Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Springtime Reflection

Each day I take a short walk from my office at work.  There is a green residential neighborhood behind my office building, and I routinely do a similar route.  I walk past a community garden, across from an elementary school, down a quiet street and back.  At the moment, it is providing joyful evidence of the presence of spring.  Near the far end of the walk is a bush, that for the last week has been leaved in the most vibrant shade of yellow I've ever seen.

I use these walks for contemplation.  My intention is typically to slow down and observe, but more often than not I crank through thought at an astonishing pace.  Occasionally I remind myself to notice my surroundings and to pay attention.  The magnificent yellow bush, for the last week, has served as a potent environmental cue to tune in.  For the few paces in which I pass by, I am aware of only the spendid yellow leaves.

I am accustomed to setting my own pace.  If I want to go fast, I go fast.  This is most of the time.  When I have the discipline and inclination, I slow down.  This is far rarer. 

As I reached the parking lot for my office today, by the back entrance were an elderly couple.  I share an office complex with numerous medical providers, including a physical therapist's office.  The man was clearly a patient there.  His gait was slow and halting.  He could only step forward with his right foot, then wait for his left to catch up. 

His wife stood by, with her hands in her jacket pocket.  Although I could see in her face and her posture an intense desire to help, she stood by, refusing to age for her partner.  She could have taken his arm, she could have been his left leg.  At the pace they were going, it probably took five minutes to walk the thirty feet to their car, a distance I covered in fifteen strides and a few seconds.

I was reminded of an interview I heard on Fresh Air a few years ago with Dr. Ellen Langer, a Harvand psychologist and aging research.  The gist of the interview, as I remember it from long ago, was that aging is heavily influenced by our attitudes about it and the habitual behaviors in which we engage.  If his wife had indicated to him that he needed to be helped, and if he would have acquiesced to his limitation, he likely would age much more quickly.  Her patient presence and hands-off support allowed him to continue to grow and develop.

Hope and possibility aren't states of mind or fleeting feelings, they are actions.  Sometimes they don't come cheap.  They may require slowing down, paying attention and accepting things as they are.  Within that presence of mind lies the possibility for things we don't know- or at least chance to experience a moment in this world.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Gut Check

So much for that Tues/Friday blogging schedule, eh?

I'm still committed to it, despite the fact that some nasty gut bacteria and/or pesticide invaded my intestines over the last week.  Not to over-share any details, as I'm sure you can imagine what "gut parasite" might amount to, but suffice it to say I've had a heavy dose of suffering, and of uncertainty.

Yesterday, after a few days of intestinal misery, I started to falter emotionally.  The question of WHAT THE HELL! could possibly be wrong with me began to loom very large, and I managed to think myself into some pretty dark places.  I lost any real sense of perspective, and devolved into incredibly implausible worst-case scenarios that ended in pain, suffering and death.

I'm generally not a hypochondriac, but five days on a toilet will do that to a guy.

As I have mentioned before, I'm a father of two.  And in the midst of my perspective-less sufferfest, I was filled with a nearly unbearable sadness as I held them.  I couldn't imagine not being there for them, to not be able to support them and love them through their growth and development into full-fledged adult humans.  I was in a hole, because the more I tried to convince myself that of course I am being rediculous and overreacting, the more I was confronted with the reality that of course I am not in any way guaranteed to see them into adulthood.  That simply is not how life works.  So the sadness, although triggered by a physical health problem that is likely fleeting and not dangerous (I'm feeling much better, thanks), touched into the real, non-negotiable pain of being human, and being finite.

At any rate, coming face to face with your own mortality is a pretty sobering experience.  And, while painful, when the smoke began to clear last night, I was able to note a few interesting insights.

Of greatest interest was a strong experience of the following sentiment: It is not about me.

The sadness I felt wasn't about my fear of being no longer a part of the world.  It was most poignantly about not being there for my boys.  It was about their experience of having or not having a father, not about my experience of being a father.

