Tag Archives: Life

Seven Tools for Personal Transformation

5 Apr

Evolution of a young plant

This is my shortlist of tools for personal transformation.

1.) Seek Truth
If we are interested in personal growth, then we must cultivate a love of truth, which means observing ourselves and learning that there is a difference between what we think and what we are (“the map is not the territory”). When we seek truth we stand outside of ourselves and evaluate our feelings, our relationships, and our assumptions. As we seek truth, we look for that small light peering through a crack in our stories and we scratch at it. As we learn to accept what is real in the present moment, we are more able to accept whatever arises in us, because we know that it is not the whole of us. While our automatic reactions can derail our search for the truth, acknowledging their presence brings us closer to the truth. When we are willing to be with the whole truth—whatever it is—we have more inner resources available to deal with whatever we are facing.

2.) “Not Doing”
The process of spiritual growth sometimes seems paradoxical because we speak of struggle and effort as well as of allowing, accepting, and letting go. The resolution of these apparent opposites lies in the concept of “not doing” or what I’ve previously called “radical acceptance.” Once we understand “not doing,” we see that the real struggle is to relax into greater awareness so that we can see the manifestations of our own shadows. By neither acting on our automatic impulses nor by suppressing them, we begin to understand what is causing them to arise. Not acting on our impulses creates openings through which we can catch glimpses of what we are really up to. Those glimpses often become some of our most important personal transformation lessons. At first, we may need to intentionally set aside time to practice “not doing,” but over time we may find this practice more fully integrating into our day-to-day way of being (as a friend of mine once said, “the point of basketball is not the timeouts”).

3.) Cultivate a Community
The more support we have for our personal development, the easier our process will be. If we are living or working in a dysfunctional environment (family, community, work, etc.), personal growth is not impossible, but it is more difficult. Most of us cannot leave our jobs or our families so easily, even if we are having difficulties with them, although we can seek out others who give us encouragement and act as witnesses to our growth. Beyond this, we can find groups, attend workshops, and put ourselves in situations that foster the other six tools listed here. Getting support also entails structuring our days in ways that leave room for the people that nurture us. It’s likely that you already have some people like this in your life, but if not then you can easily seek them out. Just remember that support comes to those who offer support (universal law of karma), so you’ll have to risk being vulnerable.

4.) Learn from Everything
Once we have involved ourselves in the process of personal growth, we understand that whatever is occurring in the present moment is what we need to deal with right now. And whatever is arising in our hearts or minds is the raw material that we can use for our growth. It’s common to flee from what we are actually facing into our imagination, romanticizing or dramatizing our situation, justifying ourselves, or escaping into distraction. Staying with our real experience of ourselves and our situation will teach us exactly what we need to know for growth. As we seek truth, we must also be willing to learn from it and develop a “learning orientation,” which means that we look for opportunities to  grow rather than opportunities to accomplish. When we learn from everything we’re free to take chances and make mistakes.

5.) Find Self Love
It has been said many times that we cannot love others if we do not love ourselves. But what does this mean? We usually think that it has something to do with having self-esteem. Perhaps, but one central aspect of a mature love of ourselves is caring about our growth sufficiently not to flee from the discomfort or pain of our actual condition. We must love ourselves enough not to abandon ourselves—and we abandon ourselves to the degree that we are not fully present to our own lives. When we are caught up in worry, fantasy, tension and anxiety, we become dissociated from our bodies and our feelings—and ultimately, from our true nature. True self love also entails a profound acceptance of ourselves—returning to being present and settling into ourselves as we actually are without attempting to change our experience. It is also aided by seeking the company of people who possess some degree of this quality themselves.

6.) Use Your Body
When we think about personal transformation is it easy to intellectualize it and get wrapped up in the changes that happen emotionally, but we must not forget that physical changes often accompany any changes that happen inside. Some people may start with physical work (exercise, diet, yoga) and find that other areas of their life get better, while others may find that as they do interior work, they are starting to feel better physically. The point is that our interiors (thoughts, emotions, beliefs, attitudes) and exteriors (neurons, brainwaves, cells, body) are linked to each other, so if we’re going to endeavor towards personal transformation then we must account for and activity engage the physical body.

7.) Have a Practice
Most transformational teachings stress the importance of some kind of intentional practice, be it spiritual (meditation, prayer, relaxation), physical (weight-lifting, running, yoga), or intellectual (reading, writing, Sudoku) or some combination of them. The important thing is to set aside some time each day to reestablish the scaffolding that you need to support your growth. Practice interferes with our deeply ingrained habits and gives us opportunities to wake up from our trance. Eventually, we understand that every time we engage in our practice we learn something new, and every time we neglect our practice we miss an opportunity to allow our lives to be transformed.

