Sunday, March 31, 2013

Stroke of Insight

"Our desire for peace must be stronger than our attachment to misery, our ego, and our need to be right." 


"Own your power and show up for your life." 

                                     –  Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight

Today is Sunday, March 31, 2013.

Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist who had a stroke at the age of 37, back in December of 1996.  As a leading brain researcher, she had the ability to realize that she was having a stroke, and was able to get help quickly.  She was also able to realize or reconstruct much of what was going on in her brain when the stroke occurred, as well as during her eight-year recovery process.  A gifted teacher, she is able to explain to those of us who are unfamiliar with the workings of the brain just exactly what happens to those who suffer a stroke, how it feels to have a stroke, and how best to treat and care for stroke patients.

Although I saw Dr. Taylor's powerful TED talk on the Internet several years ago, I never got around to reading her book until recently.  I was amazed at how profound and insightful the book is, and am excited to share with you some of the wisdom that I gained from it.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor
 There are basically three different ways a stroke can be caused.  83% of all strokes are caused by blood clots that block the flow of oxygen-rich blood that keeps the brain cells alive.  17% of all strokes are "hemorrhagic" strokes, where blood escapes from the arteries and floods the brain.  What very few people know is that the blood is actually toxic to neurons (brain cells) when it comes into direct contact with them!  An aneurysm is a form of hemorrhagic stroke where the wall of a blood vessel weakens and balloons outward, eventually rupturing and flooding the brain tissue with toxic blood.

A hemorrhagic stroke can also be caused by a very rare condition called arteriovenous malformation (AVM), in which the arteries that supply blood to the brain are malformed from birth.  Instead of there being small capillaries connecting arteries and veins, with AVM, the arteries and veins are directly connected.  The capillaries are there to serve as a buffer between the high-pressure arteries and the low-pressure veins.  When the vein can no longer handle pressure from the artery, the vein ruptures, flooding the brain with toxic blood.  AVM accounts for only about 2% of all hemorrhagic strokes, but it is a common cause of strokes in younger people, aged 25-45.  This was the cause of Dr. Taylor's stroke.

It's important to realize that no two strokes are identical, and that each person recovers from a stroke in their own way, so although there are many commonalities between what happened to Dr. Taylor and what happens to other people, every case is slightly different.

Many of  us are aware of the difference between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. In her TED talk, she actually shows the audience a real brain, and it becomes clear that the left and right halves of the brain are almost completely separate, connected only at one end by the corpus callosum. These two parts of the brain behave differently when surgically separated than when they are connected.   When they are separate, they can function as two independent brains with separate personalities, the so-called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde phenomenon.   When they are working together, they function in seamless fashion to help us make sense of and interact with our environment. 

Interestingly enough, the side of the brain that is dominant in a person does not correspond to which hand you use.  More than 85% of the U.S. population is right-handed, and virtually all of these people are left-brain dominant.  For left-handed people, the statistics are different:  more than 60% of lefties are also left-brain dominant, which means that a little less than 40% of these people (15% of the population) are right-brain dominant.

The right hemisphere works like a parallel processor of a computer; it processes simultaneous streams of information from our sensory systems and the emotions which are triggered by the events in our lives.  It perceives the big picture.  It thinks in visual images, for the most part.  (Blind people are capable of picturing things, too, believe it or not, perhaps not in color, but in shape and orientation in space, for example.)  The right mind functions in a state of timelessness, where no time exists except the present moment.  The right mind is the home of creativity and intuition.  The right mind experiences the self as an energy being that is interconnected with all life, including all plant and animal life, the earth itself, all human beings, and that which we call God. 

The left hemisphere of the brain works more like a serial processor.  It is the home of linear thought; it's the part of the brain that divides our lives into past, present and future.  The left mind uses language, and it is responsible for the little chatterbox in our heads that gives a running commentary on our lives.  The left mind analyzes details, and categorizes them using language. It thinks in terms of hierarchies of information.  It is the home of our  academic thinking.  The speed at which the left brain works has been shown to vary among people. The left mind distinguishes patterns, which allows us to process a lot of information without much conscious attention to the thinking process itself.  The left brain experiences self as "I," apart from others.  It is the home of the ego. 

Although the two sides of the brain have completely different ways of working, they are complementary and work together seamlessly.  For example, it's our left brain that understands language when someone speaks to us, but the right brain interprets the nonverbal cues, or body language, of the speaker.   Damage to either side of the brain results in different types of problems.

Dr. Taylor's stroke affected her left brain, so she was in the unique position of being able to experience at first hand how the right brain functions by itself, without the use of language or linear thought.  With her left brain "offline," so to speak, she was able to experience a deep inner peace, a state of nirvana, that the rest of us can only experience in deep meditation, when we consciously decide to ignore our left-brain processing.  When she began to recover her left-brain functions, she was aware that there were some things she didn't actually want to recover, so she ended up re-inventing herself, as it were.  

"I have been very fussy this time around," writes Dr. Taylor, "about which emotional programs I am interested in retaining and which ones I have no interest in giving voice to again (impatience,  criticism, unkindness)." 

Dr. Taylor explains in her book that the limbic system runs emotional programs in the brain. In my blog entry yesterday, I explained that emotions are the result of neuropeptides, chemicals created by the brain, and that cells in the body have specific receptor sites for these neuropeptides.  Interestingly enough, when I wrote that blog entry yesterday, I had not yet read the one piece of information in Dr. Taylor's book that absolutely blew me away.  It takes only 90 seconds (a minute and a half) from the time something triggers the creation of a specific neuropeptide to the time the chemical circulates completely through the bloodstream, then gets flushed out.  This means that the "automatic" part of our emotions only lasts about 90 seconds.  If we choose to stay angry (continue to run the program) past the original trigger point, that is a choice, whether it is conscious or subconscious! 