This makes a tremendous difference.  Being a good dad is not important as an identity, or as some sort of moral or ethical imperative.  Because I dearly love my children, I behave in ways that are consistent with their needs.  Now, the result of this is that I think that I am, in fact, an excellent father to my boys.  It brings to mind a passage from Mary Oliver's poem, Wild Geese:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
      for a thousand miles, repenting
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
     Love what it loves
Loving comes first, being good follows.

I also reflected on other areas of my life in which I don't feel nearly the sense of clarity that I do around parenting.  My livelihood immediately sprung to mind.

I don't have the sort of clarity in my work life that I do at home.  I am interested in a great many things, and have engaged with my work deeply and with commitment.  But at the end of the day, I can't honestly say I can answer the million dollar question regarding my professional life:
What do you wish for your life to be about?
I find that there are lots of things I care about; helping people realize their path, the environment, health.  But too often I find myself trying to be good at things, about trying to leave my mark, making my contribution.

I'm right there in the middle.

I could take a page from my parenting playbook here, and recognize this essential truth:
It isn't about me.
I have my moments: when I am doing a group, coaching or counseling, I dissolve into the background a bit.  But other aspects of my work seem stickier, and trying to create the overall arc of my career seems especially frought with ego-bound rigidity.  This blog, in keeping with my initial commitments to openness, will be a place in which I explore how to get out of my own way and allow for my contribution to emerge, rather that fit myself into an idea about how a "good" professional should behave. 

I hope you can learn a bit about your journey and your own stuck points as we go.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Things I'm likely to blog about

I'm going to post about a lot of different things here.

The breadth of topics here is a reflection of my approach to living and to my role as a helping professional: eclectic in form but philosophically consistent.  I have a perspective on things, and by revealing this perspective in myraid forms, my hope is that I can clarify for my readers the way in which I see the world. 

In order for this to be of value, I commit to being open and honest in my communication here.  I don't want to try to be too clever or too impressive, or to present myself in an overly-polished manner.  This seems to be a significant pitfall in the world of blogs and social media, in which we are a curator of our own self-referential content. 

So I'll share my perspective and my knowledge.  I'll also try to share my vulnerabilities and foibles.  Because the last thing the world needs is a blog by some together know-it-all with all the answers, promising just THE thing that YOU need to make all of your obstacles and difficulties vanish into thin air.

The general overview, then, of the blog could be summarized as this: Things I love, the ways in which I keep myself separate from them, and how I (and you) can learn to better embrace the things in life worth embracing, even when my mind (and yours) get in our own way.

An incomplete list of likely topics:
Navigating change, psychological flexibility, behaviorism, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Relational Frame Theory, psychological science, the practice of coaching and/or psychotherapy.

Fatherhood, masculinity, relationships, commitment

Fly fishing, hiking, snowboarding, or any manner of outdoors activities, and the impact of nature on our own sense of well-being

Ecology and the Environment

Food and farming, the good food movement, health and wellness

Mindfulness, meditation, world wisdom traditions


More as they strike me!

And I may start adding a regular photo feature at some point.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fathering with Flexibility

A goal I have for this blog is to share, honestly and with openness, the knowledge and experience I've gained as a student and professional in the general arena of behavior change with my own lived experience as a human being, struggling with the painful and often confusing task of striving to live a purposeful life.

The content of the blog will be quite diverse, but this thread will weave it's way into the vast majority of my posts.

So, a topic that is relevant in the highest possible regard to both change and to my lived experience of change is my role as a father. I've got two boys, three and a half and nine months of age. They are, as you might expect, the apples of my eyes.

New fatherhood is a crash course in learning to navigate change. Because, quite simply, it changes everything. It is also a really sharp opportunity to highlight an important component of successful adaptation to changing life conditions: psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility refers to the ability to adjust your behavior to effectively meet the demands of your environment while maintaining fidelity to your value system.

