The Community of Self

We seem to be social critters. Affiliation becomes us. A few experiences, however, in the past month or so, while not openly challenging this view, at least have given me pause to reflect on some ‘guidelines’ that might be worth considering before memorizing the secret handshake of our next club initiation rite. Most recently, a lovely little film, Another Year, had found its way into our DVD player. Featuring Jim Broadbent, Leslie Manville and Ruth Sheen, it explores four seasons in the contented lives of Tom and Gerri (no relation, as far as I know. . .) as they host in their home various friends and family members (all with some measure of dysfunction and neediness attached); and tend their ‘allotment’, a plot of land subdivided into parcels and made available to individuals and families to be worked side by side but, and here’s the critical piece in my mind, independent of one another.

A second moment of awareness arrived shortly after my return from a bicycle trip in the UK. A neighbourhood friend paused on his dog walk to chat with me while I fussed over the reassembly of my bike, safely (and happily) arriving in the same time zone and universe as its owner on the inbound flight. After the generic inquiries, he asked if I’d enjoyed the group this time as much as last (reference to a similar venture in France last Autumn). Without a moment’s hesitation I replied that “yes, the company had been extraordinary – convivial, cooperative, interesting, timely, and cycling at just the pace I could manage!” My friend, a fellow skeptic by training and preference, raised an eyebrow and scanned my face for the signature irony he has long associated with our conversations. “I was by myself”, completing my reply. I thanked John for drawing my attention to this particular aspect of the trip – with the quite surprising awareness that it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d quite contentedly spent the bulk of each day in the two-week journey with no other company than my own.

What links these two accounts for me is that community forms an intimate part of both experiences. Tom and Gerri are painted as generous, social beings – Gerri working as a National Health counsellor, Tom as a successful, company-based geologist – connected with their extended family, but content to allow them (an adult son and a sadly disconnected brother) to work out their own issues in their own time. Equally, however, boundaries within and between these relationships are the critical elements that makes their community involvement sustainable and healthy. A somewhat pathetic co-worker is included in the couple’s weekly rhythm of entertaining; to the point where the demands cross a boundary that makes her company intrusive and unhealthy; that point where friendship and support become enabling. The couple is acutely aware and protective of this point and take good care to defend against further encroachment. This is the point where we see them, once again, contentedly working in their allotment garden and regenerating their independence. And what a beautiful metaphor for this balance between community (the parcel within the plot) and individuality. And what a healthy distinction between community and communal.

The solitude and time for reflection, offered by the solo bicycle tour, I now see as fostered and driven by a similar balance. This was not some kind of Into the Wild, ill-construed adventure in self-sufficiency and abandonment of social contact. Rather, day’s end would see me check into a (usually highly restorative) B & B, connect with the hosts, even share tales of each other’s lives (Mick’s story will no doubt find its way into a future riff as testament to resilience and coping). More so, the daily phone call back to Canada, partly to ease my wife’s anxious mind (the constructions her imagination could place on the troubles an aging husband, alone in the Dales could contrive were well worth defusing!) but as much to share the day’s adventures, was a pivotal piece as well; the point where community meets solitude. Without one to define the other, both go wanting.

Larke Turnbull, a journalist and regular participant in one of our weekly mindfulness meditation groups, had chatted with me recently with a principal query being the increasing popularity of meditation; and in particular, meditation in a group setting. It is not difficult to see how sitting, with one’s eyes closed, focusing on the rhythm of one’s own breathing might be construed as a solitary activity – but exercised in the greater presence of a group with similar intentions and, most importantly, with great respect for the other individuals in that group.

