Psychology

Spiritual reparenting: severed belonging, benefactors, vulnerability & reconnection

Tara Brach's weekly dharma talks and guided meditations have been a consistent source of inspiration and equanimity for me over the past several years. A few weeks ago, she presented a talk on spiritual reparenting to which I've listened four times (thus far), as it resonated on many levels for me. The practice of becoming one's own loving parent is a recurring theme for adult children of alcoholics and other dysfunctional families, and I find Tara's perspective on the topic offers a valuable contribution to my understanding of the hurting and healing processes. I was so moved by the wisdom presented in the talk that I transcribed the entire 52 minute episode. I'll embed the podcast below, and include a link to the unofficial (and unauthorized) transcription, but I also want to share a few highlights here.

One of the themes Tara emphasizes is the wound of severed belonging, which often occurs while we are children, when we get the explicit or implicit message that we are not okay - not good enough - from parents or other authority figures. In the resulting trance of unworthiness, we feel the pain of separation - of being disconnected - from those we love .. and from whom we want to feel love. Separation anxiety can afflict us at any age, in the context of any significant relationship, though we are especially vulnerable when we are young and inexperienced. As I've noted in several of my most recent blog posts - the pain of severed belonging can continue to affect us for many years after the infliction of the wound.

Fortunately, many of us encounter a benefactor, someone who offers us unconditional love and a healing presence at a time when we are in deep pain. A benefactor repairs the severed belonging and helps us feel connected again: loved, and thereby, worthy of love. I am grateful for the appearance of benefactors at different stages of my life, when I was suffering with the pain of disconnection and the trance of unworthiness.

in her talk, Tara asks "What are the qualities in that person that made a difference to you?", and in reflecting on my benefactors, I see that the common qualities were honesty, self-awareness, compassion and vulnerability. Vulnerability is especially relevant to the process of repair and reconnection. Any benefactor who has appeared in my life has been willing and able to relate to my suffering by revealing one or more elements from their own experience that mirrors or closely aligns with my wound and acknowledging that the wound hurts.

I often magnify my suffering through self-inflecting a second wound - what Tara calls a "second arrow" - by judging myself defective and weak, believing that the wound shouldn't hurt so much, that there's something wrong with me. Simply knowing that I have a fellow traveler, especially one that I admire and respect, helps reduce my sense of isolation and restore a feeling of belonging and worthiness.

I count Tara among my benefactors, even though I've never met her. In her books and talks, she regularly shares stories from her own experience that exhibit the kind of vulnerability that creates an opening for connection and reconnection. Her practice of RAIN (Recognizing, Allowing, Investigating and Nurturing) has been an important component in my journey of letting go of emotions. I highly recommend her talks, as the calm, soothing voice through which she expresses her honesty, self-awareness and compassion is an especially welcome departure from the tone of much of the political discourse - and discord - that is arising from the lack of honesty, self-awareness, compassion and vulnerability exhibited by some who have recently come to power in the United States.

I also recommend adopting the practice of financial beneficence (or dana), and joining me in becoming a contributor in supporting Tara's talks and meditations, which she offers for free. I believe dana will be an increasingly important way to support the voices I want to hear, as more voices I don't want to hear are given more prominent platforms, supported at taxpayer expense.

I'll include the abstract for Spiritual Parenting below, since the highlights above only focus on a small portion of the talk. The talk includes references to other inspiriting sources of wisdom - such as a quote by attachment science researcher Louis Cozolino on the survival of the nurtured, Krista Tippett's On Being interview with Ruby Sales ("Where does it hurt?"), Martin Luther King's speech on "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence", and the 1998 movie, The Horse Whisperer.

When we are not sufficiently nurtured in childhood, we are inclined toward anxiety, depression, addiction and other forms of suffering. In a deep way, we do not feel at home with others. We are disconnected from our own body, heart and spirit.

This talk explores how meditation offers “spiritual reparenting” as we learn to bring interest, understanding and love to our own inner vulnerability. This process of healing extends to our relationships with others and our larger society – by reaching out to widening circles with interest and care, we bring increasing harmony and peace to our world.

From a place of caring, ask, “Where does it hurt?”

The podcast is embedded below for easy access. Here's a link to my unofficial transcription of Spiritual Reparenting. Namaste.


Letting Go of Emotions vs. Thoughts

A while back, I wrote about letting go of blame and judgment, following an enlightening "Zen with Len" retreat I attended last January. While the retreat helped me release others from anger I was feeling about perceived betrayals or other wrongs, I was still left with my feelings of pain, sadness and fear in response to those experiences. Letting go of pain has been an evolving process for me, and I wanted to share a few resources and practices that I have found useful on this part of the journey.

LettingGo_DavidHawkins_coverDavid Hawkins literally wrote the book on "Letting Go" (subtitle: "The Pathway of Surrender"), in which he argues for the primacy of emotions over thoughts, and proposes that by letting go of emotions, we can let go of the thoughts that emanate from those emotions.

Thoughts are merely rationalizations of the mind trying to explain the presence of the feeling... The thoughts associated with even one feeling may literally run into the thousands. The understanding of the underlying emotion and its correct handling is, therefore, more rewarding and less time-consuming than dealing with one's thoughts.

I tend to focus most of my time, energy and attention on thinking rather than feeling, and have always believed that thoughts give rise to feelings, but Hawkins suggests it is the other way around:

The mind is .. a survival mechanism, and its method of survival is primarily the use of emotions. Thoughts are engendered by the emotions and, eventually, emotions become shorthand for thoughts .. Reason is the tool the mind uses to achieve its emotional ends.

I initially found this description and the prescription for the "correct handling" of emotions counter-intuitive and unsettling. In my efforts to let go of the lingering pain, I had been devoting some of my meditations to focusing on troubling - and sometimes traumatic - thoughts, and sitting with the thoughts in an effort to let go of the emotions they give rise to. Hawkins suggests switching that around, and focusing directly on the emotion:

Letting go involves being aware of a feeling, letting it come up, staying with it, and letting it run its course without wanting to make it different or do anything about it. It means simply to let the feeling be there and to focus on letting out the energy behind it .. It is resistance that keeps the feeling going .. A feeling that is not resisted will disappear as the energy behind it dissipates... The feeling can .. be worked with by first accepting that it is there, without resisting it or condemning it. And then one begins to empty out the energy of the feeling directly by letting it be what it is until it runs out.

He acknowledges that some emotions are simply too overwhelming, and may require multiple letting go "sessions" of sitting with the emotions to release their power. It may also be helpful to deeply traumatic emotion into subcomponents, and let go of different elements incrementally over time.

Hawkins observes that suppressing emotions can increase stress, and that increased stress can lead to disease, and describes various ways that the mind and body are connected, much of which is consistent with my own experience, and with other teachings I've encountered (e.g., Gabor Mate's book, "When the Body Says 'No'"). He also covers several themes I wrote about in my last post, about attachment, dependency and possessiveness in relationships, so I won't go further down that path here, except to note here that I found one of his predictions about the potential outcomes of attachment especially poignant:

The other person, now feeling pressured by our energy of dependency and possessiveness, has an inner impulse to run for freedom, to withdraw, to detach and do the very thing that we fear the most.

