Morticia, Sherlock and Maya

Normal is an illusion.

What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly

~Morticia Adams

I used to come home from school, boil campbell’s chicken soup, get out the saltine crackers and butter, carry it all to the coffee table, sit cross-legged on the floor and watch a completely unhealthy amount of TV.  I loved anything black and white in the era of technicolor. The Addams family was completely up my alley. Odd, quirky, certainly off base with the general character of my family… and I loved it.  Morticia and Gomez, Wednesday and Pugsly, Lurch and Cousin It, Grandmama… the hand…. It was weird and funny, smarter than I realized at the time and totally nonconformist in the most palatable made for network TV kind of way. I loved the macabre “lite” and in a weird way I identified with them way more than I did with “real” people.

Several months ago I read an article written by Dr. Richard Boyatsiz “Competencies as a behavioral approach to emotional intelligence” It was  assigned during a MOOC course I was taking called Inspiring Leadership Through Emotional Intelligence. I was taking this course just after finishing a year long study in the science of wellness which culminated in a Certificate in Positive Psychology. During this CiPP program I had been introduced to the science behind many things I intuitively understood but could never really quantify in a meaningful way.  Connections to behavior and belief clarified and solidified, ideas that were seeded years before began to germinate, and I finally had the evidence I needed to back up theories and concepts that were considered questionable to people who did not share my particular curiosity in psychology, behavior, neuro science and general possibility.

I guess you could say I have always been perhaps a bit out in left field, independent, optimistic, creative, thoughtful, observant, and inquisitive.  I have also been a bit of a loner, not much of a collaborator, always a fabricator and non-conformist. People have tended to see me as cool, aloof, off-putting and confident. I am conservative in some ways and in other ways most certainly not. So within the Boyatzis article was new information I realized that I had been introduced to a kind of clarity around social and emotional intelligence that I had never quite clearly understood before. It was and is a kind of blue print for me.  Like the witches brew, the detectives notebook, the prophet words.

 To let the brain work without sufficient material is like racing an engine.

It racks itself to pieces.

~Sherlock Holmes

I was having a unique conversation the other day , involving attachment theory and it’s possible relationship to personality typing… MBTI and the like.  Someone asked me about why I wanted to make attachment corrolations to a not very robust or even particularly reliable personality assessment….. to which I responded:

attachment is how, in some relationship theories, we learn memetic behavior.. so early attachment influences all of the relationships we build throughout life. the brain is plastic which means we can in fact change our predispositions even to the genetic level… environment and how we choose or don’t choose behavior + genes = epigenetics. Who we are, we are discovering is both genetic and environmental and the impact is quite significant. I am also very interested in how we qualify ourselves… how we make meaning for ourselves in the world. We all ascribe to some labels, particularly when we find that we are some how connected to the descriptions, in those labels we feel both known to ourselves and to other people. And this is another area where attachment comes in, we are biologically predisposed to attachment…. being known is an important step on the path to living authentically…

I have spent the better part of my life trying to understand people, I want them to make sense to me. I want to know why people do what they do. I want to be able to make order out of my experiences… and yet I find myself perplexed… almost with the challenge of a great mystery to solve. Before being introduced to emotional and social intelligence  I could never really locate my self in the world. I am always just a little out of sync with most people, and I am practicing  being just that much more observant of my emotional awareness and regulation, I am practicing just that much more awareness of other people in a responsive vs reactive way….and that much more mindfulness of my place in it all. And as it turns out solving the mystery of understanding other people is inherently linked to knowing oneself… and part of that process can sometimes be finding where and how we fit.

I really like the BBC show Sherlock… I love the wacky, analytical, far fetched, cerebral and emotionally cool (yet somehow warm and vulnerable)  distant character of Sherlock himself. In some very odd way I find that I identify with his character, his experience with people…. their apparent awe of him and also their palpable distaste for his type of know-it-all… ness.  I think he is funny and apropos, honest and authentic, he is brilliant and lives in it. He observes people, their specifics and nuances, their presentation and interactions and he too is occupied by making meaning out of his experiences.

After having streamed an episode during an escape from an extended family weekend, I took the PBS “what Sherlock character are you” quiz…. “YES!…. I’m Sherlock…. hmmm I wonder what his personality type would be…… YES! we match….” and by having little concrete understandings, small connections and a theoretical peer… am I better known? Somehow convincingly I am to myself. Do I recognize self perception theory here? … Well when I see certain behaviors in others, I make assumptions about them and when I see those same behaviors within myself I make the same assumptions about my self. Do I aspire to be Sherlock Holmes?… is some strange way yes…mostly to be unabashedly authentic.

