Archive for the 'balance' Category

Back-filling instead of overriding

April 27, 2015

I wrote about my reaction to David Brooks’s new book, The Road to Character, here, on the PBS NewsHour website.  I thought I would expand on what I meant when I wrote,

One thing in the book that bothered me enough to want to comment on: I have a real problem with holding up as an exemplar writing people’s names on pieces of paper and then trashing them. No, I am not saying this is effective voodoo, but it is not the same thing as learning to view the people (named on the slips) with charity. That latter point of view (charity for flawed and damaged people) I think processes like the 12 Steps are more helpful with learning to achieve: identify our own defect of character (the excessive anger, what led in the first place to the friction that has resulted in anger, etc.), become willing to let it go, and ask for some help with that. That, I believe, roots out the problem; the approach Eisenhower used (the paper routine for defusing the anger privately) is clearly an improvement over injudicious confrontation, but it is a temporary and superficial trimming back, I think — I don’t believe it will result in the anger not arising to unhelpful levels the next time around, for example — and I believe it also has some negative impact on the general environment, if not the targeted person. Writing the names on paper and trashing them may be a step forward, but I don’t think it’s the destination.

I see the idea of confronting our unhelpful reaction to a difficult situation in the moment, or in the moment after, by trying to override that unhelpful reaction as a stopgap measure.  Yes, it’s preferable not to express too much anger in the moment, it may help some people to let go of the excessive anger in private by going through a ritual.  Overriding an initial reaction has its place.

But I find it vastly more helpful and reliable, not to mention that it also contributes to my greater peace of mind more generally, if I can root out the source(s) of my overreaction before I encounter the particular situations and moments.  That’s what I am referring to as “back-filling.”  I strengthen my foundation before I sally forth.

So, for example, I may feel frustrated with an acquaintance or neighbor or friend or professional I am working with because, for example, from my point of view they have tried to shift too much responsibility for a problem onto me and not taken enough responsibility for the problem onto themselves.  The attempt to shift the onus around may have hurt my feelings and negatively impacted my self-confidence, it may have also created new problems in my life that I needed like a hole in the head.

If I deal on my own time with my dissatisfaction with how things are, when a new situation comes up involving the person and myself, I will not feel the same strong and negative emotions when patterns repeat.  In fact, sometimes, after noticing I’m not feeling the anger I used to feel, I poke around in my mental apparatus looking for it, and it just feels as though smooth rubber has replaced something brittle and pointy — it’s just not there anymore and what has replaced it is something kind of neutral and benign.

To deal with my dissatisfaction and improve my foundation, I may do some of the following.  First, I can remind myself not to take things personally.  I can separate what I want from the person from what I actually need from the person.  I can find other ways to get my needs met.  That often lowers the temperature.  I can see the person more accurately, I can remind myself that they are doing the best they can even when I feel a negative impact from what they do or have done.  I can change my expectations about them.  I can wish for them positive things, but I often try to send my good wishes to them through neutral forces which can be more effective and less vulnerable to misuse than anything I could send directly on my own.  I can find a way to see the person that results in my keeping my own needs out of the way when I interact with them, for example, by seeing them as a sympathetic figure (like a young child) just trying to get their own needs met.  I can remind myself that they may not understand my dissatisfaction and that if I react too extremely, they too will feel hurt and bewilderment — like a puppy who does not understand what they have done wrong.  I can see their behaviors and attitudes shaped by things that occurred much earlier and have nothing to do with me.  I can see them as providing me with an opportunity to learn something new myself, for example, to keep my equanimity, not become defensive and not develop bitterness despite however I am treated — I can feel gratitude towards them for providing the challenge, I can even forgive them for being something like an executioner.  I can view intentional personal rejection as a signal from the universe that this is not a good relationship for me and thank the person for busting the relationship up when I did not have the ability to see that or the strength to do that, and doing what was needed so that I can move on.  I can deal with my fears unilaterally and reduce them by turning things over to forces greater than myself.

On the other hand, I probably won’t see the person or particular situations in which we have been involved or continue to be involved in the way they see those things.