Dr. Taylor says that we have more conscious control over our brains than most of us realize.  It is actually possible to tell your brain to stop running an emotional program.  Some people may simply say to themselves, "Stop!" or "Cancel! Cancel!" or "Enough, already!"  Dr. Taylor says it's important to be firm and consistent, or the negative thoughts and emotions will come back.  (See the quote at the top of this blog entry.)

The other day, some friends of mine were talking about letting negative emotions go, and one of the people asked for more specific information about how this could be accomplished.  For me, just the information that an automatic emotional response lasts only 90 seconds is key.  That's the time in which I need to acknowledge the emotion and realize that it is telling me something about my life that I may need to look at more carefully or  change. After 90 seconds has passed, I am back in control, and I can choose whether to run that emotional program or not.  This is an incredibly empowering thought.  Dr. Taylor distinguishes between observing a negative thought and engaging with it.  It's important that we observe our thoughts and honor them for the information they provide.  It's just as important, though, to learn ways to avoid engaging in negative thoughts and emotions.

On Facebook, I once saw a graphic that said although pain is not a choice, suffering is a choice.  Many would disagree, but Dr. Taylor says that once the physical brain has done its thing with the neuropeptides, the emotional programs don't necessarily have to keep on running.  Suffering is our attitude about the original pain, an extension of the original programming, whether it be an actual physical sensation or a painful situation, such as loss of a loved one.  Dr. Taylor says we can feel pain without having to engage in the "emotional loop" of suffering.

In her book, Dr. Taylor gives some great advice about specific things one can do to interrupt negative loops of thought and associated emotions.  She says everyone should develop at least three "backup"thoughts to use when we are beset by negative emotions such as fear, anger, jealousy, worry, etc.  She, personally, does the following:  1) She chooses to think of something that fascinates her and that she'd like to know more about.  2) She has identified selected memories or people who give her joy, and can revisit them at any time.  3)  She thinks of some activity that she wants to do immediately.  

In my spiritual practice, we are taught to use the spiritually-charged word HU (pronounced like the word "hue" in English).  HU is an ancient name for God, and very powerful.  When we chant HU softly to ourselves, whether inwardly or out loud, it allows us to step back from a situation and avoid prolonging the negative thought programs. 

Dr. Taylor cautions that particularly powerful thoughts are actually the result of more than one circuit simultaneously, so we may need to spend more time and effort to stop the circuits of negative thought.  She suggests that people take up some form of exercise, such as Yoga, Feldkrais, or Tai Chi.  She also suggests learning how to relax, specifically how to consciously relax your muscles, and that we should spend some time relaxing muscles throughout the body from top to bottom.  She also suggests the use of our voices to sing a mantra (such as HU, Om, or something else).  Affirmations, especially when spoken aloud, can be very powerful.  Verbal guided meditation, in which you listen to someone who guides you though an inner experience, is also helpful.  Meditations using other sounds, such as singing bowls, can also be very powerful, as can listening to calming music.

Dr. Taylor suggests a type of meditation or contemplation in which she uses Angel Cards to invite an angel (representing a desired quality such as peace) into her life each day.  She also suggests limiting our viewing of scary movies and TV shows and avoiding negative people.  

Someone I know suggested that the type of music we listen to can also contribute to a negative frame of mind.  He enjoyed listening to Country and Western music, but realized eventually that in every album or CD, there was always at least one song that was a tearjerker, and usually more than one.  He decided to give away his country music CDs to others who might enjoy them.  He said that just being aware of how the lyrics of our favorite songs can cause us to feel or relive sadness, grief, misery, or anger was very empowering.  I would imagine the same goes for books, as well.  Stephen King may be a great author, but if you are having  trouble getting  rid of fearful thoughts, his books are probably not the wisest choice of reading material.

Dr. Taylor says she realized when she was recovering from the stroke that the dominant emotion of the right brain is joy, and she has learned to tap into that feeling whenever she needs to.  Her "stroke of insight" was that we all have this ability to tap into the right brain, where we can experience peace, joy, and a feeling of connectedness with God.  We can experience ourselves as Soul, separate from the physical body.  

In her book, Dr. Taylor wondered why some people don't choose to make themselves happy, and theorized that some of the negative emotional loops such as anger and fear are familiar and therefore comforting in their familiarity, whereas contentment and peace may be unfamiliar, and therefore frightening.  She quoted Albert Einstein, who said, "I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be."  Dr. Taylor also mentioned that when people are angry or critical of others, they may feel that they are in the right, so their feelings are justified.  She reminds us in one of the quotes that I shared at the beginning of this blog entry that we may need to give up our need to be right in order to be happy.  "Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?" is a question that many of us have had to answer for ourselves.  In describing fear, Dr. Taylor says that this negative emotion involves expectations of the future that we often don't question.  She offers an acronym to help us process our fears.  Fear can be thought of as False Expectations Appearing Real.  It may behoove us to examine the assumptions that are the basis of our fears.

In learning to control our brain functions, we can exert more control over our lives.  Dr. Taylor ends by exhorting her readers to observe and learn more about the ways in which their own brains function: "Own your power and show up for your life." 

Powerful advice! After all, they say that the key to success is, "Just show up."  :-)


You can visit Dr. Taylor's websites by clicking on these hyperlinks:  Jill Bolte Taylor Home and My Stroke of Insight.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

You Are What You Think

Today is Saturday, March 30, 2013. 

We are accustomed to hearing the saying, "You are what you eat," but science is now catching up with the wisdom of ancient spiritual traditions in the realization that you are what you think!  In fact, there is a whole new science called psychoneuroimmunology that explores the relationship between the mind and the nervous system and immune system.

Native American Wisdom says, "If we have bad thoughts or poison in our minds, they will eventually show up in our bodies in the form of headaches, pains, and stomach problems.  It works this way because we are interconnected.  Purification means purification of body and mind.  You don't purify the body without cleansing the mind; that's the way it works."  

