The power to choose is yours

Power to choose“The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, And let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings. As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.”      Buddha, Dhammapada

This week in my yoga class my teacher shared a saying that spoke to me and I have been thinking about it ever since.  She said “If you don’t choose your feeling tone, your past will choose it for you.” As I pondered it, I knew that it rang true.  If each day, each moment I am not conscious of what intention I have my life then I can only react out of my unconscious habits.  Those habits have been shaped over my life, most of them being formed in my childhood and early adulthood.

It is the same for all of us.  The past  shaped us and will continue to rule us unless we become more mindful of the new path we desire.  For example, if we are raised in a family where shame was used to control us, we will easily sink into shame  even when others are not intending to shame us.  If we were raised in a very judgmental family, we will be quick to judge others and ourselves, even when we would prefer to be compassionate. This reaction results from our need to be vigilant to such tactics to deal with the environment in the past.  As such, we continually scan for evidence of the same negativity in our current situation.  Our brains are programmed to be aware of any such “threats” that exist, even when there are really only a few of them in the present moment.  Being able to  spot them immediately helped us to survive when we were children.  Our brains are hardwired to notice and  respond to the threats, real or imagined.

If we are to choose a different path, we need to heal the wounds of the past.  One way to do that is by using positive experiences to counter the negative one.  Rick Hanson, in his book Buddha’s Brain*, suggests two methods of doing this.  The first option is to let all the positive experiences that occur in the present  sink into the old pains.  To do this we have to maximize the positive experience. We need to replay it over and over in our mind, making a full colorful “movie” of it to see in our mind’s eye so that we really can get a full body experience of it.  Savor the positive moment.  Let it strengthen and replace some of the negative experiences in the past.  This helps to give us today what we should have received as a child.

The second option is to replace negative material that surfaces with positive emotions and memories that will be its antidote.  For example, if you have felt weak and dependent in the past, let a current experience of strength bathe it with healing.  If hurt from past neglect or rejection in relationships continues to make you feel unworthy, bring to mind where you are loved by other people or God.  Hanson suggests adding a thought such as “I got through all that, I’m still here and many people love me.”  While the memory of the pain will not vanish, using these two techniques will help it to diminish.  It will allow you to move on to the future you desire, rather than have the past choose it for you.

For more information about the use this technique and how it impact us at a neurological level, I refer you to Hanson’s  book.  Cognitive behavioral therapy also has many different methods to help us change our thoughts.  As quoted in the passage above, our thoughts lead to words, deeds, habits and character.  Our feeling tone or our intentions are intrinsically related to our thoughts.  By watching both our intentions and our thoughts we can begin to change our character.  One of the best places for this thought to spring from is from love and compassion, both for ourselves and the world.

* Hanson, Rick and Mendius, Richard, Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom, New Harbinger Publications, 2009.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

IMG_0508When Bobby McFarren first came out with the song, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, I thought he must just be high on something.  It sounded too pat an answer to life’s many difficulties.  It couldn’t be as easy as just telling yourself or someone not to worry and focus on being happy, could it?  Maybe he was a typical laid back man from the tropics who lazed around in the sun all day.  What did he have to be worried about?  Well, it turns out he was from the States and a world class musician to boot.  And what he had to say is true.  We can control the level of our worry by  focusing on being happy.

How can we do that?  Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, and Dr. Richard Mendius, a neurologist, havewritten a book called Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, Love & Wisdom.   This book outlines in detail how to decrease our stress and be happy. According to them, scientists have recently mapped out the neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) that are involved in emotions such as anxiety and depression.  These chemicals are key to firing parts of the brain that alert us to danger in our environment so that we have an increased chance of survival.  Over the thousands of years of human evolution, these pathways have developed to a level that our brains can make split second decisions whether to fight or flight or just relax.  Since these pathways are key to our survival,  they get the most traction in our brain.

We have evolved to pay greater attention to unpleasant experiences. This has created a negativity bias that overlooks good news and focuses on any possible dangers or threats in our environment.  With the development of our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain that separates us from other animals), we have even been able to imagine possible scenarios, thus developing anticipatory anxiety about the danger we might meet in the future.  While this might serve us well if we were ever to meet such a circumstance, for the most part this tendency causes us to worry unnecessarily, even before something happens.  It causes unnecessary suffering more often than it prepares us for disaster.

