Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Suffering as an Art Form - Chicks, Shells and Survival

When my mother was a little girl in Northern Italy on a small family farm, she would  watch baby chicks hatch out of their eggs. She was fascinated by the cracks and the the small puncture marks that would arrive signalling the arrival of a baby chick.

There were times she would feel sorry for the chicks.  There were always the ones who would struggle deeply to get out of their shells.  So she would help them out.  She would help those baby chicks out by picking away at the shell.

I used to think about this story a lot when I was a teenager and a young adult. I guess I am still thinking about it now as a middle aged woman.

It seems that evolution and natural selection throw a series of fitness, strength and stress tests to all species to ensure survival of the fittest. These tests do not arrive when you are trained, practiced, rehearsed and ready - they happen at your edges.  You have outgrown your container, your food source, your requirements for survival.

Passing these tests, being able to successfully pull yourself out of your egg, benefits you and it benefits your species. Picking at the shell of the egg, strengthens the chick, gives her practice at pecking which she will need as she learns to feed herself. If you can pull yourself out and survive, you pass on your genes to the next crew of chicks and you help ensure a stronger gene pool.

If you are unable, you are too weak, without assistance, you die.  You do not pass on those genes.  Your genes don't make it into the next crew of chicks.

Helping a chick crack out of it's shell takes away important practice and skills a chick needs to survive.  It may alter natural selection.  On the other hand, it might save it's life.

The same dilemma plays itself out hundreds of times in our own lives. When do we step in and help our children, our friends, our co-workers or our families?  When does helping turn into enabling turn into controlling or fearfulness?

Some struggle is necessary for anything to survive.  It is billions of years of hardwiring that says, growth comes from struggle, conflict, and change. And so does death.

It is relatively easy for me to work with this razor edge relationship between suffering, life and death when I am working with a client. A client is already motivated enough to get help. I can listen to the story, work in small increments, see results, work in bigger increments, see results, setbacks, results, setbacks and then transformation.   Often, exactly in that order.

It becomes more difficult to do when someone close to me is in the suffering. I have to fight the impulse to go over and "crack the shell" myself. I want to fix the problem, in part, because it is so painful for me, to be in the presence of someone I love, who is suffering.

A few years ago, I felt a significant and very loud urging to step forward and help someone close to me.  "You need a hand.  You are struggling. I can help you."  She said yes, and so for a part of her journey, together we cracked a few of the gritty  pieces of the shell. I imagine, I hope, there is enough trust and love that the next time she feels stuck, she will once again be okay with a companion and a guide  to move through an unbearable edge.

It is an art in knowing when your assistance is enabling weakness or encouraging strength. I see the danger of families protecting their loved ones from their suffering to such a degree as to teach them weakness.  I see the danger of families unable to walk alongside their loved ones suffering, thus missing an opportunity to strengthen both their relationship and their courage.  It is all a fine line.

I don't have any answers, but I imagine, it is the work of our species to dance that razor's edge in finding ways  to strengthen and fortify the generations and generations and generations to come.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Be Still

It is evening, we are both tired from the travelling and colds that keep lingering in our lungs.

We sit outside the balcony of our unit watching a beautiful sunset.  I have a glass of wine in my hand.  

We have a magnificent view.  We are silent.

We let the sound of water breathing in and out be our voice.

I am very aware that this is a privilege most people on the planet cannot afford.  The 2/3's of the global population living on $2 a day or less, the African famines, the Syrian crisis.  There is plenty of pain to go around. 

For the moment, I am grateful that I can be here.  I can see, hear, feel and be in a magnificent space. All my senses are still able.

That is all I am going to do for the next few days. Write. Walk. Swim. Breathe. Eat. Drink.  And feel the utter gift that I have all the resources I need to be still.

Be still. 

Life Learning Vs. Good Marks

I am helping one of my nieces, Fabiana, with one of her papers.  It is a difficult and dense topic. The requirements are meticulous.  We are working sentence by sentence.

