Meet the Sages (and Get A Free Poster!)

how-are-you-thinking-today-13by19
In recent years there’s been a surge of interest in ancient philosophers. Three of my favorite books in this vein are Expect the Unexpected Or You Won’t Find it: A Creativity Tool Based on the Ancient Wisdom of Heraclitus by Roger Van Oech, Breakfast With Socrates: An Extraordinary (Philosophical) Journey Through Your Ordinary Day by Robert Rowland Smith, and The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’m going to add to this growing body of literature by introducing the ancient writers of Hebrew wisdom literature. These sages said many interesting and often astonishing things, especially given how long ago they wrote. For example, two millennia before Freud and modern psychotherapy the sages wrote, “Many are the purposes of a person’s heart; one with wisdom draws them out.” There are things that go on in a person’s psyche about which we are simply unaware. In 2011 Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote about this in Thinking Fast and Slow (read my summary here). Over one hundred years before that (1902 to be precise) William James said this about consciousness and perception, Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different, ” (Varieties of Religious Experience). These are all fancy ways of explaining what we mean when we say…
  • “Perception is reality”
  • “Appearances can be deceiving”
  • “My brain has a mind of it’s own”
  • “There are two sides to every story”
  • “Life is not always as it appears to be”
Woe to the person who doesn’t know that their consciousness can be altered an a variety of ways or that our minds can play weird tricks on us. Even neuro-scientists remind us that feelings of being right are not necessarily right. Click here to read an interview with Robert Burton, author of the fascinating book, On Being Certain. Which brings me to a free gift I have for you. The sages were preternaturally aware that things like emotions, health, hunger, sleep, and other factors trick us. I’ve collected (and drew faces for) thirty of their sage warnings that remind us that we can’t always trust our thoughts. You can download a free 8.5″ x 11″ color printout of this poster by clicking here. (Signed 13″x 19″ color posters are available for $30 (+$4.99 shipping in USA) on Amazon; small size posters are free to readers of this blog). The brilliance of these sage warnings is that being skeptical of our cherished beliefs will lead to open mindedness, mental flexibility, and a willingness to contemplate alternative ideas. This is often our focus when doing mediation or therapy–when emotions or other mood altering factors hi-jack our brains we don’t think rationally or clearly. I hope this handout (poster) will inspire careful self-reflection.

Attention Deficit Funnies for the Next Six Days

ADD Funnies.3

For the next six days I’ll be posting brief thoughts on the subject of Attention Deficit Disorder. As a lifelong scatterbrain I read the ADD literature with interest, I chat weekly with couples frustrated by one or both partners’ difficulty focusing, and I feel the urge to help the attention deficient embrace this condition eagerly and with a dash of humor. The subject headings include:

The Perils of Self Diagnosing ADD (Part 1)

The Signs of ADD (Part 2)

The Promise of ADD: Unexpected Benefits (Part 3)

The Challenge: What To Do If You Think You’re ADD (Part 4)

What To Do If Your Loved One Is ADD? (Part 5)

Final Pointers and Conclusion (Part 6)

I welcome feedback, clicks, likes, forwards, comments, and feedback. Or did I say that already?  Stay tuned!

 

 

Optical Illusions and Emotional Illusions

del.prete folded chess del.prete.double window

Sandro-Del-Prete-Quadrature-of-the-Wheel

spinning-wheels-entwined

While M. C. Escher will always have a warm spot in my heart for his mind-bending images, there’s a new contender for world’s best optical illusionist–Swiss artist Sandro Del-Prete (b. 1937). As we feast our eyes on the images above two things occur to me.

1) Artists are very clever at tricking our eyes. Just when we think visual tricksters have run out of ideas some cool new optical illusions show up.

2) Emotions are very clever at tricking our brains. Just when we think emotional tricks have run their course some new troublesome emotional illusions show up. Consider the following:
  • Feeling wounded does not mean we are being wounded.
  • Feeling unloved does not mean we are unloved.
  • Feeling blamed does not mean we are being blamed.
  • Feeling guilty does not mean we actually are guilty.
  • Feeling ignored does not mean we actually are being ignored.
  • Feeling unsafe does not mean we actually are at risk or in danger.
  • Feeling hopeless does not mean things actually are hopeless.
  • Feeling powerless does not mean we actually have no power.
  • Feeling manipulated does not mean others are trying to manipulate us.
When we see an optical illusion it takes a deliberate act of the will to convince our brain that our eyes are deceiving us. And when we feel a strong emotion it takes a deliberate act of the will to convince our brain that our emotions may be deceiving us. When things feel true we tend to believe they are true. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Just as our eyes can trick us, our perceptions can trick us. Remembering this protects us from jumping to conclusions, misreading others, and letting our emotions run away with us.

