The Wisdom of Engaging with the World

Engaging with Life

I’m one of those people who spends a significant number of hours each week surfing the web. Primarily, it’s my curiosity that drives me. I like to explore ideas, spot trends, and just in general see what’ going on out there.

This week my travels brought me face-to-face with more insanity than usual. By week’s end, I concluded that it’s an absolute marvel that the world functions at all.

But it brought insights, too. And it took me back a few decades to the wisdom of zen philosopher Alan Watts. I first encountered his work when I was living in San Francisco during the infamous “Summer of Love,” the cresting of the so-called Hippie era. Contrary to popular conceptions of the time, many of the people who gathered there that summer were young and ardent intellectuals searching for new solutions for society’s ills.

On Sunday nights, the local radio station carried a program called “The Transcendental, Multi-Lingual Two-Ton Mustard Seed,” which featured in-depth conversations with people like poet Alan Ginsberg and philosopher Alan Watts. Watts’ philosophy intrigued me. It seemed a natural extension of the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau that had captured my mind the previous autumn. I bought a few of his books and read them while I sat on a platform of a light house in San Francisco Bay.

Now here I was, encountering him again. Just in time. He rescued me from a slide into despair over the sheer madness I was seeing unfold in the world.

I had a partial grasp on understanding the conflict and the willingness to latch onto any passing idea that promised safety from chaos. Jordan Peterson had explained that people form and use their beliefs as a way of protecting themselves from the unknown, which appears to them as a potential threat. The more frightened they are, the more overwhelming the world seems, the tighter their hold on their beliefs. So we end up in imprisoning beliefs that set us at odds with those whose beliefs differ from our own.

But Watts went deeper. In his book The Wisdom of Insecurity, he says this:

“To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet. We look for this security by fortifying and enclosing ourselves in innumerable ways. . . These defenses lead to divisions between us, and so to more insecurity demanding more defenses.”

The answer is to keep breathing, to recognize that life is an endless, every-changing flow. If you try to put running water in a bucket, he says, you won’t succeed because the bucket traps it and it can no longer run. And you can’t encase life in a belief system either. Because life is an infinite flow. The best you can do is to engage with life fully, to be fully present in this very Now, which is all there really is.

That’s easier said than done, of course. Our minds are chattering monkeys. But you can practice and get better at it and stay present for longer and longer periods of time. And when you do, you get glimpses of how exquisite it all is, and how much you truly are one with it.

I heard a story once where a child asked her grandmother, “Is everyone like this?” The grandmother asked her what she meant. And the child replied, “So much bigger on the inside than on the outside.”

Qigong master Chunyi Lin leads students in a meditation where the key phrase is, “I am in the Universe; the Universe is in me.” Practice being fully present in the Now, and the inside and outside become one, as the two sides of a coin.

You don’t have to believe it. It’s not a matter of belief. Just be the river, and let life flow on.

 

 

Share

Focus on the Good

Focus on the Good

I don’t know about you, but personally, I’m getting awfully tired of watching the violent protests that seem to be erupting almost daily around the globe. Sure, I understand that a lot of things need fixing in our world, and I appreciate dedication to promoting a worthy cause. But those who practice violence and destruction do nothing to further the betterment of our situation, especially when they utterly fail to carry any message proposing workable solutions to the problems they are railing against. What if, instead of focusing on perceived evils and shortcomings, we devoted ourselves to identifying and promoting the things that further the flourishing of humankind?

Almost 20 years ago, professional psychology asked itself the same question about its own direction. It had been focusing almost exclusively on illness and giving little attention to identifying the factors that promoted individual well-being. When it turned its attention to searching for the life-promoting traits in people, the science of positive psychology was born. And studies world-wide are now proving that we live happier, more productive, creative and satisfying lives when we focus on building our strengths than we do when we focus on trying to improve our weaknesses.

Remember the saying, “What we focus on expands.” Focus on what’s wrong and you get more of it. Focus on the good and it increases.

What Goodness Is

Don’t fall for the idea that goodness is relative, that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The good in life is what supports it, what lifts burdens and alleviates suffering. What’s toxic is action that produces suffering where it doesn’t have to exist.

When the founders of positive psychology got the idea to identify what things contributed to the Good Life, they looked at the qualities that people found most worthwhile across cultures and across centuries of time. They ended up finding six general categories of time-tested values that were held in high esteem all over the world:

  • Wisdom and Knowledge
  • Courage
  • Humanity and Love
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Transcendence

These virtues form the pillars that uphold civilizations that give rise to the Good Life.

Under these virtues, the positive psychologists identified character strengths that were linked to each category. (See: The 24 Personal Strengths: An Overview)

Strengths and Virtue

These strengths are the vehicles by which we creatively and productively move forward in the world, the means by which we bring the six universal virtues into existence, both in our individual experience and in the world as a whole.

