Did you know that every day we experience approximately 20,000 moments (according to Nobel-winning scientist Daniel Kahneman)? A moment is defined as a few seconds in which our brain records an experience. So, as Dr. Kahneman discovered, the quality of our days is determined by how our brains recognize and categorize our moments — either as positive, negative or just neutral (although rarely do we remember neutral moments).
I do a lot of coaching with individuals, groups, businesses, teams, churches around the issue of strengths (utilizing the results they get from taking the online StrengthsFinder). What are your top strengths? How are you using them? What are the shadow sides of each of your strengths and how can you manage those shadow sides? How can you use your strengths more intentionally, consciously, and competently? How Strengths Work Increases Well-being
I love doing this strengths work with people because I've seen that when people tap into their strengths more deeply and consciously, their ability to live a more productive and fulfilling life at work, in relationships, and even in spirituality radically increases. In fact, research shows that people who more often than not lead with their strengths are six times more meaningfully engaged in their life circumstances and they experience a three times higher sense of overall well being in life.
Who wouldn't want those kind of odds?
I'm noticing more and more that when people begin this exploration, increasing their understanding of how they're wired and what their innate talents are, they are in fact coming face to face with who they really are and who they are truly designed to be. And that is a profoundly spiritual experience.
Why Strengths Work Is Spiritual
One of the descriptions of spirituality I appreciate is this: "The intentional journey of becoming more whole, more fully alive, and more deeply human which results in authentic and meaningful connections with self, others, and the transcendent.”
The more in-tune we are with who we are, the more in alignment we are with how we are each designed and wired, the deeper and more authentic and meaningful our connections are to others and even to God.
One of the early Church fathers, Irenaeus, wrote,
"The glory of God is man fully alive."
Think about that for a minute. God's glory is heightened and made more evident when people are living fully alive. God's glory is shown, not when we constrict our lives or other people's live, not when we narrow our lives down, but rather when we expand our lives, when we increase our aliveness, when we alignment our lives to who we were made to be and to learn to live that way with more abandon and confidence and courage.
And that's exactly what happens when people tap into their strengths more consciously and competently. They become more uniquely fully alive---they become more of their true selves, as God designed them. Living out our strengths is one of the most significant ways we uniquely manifest the image of God in each one of us.
God is definitely not into the "cookie-cutter" approach to life. All you have to do to see that is to open your eyes and behold---to pay attention and to notice---the profound and immense and rich diversity that exists in this world.
Some Strategic Strengths Questions I Use With Clients
I have the sacred privilege as a strengths coach to be a front-row witness to this wonderful diversity with every person and group I do this work with. I always am in awe of how beautiful and unique every person is. And that individual beauty I see only grows and deepens as people come to embrace their unique strengths profile and learn to live it more consciously and effectively day after day.
So here are some of the questions I assist people in exploring and processing about their strengths:
- How have you seen yourself using each of your top strengths? Give specific examples. Describe how you felt when you were engaged in that activity/behavior.
- What have you noticed is the shadow side of each strength? What is your specific negative tendency with each strength at times? For example, if your strength is Empathy, do you ever find yourself getting too emotionally involved in people? Do you take on their feelings so deeply that you can't seem to let them go, to separate yourself from their feelings, so you can begin to feel exhausted, burned out. Their negative or painful feelings you start to take on yourself? Give specific examples of how you have manifested the shadow side of your strengths.
- How have you noticed your strengths playing out in your relationships? Give some specific examples. For instance, if you have Adaptability, do you tend to wait until the last minute to plan an activity with your significant other? Do you prefer not to structure or plan something but to let it come to you or simply go with the flow? How does your strength(s) impact your significant relationship?
- What is the strengths profile of your significant relationship? How do your top five individual strengths react together as a couple? Where are you both strong? How does that reveal itself in how your relationship shows up in the world? What do people experience in the presence of your relational strengths profile?
- Develop some specific, tangible goals for how you can increase the use of each one of your top strengths in the major life areas: work, relationships, spirituality.
- What are deficiencies in your strengths profile that you need to consider bringing other people with complementary strengths into your life? How can you partner or collaborate with people who bring strengths you don't have so you can be more productive and effective?
I typically go on a 12 session, 3 month journey with the people who want to really dig deep into putting their strengths to work in their lives. And I can tell you, it's a hugely rewarding, satisfying, transforming experience. They all tell me how life changing it is. And the more I do it, the more life changing it is for me, as well.
How Strengths Work Impacts Organizations and Congregations
I also do strengths work with congregations and other organizations. Once people begin to understand the role their strengths can play in their personal lives, this new awareness carries over into their actions within the organizational mission. When we take a look at which of everyone's top strengths are most represented---based upon everyone's test results---that corporate strengths profile delivers some astounding and powerful implications for how the whole group is designed to be at their strongest in the way they serve their constituents and communities. Effective mission and productive service grow exponentially. And people who serve in those groups experience a much higher level of engagement and fulfillment than ever before.
So in the end of life---whatever your view about how that happens in terms of divine accountability for your life---what's true is this:
God will not ask you why you weren't more like someone else. God's only question to you will be, What did you do with what you were given? Did you steward your Self as deeply, passionately, and faithfully as you could? Were you your own true Self?
This is one of the reasons I think strengths work is so spiritually significant---and why I believe in knowing my strengths and using them as courageously and actively as I can. It's about being the only Me that really counts in the end; and the only Me that truly brings me fulfillment, purpose, and joy.