That I think is a fly in my ointment I am still working to remove, what to do when the person keeps coming to me with repeated insistence that I accede to them and their view and behavior.  My provisional answer is “boundaries” and just repeating, to myself, my own understanding.  Then they can do their thing, I can do my thing, but the two will not combine and combust.  I just have to have sufficiently dealt with my feelings about the past and adjusted my expectations about the future:  this person does this, I don’t like it, but, as they say, “How important is it?”  There’s always a vantage point from which detachment may be found.  And I have to let go of my preferred way of seeing the person — as being more ideal than they actually are and as being more capable of different points of view and behavior than they are — and I have to do this letting go with some sort of love (I would characterize it as charitable love).  My problem with it is that it can feel to me like giving up when I should be pushing on to find a better resolution.

The Road to Character actually indirectly helped me with that last piece;  it finally put into perspective an old relationship, and helped me see that I was looking to repeat that relationship with others, when I should be rejoicing that I had had such a relationship once.  Realizing that helps me let go — of relationships, or at least of the expectations that the relationships will be of the same sort as that old one.

And as I said, when I do this work on my own successfully, I do not react — overreact — to the subsequent interactions in the same unhelpful way.  I can let people be who they are and take it from there.


Being too competent?

March 17, 2015

I was on the phone last night with a friend, talking about such topics as asset basis and non-resident domicile and tax returns and account registrations and settling parents’ estates.  A large piece of his advice to me was for me to stop displaying and using my competence so much and to instead play with the accountants and lawyers the role of a character he called “Jane the Dunce.”  He threatened to start calling me “Jane,” just to remind me.  The issue, as he saw it, was that nobody but me actually cared about getting the stuff right and that I should remove myself from the role of trying to get this stuff done properly.

I had a neighbor named Jane, who would be appalled at her name being used thus — she reveled in her competence.

The countervailing issue, which he did understand from his own experience, is that as a fiduciary, I am answerable to others — this isn’t just about my own stuff.  But he said that the standard in that context is not for me to act as a professional accountant or as my lawyer is expected to, just to act as a reasonable or prudent layperson would act.  Which he said is more like his character of “Jane the Dunce” and less like me.

Now we’re into territory about whether it’s ever a good idea not to use your own style and to try to act like someone else.  Some people, of course, ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?”  and nobody thinks that will end badly.  But aiming in the other direction, I have my misgivings about that.   On the other hand, there is the risk of getting everybody mad at me as I try to get the forms corrected or the transactions adjusted.  I could win some battles and lose a war.

My friend and I agreed that this is why many people, himself and my father included, end(ed) up trying to do all these tasks all by themselves.  (Interestingly, both my friend and my dad seem to have similar issues with their wives about financial matters.)  Which, actually, is a large part of why what I have now on my plate is so complicated — my dad arranged things his own way and without a lot of regard to what would happen after he was not there to handle the stuff.

Anyway, my friend said that he and his sister just signed what the lawyer (when he did use one) put in front of them, they didn’t check it over.

It’s a thought, but it’s certainly not how I was brought up.

I certainly see a challenge for me here.  The challenge seems to me to be something about striking a balance between pushing to get things right and not alienating others, between picking up other people’s slack and keeping my equilibrium, between my responsibilities to others and taking care of myself.  It’s a work in progress.


Where’s the point of symmetry?

November 16, 2014

So a guru coerces his best student into helping him write a book.  His tactics in gaining her help introduce a lot of negative energy into the relationship.  She goes along with what she thinks the deal is, fearing the alternatives will be worse, and she believes that over the course of helping the guru with his project a relationship has developed.

She has helped him with his dream, or goal, if one prefers, and after his book is done and disseminated, she asks for her turn, with help with her dream or goal.  She could write a book, but that isn’t what she feels called to do.  In fact, she hears pretty clearly that she shouldn’t.  And she believes that out of the relationship that has developed, if not also out of the original arrangement, he will help her with her dream or goal.

For her, the point of symmetry was the dream or goal, not the specific form that took for the other person.

He says no, pretty simply and clearly:  “No, please go away.”

He doesn’t even notice that what she is asking for are things he has similarly asked others for and were extended to him, whether the help was earned, charitable, or some combination of the two.  He doesn’t want to do it for her.

“No, please go away.”

So she’s got a choice: write a book she thinks should not be written, in a life that does not support such an activity, or just accept that for him the point of symmetry was a specific activity, not actually meeting the other person’s needs or desires.

I don’t think it matters which she chooses, I think for her it’s always only been a lesson in discerning perspective — how different people can perceive so differently, and what is her perception of a situation and what is someone else’s.  How any particular situation is resolved is secondary to that.