The good news is that we also have the ability to retrain our brains to focus on more pleasant experiences which can increase the neural pathways that are devoted to feeling good.  You can actually change the “wiring in your brain” by using some simple, easy remedies.  Drs. Hanson and Mendius suggests first of all that we look consciously for and take in positive experiences, letting them sink into our awareness by actually savoring them.  This helps them to be consolidated in our memories. We can then use the positive memories to counteract a painful one that is occurring in the present.  For example, during the birth of my second child, I was able to use the memory of how good it was to hold my first child after he was born to help me cope with the pain of labor.

Their book is full of many other helpful suggestions that help us cool the fires of the sympathetic nervous system which is the one that produces the stress-related hormones.Instead, we use these techniques to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which allows calming, soothing and healing hormones to spread throughout your body.  Some of these techniques are familiar to many of us, such as progressive relaxation, deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation and imagery.   Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can be of help in this area as well, challenging negative thoughts with realistic challenges.  The authors’ suggestions are too many to cover in this brief article.  I would recommend that you read their book.  Don’t be scared off by all the technical terms for the brain and its wiring.  The authors really explain this in a way that we all can understand.  Dr. Hanson also has a website that is worth visiting .  (http://www.rickhanson.net/)

So Bobby McFerrin was on to something in 1988 with his catchy tune.  I even can catch myself these days humming a few bars as I take his advise and let go of the negative filters. Instead, I choose to focus on the blessings and gratitude I feel for all that is positive in my life.  I would suggest the same for you.  Don’t Worry, Be Happy–it will change the way your brain works!

 

Hide and Seek

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Whidbey Island, which is off the coast of Washington near Seattle.  I have wanted to visit this place for a couple of years, partly because I know the Olympic Mountains create a majestic vista across Puget Sound.  I had visions of spending the long weekend at a friend’s house, looking at the gorgeous mountains each day and letting the view fill my heart with delight.  Instead, even though it was not raining, the mountains were no where to be seen.  I was disappointed and it casted a pall over the beginning of the trip.  I knew they were there but, without being able to see them,  I felt abandoned by them.

I love mountains and the Olympic Mountains in particular are spectacular when they are visible.  And that is the rub…when they are visible.  Like our Cascade Mountains here in southwest Washington, there are many times when it is too foggy, too misty, or socked in by rain to see the mountains.  This summer it was even too smoky at times due to all the forest fires.  When that happens, I know the mountains exist but they feel distant.  When it is sunny and the “mountains are out” I feel my spirits lifting and I feel more grounded in the beauty that surrounds me.

This visit to Whidbey Island caused me to reflect on how these mountains are like God.  There are times when most of us crave to sense God’s presence in a  close and tangible way but feel that there is a cloud that separates us from God and God’s love.  We may feel God has abandoned us or is absent from our lives at that moment. At other times, when we experience God’s touch in a more concrete way through creation, music or a compassionate touch from another person, our spirits are lifted.  It is like God is playing hide and seek with us, much the same way the mountains do.  But, just as the mountains are always there whether they can be seen at that moment or not, God is always present.  God is in every situation, loving us and walking with us through the good times and the bad.  Through we may not see or feel God in a situation, God is there.  There is no place where God is not.  While this knowledge may not be as comforting as a visceral experience of God’s touch, it is important to acknowledge it in the darkest moments of our journey through life.

The sun finally came out one evening during my time on Whidbey and I was able to view a glorious sunset behind the Olympic Mountains.  That sunset sustained me through the next days that were cloudy and gray.  The secret in life is allowing our spirits to do the same.  To take those moments when God’s presence is so palpable that we can’t escape it and ground them in the memories of our hearts.  That way when our days are the darkest we can know that God’ love is with us even if our vision of it is clouded over with  the mists and pains of life.