One additional comment on this perhaps paradoxical concept of individuality within the group, the community. Alone in a crowd is the sometimes negatively construed description of a person who finds themselves surrounded by people – but still feeling isolated and disconnected. What I’m attempting to describe is essentially the opposite: one who feels at peace with his/her self, content with solitude; but intimately connected in a very healthy and salutary way to those around them. Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul; and Soul Mates) has described what I see as an important starting point for the latter of these two relationships. He references ‘the community of self’, alluding to the multiple aspects of self that we all contain. Gestalt psychology pays great heed to the same idea; as does psychosynthesis theory. The essence is that of cultivating an awareness of and taking ownership for all ‘sub-personalities’ – the good, the bad, and the ugly, as it were – and thereby getting quite comfortable in one’s own skin, with one’s own self. (This is contrasted with rejecting aspects that we find discomforting or know to be unpopular – ‘that’s not the real me’ – and embracing those pieces that we feel will endear us to our community, or relationships.) The ‘alone time’, the keeping our boundaries in place in our community connections, the ‘working of our own allotments’ provides us the space and opportunity to get to know ourselves. Then (and perhaps only then) do we have the perspective, the assurance, the self-knowledge, self-acceptance to develop and maintain healthy membership in our communities.

The Glass Is. . . Well, The Glass Is.

I can still recall my reflexive annoyance at seeing the cute little smiley face appended to the signature of a former colleague’s written communications – and the momentary pleasure I’d take in blacking it out. The implied ‘have a nice day’ seemed to invite an ‘I’ll have whatever kind of day I choose, thank you very much’ accompanied by thoughts of pathetic Pollyanna’s and irrepressible Ricky’s (for those of us old enough to have watched Ozzie and Harriet). Give me a good, solid cynic anytime: grounded realists all. In short, I’d always harbored a view (a suspicion) that optimism lacked gravitas, smacked to some extent of self-delusion – or, at best, naïveté; pessimism, while ‘harder to look at’, was the real deal, the unvarnished truth.

Mellowing somewhat, as I expect we must, in the past few decades – and I suppose fortunate, professionally, that psychology as a discipline has gravitated toward the middle ground – I’ve found myself a little less dark and now quite accepting of ‘balanced thinking’. Cognitive behavioural techniques, with their emphasis on rational thought and a ‘just stick to the facts, m’am’ methodology, have displaced, for the most part Freud’s sinister interpretations of our hidden compulsions as the intervention of choice. My personal pendulum had begun its inevitable return trip to the midpoint. Nevertheless I was not about to turn in my cynic’s club membership just yet and become a card-carrying optimist.

So it was with some skepticism (of course!) that I read Sarah Hampson’s piece in the Globe last weekend highlighting the findings of a recent book entitled The Happiness Advantage (Shawn Achor) associating, among other things, a performance edge going to the happy camper. Identifying a range of potential within the individual, research reviewed by Achor reportedly suggests that we operate more toward the upper reaches of that range when we are ‘happy’. In fairness (to us former cynics), he is quick to differentiate between that chronically effervescent, resilient state that so reminds me of those inflatable ‘bobo’ dolls with sand in their feet that pop right back up each time you’d whack the bejeezus out of them – a condition he calls ‘irrational optimism’ – and its more grounded sibling: rational optimism. (We didn’t all buy into The Secret and its questionable, though wildly popular contention that ‘if you put it out to the universe, it will happen’ – and if it doesn’t, it’s because you had a little doubt sneak in the side door – and neither, it seems, did Mr. Achor.)

His rational optimist is not just somebody who thinks happy thoughts (think Chicken Soup for the Soul author tacking his cheque for $1 million on the ceiling above his bed – until it showed up. Oh really!!). Rather, he/she is someone who exhibits three characteristics that Achor claims are responsible for 75% of our performance in any given situation (intelligence, skill set, etc. accounting, in his view for the other 25%): optimism (of course), a positive and supportive social network, and a positive response to stress. The last of the three is the one I found most compelling – and, in some ways, most relevant to and accessible through mindfulness practice. The author identifies, as part of the rational optimist’s tool kit, post-traumatic growth as key. He defines this as the individual’s capacity to respond to crisis, hurt, disappointment, tragedy with a readiness to incorporate these difficult, even tragic circumstances into their ongoing psychological growth – as he puts it, ‘growing because of trauma, not despite it’. I contrast this with what an acquaintance of mine calls ‘victim mode’ – the adoption of one’s tragedies as a defining element in their identity going forward. A wonderful exploration of these two polarities is contained in Rohinton Mistry’s, A Fine Balance, chronicling the undeniably tragic lives of two, poverty stricken tailors from the north of India and their infallible and personally innocent ‘instinct’ for participating in one disaster after another buoyed only by their resilience; and a spoiled relative afforded every opportunity who ultimately suicides, a ‘victim’ of his own ‘thoughts’.