My own spiritual teacher, Harold Klemp, the Spiritual Leader of Eckankar, said this even more succinctly: "Every thought, word, or deed either purifies or pollutes the body." 

The Christian Bible (King James Version) has the same advice.  Proverbs 23:7 says, "For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he."  In Matthew 15:11 (English Standard Version) it says, "It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person."

So how does this work?  One thing science is particularly good at is describing the mechanism for the way things work.  Dr. Richard Schultze describes how it works in his book, Common Sense Health and Healing.

First of all, the brain works continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, never shutting down, even when the body is asleep.  When we have a thought, the brain creates chemicals called neuropeptides.  Scientists know that cells in the body have "receptor sites" or as Dr. Schultze calls them, "loading docks," for specific chemicals.  Within the last decade, researchers have discovered that immune cells, whose primary function is to protect you by fighting off bacteria, viruses, fungus, parasites, and cancer, also have receptors specifically for these neuropeptides created by the brain!  This means that immune cells actually respond to your thoughts, depending on which neuropeptides are created by the brain.  Your thoughts can literally boost or impair the function of the immune system. 

But that's not all.  Another researcher, Albert Garoli, says that certain of our organs respond to certain negative emotions, as the ancient Chinese have always known.  The kidneys can be affected by fear or shock; the spleen and pancreas are affected by worry or pensiveness.  The liver is affected by anger or frustration, while the lungs are affected by sadness or suppressed grief.  And, as many people already know, the heart can be affected by too much excitement.

The power of thought actually has more to do with our health than our diet.  In The Power of Thought Course System, Keith A. Shaw says, "Change of diet, taking more vitamins, or taking the latest 'magical (insert color here) pill,' advertised during your favorite television show, alone will not help the person who has not changed his thoughts."   This is also true no matter how much exercise a person gets or what kind of medical treatment a person's doctor prescribes.  Numerous case studies have shown that a positive attitude is credited for a patient's healing against all odds.  And we all know great athletes who have succumbed to illness and death, even in what was supposed to be the prime of his or her career in sports. 

So how can we become more aware of how our thoughts and feelings affect the body?  Deb Shapiro has created the following list:

1)  Be aware of when you're irritated or frustrated.  Pay attention to your breathing, if it becomes shallow, and the tightening of your shoulders and stomach muscles. 

2)  Observe anxiety reactions. In what part of the body do you hold anxiety?  Do you have pains in your stomach, or do your legs ache or feel tired?

3)  Watch how you react when someone is angry with you.  Do you get a headache?  Do you swallow hard or get a sore throat?  Do you clench your muscles?  Do you get constipated?

4)  Analyze illnesses and injuries.  Think about a time when you were hurt or ill.  What parts of your body were involved?   Do you always hurt the same side of your body?

Another book that talks at great length of the connection between our feelings and our bodies is Gary Zukav and Linda Francis's  The Heart of the Soul. 

Once we have identified how we are feeling, what next?  We know that we will need to do a little re-programming of the subconscious mind, so meditation and affirmations are good practice.  Even if you spend as little as five or ten minutes a day just holding pleasant thoughts, you can reap rich rewards in terms of your physical health and emotional well-being.   When we feel healthier, emotionally, we are better able to stick to healthy eating habits and exercise routines.   When we take the time to think positive thoughts, especially right after getting up in the morning or right before we go to bed at night, we find that our general level of energy goes up, too.

Making time to do things that we enjoy is crucial to our overall health.  Hobbies, travel, being with friends, listening to beautiful music, and getting active outdoors are all good ways to keep ourselves in a positive frame of mind.  :-)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Past, Present, and Future

Today is Friday, March 29, 2013.

Whether or not time really exists independently of human beings, we all perceive the passage of time and we order our lives in a linear fashion, with the past, present, and future as a way of classifying events in our lives.

There are a lot of people out there giving advice about how to process the past and the future.  One of those whose authorship one can trace is a poem by Kālidāsa, a renowned writer from the fifth century C.E., who wrote in Classical Sanskrit.  It amuses me to realize that modern human beings are not any smarter about the important things than those who lived long ago. 
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to a life well lived is apparently our own attitudes and emotions about the past. We spend valuable moments in our present regretting things we have done, beating ourselves up for missing the chance to do something, wondering whether we did the right thing or whether our work was good enough, worrying that we might not have impressed someone enough, or that we might have offended someone.  We wish we had said something more intelligent, more sophisticated, more knowledgeable, more tactful, or more truthful.  We wish we hadn't revealed a confidence or ruined a surprise.  We wish we had voted differently.  We feel anger about having been forced to do or say something, coerced into agreeing with someone, or tricked into being the bearer of bad news.

The future trips us up, too, before it arrives, as we spend time worrying that a negative event may happen again, fearing a negative outcome that we can't predict, waiting for the ax to fall, or fretting about whether someone will call us or send us an email.  We worry that we may lose our job, that our marriage may go sour, that our parents may disinherit us, or our kids will disown us. We are afraid that our significant other may be cheating on us, or that they will see us for what we are and break up with us.  We sweat over a presentation, sure that some higher-up will find fault with it.  We despair of ever getting ahead. We fear that we may lose all our money or face old age and death all alone.

All we can do about the past is change our attitude about what happened. We need to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and resolve to choose more wisely next time.  We need to learn from our past mistakes so that we won't repeat them.  If there is still a chance to make something right, we must seize the opportunity.  We can always apologize.  We can always admit we were wrong and ask forgiveness.  When we do these things, we not only learn from the past, but also heal it, in the sense that we no longer allow negative emotions to upset us to the point where they dictate our responses.

For the future, all we can do is prepare as well as we are able, keep ourselves open to new ideas, and be flexible enough to adjust our course heading as necessary.  One piece of advice struck me recently: Dream the future.   Not dream about the future, but dream the future – literally create it.