My support for that interpretation is her being a student of a guru.  That suggests to me that her life is about orienting herself to her relationship with the universe, and that her relationships with particular other people fall into place when she keeps her focus on that.

She has learned that a person who sees trees and not forests will relate to someone who is focused on forests in a way that does not result in balance between them.

Unfortunately, the introduction of negative energy from the initial coercion of the student by the guru produces its own fallout.  That’s kind of like the splash in a dive, or the noise around a signal, but it can obscure the main event.  In some versions of this story, it does, and the guru and the student succumb to round after round of negative exchanges.

Catcher in the Rye

September 15, 2014

Sometimes when I find myself complaining (perhaps even whining) about my familial role, I talk about feeling like Holden Caufield’s interpretation of a Catcher in the Rye — I do often feel as though I am responsible for keeping people from falling off the edge.

So it was quite a thing for me to realize, after the urgent situation this afternoon had subsided, that I had sort of literally done that for a neighbor.

She is elderly, has dementia, and had apparently wandered across the street and up onto my porch.  I became aware of this only after my son and another neighbor were trying to get her back into her house.  I had been in my backyard doing yard work.

Long story much shorter, a police officer held the senior under the arm, while I stood behind the elderly woman and provided physical support as she made her way up the steep back stairs to her house using her hands as well as her feet.  When she got to the last step and began to stand up straight, I braced myself against the house as I stood on the steps, and I could feel the weakness in her legs as they quavered, but I gave support and she got up there, in her Boston Bruins slippers, and I gave a cheer.

I had kicked off my yard-working clogs before I ascended the stairscase;  I knew I needed as much grip as possible and the best chance at keeping my balance possible.  (I wasn’t wearing any socks.)  I have always had a terrible sense of balance, and I do have ear issues, so I suspect my balance issues have a physiological component.  I am not fond of steep staircases with shallow steps like the one we had to go up.  But no one asked me if I wanted to play my role — the other neighbor made it clear she wasn’t going to do it, and my son I think was up on the back porch already, minding the backdoor and the husband, who also suffers from dementia, waiting to receive the elderly woman.

So afterwards I was sort of amazed at what we had done, and I realized I had kept the lady from falling off the stairs — not exactly the Catcher in the Rye, but close.

Finding balance

November 27, 2013

I am aware that there are plenty of people who are more spiritually adept than I, clearer than I in trying to explain how someone with one foot in the spiritual realm sees the material world, more perceptive than I in the seeing itself, more effective at working with damaged people who have an aversion to faith and belief.  But with all due respect to Jackson Browne, I do sometimes think I see a reason I am alive (that’s in reference to “For a Dancer,” towards the end, the part about how there may be a reason we’re alive but we’ll never know — I love the song, though, it is so evocative, I can ride its waves to see so many things).

I see myself as figuring out how, in a sense, to walk and chew gum at the same time, to rub my stomach and pat my head simultaneously, while at the same time, adding in the third piece of having a conversation.  The first two activities are maintaining a spiritual connection while living in the material world, the “conversation” part is talking about it without losing my coordination and failing at the primary activities.

And then there’s the piece about keeping my balance.  That can be a balance between taking care of others and taking care of myself, between focusing on their needs and paying enough attention to my own.  It can also be about finding a helpful balance between having a message worth expressing to others and spending energy on making that expression effective.

There is a balance that needs to be struck, I think.  The irony is not lost on me that some of the people with the best bully pulpits have fundamentally flawed messages, from my point of view.  It’s as if the universe requires through its impersonal laws that we find a balance between attending to the messenger and attending to the message.

People have tried, consciously or not, all different ways and ratios for combining these elements.  For me, this life has been about letting go of the version of collaboration.  I really thought the most effective way of combining medium and message would be for one person to develop the delivery apparatus and for the other to develop the content.  But it doesn’t seem to work out, the delivery person tends to try to do both, in my multiple experiences of trying to collaborate.  Even when the delivery person pays some attention to the message-gatherer, they tend to distort the message that has been gathered through an inability to really see it.

I spent some time thinking this constituted some sort of failure to get something important and necessary to work, but now I don’t see it that way.  I figure instead that that way of trying to arrange things doesn’t work for a good reason.  (Trying to resolve the issue by having the message person spend more time on developing a delivery system just doesn’t work, it changes the person so much that they lose their ability to really see the message.)  The reason I see is that people need to come to discern the message themselves, not hear it from someone else.  If we can facilitate this process, maybe that’s something we should do, but that facilitation is more effective when it is indirect, I think.  I’ll invoke Jackson Browne again:  sometimes words are not enough (see “Late for Sky”).