One of the themes in the book I find most difficult to accept is the prescription to let go of desire, which echoes ideas I've encountered in [other] new age teachings:

wanting blocks receiving it [what is wanted] and results in a fear of not getting it. The energy of desire is, in essence, a denial that what we want is ours for the asking.. We surrender the emotion of desire and, instead, merely choose the goal, picture it lovingly, and allow it to happen because we see that is already ours.

Perhaps I'm not yet sufficiently evolved, but I personally don't see how wanting and desire - which are to be let go - are different from asking for something or setting goals - which are to be embraced - so I've decided to let go of this aspect of the teachings, at least for now.

There are a number of other aspects of the book that I find more difficult to accept. Hawkins was a proponent of using applied kinesiology to test muscle strength in the arm while a subject repeats a statement to "objectively" assess a subject's level of consciousness. His enumeration, ordering and descriptions of these levels - shame, guilt, apathy, grief, fear, desire, anger, pride, courage, neutrality, willingness, acceptance, reason, love, joy and peace - make intuitive sense to me, but associating frequency measurements with them, and estimating what proportion of the population has achieved these levels, do not. An essay on The Emperor's New Clothes: David Hawkins' Absolute Calibration of Truth offers a deeper investigation into some of Hawkins' questionable claims, and some of the ways he and his associates have actively sought to eliminate criticism from Wikipedia and other web sites.

As unsettling as I find some of these aspects of his teaching and behavior, I often find it useful to apply the slogan "take what you like and leave the rest", and continue to find resonance in his ideas about the primacy of emotions and the practices of letting go of the negative emotions ... although I will admit I initially found these unsettling as well.

One of the initially disturbing - but eventually resonant - aspects of Hawkins' views is that disturbances are beneficial:

Every life crisis carries within it the kernels of a reversal, a renewal, an expansion, a leap in consciousness, and a letting go of the old and a birth of the new .. a hidden lesson... Carl Jung [concluded that] there is an inborn drive in the unconscious toward wholeness, completeness, and realization of the Self, and that the unconscious will devise ways and means of bringing this about even if they are traumatic to the conscious mind...

One benefit of a crisis is that it often brings us into familiarity with our shadow .. Once the shadow has been acknowledged, it loses its power... Passing through a life crisis, then, makes us more human, more compassionate, more accepting and understanding of ourselves and others. We no longer have to indulge in making others wrong or making ourselves wrong.

... One major loss can awaken us to the nature of all attachments, and all relationships.

Indeed, I am hoping this journey through unresolved grief I started over a year ago is serving to awaken me to a higher state of enlightenment. The theme of crises and breakdowns facilitating growth has played a significant role in this awakening, and is a concept into which I plan to delve more deeply in a future post.

For now, I'll conclude with two other sources of inspiration for letting go that I revisit regularly. One is a brief passage by Tilopa shared in a guided meditation by Tara Brach - who regularly encourages attending to feelings in the body and letting go of thoughts in the mind - on Relaxing Open.

Let go of what has passed.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.

DannaFaulds_GoInAndIn_coverThe other is a poem by Danna Faulds, from her book, Go In and In: Poems from the Heart of Yoga, which I read nearly every day.

Let go of the ways you thought life
would unfold; the holding of plans
or dreams or expectations – Let it
all go. Save your strength to swim
with the tide. The choice to fight
what is here before you now will
only result in struggle, fear, and
desperate attempts to flee from the
very energy you long for. Let go.
Let it all go and flow with the grace
that washes through your days whether
you receive it gently or with all your
quills raised to defend against invaders.
Take this on faith; the mind may never
find the explanations that it seeks, but
you will move forward nonetheless.
Let go, and the wave’s crest will carry
you to unknown shores, beyond your
wildest dreams or destinations. Let it
all go and find the place of rest and
peace, and certain transformation.

I continue to find it hard to accept that "the mind may never find the explanations that it seeks", but perhaps I'm moving forward, nonetheless.


Marriage, Romantic Realism and Relationship without Attachment

I've been a hopeless romantic for most of my life, but I am becoming increasingly disillusioned about love. I don't see disillusionment as a negative thing, but as a positive process: letting go of illusions, and thus becoming less romantic - and more realistic - about relationships ... especially long-term committed relationships ... especially the one I am in. I don't love my wife any less, but I'm striving to love her differently, more maturely, with greater acceptance and less expectation or attachment.

This maturation / disillusionment has evolved over many years, often unfolding in fits and starts. I may never complete the process, but I'm making progress. I wanted to share a few notes on the journey here, to collect and synthesize some relevant influences I've encountered along the path, both for my own future reference and in case it may be helpful to others.

GiftfromtheseaOne of the first realistic descriptions of a healthy relationship I encountered was in Anne Morrow Lindbergh's timeless tome, Gift from the Sea. My wife and I included a passage from this inspiring book in the readings at our wedding.

A good relationship has a pattern like a dance and is built on some of the same rules. The partners do not need to hold on tightly, because they move confidently in the same pattern, intricate but gay and swift and free, like a country dance of Mozart's. To touch heavily would be to arrest the pattern and freeze the movement, to check the endlessly changing beauty of its unfolding. There is no place here for the possessive clutch, the clinging arm, the heavy hand, only the barest touch in passing. Now arm in arm, now face to face, now back to back -- it does not matter which because they know they are partners moving to the same rhythm, creating a pattern together, and being invisibly nourished by it.

The joy of such a pattern is...the joy of living in the moment. Lightness of touch and living in the moment are intertwined. One cannot dance well unless one is completely in time with the music, not leaning back to the last step or pressing forward to the next one, but poised directly on the present step as it comes... But how does one learn this technique of the dance? Why is it so difficult? What makes us hesitate and stumble? It is fear, I think, that makes one cling nostalgically to the last moment or clutch greedily toward the next. [And fear] can only be exorcised by its opposite: love.

My wife has always been the more pragmatic and realistic partner in our relationship, probably due both to her general temperament as well as her greater experience with prior relationships before the two of us got together. I have tended to operate more toward the idealistic end of the spectrum, and have at times practiced more of a possessive clutch than a bare touch in passing. Fortunately - although it hasn't always seemed that way - the wisdom embodied in these two paragraphs has been re-presented through many lessons in many contexts over the years.

PassionatemarriagepbkA related source of wisdom is David Schnarch's book, Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love & Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships, which I first encountered - and found very unsettling - several years after we were married. Schnarch describes marriage as a crucible in which the role of our partner is not so much to be affectionate, appreciative and approving - though some partners may exhibit any or all of these characteristics at times - but to support us in our growth as differentiated and resilient individuals.

In my last post, I wrote about the pitfalls of depending on external validation. Schnarch contrasts external validation - or what he calls other-validated intimacy - with self-validated intimacy, in which "you don't expect your partner to validate or accept what you disclose. You validate yourself by showing your partner who you really are." I'll include a few other resonant passages from the book below.