When we resolve to create our future, we can't expect our creation to manifest right away.  Why not?  Because we have created other things in the past, and we have to live with that creation for a while, whether it was created consciously or unconsciously.  Gradually, the future that we really want will manifest itself on the basis of our actions in the present, beginning with the moment in which we make the decision to be proactive.

 When we look at our present condition - what we have created for ourselves, we have a fuller realization of what our past actions really meant.  For example, we find ourselves short of money because we failed to save each month, we decided not to invest in the stock market, or we haven't managed our stock portfolio as well as we should have.  Going back from there, perhaps we failed to get a promotion because of something that we did or said.  Maybe we decided to play it safe in our current position, rather than try for a promotion, because it would have involved a long-distance move to an unfamiliar place.  Maybe we opted for a job that had a higher starting salary but with less opportunity for advancement.  We might have taken a job in a field that was stagnating, rather than growing toward the future.  Perhaps we failed to network with the right people.   Going back even farther, maybe we didn't study hard enough or get good enough grades to get a scholarship, so we had to pay our own way through college, or perhaps we valued an exciting social life rather than a brilliant academic career.  Whatever our present condition is, we can be sure that we created it by means of our attitudes, beliefs, actions, and words in the past.

When we are planning for the future, we must look carefully at what we are doing right now, not what we are planning to do this evening or tomorrow morning.  Is everything that we are doing now in line with our goals for the future?  If not, why not?  

Here is a great cartoon to illustrate this point. 

Past Me says, "Ugh, so much work to do... I'll do it later.

Present Me says, "Why didn't Past Me already do this?  Oh, well, I'm sure Future Me will get it done." 

Future Me says, "Damn it!  Why are you two such lazy bums?  Stop leaving me all the work!" 

I don't know about you, but I have certainly done this, many times over.  I left my housework til the weekend, because I was so busy during the week, but when the weekend came, I wanted to relax, and besides, a few friends wanted to get together on Saturday afternoon.  I waited until the last minute to get lesson plans done or write a test.  Knowing that I could not get it accomplished in the morning, I slaved away until very late at night, robbing myself of sleep with which to refresh my body for the rigors of the following day.  I forgot to get my hair cut before an important event, making it necessary to spend more time on my hair in order to get it to look OK.   Or I failed to do laundry at the appropriate time, so I had to wear a less flattering outfit to an important event. The list goes on.

In addition to detaching from our negative thoughts and emotions about our past and future, we must learn to live fully in the present.  That doesn't mean we can afford to forget about the past or future.  We just can't afford to allow our feelings about them dictate what actions we take right now.

You may think it's a waste of time for me to be ruminating about these matters, but I've realized that I'm much better at planning for the future, and although a little credit should be given to the fact that I am no longer under as much stress as I was when I was working,  I think the lion's share of the credit goes to the fact that I have taken time in recent weeks to think deeply about these things.  In that sense, these blog posts are incredibly therapeutic for me.  :-)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Education for Change

Today is Thursday, March 28, 2013.  

When I taught in high school, I made a point of completely re-arranging the desks into different patterns each quarter of the school year.  The kids would come into the room and see that their "assigned seat" was no longer in the same place, and the complaints would begin. 

"Ugh!  Change my life!"

"NOW where am I supposed to sit?" 

I invited them to take any seat and assured them that I would instruct them what to do next.  They didn't like it. 

My friend Mary Carroll Moore wrote two books about change: Turning Points and How to Master Change in Your Life: Sixty-seven Ways to Handle Life's Toughest Moments.  At one of her workshops, she began by asking all the participants to find a different seat.  There was some general grumbling, but everyone did this.  I remember being a little put out, because I had chosen a seat in front so I could hear the presentation well.  Mary then told us a story of a woman who had attended one of her earlier workshops.  The woman came early and chose her seat carefully, neatly draping her coat on the back of her chair, and arranging her notebook, pens, tissues and coffee on the table in front of her.  When Mary asked everyone to find a different seat, this woman simply packed up her belongings in her bag and left the workshop. 

Carl Jung wrote, "If there is anything we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves."  Frankly, adults don't handle change well, so how can we expect our kids to handle it?   We need to educate ourselves in ways to handle change so that we will be able to help our children cope with whatever the future brings.

Back in 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock, in which he said, among other things, that the pace of change was increasing exponentially, and that humans seem to have a limited capacity for dealing with change.  When we are overwhelmed with changes in our lives, "future shock" results.  

It would seem, then, that one of the best things we can do for kids is to teach them not only how to learn, but how to change.  Toffler wrote, "By instructing students how to learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to education."  I agree, but the fact remains that it is hard for adults to teach kids coping skills for rapid change when they lack these skills themselves.  Basically, this is one of those times when teachers and students will have to travel the learning curve together.  One of the most important things that today's educators can do for their students is to learn ways to handle changes.  In Gandhi's words, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."   Or, as Leo Tolstoy put it, "Everyone things of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself."

One of the problems with the current education system that is often cited is that schools are now tasked with the goal of preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist.  When I graduated from high school in 1971, someone told me that there would be a time when there would be a computer in every home.  I couldn't imagine how that would work.  You have to understand that in those days, mainframe computers were huge machines that filled a whole room, and you had to have special training to run one.  They were very delicate, as I recall.  In the early 80s, when I worked for Berlitz in Japan, a computer programmer friend of mine allowed me to enter the special room where our mainframe computer was housed.  He told me to watch the monitor on the operator's terminal as I passed it.  Sure enough, the computer was so delicate that when I passed by, there was a wave of flickers across the screen. 

But back to 1971... at that time I had no concept of a personal computer.  All I could think of was a robot or android that might assist me with housework.  What other use for a computer could there be in our homes?  I couldn't imagine that my world would  one day be defined in many ways by my access, not only to a computer, but to the Internet.  

Schools will never be able to give kids specific training for jobs that will exist in the future.  The pace of change itself simply proceeds too rapidly for that to happen.  Instead, we must educate our children for change, itself.  