In other words, you are able to focus on and do what matters to you in the midst of constantly changing life circumstances. I could not imagine a quality more useful for new fathers.

It is easy; in fact it is for many of us the default setting, to try to live our lives by trying to hold on to something solid, a foundation that we can adhere tightly to. These often manifest as principles, or sacred truths that we grip tightly with resolution and determination. The problem is, it is maddeningly difficult to find something solid to hold on to in this life.

Let's use the topic at hand as an example. I could easily point to my children as the quintessetial example of what is important to me. Still, while I can, at this point, hold on to them, I won't be able to forever. The way in which I express my love to them has already changed, and will continue to change over the course of our lives- at least it had better.

What would happen if I continued to show Quinn my love for him when he is 17 in the same manner that I do now? My guess is nothing good.

This is pretty obvious, but it gets tricky. What happens when what actually occurs in our lives deviates from what is supposed to happen? When we have a notion of what things should be or an idea of how things should go, are we quick to let go and adapt to changing circumstances? In general, I would propose that most of us are actually fairly terrible at doing this, myself most emphatically included.

Psychological flexibility is born from contact with reality as it exists, right now. As such, it is often undermined by our own attempts to define what "should" be, or to relate to what is in front of us based not on the facts of the situation, but on our interpretation of those facts as filtered through our belief systems, expectations, and life experiences.

If I don't have room for flexibility, I don't have room for my kids to become who they are. If my role, or set expectation, is to do x, my kids require y and I don't adapt, I'll fail to meet their needs. Often I find myself locked into this pattern, and the results are generally not what I'd like them to be.

There are also times when I am willing to put aside my preconcieved ideas about what I am supposed to do and about how my kids are supposed to behave. During those times I listen more closely, behave more compassionately, and react with greater nimbleness. It is spontaneous, and I often feel like I am traveling without a map. When I'm willing to do this, I have found a deep and resonant feeling of satisfaction, the kind of richness that tends to come with doing my best at something that is vitally important to me.

Frying Pan?

What is with the title of the blog?

To answer a question with a question: what does Frying Pan evoke for you? For me, the following each participate in relational frames with Frying Pan:
  • The greatest trout stream in Colorado, nay, in the US (The Frying Pan river in the Roaring Fork valley)
  • Cooking over a campfire
  • Smoky bacon grease (apologies to my vegetarian readers
  • Sunsets
  • Family
  • Fatherhood
  • Childhood
  • Masculinity

Of course, I could go on. I'm not sure what Frying Pan evokes for you, but the power of words to evoke conditioned associations is something I find fascinating and important. For me, Frying Pan is a positively joyful verbal stimulus, which is why I named the blog The Frying Pan.

To make a larger point, though: it isn't guaranteed that it will remain that way. Of course, every time I cook a meal over an open flame in my cast-iron Lodge I will reinforce this association. Even now, thinking about the smells, sights and relationships coordinated with this word warms me a bit. On the other hand, I could imagine a scenario in which this association were to become painful. Perhaps I, or someone I love were to be attacked by a madman with a frying pan. Suddenly, a previously cherished symbol would become toxic and painful. Perhaps I'd want to rename the blog. After doing so, it's possible that the very act of blogging would bring to mind this post, and I'd experience sadness as a result. Perhaps I stop blogging so as to avoid the unpleasantness of my memories.

Our experience is composed of an unfolding process of associating arbitrary thoughts with one another. By arbitrary, I mean things that are not inherently related (frying pan and fatherhood).

What am I talking about? And why? Hopefully this is a small demonstration about how painful memories, thoughts, or sensations can integrate themselves so insidiously into our current experience of life. This process of relating takes place completely independently of our actual experience in the world. For instance; let's say I take an important test to qualify for professional liscensure. Perhaps I haven't been a particularly strong test taker, and I associate test taking with failure. Somehow, though, I manage to do well. One would think that I would feel excited, proud or confident. And maybe I do...but in the background comes an associated though..."well, you did well on a test once in graduate school too, but the next semester you failed miserably." Suddenly, instead of being sensitive to what has happened in the world (passed! yay!) I doubt my own ability to succeed in the future.

