Where Do You Want to Go?

Happy Young Woman with Car Keys

Several years ago, I had a friend who was in the market for a new car. In the process of car shopping with this friend, I decided that I would sell the car that I was driving and get a new car for myself as well. I got my new car, which was actually just new to me, and for a while everything with the car went smoothly. Once the warranty on the car expired, however, I began to have problem after problem; some months, the car seemed to be in the repair shop as often as it was in on the road! One day, while my car was in the shop for the umpteenth time, a coworker (who had given me many rides to work) challenged me to consider that my car could be called a “lemon.” The car had seemed fine at first; in fact, it had worked fine — for a while! The car wasn’t working the way I wanted any longer, though; it wasn’t going to be able to take me where I wanted to go.

As we begin 2016, many of us will be thinking about where we want to go this year — figuratively, at least, in terms of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives. If we aren’t happy with our weight, for example, we may be planning a new gym routine, or to change our eating habits. If we are tired of losing track of when bills are due, or where we have left our keys, we may be considering ways in which we can improve our organization at home. So often, whatever it is that we want to be different in the new year, we frame a related resolution in terms of something that we “need” or “have” to do. We think, “I need to lose 10 pounds — no more excuses!” or “I’m so sick of not being able to find anything — I just have to get organized!” And why wouldn’t we have these kinds of pressured thoughts, given the sense of anxious urgency that we sometimes experience to make these changes in our lives? Unfortunately, as helpful as such thoughts would seem to be in motivating us to take action, and supporting us to maintain what we start, I don’t know that they work very well for many of us; in fact, I would argue that these kinds of thoughts — “I need to …” and “I have to …” — can actually get in our way of creating the differences that we want for ourselves, in our lives. Just as we can talk about some cars as “lemons,” we can talk about certain thoughts as “lemons,” too; they end up being more trouble than they are worth, and sooner or later we realize that they just aren’t able to take us where we want to go.

What makes these kinds of thoughts “lemons”? What’s wrong with saying to ourselves, “I need to …” or “I have to …”? Let me clarify. From my perspective, the issue is not one of right or wrong, but what works best or most often for us, and what does not. In my own experience, when I am thinking in terms of “I need to …” or “I have to …” I notice an internal grimace, an energetic “sour face,” so to speak (think about the expression on someone’s face when that person tastes the tartness of a lemon). For me, “I need to …” and “I have to …” create a sense of motivational “drag” rather than enthusiasm or excitement. I even start to feel a bit anxious about what it is that I have resolved to do. “I really need to get to the gym today!” “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening!” I have come to associate the tense response that I experience with the idea that these thoughts come from a fearful or an already anxious frame of mind. “I really need to get to the gym today because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening; it will be awful if I don’t get it published on Monday morning like I told myself I would!” Do you hear the anxious all-or-nothing thinking in “I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” and the catastrophic thinking in “it will be awful [if I don’t finish this blog post by Sunday evening] …”? How about the possibility of selective attention and memory in the second of these examples if I told you that one time, I had trouble getting a post done by Sunday evening, but was able to work on it on Monday, and just published it Monday evening, then, instead of Monday morning? The world did not end.

So what’s the alternative? For me, what works better — and feels better, frankly — is to think in terms of “I want to …” or “I can …” (desire and opportunity) rather than “I need to …” or “I have to …” (desperation and obligation). Now, I can almost hear the objections that I have made to this notion in the past, which are perhaps yours as well: “But I really do need to lose this extra weight because …” For some of us, the reasons for thinking in terms of “need” in this situation may range from controlling diabetes to keeping up with young children to fitting into our pants (“New clothes cost money, and we’re saving for a trip to Florida. Oh, no … what will I look like in a bathing suit?”). However, there is also a “want” that goes along with each of these scenarios that we can apply to our resolution to get to the gym. “I want to get to the gym because I want to keep up with my kids. Plus, it will feel so good to have gone to the gym, to be able to say that I went, that I did it!” For many of us, “I want to keep up with my kids!” will create a very different feeling than “I really need to get to the gym because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” We can talk about this different feeling as having a different kind of energy — anabolic, versus catabolic (terms that Bruce D. Schneider, author of Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), has borrowed from the vocabulary of biology and physiology in relation to the processes of metabolism). Anabolic energy builds us up, supports us, while catabolic energy drains us, tears us down, and fuels our experiences of anxiety. While the sense of pressure that we get from catabolic energy can have short-term benefits — think of a cheetah on the plains of Africa that bursts into high-speed to catch its prey — this kind of energy ends up wearing us and others out if we keep it up for too long (even the cheetah can’t keep up these extreme speeds indefinitely!). For many of us, the catabolic energy of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts just can’t take us as far as (so, ultimately, where) we want to go, and can actually get in our way, then, of creating the positive, sustained experiences of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.