Compassionate Heart

As I listen to the news lately, I hear yet another story of killing in Syria or Afghanistan.   The reporter then switches to a story about a mass murder at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and I begin to feel overwhelmed by all the violence that exists in our world.  How does one remain open to the suffering that occurs daily without developing a numbness or a cold heart that makes the suffering of others as distant as possible?  Do we just have to “turn the other cheek” and allow the brutal people of the world take over?  How can we remain compassionate, open to the pain of others without letting ourselves become a doormat or our hearts to be hardened into a narrow minded focus that cares only for ourselves and our immediate companions?

And what if in the past someone has abused us or taken advantage of us in an unfair way?  Are we who are striving for a compassionate heart supposed to forgive and forget?  Are we to let them continue to hurt us?  Do we have to continue to relate to them without setting any limits on their behavior?

For answers, I turn to two great spiritual leaders, Jesus and Buddha.  Both urged their followers to have a compassionate heart and to love one another as brothers and sisters.  Jesus is quoted as saying, “You know you have been taught, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you.  When someone slaps your right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek.” (Matthew 5: 38-39)

What is meant by this statement?   If we look only at the surface of the statement from Matthew we might think Jesus was urging us to be passive and not resist evil when we face it.  In fact, this scripture has been used to oppress people and keep them in a one down position.  Dr. Walter Wink, in his book, Engaging the Powers, sheds light on what these words probably meant, given the social context of the day. According to Dr. Wink, no one in that culture would use their left hand to strike anyone as it was considered the unclean hand.  So in order to slap the person’s right cheek,  he had to use the back of his right hand.  This gesture was meant to be demeaning to the one receiving the blow.  Masters would backhand slave and Romans would do so to Jews.  If you present the other check, the person must still use his right hand and then he will have to use his fist or palm. That was a gesture used only between equals.  Thus, by turning the other cheek a person would be communicating that he or she refused to be humiliated and must be treated as an equal.  It was a non-violent but non passive response to the other person’s grasp for power.*

Buddha says,”Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another.  Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world…”(part of the Metta Sutta).  How does one cherish all living beings when some seem so bent on perpetuating evil in the world?  According to Sharon Salzberg in her book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, “Sometimes we think that to develop an open heart, to be truly loving and compassionate, means that we need to be passive, to allow others to abuse us, to smile and let anyone do what they want with us  Yet this is not what is meant by compassion. Quite the contrary.  Compassion is not at all weak.  It is the strength that arise out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal…Compassion can lead to a very forceful action without any anger or aversion in it.”  We need to be open to exploring the context out of which the negative behavior arises before we judge the person who commits the act.  If we can see what lead up to the behavior, we can hold an open heart towards the person while still not condoning the act.

A practice that has helped me remain more open to others and to develop a compassionate heart is that of metta.  In doing metta practice, we gently repeat phrases that are meaningful in terms of what we wish for ourselves and others.  We always begin with ourselves as any practice of lovingkindness that based on self hatred or depreciation cannot sustain itself.  We are called to love one another as we love ourselves which means we need to love ourselves first.

Sharon Salzberg’s book gives an in- depth look at how to do this practice and the benefit from making it a daily routine.  Briefly, we repeat four phrases that state our wish to  be free from danger, to have mental and physical happiness and ease of well-being.  The phrases I like to use are taken from Rami Shapiro and are

  • May I be free from fear,
  • May I be free from compulsions,
  • May I be blessed with love,
  • May I be blessed by peace.

I always start with myself but then call to mind images of people that I love and state the same phrases for them.  I then move to someone I am having a hard time loving or with whom I have a conflict.   After this I expand it to the world or particular world leaders.   The last step is to pray this for all beings, animal and human.

So, this is my prayer for you, dear reader:

May you be free from fear.

May you be free from compulsions.

May you be blessed with love.

May you be blessed by peace.

*For a more in-depth discussion of this passage and others like it, read Don’t Forgive Too Soon by Denis, Sheila and Matthew Linn

Song of the Morning

 “ No one knows what makes the soul wake up so happy.  Maybe a dawn breeze has blown the veil away from the face of God.”   

