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I’ve learned over the years that sometimes the more enthusiasm someone expresses for something, the more likely they are to lose that enthusiasm when they get what it is they wanted. It reminds me of a dog chasing a car, catching it, and discovering that they really can’t drive the thing so what was all that fuss about.

I have seen it in taijiquan over the years, both with my teacher and with me. People say they have wanted for a long time to learn taijiquan and are eager to get going. But maybe they show up and if they do, maybe they last one or two lessons. I think there is good reason that a Chinese teacher may tell would-be students they have to show up to check in everyday for months before they will even consider taking on a person as a student. In counseling, people decide they want to change and discover change can be very difficult and takes energy, and they lose desire. Thermodynamics applies to behavior, too. Behaviors in motion tend to continue and those not happening tend to stay that way – unless a force acts upon them. When that force has to be you over time, procrastination and the status quo can be very attractive. I think of someone I knew long ago who constantly talked about a dream vacation. She went on and on about it but time went by, and that vacation never happened. The idea of something often is more desirable than the thing itself. The examples are almost endless.

There is something to that cliché that it’s the journey, not the destination. The journey can become monotonous. It’s like a Louis CK punch line – the guy spends so much time out in the yard by himself because he is just running out the clock. And telling your goal to others so you can liven up the journey makes you less likely to actually accomplish that goal. Derek Sivers explains why.

It makes me wonder a bit about treatment planning in therapy. Make the goals specific, measurable, and positive (“I will do something” versus “I will not do something” which activates that part of your brain associated with what you don’t want to do making you more likely to do it guaranteeing failure). There is an online program to help you accomplish a goal that has been around for a number of years at https://www.stickk.com/. They make it interesting by having you put your money on the outcome. Achieve your goal and an organization you support will get your donation. Don’t achieve it and an organization you don’t like gets your money. You have a referee ensuring the integrity of the outcome, and you can form a support network.

The transtheoretical model of change helps. Realize that change may not continue upwards in a straight line. People start and stop. They have set backs; they recover. Sometimes they take a break.  It may take many starts to finally continue something. And realize that the destination is not the end point. A good example is that sense of loss after completing a marathon or a degree or some other big goal. What next? Keep on the journey. Don’t retire in place. Keep moving. Daydreams are nice, but are not a place to live like Walter Mitty – unless perhaps you are just running out the clock. Life is ongoing change. Adapt and learn and be open to what comes next. But maybe don’t get overly enthusiastic about it. Remember the middle way and wu wei. Wu wei, similar to flow in western psychology, is that paradoxical Chinese concept of effortless effort or not trying. Don’t try so hard. You just make things more difficult for yourself. Relax and flow into it.

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Chiune Sugihara, his wife Yukiko and children

Chiune Sugihara, his wife Yukiko and children

A few decades ago, I attended a wedding reception on Long Island and had a conversation with a person that has stayed with me all these years. I only had that one short talk with her and don’t remember her name, but she was very engaging and quite fascinating. She was Jewish and was born in Poland. She was a young girl when Germany invaded her country and systematically began to exterminate her people. Her life was saved by the actions of a Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who provided exit visas to Jews in Poland and Lithuania. The woman and her father made their way across the Soviet Union via the Trans Siberian Railway to Japan to Canada and eventually to New York. I was fascinated by her story but the part that has stuck with me all these years was her wisdom of perspective. She said that we tend to focus on the present and forget to put things into perspective. She would catch herself complaining about the cold New York winters, but then she would remember crossing Siberia and the bitter cold. New York was not so cold after all. When I hear someone say, “this is the worst ever” or even “this is the best ever” I think of her. She saw both the worst and the best in people. And when I hear people judge others as different and as outsiders to be rejected, as we in the US did to the people on the SS St. Louis fleeing certain death, I think of the compassion and bravery of Chiune Sugihara and his family. Too few of us have their integrity.