We're driven by something that makes us look like we crave intimacy, but in fact we're after something else: we want someone else to make us feel acceptable and worthwhile. We've assigned the label "intimacy" to what we want (validation and reciprocal disclosure) and developed pop psychologies that give it to us - while keeping true intimacy away. We've distorted what intimacy is, how it feels, how much we really want it, and how best to get it. Once we realize that intimacy is not always soothing and often makes us feel insecure, it is clear why we back away from it.

...

Our self-made crises are custom-tailored, painstakingly crafted, and always fit perfectly. We construct emotional knots until, eventually, we are willing to go through them.

...

Differentiation involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness. Individuality propels us to follow our own directives, to be on our own, to create a unique identity. Togetherness pushes us to follow the directives of others, to be part of a group.

Lack of differentiation alienates us from those we love. Emotional fusion deceives us into thinking that we're not connected and we move away in defense. But the deeper truth is that we have to move away to counterbalance the tremendous impact we feel our spouse has on us.

Thebookoflife_logoA more recent source of wisdom describing a healthy, illusion-free, non-attached way of relating to one's partner that I encountered is from Alain de Botton's evolving online compendium, The Book of Life. One chapter presents Romantic Realism: a term used to describe "a correct awareness of what can legitimately be expected of love". A reformulation and refinement of some of the wisdom in that chapter (and some of his other writings) appeared in another chapter, On Marrying the Wrong Person, a version of which became the most read article of 2016 in the New York Times. To my way of thinking, despite its title, this chapter/essay is not so much about marrying the wrong person as it is about marrying any person based on the wrong goals or expectations. Here are a few of the passages I find most resonant:

All of us are crazy in very particular ways. We’re distinctively neurotic, unbalanced and immature, but don’t know quite the details because no one ever encourages us too hard to find them out. An urgent, primary task of any lover is therefore to get a handle on the specific ways in which they are mad. They have to get up to speed on their individual neuroses. They have to grasp where these have come from, what they make them do – and most importantly, what sort of people either provoke or assuage them. A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren’t many of these on the planet), it’s one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities.

...

The problem is that knowledge of our own neuroses is not at all easy to come by. It can take years and situations we have had no experience of. Prior to marriage, we’re rarely involved in dynamics that properly hold up a mirror to our disturbances. Whenever more casual relationships threaten to reveal the ‘difficult’ side of our natures, we tend to blame the partner – and call it a day. As for our friends, they predictably don’t care enough about us to have any motive to probe our real selves. They only want a nice evening out. Therefore, we end up blind to the awkward sides of our natures. On our own, when we’re furious, we don’t shout, as there’s no one there to listen – and therefore we overlook the true, worrying strength of our capacity for fury. Or we work all the time without grasping, because there’s no one calling us to come for dinner, how we manically use work to gain a sense of control over life – and how we might cause hell if anyone tried to stop us. At night, all we’re aware of is how sweet it would be to cuddle with someone, but we have no opportunity to face up to the intimacy-avoiding side of us that would start to make us cold and strange if ever it felt we were too deeply committed to someone. One of the greatest privileges of being on one’s own is the flattering illusion that one is, in truth, really quite an easy person to live with.

...

We believe we seek happiness in love, but it’s not quite as simple. What at times it seems we actually seek is familiarity – which may well complicate any plans we might have for happiness.

We recreate in adult relationships some of the feelings we knew in childhood. It was as children that we first came to know and understand what love meant. But unfortunately, the lessons we picked up may not have been straightforward. The love we knew as children may have come entwined with other, less pleasant dynamics: being controlled, feeling humiliated, being abandoned, never communicating, in short: suffering.

One of the best definitions of suffering I've encountered is from Tara Brach, who has shared the following formula from the Four Noble Truths in a few of her dharma talks:

suffering = pain X resistance

I think the risk of pain always accompanies the prospect of intimacy in a relationship: anyone we care enough about can say or do things - or not say or do things - that hurt us. One may not be able to eliminate pain in a relationship, but one can reduce resistance by acceptance of what is ... and letting go of attachment to what is not.

And the themes of abandonment, suffering, acceptance and letting go of attachment bring me full circle to yet another gem of wisdom I gleaned from a recent re-reading of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From The Sea, with which I'll close:

When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity - in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.

The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now. Relationships must be like islands, one must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits - islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, and continually visited and abandoned by the tides.


External Validation and Emotional Responsibility

Years ago, I discovered Validation, a wonderful short film by Kurt Kuenne about a parking garage attendant who validates tickets ... and validates the people who bring their tickets to the window, offering compliments to each person as he stamps their ticket "Validated". He goes on to offer validation far and wide beyond the parking garage, and every recipient of his validation is uplifted by the experience, until he encounters one person who seems unaffected by his compliments and other efforts to make her happy.

As with many sources of inspiration, each time I revisit the source, I notice new aspects, since I am a different person during each visit. I watched the film again recently, after returning from a meditation retreat, where my main takeaways were letting go of blame and judgment. One of the other lessons from the retreat, noted near the end of my post, was

  • Teaching me that one cannot depend on anyone else for validation

During this most recent re-watching of Validation, I was feeling uncomfortable and irritated during the first portion, where people are literally lining up to bask in the glow of external validation provided by the parking lot attendant. I realized I was judging them for their dependency, and then recognized that the dependency on external validation that irritated me in others was the same dependency that irritated me about myself ... as so often happens, my externally-focused Judge was simply reflecting my internal Critic.

The aspect of the film that resonated especially deeply with me this time was the unsuccessful efforts of the parking lot attendant to validate - and uplift - a woman who worked as a photographer at a motor vehicles department. Nothing he tried seemed to have any effect on the woman's disposition, and I realized that his own sense of validation and worthiness was dependent on other people's feeling validated in response to him. He was happy when he made other people happy ... and he became unhappy when he could not make this one person happy ... i.e., he was suffering from dependence on external validation.

This reminded me of another lesson I learned at the retreat:

  • No one can make me angry, shame me or cause me to dissociate

Watching the movie, I realized two important corollaries to this:

  • No one can make me happy
  • I cannot make anyone else happy (or angry or sad ... or cause any other emotion)

I might - and often try to - create conditions that I believe are more conducive to someone else feeling happy, but I cannot make them happy. Conversely, I might - and often try to - avoid creating conditions that may be conducive to someone else feeling angry, but I cannot make them angry. So the expanded lesson is:

I am not responsible for anyone else's emotions, I am only responsible for my own.

This may be obvious to many emotionally mature individuals, but as a life-long people pleaser with an inner conviction of intrinsic unworthiness, I have relied on others' validation for as long as I can remember. I believed others were responsible for my validation and I was responsible for theirs

I have recognized repeated opportunities to learn this lesson since returning from the retreat. I'm sure such opportunities have always abounded, I'm just now becoming more aware of them (when the student is ready, the lesson is recognized). When I do something with the goal of winning another's expression of appreciation or approval - or avoiding another's expression of disapproval - I am setting myself up for disappointment, and invalidation.