Want to Know More?
Would you like to know more about this process? Feel free to email me: email@example.com. I'd be happy to give you more perspective. Would you like to engage in strengths coaching with me? Feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sleepwalking Did you see this Coca Cola commercial that aired during the 2010 Super Bowl? It's titled "Sleepwalking."
Have you ever sleepwalked? Maybe not literally—but perhaps you weren’t fully present in a situation or time of your life?
I remember years ago when my kids were very young visiting San Francisco and staying one night in a motel right down town. We were awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of the door being opened. I looked up to see my daughter trying to pull the door open but the chain was keeping it from opening all the way. I called to her but she didn't respond. I got up and pulled her from the door--still no response. She was sleepwalking. And I my heart started pounding with fear at the thought of what could have happened had she been able to open the door and sleepwalk outside!
There are two sides of the same coin of sleepwalking: the potential of danger (the guy in the commercial walked through all kinds of situations with dangerous animals and didn’t even know it) and missing out on life (he was missing the beauty of the African Savannah). Both sides of the coin are sad and unnecessary.
Sleepwalking is a metaphor that mirrors so much of what happens in our culture. We are constantly being bombarded by ideas and concepts that burrow themselves into our brains and result in thought patterns, narratives, and stories we end up telling ourselves and then subconsciously acting upon. Right? Those paradigms and stories end up becoming second nature with us to the point of not even evaluating them anymore. We simply drift through life without thought. Analyze our culture’s evangelism: wear this, look like this, drive this, act like this, own this, be like this … and if you do, you’ll be happy or powerful or popular or fulfilled or successful. And the messages are endless of what is being promised to us to make us who we or "they" want us to be.
Ultimately we should be evaluating these messages: Are they true? Is this real? Am I what I wear or possess or accomplish, or is there something more fundamental and foundational and true about who I am? Or are they illusions, just dreams that I fantasize are true? Am I asleep or am I awake in this reality?
In fact, the concept of dreaming and waking have been used in spiritual traditions for thousands of years as a metaphor for spiritual consciousness and enlightenment. For example, the name “Buddha” translates as “the awakened one." And what was Buddha awakened to? He began to see with clarity what the causes of human suffering were. His awareness led him to develop a path of enlightenment--the way to waking up--to being present in the world in such a way that one sees the truth about self, about others, about life and what it is that brings contentment and happiness.
In the Gnostic “Hymn of the Pearl” from the Acts of Thomas, the son of a King is sent on a mission to retrieve a treasure, but falls asleep and forgets who he is. His father sends a letter to remind him:
“Awake and arise from your sleep,
and hear the words of our letter.
Remember that you are a son of kings,
consider the slavery you are serving.”
The spiritual process of waking up is remembering who you are--being clear about your true identity as a son or daughter of royalty. And then using that identity to measure all other messages and stories we're told by others or ourselves.
Jesus’ name means “Jehovah saves.” And during his life Jesus was called “The Word”—the revelation of God, God’s voice in human flesh. God saves us from ourselves by the inception of a new thought and idea lived out in his life—that we belong to God, God loves us with an eternal love no matter what, we are children of the King. Jesus comes to wake us up to this truth and reality because we tend to sleepwalk and dream, becoming confused into thinking that our dream is reality. So we’re not as aware and fully present as we could be in this life, always running after the wrong dreams.
It's significant to me that central to Jesus' life mission was the clarity he had of his identity. God’s voice and message to him were very real--“This is my beloved son; I am pleased and proud of him.” The Dark Side’s primary goal was to try to call into question that identity and Jesus’ awakened consciousness of it. The Shadow’s continual temptation was to get Jesus to think his identity was a dream—that he wasn’t who he said he was—to keep him from being fully present.
Unenlightened consciousness is indeed very much like dreaming. Our stories we tell ourselves and others, our personal narratives, are often based upon untruth. “I am what I wear or do or have or how others think of me.” “I am my failures or my successes.”
We become entranced with the little details of our lives and the stories unfolding around us. We forget and become unconscious to a larger context around us. We forget our connection to our highest self and become attached to the particulars. Many enlightened teachers have confirmed that the process of enlightenment is like waking up from a deep and not very nice dream.
So the journey of spirituality is the process of waking up to our true reality about who we are. We are daughters and sons of the King; we are containers of the Divine Presence, covered all over with the Divine Fingerprints on our souls, hearts, minds, and bodies. We belong to a Higher Power. We are called to a Higher Purpose.
Truth is, God is continually in us whether we’re awake to it or not. God is continually working all around whether we’re awake to it or not. That’s reality. But how much more effective and transforming our lives become when we awaken to that truth—to be able to embrace it, accept it, know it, see it, be enveloped by it, bathe and bask in it is to really live life fully.
No wonder the Bible says, “As a person thinks in his heart, so is he.” Our thinking, what we consider to be true and real, radically impacts our lives.
Parker Palmer once wrote: “Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”
Do you know who you really are? Are you living the truth about you? Would you consider yourself a fully awake person? What tools do you have to help you remember your identity?
Spirituality is about awakening to the truth about who we are, who we belong to. It’s becoming grounded in the Center of our Being by embracing who we are in God. And from that grounding and centeredness, we live as awakened, enlightened, aware, fully present people boldly living out our identity as God's children. We move from sleepwalking to awakening.
This last Saturday at Second Wind we began a new series ("Applying Your Spirituality To This Week's Glocal Hot Spot") in which we're taking a very current event happening in the world and asking what the story tells us about the journey of spirituality. How does this event inform and shape our spirituality so that we develop a real-world kind of spirituality, a perspective on faith and the spiritual life that works in real life, that embraces contemporary life in a relevant way. Saturday we focused on the story unfolding in Chile with the 33 trapped miners which has already broken the record for the number of days miners have been imprisoned underground. Experts are predicting that it will be at least another 3 months before the men are able to be rescued, provided more collapses don't take place. A heartbreaking story, to say the least. Imagine if you were a family member or one of the miners. How would you be feeling? What would keep you alive and hanging on? Would you hope for a good ending, even if the possibility existed that it might not happen? Would you allow hope to set you up for a potential catastrophic disappointment? Does hope work?
The Washington Post last week reported about Jerry Linenger who was the only American on the Mir space station in 1997 when a small fire caused a crisis that left him isolated in space for four months with two Russian astronauts. Cut off from his family and facing a lot of stress, Linenger endured a period of uncertainty that provides a good parallel to what the 33 Chilean miners are facing.
The initial explosion terrified and galvanized the crew of six. After the fire, the connection between the two modules that made up the space station was cut, leaving Linenger alone with the Russians. Over the next months, the Mir lost its oxygen generator and had serious trouble with the carbon dioxide scrubber. The toilets malfunctioned, and communications broke down. But the worst aspect, Linenger said, was being led to expect something that failed to materialize.
"Expectations unmet are a horrible thing," Linenger recalled, "especially when you're already psychologically stressed. The biggest dips for me and the others is when we were told something would happen and it didn't."
Among the many examples he could point to, the one that remains raw after 13 years is when he was told he would be able to speak with his pregnant wife at a time when potentially life-threatening problems had begun to mount. "They said I could talk to her for a short time as we passed over a ground antenna near Moscow," he remembered, "and I prepared for a week. I wrote down what I would say and then crossed things off and added new ones. I was so excited. But the time came, they said she was on the line, and all I got was static. And then another emergency started and we were cut off entirely. After that, I expected nothing and was psychologically more healthy."
What do you make of Linenger's conclusion? Is it healthier to simply not hope, to not have expectations, in order to prevent disappointment?
Though I can appreciate the need to try to minimize emotional pain from loss and grief (I've gone through this many times myself), the truth is that according to recent neuroscience about brain formation and function, hope is one of the most significant brain functions to not only taking away fear but also to producing profound life transformation.
As we know, our brains were originally wired for fear responses - it was to protect humans from being gobbled up by predators - it's the basis for the fight or flight response. And according to recent research, fear is so wired into our brains that the brain actually "senses" fear-producing stimuli even at an unconscious level (before we recognize it). When something dangerous occurs outside of awareness, the conscious brain reacts to it. In other words, as experts are telling us, your brain prepares you to respond to danger faster than it does to other tasks, and it starts to respond to frightening things before you even realize they are frightening.
And unless this wiring tendency is proactively dealt with, fear always trumps everything. And when we live in fear, our stress levels stay heightened, causing us to live on increased cortisol which keeps our physical and emotional systems over-stimulated and thereby more susceptible to disease and deterioration.
I'm reading a book right now written by Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the former director of the Outpatient Anxiety Disorders Program and the Panic Disorders Research Program in the Brain Imaging Center at McLean Hospital. Dr. Pillay is writing about the recent neuroscience findings about the brain and fear and how to overcome the tendency to be paralyzed from from fear: Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear.
He says that hope is the choice to make the assumption that something is possible. Instead of allowing the facts to justify fear, we use hope to reveal new facts and remove the fears. This is precisely what people like former South African president Nelson Mandella, world-class athlete and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, and countless others have done every day. Rather than wait for their fears to disappear or for facts to back up their hope, they used hope to create new facts and reach their goals.
According to brain science discoveries, hope and fear both wander around in the unconscious parts of our brains. They both require amygdala activation, and whichever one is stronger will win the amygdala for its own use (the amgydala is the almond-shaped part of the brain, a mass of nerve cell bodies, designed to be the danger alert system, "the guard dog of the human brain." "It's so powerful and efficient that it alerts us to danger in our environment within tens of milliseconds of detecting it.").
Dr. Pillay's point is this: "To be processed by the amygdala, emotions have to stand in a queue, with their order determined by their strength - the strongest soldier gets to the front of the line. If fear is strongest, then it will grab the amygdala's power and dominate all the other soldiers in the line. If hope is stronger, then it will be preferentially processed over fear ... So we have to develop a strategy to help hope 'bulk up' and have an intelligence that supersedes the intelligence of fear. This isn't easy because, as we've learned, our brains are structured so that the amygdala processes fear first in order to protect us from danger." (p. 52-3)
This certainly explains why it's easier for us to give in to the impulse of fear instead of building hope. But it also explains why it's so important for us to choose hope, to give intentional attention to hope and what it is we're hoping for. Regularly imagining the state of life that hope is directed to. Those specific activities build up our hope response. And when we hope, says Dr. Pillay, we stimulate out brain center (amygdala) to use its mass of nerve pathways to empower our bodies to act in harmony with that hope instead of short-circuiting it with fear.
Hope isn't a naive, feel-good fantasy approach to life. It's central to using our brain structure to facilitate positive, profound life transformation. We do need fear, too. We need to feel fear to keep us from dangerous situations - we need the fight or flight response for survival. But we can't live there - we end up destroying our systems if we do. So we must "bulk up" hope. We must choose to imagine what we truly want our lives to become. We must spend time directing our attention to that picture. We must allow our emotional, rational, physiological systems to mobilize us toward that preferred future.