I would like to be known as an intelligent woman,

a courageous woman,

a loving woman,

a woman who teaches by being.

~Maya Angelou

As I heard the news about her death and her life it occurred to me that though I knew of her I did not really know much about her, or her writing. As I learned more, read more, heard more I realized that if she had ascribed to the labels others would have chosen for her she would not be known today. If she had not self identified and worked and created herself as she saw herself to be, she would not have been known to herself or any of us . If she had ascribed too much to a group or person that she identified with or at least not made her affiliation her own she would not have been the Maya Angelou that is so revered for tenacity and authenticity and self efficacy, courage, brilliance and presence.  She may have just been Black. Woman. Victim. Mute.

And it is with her death that I review my thoughts in the last few months… and forever. And as it turns out finding where you “fit” is perhaps  a bit of an illusion, a bit of a facade, maybe even contrived. Finding ourselves in others certainly helps us to become more familiar with ourselves. It may help us  feel less lonely in the world.  But finding ourselves within ourselves, instead of ascribing too intensely to finding the “fit”, might just be exactly what we need to experience to become comfortable and self assured.  Like Morticia, Sherlock and Maya, unless we are truly present, and courageous about being alone, singular and mindful of our unique and specific place in the world, we will never be able to completely embrace our own personal authenticity and integrity. We, each of us, has to embrace perhaps even make up our most personal, individual and most authentic  identifiers, qualifiers, labels. We must each live out our integrity to the best of our ability… and when we live there, then we will have truly found our place in the world.

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Horoscopes and tea bags

There are 2 things that always inspire me. One is Free Will Astrology written be Rob Brezsny and the other is the paper tags on Yogi tea bags. It is not unusual for me to save them, tape them to the pages of my working journals so that I can linger in the space between their sentences and take as much time as I care to take pondering the kooky and insightful messages. Free Will Astrology, if you have never encountered it is a wonderful combination of humor and thoughtfulness connected by the intimacy of feeling like someone deeply cares about your birthday enough to write about it weekly… and I have to say there is an unusual pleasure it that.  The tags on Yogi tea bags too, are precious little moments when the universe poignantly reminds me to remember the important things.

I take deep pleasure in my interactions with these two experiences, they are wonderful little happiness boosters. And yesterday I found that someone else appreciates at least one of them as well. During a FB check in I found the Libra post from this week at the top of my news feed, a friend with a big decision on her mind had posted it… Its message was very much about remembering to let yourself break out of living what Annie Dillard called an itsy bitsy life. My friend’s horoscope was so relevant to her current situation and it was also a reminder to me about showing up in the world and in ones life. It was just another confirmation of the fact that life is to be appreciated and lived as fully as possible.

I’m thinking about this a lot lately, and it again occurred to me the other day while I was working on a book talk I’m doing at the local library on Brainstorm written by Dr. Daniel Siegel a psychiatrist who studies interpersonal neurobiology (how neurologically and  biochemically we respond during human interactions or a medical way of saying attachment theory).  One of the points made in the book is that the adolescent brain is wired for novelty. Adoloesence is a time for risk taking and innovation and creativity and exploring ones place in the world. It is also a time when relationships are challenging between adults and kids. Siegel makes a very interesting point about adults needing to mindful of and reconnect with their own spirit of playfulness and novelty seeking. In many ways growing up makes us less receptive to creativity and less open to our own needs and desires for spontaneity and to try new and goofy things. He points out that by reconnecting to our own kid like selves we are able to maintain better relationships and practice empathy with our kids and develop appreciation and tolerance for the period of life that is unfairly and stereotypically considered awful and challenging. Contemplating these points reminded me of an amazing study I discovered  in my year long study of Positive Psychology. One which and I find myself coming back to it again and again.

In 1979  Ellen Langer a mindfulness researcher did an unusual and brilliant study called the Counterclockwise study. In it she had aged men live in an environment that replicated their young and vibrant lives and she asked that they spend their time behaving as though they were currently living at the age appropriate to the environment, that is as if they were 20 years younger. They were interviewed before and after their study experience, as were their friends and family. They were given physicals and had other various measurements taken which were recorded and compared. Remarkably at the end of this study amazing things emerged. The participants looked, acted, felt and were “medically” younger than before they had entered the study. These study participants had reconnected with themselves as younger more vibrant individuals… and it showed.