All we have is the current moment, and how we view and live in that moment ripples through time in ways we can barely imagine.

zhuangzi

Zhuangzi

 

Many years ago, I was facilitating a group for folks who had been referred by the courts for drunk driving and had been evaluated as having a problem with alcohol. I came down to the group room early one afternoon, and one of the guys had gotten there early, too, and we just sat at the table and talked for a while before anyone else arrived. He was concerned that his son, who was about 12 years old, did not respect him as he had respected his dad. I asked him to tell me about his relationship with his son. They went fishing together, they talked, and his son could confide in him, and he could correct his son with words. What he did not do was hit his son. I asked him how did he see respect. “When I did something wrong, daddy didn’t talk, he just flailed us.” It became clear fairly quickly that what he had with his son sounded like a healthy loving relationship that included respect , but he saw respect as lacking. The relationship did not have fear in it. His son was not afraid to talk to him. As an adult, the man I was talking with was still afraid to confide in his father. He still felt fear of his father, and thought that was respect.

So what is respect? In a culture of western religion, we are taught we have a loving God, but that we should also fear that God. Politicians preach that for other countries to respect us, they must fear us. That same belief comes to permeate relationships among those in the community to those in the family and to friends.  In personal relationships, some come to believe that if they are not feared they are not respected.

How well does that work? A child cannot be honest with a parent. Western religions have the concept of original sin and being redeemed by being forgiven by the loving but feared God. Over the millennia, some believers, from various religious traditions, have chosen to kill those they deem nonbelievers in order to save them and to serve their God and spread their belief. Some mix their chosen economic system and put it into their religion, regardless of how incompatible they may be, and again hate and try to destroy those nonbelievers and  forcibly spread what they believe is truth. Nations, and individuals, may lie to each other, try to intimidate each other, and try to be at least one up on all others. Being on top means being the most feared in the hierarchy. Fear doesn’t plant the seeds of honesty very well. Fear kills honesty. For all the television and movie action stories that rely on fear and torture to get the truth, the reality is that those methods don’t work very well, and are often counterproductive. Meeting anger and hatred with anger and hatred just intensifies and increases and spreads the anger and hatred and fear. You reap what you sow in an endless feedback loop.

More and more, neuroscience focuses on the attachment style we acquire as infants and that style affects every relationship we have in life including relationships with addictive behaviors. Here is Allan Schore talking briefly about the effects of abuse and neglect on attachment.

Chinese philosophy doesn’t have the concept of original sin nor an eternal afterlife nor the need for the supernatural to save you from sin and eternal damnation. It is based in nature. The philosophers, who lived during the Warring States period, tried to teach a way that would help people treat each other decently, and the way of each philosopher was directed by their view of whether people are inherently good or evil or born with the capability for both with the outcome based on how they were raised. Confucius taught the need for ritual to be able to act and react in the right way with “de” or virtue. Mencius had us develop our “moral sprouts.” Laozi taught the need to get back to our original nature, which he felt was inherently good. Mozi taught the need to measure the utility of everything and direct behaviors based on outcomes. He also said that maybe it was better that people believe in ghosts and spirits for then they would behave better. Modern psychology does find that people tend to behave more ethically when they feel they are being watched. A poster of a drawing of eyes on the wall in a break room can increase the contributions to the honor collection for coffee. Mozi, however, never indicated that he believed in such beings.

Zhuangzi taught that no matter what path you take, you focus on the path and do your best. There are many ways to strive to get to the top of the mountain. Virtually every philosophy/religion has some version of the golden rule or categorical imperative – treat others as you would like to be treated. Love one another as you love yourself. The only life long relationship you have is with yourself, and the relationship you have with yourself affects your relationship with and attachment to others. Which gains more respect – treating yourself and others with honesty, a desire for understanding, empathy, compassion, and loving kindness, or in ways that invoke fear? How would you like to be treated? And how do you treat yourself and others?

Santa Fe 2009 298Many of the people I work with in both taijiquan and counseling have chronic pain. According to the National Health Interview Survey done by the CDC , about 25 million Americans suffer daily pain and about 54 million Americans have chronic pain. In working with pain, I use a combination of movement and mindfulness. Taijiquan and qigong can work wonders for pain relief. Each is a gentle way to get moving again and a way to attain balance in all parts of life.