When individuals become aware of their signature strengths, they can use them as a channel for joyfully pouring energy into work that contributes to the well-being of all. Strengths such as curiosity and “street smarts,” for example, are expressions of the virtue of knowledge and wisdom. People who possess them invent new and unconventional ways to get things done. They value practicality and look for ways to make things work in the real world.

Instead of bowing to the mob or basing their choices and actions on currently popular slogans and memes, people who use their strengths to foster the expression of universal values discover genuine depth and meaning in their goals. They focus on creating the Good Life for all, and they work to understand more and more clearly what the Good Life truly entails. They look for ways to increase the deliciousness of life, to promote the things that make living worthwhile. The torches they carry are the torches of truth. The fires they build are the fires of freedom.

If we want to build a better world, one that is just, and balanced, and wise, we need to hone our focus on the Good and to promote it, each in his or her own way, each with his or her own strengths. The wrong is all too evident. The way out is to focus on the Good.

Share

Speech and Freedom

Free Speech

On this 4th of July weekend, as we in the United States celebrate the day that marks the creation of our nation as a free and independent state, I want to talk with you about a movement in western culture that I believe threatens our ability, as humans, to flourish. And that threat is the threat to the first freedom named in our constitution, which prohibits any law that would diminish our freedom of speech.

It’s a complex situation that we’re in, risen from a multitude of causes. Whole books have been written about it, both on its causes and its potential effects. And I certainly have no solution. But I believe that it’s important to talk about issues that endanger us in order to spread awareness and to encourage others to give the matter some serious thought, to decide for themselves what’s healthy and good, and to take a stand.

The Problem

That last sentence kind of sums it up. We can only think about things that we can talk about, that we can put into words. The threat I’m talking about is a movement to silence all speech that contradicts the prevailing beliefs of a promoted group of people.

Sixty-seven years ago, in a message to Congress, then President Harry Truman stated the danger this way:

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

Today, it is not only governments that are passing laws about what may or may not be said, but growing segments of the populace itself who would stifle free speech. When we are no longer able freely to state our beliefs without fear of violent repercussions, we will degenerate into fearful silence. New ideas will die before they can be given birth in the public domain. Time-tested wisdom will be buried beneath the rubble of restriction. Truth will be shackled by the chains of a mandatory ideology. And we will no longer be free.

“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”

Let Us Not Offend

One of the contributors to the current movement to suppress free speech is, ironically, based in kindness, or at least in a superficial understanding of what it means to be kind. It’s the idea that people are fragile and easily wounded by unkind words. We must, such thinking goes, root out from our language any words that have the potential to hurt another human being.

Thus, we have a Canadian government proclaiming that words such as “mother,” “father,” “him,” and “her” must be replaced by “gender-neutral and inclusive” language in all school forms, websites, letters, and other communications.  We have a Florida University banning the words “Mom” and “Dad.” We have schools banning classic books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. and publishers hiring “sensitivity editors” to edit out potentially offensive viewpoints and words.  And to take it to another extreme, we now have a Canadian law dictating what words you must use in referring to a person’s self-identified gender identity—or face punishment.

What We’re Learning

What this “do not offend” dictum is teaching us is that we’re so vulnerable that “authorities” of one kind or another must step in to protect us. And furthermore, we’re increasingly lured into thinking that those who use insensitive language or hold opinions different from our own are enemies, and even enemy combatants, against whom we must fight with any means at our disposal. Blogs and social media urge readers to jail, torture, rape, and assassinate people with opposing political opinions. No opinion but mine must stand…because it hurts me.

What to Do Instead

If we’re going to save the right to free speech, the fundamental right on which all freedom depends, we need to oppose regulations against it, whether they’re imposed by governments or institutions. We need to begin proclaiming that we value hearing opposing opinions, that we’re robust enough to hear—and even thoughtfully consider—opposing points of view. We need to understand that people are made stronger by confronting dissent, not weakened by it. Life is tough, and we grow more resilient by facing challenges. We’re broadened by the richness of diverse opinions. We move nearer to Truth only by viewing it from different angles.

Free conversation allows us to negotiate our differences. It’s the only means we have to prevent authoritarianism, tyranny and war. “Not to speak one’s thoughts,” Euripides said, “is slavery.”

So on this weekend, when we find ourselves thinking about what it means to be free, let us declare ourselves to be free to express ourselves and to allow others to do the same. Unless every person is free to speak his or her truth, none will be.

 

Share

The Wisdom of Restraint

When I was a little kid, my mother taught me a lot about dealing with people whom I didn’t especially like. Basically, there were only two rules. I them both under the heading, “The Wisdom of Restraint.”

The first one was about guarding what came out of my own mouth, and the second one was about unkind things that others said to me. And today, when the divide between differing opinions is so sharp and deep, I’m grateful for Mom’s teachings.

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice . . .

The first one–the guide for how to speak to others–was, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It took me a while to understand that she didn’t mean I should never speak my truth if it was likely to offend. She meant I had to learn to express myself in a way that took others’ sensitivities into consideration and to respect them, no matter how silly or dumb their viewpoints seemed to be.