Somewhere in the middle, we take a break and skype my sister.  Many years ago, I helped my twin edit her PhD thesis. It was a difficult time in my own life, and I remember spending many a Sunday in the UBC Education building holed up in an office, escaping my own demons while immersed in my sister's paper.  I was almost always alone and so I felt the freedom of  running around barefoot in the halls in between the patches of editing.

It is funny the bits you remember.  And the bits you don't.

"Hey Fabiana, I remember when Zia Emi was editing my thesis, she even edited my acknowledgements!"

I had forgotten this part.

"I thought it was some of my best work, I was crying when I wrote it, and I was thinking, she is going to cry when she sees this too.  Instead, she was tapping on the backspace button and deleting all the good parts!"

Oh yeah, it was all coming back to me now.

Her acknowledgements were a wordy sentimental mash of gratitude, fatigue and overwhelm - a blend of the best and the worst of my twin's gifts.  She  has always been a superb cheerleader for the people around her - friends, family and especially her children. She is a master at celebration but she fought her griefs and disappointments with a fury.  I was her opposite, embracing my grief and disappointment with a vengeance.  I wrapped myself in a coating of it - it became my identity, while always praying somehow for that pair of 'life is great' glasses my sister always seemed to be wearing. Over the years we have been each other's teachers, embracing both sides, so that now in our middle age, we have a little bit of each other's gift.

I am worried that all of the doing and undoing of the editing with my niece might be soul depleting. At the end of one of my editing sessions with her I say, "All this editing, it's not so much about getting a good mark on your paper.  It is about getting clear with your thoughts.  The practice of learning to write well is the practice of learning to think we'll.  It helps you get your points of view across to yourself and to others.  It not only helps you write a good essay, it helps you become a better person. It is a great life practice."

So that is what I think all of our learning should like. In an ideal world, we create conditions where learning is about sharing the communicable strengths and weaknesses of a collective, where every "educational" assignment can be understood as a practical and empowering life practice and where both the collective "good" and "evil" can be exposed, examined and shifted.

What are the ways you do this in your home, your classroom, your workspace?  What are the ways you do this in public spaces?  I await your suggestions so that I can learn something from you...

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Fear is Easy

Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. 

Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it. Steven Pressfield
I believed, for most of my adult life, that my life partner was something that would come to me.  All I had to do was “be good”, faithful and obedient.  I just had to work hard and somebody would notice me.  At one point, a close friend, “Why are you not working at getting a partner?  If you put half the energy into finding a partner, that you have been putting in your career, you’d be married by now!”  I remember feeling slightly insulted by his words.  Old stories die hard.

Eventually, I took this to heart, and I began putting myself out in the dating world.  I put up a dating profile on several online dating sites and set aside time to “work” on meeting a partner.  I went on loads of dates.  I took everything personally. I painted every “no” as a failure and a sign of my unworthiness. It was difficult – Sometimes fun but mostly scary. It eventually got easier, and after every encounter, I learned a little bit more about myself and how to date but it never stopped being challenging. It took me a very long time to break my old belief.            

One of the things that I learned along the way was that sitting in my pit of pitifulness had some real advantages. Believing that I am unworthy or a failure gave me a good excuse not to face rejection.  

Believing that I had to be obedient and good in order to receive a relationship meant that I did not have to do the work to put myself out in the world.  I didn’t have to expose my vulnerable parts.  I could stay safe in the cocoon of ‘I am not worthy’ thus never exposing my terrifying fears to those around me.            

I am in the middle of the process of publishing my first book (working title: Hearts Guide to Crisis). There were a few times in the writing process where I became paralyzed with self doubt and overwhelmed with the rewrites and my mediocre writing.  I was listening to a number of podcasts and reading blogs on writing but I could not write. 

I woke up one morning and it was like a fog lifted and everything got crystal clear.  Writing a good book is not supposed to be easy.  The discipline of crafting and redrafting the work is all a part of the creative process. Rewrites and discipline are part of the process. 

I feel like I have spent my lifetime proving to myself that I deserve to be in "the arena" while at the same time, constantly avoiding the limelight and minimizing my skill set.  My whine that I am not good enough, that my writing is mediocre, was just an excuse to not do the hard work of doing the work.  