Since the retreat, I have new tools to look at that disappointment, take responsibility for the feelings of sadness and anger, and recognize that the feelings are a signal that I was doing something for the wrong reasons: seeking approval vs. doing something because it is the right, or kind, thing to do. And in this recognition, I can shift from feeling blame and judgment to feeling grateful for yet another unsought opportunity for further awakening


Letting Go of Blame and Judgment: Emotional Transformation through Zen with Len

LenMany years ago, I experienced betrayal, pain and anger about something that someone did. I did not have the tools or life experience to fully understand my reactions - much less transform them - at the time, and the memory of the episode has resurfaced periodically, re-triggering unresolved emotions. The most recent recurrence began last October, disrupting my ability to sleep and negatively impacting other dimensions of my life over several months. The spell was finally broken during a retreat in January that was organized and led by my good friend, Kensho Len Silverston, promising - and delivering - emotional transformation. I wanted to share some of the insights and experiences that contributed to my breakthrough(s) that weekend.

I went into the retreat filled with blame and judgment: blaming the other person for causing my pain and anger, and judging that what the other person did was wrong. The intensity of my righteous indignation was magnified by the person's unwillingness to admit any wrongdoing or express any regret about the episode. I knew it was up to me to resolve whatever lingering emotions I was holding on to - as Tara Brach so aptly puts it, the boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom - and it was increasingly clear, after several months of disequilibrium, that I needed help. When the student was ready, the retreat appeared.

Meditation, Yoga and Qigong

Zen_with_len_logoThe Zen with Len retreat consisted of several days of meditation, gentle yoga and Qigong sessions - all interleaved so as to balance our focus on mind and body - as well as special sessions exploring a number of other practices Len has found helpful in his own emotional transformations. Most meditation sessions were a half hour long - a bit of a stretch for me, as I had previously only sat for a maximum of 20 minutes at a time, but not out of my comfort zone - and I found the yoga sessions were similarly within my comfort zone, offering opportunities to gently push the edges.

While I have practiced meditation and yoga (with varying degrees of dedication) before, the Qigong exercises - a type of moving meditation - were new to me. One exercise, in particular, seemed like it was custom designed for what I was seeking at the retreat, and proved to be one of the most significant sources of breakthrough: an invitation to bring into consciousness something we want to let go, and then manifesting the letting go through movement (not just words). I'll embed a 15-minute Qigong video Len made after the retreat below; the letting go exercise can be found around the 9:55 mark.

The Qigong exercises were repeated several times throughout the weekend, and for each iteration of the letting go exercise, I alternated between letting go of blaming the other person, and letting go of my judgment of what the other person did. By the end of the weekend, I succeeded in letting go of both. However, I soon found that the blame and judgment were simply redirected toward me: how could I have tormented myself all these years? Fortunately, there were other tools provided during the weekend to help with this.

Mondo Zen

Mondo_zen_logoOne of the special afternoon sessions was on Mondo Zen, a protocol adapted from ancient Zen principles by Len's teacher, Jun Po, to facilitate the awakening of Clear Deep Heart / Mind through a process of koans. The process - detailed in the Mondo Zen training manual - is divided into two parts. The first part, Ego Deconstruction/Reconstruction Koans, is designed to help loosen one's grip on traditional ways of seeing, understanding and acting and arrive at a state of "not knowing". I had worked through similar processes in the Warrior Monk retreat I attended several years ago, and found the refresher helpful. However it was the second part, Emotional Awareness Intervention Koans, that really set the stage for the transformation I experienced.

The resurgence of the episode that brought me to the retreat triggered a number of different reactions at different times: anger, pain, shame and dissociation. In Mondo Zen, I learned that

  • No one can make me angry, shame me or cause me to dissociate / disconnect
  • Any anger, shame and/or disconnection I feel is a reaction to fear and/or sadness
  • Fear and/or grief is rooted in deep caring

I also learned that all of these emotions involve some kind of violence:

  • Anger is violence against others
  • Shame is violence against myself
  • Disconnection is violence against a relationship

Through the 2-hour Mondo Zen exercise during the retreat - a highly abbreviated, but effective, version of what is typically a multi-day retreat of its own - I was able to

  • Understand and accept that I reacted with anger, shame and disconnection to the past episode
  • Take full responsibility for my reactions
  • Recognize and take responsibility for the harm I have caused myself and others through my anger, shame and disconnection
  • Accept that the other person did nothing wrong

All of these new insights reinforced my ability - and willingness - to let go of blame and judgment.

Voice Dialogue

Another practice Len introduced in a special session was Voice Dialogue. We all have a multitude of voices in our heads, each representing different selves or parts of our personality. Each voice serves us in some positive way, and each voice has a different level of prominence in each of us, both in general and in the context of any particular inner conversation. Each voice can be harmful if allowed to commandeer the conversation to the exclusion of other voices. Disowning or rejecting any voice can also be harmful, as the abandoned voice will always find some way to leak out and express itself. We also have a higher self, or "True Nature", that serves as a moderator of our inner dialogues. I like to think of the voices as an inner program committee or board of directors, and my "True Nature" as the chairman of the board.

Selves_in_a_boxAs I understand it, there are a few different variations on the number and specific labelings of voices. The one Len used was from the book - and associated deck of 52 cards (each representing a different voice) - Selves in a Box. I think the most important aspect of the practice of Voice Dialogue is not so much the specific labels that are used for different voices, but the act of explicitly labeling the voices itself, and the way this differentiation enables one to identify and consciously moderate among the voices ... a manifestation of the principle I have heard articulated by several different spiritual teachers (including Tara Brach and Dan Seigel):"If you can name it, you can tame it".


CriticAmong the most prominent voices on my board of directors (in alphabetical order) are

  • The Accommodator
  • The Critic
  • The Judge
  • The Loner
  • The Perfectionist
  • The Romantic
  • The Sensitive
  • The Thinker
  • The Vulnerable Child

I have very loud and strident Critic (inwardly directed) and Judge (outwardly directed) voices. As I mentioned above, when I let go of blame and judgment of the other person, I redirected the blame and judgment toward myself, unconsciously shifting the leading voice of that inner conversation from the Judge to the Critic. Recognizing the rise of the Critic enabled me (or my True Nature) to explicitly call upon The Nurturer to comfort The Vulnerable Child so that I could better practice self-acceptance and self-forgiveness ... a challenging practice that is still unfolding for me.

The Demartini Breakthrough Experience

Demartini_breakthrough_experienceThe final special session that Len led us through was an abbreviated version of the Demartini "Breakthrough" Experience, which is another process that is typically offered in a multi-day retreat of its own.

The Breakthrough process is based on the recognition that all traits have costs and benefits, and so traits I judge as "bad" also offer benefits to me and others. The process involves a sometimes painful investigation into what those hidden benefits might be. During the retreat, I chose to work on the trait of remorselessness in the person I had formerly blamed for my anger and pain, a trait I had previously labeled as uniformly bad.

