm and confidence — happier all around!  Although I will be aware of my disappointment in the cashier’s behavior, in the service that I received from her, I will not be consumed by the gap between this experience and the expectations that I had for the interaction, or by a negative way of seeing the cashier, her behavior, or myself that foments feelings of anger, indignation, resentment, or anxiety.

What Do You Choose to See?

There is always more than one way to look at things.  In any given situation, we can choose to see in the way that works best for us, given the kind of experience that we want to have, how we want to live our lives, the type of person that we want to be, and more.

In your life, who or what are you seeing in ways that aren’t working?  What would a different way of seeing be?  If you saw differently, what would the benefits be?  What would support you in making this shift in perception?  Why are you waiting?


Updated: 02/14/2019

Featured Image: Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

Embedded Image: File:Duck-Rabbit illusion.jpg (Wikimedia Commons)

"It's Not Easy Bein' Green"

“It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green”

I have seen a cartoon recently that gives me a chuckle, and prompts reflection, every time I think of it.  In the foreground, the cartoon features a male physician sitting at his desk, looking at an X-ray.  On the other side of the desk, we see the patient whose X-ray the physician has in hand.  Although the physician addresses his patient as “señor Gustavo” (the cartoon is in Spanish), I can hardly imagine a reader in the U.S. who wouldn’t recognize the patient. The patient is one of Jim Henson’s most famous Muppets, Kermit the Frog, who croons the song, “Bein’ Green,” with its well-known line, “It’s not easy bein’ green.”

In the X-ray that the physician is holding, we can see the bones of a human forearm inside the outline of the patient’s body. The wrist is at neck level, and the hand is occupying the head, the thumb beneath the lower jaw and … well, you know how a puppet works.  Loosely translated, the physician is saying to Kermit, who has been known as “la rana Gustavo” — Gustavo the Frog — in Spain, “Have a seat, Mr. Gustavo … what I have to tell you may come as a complete shock.”  There is another version of this cartoon that I’ve seen on Facebook in which the physician’s words to Kermit are rendered, “What I’m about to tell you is gonna change your life forever. Are you really sure you want to know it?

A Puppet to Unhelpful Perspectives

When I think about this cartoon, I find myself reflecting on what Kermit hasn’t seemed to realize on his own, and is about to learn from his physician. In spite of any sense of freedom that Kermit has experienced and thought of himself as having in his life, he has been a puppet. He has not been in nearly as much control of himself as he may have imagined. For me, this idea parallels a realization I’ve often experienced whenever I’ve been feeling stymied or stuck. In these moments — though usually only when my perspective has already begin to shift, unfortunately — I realize that I’ve been subjecting myself to limiting ways of thinking and talking. I realize that, in feeling stymied and stuck, I’ve been a puppet to perspectives that haven’t been working for me, and that I didn’t even notice!

Cutting the Strings

Take, as just one example, the reaction that I had last fall to the arrival of colder temperatures in the area where I live. I had been working since mid-summer to develop a new, healthy habit of running outside. I had been excited about my achievements, and enjoying the process.  When cold weather came sooner than I was expecting, I began to complain. I was reluctant to hit the trail in my t-shirt and shorts, but also resistant to the idea of moving my running inside — to a treadmill at the gym — or investing in warmer running gear.  I found myself oscillating between an emotional state of “Woe is me!” and feeling mad at the weather. I let this experience grind my routine to a sulky halt for almost a week.  In my pouting, I was a puppet to my feelings of disappointment, fear, frustration, and loss.

Finally, I acknowledged to myself that I had actually learned to love running outside over the past few months, that I didn’t want to run in the cold, and that I would really miss running outside when there was snow and ice on the ground. At that point, I decided that, as much sense as my sulking might make under the circumstances, I wanted to have a different experience.  Approaching the situation from the perspective of asking myself, “What’s the opportunity here?” I identified at least a two options of response. As one way of responding, I could learn about and purchase warmer running gear, and tackle the trail in the colder temperatures with this added insulation. Alternatively, or even simultaneously, I could get a head start on moving my running indoors for the winter. After all, I knew that there would likely be days at a stretch when I wouldn’t want to run outside, even with warmer clothes, because of the snow and ice on the ground. I ended up choosing to take my running indoors, and although I was looking forward to warmer weather so that I could be more comfortable outside again, I was still running in the meantime, which is really what I wanted to be doing.

How Do You Cut the Strings?

How do you deal with “bein’ green” — finding yourself a puppet to perspectives that harm or hinder you, rather than help you?  If you took to heart the idea that you can choose to think about things in ways that work for you, and for others, that you don’t have to be a puppet to the less helpful ways, how would this change you — your life — forever?


Updated: 02/13/2019

Featured image credit: alptraum / 123RF Stock Photo

Beauty in the Cracks

Seeing Beauty in the Cracks

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in  — Leonard Cohen

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.  — Confucius

Feeling the Pinch of Anxiety

One evening recently, I took a two-hour class at a local art center. In the class, each of us made a pinch pot — which could take the form of a mug, bowl, or vase — from a ball of clay. To make a pinch pot, I learned, one pushes one’s thumb into the center of a ball of clay to start the opening. One then pinches (hence, the name) and turns the ball of clay between the thumb and fingers to form and thin the walls of the pot, and finally to shape the rim.

As I followed this process, I found myself feeling anxious about what I was deeming to be imperfections in my pot — cracks that had started to form in the clay, a lop side, an errant undulation in the rim. I was not the only person in the room to have this kind of response. Other members of the class were nervous, too, about the imperfections they saw in their own creations. The instructor was very kind and reassuring to all of us, offering pointers for addressing issues that may have really been serious — structurally speaking, I suppose — but also complimenting some of the other characteristics that seemed to worry us the most.

A Kintsukuroi Perspective

As I left the class that night, reflecting on the process of making my pinch pot, and on the anxiety I had experienced in the process, I found my thoughts turning over an image and its accompanying text that I had seen on Facebook and Twitter a while ago, and that had recently resurfaced in my feeds.

If you recognize the word, “kintsukuroi,” you may well know it, as I do, from the very image and text that I’m talking about; for an example of the image, click here. The image is one of a gray pottery bowl, veined with gold to dramatic effect, which illustrates the Japanese art of kintsukuroi, or kintsugi. In this art, broken pottery is mended with a lacquer resin to which powdered gold has been added. In the text accompanying the image that I had seen, kintsukuroi is described as demonstrating the perspective that “the piece [of pottery] is more beautiful for having been broken.”

As I had fretted in my pottery class over aspects of my pinch pot that I was perceiving as imperfect, parts that I was judging as “not good enough,” I was struggling to hold onto an idea that I associate with the Japanese art of  kintsukuroi, or kintsugi: We can, in fact, choose to see beauty in the very cracks and errant undulations that we so frequently want to “correct,” cover up, distract attention from, or otherwise disavow.

What if We Saw More Beauty in the Cracks?

I wonder how different our lives would be if we saw beauty, rather than imperfection and brokenness, in more of the “cracks” around us, in those aspects of ourselves, others, and our experiences to which we tend to respond with judgment and worry, fear, and sometimes animosity. Wouldn’t we feel more calm, compassionate, content, or even confident? If we imagine that we would, and these feelings interest us, what new ways of thinking and behaving would support this shift in perspective? If we are already able to experience “a kintsukuroi perspective” at times in our lives, what do we identify as contributing to it?


Updated: 01/26/2019

Featured image: Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash