Family politics

My brother Jim is a smart guy and like everyone else in my family a news junkie with very strong opinions that he likes to share. Adjectives that describe this sharing might include adamant, insistent, emphatic, and loud. His style of sharing didn’t bother me until our political views started to diverge. A lot.

Initially, I was so surprised by that I either avoided the subject like the plague or said, “Uh huh, uh huh” until he ran out of gas. But inside, I felt awful for stifling myself and creating a feeling of distance between us. Then during a summer visit we were alone in his car when he started talking about politics and I found myself using the listening strategies I used to teach. Specifically, I listened to understand rather than to refute.

This was pretty helpful because it allowed me to respond in a way that affirmed him as a person without agreeing with what he was saying. I don’t agree with his point of view, but after listening to him I could honestly say I understood how he’d arrived at it. This was so much better than saying, “Uh huh, uh huh,” while thinking he was full of crap.

Another time, we were on the phone when he got going and a voice inside me said, “Go for it.” I matched him point for point. The conversation grew heated at times because political views emerge from our lived experience, our sense of how the social world impinges on and limits our lives. I heard us both identify core beliefs that have become core differences between us. In that sense there was nothing lighthearted about our exchange. I was tired at the end of it but also exhilarated. I don’t have a lot of conversations about politics with people who disagree with me and I enjoyed the mental workout. I suspect he’s in the same boat. Very few people in his life engage with him in these conversations probably because his passion often sounds like fury and overwhelms them.

Last week he sent me a youtube video, describing it as a “good history lesson.” Reasonably confident that I would not see it the same way my first impulse was to ignore it. Then I reconsidered because he matters to me. I watched it and sure enough I found the speaker’s point of view utterly ridiculous. Now what? I wrote him a message telling him my thoughts about the speaker’s argument but I’m not going to send it. What I realize is that I’m willing to engage him, my flesh and blood brother, but I’m not willing to create an exchange where we use other people’s words in an effort to educate and persuade each other. I know that if I do that, I will spend an enormous amount of mental energy arguing with him and his surrogates and that’s not acceptable to me. I’m comfortable with this boundary.

When I can do no more than listen, I listen to understand. When I have the energy to debate, I go for it. Above all, I keep my desire for an authentic relationship with him in the foreground and view him with non-judging awareness so that whatever form my engagement takes, it does not include trying to change him.

My life as a weight bearing activity

A few mornings a week I get up, drink a cup of coffee, and watch a PBS program that claims to help us age backwards. The host who may be 90 but looks 50 takes viewers through a full-body workout in 22 minutes. She often tells us, as we lunge and squat, that we don’t need to use weights because the body itself is a weight. Sister, have you given me an apt metaphor! Although I’m not thin, the heaviest weights I carry are not physical but are the stories of the past that I bring to bear on the present.

The other day my partner came home from the gym at about 7 a.m. and said, “I can’t dawdle, I’ve got to get to work.” Immediately I felt tense, rattled, and rushed as I engaged in a very heated interior monologue about how her failure to prepare did not constitute an emergency for me. As I continued making breakfast I also thought about how much I didn’t want to feel mad at her. That gave me enough of a pause to put some distance between myself and my thoughts and feelings. When my partner came into the kitchen I was calmer and said, “Are you mad at me?” She looked deeply confused and said no. I said, “So when you said that you couldn’t dawdle, you were really talking to yourself not me.” She nodded.

My alternate title for this post was, “If only you would . . .” as in, “If only you would change seven or maybe twelve things about your interactions with me, then I could be happy and I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.” In this situation, “If only you would be more careful in your speech.” Why? Because I don’t just hear her say she’s rushing, I hear her say, “I’m rushing and you’re being too slow and if I’m late it will be your fault.” My impulse then is to blame her for my unhappiness. After I am the person to whom she appeared to be speaking. But I’m no longer satisfied with that conclusion.

As I reflected on the tension, anxiety, and anger I’d felt I had a little flashback. When I was a kid, my mom was often rushed in the mornings and her behavior looked and felt like anger toward me. It scared me. I tried to be perfect and faultless so that I wouldn’t make her angrier. As an adult, I know she wasn’t angry. She was stressed and overwhelmed.

My partner is not perfect (even she would admit that!). But neither is she the cause of either my happiness or unhappiness. She could change all of the things I think stand between me and a stress-free existence and it won’t make any difference if I continue to weigh our present down with my past.

The only moment I have

Here in the middle of the Midwest it is neither winter nor spring. The days are a little longer and tiny green shoots are scattered throughout our garden beds, and as the temperature rises my shoulders start to loosen after weeks of hunching against the cold. But it isn’t all mild days and flowers rising. The sky is often overcast, sunny days feature biting winds, and those tender green shoots are probably going to get buried under several inches of snow before the month is over.

Although I’m a native Midwesterner, it was the 15 years I spent in Minnesota that made this season of contrasts my least favorite. On a warmish day my spirits lift and I convince myself that spring has arrived. When snow falls a few days later I feel like a fool. But I’m not much of a learner on this topic so for weeks I experience this cycle of hope and disappointment. In Minnesota it lasted until May.

My mother had a friend who snarled at people who complained about hot days in July. “It’s summer isn’t it?” she’d bark at them. One hot and muggy summer I decided to take the implication of her admonishment seriously and vowed I would not complain about the heat. When I noticed my mind moving in that direction I batted the thought away. The challenge I hadn’t anticipated was how often others would complain to me about the heat. Talking about the weather is such a simple way to make contact. But it’s also a great example of routine negativity disguised as interpersonal connection. I didn’t want to snap at people or correct them so I found myself developing a host of responses that featured a big smile and something along the lines of “Oh, but we’ll miss these days come January.” Or, “Yes, but wasn’t it a glorious spring?” I was chipper enough that people didn’t appear to feel scolded as those who encountered my mom’s friend probably did. The one thing I didn’t manage to do, the thing I’m working hard on now, is simple appreciation for what is.

My challenge during these days between seasons is that a warmish day sends me hurtling into the future where the daffodils are out and the days are predictably mild. Right now, this moment, the sky is clear, the sun is urging the flowers to rise, the temperature is below freezing, and the furnace is working just fine. This moment, I remind myself, with all of its contradictions, is the only one I have.

News junkie

Even when she was struggling to get by, my mother subscribed to the morning and evening newspapers. This was back when cities the size of Columbus, Ohio supported two daily papers. When my stepfather moved in he brought us Newsweek and the Sunday edition of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I spent one summer watching the Watergate hearings and providing summaries each evening to my mother and stepfather. Family gatherings always featured political discussions that devolved into political arguments. My siblings and I, just like my mother and her siblings, were far more likely to disagree, at full volume, about politics than about who was the favorite child. During graduate school I spent a summer watching the Iran-Contra hearings in the morning (I lived on the west coast) and writing my thesis in the afternoon. My partner also has a thing about current events. She was once asked her why she doesn’t like going to the movies and she said she’s afraid she might miss a breaking news story.

My family’s deep commitment to being up-to-date with the news of the day is born of the conviction that it is our duty as citizens to understand what’s going on in the world—near and far. How can you have an informed opinion if you aren’t informed? How can you make an educated decision at the ballot box if you aren’t educated about the candidates and the issues?

When a current political crisis was mentioned at my book group recently two of the women looked at us blankly. They told us they don’t watch much news. In the past I would have, silently, accused them of burying their head in the sand, questioned their right to vote, and seen their choice as part of what’s wrong with the world. In my newly evolving capacity for non-judging awareness I heard their comment not with disdain but simple curiosity about my own behavior. What’s happening inside of me when I start the day with national news broadcasts, check my news-filled Twitter timeline throughout the day, and read the spots off the daily papers?