I know that sounds obvious, but for me, this was a lightbulb moment.  Once I understood this, I was able to focus my time on my writing and I stopped listening to the whiney voice of "I am not enough".  This was a game changer for me.

Fear is easy.  It lets you protect your vulnerability and your ugly. It lets you nurse your story that says you are are not enough.  Fear will freeze you in your victim thinking - It can paralyze you into believing that your only choice is to do nothing but feel miserable.         

The antidote is to this paralysis is available to you. Move. Do something.  Take steps towards your dream. Focus on what you can do and table everything else.  When you hear yourself complain how the other guy has it so good, and you have it so bad, remember that's just the fear talking. Keep moving, right through your fear.  

It won't work.
I can't do this. 
I'm too old, too young, too dumb, too smart. 
I can't do this by myself. 

The list is long.  I know, because I could write another book on all the things fear tells you.

Fear is easy and very very chatty. Don't listen.

Use your energy instead, to do the work.  Everyday. Repeat.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Fear Can't Win

I am sitting across from a client. We have worked together over the last few years so I have been able to witness some significant and courageous transformations. He has been sober for over two years. Employed,  engaged in healthy habits and routines. As with all transformations, many deaths occur. He is divorced. He is working on establishing new, honest and authentic relationships with his adult children.  He is trying to do the same with his aging parents. He doesn't even look like the same person who entered my office three years ago.  He is engaging with the world in an entirely different way.

I have been a witness to his tremendous acts of courage.  How was he able to make those changes and transformations?

Healing is never a straight line.   It is an evolution, a series of small imperceptible steps repeated so often, it becomes an unconscious habit. Big steps. in moral development terms, happen in progressive baby tiny steps.   Like Lao Tse's famous quote, "A one thousand mile journey begins with one step," big achievements happen in small repeated choices.

How did this client transform his life? What brought him the courage to take the one step and how does he continue to chose healing even when it feels lonely, painful and impossible?

"I was tired of living in my small box. I figured there had to be something better than my small world of addiction and pain. I was tired of letting fear win."

That is the challenge.  Everyday.  Fear can't win. You have to get out of your small box of what you know. Whatever that might be - debt, dis ease, disrespectful relationships, safe but unfulfilling jobs - there is a place in your life that you are tolerating, that is probably slowly eating away at the quality of your life.

If you are lucky, it is the small uncomfortable nagging space that feels like the pebble stuck in your shoe. If you are resourced, courageous, and well rehearsed, you deal with the discomfort.  Most of us, though, pretend like we are fine with the pebble, ignoring it, telling ourselves  life is full of compromises and this is one of them.  Most of us will ignore it until the pain is unbearable, the pebble has gouged a hole in our heal, infected and almost ready to take out our entire foot.

Fear can't win.

The transformed client in front of  me is the global metaphor.

Success comes in small steps, repeated thousands of times. It is the behaviours, the doing that bring about our heart's desires. It is not the occasional game changing leaps or awareness nor is it the occasional significant setback that bring about transformation.  It is the boring small little daily behaviours that move us forward.

What is your fear? What is the preoccupation that keeps you up at night? What are the small steps that you are willing to take to challenge that fear?

Think about the steps you can take. Small behaviours repeated over time. That is what transformation looks like.

And from here, it looks magnificent.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Your Brain on Uncertainty

Brains love uncertainty.

What? You just finished writing a post about how brains love certainty and now you are telling me the complete opposite? Yes, I am telling you the complete opposite.  Seems our brains love a good paradox.

Brains need certainty and uncertainty.
Brains need safety as well as some stress and danger.
Brains need routine as well as unpredictability.
Brains need calm learning states and as well as chaos.

Studies found that seniors walking on cobblestones rather than smooth paved roads increased neural activity and learning.  Learning is all about stretching the brain just outside the comfort zone and pushing beyond what we know.

Social emotional learning needs uncertainty in order to develop and evolve.  Children AND adults needs lots and lots of practice at managing unpredictable, uncertain environments.  This is where things can get a little tricky.