All of this is point towards the inherent unreliability of our own mind, in certain contexts. Certainly, if you are reading this, your mind works well at at least some things, like reading and navigating a computer; probably countless others as well.

But now consider an area in your life in which you have a considerable amount of difficulty. Perhaps with food, or with disciplining a child effectively, or getting off the internet (wink) and getting your work done (don't leave yet). How reliable has your mind tended to be in this circumstance?

There's a line from an old Steve Earle song, Devil's Right Hand:

It'll get you into trouble, but it cain't get ya out

Now, Steve's referring to a cap and ball Colt pistol, but he could just as easily be referring to his own mind. And if you know anything about this incredible singer/songwriter, you'll know that his mind has gotten him in a fair amount of trouble.

I'm sure he's not alone. I'm certainly there more often than I'd like. So now what?

This blog is largely going to be about the conundrum of living with a blessed, cursed mind and trying to find a bit of wisdom in the space between.

Stay tuned.

Blog Rules, pt. 1

It's my blog, so I'm going to set some rules for myself, so you can get an idea of what to expect.

-->No stock photos. Really, why put up images that add nothing? I will, however, use photos that have been taken by my wife. Because she's great at taking pictures.

-->No blatant SEO pandering. If my writing isn't interesting enough, then so be it.

-->Regular posting. Two substantive posts per week, by Tuesday and Friday. I may be early but I won't be late. Supplemental posts will happen as I am moved to do so.

-->A regular feature. I don't know what this will be yet. A song of the week relevant to the theme of this blog? A photo feature? A joke? I don't know, I'm going to have to think a bit more.

-->No spelling or grammatical errors. I am a blogger, not an idiot. But also human, so this is certain to be broken. It's an aspiration.

-->There will be cursing. I don't plan on lots of fuck-filled rants, but now that I have kids, swearing has been exorcised from nearly all aspects of my life. I like swearing, and this blog will not be a place in which I whitewash my sometimes irreverent manner of communication.

-->I may at times contradict myself. That is because 1) sometimes I make errors and 2) when writing about the human experience, behavior and the mind, sometimes contradictory things are both true.

I'll make more as I perceive the need.


On to a topic I'll spend a great deal of time on over the course of this blog: mindfulness. Mindfulness is trendy these days, and amongst those who are in the business of helping people make changes in their lives, it is really trendy. This is for good reason. It is a highly effective strategy for helping humans navigate the often painful and difficult process of living.

I teach mindfulness at the wellness center at which I work, and have for a few years. I've also practiced, on and off, for the past decade. I want to be clear, though: I don't consider myself an expert, and am certainly not particularly "good" at mindfulness. I do, however, find the practice to be highly beneficial and have found it to be of help to many of the folks I've worked with.

One of the first things I do with almost anyone who is new to the practice is dispel myths. The degree to which mindfulness meditation has infiltrated public awareness is, in my mind, a very good thing; but is not without pitfalls. I think, to a degree, popular understanding of the practice reflects an underlying cultural theme; that of pursuing good feelings and pleasure.

From a meditative perspective, there is nothing inherently wrong with pleasure and feeling good, the Buddha famously rejected asceticism in favor of the "Middle Way". Pleasure seeking is the other half of the pleasure/renunciation dialectic, though, and the Buddha was certain to steer clear of that as well. We are left neither pursuing nor rejecting pleasure, pursuing nor rejecting pain. The feelings and thoughts, or content of our experience are far less important than our attachment to them.

In other words, the purpose of mindfulness meditation explicitly is not to relax, feel better, be at peace(!?), think positively or cultivate a feeling of being in control. It's not particularly mystical, either.

So, what is it for then, and why bother?

Good question, and I'll discuss that in a subsequent post!