Through an iterative process of excavation through layers of resistance, I came to recognize that this trait provided me a number of benefits, including:

  • Teaching me how to be unapologetically true to oneself (vs. consumed with people pleasing or accommodation of others)
  • Teaching me that it is OK to do what one wants, without undue regard for how someone else might feel about it, if it does not violate an agreement or directly harm another person
  • Teaching me that one cannot depend on anyone else for validation
  • Offering me an unsought opportunity to accept full responsibility for my reactions, which I can apply to other situations in which I experience betrayal, anger and/or pain

This last point represents a significant and unexpected breakthrough, helping to reinforce some of the other dimensions of transformation I experienced during the retreat. If the other person had expressed remorse, it would have vindicated my feelings of blame and judgment, enabling me to avoid looking any more deeply into my emotional reactions, and thereby avoid taking responsibility for them. The lessons to be true to myself, not depend on others for validation, and take full responsibility for my reaction are lessons that have been repeated at various times, in various ways and at various costs over many years.

I believe the prolonged intensity of pain that preceded the latest course offering was necessary for the breakdown that facilitated the breakthrough, and I am grateful for the timely, multi-dimensional learnings offered at the Zen with Len retreat.


"Expressed Emotions" in Everyday Interactions: Acceptance vs. Intervention with Family and Friends

Invisibilia_solutions_final_wideI've listened to the most recent episode of NPR's Invisibilia, The Problem with the Solution, three times in three days, crying a little less - and understanding a little more - each time I listen. I believe the emotional impact stems from my experience as a son, a husband, a father and a friend ... and more specifically, how "expressed emotions" - criticism, hostility and emotional over-involvement (essentially, expressions of non-acceptance) - have affected me and those I love.

The Invisibilia story focuses on mental illness, and how the traditional American mindset of wanting to fix problems can be counterproductive in dealing with people who have mental illness, i.e., the problem is [our preoccupation with] the solution. In the town of Geel, Belgium, people with mental illness are boarded by townspeople for, on average, 28 years. Studies have shown that people with mental illness who are placed in community settings (like Geel) after treatment are less likely to relapse than when they return home to live with their own families. This is likely due - in part - to the fact that host families are not related to their boarders, and are thus not attached to or over-involved in fixing or curing their boarders' mental illness. Instead, the boarders are accepted as they are.

As a resident of the Broadway Housing Communities - a project for recreating the culture of Geel in America - so aptly noted in an Invisibilia interiew, "Everybody has a touch of mental illness". Everyone I know has at least gone through periods where they have experienced "an unhealthy condition of body or mind", and many of those I know best have suffered a great deal from chronic unhealthy thoughts and emotions. In fact, it is the revelation of sufferings - and the sharing of how we are working through some of these unhealthy thoughts and emotions - that have formed the basis of the strong bonds I feel with my closest friends. And I have a growing appreciation for the suffering experienced by people I don't know well, and the way that suffering underlies some of the behaviors I find hardest to accept. As William Wordsworth observed:

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

I don't mean to equate the suffering of what some call "the worried well" with the suffering of those with serious schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other types of mental illness highlighted in the Invisibilia story. I just want to say I can relate to suffering emanating from chronic unhealthy thoughts and emotions ... and to the effect of acceptance vs. intervention on that suffering.

I believe a great deal of suffering is caused by emotional over-involvement, and the various verbal and non-verbal ways that family members - especially parents (or grandparents) - try to "improve" us.

Invisibilia co-host Lulu Miller, who included her oldest sister's mental illness - and her family's response to it - as a recurrent theme throughout the story, noted that her older sister "had been quietly accepting this message that she was somehow not good enough" throughout her childhood, and the part that breaks me down and gets me sobbing every time (even now, simply copying and pasting the following text from the show transcript), is her father's candid admission of insufficient empathy in dealing with his oldeest daughter:

She was 2 or 3. And she was having a huge freak out at 3 in the morning, just screaming and yelling in her bed. And I went in there, and I got angry at her. And I sat on her bed, and I was trying to calm her down. And I was sort of holding her shoulders, and I got angry at her. I said stop it, stop it. And I remember in her tears - as I was getting angrier, in her tears, she kept saying I can't help it. I can't help it. And I didn't hear that. It's - it's something I will always regret that my feeling anger instead of empathy - didn't know what I was doing as a father.

This feeling of insufficiency resonates deeply with me, and not just in my role as a father. If I had to single out the unhealthy thought that has created the most emotional suffering throughout my life, it is that I am not good enough. I have written before about my theory of how this inner conviction of unworthiness evolved; here, I'll simply note that I trace part of the origins partly to the effects of growing up in a household in which a family member suffered from mental illness - my father's alcoholism - and partly to the effects of my maternal grandfather's efforts to "improve" me through what I now recognize as "expressed emotions".

As an adult, I have found that some of my wife's well-intentioned efforts to "improve" me have inadvertently only served to deepen the void, and I am sure some of my efforts to "improve" her have had similar unintended consequences, especially when expressed with anger rather than empathy. I know both of our children have suffered from some of their parents' efforts to "improve" them. My son has confirmed that the two times that I exploded in anger toward him - rather than opening to empathy for his underlying suffering that gave rise to the behaviors to which I was reacting - both had a significant negative impact on him, and at least one of my daughter's lingering emotional wounds was inflicted by an angry expression of parental disapproval intended to "improve" her.

Which leads me to wonder whether acceptance always trumps intervention when interacting with family members. We naturally want our spouses and children to be the best they can be, and part of the role of a parent is to teach our children how to thrive. That said, I believe that "expressed emotions" (as defined above) are always harmful to both the senders and receivers of the expressions. I suppose that there are ways to encourage "improvement" that do not involve criticism, hostility or emotional over-involvement - the improv comedy practice of using "yes, and ..." rather than "yes, but ..." come to mind - but and in interpersonal interactions, I find it challenging to seek or promote improvement in another person without at least implying that someone is not good enough. Amid my increasing uncertainty, I am more and more inclined to err in the direction of acceptance rather than intervention.

In my journey toward greater acceptance, I have encountered a number of other sources of inspiration that are well aligned with the wisdom expressed in the Invisibilia episode. Before closing, I want to share a few of these here.

Radical-Acceptance-150Tara Brach teaches that one of the ways that we perpetuate the trance of unworthiness is by focusing on the belief that something is wrong, something is missing, and the way to break out of this trance is to embrace a radical acceptance of ourselves and others.

Both our upbringing and our culture provide the immediate breeding ground for this contemporary epidemic of feeling deficient and unworthy. Many of us have grown up with parents who gave us messages about where we fell short and how we should be different from the way we are. We were told to be special, to look a certain way, to act a certain way, to work harder, to win, to succeed, to make a difference, and not to be too demanding, shy or loud. An indirect but insidious message for many has been, “Don’t be needy.” Because our culture so values independence, self-reliance and strength, even the word needy evokes shame. To be considered as needy is utterly demeaning, contemptible. And yet, we all have needs—physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual. So the basic message is, “Your natural way of being is not okay; to be acceptable you must be different from the way you are.”

...

Meditation practices are a form of spiritual reparenting. We are transforming these deeply rooted patterns of inner relating by learning to bring mindfulness and compassion to our life. An open and accepting attention is radical because it flies in the face of our conditioning to assess what is happening as wrong. We are deconditioning the habit of turning against ourselves, discovering that in this moment’s experience nothing is missing or wrong.