But until you’re mature enough to articulate your truth clearly and with tact, the “don’t say anything at all” part of Mom’s rule is a good guideline, and one which, it seems to me, a lot of us could well learn to adopt. If we spent less time mindlessly parroting slogans and sound bites and more time listening to reasoned, researched, and fact-based arguments, we might find that we had something worthwhile to contribute.

Otherwise, all we’re doing is adding fuel to already raging fires. And that’s no way to find workable answers to our world’s deep and complex problems. In fact, it makes them worse. It keeps us from even knowing what questions to ask in order to find solutions.

If you’re having trouble understanding how someone on the other side of a political argument could possibly believe what they believe, I highly recommend you take the time to listen to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful Ted Talk, “Healing the Divide.” And heed his advice, too, about reading Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. This time-tested guide will show you how to say things tactfully and help you communicate more effectively in all aspects of your life. You can download it for free here.

Mom’s Second Rule

Okay, I know it’s not well-understood in today’s victim-culture, but Mom’s second rule holds wisdom nonetheless. She didn’t make it up. She just recognized it as sage advice that I needed to know: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

That rule taught me that I didn’t need to be offended just because someone was being offensive. If I was secure in myself, I could take their words as an expression of their opinion and nothing more. And they were as entitled to their opinion as I was to mine.

Everybody lives in his own reality bubble. But we all share things in common, too. If what you say shocks me, I don’t need to react defensively. Instead, I can tell you that I don’t see things the same way. I can be curious about why you see things as you do and, if you’re open to talking about it, share my own viewpoint and reasoning with you. Who knows? Maybe we’ll end up being the best of friends. Maybe we’ll be stimulated to continue talking about the issue over time, and both expand our views in the process. Maybe we’ll cordially agree to disagree, to like all the other things there are to like about each other.

In essence, the “sticks and stones” rule is about learning how to respond rather than to react. It takes practice. It goes against our natural grain. But it’s a pathway to peace, both internally and between opposing parties. And these days, when our weapons are not sticks and stones but implements of total destruction, it’s the only pathway we can take and still survive.

Wishing peace and healing for us all.

Share

Why Fathers Matter

Father Matter

Sadly, in our throw-away culture, one of the things that’s increasingly being viewed as disposable is fathers.  Take a survey of people between 22 and 37—prime child-bearing ages—and you’ll find that only about half of them think kids need both a mom and dad to grow up happily1.   But the truth is that fathers matter.  A whole bunch.  Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson  says that it’s demoralizing to grow up without a father in your life.  You feel cast aside, as if you don’t matter much.  Without a dad the world can seem a dismal place.  “The good father,” he says, “helps you to become your best self.”

What Fathers Do For Us

Fathers are the encouragers in our lives.  They’re the ones who say, “Go ahead!  You can do it!” even when we’re pretty sure we can’t.  They believe in our potential.  They teach us to take risks, to try, to be daring, even in the face of fear.

They set limits and hold up standards, teaching us self-control and responsibility.2  And as Peterson says, it’s bearing responsibility that gives life its meaning.

Dads hold out expectations for us.  They push us to excel.  Feeling a father’s pride in your accomplishments helps you strive to do and be your best.

When I was growing up, I took piano lessons.  And even when I felt I had mastered a piece of music, my dad would nod and smile and say, “Keep practicing.  You’ll get it yet.”   In time, I became good enough to place highly in competitions.  Then I would get from him the words I longed to hear:  “Good job.”  And that meant more than any trophy or ribbon.

Unlike mothers, who tend to talk to us in our own language levels, Dads help us expand our vocabularies by talking with a broader, more adult range of words.

It’s the rough and tumble side of dads, who tickle and wrestle with us, who teach us sports and games and skills, that teaches us how to deal with the world head-on, to be independent and to assert ourselves.   We learn from their roughhousing how to be resilient in the face of defeat, and how to brush defeat aside.

They tell us stories from their worlds that show us the positive value of competition and take us to new  places that we wouldn’t dare go on our own.  They instill confidence in us, support us, and help us feel secure.

They’re the ones who say, “Enough is enough!” teaching us about rules and about what it means to be moral and fair.  It’s no wonder that kids with fathers do better in school, are more playful, and learn to use humor to cope with setbacks.

Fathers Matter

If you are fortunate enough to have had a father in your world, take time to tell him that he matters to you, that you’re grateful for all he has taught you.  And if you’re a father, a step-father, or a father-figure in someone’s life, know that your role is not only important, but irreplaceable, and take pride in that.  Dads make us better people and the world a better place.

Happy Father’s Day, you Dads out there.  A father’s love is fierce, and sometimes it’s not an easy job, keeping the balance between being strong and being harsh.  But that fierce love gives us our strength and courage.  And as Peterson says, the world would be a much more dismal place without you.

——

1 The Importance of Fathers (According to Science)

2 A Father’s Importance for Children: Thoughts for Father’s Day

 

 

Share