There are several books I suggest to folks. First are the works of Toni Bernhard. You can read more about her at http://tonibernhard.com/. She addresses pain management from a Buddhist perspective. She has written several books on the topic and about her own coping with chronic pain. Another book is “The Pain Antidote: The Proven Program to Help You Stop Suffering from Chronic Pain, Avoid Addiction to Painkillers and Reclaim Your Life”, by Mel Pohl, MD and Katherine Ketcham. You can find out more about it at http://www.thepainantidotebook.com/index.html. Pohl helps people get off opiates and develop alternate and more effective ways of coping with pain.

Taiji and qigong work with pain by changing your relationship with gravity, changing the way you breathe, and calming your mind and body. A principle of taiji is that you only expend the energy and engage the muscles for whatever it is you are doing at that moment. Everything else is relaxed but ready. Your joints are never locked. Your spine is upright and your head rests in balance on your shoulders. If you had a plumb bob attached to the center of the top of your head and it ran down the center of your body, that plumb bob would always touch the floor somewhere between your feet as you move. Standing at rest, it would be equidistant between your ankles. Your shoulders are relaxed – neither tucked forward nor pulled back. When you change your relationship with gravity and are balanced, there is less pain because you are not tilted forward or back putting a lot of work on your neck, shoulders, and back. You also carry your body differently according to mood. Being in balance and harmony with gravity can also balance your mood.

Breathing to your diaphragm also reduces stress which can reduce pain. There is an emotional component to pain. Calming the emotions can help reduce the pain. Abdominal breathing slows the heartbeat, reduces blood pressure and blood sugar, lowers stress hormones in the blood, changes the blood flow in the body, improves digestion, and even changes your vision. You are going from fight-flee-freeze-faint mode to rest and digest mode. This is a guide to finding balance in a standing meditation.

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You can read more about the principles of taijiquan and qigong here.

You can also change your relationship with pain by changing the emotional relationship with it. Rather than fighting it, have a conversation with it. What is it trying to tell you? How does it feel? Is it hot, cold, throbbing, a dull ache? Notice it, be with it. Change your self talk with pain to change that relationship, too. Pain is not a bad thing, it is there to tell us something is wrong. Sometimes the harder we try to make it go away, the harder it works to be heard. Changing self talk can help with that as well. You change your relationship with pain.

 

Another option is humor. In 1979, Norman Cousins wrote a book called, “Anatomy of an Illness As Perceived by the Patient – Reflections on Healing and Regeneration.” I came across it back when it was published in 1979. My dad was in an intensive care unit for most of two years during that time. Cousins found that a component of his healing was humor and included things like watching Candid Camera and Marx Brothers movies. Laughter changes the hormones in your body and can bring on pain relief. Even just a smile can begin to bring calm and start to lessen pain. When people have found that support groups sometimes unhelpfully come down to contests of who hurts the most, humor can erupt to help with coping, especially in the form of Monty Python. Just the thought of the Yorkshire men can bring on a smile.

 

 

 

Kona Hawaii 2013 116Recently a friend mentioned how different he felt while on prednisone, and as a Buddhist it helped bring home the tenuousness of the concept of self. Alan Watts wrote extensively about the concept of self in Daoist and Buddhist philosophy, with one example here.

I get to listen to about 10 or 15 minutes of Radio Lab on NPR during my Wednesday commute and recently there was a piece on the element lithium. Lithium is used as a psychotropic, but they also mentioned that towns which have an incredibly small amount of lithium naturally occurring in their water supplies also have lower suicide rates than towns with even smaller amounts. It reminded me that when lead was removed from gasoline and paint, crime rates went down. Transcranial magnetic stimulation not only helps with relieving depression, but in at least one study, people changed a decision after the stimulation. They didn’t realize the stimulation had occurred and had a rational explanation as to why they changed their minds, and the explanation went along with our concept of self and free will. So much of what we do and who we are occurs below our conscious level.