No wonder many of the sacred scriptures of the great faith traditions talk about hope and setting our minds and hearts on the object of our hope. "Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see." (Hebrews 11:1) Confidence. Assurance. And the rest of that chapter describes how those qualities lead to dramatic and transforming action. Maintaining that kind of hope is what empowers us to take necessary steps to bring it into reality.
It's significant that all the families of the 33 trapped Chilean miners are staying on the mining site in a tent village that they're calling Camp Hope. They are choosing to stay focused and to embrace hope. Like Elizabeth Segovia, the wife of one of the trapped miners (reported by CNN). The day before the tragic mine collapse, she received a piece of great news - she was pregnant with a girl - an ultrasound had confirmed it. The next day, her world collapsed. She cried and cried. As the weeks went by, she found herself talking to her baby girl inside her, "Daddy's okay? Daddy's okay! It's going to be alright!"
Last Thursday, Segovia got a handwritten letter from her husband Ticona proposing they name their daughter Esperanza Elizabeth -- esperanza is Spanish for hope. "First, because we never lost hope," she said, and "second, because it's the name of the camp where the families are living; and third, because the 33 miners never lost hope either."
With her daughter due to arrive in less than two weeks, and her husband due to arrive in perhaps four months, Segovia plans to make a video of the birth to ensure he doesn't miss it altogether. "We have to record the birth in great detail, as well as everything that happens to my baby day by day so we can show him," she said.
What do you need to hope for in your life? What is your preferred future? What do you need to hang on to in order to stimulate your brain center into powerful action? Where are you most fearful? Is your fear paralyzing you? Can renewed hope in you create new facts to bolster that hope and bring transformation? Esperanza. Hope. Best to hang on to it!
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Have you ever said or done something that the moment you let it out you wished you could take it back? A lot of us live with a lot of regret along this line ... because you simply can't take back things you've said or done that might have been hurtful or disrespectful to others. And our human tendency is to react quickly when our egos are threatened. So many of us do it regularly, in fact, that Google has added a feature to Gmail called "Undo Send." Once you hit "Send" Gmail holds the email for five seconds, during which time you can stop the email from going out.
Wouldn't it be great if in the rest of our lives we had the option to simply hit an "Undo Send" button? Unfortunately, once we've spoken the word or committed the act, it can't be retrieved. Our words or actions hang out there creating consequences that can't be erased or undone.
But perhaps there's another 5 Second option that might prevent the words or behaviors in the first place. The key, in real time, is to avoid the unproductive "Send" in the first place. What would happen if we tried using the 5 second option before we hit Send?
Effective and healthy spirituality is about paying more attention to the way we are present in the world, learning how to live with greater awareness and compassion. Which makes this 5 Second Option a potentially deeply spiritual practice.
Here's how it works. Peter Bregman, the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, spoke to a friend of his (Joshua Gordon, a Neuroscientist and Assistant Professor at Columbia University) about this issue of why it's so natural for us to react negatively to a person or circumstance that threatens our egos. And is there anything we can do about it?
Dr Gordon pointed out : "There are direct pathways from sensory stimuli into the amygdala. The amygdala is the emotional response center of the brain," he explained. "When something unsettling happens in the outside world, it immediately evokes an emotion. But pure raw unadulterated emotion is not the source of your best decisions. So, how do you get beyond the emotion to rational thought? It turns out while there's a war going on between you and someone else, there's another war going on, in your brain, between you and yourself. And that quiet little battle is your prefrontal cortex trying to subdue your amygdala. Think of the amygdala as the little red person in your head with the pitchfork saying 'I say we clobber the guy!' and think of the prefrontal cortex as the little person dressed in white saying 'Uhm, maybe it's not such a great idea to yell back. I mean, he is your client after all.' The key is cognitive control of the amygdyla by the prefrontal cortex."
So Bregman asked him how we could help our prefrontal cortex win the war. Dr. Gordon paused for a minute and then answered, "If you take a breath and delay your action, you give the prefrontal cortex time to control the emotional response. Slowing down your breath has a direct calming affect on your brain."
Which begs the very practical question, how long do we have to stall? How much time does our prefrontal cortex need to overcome our amygdala?
Dr. Gordon's response: "Not long. A second or two."
Sounds like Google is onto something with its 5 second "Undo Send" option. Apparently there's significant biological / physiological / psychological (and dare I add, spiritual) reality to actually being able to overcome our immediate urge to react negatively and aggressively toward someone or something that is threatening our ego and beginning to make us want to attack back. Imagine in the moment choosing to press "pause," taking a few deep breaths for 5 seconds, and allowing the immediate emotion to drain away even just a bit, so that you can then at least begin the process of trying to respond positively and with no regret later.
Peter Bregman applied the strategy to his recent situation: "When Bob yelled at me in the hall, I took a deep breath and gave my prefrontal cortex a little time to win. I knew there was a misunderstanding and I also knew my relationship with Bob was important. So instead of yelling back, I walked over to him. It only took a few seconds. But that gave us both enough time to become reasonable. Pause. Breathe. Then act."