The_invitationOriah Mountain Dreamer also invites us to embrace acceptance in her poem (and its elaboration in a book of the same name), The Invitation:

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

And this theme of acceptance is further elaborated in her Prelude to her second book, The Dance:

What if there is no need to change, no need to try and transform yourself into someone who is more compassionate, more present, more loving or wise?

How would this effect all the places in your life where you are endlessly trying to be better?

What if the task is simply to unfold, to become who you already are in your essential nature- gentle, compassionate and capable of living fully and passionately present?

How would this effect how you feel when you wake up in the morning?

What if who you essentially are right now is all that you are ever going to be?

How would this effect how you feel about your future?

What if the essence of who you are and always have been is enough?

Brene_brown_tedxhoustonThere are many other inspiring invitations to practice greater acceptance, but I'll allow myself just one more: Brene Brown's TEDxHouston talk on Wholeheartedness, which evoked a similar response as the Invisibilia episode (I watched the video three times in the span of a few days, each time revealing another layer of deeper emotional resonance and meaning).

The only people who don't experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it. What underpinned this shame, this "I'm not good enough," -- which, we all know that feeling: "I'm not blank enough. I'm not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough." The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability. This idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.

...

when we work from a place, I believe, that says, "I'm enough" ... then we stop screaming and start listening, we're kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves.

And so, at least in this moment, the kindness and gentleness in me sees the kindness and gentleness in you. Namaste.


There are no mistakes only lessons; a lesson is repeated until learned; tuition varies

image from www.drcherie.comOne of my principal sources of wisdom is Cherie Carter Scott's book, If Life is a Game, These are the Rules, an elaboration of her Ten Rules for Being Human, which initially appeared (inadvertently unattributed) in Jack Canfield's book, Chicken Soup for the Soul.

My two favorite life rules are:

3. There are no mistakes, only lessons

4. A lesson is repeated until learned

I regularly quote these rules - online and offline - and over the years have recognized an important addendum to rule 4:

4b. Tuition varies

In Dr. Cherie's book, each rule is elaborated in a separate chapter that begins with an introduction and is followed by a few sections presenting themes (or perhaps lesson plans) relating to the rule. For Rule 3 - There are no mistakes, only lessons - the themes are compassion, forgiveness, ethics and humor. Here is an excerpt from the introduction for this chapter:

Rather than viewing your own mistakes as failures and others' mistakes as slights, you can view them as opportunities to learn. As Emerson said, "Every calamity is a spur and a valuable hint." Every situation in which you do not live up to your own expectations is an opportunity to learn something about your own thoughts and behaviors. Every situation in which you feel "wronged" by another person is a chance to learn something about your reactions. Whether it is your own wrongdoing or someone else's, a mistake is simply an opportunity to evolve further along your spiritual path.

The chapter on Rule 4 - Lessons are repeated as needed - includes elaborations on awareness, willingness, causality and patience. It begins with an introduction that articulates the following insight:

You will continually attract the same lessons into your life. You will also draw to you teachers to teach you that lesson until you get it right. The only way you can free yourself of difficult patterns and issues you tend to repeat is by shifting your perspective so that you can recognize the patterns and learn the lessons that they offer. You may try to avoid the situations, but they will eventually catch up with you.

I regularly experience the wisdom of these rules, with varying degrees of awareness. It often seems to be the case that I recognize their relevance retroactively. Over time, I have also learned that the lessons have variable costs, which exhibit a general upward trend. The costs can take different forms - money, opportunities, friends - but the most common currency appears to be emotional pain. In a 12-step group I used to attend, we often light-heartedly referred to the repetition of an emotionally painful lesson as another f***ing growth opportunity, or AFGO for short. 

Emotional pain experienced during lessons is often magnified by my unwillingness to practice self-forgiveness - for which two specific lesson plans are highlighted in the chapters on rules 3 and 4 - and my tendency to add a layer of self-criticism when I recognize that I've unwittingly and unintentionally repeated a mistake lesson yet again. But when the lessons involve other people - in either a cooperative or adversarial learning opportunity - the emotional pain also arises from my guilt over the tuition they pay ... fees that, in many cases, my co-learners never explicitly signed up for.

The highest student debt accumulated for my repeated lessons involve my wife and children. The costs in terms of the emotional pain I experience when I fail to live up to my own expectations of being an attentive and effective husband and father are enormous, and greatly intensify each time lessons are repeated. And, unfortunately, the costs borne by them through such lessons can also be considerable.

Marriage vows traditionally take into account tuition costs for partners' lessons, or at least that's my interpretation of "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health". Marriage, at least in our culture, involves an explicit choice by both partners, and each has the option of dropping the course(s). My wife has been one of my best, most consistent and often unappreciated teachers ... though I like to think at least some of her tuition has been reciprocated through lessons I may have offered her over the years.

Children are typically not offered an explicit opportunity to choose whether to sign up for lessons they learn with or from their parents. My children are also among my best teachers, as they regularly help me recognize hypocrisy or duplicity when I preach one principle but practice another, or when I am otherwise not living up to my - or their - expectations of being a good father. I don't know quite how to account for their tuition costs over the years, but I like to believe the process of micro-evolution will ultimately allow them to reap some valuable rewards from the dues they've been paying.


The Games We Make Up About Ourselves: Interactive Narratives of Personal Transformation

I'm not a gamer, but a segment in last week's On The Media, Personal Video Games, inspired me on several levels, offering insights into the ways that game designers are utilizing their craft to enable others to more effectively relate to their personal trials and tribulations. I've long been fascinated with the stories we make up about ourselves, and even though I rarely play online games, having played the games mentioned in the segment, I can appreciate how adding an interactive dimension can make the heroes' journeys embodied in those stories more accessible.

Dys4iaCo-host Brooke Gladstone interviewed three game designers about their games, and the personal challenges those games were designed to recreate. Anna Anthropy designed the game Dys4ia to capture the dysphoria she experienced as a trans-woman throughout a 6-month odyssey of seeking out and undergoing hormone replacement therapy. "I made the game to communicate all the frustration of the experience of dealing with the medical industry, dealing with society, my own gender dysphoria, and also the hope that comes out of it after struggling up what is basically a mountain". The game has 4 levels:

  1. Gender bullshit (making the decision to start hormone replacement therapy)
  2. Medical bullshit (dealing with the medical industry, finding a clinic, getting tested, ...)
  3. Hormonal bullshit (being on hormones, dealing with wild mood swings)
  4. It gets better? (the hope and eventual realization of achieving a new place of comfort)

While I can't personally relate to being or becoming transgender, I can relate to several challenges that arise in accompanying a loved one on an interminable health odyssey such as the one embodied in the game: struggling with difficult decisions about medical procedures, dealing with the labyrinthian medical industry, interacting with friends and family who want to help but don't fully understand, coping with [someone else's] mood swings and experiencing varying levels of hope and despair about whether things will get better.