One theory in neuroscience I have come across is that the construct of “other” evolved first followed by the construct of “self.” These came about so that we could communicate and get along in this world. Music also evolved for our social and emotional well being, and it can have a very big impact on emotion. Think about the use of music in the soundtracks of movies, television and radio and how that affects your experience of the story. Athletes use music to change their performance. You can even use a soundtrack in your mind to change your mood and to change your self-talk. In Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, Daniel Shapiro tells how at his workshops he uses a soundtrack of drums to increase the sense of tribe for workshop participants who have to negotiate bringing their separate tribes into one tribe or else the world will end. The world almost always ends in the exercise. I wonder if that would change without the beat of the tribal drums during the cohesion of the tribes.

Shapiro devotes an entire chapter to the self – the “dual nature of identity.” He refers to our sense of self as the “fixed-identity problem.” Identity is not static, and includes our beliefs, rituals, allegiances, values, and emotionally meaningful experiences. We have various mindsets of the self. There is the fundamentalist who sees identity as fixed and governed by forces outside our control. There is the constructivist who sees identity as an “ever-evolving social construction.”   There is the anattist who sees us as having no permanent identity and transcending “the material world of attachment, experiencing identity as shifting waves within the ocean of life.” Lastly, there is the quantumist who sees identity as “a combination of nature and nurture” with identity both fixed and fluid and there are many possible selves. And we may change that perspective over time. They are not fixed either. With these different perspectives, how do we get along with each other? We change our relationships in that space between us. You can learn more by listening to Shapiro here.

A few years ago, I was cleaning out the attic in the home where I grew up. I found the speech I gave at my high school graduation. The last line was “we are all in this together.” All these years later, I still believe that. Shapiro’s work gives us good guidance on how to get along with each other in this world, and some different perspective on just what the “self” is.

When you hurt another, you may ask forgiveness from them. The Pope has asked forgiveness of those molested by priests and for the treatment of indigenous people in the New World. People convicted in court may ask forgiveness just before sentencing. Preachers and politicians ask forgiveness when caught in sin and then enter rehab to prove just how sincere they are. All of us do wrong at some time. Forgiveness is an issue that comes up often in life and in counseling. What does that word mean?

It does not mean saying that the wrong is now okay. “Sure you hurt me, but I forgive you, now it is okay.” That definition makes forgiveness extremely difficult if not impossible. It is giving a gift of dispensation to the one who harmed you. There is another view. Forgiveness can mean, “I don’t like what you did, and it is not okay but I will let it go. It doesn’t mean I want to have anything to do with you again, but I am not going to let anger and resentment devour me.” A quote attributed to the Buddha is that holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal. The one who gets burned is you.

Many years ago I was having a conversation with a person who was working on recovery in AA and was doing step work. The eighth step is making a list of people you have harmed and you become willing to make amends to them. The ninth step is to make direct amends to those you have harmed except when to do so would injure them or others. It became quickly obvious that the person’s goal was to seek forgiveness even though in that case it would cause pain to the person wounded and to others. There was no talk about making amends. One universal principle throughout cultures and spiritual traditions (including secular ones) is to give without thought of return. When the Bodhidharma met with the Emperor Wu, one of the questions Wu asked was how much merit he had earned for all the monasteries he had built and all the other good deeds he had done in the name of the Buddha. “None,” said Bodhidharma. According to the story, the conversation was a short one. There are times when asking forgiveness is a manipulative act. We are asking forgiveness of the one we have already harmed with the sole purpose of making ourselves feel better. What is the merit of that? None. You are just doing more harm.

This is a place where the steps give good guidance. Look into your heart. It may be better to seek how you can make amends to those you hurt rather than ask forgiveness. Forgiveness belongs to the one harmed, and it is for them and within them that forgiveness occurs. If you are going to ask anything, ask how you can make amends and even then, only ask when doing so causes no further harm. Making amends with no expectations (including the expectation of forgiveness) may be a better way and work better at allowing yourself forgiveness with time.