Whenever this time of year rolls around, and I find myself reflecting on what I want to be different for myself, in my life, in the coming new year, I think back to the car that I bought several years ago, and how — for a time, in the context of getting back and forth to work, around town to run errands, etc. — it served me well. When I began to have problems with the car on a regular basis, I had the opportunity to re-evaluate its value to me, and determined that it was adding to my sense of stress and anxiety; I could no longer count on it to take me where I wanted to go. The same has been true for me of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts, and the same may be true for you as well. These thoughts are not special to the end of any given year, of course, but tend to surface in our practice of making New Year’s resolutions. As we begin 2016, I want to think more often in terms of “I want to …” and “I can …” so that I can experience the anabolic energy that will help me reach my other goals. I want to improve my organization at home so that I can spend less time trying to find my keys, or worrying about which bills have yet to be paid, and more time working on my blog!

Where do you want to go?

Best wishes for a wonderful 2016!

Featured image credit: maridav / 123RF Stock Photo

The Gift of Anxiety

The Gift of Anxiety

One Christmas, when I was much younger — perhaps just into my teenage years — my grandparents gave me a very special gift.  While I don’t remember exactly how old I was, I still very clearly recall feeling terrifically excited one moment, terribly confused and disappointed the next.  When I pried open the large cardboard box, after tearing through the wrapping paper and enough Scotch tape to make a clear, adhesive straitjacket for one of my younger brothers, what did I find?  A heavy wool blanket for my bed!

Obviously, I did not regard this blanket as a very special a special gift initially.  The shift did not occur for years, really, until I was away at college, and living on my own.  During my junior and senior years of college, I lived in an off-campus apartment that had a single source of heat — a very small electric wall-unit in one of the corners of the living room. On cold winter nights in that apartment, I would have been freezing in my futon bed without that wonderful wool blanket to keep me warm!  I still think of that blanket, which became so worn over time that I finally had to give it up, let it go.  I remember how painful my experiences of that blanket were at first (what kind of Christmas gift is a wool blanket for a teenage boy?), but also how I learned to value it, even treasure it, in later years.

Those among us who struggle with experiences of anxiety know all too well how intensely painful these experiences can be, and how easily the pain can begin to blanket over our sense of anything positive in our lives.  As if the emotional anguish of anxiety weren’t enough, it often comes with physical pain — in the form of muscle tension, upset stomachs, and headaches, just to name a few common examples.  The emotional and physical distress combine to take a toll on our confidence, then, convincing us that something must be wrong with us, and that withdrawing or giving up are the only options that make sense for us, or are even the only options that are possible.  With such feelings of limitation and compromised self-esteem, we frequently experience increased emotional pain — a sense of hopelessness and loneliness, even what we could call depression.  No wonder those of us who struggle with experiences of anxiety tend to see anxiety as a curse, a way in which we’re broken, a wound that doesn’t heal.  Who wouldn’t feel this way, given what we go through?

As valid as this view is — and it is completely valid, given our profoundly and repeatedly painful experiences of anxiety — it seems to me to have the very unfortunate effect of perpetuating the very affliction from which we seek relief.  Seeing anxiety as a curse or a wound sets up a relationship between us and anxiety that is dominated by our sense of antipathy, resentment, and fear.  In this kind of relationship, we tend to polarize with our anxiety, identifying it as our enemy and taking up a defensive position against it; as we do so, we often generate an even higher degree of tension for ourselves, and not the increased sense of calm and confidence that we desire.  Personally, I wonder how our experiences might be different if we were able to see our anxiety in another light, not as a curse or a wound, but as a blessing or a source of healing, as odd as those ideas may sound.  What if, in keeping with the holiday season, we were able to see our anxiety as a gift?  What kind of relationship with anxiety would be possible for us if we were able to adopt this perspective?  What might the benefits be?