When I was a kid my familiarity with current events made me feel smart when my inability to diagram a sentence and manage basic algebra made me feel stupid. But I’m not a kid anymore and I’m ready to admit that when I retreat into news coverage it’s to put myself beyond my own feelings of fear, uncertainty, and worthlessness. I’m well prepared to debate most any topic but emotionally and spiritually I am out of touch with myself and with the present moment. Watching the relentless horror of mass shootings, deadly political unrest, and government corruption I feel overwhelmed by rage and utterly helpless.

Having known and loved a lot of people with an addiction, I label my behavior as that of a news junkie with care. My behavior is that of an addict in the sense that when I bury myself in the news it is in order to escape dark feelings about my own life. It is also to engage in self-defeating behavior, behavior Jonathan Foust describes as “less than wholesome.” In an excellent talk titled “From Addiction to Wise Action,” he asks listeners to identify behaviors, anything from use of substances to repetitive thought patterns, which cause us suffering. What would happen, he asks, if we take that behavior to its extreme?

In this era of the 24-hour news cycle, I imagine myself never sleeping again. I imagine having no thoughts of my own as my head becomes filled not just with facts but with the opinions of all those talking heads from across the globe who fill our new sites and airwaves and timelines. In this world, I am utterly plugged in and completely disengaged at the same time.

When Foust then asks us to imagine our lives in the absence of these unwholesome behaviors and thoughts, I don’t imagine withdrawing from the news altogether because I agree with Thomas Jefferson that, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Instead, I try to cultivate behaviors that keep me grounded in the present—starting my days with writing, physical movement, or reading that is not about current events, avoiding shouting matches that call themselves newscasts, seeking news sources that educate me about unfamiliar people and places, and taking action locally where I know I can make a difference.

Through the fog

This fog is settling in. I feel chilled to my bones as I struggle to see the road ahead. Yesterday I felt wonderful. Today, I’m ready to collapse at the first cross word or sidelong glance. I think the world is out to get me, so I set about to get it first.

As the fog swirls around me, I curse bad drivers, slow shoppers, and indecisive friends. My partner’s complaints about work, the talkers in the yoga class, the relentless bad news over which I have no power—large or small, local or global—the world is my enemy.

Lower and lower I sink beneath the fog. I try to regain my equanimity. I remind myself that when everyone else is wrong, it’s time to look inward. But my ego’s too fast for me. If I’m not going to blame the world, then I’m going to blame myself—I am impatient, and weak, and adrift.

The fog stays all day until one small decision rescues me from its gloomy clutches. I put the laundry away. I devote my mind to each item in the basket and its place in my home. Finally, as I put the fresh towels into the bathroom cupboard, a small space opens inside me. The voice of my higher consciousness reminds me that I am loved. With relief and gratitude I face the world with compassion and kindness.

The view which the mind takes

My partner and I are thinking about moving. Nothing definite yet, just the exploration stage. We’ve been here before. This would be our third move in the last 10 years. Here’s what I’m discovering about myself as this situation unfolds in a context of self-acceptance, mindfulness, and non-judging awareness: “It is the view which the mind takes of a thing which creates the sorrow that arises from it.”

Who would guess that Victorian era author Anthony Trollope was a Buddhist? I shouldn’t be surprised at his insight since his work overflows not just with minute observations about the daily activities of his characters’ lives but also the social constructs shaping them, and the sense they make of their station in life. He conveys the challenge we all face when our essential self comes up against what the world appears to expect from us. Like Trollope, I understand, more than I have before, that the view my mind takes of thing creates the sorrow that arises from it.

When I think about moving there is sorrow when I fixate on the future—where will we go, what will it be like, will I make friends? And on alternate days when I dwell in the past recalling all the things about previous moves that overwhelmed me. But practicing mindfulness has helped me distinguish between constructive planning and obsessive stewing.