One major obstacles to personal transformation is the expectation that we attain results. The ego seizes on breakthroughs and wants to recreate them on demand, which often only furthers the illusion that we can control everything. The reality is that we are always growing and changing whether we want to or not. The key choice we have to make is whether we want to grow elegantly and intentionally or just get dragged along for the ride.

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The Key to Happiness -Build a Boat

1 Apr

If you observe a truly happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his child, growing double dahlias or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that had rolled under the radiator, striving for it as a goal in itself. He will have become aware that he is happy in the course of living life twenty-four crowded hours each day.

– W. Beran Wolfe 

Late Bloomers

22 Mar

The following is excerpted from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 article “Late Bloomers.”

Ben Fountain was an associate in the real-estate practice at the Dallas offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, just a few years out of law school, when he decided he wanted to write fiction. The only thing Fountain had ever published was a law-review article. His literary training consisted of a handful of creative-writing classes in college. He had tried to write when he came home at night from work, but usually he was too tired to do much. He decided to quit his job.

“I was tremendously apprehensive,” Fountain recalls. “I felt like I’d stepped off a cliff and I didn’t know if the parachute was going to open. Nobody wants to waste their life, and I was doing well at the practice of law. I could have had a good career. And my parents were very proud of me—my dad was so proud of me. . . . It was crazy.”

He began his new life on a February morning—a Monday. He sat down at his kitchen table at 7:30 a.m. He made a plan. Every day, he would write until lunchtime. Then he would lie down on the floor for twenty minutes to rest his mind. Then he would return to work for a few more hours. He was a lawyer. He had discipline. “I figured out very early on that if I didn’t get my writing done I felt terrible. So I always got my writing done. I treated it like a job. I did not procrastinate.” His first story was about a stockbroker who uses inside information and crosses a moral line. It was sixty pages long and took him three months to write. When he finished that story, he went back to work and wrote another—and then another.

In his first year, Fountain sold two stories. He gained confidence. He wrote a novel. He decided it wasn’t very good, and he ended up putting it in a drawer. Then came what he describes as his dark period, when he adjusted his expectations and started again. He got a short story published in Harper’s. A New York literary agent saw it and signed him up. He put together a collection of short stories titled “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” and Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, published it. The reviews were sensational. The Times Book Review called it “heartbreaking.” It won the Hemingway Foundation/pen award. It was named a No. 1 Book Sense Pick. It made major regional best-seller lists, was named one of the best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews, and drew comparisons to Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Stone, and John le Carré.

Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.

“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”  -George Eliot

“Ta-dah!” How Clowns Handle Mistakes

6 Mar

The following excerpt comes from the amazing book Improv Wisdom (2005) by Patricia Ryan Madson. 

Image

Matt Smith, a wonderful Seattle improv teacher and solo performer, taught me a liberating game that can be used as a response to a personal screwup. He calls it “The Circus Bow.” Matt claims this is how circus clowns deal with a slip in their routines. Instead of shrinking and berating himself silently with, “Oh, no, I really blew it!” the clown turns to the crowd on one side and takes a magnificent bow with his hands extended and his arms high in the air, proclaiming “Ta-dah!” as if he had just pulled off a master stunt. He then turns to face the other side of the audience and repeats the bow, “Ta-dah!” Doing it in both directions allows him a 360-degree view of where he is. 

The virtue of this is that it pulls his attention out into the world again, looking around and standing tall. This engaged and forward-looking vantage point is an excellent place to be after a blooper. It is more common to focus inward when a blunder occurs. “How could I have done that?” The body shrinks and withdraws. Instead, a mistake should wake us up. Become more alert, more alive. Ta-dah! New territory. Now, what can I make of this? What comes next? 

…Jim Thompson, author of Positive Coaching…encourages his athletes to play aggressively, to really go for it, and when they do make a blunder in practice to silently say “Ta-dah!” In no time all of his players were not only mumbling it under their breath, but running full tilt down the court shouting “Ta-dah!” with arms outstretched and big smiles on their faces. 

…The next time you notice that you have made a mistake, done something that feels silly or dumb, do the circus bow. Raise your arms in the air, smile, turn left and right. Say, “Ta-dah!” brightly. Then look around and see what needs to be done next and do it. (excerpted from pages 106-109). 