For me, the key to seeing anxiety differently — as a gift, for instance — lies in exploring those ways in which I can say that I am thankful for my experiences of it.  Sure, on the one hand, the very idea of being thankful for anxiety sounds absurd — even offensive, perhaps — given all the pain that we associate with feeling anxious; however, the frame of mind in which such an idea is absurd or offensive is the same frame of mind that is dominated by anxious, fearful, tense, and defensive thinking.  I am not intimating that we consider experiences of anxiety pleasant — I have already mentioned the myriad ways in which they are profoundly painful, in fact; what I am suggesting is that these very unpleasant, painful experiences call our attention to certain habits of thinking, associated feelings, and ways of responding in behavior that are not helpful to us — that limit, constrain, even debilitate us.

Anxiety, then, provides a doorway to healing, a prompt to us to examine our thoughts about ourselves, others, and our experiences, and to evaluate how well these thoughts are working for us.  If we don’t like the way that our thoughts are working for us, if we determine that they are exacerbating our anguish rather than helping us to feel more calm and confident, we can decide to exchange them for thoughts that support us in having the different experiences that we want.  The curse, the wound of anxiety, becomes a source of healing, a gift for growth.

When I think about this idea — the gift of anxiety — I think back to the wool blanket that my grandparents gave me for Christmas when I was in my teenage years, and how, eventually, I grew to feel so thankful for it.  At first, of course, I felt only confused, disappointed, and frustrated — even a bit hurt and upset, to be honest.  I hadn’t asked for the blanket.  I didn’t want the blanket.  I even hated the way the blanket felt.  Who would ever be glad to have such a thing?  The very notion seemed preposterous to me.  Now, as I reflect on my experience, I know that I couldn’t have reacted any other way, given how I was thinking about the blanket at the time.  In the years that followed, as I learned to see ways in which the blanket was helpful to me, I began to think differently about the blanket itself, and my relationship to it changed, eased, became much less dominated by tension and aggravation.  Finally, I stopped thinking about the blanket as the heavy, scratchy burden on my bed that I had received instead of a new bike, music player, or anything else that I really wanted; instead, I thought about how the blanket served me well in ways that I had not expected, but came to value very much.

What are some of the ways in which you can say that anxiety has been a gift to you?  What welcome differences in your experiences of anxiety, and of life more generally, might experimenting with a perspective like this one might make possible for you?

With my very best wishes to you for increased calm and confidence during this holiday season, and in 2016!

Featured image credit: kozzi / 123RF Stock Photo

Got Angst? Give Thanks!

The Blessings of Gratitude

This month, many of us will be celebrating the U.S. holiday that we call Thanksgiving.  We will gather together with family and friends, ideally over a hearty harvest meal, and take time to give thanks for the people we love and what is going well in our lives.  We will count and share our blessings.

Many of us, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, will also be aware of feeling anxious.  Our sense of anxiety may be a response to thoughts about the social situations involved in celebrating Thanksgiving itself, or we may already be thinking ahead to the myriad pressures, social and otherwise, that we so often experience as part of the rest of the holiday season.  Lucky for us, Thanksgiving provides a ready antidote — in the form of its very focus on gratitude!

A cognitive-behavioral approach to anxiety often looks at how we may be fueling our feelings by what we pay attention to and what we remember.  Many of us who experience anxiety tend to focus on what is consistent with our self-doubt, our sense of the world as unpredictable and unsafe, our assumptions that others are thinking negatively of us and will reject us, our expectations of a worst-case scenario, and the like.  We dismiss or minimize, if not completely ignore, experiences that we could describe as positive and for which we would likely feel thankful.  If we are giving a talk and notice that some members of the audience seem bored, we do not see that others appear to be enjoying our presentation.  If we muster our courage to talk to someone we like at a party, we remember only having tripped over our words at some point, rather than how smoothly the rest of the conversation went.  We engage in selective attention and memory.

I suggest that, as a response to anxiety, the practice of gratitude does not simply help us think more positively; it supports us in thinking more realistically.  For those of us who struggle with feeling anxious, giving thanks balances out our tendency to concentrate on what we fear and interpret as negative, our inclination to “screen out” all other aspects of and ways of looking at our experiences.  Some of us may practice gratitude by writing down what we’re thankful for in a journal each day; others of us may take time to meditate on the topic, or to share our sense of blessings with friends or family members.  Whatever methods we choose, the practice of gratitude can, in time, help us develop an increased sense of calm and confidence — one more thing for which we can be thankful!