How To Relax

"You're getting pretty good at that relaxing muscles thing."

“You’re getting pretty good at that relaxing muscles thing.”

 

 

For a guy who doesn’t spend much time thinking about his body other than to feed it, clothe it, and use it to carry his brain around, I was interested to learn in a recent counseling training the importance of relaxation. I’ve always thought it was our brain’s job to help us relax but I learned that our bodies play a bigger role than I realized. Specifically, muscle tension garbles how we think, feel, and act.

The more the presenter talked about muscle tension the more I realized how many muscles of mine have been knotted up for, well, a very long time. Here are the behaviors I’ve been practicing to relax my bundle of tensed up muscles.

1. Notice whenever muscles are tense. I’m shocked to realize that tense muscles are the norm for me and being totally relaxed is the exception. Consequently, I catch myself tensing up at least 100 times a day.

2. Make the body go “limp noodle.” Every time I realize I’ve tensed up I loosen those muscles. It’s not hard; it’s like unclenching a fist. The challenge is to notice how often those muscle clench up. I am learning to relax while driving, reading emails, cooking, shopping, talking, eating, walking, and blogging. When I don’t pay attention and certain muscles constrict again I catch myself and make them un-constrict. Our presenter said if we do this 100 times a day for 3 weeks our muscles will eventually constrict less. We’ll see.

3. Breath deeply. When we slowly inhale through our nose with our mouth closed, hold it three seconds, and then slowly exhale through our mouth we give our brain much needed oxygen.

4. Relax pelvic floor. On one end of our spinal column is the brain and on the other end is a bundle of nerves. If those nerves tense up it interferes with our brain. By relaxing the nerves in that region we think more clearly. In technical terms, by relaxing we control the autonomic nervous system and improve neocortical functioning.

Learning that body relaxation helps our brains was not only interesting and personally beneficial, it answered a question I’ve had, “Why do clients rave about the personal benefits of yoga, tapping, EMDR, chiropractic, and massage therapies?” Those treatments help because making bodies relax improves cognitions, mood, and behavior. This also explains why people veg out with video games, alcohol, shopping, and drugs. These too relax the body, although with serious negative consequences.

Muscle tension is a symptom of stress, trauma, worry, grief, and anxiety. I’ve now got another way to treat those causes besides cognitive therapy, spiritual practices, narrative reframing, exposure, and emotional healing. It’s the simple practice of relaxing the body. I’ve been lugging my carcass around for a long time and am just now grasping how important it is. You can teach and old guy new tricks!

Three Marks of Maturity, or, What Lizards Teach Us About Growing Up

lizard

 

One of my fondest memories of fatherhood is the times I took our kids lizard hunting. Those outings were low cost, no license necessary, high adventure events. We nearly always caught a lizard or two! I didn’t realize it then, but those alligator lizards we chased years ago were rich lesson material. Here are three things lizards teach us about growing up.

Lizards are cold blooded and get their heat from external sources.

Growing from childhood to adulthood means learning how to exist without over dependence on others. A mature person will be “warm blooded” and sustain themselves without an excessive need for others to give them a sense of worth, value, or significance. If you know someone whose mood depends on other’s moods, whose sense of worth depends on others’ validation, or who are clingy, suffocating, and smothering, they’re like a lizard who gets its heat from others.

Lizards have primitive brains with no capacity for abstract reasoning. 

Do you let the emotional part of your brain dictate your decisions? Is the voice in your head that says, “REACT WITH PANIC!” louder than the voice that says, “SLOW DOWN AND THINK CLEARLY?” If so, you’re thinking like a lizard. Lizard brains hate change, fear everything, and feed anger. Abstract reasoning allows us to take a deep breath, think clearly, and make rational, not childish, knee-jerk, lizard-like choices.

Lizards have only one option when in a conflict: flight. 

Rather than negotiating, fighting, or learning the art of compromise, lizards sense danger and run! Thy shed their tail when caught by a predator to distract the predator and escape. Grown up people are not conflict avoidant. They don’t flee at the first hint of conflict. They negotiate, fight for what’s right, and know when to compromise and when to back off.

My goal for the week: give thanks I wasn’t born a lizard . . . and pray I don’t live like one.

 

 

What Was I Thinking?

"I've tried to manage my irrational thoughts but needed a hobby that wasn't so hard."