Life Doesn’t Get a Montage (You Don’t Get to Skip the Boring Parts)

31 Jan
Already sees in 3D

This guy already sees in 3D

We all love movies. We learn about a hero. His challenges and his desires. He sets off on a path only to be met with failure. Again and again he fails. Resistance come from all sides. Finally and inevitably, he realizes that he must change himself. He turns the corner by letting go of who he thought he was. He must become someone new. His desire has changed. He no longer wants we he did at the beginning. He wants something deeper. More noble. In the end he rises up and achieves his new goal. He wins. And we are all uplifted.

This is the typical narrative progression. One that screen-writer Robert McKee  coaches and one in which Stanford University has dedicated significant resources to teach (i.e. The Stanford Storytelling Project). This structure has stood the test of time because it so accurately represents the human development process that we experience ourselves. The theater needn’t be filled with cognitive-developmental psychologists for it to appreciate how natural and beautifully dynamic this process is. We’ve all had our own moments. Ambitions thwarted. Insights gained. New life received. We’ve all tasted it (on some level). And we keep buying tickets for more.

However, the way  the hero stories are told in the movies is not a perfect one-to-one translation. Within only 120-minutes at their disposal, screen writers and directors must make hard decisions about what to include and how to show it. This is where we have a problem. Far from being light-hearted entertainment, movies have come to define how we learn and think about ourselves and our world. Students learn more about  Greek mythology from watching Harry Potter than from reading Edith Hamilton (She was required reading in school for decades, so if you don’t get that reference, then you prove my point). The narrative structure as presented in movies is the gestalt of our times. It informs how we make sense of our lives. How we think about our relationships. How we think about our own stories. And I think there is one movie convention that sends all the wrong messages – the montage.

As you know, the montage is a series of short clips meant to speed up time/space for the audience. It allows a writer to show lots of action in a short amount of time. This is great for popcorn sales. However, the montage subtly misrepresents how change actually happens. One that, without some attention, may suggest that achieving your dreams is going to be easy. It isn’t an overt promise, but a slight suggestion. The hero’s brutal 6-month recovery.  The community comes together to save the hospital. The painter locks herself away in her studio. All of them only last about 60 seconds. Here’s how the movie Team America handled this phenomena (in case you weren’t already thinking about this):

Obviously, in real life these things take time and courage, but more than that they take resolve and persistence. The problem with the montage is that it skips over the most important part of achieving our goals. The work. The boring and gritty work that it takes to get from point A to B. The montage suggests, by the real estate afforded it, that hard work isn’t really all that  important. By sheer ratio alone, the main characters moment of transformation (the moment the entire narrative is based upon) is usually only a few seconds. The entire movie has built up to this transformation, which it then quickly glances over. Some action happens and then we are then hurriedly ushered into the movies closing scenes. The white wedding. The reluctant apology. The blood-stained trophy raised to a cheering crowd.

The point is that we’re usually pretty good at accepting things that are easy. We’re also pretty good at accepting things that are hard. But we usually really suck at accepting things that are boring. The parts where the hero toils in silence. Working day after day. Grinding out the work that she so desperately needs to finish. She cooks the family dinner then she studies. She cooks dinner then she studies. She cooks dinner then she studies. Day after day. She cooks dinner then she studies. She cooks dinner then she studies. Night after night. Slowing working on her degree. It’s repetitive. It’s boring. But she puts one foot in front of the other and carries on. She is too focused. She cooks dinner then she studies. It would be a horrible movie.

* clang…..clang…..clang…..

The reason is because real work is boring. It is repetitive and bland. Sure there are moments when you might let a smile slip out (or a tear), but real work…the kind that the movies dramatize in the montage…is deep work. It is about becoming more than you were. About becoming someone new and that isn’t going to be obvious to other people. You can’t point to it. It is deeper than your emotions. It isn’t always going to be showy or fun or glamorous. When you’re on the path you’re on it alone. Personal transformation cannot be outsourced. No one can do it for you.

And yet we’ve become conditioned to “achieve” that if we’re told that something is “difficult” or “hard” then we immediately pound our chest and roar, “Bring it on motherfucker!!” But this is a conditioned response. We’ve watched too many movies. Our culture programs us to turn hardship into meaning. Difficultly into challenge. “Me against the World” should probably be on the dollar bill. But this is only one side of the coin. Many people can handle HARD, CHALLENGE, FEAR, COURAGE, ROAR!!!, but far fewer can handle BORING, COLD, GRITTY, GRIMY, MEH. We haven’t learned how to handle boring. It doesn’t come through the front door. It doesn’t announce itself. It isn’t dramatic. It sleeps and waits. The action movie hero doesn’t even want to face it. He gets a montage.