After my morning bus run and  returning to the car with a mocha from the Starbucks near the kids bus stop I heard Ira Glass from This American Life interviewing David Saderis.   It was a rerun from several years ago just after Mr Saderis had written Me Talk Pretty One Day. Listening in while they chatted at a street side cafe in Paris  I felt right at home while I sipped my own extravagantly luxurious coffee. The conversation was very compelling.  Mr Sederis was commenting on seeing Paris in a uniquely novel and inquisitive way. As usual he was hilarious and poignant. As I drove home it occurred to me that as we age many of us become more and more closed up in our itsy bitsy lives, less spontaneous and less open to seeing the novelty and potential in our own everyday experiences. And many many of us think it is due to the environments we feel confined to.. the job, the town, the spouse, the kids, the social expectations, the school… but its not. In fact research by positive psychologist  Sonja Lyubomirsky indicates that only 10% of our well being is determined by our environment and circumstances (as long as all of our basic needs have been met) 50% is genetic predisposition and the other 40% of our experience of wellbeing is determined by our conscious and intentional behavior….. or the behavior that isn’t particularly conscious or intentional. 40% of our well being is determined by where we mindfully focus our attention. So reconnecting to the playful self, engaging in seeking novelty, getting out in the world and experiencing it in new and fun ways makes a difference in our lives in both our mental and physical health. As I continued driving I considered the more lively periods of my life, I thought about when I felt I had been at my best… and what was happening then that hasn’t been happening lately. What was I engaging in then that had since slipped away?

A confluence of thoughts, ideas and memories flooded my mind. “Behavior in one environment does not necessarily predict behavior in another environment” Ken Danford said as I sat in a replication workshop presented in 2011 at North Star self directed learning for teens.  What an idea, of course why had I never thought of that before.  And there in the car thinking about the counterclockwise study, and living in Paris and the adolescent brain, Sonja L and North Star,  it occurred to me that the new age cliche “you create your own reality” is pretty spot on. The internal environment we create for ourselves by what we think and what be believe about who we are and how we allow ourselves or feel allowed to behave in the world determines the itsy bitsy-ness of our lives. And how that internal environment is supported and reinforced by cultural expectations or other people’s ideas of the itsy bitsy-ness effects how we show up in the world. The external environment with its 10% has some impact on informing our experience but the combination of those 2 environments the internal and external has a compounding effect.

That day in 2011 Ken Danford was specifically speaking about adolescence when he made the statement ….”Behavior in one environment does not necessarily predict behavior in another environment”. He was speaking about exactly what Sonja L. talks about in the How of Happiness and what Dan Siegel  refers to in Brainstorm. When we pigeon hole our ourselves and our kids we get stuck in the smallness of living. When we allow for an environment that encourages the bigness of self discovery in our adult lives and during adolescence, we acknowledge that the brain always has significant growth opportunity.  When we encourage instead of limit this, when we listen to the opportunity instead of shutting down … considerably different behaviors emerge. Our relationships thrive, our awareness expands our receptivity to new information increases, our knowledge acquisition and retention improves and the receptivity to living our best lives exists in all of us no matter our developmental stage.  When the internal and external environments allow for and encourages mindfulness and free, playful exploration of what is truly interesting in our lives, the world opens up. We open up and we allow others to open up as well. We create our own reality and our world no longer feels like it has to be itsy bitsy.

After reflecting on my cascading thoughts , my most lively self and the immense possibilities in life,  I contacted several friends that afternoon and in a half serious way I told them that my day had “made me think about wanderlust and friends and investing in curiosity! Let’s go…. a week in Paris with friends in a big house… having fun and exploring life”  I can tell you in that moment life didn’t seem itsy bitsy to any of us…. we sounded like a bunch of giddy middle schoolers dreaming about possibilities.

So here’s to horoscopes and tea bags, big decisions, tumbled together thoughts, Paris and acting like a kid again!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cultivating playfulness and the not so elusive sparkle

Over the last several weeks I have been thinking a lot about the idea of play and I keep coming back to something I read several years ago in the book Art of Possibility co written by Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. I have a very vague memory of Mr. Zander highlighting his discovery in importance of paying attention to the sparkle in the eyes of his students.  He emphasized the idea that when they lose their sparkle you’ve lost them.