I don't know about you, but for me this 5 Second Option isn't as easy as it sounds! I find it extremely difficult in practice when I'm facing some deep emotional feelings being stirred up and my buttons are being pushed left and right. Maybe that's why the great spiritual traditions of the world have developed rituals and disciplines they call spiritual practices. These disciplines and behaviors that are designed to produce greater peace and calm and centeredness in the midst of life's turmoil take intense practice. Change doesn't happen over night. Transformation comes as the result of determined discipline to engage in new thinking and new behaviors.
Which also (and most importantly) means you and I need to be patient with ourselves and with others. We need to hold ourselves, including all of our mixed up and all-over-the-board reactions to life, gently. We must give ourselves compassion, too - to honor ourselves as we are with the goodness we have in us that we ultimately want to express and let out more often than we do. Maybe this self-gentleness and self-kindness would empower us to more readily hit the Undo Send button.
What would it look like in your life for you to use the 5 Second Undo Send button? How much practice do you need to make this strategy more of a natural response, your more automatic default mode? Pause. Breathe. Act. I'm going to keep practicing this one. I need it. And living with regret isn't worth it.
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We all read about it in the news last Monday. Many of us saw the video. Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, 31, a Guatemalan immigrant who went to New York City in order to help his family back home, made his living as a day laborer, and when the economy crumbled, so did his job prospects. He wound up homeless, first living in shelters and then finally on the streets. A grainy surveillance video trained on a street in Jamaica, Queens, on April 18 captured the final moments of Mr. Tale-Yax’s life: A couple argues, Mr. Tale-Yax comes to the woman’s aid, the man stabs him in the stomach and runs away.
The video has made headlines across the globe, not just for its brutality, but for the indifference it seems to convey. It shows Mr. Tale-Yax lying face down for more than an hour on a sidewalk on 144th Street, near 88th Road, his life slipping away on the pavement as dozens of people walk past him. Over an hour later, the paramedics arrive to find him lying in a pool of his blood. They pronounce him dead at the scene.
I would be curious to interview the 2 dozen or more people who walked past Hugo as he lay there on the street Monday evening. What did they notice? Anything unusual or just another New York City scene? If they did notice, what did they feel or think as they saw him? Did they immediately assume he was simply another drunk passed out on the street corner? Or they did see him as one of "those" illegal immigrants who shouldn't be here and doesn't deserve the City's help? Did they simply not know he was in any trouble? Did they perhaps naturally or even unconsciously ascribe the whole scene to a normal urban landscape - it's just the way it is here in the City? Did they notice something wrong but assume someone else would call it in to 911? Were they busily on their way to an appointment so they couldn't take the time to stop? Were they afraid to get involved (after all, here in the City even good samaritans get hurt - this story is a good example of that danger)?
Why would over 24 people walk by a hurt and dying man without even stopping? Makes you wonder, doesn't it. What might you have done?
His brother Roland refused to watch the video when he was first told a tape existed, but found he could not avoid it on the local news. He was in shock, he said, that nobody helped his brother.
"Any animal that is hurt on the street, the city or anybody walking by goes to rescue it. But in this case, he saved this woman's life, and where was the conscience of the people around him?" Rolando Tale-Yax said. "They have to realize that it could be a member of their family who is the next victim. … I just hope it doesn't happen again."
Perhaps this sad and tragic story provides some insight as to significant steps you and I can take to act more compassionately as a general life style.
One, change indifference. Contrary to popular opinion that indifference is simply at the core of who we are as humans - it's evidence of our fallen nature - original sin - so we'll sometimes say, "Oh well, it's just the way we are - we're wired for indifference" - recent research shows otherwise.
In reality, there is actually a biological basis for compassion. There is a specific part of our brain that is wired for a compassion response. Experiments with both mothers with their babies and people presented with images of victims of suffering showed similar neurological reactions. The region of the brain associated with positive emotions literally lit up. "This consistency strongly suggests that compassion isn't simply a fickle or irrational emotion, but rather an innate human response embedded into the folds of our brains," writes Dacher Keltner, PhD , a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
The good news is that an attitude of indifference can therefore be radically changed. It's not in fact who we are as humans. We don't have to shrug our shoulders in a spirit of resignation. We can do something about it.
Two, practice compassion. Recent neuroscience studies suggest that positive emotions are less heritable—that is, less determined by our DNA—than the negative emotions. Other studies indicate that the brain structures involved in positive emotions like compassion are more "plastic"—subject to changes brought about by environmental input. So, as Dr. Keltner observes, "we might think about compassion as a biologically based skill or virtue, but not one that we either have or don't have. Instead, it's a trait that we can develop in an appropriate context."
This is why all of the major religious traditions in the world see compassion as a spiritual practice. And each tradition has developed ways to practice this trait. And here again, the latest neurobiological research shows that our bodies have a built in system to facilitate this practice.
For example, helping others triggers activity in the portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. Every compassionate act causes a pleasurable physiological response. In addition, behaviors associated with compassionate love—warm smiles, friendly hand gestures, affirmative forward leans—actually produce more oxytocin in the body which is the hormone that promotes feelings of warmth and connection to others. This suggests compassion may be self-perpetuating: being compassionate causes a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate. So the more we practice acts of kindness and compassion to others, the more we are rewarded for it and the easier the skill becomes. Transformational spirituality is a practice, a discipline, a developing of ourselves into who we were designed to become.
Three, develop mindfulness. As Mr. Tale-Yax's tragic story indicates, people are often so caught up in their own lives (for whatever reasons) that they don't notice or pay attention. I've seen this in myself at times: I'm walking along the city streets often caught up in my own internal world of thoughts, planning, projections, inner conversations, trying to get some place in a hurry, that I really am missing most of what's around me. If someone would suddenly stop me and quiz me about what I had seen in the last 10 minutes, I would stutter and stammer somewhat incoherently (except about the details of my inner conversations).