In mindfulness practice, attachment represents a considerable impediment. Among its other ‘roles’, becoming attached to or entrenched in a particular state or event fails to allow us to move on. We become ‘stuck’, in the present context, ‘in victim’ – which then begins to define who we are, how we see ourselves, and even what our expectations for the future might be. (In clinical terms, we may become depressed or overly preoccupied with the past; even making ‘predictions’ about the probable negative direction we’re headed in – the ‘nothing ever changes’ or ‘without bad luck, I’d have no luck at all’ outlook.) Regular mindfulness practice, with its attendant emphasis on the basics of letting go, allowing what is, accepting that change and evolution is inevitable, can be figural in our adoption of a more fluid, tolerant (of all experiences) mindset – living with the ‘full catastrophe’, in Jon Kabat Zinn’s description. In Mr. Achor’s view, this becomes important as we sort out how we’re going to address the inevitable ‘downturns’ in our lives (he claims something of the order of 10% of what we face is externally determined and therefore unavoidable) – do we treat them as ‘confirmations’ of our ‘traumatized’ state; or adaptively, with rational optimism.

This thinking is not new. I can still recall seeing Norman Vincent Peale sitting prominently on my parents’ bookshelf (well, his book, anyway). Much more recently, and for the hard-headed scientist in me, more palatably is the work of Martin Seligman, a prominent psychologist, whose earlier research centered on learned optimism, leading to his very readable book, Authentic Happiness in 2002. In it he provides compelling evidence and manageable formulae for (in language very similar to Achor’s) ‘fulfilling one’s potential’. His listing of ‘signature strengths’ (vs. defining pathologies) – what’s right, rather than what’s wrong – reads like an index to mindfulness practice: openness to experience, objective consideration, social intelligence, perspective, integrity, genuineness, honesty, (loving)kindness, generosity, self-control, humility. . .the list goes on to twenty-four such dimensions. (Just a tad more ‘optimistic’ than reading the DSM-IV, the catalogue of psychiatric mental health disorders, prominent on our current bookshelves.)

For a full, working example of what Achor’s formula might look like in action, have a look at this morning Globe’s lead story at:

Optimism, supportive social network, positive response to stress – indeed! Maybe there’s hope for this aging cynic after all.


Once You Learn, You Never Forget

I have the sense that bicycle metaphors may hold preeminence for a bit. Sleek and streamlined, narrow-tired, aero-rimmed, the touring bike with which I was about to spend more of my time than with any human being for the next two weeks leaned casually against a corridor wall in Manchester Airport – ready for action. Unencumbered, it was a thing of beauty. Then the ‘encumbering’ began. First the rack that would hold panniers away from the spokes of the rear wheel – and hopefully contain all the ‘stuff’ I would require for this fortnight. Then the brackets for the ‘hungry-man’ sized handlebar bag. Followed by the mount for what some, less well-prepared acquaintances have dismissed as David’s wide screen TV; aka, my GPS that would guide me to those remote B & B’s in the Yorkshire Dales (missing a turn in a car is one thing; 10 kilometers out of one’s way on a bicycle can be, shall we say, a little more frustrating). Frame pump, under-saddle tool bag, water bottle, waterproof pannier covers, front and rear lights – and the kitting out was complete. I gingerly mounted, deluding myself that I could cycle my way out of the bowels of the airport, only to find that my responsive, light-weight, and ‘balanced’ bike had metamorphosed into an awkward, unpredictable, finicky, and decidedly burdened semblance of its former self; mirroring even the most insignificant departures from a perfect perpendicular with the front wheel twisting sideways on itself and the whole unit ready to collapse in a heap with any lapse in the rider’s attention. I was immediately reminded of accounts of Arthurian knights’ steeds caving under the weight of their own ‘protective’ armour.

