Dont Worry, Be (H)Appy!

Can’t make up your mind — outsource!  A recent article in the Globe & Mail* suggested that, in our over-busy world, we simply don’t have time to make all the trivial decisions that confront us every time we step into the intimidating and overwhelming aisles of an emporium. Choices abound — and challenge. Be it groceries, electronics — hell, even ordering a coffee is a forty-minute decision, most of the options for which I can’t even begin to translate. (Just for fun follow this link to Starbucks ‘menu’: The G & M’s helpful suggestion is to download an app that will ‘automatically’ navigate those banks of toothpaste, dish soap, cereal . . . Looks like some geek somewhere got it right — no doubt a dabbler in mindfulness practice.
The intimation is that, to truly ‘live mindfully’, we will do a couple of things: stay present and act with intention. The latter exhorts us to consider our choices with some measure of consciousness and awareness. This, of course, is the opposite of acting ‘mindlessly’, automatically. No problem — until we step out the door; and just maybe we need not even do that — just log onto the internet and well. . . TMI. And so we find ourselves in a bit of a bind. We can abide by the mindfulness dictum, acting intentionally. Which may translate into spending half a day in Zehrs: 30 minutes shopping and four hours ‘deciding with intention’ between the non-organically produced mixed greens from Leamington, costing us an extra 19 cents but satisfying our green planet mandate and the cheaper, Southern California equivalent which we’re obligated to bury in the bottom of the cart so the carbon footprint police don’t catch us; or maybe we could / should go to the local health food store and pick up the visually less appealing, but organically and locally grown produce and 150% more expensive and using more gas to make two stops instead of one . . . OR just do the automatic thing, and not give it a second (or even a first) thought! And get tossed out of the mindfulness club. Rock and a hard place it would appear.
Seems there’s some middle ground required. Our friendly app store geek may have it partly right: transfer the intention sideways — at least for the truly time consuming, but minor decisions that would chew up our day if we followed ‘the rules’ to the letter. This being said, automaticity, defined as ‘working by itself with little or no human input or control’, is definitely a two-edged sword. Once we’re out of Walmart or Starbucks, it may just be time to reinstate intentional behavior.
From the psychotherapeutic perspective, depending on the ‘theory school’ to which one subscribes, digging into the murky origins of one’s childhood is the sine qua non of change. Not because we discover the ‘real villain’ (mummy or daddy or the evil neighbor down the block) on whom to hang and blame all our neuroses; or because it allows an emotional release of all that suppressed angst.  But precisely because it allows us insights into those behavioral paths, worn smooth by years (and years) of automatic responses — and, in the bargain, allowing us a choice. We can ‘mindlessly’ continue, for example, to respond angrily to frustration, because that’s how we saw annoyance acted out in our household. Or we can understand that this is a predictable knee jerk to which we’ll almost certainly fall prey if we just leave it to the engram that is the product of those years of unmindful, automatic impulse; and accordingly, at least offer ourselves the choice of behaving with tolerance, compassion, patience.
Most schools of thought emphasize at some level, an examination of our ‘core values’ as a precursor change. These, of course, are often devoutly held beliefs, inclinations, perspectives, views of self and others that have become increasingly ‘unconscious’ over the years; and, by extension, adopted as ‘personal truths’ and form the template on which ‘unintentional’ or automatic behavior is predicated. If we are to genuinely respond with intention / awareness, we need to begin the journey on that long and winding road of making these patterns, these pathways conscious again. We need to replace these ‘knee jerks’ with a ‘notice and choose’ strategy: taking careful note of those proclivities into which we automatically slide; then pause and decide if that is in fact the preferred response. Making an intentional choice.
As for toothpaste and latte’s, I’m OK having Mr. App Man take that on. For the more significant interactions of my day — maybe I’d like a little more personal say.