For further thoughts on working on reconciliation and the process of forgiveness I strongly recommend “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts,” by Daniel Shapiro. Shapiro is the founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program. As a psychologist and negotiation specialist, he has worked with families as well as corporate and governmental groups including conflicting parties in the Middle East. He provides a very thoughtful and guided method for the process of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Setting goals is important, and how you frame them is critical to succeding. A goal can be as broad as “I want to live a life of integrity” to as specific as “I want to run a four minute mile.” With the former you need to define just what integrity is – how will you know when you are living that life and when are you veering off course. How do you get back on course? For the latter, you need training, a workout schedule and a sense of just how realistic that goal is. Whether your motivation is internal or external also has an effect on succeeding. You are less likely to burn out if you are focused on getting better for you.

One thing both those goals have in common is that they are positive goals. Positive goals are “I am going to do something.” They are action oriented in that something will happen and you will know it. It gives you a place to move towards. All too often we define our goals in a negative fashion – “I am not going to do something.” There are many problems with that. First off, you are activating your brain to think about what you don’t want to do. Do not picture a blue jay in your mind at this moment. What picture just appeared in your mind? I spoke with someone recently whose goal was, “I don’t want to be lonely.” “Well, what do you want to be?” I asked. How will you know you are not lonely? Focusing on loneliness tends to leave one lonely. So we began to look at how she wants to connect with people, what kinds of relationships does she want, and first off, what kind of relationship does she want with herself. It is much easier to be in the company of someone who is comfortable and secure with themselves. Negative goals too often become self fulfilling prophecies. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “I didn’t want to be like my parent.” And then they realized that in focusing on what they didn’t want to become, they took on those qualities and became what they vowed they would not be.

A negative goal is inactive. Tough to prove a negative. So when you are setting goals, make them positive, something you will know is present. Put in as much detail as you can. It is like writing a good story of what you want to do or become. You can even use a 10 scale to track your progress. A ten is you have achieved the goal.  A zero is you haven’t even begun. Where are you now? Track your progress up the scale. That gives you some flexibility, too. Stuck at five? Reevaluate and redefine and see what you need to do to move up even to a 5.1. Edit your story.  One of my favorite exercises is “start-stop-continue” from Jerry Lynch and Chungliang Al Huang. What do I need to start doing, stop doing and continue doing to function at a higher level? And remember the concept of wu wei or effortless effort. Sometimes when you push too hard, you push yourself into the ground and get stuck. Have a plan but relax into it and have fun. It is hard to stick with a goal when the process is something you hate or find punishing. That is why so many resolutions for diets and exercise programs fail. Flow and adapt, and make your goals positive.

I was recently asked the questions below about male friendships, particularly older male friendships.  I am always hesitant to put people into categories, though I know that is how we are wired. We classify things to simplify our lives. But things don’t fit into neat boxes. There are generally more differences within groups than between groups. When you classify, you get a good idea of the outliers but you miss the rich textures of the variability within groups. There was one thing I forgot to mention when I responded. (A thunderstorm came up so I hit send on the email and shut down quickly, and the person asking the questions was on a deadline, so I had to get them in yesterday.) As we get older, we use both frontal lobes when making decisions rather than one, and we tend to get better at picking our battles. Deciding what is worth arguing about can go a long way in saving any friendship.

 1.  Life, work and family can demand a lot of a man’s time. How important is it for men to maintain a social network?

We are social beings. Friends give us support and comfort when we are hurting, celebrate with us when things go well, and teach us how to get along in the world. They give us someone to talk to and to listen to and accept us for who we are, and can help us get better – and we give the same in return. There are many studies on the benefits of friendships for mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. There are studies that show the increased health problems of all types for those who are isolated and lonely – depression and suicide, cardiovascular disease and stroke, increased stress levels, decreased memory and learning, antisocial behavior, memory loss, etc.

2.  Are there any distinct benefits for men regarding maintaining healthy friendships that should serve as an inspiration or reason for men to put more effort into their friendships?