One of the key spiritual practices that so many traditions suggest is mindfulness - the ability to step into the present moment - to be truly aware and conscious right now. This, too, is a skill that needs to be cultivated. Try walking somewhere and paying attention to what's around you - what do you hear, see, smell, feel? Try more meditation at home - spend time sitting and becoming more aware of your self, your heart, your body. Widen that attention to what's around you. Really notice.
Four, use empathy. Hugo's brother Roland made the painful observation that if people would simply recognize that the suffering person could be a member of their own family, they would probably respond differently - be more proactive with their compassion. He's describing the use of empathy. The power of empathy is the choice to put ourselves in other people's shoes, to enter their space for a moment, in order to try to understand what they're going through. It's often begins by asking ourselves the simple question, How would I feel - what would I want - if I were in that situation right now? But then it always goes beyond to the next question, What is that person feeling or really wanting or needing? Though our personal responses might differ from that suffering person's, research indicates that the choice to enter into empathy actually helps to motivate altruistic behavior.
Four tangible and siumple ways to overcoming indifference and stepping into compassion. I'm not completely sure how I would have responded last Monday evening had I been walking along the sidewalk where Huge Alfredo Tale-Yux lay dying. I would hope I would've at least stopped to see if he was alright. I really hope I would've also gone beyond that simple step and gotten whatever help I could for him to save his life. Imagine living in a world where people practiced compassion so often that they became really adept at it - a world where indifference was an anomaly rather than the rule. It's time to unleash the powerful biology of our lives and let our true wiring go wild. For the Hugo Alfredo's of the world.
[Please SHARE this blog with people who might be interested! Invite them to subscribe and receive every new post via email – hit the button on the right to subscribe.] There's a Zen story about an old zen master who was dying. All of the monks gathered - in a kind of restrained eagerness - around the deathbed, hoping to be chosen as the next teacher.
The master asked slowly, "Where is the gardener?"
"The gardener," the monks wondered aloud. "He is just a simple man who tends plants, and he is not even ordained."
"Yes," the master replied. "But he is the only one awake. He will be the next teacher."
Apparently there's something about working in and being present to the natural world that produces a kind of "awakeness" toward Life. The famous painter Vincent Van Gogh expressed this same reality: "All nature seems to speak ... As for me, I cannot understand why everybody does not see it or feel it; nature or God does it for everyone who has eyes and ears and a heart to understand." (The Complete Letters, 248, I, 495)
There's something spiritually stimulating about being in nature and allowing it to speak to your heart and mind and soul. There's something powerful about getting close enough to creation to hear its song and listen to its rhymes. Every major religion in the world recognizes the spirituality of nature and provides various ways to become more "awake" to the voice of the Sacred that speaks from the world all around us. It's pretty amazing what we begin to notice when we're being more mindful and aware of everything we see, hear, and feel.
I was sitting in the waiting section of the oil change garage off of the busy Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco last week. My chair was close to the garage entrance so I could see the street. I was thinking about the upcoming spiritual retreat we were taking with my Second Wind spiritual community, the retreat theme this year being on the spirituality of nature. My initial response to what I saw and felt in the midst of my very urban environment was to heave a sigh of relief knowing that it wasn't much longer until I was going to finally be out of the city into "real" nature where I could hear God's voice and feel closer to the Spirit of life. But then, as I looked outside the huge garage door and saw the cars driving past, hearing the traffic sounds, I was suddenly struck by a significant reality: I was surrounded by "nature" right there in the middle of my huge city. It wasn't just the green trees on the median of this busy boulevard, or the birds I saw flying overhead. The heart and soul of nature was also evident in the awe-inspiring creative spirit that went into the design and construction of today's modern vehicles - the intricate, micro "creation" of computer chips and boards running the cars and trucks, the impressive design of the engines propelling vehicles toward their destination, the guys changing the oil in my car, running back and forth, using their appendages skillfully to service my amazingly constructed automobile (even though I kind of hate my old car these days and wish I could get a nicer new one). Even the sounds that we so much associate with "anti-nature" (car horns, exhaust pipes from loud buses and trucks, traffic, construction sites, loud voices) are in fact the sounds of life, all of which involve the divine spirit of creativity, artistry, invention, passion, desire for the best in life). And when that perspective hit me, I became aware of "nature" in the middle of my city in new ways that led to a deeper appreciation of God's Spirit all around me. I had a very meaningful spiritual epiphany right there on busy Van Ness Avenue - I encountered the God of life in the sanctuary of Jiffy Lube!
Living with our "eyes" more open wherever we find ourselves, suggest the spiritual sages of all time, produces a deeper experience of life and an increased connection with God. Nature is where life is; and life is everywhere. I do realize, in addition, that being in environments that are more silent and quiet and environmentally natural is extremely conducive to spiritual depth and connection, as well. But it's amazing how often even when we're in those settings we simply don't see or hear the Sacred Spirit of life very deeply - we're too busy "doing" instead of simply "being" attentive. Intentional mindfulness helps make the connection.