One thing we know about change is that it often causes a great deal of fear and consternation.  Why do we fear change?  Eve Bernshaw, author of The TransitionProcess, (no, there's no space between Transition and Process), wrote an article for the Institute of Noetic Sciences in which she reminded her readers that fear was originally a  positive reaction to our surroundings, because it alerted us to danger and thus kept us safe.  Over time, certain beliefs about what is dangerous, for example, have been handed down from generation to generation, and they are now buried in our subconscious minds.  "Our ability to understand the core issue (beliefs) behind our fear of change is the key," Bernshaw wrote. 

Kids have a need for structure and order in their lives, and schools provide this.  But schools need to teach kids specific ways to cope with changes that occur in their lives, specific strategies.  This training needs to start early, in kindergarten or even preschool.  For example, teachers can intentionally change the order of things once in a while (math before reading instead of after), just to get kids used to making changes, or they can change the seating arrangement in the room.  Two teachers in the same grade could switch classrooms once in a while.  There are all kinds of small changes that can be made.  The key, however, would be to talk about these things, both before they occur and afterwards, to talk kids through their feelings about the changes.  With all the content that teachers are required to introduce to their students, stopping to talk about our fears of change may seem like a waste of time, but I would submit that this type of training would probably be among the most valuable lessons in any child's academic career.  All schools should be served by counselors who work with all the kids, not just the ones who are experiencing emotional issues.

One of the things I realized during my time as a teacher is that some things that seem so obvious to adults still need to be taught to kids in a direct way.  Response to change is one of those things.  

As adults, how can we teach ourselves to respond appropriately to change?  Here is a list prepared by a woman named Meghana RaoRane, who researched the subject for her own well-being.  All of these things can be done by adults, individually, and taught directly to children, with appropriate modifications to account for age and emotional maturity.

1.  Expect change to feel hard.  It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that  changes will cause difficulties.  When we realize that our difficulties are a normal part of the process of change, we can feel better about the process itself.  If we list difficulties we have had in a transitional situation in the past, we can anticipate that some of those same things will be hard for us in the future.  We can think about the way we handled the difficulties in the past, and if we are not happy with the way we responded, we can think about alternative ways to handle them.  When we expect to have to take a step backward once in a while, we find that dancing to the rhythm of life often requires us to do the cha-cha.

2.  Prepare for change when possible.  There are two parts to this.  The first part has to do with our expectations in general.  When we realize that changes are inevitable, our mindset is such that we are not so blindsided by the changes that we become incapable, in our shock, of making any response at all.  We can recall changes that have happened in the past and focus on the positive effects of the change. We can begin to look for positive outcomes when we see a change occurring.   

The second part of preparation is learning how to create Plan B.  Incredibly, there are many people who don't know how to do this.  I would imagine that most successful people have Plan B in mind, even if the details are a little sketchy.  When what they are doing is not working out, they have the option of switching to Plan B – or even Plan C – to accomplish their objectives. However many alternate plans you make the important point is planning ahead.

I cannot tell you how upsetting it has been for me to witness the shock and angst of a child who is forced to go through a sudden change.  Parents of some of my students (mistakenly, in my opinion) have decided not to inform their children of an impending move that will necessitate their attending a different school.  Some of them decided not to tell their kids about their decision to divorce until one of the parents leaves the home.  

One lady I know had to run away from her boyfriend.  Her children's father, from whom she was divorced, lived in the area, and he often picked up the kids from school. As I stood by the bus line at the end of each day,  I could see how these kids ran to hug their father, how glad they were to see him.  When the woman realized that her boyfriend was abusive and might harm the children, she did the right thing in getting out of the situation, but she decided to take the kids with her back to her sister's home – in Mexico!  The kids were not informed in advance of her decision.  She sent them to school as usual, then came to the office to formally withdraw her children from school.  She told us that she had arranged for tickets on a flight that was to leave later that afternoon.  The kids were in shock.  

Another parent came in and whipped her four boys out of school with no warning, saying that their father had found a new job, and that it would necessitate their moving to an outer suburb.  Since they had only one car and no time to take the boys to school in the morning, they had to place them in a new school.  The school they chose was a Spanish-speaking private school.  The boys were traumatized.  Although they did speak Spanish, I suspect that their fluency wasn't what it was in English.  The mom got the older boys out of their classes first, then went to the kindergarten room to collect her youngest child.  The kindergartner had a best friend, who was so upset that his friend was leaving suddenly that he went into a corner of the room and cried his heart out, which naturally upset the rest of the kids.  The mother told her son to say good-bye to his friend, but he simply shrugged his shoulders, knowing that he couldn't possibly comfort his friend.  The teacher, of course, was left with the inconsolable child after the family left, and the rest of the school day was more or less ruined.  The teacher commented to me later that she had developed a routine for dealing with kids who moved.  On their last day, the kids each drew a picture or made a "card" for their friend to remember them by.  The mother hadn't bothered to alert the teacher to the move, so she was unable to put in place a routine that might have made the change easier for all the kids.

3.  Accept that change is happening.  So many times we go into denial about what is happening to us.  We engage in a childish type of wishful thinking that says, "If I don't think about it, I won't have to deal with it."  Acceptance is a process that may have to be done gradually and gently.  It involves facing our deeply-hidden fears.  A friend of mine recently told me about making a list of outcomes she was afraid of, then going down the list and delving more deeply, asking herself, "What are you really afraid of?"  Some people pay unbelievable amounts of money to their therapists to have the privilege of being guided through this process.  For those of us who are normally emotionally healthy and who cannot afford the services of a therapist, it's important to learn how to do this ourselves. 