ThatWasYesterdayMichael Molinari designed the game, That was Yesterday ("A personal journey about learning to move forward in life"), to embody a different type of transition, his move from a small town in New Jersey to San Francisco to take a new job (designing games). I have to admit that I was skeptical when I first heard his description of the game, which depicts "a wall you need to face away from, and in order to get through the wall, instead of bumping your head against it, you need to look to the past and find all the things that help you drive forward ... When you face away from this wall, which kind of represents problems and fears and whatever, you think it might be this dense wall, and it kind of recedes and moves back. The key there is to exercise patience and wait for the wall to disappear, and once it's off the screen, then you're able to turn around, face forward and start moving through life a little bit further."

Even playing the game, I found it disconcerting that the only way to "win" - i.e., avoid being blocked by the wall - was to turn away from the wall, which I initially interpreted as a form of denial. However, upon further reflection, I could see how the game might represent the wisdom of the serenity prayer: grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. One of the new dimensions of awareness that my wife and I have learned about functional gastrointestinal disorders is the tight loop between stress and disease, and how sometimes the best solution to dealing with the angst of not knowing the source of or solution to recurring bouts of pain and discomfort is to just let go ... to figuratively face away from the impenetrable and implacable wall.

[Update] Maria Popova has distilled some related wisdom in her (Brain Pickings) review of Jonah Lehrer's new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, highlighted in the following excerpt:

When we tell stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problem was impossible. Instead, we skip straight to the breakthrough. We tell the happy ending first.

 The danger of this scenario is that the act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process. Before we can find the answer — before we can even know the question — we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach. We need to have wrestled with the problem and lost. Because it’s only after we stop searching that an answer may arrive.

Lackadaisium Sebastian Janisz designed another game about beating your head against a wall, Lackadaisium, which embodies his struggles with depression and loneliness. "I started making it just to kind of relieve myself, because I was feeling all this emotion, or more like a lack of emotion. I thought maybe making this game would make me feel better. Essentially, what I wanted to try and do was make it so that when you play it, because of the way the game play is designed, you'll start to feel how I felt." Unfortunately, the game only runs on Windows platform, and I'm a Mac user, so I have not yet played this game, but I can certainly relate to struggling with depression and loneliness.

Several insights and connections emerged throughout the interview. Anna's observation that games are about rules reminded me of the pervasiveness and permeability of finite and infinite games that I first discovered via James Carse. Sebastian's observation that he made the game for himself, and Michael's surprise that when others play his hybrid semi-autobiographical game, "some people had more personal experiences than I even had when I was making it", both reflect Carl Rogers' wisdom that what is most personal is most general. The raw vulnerability embodied in these games provide compelling examples of authentic player journeys - vs. trendy and shallow gamification - that Amy Jo Kim has articulated and championed so effectively.

RiseOfTheVideogameZinestersFinally, Anna's closing observation - perhaps elaborated further in her book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form - that amateur games can be viewed as both an art form and a reaction against the creeping conservatism of the game industry reflects the rise of the do-it-yourself movement, and raises the possibility that game design may provide a compelling channel for following Doug Rushkoff's exhortation to Program or Be Programmed.


On the Personal Philosophy of Carl Rogers

CarlRogers

A while back, I was delighted to discover the source of one of my favorite quotes:

What is most personal is most general.

The quote is from psychologist Carl Rogers' 1956 essay "'This is Me': The Development of My Professional Thinking and Personal Philosophy", which can be found in the first chapter in his 1961 book, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy. I bought the entire book based on this one quote, and its elaborating paragraph. As I anticipated, the book is full of inspiring insights and experiences, far more than can be adequately expressed in a single blog post. I already applied and integrated some of his wisdom in a post on client-centered therapy, student-centered learning and user-centered design. In this post, I will excerpt some sections from his "This is Me" essay.

"This is Me" traces Rogers' personal and professional development, and the insights he gained into himself, his profession and the institutions and disciplines with which he was affiliated. Of particular relevance to me, in my own current professional context as a non-tenure track senior lecturer, is his judgment about the tenure process (based on his own context of having been hired, with tenure, at The Ohio State University):

I have often been grateful that I have never had to live through the frequently degrading competitive process of step-by-step promotion in university faculties, where individuals so frequently learn only one lesson - not to stick their necks out.

However, it is the more personal "significant learnings" that he shares that I find most inspiring (an example, perhaps, of the most personal being the most general). He is very careful to state at the outset that these learnings are true for him, and may or may not be true for others. Throughout the book, he carefully delineates data, feelings, judgments and wants, and he states each of his significant learnings with phrasing that makes the personal nature of his perspective clear. I will include the most direct statements of these learnings (with his emphasis) below, along with a few other excerpts that elaborate the learnings in ways I find personally useful.

  • In my relationships with persons I have found that it does not help, in the long run, to act as though I were something that I am not.
  • I find that I am more effective when I can listen acceptantly to myself, and can be myself ... a decidedly imperfect person ... the curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.
  • I have found it of enormous value when I can permit myself to understand another person. ... understanding is risky. If I let myself really understand another person, I might be changed by that understanding.
  • I have found it enriching to open channels whereby others can communicate their feelings, their private perceptual worlds, to me.
  • I have found it rewarding when I can accept another person. ... it has come to seem to me that this separateness of individuals, the right o each individual to utilize his experience in his own way and to discover his own meanings in it - this is one of the most priceless potentialities of life.
  • The more I am open to the realities in me and in the other person, the less do I find myself wishing to rush in and "fix things."
  • I can trust my experience. ... when an activity feels as though it is valuable or worth doing, it is worth doing.
  • Evaluation by others is not a guide for me.
  • Experience is, for me, the highest authority.
  • I enjoy the discovering of order in experience. ... Thus I have come to see both scientific research and theory construction as being aimed toward the inward ordering of significant experience. ... I have, at times, carried on research for other reasons - to satisfy others, to convince opponents and sceptics, to get ahead professionally,  to gain prestige, and for other unsavory reasons. These errors in judgment and activity have only served to convince me more deeply that there is only one sound reason for pursuing scientific activities, and that is to satisfy a need for meaning which is in me [an example, perhaps, of irritation-based innovation]
  • The facts are friendly. ... while I still hate to readjust my thinking, still hate to give up old ways of perceiving and conceptualizing, yet at some deeper level I have, to a considerable degree, com to realize that these painful reorganizations are what is known as learning.
  • What is most personal is most general. [full quote below]
    Somewhere here I want to bring in a learning which has been most rewarding, because it makes me feel so deeply akin to others. I can word it this way. What is most personal is most general. There have been times when in talking with students or staff, or in my writing, I have expressed myself in ways so personal that I have felt I was expressing an attitude which it was probable no one else could understand, because it was so uniquely my own…. In these instances I have almost invariably found that the very feeling which has seemed to me most private, most personal, and hence most incomprehensible by others, has turned out to be an expression for which there is a resonance in many other people. It has led me to believe that what is most personal and unique in each one of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared or expressed, speak most deeply to others. This has helped me to understand artists and poets as people who have dared to express the unique in themselves.
  • It has been my experience that persons have a basically positive direction. ... I have come to feel that the more fully the individual is understood and accepted, the more he tends to drop the false fronts with which he has been meeting life, and the more he tends to move in a direction which is forward.
  • Life, at its best, is a flowing, changing process in which nothing is fixed. ... It is always in process of becoming.