“I’ve tried to manage my irrational thoughts but needed a hobby that wasn’t so hard.”

 

I recently watched two movies about Hitler’s confiscation and destruction of the world’s great art, The Monuments Men and The Rape of Europa. My sadness, anger, and hatred for Nazis grew until I realized I was crying over paintings and not the horrendous evil of gas chambers. What was I thinking valuing paintings over people?

 

This reminded me of my childhood love of sci-fi movies and how I’d cheer when Godzilla leveled Tokyo but cried like a baby when Old Yeller died. What was I thinking valuing dogs over people?

 

This reminded me of other ways my mind plays tricks on me.

 

Last year I bought a tablet without batting an eye. I paid dearly for it. A short while later I donated some clutter to a local second hand store and received a coupon, “$3.00 off if you spend $10.00.” Sweet! I went inside and found $9.00 worth of stuff to buy but couldn’t find that last one dollar item to earn the $3.00 savings. I agonized over this, passing by two dollar items because I only needed a one dollar item. I must have spent a half an hour sweating over ways to spend one dollar in order to earn a $3.00 savings all the while forgetting I spent one hundred times that for the tablet. What was I thinking?

 

Hand me a revolver that holds a million bullets saying, “Spin the chamber and play Russian roulette,” and I’ll say, “Forget it! I might lose!” Hand me a lottery ticket with the odds of one in a million and I’ll say, “Thanks! I might win!” What am I thinking?

 

I often write in my journal, “I’ve got too much paper! I’ve got to get rid of this clutter!” and then file that stupid note with millions of other pieces of paper on which I’ve written, “I’ve got too much paper!” What am I thinking?

 

Decades ago I took a kid (not my own) fishing and we didn’t catch anything for hours. But just when that kid adjusted his baseball hat he caught a fish! He said, “I’m going to adjust my hat again and see if I get another one!” Wouldn’t you know it, he adjusted his hat and caught another fish. We spent the rest of the afternoon stupidly adjusting our hats convinced there was a relationship with hat adjusting and fish catching. This is how superstitions are born! What were we thinking?

 

It’s embarrassing to admit how many times on-line I’ve clicked, “I have read and agree to these Terms and Conditions” without reading a word of it. I sometimes leave the house with the radio and porch light on to create the deceptive illusion that I am home. For a guy who values the truth I sure lie a lot. What am I thinking?

 

I grouse when I pay extra for organic fruits and veggies, whine when I pay $5.00 for one measly teabag and a squirt of vanilla at a coffee shop, and complain when gas prices go up ten cents. These are all tangible products I use and enjoy. At the same time I shell out way more money for intangible products I don’t enjoy and will likely never use: car insurance, health insurance, life insurance, home insurance, professional liability insurance, cell phone insurance, and insurance on my office rental. Isn’t this called, “Straining at gnats and swallowing camels?” What am I thinking?

 

Against all evidence to the contrary, I entertain the fantasy that someday my collection of hand made paper round charts (volvelles), clipped New Yorker cartoons, and mixed metaphors will be worth money. The hope that springs eternal isn’t always rational. What am I thinking?

 

My consolation: at least I know I am irrational. It’d be really sad if my brain was on the blink and I didn’t know it.

 

How about you? What are you thinking?

 

Challenging Negative Thoughts When Things Go Bad

blackboardHere’s a handy truth to keep in mind the next time things don’t end well. The end of an experience does not define the beginning and middle of an experience.
 
If on day fourteen of a two week vacation we lose our luggage, it rains cats and dogs, and we run into grouchy people it doesn’t mean the whole vacation was crummy. And yet we’re prone to think the whole vacation was a disaster even if the first thirteen days were great. 
 
If we enjoy 40 minutes of musical bliss listening to a vinyl record but the last minute has a scratch on it, we tend to think, “The whole record was ruinied!” conveniently overlooking the first 39 minutes of pure enjoyment.
 
If a pregnancy goes well but the delivery is hard mommies tend to treat the whole pregnancy as an ordeal (so I hear).
 
If the last years of a long and fruitful life end in a depressing nursing home it doesn’t mean that person’s whole life was depressing. Yet we are prone to equate how a life ends with how it was lived in the beginning and middle.
 
If a 400 page novel engages, inspires, entertains, and delights but has a crummy ending we tend to forget the 399 pages of enjoyment.
 
If a long term marriage ends in a painful divorce people tend to think their whole marriage was bad, forgetting the fun times in the beginning and middle.
 
Our tendency to let a bad ending color the beginning and middle of a good experience seems unavoidable, doesn’t it? 
 