Typically those with healthy friendships cope better with stress. They have lower levels of heart problems and immune system problems. I got an article in a newsletter today about how social supports mitigate some of the effects of ageism. Women may cope better than men, despite feeling more of the effects of ageism, because they have stronger social supports.  His is a synopsis of the article:

A new report examining attitudes towards ageing in Canada has been published. Revera Inc. and the International Federation on Ageing set out to examine the gender differences in ageing and experiences of ageism in the report titled “Revera Report on Ageism: A Look at Gender Differences.” Researchers surveyed male and females aged 66 and older. According to the findings, Canadian women are more optimistic about the ageing process compared to their male counterparts. Six in 10 women aged 60 years and older reported feeling optimistic about getting older whereas 5 in 10 men reporting feeling positive about the process. Compared to males, females were also more likely to agree with the statement “age is just a number” (47 percent for females, 33 percent for males). The report also examined Canadian older adult experiences of ageism. Interestingly, results revealed that women reported feeling they were treated differently because of their age. Women reported more often feeling ignored or invisible compared to men (46 percent for females, 32 percent for males) and that others have assumed they were incompetent (32 percent for females, 18 percent for males). Researchers suggested that the recorded findings might be connected to differences in social supports. The stronger social connections forged by females may help buffer against the damaging effect of exposure to ageism.

 AUTHOR: Misty Harris

SOURCE: Canada.com, July 3rd 2013

http://www.canada.com/life/Women+embrace+aging+despite+experiencing+ageism+more+deeply+than/8611996/story.html

3. Why do you think men often have trouble bonding with other men or creating close friendships/relationships?

There are a lot of reasons why any person can have difficulty creating friendships.  We learn from those who raise us, usually family, and from the culture we grow up in.  If the culture and/or family says that men are strong, don’t show emotion, are totally independent, must be competitive and win at all costs and trust no one – that doesn’t make for great relationships.  In addition to culture and familial gender roles, the number of variables that affect relationships is almost endless – the attachment style you learn as an infant, whether you trust that people will be there for you, your sense of self including self efficacy, how you define a friendship and what you look for, personal characteristics (like attractiveness, wealth, social status, substance use, communication styles, personality traits, etc.) whether you are more introverted or more extroverted.  I don’t mean shy by that. An introverted person can make friends, they just need more time alone to recharge their energy, while the extrovert may feel very uncomfortable alone for periods of time and get energy from the crowd.  Birth order can have an effect on whom you bond with, as well as your parents’ birth order. There is also the comfort level of friendships with persons of your own gender or with persons of the opposite sex and whatever complications that might arise from either.  There is also the effect of wanting things to stay the same. Friends will support positive change, and realize that at times friendships end or at least change. The need to win, to be one up in the hierarchy, can be very damaging. You may know people who lost friendships when they disagreed with a friend over a political issue (for example the Affordable Health Care Act has had some heated debate) or who lost a friend over religious differences. I think one reason men (or women for that matter) may have trouble bonding with their own gender is getting past the pecking order contest that sometimes ensues.  That can especially happen with the stereotypical male friends of not being able to just be together but to have to be doing something together. That can be great when they help each other get better at whatever it is, but when one decides he has to be the best and win, that leaves the other losing. That is not an act of friendship.  One thing I have noticed in working with fathers is that they sometimes worry about being respected. I remember one dad in particular telling me about the relationship with his son and his worry about not being respected. I asked about the relationship and found that they did things together like fishing and playing ball, they talked to each other pretty easily – the dad was teaching the kid discipline in a nice and gentle way. Turns out dad was worried because his dad taught him by beating him and he thought that was necessary for respect. Somewhere in all that for him fear and respect became synonymous when they are not. We all have unfinished stories, and until we get some kind of completion, we keep repeating them. I think one of the reasons men may have trouble with male relationships is that the first relationship they had with a man was a poor one. For some folks high school never ends and they continually repeat the types of relationships they had as adolescents both in friendships and the work place. Unresolved sexuality issues can have an effect. I sometimes work with gay people and transgender people and lack of acceptance and trust issues they face again affects relationships with others.  There are also issues of proximity. People move a fair amount these days. There are lots of ways to communicate online and by phone, and you can reconnect with people you haven’t seen in a long time. But there may not be the emotional intimacy and honesty that you have in a face to face relationship.

4. How would you encourage a man to branch out and meet new friends, OR how would you encourage a man to improve or build on existing friendships?