A second image, also cycle-based but from a much earlier stage, is that of my first two-wheeler presented me by parents as a birthday gift on one of those rare early November days when southern Ontario was blessed with a significant snow fall. Unable to engage the usual father-son ritual of having the former run along clutching the underside of saddle to support and maintain the upright latter unit of son on wobbly bike, I had to content myself using the fridge as father-surrogate as I rocked to and fro in our kitchen, making first attempts at balancing this creature that seemed (not unlike the loaded unit in the airport) more intent on falling over than on remaining vertical. (I really do need to stop biking indoors!)

Either way, balance is a tricky, elusive thing. For the perhaps six-year old David, there was not yet the intuitive ‘once you learn it, you never forget it’ skill that allows dad to let go the seat, the training wheels to come off – or, in this auspicious beginning, the fridge to be abandoned for more free-wheeling days. Six decades later, the intuition might well be in place, but the compulsion to sabotage it with ‘stuff’ – all very essential, but clutter nonetheless – had crept in to undermine. Trust (that inner instinct that is just there – very hard to ‘tell’ someone how to ride a bike) and simplicity: the casualties that are often reflected in an ‘unbalanced’ life. In the case of the former, the more we attend to our ‘riding’ (“how am I doing, Dad?”), the more wobbly we become; in the latter, the more we surround ourselves with the ‘reassuring encumbrances’, the less we are free to attend to the ease and effortlessness of moving through our space.

A few thoughts on what we might do to restore balance. If we consider our subtle ‘vertical’ as some hypothetical mid-point between attachment (those aspects of our life without which we would surely perish) and avoidance (the other end of this continuum wherein reside all those things that, to which were we to be exposed, we would surely perish), then we might be getting a little closer to riding that unencumbered beauty, uphill and down with equal joy. This allows us to position ourselves along the horizontal dimension somewhere between our two ‘extremes’. I had read an instructive midrash (a Hebrew ‘teaching story’) that characterizes these end-points as two cliffs between which one is sailing; perched atop one cliff is one of a pair of characteristics and atop the other, its opposite. Examples might be generosity and stinginess, patience and impatience, impulsivity and procrastination. The task, in retaining / regaining our balance is to first be mindful of what sits on our ‘right’ and ‘left’; secondly, to steer a course between – taking care not to pass too closely to one rocky wall or the other; and thirdly, to resist judging either as inherently good (becoming too attached to it) or bad (avoiding it). A fourth aspect is that of ‘subtlety’ – taking care that our ‘course corrections’ do not represent overly aggressive, ‘over-compensations’ (recall what happens when riding that ‘balanced bike’ when one jerks the handlebars too radically; better to subtly lean in one direction or another – if one is to stay uprigtht!)

Mindfulness practice introduces an additional element that ‘elevates’ us above that horizontal: equanimity; essentially allows us to hover above, rather than simply bouncing back and forth between. Equanimity is seen as a state of mental or emotional stability or composure arising from a deep awareness and acceptance of the present moment. I like a few aspects of this definition. First, stability (in keeping with our mindful cyclist) – keeping upright, balanced and to the middle road, as it were. Secondly, composure; avoiding radical ‘corrections’, pausing and considering a situation before reacting (although that child on the bike path coming into York on that sunny, dog- and child-filled Sunday afternoon did require a tad of ‘act first, think later’ intervention!) And finally, acceptance of. . . beyond an awareness of our ‘two walls’, an allowing of what sits atop them.

Both my bike and I came to accept the ‘middle ground’ between the unburdened ‘lightness of being’ (envied in those that, on occasion passed me peddling up some quite unbelievable hills – as I pushed mine to the top) and the prospects of wearing the same pair of shorts for two weeks as I wandered, totally lost across the North Yorkshire moors. I still had that tail wind and the privilege of sailing down the other side.