The Hebrew poets in Scripture manifested this intentionality with nature so profoundly in describing their experience of God. Their poetic similes and metaphors were filled with an environmental awareness that opened their hearts to the Divine Creator. One pointed to the other. God was both in His creation and the Master of Creation. Looking at one was like looking at the other. They facilitated experience, one with the other. Notice this example:
"O my soul, bless God! God, my God, how great you are! beautifully, gloriously robed, Dressed up in sunshine, and all heaven stretched out for your tent. You built your palace on the ocean deeps, made a chariot out of clouds and took off on wind-wings. You commandeered winds as messengers, appointed fire and flame as ambassadors. You set earth on a firm foundation so that nothing can shake it, ever ... What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, made earth overflow with your wonderful creations ... The glory of God-let it last forever! Let God enjoy his creation!" (Psalm 104)
There is a profound spirituality associated with nature that is accessed by developing a greater mindfulness or awakeness or awareness of what you're seeing and experiencing. That's why, at Second Wind, we value the natural world and desire to enjoy it, honor it, respect it, care for it, and share it often. And we also value the city we live in as a place where God's breath blows and moves and stirs up life, too. As urban dwellers, we're learning to feel the divine breath energize us and bring us to life in the middle of our urban "forests," where the voice of God sings to our souls the music of life.
This last weekend, on our Second Wind retreat, our closing "ceremony" was to write a collective psalm of praise to God, each one of us writing two lines describing our personal experience of the weekend, and then putting them all together into one song. After taking a few minutes to compose our two lines, we stood in a circle and read our lines in one complete collective psalm. I'm telling you, it was a profound experience for me as I listened to the richly diverse and meaningful ways everyone had encountered God and experienced the depth of life through the retreat time, described in some wonderfully poetic tones. Our intentional experiences of heightened awareness and awakeness, including times for reflection upon and observation of those experiences, revealed a significant spiritual epiphany for all of us. The power of keeping our eyes, ears, hearts, spirits, and bodies open to Life!
As Van Gogh once said, "Oh! My dear comrades, let us crazy ones have delight in our eyesight in spite of everything - yes, let's!"
[If you're here at this Blog for the first time, click back and read Part 1 of this topic: "Can Holiness Invade Your Office and Your Kitchen?" It will fill out this post more meaningfully.] As I noted in my last blog post (see "Can Holiness Invade Your Office and Your Kitchen? Part 1"), Dr. Susan Smalley, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, talks about the importance of developing a pervasive spirituality, where the sacred is seen and experienced as inherent to daily life. She has discovered that this kind of spirituality has great impact on minimizing individual self-centeredness and increasing a deeper sense of personal well-being and compassion for others.
I love the way Brian McLaren, in his book Finding Our Way Again, describes the process of developing a pervasive spirituality. He says that rather than simply trying so hard to practice our faith (which ends up only adding to our already over-filled To Do lists), we could be “Faithing our practices” - "embuing our normal [everyday] practices with meaning derived from faith.” It's about learning how to see Holiness in every part of our ordinary days.
The Jews do this with what they call "the blessing." By giving a blessing for everything they encounter during the day, they are reminded of the sacredness of all of life because a Blessing isn't something that embues what is being blessed with goodness or God's presence. A blessing is simply a tangible, intentional act of acknowledging the inherent Sacredness and Goodness in those things as gifts from God. “The purpose of the ancient way and the ancient practices is not to make us more religious. It is to make us more alive to God ... alive to [God’s whole world].” (McLaren)
The Hebrews in scripture also built altars of remembrances out of stones at places where they encountered the Sacred and Divine in meaningful ways. Why put ordinary rocks on top of each other on the side of busy thoroughfares and even in out of the way places? The point was that every time they saw them they could be reminded of God's activity in their lives. They could tell each other the story of their encounter with God and remember that life is sacred and blessed. Stone altars to help holiness pervade ordinary life.
I wear a ring that has a cross on it on the middle finger of my right hand. It was a gift from my wife. It's there as a constant reminder of my calling and life purpose. Throughout the day, I'll feel it and look down and notice the cross and remember: I am loved; I have a divine purpose; my life is a calling to live for God. It's amazing how that thought, generated by a tangible symbol, suddenly transforms that moment into a sacred moment, a divine encounter, an embracing of God's continuing and pervasive presence in my life.
Last Saturday, at my Second Wind spiritual community, in the middle of our discussion on this topic, we engaged in what is called prayerwalking. We all went outside and individually walked around the neighborhood community with the goal of intentionally noticing what captured our attention. We were to do several things: 1) What did we notice? 2) Offer a blessing on it. 3) Consider how it reflected God to us? How was the Sacred revealed to us through it? And 4) pause and be in the moment. Then when we all returned to the room, we tried to capture our experience by jotting thoughts/reflections on paper, staying silent, staying in that Sacred Space.
When we debriefed the experience, it was astounding how much all of us described paying attention to life around us in new and meaningful ways. There was a sense of sacredness we expressed feeling as we each walked around the blocks in such an intentional frame of mind. The activity reminded us how something as simple as walking around with a different intention (an open, more "enlightened," purposeful mind) could contribute to a more meaningful spiritual experience and a greater receptiveness to life around us. When you begin seeing all of life as sacred and spiritual, you look at it all very differently.
What symbols, reminders, tangible ways do you have to remember the Sacred and the Divine all through your day? How are you decompartmentalizing your spirituality so that all of life is experienced as holy and sacred and thus more meaningful and purposeful?