We sit in silence out on the deck of a lovely cabin in the Mt. Hood National Forest.  It is time for Morning Prayer.  We listen to Gregorian chant sung by monks, setting our hearts in rhythm to the ancient cadence that has graced myriads of cathedrals throughout the ages.  As the monks sing out to the glory of God, the birds around us add their voices to the choir.  They lift their voices in praise of the only God, the creator of all.  A squirrel barks and a jay scolds while the songbirds tweet melodically.  All are part of the chorus, just like the various instruments of an orchestra.  Each has its part to play in the symphony of praise to God this morning.

Praise the Lord from the heavens;

praise him in the heights above.

Praise him, all his angels;

Praise him, all his heavenly hosts.

Praise him, sun and moon;

Praise him, all you shining stars.

Praise him, you highest heavens

And you waters above the sky.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,

For at his command they were created. (Psalm 148 1-5)

As the words of the psalm end, we go into silence to contemplate the sounds of the earth, the trickling of the nearby stream, and the blessings of the new morning.   The sun breaks over the trees and shines its face fully upon us as our leader reads these words,

“O Medicine of Dawn,

healing are your morning rays,

I lift my face toward

the ointment of your splendor

as I become a morning prayer.” *

That is the challenge for each day.  How do I become a morning prayer?  How do I raise my voice in praise, as it is so natural for the creatures of the earth to do?  How do I add my own uniqueness to the chorus without falling into comparison or envy or desire to be something that I am not?  Maybe my part to play is like the barking of a squirrel or the scolding of the jay.  Neither of them is particularly beautiful by its self.  And yet, each adds the bass notes to the symphony without which something would be missing.  Am I content to be the bass player to someone else’s lead, someone else’s melody? It could mean being in the background.  It could mean sounding the discordant note in alarm when something is off kilter.   To be content with whatever role I am meant to play would mean surrender. Not surrender to an outside authority such as dogma, religious rules or requirements but surrender to truth, to consciousness, to joy, to community.

“Encourager of Morning,

Soft glory of the new day,

I am tasting the joy of being awake.

Let your face shine on me

That, I, in turn may shine on others.”*

It is through surrender that God can work through each of us to bring the light and love to others in need.  We are all called to play a unique role in this world that only we can perform.  We are called to be light bearers but to do so we must first let go of any darkness within us that blocks the light.  We must make peace with our shadow side so that we can move from the small “self” to connection with the larger “Self” that is the experience of unity.  As we do this, we are moving towards becoming fully human and embracing wholeness (holiness).  While it might seem overwhelming, it really only requires living in the moment, being as conscious as we can at any given time.  Simple yet complicated in its simplicity.  Ah, the paradox of God!

“As Morning Blossoms,

I go forth to meet the great shining,

The dear unfolding of the day.

With the fading night

I begin a sacred dance

In the arms of your shining.”*

The song of the morning is calling to each of us.  Listen to the rhythm that was placed in your heart at birth.  Join the dance of the universe and surrender to the arms of God’s shining.

*All quotes taken from Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day, Marcina Wiederkehr

 

In The Garden

Recently a friend of mine posted about her experience in the garden and the lessons she has learned as a newbie gardener.  (http://sacredmtnministries.com/spiritual-lessons-from-the-garden/) She got me thinking.   I have been a gardener all my adult life.  My father was my mentor in this aspect.  He was an organic gardener in the early 70s before this was a popular thing to do.  He read books on organic gardening and consulted the Farmer’s Almanac and gradually took over most of the backyard in our house in Ohio.  Many times I would see him in his hat and long sleeve shirt (avoiding the sun) pruning vegetables and weeding the garden.

When I had a home of my own, he helped me put in raised beds and lay out a good plan for the plants.  He knew that certain plants grew well together and others inhibited their growth.  He also knew how many rows of corn to plant as a minimum for cross pollination and nifty little tidbits about when to plant according to the phase of the moon. He would work in the garden until late at night, tenderly loving the plants and the soil.

He also taught me many life lessons some of which I believe come from his years in the garden.