A few mornings ago at breakfast  I watched my kids play with their dad… it unfolded for me like a movie. This play was very subtle and easy… nothing overt or boisterous,  small gestures, hands on hands, giggles, eye rolling, tender teasing….. and with great appreciation I seemed to understand the nuances of positive family interaction in a new and simple way. Affectionate faces, little giggles, moments of goofy guffaws. I saw a family interacting in extended moments of love and affection. I was taking it all in, scanning the information banks of my mind looking for the resources that would help me understand and piece together the interactions in an intellectually meaningful way. So distracted and preoccupied by my thoughts about what I was witnessing, I didn’t even hear my youngest ask me a question…. All I could think about was how could I interpret and express these epic moments when I had time to scribble down my thoughts.

So I guess I don’t need to say that being playful does not come naturally for me. Oh I have my own independent and solitary kind of play, but being playful with other people just kind of escapes me.  In fact most of the time other people’s playfulness is off putting or confusing to me. I have a hard time understanding why they won’t focus, get down to business or just get serious about what is at hand.  This has been particularly challenging as a parent considering that both of my kids and husband all have playfulness in their top signature strengths profile according to the VIA (Values in Action)  character strengths survey…. and for me it is dead last.   As I watched the antics that morning  and thought about what was happening at my kitchen counter I realized playfulness is an essential element of healthy relationships. It is an experience of attachment that helps us to feel safe while we create strong bonds that help us learn resilience.  The giggles and the little connective laughter it turns out is a biological behavior that helps us engage in what is called by Dr. Richard Boyatzis the positive emotional attractor, it triggers the default mode network of our brain or what is considered the social brain. It is associated with being open to new experiences, being creative and being receptive to new information and innovation. It is the activity of the brain that is connected to engaging our parasympathetic nerve system…. thats the system that promotes a healthy immune system, happiness and wellbeing.  And right there at the University of My Kitchen Counter where I have spent countless hours studying positive psychology, relationships and change theory I also experienced in a few epic moments the field work that brought it all home…. playing with their dad… my kids sparkled.

The other night I sat with my youngest daughter on her bed and told her I’d been thinking a lot about how I’ve realized that she and I need to play more. She looked at me with surprise and in an exasperated, relieved and playful tone fell forward saying “Yes…. finally…… you understand!” While this dramatic display of her overwhelmedness from my statement was humorous and made us both laugh, it also was also supremely tragic in its message of  “what the hell took you so long  lady?”  And in those few moments I realized my own overwhelmingly desperate desire as a young girl  to play with my own family, to have the kind of playful attention and attachment with my parents and sibling. I longed for connection, PLAY, and recognition within my family of origin. With in about 3 minutes of conversation with my own child I understood deeply and personally the concepts presented in the work of  Dr. Edward Hallowell ‘s book “Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness.  So every night since our bedtime conversation she has asked me to play with her in someway… be it kickball, catch, swinging on the swing set, doing cartwheels… whatever…. and every night I have said YES!. I am becoming a bit more willing to engage in play and she sparkles just a bit more than usual.

Even before the breakfast play and before the bedtime conversation, this kind of new play engagement started without my  realization. I actually started with the suggestion that every night we would engage in family story time beginning with reading the Mysterious Benedict Society. Everyone was up for it, everyone wanted this kind of familial play, everyone scrambled onto my bed that night eyes sparkling, excited and ready to play with each other and the characters in the book…  Now this  story is about 4 children each having unique strengths, each feeling alone in the world and each establishing connection and attachment to the others throughout their adventures together.  As the four of us listened we giggled at the similarities that some characters had to our own family members, we shared knowing glances and we identified with funny little things that if we had not heard them described in the book, would have sworn were our own inside jokes. That night we started an evening ritual of play, of coming together for storytelling for connection and as it turns out, to find that not so elusive spark in each others eyes.

The more mindful I have become about play the more I see it throughout the day. Its there walking through the parking lot, driving in the car, avoiding the dull task of cleaning the room and doing homework. The more I recognize it the more I am willing to feed it and encourage it and accept it as a necessary, and imperative part of healthy and attached relationships.

So More Play I say… More Play!

There is no plan, everyday is a surprise

The truth be told, most days I just wander around. I read and think and connect the dots of different ideas that come my way and before I know it I’ve missed lunch and forgotten to make a snack for pick up, I haven’t planned dinner, gone to the grocery store, paid the bills or filled the car up with gas. I’ve likely read a few articles, parts of books, joined in on a few conversations about positive psychology, read some snarky FB posts written by some supremely sardonic and sarcastic “friends” who’s humor I adore but could never muster myself and if I am lucky I’ve written down a few fleeting thoughts about what I find interesting, what I’ve discovered in my daily life as a 7am to 3:00pm isolate, and what I have learned as a “Kitchen Counter Academic.”