But try it out. See if you can catch yourself letting a bad end define the whole thing. 
  • Don’t let a bad dessert erase the memory of a great dinner.
  • Don’t let your teenager’s surliness erase the good memories of that first step, first word, first day of school.
  • Don’t let a repair bill when something breaks erase all the years that stove, car, tent, bike, computer, or lawnmower worked great.
It will be hard at first but by learning to resist letting an unpleasant end of an experience define the whole experience we’ll have happier memories, less discouragement, and greater control over a mind that’s prone to negativity. 
 

Nine Obstacles That Sabotage Bringing Ideas to Fruition

What's wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture?

If you’re like me you’ve got more ideas in your head than you know what to do with. Several years ago I adopted the David Allen system of capturing someday-maybes. I’m not sure this was a good plan. As a result of writing down every idea for a future book, play, game, article, sermon, cartoon, art project, slide show, power point presentation, caricature, volvelle, business idea, new model for conflict resolution, therapeutic, home, family, financial, and health project I’ve now got a list of over a thousand “someday maybes.” I’m not going to live long enough to finish 99.9% of them.

Perhaps you know the feeling: guilt for not reading that book screaming, “Read me!”, sadness for not writing that novel screaming, “Write me!,” and depression for not drawing that graphic novel screaming, “Draw me!” There’s the embarrassment of telling friends about grandiose projects that now languish. And then there’s the frustration of not having a disciplined enough mind to stick to a task until it’s complete.

Your list of creative someday-maybes may include building a computer, starting a business, landscaping the yard, learning a new hobby, taking or teaching a new class, launching a blog, opening a restaurant, making a film, selling homemade jewelry, or refinishing that old piece of furniture in your garage. What’s the deal with these creative brains? Why do we start a million projects and bring so few to completion? Why is cooking up ideas effortless but doing them so difficult? Why can’t we stick to a project?

I’ve read a dozen books about creativity over the years and have yet to discover the silver bullet that cures the distracted brain flitting like a moth from idea to idea. One of my someday-maybes is to write the great American mixed metaphor. Another of my someday-maybes is to cure Attention Deficit Disorder without pharmaceuticals. If not that, at least discover the trick to sustained focus. If not that, at least understand the causes and cures for boredom. I’ve got a long way to go but here’s a list of key suspects behind the proliferation of ideas and dearth of completions.

1. Drug addiction. Thinking up new ideas squirts the pleasure drug dopamine into our system. Doing the hard work of acting on that idea turns off the flow of dopamine. The thrill of invention is replaced by the grind of execution.

2. Fantasy. When new ideas show up we imagine it’s the best idea ever like those singers on American Idol who think they sing like Adele but sound like a duck.

3. Distractions. Hearing from the creative muse is a thrill but she eventually gets hoarse and another one quickly comes along with a louder voice and she woos us into her seductive clutches. Too many voices!

4. Waning value. This is the most puzzling aspect of boredom. How can an idea that initially gives us goosebumps, energy-enriched insomnia, and adrenaline-charged bliss lose its charm? It can’t be that the idea changes; it must be us.

5. Waning sustainability. Maybe it’s not the nail that loses it’s attraction to a magnet, maybe its the magnet that loses its magnetism. Maybe it’s not our idea that loses its luster, maybe the problem is our inability to stay enamored with luster. What can we do to protect our brains from creative delight fatigue? I don’t know yet.

6. Self doubt. One minute we imagine giving our Nobel Prize acceptance speech and the next minute we imagine being parodied as fools on Youtube.

7. Inferior quality. Woody Guthrie once said, “I wrote a thousand folk songs hoping at least one of ’em would be good.” He ended up writing Roll On Columbia, Washington State’s official song. In 60 years I’ve left a trail of a thousand poems, businesses, guitar ditties, books, drawings, handouts, skits, caricatures, data wheels, and cartoons not one of which has become Washington State’s official anything.

8. Skill deficit. The idea generating part of our brains must be huge and the idea execution, staying motivated, and bringing ideas to completion part is microscopic.

9. Competing priorities. Illness, home repairs, bills, jobs, weddings, holidays, and birthdays prevent us from staying engaged, from maintaining interest, and sustaining concentrated focus.

If anything those books on creativity have taught me, creative brains that come up with ideas but don’t complete ideas are not alone. Why else would we read, “Great ideas need landing gear as well as wings,” “Better the end of a project than it’s beginning” and “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” If you’re like me with too many ideas and too little time to finish em all, I feel ya!

Now, back to that Great American mixed metaphor………..