4.  Cut yourself some slack.  So many of us are much more accepting of others' faults than they are of their own.  We will always be our own harshest critics, but it's worth considering the idea of treating ourselves as we would treat others.  This may mean taking a "mental-health day" off from work or perhaps turning our phone off for a while.  It may involve asking loved ones to allow you a little "cave time."  It may mean giving yourself a treat, within reason.  (Treating yourself to a box of chocolates every day for a week would not be a good idea.  Nor would it be smart to allow a feel-better shopping spree to land you in debt.)   Sometimes just getting out of town for the weekend is a smart option.  Whatever works.

5.  Appreciate the familiar.  This may mean sticking to a regular schedule, spending time with friends, visiting familiar places, or indulging in little habits that comfort us.  Whatever changes we are confronting, its is always a good idea to remind ourselves of the people and things in our lives that can provide a sense of continuity.  

Some changes tend to throw our familiar schedules into chaos, and it may be that the old schedule will have to be abandoned.  We can still prioritize elements in our lives and resolve to make time for the things – and the people – that matter most.  Learning how to prioritize is a survival skill, in itself.  A good time to learn to do this is when we are not feeling stressed.  

6.  Get help.  This might be as simple as asking friends and family members for advice, or it may mean getting counseling from a member of the clergy or a therapist.  It may mean staying in a shelter to avoid danger or until you can get your life together.  It may mean going back to school or taking classes that will help you re-tool for a different job or career.  Recognizing that there is nothing wrong with getting help is key.  None of us is perfect, and as the song says, "We all need somebody to lean on."

7.  Find a new normal.  Once a change has occurred, it's important to establish new routines quickly, especially for the children in our lives. If you don't already keep a pocket calendar or use some other means of planning your day, you may wish to learn how to do this, because it will come in handy some day.  Involving school-age children in making changes is helpful, so that the kids will buy into the routine more easily. 

Holidays, especially, can be hard after a major life change.  When we have lost a loved one, been through a divorce, or moved to a new location, our holiday routines are affected.  That's when we have to invent new ways of spending special days. 

Sometimes, it's just best to acknowledge that our lives may not be considered normal by the standards of others.  Many of my friends who were "military brats" had to live this way.  When we stop comparing ourselves with others, the term "normal" loses some of its power to make us feel inferior.   :-)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Today is Wednesday, March 27, 2013. 

Like love, happiness is really something you DO rather than something you ARE.  It's a process rather than a product.  It has to be generated anew each day, and it sometimes takes a back burner to feelings of sadness, or grief.  

Happiness is something that I can feel, even when I'm beset by problems, as long as I am confident that I can eventually solve those problems, which I usually am, if experience is anything to go by.

When I looked up the definition of happiness, one of the synonyms listed was contentment, and that put me in mind of the qualities that ECKists know as the Five Virtues.  The Five Virtues are contentment (which includes gratitude), discrimination, tolerance (which includes forgiveness), humility, and detachment.  The dictionary would not define most of these virtues as synonyms for happiness, but when our actions express these qualities, we find that they lead to a lasting sense of happiness.

A quote circulating on Facebook says, "We tend to forget that happiness doesn't come as a result of getting something we don't have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have."  When we remember to count our blessings and practice the attitude of gratitude, we are well on our way to contentment, the feeling that all is right with the world.

The next of the virtues, discrimination, means the ability to make right judgment, and to choose actions which contribute to our spiritual growth, rather than those which feed our desires of the moment, but which don't have any lasting benefit.  It's fine to eat foods that satisfy our taste buds, but when we eat too much, or when we eat things that are not good for our bodies, we gain weight and our malnourished bodies become vulnerable to illness, all of which leads to unhappiness.  When we discriminate between having a glass of wine or a bottle of beer with friends, and drinking to excess, we learn that we can have plenty of fun without drinking to the point where we get sick, black out, or make it impossible to exercise good judgment.  People who drink too much get into fights, have car accidents, and get into trouble that can land them either in the hospital or in jail.  How happy is that?  Same goes for our sexual appetites.  People who are always seeking their next sexual "fix" rarely bother to get to know the person they end up in bed with.  I've known people who found out that the person they chose to "do it" with turned suddenly violent, or they got robbed when they weren't thinking straight.  I knew one young woman who was dared to break into a store when she was drunk and steal some things, which landed her in jail.  And, of course, there are a number of diseases one can catch from a sexual partner, all of which are uncomfortable, and some of them ultimately fatal.  How happy is that? 

It may seem like a leap of reasoning to equate tolerance and forgiveness with happiness, but if you think about the people in your life who are prejudiced and intolerant of others, you will realize that these people seem angry much of the time.  When we let go of our grudges and the need to compare ourselves favorably with others, we find that we spend less time complaining and arguing.  In election years, we are much less fearful of "the other side" and less apt to find ourselves wasting time in political arguments where neither side is willing to back down.  When we practice tolerance, we are less apt to allow others to disturb our peace.  That doesn't mean we have to condone what they do or say.  It simply means that we don't give others the power to make us miserable.  When we forgive others, we give them the opportunity to make things right, and if they choose not to do that, we have the option of walking away and letting them deal with their own negative karma, which will come due sooner or later.

The virtue of humility leads to happiness, as well.  When we feel that we are better than others, we get trapped in a cycle where we are always striving to be perfect, or to stay in first place.  Pretty soon we feel as if we are on a treadmill that we can't afford to get off of, because when we do, someone will surpass us, and that would never do.  When we exercise humility, we recognize that there are others who may be smarter, wealthier, more talented, or in some other way more fortunate than we are.  We don't feel the need to compete against them, so we are free to be happy for them, rather than be made miserable by our jealousy.  There's nothing wrong with having pride in our accomplishments, but when we practice extreme vanity, our arrogance tends to turn others away from us.  Besides, we all know that old saying, "Pride goeth before a fall."  Truly, the higher we go, the harder we fall, and just about everybody falls at some time in their lives.  There's nothing more miserable than grandstanding in front of others, then being made the laughingstock of all those we have scorned.  