I’m aware that this interpretation includes an assumption that the correct explanation is not that I am doing something wrong, which, interestingly, is often my first go-to explanation.  But this understanding about why collaboration isn’t the answer comes from that deeper place within, and it’s tied to the understanding that however interconnected we are, “in the end there is one dance [we] do alone,” even if that dance isn’t, in my opinion, the dance of death but rather the dance of enlightenment.

The teacher came and the student said, “Never mind.”

August 29, 2013

I was using, in a news comment online, the old aphorism about how when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Sometimes this happens, and instead of a learning experience, what occurs next is a dissolution:  the student realizes what is entailed and does not follow through.

It can look as if the student was lying about being ready, but I think the problem is that the teacher forgot about free will:  the student has the power to bail out at any time.

What can make a mess of an essentially simple situation is when the teacher has sacrificed on behalf of the student and predicated what they have done in preparation for the teaching on the student’s following through.  That leaves the teacher in an impossible situation.  The student won’t help.  It’s a lesson for the teacher not to go that far for a student.

What has gone wrong is that the teacher had a some personal investment in having the situation work out.  That, together with the student’s capacity to believe their own lies, is enough to have created what looks like a false promise.

The teacher may be left in a difficult situation, but the teacher is the one with the tools and the knowledge.  They know how to let go by simply observing what is going on.  It does not require that the student change what they are doing.  It does require more emotional health on the teacher’s part than the teacher had going into the situation.  But that is between them and God, it’s not about the student.

It’s much easier to see all this if one is a teacher who has been happily married.  Expecting bachelors to navigate this kind of unbalanced relationship is unrealistic.  Expecting bachelor teachers who have been upended by this scenario to ask for help immediately was also unrealistic, but eventually even they got tired of replaying this scene over and over again with the same dismal results.

I can see why they kept at it, though, because the resolution of the situation is very sad and very disappointing, and that’s on top of all the damage done.  It’s kind of like retiring a bad debt and not being seduced into pouring more money into subsequent loans on the hope that this will lead to the entire amount being repaid in the end.

Part of the situation is really what could be called “continuing education” for teachers.  Teachers can have flaws, too.  Teachers may need a tune-up and some gentle supervision, may need some help themselves to bang out a ding to their emotional apparatus.

The teacher can, in time, be grateful to the student for showing them how they have a flaw of wanting to help a student more than serves the greater good of student, teacher, or anything else.  But it’s tough all around.  Nobody walks away unscathed.  When everybody walks away at all, we see it as a success.

Flight control systems

June 29, 2013

My father was an electrical engineer by profession, worked for Bendix Corporation his whole career (it got bought by Allied and then Honeywell, so the name changed, but his place of work didn’t).  He worked in aeronautics.  He designed flight control systems for commercial and military aircraft.

That’s about the extent of what I know about what he spent his time doing.  He didn’t discuss it at home, I think largely because some of it he couldn’t, because it involved classified information.  I doubt the flight control systems for commercial aircraft actually did, but I think he dealt with the classified information issue by just having a blanket policy of not discussing his work.  And there was really no reason for him to.

But the concept of flight control systems is something helpful to me.  It helps me understand something I experience in my spiritual life.  (It was also a neat thing to learn about in the aeronautical context, and I was proud and fascinated that my father knew how to do what he did.)

My father once explained to me that what he designed allowed a pilot to steer a jumbo jet with he same ease with which the pilot steered a small plane.  My difficulty is not the same sort — mine is more like needing cross a deep gorge on a bridge without rails.  It can be done, but I can get in my own way if it’s too clear to me what I’m doing.  So I have help that just gives me what I need to know — what I need to know to do what I need to do to walk across that bridge — for all I know I’m walking across a lovely parquet floor in an expansive ballroom while I do it.

My talent is not bridge-walking, it’s trusting, it’s willingness to be guided, and it involves surrender.

When I’ve gotten to the other side, I come to know that I have crossed a gorge, when I am encouraged to learn to modulate my trust with the free will I had largely suspended.  That process leads to an understanding of what I’ve done, as if a curtain is being raised or a veil removed.  It’s kind of like the pilot deplaning and for the first time seeing how big the aircraft he was flying actually was.