Praise for ‘A Rat’s Ass’

Compassion is overrated. Well, at least, regularly misunderstood in its application. Like so many concepts and principles, drawn from mindfulness practice, it seems to have been adopted, swallowed whole by our Western culture  — without much consideration for the ‘downsides’ of its undifferentiated and indiscriminate employment. Again, in keeping with our Western values, ‘if a little bit is good, bloody great dollops must be better’.
Reflecting on pivotal periods, critical choices points in my life, the candidates could be narrowed to a few select ‘suspects’ joined by a common thread.  With an initially disturbing awareness, these are all times when, in the parlance, I ‘didn’t give a rat’s ass’* — generally for the feelings of or impact on others. More of that in a moment.
Having spent (or mis-spent, depending on one’s perspective) a year of my early adult life living, more or less hand to mouth, in various parts of western Europe, I returned a changed person — leaner and meaner, as the saying goes. A previously chunky young man (witness my mother’s stubborn insistence on shopping for ‘hefty boy’ sizes at the local department store in still earlier times), I’d slimmed down physically over that year. And shed as well was, not so much my morality (although it can become quite the encumbrance!) as my fearful observance of ‘being a nice guy’. Sadly, I believe it’s this latter interpretation of compassion that gets us into trouble — lest we upset, incur ire, or ripple the waters unduly.
I had this realization confirmed a decade later when, having dabbled in running for a number of years with less progress than I would have hoped, I’d engaged a coach. Two bits of his wealth of advice stuck: choose a distance and concentrate on it; and secondly, be a bit more ruthless. He’d sussed out my ‘nice guy’ posture yet again and concluded that sticking with and supporting my buddies was not a way to engage what is essentially a competitive sport. ‘Pack runs’ are the time for that sort of thing, not race day. Hmm?
Some years after this ‘second rebirth’ and now into a third ‘iteration of awareness’, I had  clearly backslid to a significant extent and was in need of yet another 2 x 4 to the forehead. Guilt, self-doubt, and hand-wringing confusion, coincident with a very fresh divorce, had prompted my engagement in an intensive group workshop built around seven days of personal introspection and encounter (think Bob & Carol & Ted &Alice), my first of this ilk. The facilitator had drawn me back to ‘life changing’ points — less concerned with the ‘when’ as the ‘what’. And as I catalogued some of these moments, he summed up the commonalities succinctly: “Sound like ‘rat’s ass’ moments to me” — . With his background in Gestalt and Human Potential, he was able to expand a bit. To his mind, these were all times when I’d allowed not so much a less caring (or compassionate) side of self to have a voice; as a more authentic, truthful, and certainly less deferential expression of self.
Compassion is indeed a very tricky concept. Too often it has become associated with being ‘a nice guy’ (or gal). Doing our level best to divine a ‘right answer’ (read, what we expect someone else might want, what might raise our good guy stock a notch or two, or keep a potentially volatile or confrontational situation from escalating). A review of Karen Armstrong’s parameters in her efforts to construct a Charter of Compassion will quickly identify the foundations on which it is built: empathy, recognition, mindfulness, respectful dialogue, among others. Nowhere could I find a chapter entitled ‘cultivation of a bleeding heart’ or ‘being nice’.  In fact, she contends that the oldest and most basic component of compassion is a variant on the ‘Golden Rule’: do unto others — as you would have them do unto you.
It’s this last bit that perhaps bears repeating. Compassion is a very reciprocal thing. It is not a matter of self-denial, self-sacrifice alone; not simply ‘doing for others. An essential meditation in a developed mindfulness practice is the lovingkindness or metta meditation. The core practice is that of blessing individuals occupying increasingly remote orbits of relationship, finally reaching the ring occupied by one’s enemies. But it starts with the blessing, the wishing well of oneself. To deny one’s own wellbeing is to skip the point of origin of compassion. What the facilitator had focused my attention on was not that when I behaved selfishly or callously, I did better or was more content. Quite the contrary. He was drawing my attention to the need for a more balanced voice, a voice that expressed my truth — not at the expense of others but in tandem with the needs, views, beliefs of others.
So ‘no more Mr. Nice Guy’ is not an invitation to abuse or ignore; it’s simply a reminder that equanimity must inform compassionate acts — just as it should inform all behavior. ‘Not giving a rat’s ass’ is not permission to dismiss or worse, diss; just a mnemonic for a balanced life. Hard to pass on a final pun, an ‘ass of another kind’. One of my favorite explorations of this concept is contained in Forster’s Howard’s End (with apologies) wherein the bleeding heart really does get her comeuppance ‘in the end’. To be sure, so does the ‘harda__’.
* For those in the reading audience who, for reasons of sensibility or sheltered childhoods, may be unfamiliar, the expression refers to generally ‘dismissing the importance of . . .’ In contemporary lingo, it’s the equivalent of a response of ‘whatever’.