The fifth virtue, detachment, doesn't mean the absence of emotion.  It means keeping our emotions under control.  When we exercise detachment, we acknowledge our grief, but rise above it.  When we exercise detachment, we can avoid allowing our anger to dictate a knee-jerk reaction that we may regret later.  Detachment allows us to pick ourselves up when we fall and move forward.  It allows us to respond effectively and appropriately to a negative situation.  It helps us to avoid the misery of jealousy and covetousness, where we experience a false sense of lack.  

All of the five virtues include another concept, that of balance.  As the Trappist monk turned priest, Thomas Merton, wrote, "Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony."  The Five Virtues described above all contain an element of balance.  When we are content, we avoid the extremes of frustration and want as well as satiety to the point where we feel bloated or have nothing more to achieve.  Discrimination also keeps us in balance.  It is the path of moderation, and the avoidance of too much or too little in any one area.  Tolerance allows us to entertain more than one point of view, even if we ultimately reject some of them.  It allows us to keep our perspective, maintain friendships with all kinds of people; it keeps us from one-sided, prejudicial thinking.  Humility means that even though we recognize our own positive qualities and take pride in our handiwork, we realize that there are probably some people who are more skilled or more knowledgeable than we are, even in our area of expertise.

As for the other qualities mentioned by Merton, order in our lives is always preferable, when we can maintain it, than disorder and chaos. Rhythm and harmony are functions of balance.  When we dance to the rhythm of life, when we are in harmony with Divine Spirit, we are happy.  :-)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


"Love is not a matter of belief.  It is a matter of demonstration.  It is not a question of authority, but one of perception and action....  Therefore, if you desire love, try to realize that the only way to get love is by giving love.  That the more you give, the more you get; and the only way in which you can give is to fill yourself with it, until you become a magnet of love."  - Paul Twitchell, Stranger by the River

Today is Tuesday, March 26, 2013.

In my mid-thirties, I had this sudden desire to organize my life on a grand scale. Actually, at the time, I wanted to BE organized.  But once I thought more about it, I realized that in order to have the quality of organization in my life, I would have to take action.  Little by little, I organized all the books, papers and materials in my classroom, all the dishes in my cupboards, all the clothes in my closets and drawers.  I organized the bookshelves in my living room and began to keep a personal pocket calendar.  I learned to plan what to wear before going to bed, so that I could dress quickly each morning.  I learned to take things out of the closet and make sure there were no wrinkles the night before.

 It quickly became apparent that I could not just do these things once and be done with it.  I had to continue to do these things on an ongoing basis.  A few years later, someone said to me, "Oh, you're so organized!"  I decided then that I must have finally "arrived" at my goal.  This is not to say that my life and my home are perfectly organized at all times, but that I try to keep up with things so that nothing gets too disorganized.  The last couple of years that I taught I finally got into the habit of getting my classroom all cleaned up every day after school, so that everything I would need for the following day would be right there on the table when I got to work in the morning.  I began to enjoy taking that last look around my room before leaving each day, and walking into an orderly classroom each morning.  Now that I'm retired, I have begun to clean up my kitchen and living room before I go to bed each night, and I love walking into a clean kitchen in the morning to make my daily cup of coffee.

At some point, I heard a speaker talk about what it meant for a recovering alcoholic to be sober.  He said that in order to maintain the quality of sobriety, in order to BE sober, he had to make an effort each day, each hour, each minute.  It was the action of DOing anything else besides drinking, fueled by his intention to remain sober, that produced the quality of being sober.  I connected this information with my own experience of having to organize (DO something) in order to BE organized.  In other words, the qualities that you manifest have something to do with your daily actions.  How many times have we heard, "Actions speak more loudly than words"? 

It's true that a lot of people say they believe in something, but their actions don't necessarily show it.  They may think of themselves in a certain light, but their actions don't lead anyone else to see them in that same light. All of us have been guilty of this at one time or another.  When we wake up to this reality, we begin to match our actions to our beliefs, and we begin the process of throwing out older, and sometimes hidden, beliefs and replacing them with more positive or more productive ones, then learning to act on those beliefs.  In short, we begin the process of acquiring the quality of integrity.

Turning now to the subject of love, I'd like to clarify for a moment what I'm talking about. I'm not necessarily talking about human love or romantic love, although much of what I have to say can be applied to romantic love.  I'm talking about divine love, or unconditional love, spiritual rather than sexual in nature, the kind of love the Greeks called "agape."  (For those of you  who don't speak Greek, the word is pronounced as "ah-GAH-pay".)

A few years ago, I attended a workshop entitled "How to Get More Love in Your Life."  One of the participants at the workshop stood up and said that in order to be loved by others, she had to learn to BE love, herself.  I wondered how you could "BE love."  Then my experience with being organized and the recovering alcoholic's talk about being sober kicked in, and I realized that in order to BE love, I would have to take action.

A few days ago, I wrote a blog entry about the subconscious mind and how to program it.  While the subconscious mind does work best with pictures, self-talk and affirmations have their uses, as well.  In a notebook dedicated to affirmations, I once wrote, for many weeks, "I am love," fifteen times each night before I went to bed. True to form, my subconscious mind finally responded by guiding me to take actions that showed this quality.  It took a while for this to manifest, and I have to say that I'm still not perfect.  Every once in a while, I have to go back to that exercise for a few weeks. 

A visual symbol that is often used by ECKists, followers of Eckankar, is the "Golden Heart."  A person who is a Golden Heart has learned to respond with love in every situation.  I have often used this symbol in contemplation, and it has been useful in re-programming my subconscious mind.  I'm not perfect, but I believe I am more often capable of responding with love.  Besides, it's not really perfection that I seek, but rather, the quality of "continuous improvement," or kaizen, as the Japanese call it. 

The intention of being love and being a Golden Heart were programmed into my subconscious.  But there was more to this programming.  Our subconscious not only contains our self-image, but also our worldview, how we see the world and our place in it.  Part of everyone's worldview includes the concept of Creation and who or what started it all.  Those of us who believe in God have also in our subconscious mind our concept of what God is. 