All of this would be just fine if it were not for the fact that I have a family that I love and adore. A difficult, intense, intelligent, amazing, active and exhausting family. In my whole life I am not sure I have ever fully understood what having a family means. There are even some days when I hear the word mom being directed at me and I realize that in fact I am the one being addressed. I am taken aback, beautiful children, mine, calling me “mom” with affection or irritation, anger or curiosity. It reminds me of the lines in a Talking Heads song….

“And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack 
And you may find yourself in another part of the world 
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile 
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife 
And you may ask yourself 
Well…How did I get here?”

And so I begin to think that this must not be the expected experience, this dismissive and preoccupied attachment… this must be unusual.

Is it unusual? I don’t know… Is it a particularly unhealthy experience? I don’t know…. Is it familiar and comfortable? damn straight. Is it good for my family? maybe not…. so now what?

When I was a kid I used to have a recurring dream that the house was on fire, the dream always took place in the middle of the night. I’d go to my parents bed and try over and over again with all of my might to wake my parents… to warn them that the house was burning… but I could never get more than just a groan in response. It was terrifying and I woke unheard, unnerved and exhausted.

The last thing I want for myself and my family is to feel that I am unavailable, inattentive, and that the people I love are not heard or honored, valued or loved. Both spiritually and intellectually what I know is that the only way for that not to happen is to set my intention to be present, act in that intention and reflect on whether or not I have kept my word by living out that intention.  So all of this crazy rambling is to do just that… call attention to this intention, to understand the experience of having an attached family and of building relationships who’s foundations are built on listening, being honored and valued, and loved… truly, deeply, consciously and mindfully loved.

That’s the plan, no surprise!

Teaching what you’ve never learned… coming to embrace attachment

It turns out that I have known for a very long time what I never learned. I have know it on a visceral level, have tried to explain that while I understand much from an intellectual level, belief and behavior do not always correspond and it is had to teach what you’ve never learned.  And so I have decided to embark on this home year of learning what I need to teach.  I will be teaching myself and in turn my family while writing about the experience of redefining what practicing healthy attachments is and the trajectory that will send us on.

Over the course of the last several years I have been on a personal and academic learning journey in the re-discovery of authentic living, wholistic and alternative educational practices, positive and organizational psychology, coaching, change  and the science of well being…. and while I have grown by leaps and bounds intellectually, I have also discovered that while I have spent years dedicated to learning about these topics, very little time have I spent putting these concepts into practice for the good my family or even myself.

In the last few months I have begun to read more and more about relationships.  According to evidence in Positive Psychology, relationships are the # 1 predictor of well being.  So began my study on attachment theory… how our early attachments to friends and family manifest throughout our lives in all of our future relationships.   So when beginning to read “8 keys to building your best relationships” I found myself face to face with some of my biggest intuitive and relational fears….. I demonstrate dismissive and preoccupied characteristics, according to the  Attachment  Classifications chart provided in the book.  CRAP…. now I have to face head on what that means from the perspective of my childhood self, my internal self and my parenting self.  Simultaneously I am relieved and overwhelmed, I can see how many of my life experiences are related to my relationship to attachment. I understand why many people have experienced me as cool, or intimidating. I understand why relationships tend to dwindle off or fade away. I understand why feeling really included escapes me. I understand my vulnerability and resolve. And its a damn good thing I am a firm believer in introspection and change.

 

I’ve also spent a bit of time with Dale Carnegie and his work “How to win friends and influence people”. So far biggest take away… Criticize no one.  What this means to me is that we must really be mindful of ourselves, we must have reflective distance in how we experience others, we must be aware of our own feelings in any situation, we must monitor our reactivity and we must attend to the idea that we all have extenuating circumstances.  We must practice what Dr. Daniel Siegel calls “mind sight” that is we must empathetically be both aware of ourselves and others in any interaction. We must practice the process of “active listening”  with ourselves and others. We must not only attend to the words we hear but the physical expression s of those words, we must attend to the whole story by slowing down as viewing out relationships as though we are watching a movie, thoughtfully responding vs. impulsively reacting  Lets just say… no easy task, just one that needs practice like every other worthwhile endeavor.

So on this first day of HOME YEAR

Step one: resolve to return to my word of the year ATTEND.

Step two: Employ a lot of self compassion and develop a practice of kindness and encouragement all around

Step three: Play more.

 

And so it begins !