First of all, the companions we chose in life are important.  Some will help us grow through nurturing the soil right next to us, while others will rob us of light and nutrients if we stay with them too long. Discerning between the two comes from years of experience and being alert to the signs that are  along the journey.  If someone demands to take over our life, they probably are not a good companion for us.  If they insist we always do it their way or that there is only one  answer to all of life’s problems,  we should ask ourselves if they are the right ones to companion us. If we are always having to tend to their emotions and needs at the sacrifice of our own, it would be best to learn to put a boundary between the two of us.

Second, similar to the plants that  take root during the dark of the moon, much growth can happen in the dark experiences of life .  During this fallow time when nothing appears to be happening, a transformation can be gestating.  Ideas can take shape that will lead to establishing deep roots.  These roots may be the anchor that keeps us stable through the storms of life or a sudden frost that hits unexpectedly.  Through times of light and happiness, it is good to reach outward to share with others the lessons we have learned.   The seeds that are gained in the dark will become obvious as we bloom into an new being.

Third, preparation is a must before anyone can be expected to grow.  Throwing seeds into untilled soil rarely results in any fruit.  The same is true in life.  We must constant work with the soil in which we have been planted, watering, weeding, thinning, and fertilizing if we expect to continue to produce fruit.  This preparation can come from reading helpful books, seeking the advise of a good counselor or spiritual director, and attending retreats and conferences that help us to learn new ideas.

Fourth, along with this last requirement, comes that of patience.  Much of what is happening is unseen until later in life. As one matures in life and in gardening, the wisdom in being patient becomes more obvious.  Most things done too quickly don’t have the lasting power of those things in which one lets go of the need for quick results and instead learns to patiently tend the soil.

And lastly, there is much good that can come out of keeping our life as organic as possible.  Adding natural things to our lives in simplified ways can help us grow in healthy, strong manner.  Just as plants need to be thinned to produce the best harvest, keeping enough room in our lives for wonder and moments of rest helps us to grow to our fullest potential.  While we might be tempted to add more and more to our busy life, these activities may end up stifling our growth rather than adding to it.  When we compost the unnecessary ingredients in our life,  they can added to the nutrients for our soil.

What lessons have you learned from the garden?  I invite you to join in a conversation that will shares your insights.

Mothering Day

I am very aware of the upcoming celebration of Mother’s Day this year.  This is not because I am a mother and am looking forward to some acknowledgement from my children.  With their busy schedules in medical school and one that is far away in Norway, I will probably just receive a text wishing me a good day.  And that is fine.  I have three solid sons who are all involved in making a positive impact on the world.  What more can a mother wish for?

My awareness comes from the fact that I lost my mother this past February.  I miss her and though she was over 80, I was not ready to let her go.  I miss being able to call her on the phone and chat about everything and nothing.  No one will ever take the place of her and I am thankful for all that she taught me.  It is through her influence that I am the woman and mother than I am today.

I am  aware that many of my peers have lost their mothers as well.  Additionally, there are people I know that never had a good relationship with their mothers and thus don’t really have a mother they want to feel obligated to honor with a special card or gift.  There are also women who want desperately to become mothers but for some reason can not.  For all of us, Mother’s Day will be filled with loss and grief along with celebration.

According to Wikipedia, “Mother’s Day is a celebration honoring mothers and celebrating motherhood, maternal bonds and the influence of mothers in society. It is celebrated on various days in many parts of the world, yet most commonly in March, April, or May.”  It harkens back to some ancient celebrations of motherhood and goddesses in many different cultures.  It is a way of celebrating maternal bonds and the nurturing role that women can have on a society.

As such, my thoughts this year lean towards using the day to celebrate those women in my life that have nurtured me and encouraged me in my career, as a mother, as a woman and in general.  I am going to take the time to send cards to some of those women and thank them for being a significant part of my life.  I encourage you to do the same if you resonate with this idea.  For me, this won’t replace the loss of my mother but will help me to feel lighter on May 13th.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the amazing women in the world!

Surprise: A Gratefulness Practice

Most of us love surprises.  A beautiful box under the tree at Christmas time will bring exclamations of awe and joy.  A thoughtful card from a friend sent without any particular reason will elicit a smile on our faces.  But how many of us stay awake enough to notice all the surprises that greet us each day?  According to a friend of mine, it took his travel to a Scandinavian country for a year to notice upon his return the birds that sang all the time in his native India.  It is easy to habituate to those little things that surround us all the time.