I hope this blog, and my personal and professional life will continue to evolve in a positive direction. Meanwhile, I will surely continue to incorporate other of Rogers' insights - implicitly or explicitly - in my future thinking and writing.


Client-Centered Therapy, Student-Centered Learning and User-Centered Design

OnBecomingAPerson_CarlRogers

I recently finished Carl Rogers' 1961 book, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's Guide to Psychotherapy, in which the renowned psychologist describes his approach to client-centered therapeutic relationships. Rogers makes a compelling case for extending his approach to cultivating relationships with his clients to all personal and professional relationships, including those between parents and children, managers and employees, and teachers and students. I'm currently teaching a senior-level undergraduate course on human-computer interaction (HCI), and believe that Rogers' approach is also well suited to relationships cultivated in the practice of user-centered design (UCD), which constitutes one of our primary lenses for the course.

Rogers states his guiding question in the second chapter of the book:

How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?

He goes on to describe three conditions that characterize his approach to therapeutic relationships (and all relationships):

  • Transparency or congruence: "I have found that the more I can be genuine in the relationship, the more helpful it will be ... rather than presenting an outward facade ... It is only by providing the genuine reality which is in me, that the other person can successfully seek the reality in him."
  • Acceptance: "I find that the more acceptance and liking I feel toward this individual, the more I will be creating a relationship which he can use. By acceptance I mean a warm regard for him as a person of unconditional self-worth - of value no matter what his condition, his behavior or his feelings."
  • Deep empathic understanding: "I also find that the relationship is significant to the extent that I feel a continuing desire to understand - a sensitive empathy with each of the client's feelings and communications as they seem to him at the moment. Acceptance does not mean much until it involves understanding. It is only as I understand the feelings and thoughts which seem so horrible to you, or so weak, or so sentimental, or so bizarre - it is only as I see them as you see them, and accept them and you, that you feel really free to explore all the hidden nooks and frightening crannies of your inner and often buried experience."
CarlRogers

Other characteristics of a facilitative relationship include "attitudes of warmth, caring, liking, interest, respect" or "unconditional positive regard", a recognition of personal boundaries and the separateness of the other person, an allowance for the other person to be utterly free to be himself or herself, and a willingness to see things from the other's perspective and to step into the other person's private world "so completely that I lose all desire to judge or evaluate it". Rogers believed that each person already has the potential solutions to their own problems somewhere within them, and so the goal of the therapist is to be a "midwife to a new personality", creating a safe container within which that internal knowledge can be discovered and applied by the client. This approach is in sharp contrast to the more traditional authoritarian approach to psychotherapy - and many other health care fields - wherein an enlightened therapist diagnoses problems and prescribes solutions for the unenlightened client.

Rogers applies these conditions to many other types of relationships, but of primary importance to me (in my current context) is the application to learner-centered education. In Rogers' view, the teacher should embody the characteristics above, and provide resources relevant to the domain of study (as well as being a "resource-finder"). Students are then allowed to use these resources however they see fit to discover, appropriate and apply the knowledge that they believe will be most relevant to them.

When Rogers taught a course, he would show up the first day of class with stacks of papers and tapes (e.g., of recorded therapy sessions), introduce himself, invite students to introduce themselves - if they felt so inclined - and then wait for them to structure the learning process in which they would participate throughout the course. He did not provide a syllabus, assign homework or readings, nor give any tests. This unorthodox approach sometimes entailed several awkward sessions at the outset, during which students would demand or implore him to impose structure, but he would kindly and resolutely refuse to do so, and they would eventually take the initiative.

Rogers, a rigorous empiricist, reported on some early findings about the gains realized by students who participate in student-centered educational processes: greater personal adjustment, self-initiated extra-curricular learning, creativity and self-responsibility. He was also a radical reformer - or, at least, an advocate of radical rethinking - as can be seen in a 1952 essay on Personal Thoughts on Teaching and Learning, in which he espouses doing away with teaching, examinations, grades, credits, degrees and even the exposition of conclusions.

DontLectureMe

Others have written far more extensively - and eruditely - about Rogers' approach to student-centered learning, and I've recently encountered a number of other inspired and inspiring resources that are aligned with this approach, including Emily Hanford's provocative American RadioWorks program on Don't Lecture Me, Cathy Davidson's bold experiment with Crowdsourcing Grading, and Howard Rheingold's evocatively named Peeragogy Handbook Project. While I feel a strong sense of alignment with Rogers' principles (and those articulated by others), I don't have the gumption to fully embrace his radically unstructured approach to student-centered learning in my own teaching practice, however I will strive to iteratively incorporate as many of the principles of learner-centered education as I can.

I want to conclude this post with a few thoughts about the connections between Rogers' perspective and the principles of User-Centered Design, a paradigm which prioritizes users over technologies, and places human needs, wants, skills and experiences at the center of the design process. A definition of user-centered design at the Usability First web site highlights the parallels with Rogers' thinking:

User-Centered Design (UCD) is the process of designing a tool, such as a website’s or application’s user interface, from the perspective of how it will be understood and used by a human user. Rather than requiring users to adapt their attitudes and behaviors in order to learn and use a system, a system can be designed to support its intended users’ existing beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors as they relate to the tasks that the system is being designed to support.

Like Rogers, user-centered design emphasizes rigorous empiricism, offering a variety of methods for observing, measuring and evaluating the effects of different potential design elements on the user experience. UCD also involves iterative design and experimentation, very much in keeping with the serial nature of client-centered psychotherapy sessions and the punctuated equilibrium that I believe characterizes the process of unfolding revelations. UCD methods work best, I think, when its practitioners approach users with transparency, acceptance and deep empathic understanding. While there is a significant emphasis on evaluation and judgment in UCD, it is focused on the methods and their results rather than the human subjects - aka users - under study.

One important question in user-centered design is who the users are. Are we designing for ourselves or designing for others? Reflecting on Rogers' observation that the most personal is the most general, a third option might be proposed: designing for others through designing for ourselves. Much of the emphasis in UCD has been on designing for others, focusing on methods of observation, measurement and evaluation that help designers better understand [other] users' perspectives. However, some recent developments suggest a growing openness - on the part of some designers - to the idea of designing for others through designing for ourselves.

DonNorman
JasonFried

I captured portions of a debate on this topic - involving accusations of arrogance and justifications for self-centeredness - in an earlier post on irritation-based innovation, which I will simply summarize here with an observation made by one of the participants, Jason Fried, co-founder of 37signals, in response to a critique by human-centered design advocate, Don Norman:

Solutions to our own problems are solutions to other people’s problems too.

Personally, I believe there is room for both perspectives. While I think that the most innovative designs arise out of the effort to solve one's own problems, the solutions can be made more useful and usable through a greater understanding of how they might be perceived and used by others to solve their own problems. So, while the most personal may be the most general, UCD practices can help pave the way for maximizing that generalization.