I hope that you will find ways to give yourself the gift of thanks when you’re feeling angst, not only in the coming weeks — or on Thanksgiving — but throughout the whole year.  What are ideas that you have about how you can practice gratitude?  What are ways in which you already do?

Featured image credit: petarpaunchev / 123RF Stock Photo

Show that Gremlin Some Sun!

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/inti/3128443786/

Mr. Wing’s grandson: Look Mister, there are some rules that you’ve got to follow.

Rand Peltzer: Yeah, what kind of rules?

Mr. Wing’s grandson: First of all, keep him out of the light; he hates bright light, especially sunlight — it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs: Never feed him after midnight. (Gremlins, 1984)

Today, I offer the fifth and final post in a series that I began back in June, with Through a Glass Darkly. Throughout this series, I have been playing with the idea that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses with lenses comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. I have suggested that some of these thoughts and beliefs make for “dirtier” lenses than others, in that they restrict — rather than expand — our sense of what is possible for us, and in our lives. We can talk about these restrictive thoughts and beliefs as contributing to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic/negative energy, which weighs or even breaks us down, rather than anabolic/positive energy, which animates us and builds us up. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider writes about catabolic thoughts and beliefs as “energy blocks” that get in our way of making conscious choices, and prevent us from reaching our potential (129); he identifies four of these obstacles, and calls them limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” simply being another way to reference what many of us call our inner critic). In previous blog posts, we have looked at limiting beliefsassumptions, and interpretations; today, we explore the last of the four “energy blocks” — gremlins.

Schneider defines a gremlin as that part of us that fears in some way (or many!) that we’re just “not good enough to cut it” (141); we may worry, for instance, that we’re not smart enough, attractive enough, and/or experienced enough — the list can go on and on, as most of us know. “Your gremlin,” Schneider writes, “tells you not to try, never to take a risk, always to take the safe road, and to compromise your life by playing small” (140); left unchecked, your gremlin can begin to convince you that you are small. As examples of gremlin activity, he points to thoughts that he has heard Richard, his fictional client in Energy Leadership, express during their conversations together. Richard, the owner of a small business that has fallen on hard times, has told Schneider that he feels like a failure, and that he has let his employees down, because his company is currently struggling (141). Schneider asserts that Richard is giving voice to his inner critic in thinking, feeling, and speaking of himself in this way, as “not good enough” (i.e., a “failure”). This kind of negative self-talk resonates with catabolic, rather than anabolic, energy; Richard feels beaten down, hopeless, and could tend to shrink from opportunities for improving the situation — after all, what’s the use?

As another example, on a personal level, I’ll confess that I wrestled with my own gremlin when I was thinking about leaving my salaried job as a therapist to go into private practice as a therapist and coach. While I believed that I was good at what I did, part of me wondered if I should take the risk, if it wasn’t better for me to remain where I was (with the steady paycheck!), rather than to follow my dream of having my own business (setting my own schedule; seeing clients that I wanted to see and who wanted to see me, specifically; etc.). As someone who identifies as an introvert, and also struggles at times with a sense of anxiety in social situations, I worried that I wasn’t “good enough” socially to network successfully, or to communicate effectively to potential clients the benefits that they could experience through our work together. I fretted that if I couldn’t network or communicate in the ways that I imagined necessary to cultivate a thriving private practice (anyone also hear a limiting belief in this idea?), I wouldn’t be able to “cut it” on my own. I’m so happy now that I didn’t let my gremlin hold me back!