Spring is a good time to become aware of such surprises.  For example, having more daylight each day as the sun begins its travels back to the northern hemisphere.  Yesterday as I left my office, I noticed that it was still light outside and just this little change lifted my spirits.  Taking a walk, I noticed daffodils starting to show their yellow heads and crocuses that added purples and yellows to the landscape.  These small but not unexpected occurrences can come as a surprise when we stop taking for granted the environment around us and just notice it as if for the first time.

The practice of gratitude involves a three step process that helps us to really notice what is around us.  The first is to wake up.  Just to ask ourselves several times a day, “Isn’t this surprising?” begins to orient us to being alive in our life rather than walking through our life in a hypnotic trance.  Surprise is not always good but even with pain or disappointment there can be a gift if we are awake to the experience.  Awareness helps us to see the opportunity in each occurrence so that we can respond fully to it.  We can also take the opportunity to respond in a grateful manner.  For example, recently I tore a ligament in my knee.  Through the pain of learning to walk normally again, I experienced how complicated this “simple” act truly is.  I felt like a baby learning how to take her first steps. Now I take joy in being able to walk without a limp.

David Steindl-Rast suggests this simple process in order to cultivate gratefulness in our lives:

“My simple recipe for a joyful day is this: stop and wake up; look and be aware of what you see; then go on with all the alertness you can muster for the opportunity the moment offers.”

We really do have as many things to be grateful for as we have to complain about.  It is just that we start to take those things for granted quicker than we do the ones that are irritating.  A good practice is to record in a journal at the end of the day all those things that surprised you that day and for which you are grateful.  If you follow these simple steps, you will find that you experience more happiness no matter what life gives you that day.

Resources:         David Steindl-Rast: Essential Writings, Edited by Clare Hallward

                         A Blessing in Disguise,  Edited by Andrea Joy Cohen, M.D.

                        Sacred Necessities: gifts for living with passion, purpose & grace, Terry Hershey

Loving Communication

The New Year has started, literally with a bang from all the fireworks that were set off in my neighborhood.  It is a time to ponder the last year and to set goals for improvement for the new.  Many people set resolutions such as losing weight or getting more exercise.  While these are good goals, what would the world be like if this year we all chose the goal of more loving communication with one another?

My Cultivating Compassion group addressed this topic this month and I would like to share with you some of the suggestions we pondered.  Some of these come from a book by Lorne Ladner, Ph.D, The Lost Art of Compassion.  He is a Buddhist psychologist who combines his spiritual understanding with solid psychological principles.  The other suggestions come from Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s book, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindess.  I recommend both books if you are interested in further reading on the subject.

According to Ladner, “three things are necessary for meaningful, powerful  positive communication.  Through introspection, you must be honest with yourself about your own thoughts and feelings; through empathy, you must be as aware as you can of what the other person feels, thinks and wants; and you must feel a sense of caring or love for the other person.”  We first need to think before we speak.  While this seems to be a no brainer, many times we just react and say the first thing that comes to our minds.  We don’t take the time to be mindful and ask ourselves what is the motivation behind what we say.  Do we want attention?  Approval?  Control?

Rabbi Shapiro encourages us to use Holy Speech.  We need to ask ourselves  three questions:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it necessary?

Are we saying something that is true?  Do we say, “I don’t know” when we really mean “I don’t want to talk about it right now”? Even if it is true, is it kind or beneficial to say?  It might be true that the new born baby is the ugliest you have seen in a while but is that a kind comment to share with the mom who is glowing in the bliss of just having given birth to her first newborn? Is it necessary? Is it the right time to say what we see or think?  Will the person really be open to hearing our perception or contribution?  Is it necessary to add our “two cents worth” at this time?  Will it bring the interaction to a more meaningful place?  Does it help us to see reality clearer or just confuse the matter?  Is it an attempt to bash someone over the head with an insight they are not prepared to hear?