I love the way Carrie Newcomer describes this in one of her songs, "Holy As A Day Is Spent":
holy is the dish and the drain the soap and sink, and the cup and plate and the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile showerheads and good dry towels and frying eggs sound like psalms with bits of salt measured in my palm it’s all a part of a sacrament as holy as a day is spent
holy is the busy street and cars that boom with passion’s beat and the check out girl, counting change and the hands that shook my hands today and hymns of geese fly overhead and spread their wings like their parents did blessed by the dog, that runs in her sleep to chase some wild and elusive thing holy is the familiar room and quiet moments in the afternoon and folding sheets like folding hands to pray as only laundry can i’m letting go of all my fear like autumn leaves made of earth and air for the summer came and the summer went as holy as a day is spent
holy is the place i stand to give whatever small good i can and the empty page, and the open book redemption everywhere i look unknowingly we slow our pace in the shade of unexpected grace and with grateful smiles and sad lament as holy as a day is spent
and morning light sings “providence” as holy as a day is spent
Perhaps every day life could be filled with a deeper sense of well-being and meaning if we intentionally saw the holiness in all of it? Maybe we could close the HPI (Happy Planet Index) gap here in the States if we allowed our spirituality to pervade all of life, including our offices, our kitchens, and even the baby's play pen? Want to join me in experimenting with this?
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I read recently about a person who discovered that he should drink 16 glasses of water a day. The next morning he brought to his office a large pitcher filled with water. Throughout the day that pitcher on his desk frequently reminded him of his need, and he'd pour another glass and drink. Overall, it was a positive experience—other than having to go to the bathroom 27 times in a period of eight hours. Remaining hydrated, he learned from that experience, requires intentionality. He had to stop periodically in the midst of his busyness, become aware of his body's need for liquid, and take a few moments to drink a glass of water. It was amazing how helpful having that pitcher of water in front of him all day was to his intention of drinking more water. Intentionality is a huge piece of what makes people effective and successful - setting intentions and then determining a specific course of action to accomplish those intentions. It applies to every area of life, right? We intentionalize what we desire, what we can and what we have control over, and then hold it all with an open hand, recognizing that sometimes the best things that happen do happen as surprises. However, intentionality is an important value. And what helps our intentions become reality are the tangible reminders we put in front of ourselves regularly of what we're trying and wanting to do - finding ways to integrate our intentions with the rest of our lives.
Dr. Susan Smalley, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, posted an article in the Huffington Post last week in which she tries to understand some of the reasons India ranks so much higher than the United States on the Happiness Index (especially considering the comparative massive economic disparity and rampant poverty in India). The Happy Planet Index (whose most recent compilation came out in July 2009) strips the view of the economy back to its absolute basics: what we put in (resources), and what comes out (human lives of different length and happiness). Its the first ever index "to combine environmental impact with well-being to measure the environmental efficiency with which country by country, people live sustainable, long and happy/meaningful lives." That's the way they define it. The resulting global index of the 143 nations reveals some interesting comparisons.
So after just returning from her first trip to India, she reflects on her experience of its culture and posits a significant observation. First of all, she defines spirituality as "a sense of connection to something larger than oneself." And then, recognizing recent research that shows that spirituality positively impacts health and well-being, she describes her experience in India:
"In India this attention to spirituality is pervasive. It is evident in every aspect of the culture - there is constant integration of reminders that we are part of something larger than the self ... in the shrines present on every street corner, sides of houses, roadside stops, hilltops, alleyways, back of tractor trailers, and beyond. Shrines are big, small, colorful, bland, dedicated to Shiva, Ganesh, Hanuman, or thousands of other manifestations of our shared nature, to Hindus the manifestations of a Oneness or God or an Ultimate Reality. It is evident in the pervasive Namaste - a greeting with hand folded in a prayer position accompanied by a bow that means something like 'I see the Oneness in you.' It is evident in the pervasive 'bindi,' the smudge of color between the eyebrow - a reminder that we are part of something larger than the self - visible by a 'third eye' if you will … I am so impressed with the complete integration of spiritual development into daily life. Being surrounded by constant reminders of our connectedness and dependent nature make emotions and actions stemming from self-centeredness more difficult to come by."
In contrast here in the West, we tend to compartmentalize our time for spiritual practice if we engage in any at all - once a week in spiritual gatherings, or a specific meditation time each day, or at religious Holidays, or prayer at meals. Other than these moments, the rest of our lives is rarely surrounded by spiritual reminders or awareness. Our passion to separate Church from State, our carefulness to maintain distinction and distance between the spiritual and the secular, has led to an overly heightened sense of individuality and independence and self-importance. Our worldviews have gradually narrowed through the decades from cosmos to planet to nation to city to neighborhood to self, with whatever happening to self carrying the ultimate significance and importance.
This reality, suggests Dr. Smalley, helps to explain some of the difference between India and the U.S. on the Happiness Index - it's about how pervasive spirituality is in everyday life.
The point is, the journey of spirituality (and a corresponding sense of well-being and happiness) don't simply happen by chance. It takes intentionality and thought and discipline. It takes structuring our lives around tangible reminders of our connection "to something larger than ourselves." It takes decompartmentalizing our lives and integrating spirituality into the flow of daily existence. It means allowing the divine to incarnate itself into the fiber and fabric of our lives. It means engaging in specific activities, tangible reminders, intentional words, visual - auditory - kinesthetic experiences.
So what would it look like to make spirituality a way of life for me? What intentional ways do I build into my day to be reminded of transcendence? How intentional are I about living life deeply and with greater awareness and enlightenment?
STAY TUNED TO PART 2: What are some tangible ways to facilitate a more pervasive spirituality?
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