Second Violin

This has been a weekend of music: Daniel Taylor, a world class tenor backed by his choir of ‘students’ from U of T singing the most stunning sacred music in a pro bono concert in the afternoon. Then the InnerChamber unleashing a Haydn and a Brahms string quartet in the evening. All this preceded by A Late Quartet, a compelling film exploring the dynamics and the dialogue that flows, often unheard, below the music itself.
Two comments: one from Andrew Chung, the leader of the InnerChamber group and a second from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the second violinist in the above film, form the backdrop of this weeks ramble. ‘Among other things, what appeals about the Haydn is the equality of conversation amongst the four instruments. Sure, the first violin has some of the spicy bits, but. . . ‘, from Andrew, playing second in this quartet. From Hoffman: ‘Without the second to add color, texture, linkage, transition, there’s no quartet’.
I was reminded of a comment attributed to a colleague: ‘I’d rather have impact than importance; effectiveness than fame’. At the risk of sounding maudlin, I have a strong affection for, identification with the ‘second violin’ — or more properly, the second violinist. On my childhood street, my best friend, Larry, was the son of a doctor. He was thin, good looking, with a social ease and unselfconscious style that made him very popular with the girls; and a bit of a sought after ‘buddy’ to the guys who could count on benefiting from their social proximity to him. My first ‘opportunity’ to play second violin.  Absent any swagger or arrogance, Larry just moved through his world, largely unaware that he occupied the ‘first chair’. It was the rest of us who were acutely conscious of playing ‘second fiddle’. And we had a choice: we could resent it; or we could focus on the skill sets that shone a little less brightly in those heady high school days. For some of us it became academics — accompanied by what came to be known as ‘Larry’s leavings’.
Fast forward three or so decades. My longtime business partner, Rick Graff, and I are starting our private practice. Not exactly a coin toss to decide the moniker that would define our partnership — but in those days, the preferred protocol for naming a practice required a single practitioner’s name be used. For various reasons, we decided to christen the new enterprise: Rick Graff & Associates. Just out of sight, in the Associates section, are a contingent of skilled and experienced practitioners, part of the ‘orchestra’, out of the spotlight. An excellent partnership over the intervening 20 years, once again I’ve had the opportunity to focus on the aspects of psychology that interest me in addition to clinical work — that would be the building of a business, expanding the compliment of practitioners, seemingly providing the ‘glue’ that acts to keeps our ‘herd of cats’ more or less on the same path. Attending to the ‘color, texture, linkages, and transitions’. Second violin.
My musical weekend has underscored two significant awarenesses for me — both with implications for mindfulness practice. The first is one of ego and cultivating a clear consciousness and acceptance of the role which one plays — not to belabor the metaphor. Neither Larry nor Rick are defined by their ego — both, in my experience of them, have been modest, unassuming friends. Each in their own way wearing the mantle of ‘the first chair’ without pretension; neither grasping after nor clinging or aspiring to that ‘part’. Equally, to maintain the ‘chemistry’ between us requires a certain ‘ego-less’ posture on the part of ‘the second violin’.  A delicate balance to be sure — and one that fosters the second awareness: community — or, from the musician’s perspective, the conversation and harmony of players playing their part.
A community, whether of practitioners or musicians — an association or a quartet or a choir — demands ‘rehearsal’, dialogue, and a variety of ‘instruments’. Its strength derives from its diversity and role-awareness; its readiness to adopt shared goals. Daniel Taylor’s choir finished their afternoon with a haunting piece of Tavener: perfectly balanced, split on either side of the church, each chorister singing in their assigned register. Taylor’s pure tenor soloist voice is a compelling ‘first’; the choir, a testament to the ‘conversation’ that adds the ‘texture. . .’