Differentiating between my concerns and my partner’s can a tangled source of sorrow. We are truly in this together but in our eagerness to do right by the other person we try to do the other person’s thinking and feeling for her. For instance, I push aside my hesitation or downright dislike of a location by telling myself that if a job is a good fit for her then I can’t stand in her way, and that I can adjust to any location, and that this attitude is the very definition of being a good partner. Recently, my partner told me that if she was single she would, most likely, have already moved by now. I said, “See, I am an obstacle.” “No,” she said, “That’s not what I meant. I meant that I try to think about which locations would best suit your needs.” When she said that I felt, of course, she is the most wonderful woman in the world. But I also felt irritated because I don’t want her to decide, on my behalf, where I’ll be happy. And, yes, I do see that we are mirroring each other’s behavior. When we try to think and feel for the other person, we have frustrating, circular conversations each trying her best not to be the cause of the other person’s possible unhappiness.

Non-judging awareness and self-acceptance are critical because they allow me to observe my thoughts and feelings, not be overwhelmed by them, and not push them aside because I assume they are an obstacle to my partner’s happiness. Together, we remind each other that we will take the journey as it comes and view the journey as one filled with compassion for and trust in the other person.

(The opposite of) Stewing, Part 3

My original title for these three posts was “The 3 R’s” for rehearsing, rehashing, and revising encounters we anticipate or have already experienced. While there’s value in thinking before we speak or reviewing actions that cause suffering, when we mindlessly engage in these behaviors we trap ourselves in the past or the future and actually increase suffering. But as my client Jeremy so wisely asked, “Well, okay but then what am I supposed to do with my mind?”

It’s easy to encourage mindfulness but it’s important to notice the challenge this advice presents when engaged in routines that allow our mind (ego) to have free rein. Our lives are filled with commuting, picking up kids, standing in long lines, or sitting in waiting rooms. Other tasks, like mowing the lawn, doing laundry, or cooking meals, tasks require some but not all of our attention. Whenever we find that we are zoning out, we have the opportunity to zone in on something that improves the quality of our life. Although what we do with our mind, as an alternative to rehearsing, rehashing, and revising, is influenced by where we are, if we are alone, and how much time we have here are some suggestions and the first one can be done, in fact is done, everywhere.

Take air into your lungs and then expel it. That’s right. Breathe. There are countless breathing exercises out there that take less than two minutes, improve concentration, and calm us down. My favorite is 4-7-8 and I recommend Andrew Weil’s video demonstration at

Be willing to feel foolish. When we’re engaged in a routine task we often think its very simplicity requires us to use our great big brains to engage in some higher order activity at the same time. And while rehearsing, rehashing, and revising may be more sophisticated mental tasks than brushing my teeth they are not superior to it. When the reel-to-reel version of the past starts to play I shift my attention and concentrate on my immediate task with laser-like focus—paying particular attention to the work my body is doing, especially my hands as I wash dishes, make a bed, or rake leaves. It’s very challenging to actually think about a routine task as I’m engaged in it but it’s also surprisingly rewarding. It refreshes my mind and the 3R’s never do that. Also, there are so many more things to notice about routine tasks than our wandering minds realize. Water use, changes in the light, differences between flannel sheets and regular sheets, raking into one big pile versus several small piles. Even routine tasks can be accomplished in many different ways so thinking about the task helps us appreciate the intricate beauty of seemingly simple aspects of our lives.

Strike a bargain. If I have more time, say 45 minutes to walk or drive somewhere, my temptation is to listen to the radio or a podcast. I think that’s perfectly fine and I may stay present if I actually listen to the speaker. But have you ever turned on the news or a podcast and a few minutes later found that your mind is miles away? Listening passively is sometimes a cover for the sort of ruminating about the past or imagining the future that is a source of suffering. If you have 45 minutes and you’re a news junkie or you love podcasts, try splitting the time in half. Limit listening time, and knowing you’re going to turn it off in 22.5 minutes might help you stay attentive. For the other 22.5 minutes breathe, concentrate on the task at hand and what you’re doing with your body, and then and pay close attention to the world around you. Get so quiet and aware that you can hear the smallest sounds in your environment.

I can say with certainty that stewing has never improved the quality of my life. My goal now is to acknowledge it when it happens without wasting energy being mad at myself, acknowledge and feel my feelings without letting them overtake me, and then name what is true and real in this moment.