There are ways for us to challenge our gremlins, of course, which will likely sound familiar to anyone who is already familiar with cognitive-behavioral responses to anxious thinking, especially to those patterns of thought we can call negative core beliefs. The first step, in my own view — as with any of Schneider’s “energy blocks” — is to recognize that we do not have to accept everything that we think, even about ourselves, as “true.” We don’t have to believe everything we think! When we are able to hear the pronouncements of our inner critic as beliefs about ourselves that we have developed over time, based on what we have been seeing through the lenses in the invisible eyeglasses that we wear — rather than as “facts” — we create new possibilities in thought, feeling, and behavior for ourselves. When we catch our gremlin telling us that we’re “not good enough” in some way, and experience even the vaguest sense of dissonance reminding us that another part of us — our “inner genius” (142), Schneider says — knows better, we can begin to hear the voice of our inner critic more objectively, then, as saying less about us, and more about a habit that we have and can change of seeing ourselves in an unhelpful way. Some people find that naming their gremlin and describing it in physical terms helps them objectify it — separate from it, get some distance from it — more effectively. I once attended a training in which, as participants, we had the assignment of drawing, sculpting, or creating in some other fashion a physical representation of our gremlin. This was not long after I had undergone surgery for a salivary stone, an experience that I had decided to refer to as “having some of my fear removed” (at the time, I was working through those apprehensions I mentioned about leaving my job to start a private practice!). I used white Play-Doh to give my gremlin the shape that I imagined a large salivary stone to have, and put it in an empty medication bottle. I still keep this physical representation of my gremlin around to help remind me that my gremlin is only a part of me, not all of me, and not even the strongest or most influential part of me — not any longer.

In responding to your own gremlin over the next couple of weeks, should you choose to do so (the key to your cage is in your own hand!), I invite you to think about the three rules that Mr. Wing’s grandson passes along to Rand Peltzer in the movie, Gremlins (1984), when he sells Rand the creature that we later come to know as Gizmo: “First of all, keep him out of the light; he hates bright light, especially sunlight — it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs: Never feed him after midnight.” Like the creatures in this movie, our own gremlins multiply, wreak havoc, take over our lives, and even get vicious towards us when we “give them water” with unquestioned acceptance and “feed them after midnight” with unchallenged influence over what we think, feel, and do. When we expose them to the light of day, on the other hand — that is, become aware of them, identify them as negative core beliefs to which we don’t have to (and won’t!) ascribe any longer, and challenge them with alternative, more helpful ways of seeing ourselves — they begin to lose their power.

Go on … show that gremlin some sun!

Featured image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GremlinStripeByInti.jpg

My Own Gremlin, Trapped in a Bottle, Exposed to Sunlight
My Own Gremlin, Trapped in a Bottle, Exposed to Sunlight

Worries Dancing with the Wind

Falling Leaves

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

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

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, 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 feeling much more calm, relaxed, and confident. 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?

Featured image credit: nadyatess / 123RF Stock Photo

What Do You Choose to See?

"Duck-Rabbit illusion". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duck-Rabbit_illusion.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Duck-Rabbit_illusion.jpg

The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see. — Barry Neil Kaufman

What do you see when you look at the featured image for today’s post? 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 imagine are possible, which one of them do you prefer? Which one works better for you, in a manner of speaking?

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.

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.

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! While 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.

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?

Featured image: “Duck-Rabbit illusion”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duck-Rabbit_illusion.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Duck-Rabbit_illusion.jpg

Seeing Beauty in the Cracks

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

I took a two-hour class at a local art center one evening in which we made clay pinch pots — bowls or vases, basically, that we created out of a ball of clay. The process consisted of pushing one’s thumb into the center of the ball of clay to start the opening, and then pinching and turning 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 worked, I found myself feeling anxious from time to time about what I deemed 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 one in the room to have this kind of response. Others were nervous, too, about their own creations. The instructor was very kind and reassuring to us all, offering pointers for addressing issues that may have really been serious — structurally speaking, I’m guessing — but also proffering compliments on some of the other characteristics that seemed to worry us the most.

As I left the class that night, reflecting on making my pinch pot, and on the anxiety that 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, click here. The image is one of a gray pottery bowl — veined with gold to dramatic effect — offered to illustrate the Japanese art of kintsukuroi, or kintsugi, in which broken pottery is mended with a lacquer resin to which powdered gold has been added. The text that accompanies this image describes the art as embracing a 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 perceived to be imperfect, parts that I was judging as “not good enough,” I was struggling to remember the idea behind kintsukuroi — that we can choose to see beauty in the very cracks and errant undulations that we so often want to “correct,” cover up, distract attention from, or otherwise disavow.

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 so, and these feelings interest us, what new ways of thinking and behaving would support the kind of perspective behind this shift? If we already experience “a kintsukuroi perspective” at times in our lives, what do we identify as contributing to it?

Featured image credit: iven401 / 123RF Stock Photo