I think my father’s job was something important in its own right, but I also like that what he did helps me to interpret what I do.





Yin and yang

June 14, 2013

About which I know very little.  But there is a concept I do know of, about needing to keep tension in a system in order to sustain motion within the system.  That I think may be how the returning wayfarer functions at the outskirts of the society to which they return.  But it’s tough to sustain that note that seems to cry out for resolution to the tonic.  Maybe if it did resolve we would end up dismantling creation?

Half and half

March 29, 2013

The other day I was being asked about whether I flush easily, for example, when eating spicy food or drinking alcoholic beverages.  I don’t think I do, but then I remembered a story my mother loves to tell about the first time I had a sip or two of wine.

I was probably about nine and the wine was probably left over from a dinner party my parents had had and they were probably finishing it up with dinner the next day.  It was red wine (that I do remember).  Shortly after I had drunk a little, my parents exclaimed that one half of my face had turned bright red (along a vertical axis).  They even sent me to the mirror in the downstairs hall to see.  I remember not being sure what they were seeing when I looked.

When I chose this picture

July, 2011

for this blog and as an avatar for other uses online, I chose it because it was recent and because I liked the expression on my face.  My dad immediately commented about my being half in shadow, which I hadn’t really noticed.

In geometry we can draw a line from two points.  I’m not sure I can draw one from these two things, but I could throw in the mythological associations with my first name.  The moon we see is half in light, half in darkness.

What would I then draw from this?  That there are states of mind that I have achieved that allow me to see both the darkness and the light, and that I have to be careful about keeping the two in balance.



January 5, 2013

This is about a thought I’ve been aware of for a long time but never really registered with me in my, as mother might put it, gizitsky (gut) — wasn’t a visceral understanding until this morning.  (I take that to mean I wasn’t quite ready to deal with its implications until now.)

I met someone some time ago, very briefly, and it was pretty clear to me that he literally had difficulty thinking when I was in (arm’s length) proximity to him physically.  I dealt with that as best I could, because I really did have something I felt I needed to talk to him about and I didn’t get the chance either talk about it then or to arrange another opportunity to discuss it — I just tried to get across the main idea (I thought): you’re barking up the wrong tree, I could help you find the right one, and I could use your help with something else.  I had thought he had indicated that he was interested in all that.

Leaving aside the content of the conversation I anticipated, I am at this point thinking the real significance of the attempt at conversation was to experience this drowning-out of a mental process.  Because it’s quite analogous to what happens when the ego gets in the way during meditation or some other means of accessing the divine, the forces greater than ourselves, the universe.  I can’t hear my guidance or feel my support when there’s ego-chatter and fear, doubt, and insecurity rattling around inside my mental apparatus.  I need willingness and surrender, great openness to the encounter, a clear channel.

I suspect that I needed to show to this person, and to myself, what it’s like when ego interferes with my interaction with the divine, whether it’s my ego interfering or theirs or even somebody else’s.

Just as they seemed to me to make clear when I met them that they did not want to hear what I had to say then or subsequently, I think I needed to see that I need to be free of their ego-chatter and point of view.

I think a different balance could be struck between us, but I don’t detect any willingness to do that.  So in that case, I need to do the “God is husband to the widow,” or a “woman religious,” approach to the issues in my life, and to do that, I need to interact with God without ego-chatter.

I think this approach has a lot to do with how I was drawn to use the name “Ani” (as in, nun) as a screen name.  When I stopped using it and started using my given name online, I felt I would try to make a go of being more oriented towards social interactions and less with my head up in the clouds, so to speak.  Clearly, what I’m looking for is the balance between the two that works for me, whatever that balance turns out to be.

But what I think this encounter and my experience of not being able to hear was presenting as a lesson to me was that if I am going to have to be on my own, I need to hear without interference, just as this other person wants to hear without interference.  I think it was a way of showing me the source of some of the chatter I need to set aside.  Of course, if I am with someone who has less ego-chatter, I can hear better how to relate to them — which may not be cutting a tie that seems to bind.

In this situation, I can’t hear well and I am also not receiving the resources I need some other way.

I am trying to resolve that untenable position, whether dramatically, by going all-in with one method or the other, or by rearranging the balance between the two some other way, perhaps even by receiving the gift of the chatter’s becoming muted, through something my would-be interlocutor learns to do.