Scientist have found that the key ingredient to healthy relationships is empathy, which is defined as the ability to understand another person’s inner experience.  To be empathetic, we must first focus our attention on the other person.  So many of us only pay attention to conversations with others with only “one ear.”  We are distracted by the newspaper, the TV or other things we are doing at the time.  Multi-tasking has no place in empathy.  We need to let go of even the worries we are carrying within our minds.  We must focus on what the person is saying both with words and non-verbal behavior to really be able to understand what is being felt and said.  We need to really look at them and take all of what they are saying in.

There are two types of empathy that have been delineated by scientists: conceptual and resonant. Conceptual empathy is the ability to listen deeply to another person and then relate what we have seen and heard to our memories, ideas, and imagination in order to understand it.  For example, someone shares with you the pain and grief she feels with the loss of her mother.  Even though you have not lost your mother, you have had losses in your life so you are able to imagine how it must feel for her to loss someone that meant so much to her.  It is important to check the accuracy in your understand by reflecting it back to the person.  We can never know exactly how someone feels but we can come close with conceptual empathy.

Resonant empathy is wired into our neural hardware.  It is our ability as mammals to pick up on the “energy” of the environment.  It is automatic and based on survival needs.  According to social psychologists “witnessing another’s emotional state prompts the observer to covertly, internally, imitate the other ‘s emotional cues (for example, tensing our muscles when witnessing someone under stress).  The result of this process is the production of similar, though weaker, reactions in the observer.”  We need to develop our awareness of this process so that we can use it to understand the person and to bring to the situation a more calm interaction.  Just as we resonant with another, he too can respond to our calm state and decreased his agitation.

Finally, as we are better able to empathize with a person, we sense a deeper connection and interdependence with each other.  We can sense how similar we are to each other and that all beings are connected at some deeper level.  We can move to communicated what will be beneficial to all involved rather than just focusing on our own needs.  We can begin to communicate with empathy and resolve conflicts from that point of view.  Empathic resolution is different from compromise where each person has to give up something in order to reach resolution. With empathy we are more able to transcend our egos and focus on what is good for the whole since we are aware of our connectedness to everyone and everything. Resolution that comes from empathy and love can transcend old conflicts and bring about genuine justice and peace.  What a good goal for the New Year in a world that needs as much peace as it can attain, one relationship and neighborhood at a time.  “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me!”

Hills Are Hard

 I recently returned from a two week bike trip to New Zealand.  The weather was fine and the group I was with were great companions.  We biked 25 to 40 miles each day through rainforest roads filled with the song of birds unique to the south island of New Zealand.  Each day presented challenges of “wee hills” or undulations as our guides called them.  They did not want us to freak out before we even began to bike because of the knowledge that a hill of good proportions faced us that day.

On some of the rides, there were hills that had names such as Mt. Hercules, “the triple by-pass or three sisters,” and Haast Pass.  I was privileged to ride over only one of these hills: Mt. Hercules.  Honestly,  I was more concerned about riding down the hill than peddling up, though going up this steep grade was indeed a challenge.  I had to be in the “granny” gear most of the ride up.  However, I used the mantra I learned from my yoga teacher.  She had shared a story about being frustrated at not being able to simply glide up hills like she saw others who were bigger than her doing.   She spent her time berating her self for not being stronger until one of the more experienced riders told her this secret: “hills are hard.”

Life is like facing these hills.  If we continually worry about what we are going to face, we might never take the first step to try something new.  Sometimes we can scare ourselves out of wonderful opportunities because we already assume we “can’t do it.”  Or when we are in the middle of doing something that is challenging we might add to the challenge by beating ourselves up mentally–thinking we are doing it so much worse than everyone else.  When we do this we tend to compare ourselves unfairly to people that are more skill or experienced.  Of course, we come up short.  Rather motivating us to do our best, this approach tends to lead to discouragement and loss of hope.  But if we remind ourselves that challenges are hard (that is why they are called challenges) then we can take it slow but steady and make it to our goal.  Whether it is to the top of a hill where a gorgeous view is awaiting us or the finishing of a arduous task, the finish line is usually worth the effort.  And then we can relax and take the wild ride down the hill!