My idea of God has changed quite a bit over the years.  I was always taught that "God is love," but then, I was also taught as a Christian, that God occasionally gets angry with us.  After all, God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and generated the Great Flood, after warning Noah to build an Ark.  God apparently turned Lot's wife into a pillar of Salt and caused the Red Sea to open just enough to let the Israelites cross into the Promised Land, then allowed the waters to come crashing down around the Egyptian soldiers who were chasing them.  I had a hard time equating this angry God with a God of love.  At the same time, I had a vague picture in my head of God as an old man with a long, white beard, who sat on a large throne in Heaven.  I personalized God in the form of a human being.  The problem with imagining God as a human being, albeit exalted, is that we begin to imagine also that God has human faults, as well.

There were several years between the time I left the Christian church and the time that I joined Eckankar. In that intervening time, I read a great many books that might be classified, in general, as New Age.  I learned, however, that the so-called "new age" teachings come from a number of sources, each with a slightly different focus, and that they have been around for millennia.  Many of the teachings were once hidden from the general public.  The great mathematician, Pythagoras, for example, taught not only math as we know it, but also spirituality based on the concept of numbers.  Some of the math concepts we teach in our elementary and junior high schools were once secret teachings that were only given to those initiated into the group. 

As I delved more deeply into these various spiritual topics, my concept of God gradually began to change.  By the time I joined Eckankar, my personal concept of God was much closer to the ECKist view than to Christianity.  I no longer view God as a little old man, or any human form, for that matter.  I view God as a being of Energy that is vibrating at the highest possible frequency.  Since I no longer view God as a person, I do not refer to God as He or She.  Instead, using what I have from my native English language, I simply say IT.  Rather than envisioning a being, I think of God as an Ocean.  In Eckankar we often refer to God as the Ocean of Love and Mercy.  I do not view God as something "out there," outside of me, far away.  Instead, I recognize that all of us, all Creation, is actually "swimming in God," as it were.   As Soul, I am a small drop in the Ocean.  I am made of the same sort of Energy stuff that God is made of (created in God's likeness), but I'm not the whole Ocean.  To extend that metaphor, everyone, every other Soul, is also a part of God and thus connected to me within this same Ocean.  After all, the drops of water in the physical ocean, although they can be separated out briefly, are ordinarily connected. 

Once we begin to see and know ourselves and others as children of God, we begin to behave differently with respect to them.  It is easier to show compassion when another is suffering, to respect each person's journey of learning, to allow others to be who and what they are, knowing that we have been where some of them are now, and that we will one day arrive at a place where others ahead of us are now traveling. 

With these beliefs in tucked into my subconscious, I was ready to learn more about the process of BEing love by means of my actions.  I learned that the smallest of actions can be the most important.

There is a piece of literature that all junior high school students in Japan are required to read.  It is a short story called Kumo no Ito, or "The Spider's Thread," by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.  In the story, the Buddha is walking about in the gardens up in Heaven, when he comes to a pond and notices that there is a spider in the water, and that it is spinning a web.  In the bottom of the lake is what we would call "Hell," every bit as horrible as the pit of fire imagined by Christians.  The Buddha notices one Soul in Hell named Kandata, who did only one good deed in his earthly life: he chose not to step on a spider that was crawling across the road he was traveling on.  The Buddha decides to rescue Kandata because of his one good deed, so he takes the spider's thread and lowers it into the water.

Kandata notices the spider's thread dangling above and reaches up to it. He begins to climb the thread in order to escape from Hell.  When he looks down, he notices that others are climbing the thread, as well, so he begins to worry that the delicate thread will break.  He yells at the others to get off.  As soon as the words are out of his mouth, the thread breaks, and Kandata and the others all fall back down into Hell. The Buddha walks away, thinking sadly to himself that no matter how severely Kandata was punished in Hell, he still has not learned to show compassion to others. (You can click on the hypertext above to read the story for yourself.)  This story stuck with me because I had to translate it from the original, rather archaic, Japanese when I was at university, and I remember feeling as miserable as the people suffering in Hell because the old-style Japanese was so hard to translate.

In the story, even one small act of kindness was enough to save Kandata from Hell.  Similarly, many people have come back from near death experiences, saying that they learned while in heaven that even small acts of kindness to a single individual are as highly valued as acts that benefit many people at once.

So what can we do to show love, and eventually to BE love?  How can we become a "magnet of love"?  The list of actions is endless, but the key is that we do these things, simply because they are the right thing to do, without any expectation of return. 

Obviously, some of these actions work better with those in our intimate circle of friends than with strangers, so we must exercise discernment.  A smile, a light touch, a kind word are all that is necessary.  Any act that says, "I care,"  is a demonstration of love.  Just spending time with a person is a way to demonstrate our love.  So is making the effort to understand how someone is feeling, even if we don't feel that way ourselves.  Listening from the heart, without the need to made a comment or fix the problem is a loving action.  So is a silent hug.  So is offering to do or assist with a job that another is expected to do, when we can see that help would be appreciated,

We can extend this caring not only to other human beings, but to members of the animal kingdom and to Mother Earth in general.  We can work to restore and maintain the natural environment to allow animals to live safely in their rightful habitat. We can oppose actions that lead to the destruction or desecration of the earth.  We can resolve to use natural resources wisely, and to re-use or recycle as many things as possible.  We can learn to leave a light footprint on the earth, as individuals and as a society.  We can switch our allegiance from non-renewable sources of energy to renewable ones.  We can stop using products and sources of energy that pollute the environment, and start using products that can be recycled and clean sources of energy, such as wind and solar power. 

All of these actions demonstrate our love for God's Creation: for our fellow human beings, for animals, who are Soul, too, and for all of life in the natural world.

Let us BE love.  :-)