Parents are spending a great deal of energy, paving the road for their children's life.  The right programs, the right schools, the  right teacher, the right friends and it goes on and on.  Increasingly, I see parents advocating for  their children on more and more platforms. My child needs the best learning environments, the best friends, the best after school care program, the best fitting teacher, and on and on it goes.

Sometimes parent interventions are necessary.  Most of the times, the challenges can be directed at supporting the child in managing the situation on their own.  Most of the time, challenges are good learning opportunities that are probably wrapped in some discomfort, pain and stress.  We in fact need a little pain and suffering to learn.

Don't get me wrong, your job as a parent is to advocate for your child. It is your responsibility to fight for your child's best interest. It is not your job, however to eliminate suffering or discomfort or anything other than optimal learning environments. Some stress and discomfort is important. Optimal environments are the equivalent of smooth pavement and you don't want that.

Safe environments guarantee your child will not get the practice they need to develop a resilient brain. Safe environments, must include opportunities for children to practice dangerous things. This is true for all of us - It is true for adults, for teens and for children. Living means we need lots of practice inhabiting uncertain, unpredictable spaces.

Life is full of uncertainty and unpredictability. The best way all to manage uncertainty and unpredictability is to have some exposure to it and to practice, practice, practice. Practice problem solving, practice managing discomfort, practice taking care of your needs, practice asking for help, practice managing stress.

And therein lies another paradox: the best way to keep children safe is to give them exposure and practice at managing challenges, discomfort and life, with all of its uncertainty and unpredictability.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Your Brain on Certainty

I am very fond of certainty. I have written about my addiction to certainty in one of my other blogs. Certainty is about the desire to know what is happening in your environment.   It is about the patterns, the people, the activities and routines that are predictable. Certainty is a good thing, in fact, it is very important brain food.

Brains need certainty. There is a benefit to being able to have significant chunks of your life predictable and steady.  It helps you to remain calm, it frees your brain to do more challenging tasks, it promotes learning and it can help develop patterns of practice beneficial for resilience and problem solving.

That's why routines help you.  They build patterns of predictability in your daily life.  It is also why we can become "creatures of habit" wearing the same patterns of clothing, eating the same types of food, doing the same types of activities.

You can use your desire for certainty to create habits that support your wellbeing.  Creating habits, automatic responses in your life that support healthy lifestyles will help you build a better brain.

Besides routines, what can you do to create more certainty in your life?

Find What's Important to You
In what areas of your life is certainty most important to you?  What causes you the greatest anxiety when it is not certain?  Name your valued areas of certainty.  Write them down.  If you find survival needs such as, "having food on the table,: "making my rent" "making sure my partner won't leave me," on your list, you are most likely dealing with significant trauma which I will talk about more in another blog. Naming your certainties will help you see what is important to you.

Make Lists
Lists help you clarify your direction and focus your energy.  Any time you are feeling anxious, overwhelmed or fearful, a list can help direct the energy, and help you move into action.  This will immediately help you calm down. The bigger your feelings, the smaller the list and the more you break down the tasks.

Eat and Sleep Consistently
This simple habit has huge impact on your brain.  Eat and sleep at consistent times.  I have worked with clients who have seen enormous gains by simply focusing on this one suggestion.  If you have had a lifetime of irregular sleeping and eating patterns, this would be the one place to start that would have the greatest impact.

Create Healthy Habits
A habit is something you do on a daily basis. It is repeated so often that it becomes unconscious.  Physical activity, prayer or meditation, gratitude lists, doing something you love like playing piano or gardening - these are great examples of healthy habits. Create one healthy habit that will bring you joy in your day.

Make A Decision
You are in the process of buying and selling a home.  You have to decide between several places with different price points and benefits.  You don't know what to do .  When you are feeling immobilized as a result of some overwhelm or uncertainty, make a decision.  The decision in this case may be to consult the realtor and two other trusted family members.  The decision may be to visit the top three places and then "go with your gut".  Or the decision may be to not make a decision and decide to get more informed about the neighbourhood you want to live in.  Making a decision will help you move towards your desired goal.