Each of us has our own story. I just try to work with the person in front of me and see what can help them to get to where they want to be.  The first friendship I encourage him to look at is the friendship with him self. How do you treat yourself as a friend?  How do you respect yourself as a friend?  What qualities do you look for in a healthy friendship? Do you have these qualities in your self?  In your friendships with others, is the relationship with the other person voluntary, mutual, equal and reciprocal, is there trust so that one can be vulnerable with emotions and still be accepted? Can a person leave the friendship if/when the time arises? Is there mutual respect and what does that mean to you? I would help the person decide which of those two choices in the question he wants to do.  He may even want to try to do both of those to some degree. We would look for whatever works for him, and be flexible and adaptable. And I would encourage him to work on his friendship with himself, for that is the only life long relationship he will have.

We might also look at how do disagree in a respectful way in a conversation. One factor in maintaining memory and cognitive function is to challenge your beliefs – to think critically. It is possible to have good healthy relationships with those who believe differently. That is one way to grow in this life. Part of that is looking at self talk as well. I think to have a good relationship with others, you need to have a good one with your self. And realize that it is always a work in progress.

The end of the year is near on the Gregorian calendar.  There are other calendars – Chinese, Jewish, Muslim, and others including some structured so that dates fall on the same day of the week every year. But, like the metric system, our culture for the most part ignores the way others measure time.  Theoretical physics says that time should be able to go backwards as well as forwards and is not linear. But we experience time linearly and we look for causes from the past and long for or dread the future, and often miss the moment we are in. We resolve, especially at this time of year, to change.

Often people want to know the “why” of problems they have, or of behaviors. They feel they must know the why before they can change, or to make the change permanent. I sometimes tell the story of a research psychologist I once worked for. He swore he would never do clinical work because of an experience he had in rotation during his doctoral program. The rotation included a clinical track. He had a client who was afraid of plants. He tried the standard exposure therapy but got nowhere.  Eventually she came up with a story of being frightened as a child in the presence of a plant. He had no idea if the story was true, but it worked. Too inexact for him. He went into research.

But how exact is research?  Does the why or the cause matter? There is an article in Wired well worth reading at http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/12/ff_causation/all/1.  It is called “Trial and Error: Why Science Is Failing Us” by Jonah Lehrer.  He looks at the story of the cholesterol drug torcetrapib and how what should have easily worked failed miserably. Causes are shortcuts, are stories, that we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. We are wired to try to make sense of the world, and we do this with stories.  What we forget is that they are stories and we sometimes make them unquestionable truths.  They matter, but in the end, they are our constructs. Statistical analysis in research can help, but too often the questions are asked in ways that affect outcomes, or the wrong tests are chosen or funding affects outcomes. At best, we can predict with probability.

Jonah writes:

“David Hume referred to causality as “the cement of the universe.” He was being ironic, since he knew that this so-called cement was a hallucination, a tale we tell ourselves to make sense of events and observations. No matter how precisely we knew a given system, Hume realized, its underlying causes would always remain mysterious, shadowed by error bars and uncertainty.”

One problem with a cause is that there is always a cause for the cause – an infinite regression of “why.” Often we have difficulty with randomness and ambiguity and shades of gray. But things happen. One of the interesting things about quantum mechanics is that subatomic particles can disappear and reappear somewhere else for no apparent reason.  We may long for the certainty of predictable waves in the flow of life, but to live, we need to be able to surf. To swim against what we think should be the tide is to wear ourselves out and risk drowning. And realize that nothing is permanent.

Jonah concludes:

“… (W)e must never forget that our causal beliefs are defined by their limitations. For too long, we’ve pretended that the old problem of causality can be cured by our shiny new knowledge. If only we devote more resources to research or dissect the system at a more fundamental level or search for ever more subtle correlations, we can discover how it all works. But a cause is not a fact, and it never will be; the things we can see will always be bracketed by what we cannot. And this is why, even when we know everything about everything, we’ll still be telling stories about why it happened. It’s mystery all the way down.”

What we can do is flow with the mystery in the moment we have and the story we tell. And a new year can start any time we choose in our lives. Calendars are constructs for marking time. Lives are for living.

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