I think Julius Erving might have said it best, “Being a professional is doing the things you love on the days you don’t feel like doing them.” So, it’s important that you’re doing what you love. To me, that is a prerequisite. But finding your passion isn’t enough.  If you really want to understand what it takes to succeed (however you might define that for yourself), then remember that you shouldn’t become too enamored with your own story. Your life isn’t a movie and you don’t get a montage. You don’t get to skip the boring parts. The truth is, our lives are infinitely more mundane and messy than the movies we watch (another reason why I suspect we enjoy watching them). And while that escapism isn’t inherently problematic, it does run the risk of making us feel guilty when our paths don’t match those of our heroes. Stories are make believe. In order to make sense they have to edited and embellished. Our lives are not so neatly structured.

Finally, it only seems appropriate that I end this post by contradicting everything I just said. For all the weaknesses of movies, blog articles by no-name writers are far worse. So, I understand that the montage isn’t an overt statement about how human beings change. They are just a convention of a particular story-telling medium. And more than that, as unrealistic as they are, they are great for getting a little energy boost. So, for all of my pedantic belly-aching over the montage, I love them as much as anyone. Below is one of my personal favorites, which comes to us from Rocky IV (the training sequences of Rocky and Ivan Drago). Watch it, but when you do, focus on the images of Rocky running through the snow. Ignore the music for a moment and imagine that he is doing this for 2 hours everyday… for 6 months. Imagine how difficult and boring that must be. Running. Imagine that he does it first thing in the morning. Running. Even when he is tired. Running. When his angle hurts. Running. When he’d rather be lifting weights. Running. Even when there is no music. Even when there are no cameras. Running.

Why Artists Go Crazy

21 Jan

tom_cruise-600

We know the stories. The alcoholic musician. The chair-jumping actor. Of course there are many reasons why these characters take a weird turn. Sure genetics and personality are risk factors, but I think there is one particular and under-appreciated reason. Artists go crazy because our education system teaches them to be crazy.

The world teaches everyone to be responsible. Get a good job. Find a husband. Buy an Audi. However, artists take a different path. They ignore this advice. They grow up on a curriculum of creation, risk, and rejection. Their teachers are the audience. They are graded by applause (or lack thereof).

Educator reformer Ken Robinson said, “…this is exactly why some of the most successful people you’ll ever meet didn’t do well at school. Education is the system that’s supposed to develop our natural abilities and enable us to make our own way in the world. Instead, it is stifling the individual talents and abilities of too many students and killing their motivation to learn.”

So, if the artist is going to be successful she must learn to ignore advice. She must learn to trust in her own intuition above that of the expert, because the expert’s allegiance is to the status quo.  Teachers. Friends. Family. They may even have good intentions, but the system itself does not encourage impractical pursuits. So what happens to the artist?

He learns that common sense doesn’t make a lot of sense. Advice doesn’t have a lot of value and that sanity is oppression. Is it any wonder that artists go crazy? Is it any wonder that we want to be like them?

Hooke’s Law of Personal Transformation

17 Jan
Robert-Hooke-9343172-1-402

“I’d like to stab you.” – R. Hooke

Robert Hooke’s death in 1703 probably made a lot of people happy (including his contemporary Isaac Newton). Historical accounts reveal a scientific genius who was also “evil,” “cantankerous, envious, [and] vengeful.” The type of bully academic who inspire student caricatures and ignite red-faced fervor in their intellectual counterparts. Now, you’ve probably never heard of Robert Hooke and undoubtedly his sour reputation bears some responsibility. Yet, among all of his achievements there is one in particular that bears some resonance with me; Hooke’s Law of elasticity. It states…

“Hooke’s law of elasticity is an approximation that states that the extension of a spring is in direct proportion with the load applied to it. The elastic limit is the maximum stress or force within a material that can arise before the onset of permanent deformation.”

Imagine taking a spring from a bed. That spring can be stretched and it will return to its original size. Stretch too far though and you surpass its “elastic limit” and the spring will never return to its original shape. The spring is designed to absorb stress  – pulling and pushing – within a limited range and it can do it over and over and over and over again. Give it too much stress though and the entire system is transformed.

This is exactly what happens to us. Our perceptions, beliefs, attitudes have been designed to ensure that we can absorb stress. They operate within a limited range, but within that limited range can handle the day-to-day pressures and challenges with extreme efficiency. Always rebounding to the shape that we were before. However, when we experience something, a thought, an idea, that does not fit our within our capability? We are stretched beyond our elastic limit. We do not rebound. We are changed forever.

Everything we think, feel, believe serves a purpose. Like springs, our minds are designed to absorb stress. But then we get our ass kicked. We get stretched too far and we cannot return to the same shape that we were. This is the moment of transformation.